The Movement and the Middle East
How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left
Michael R. Fischbach

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Prologue

THE MIDDLE EAST erupted in violence on June 5, 1967, after weeks of mounting tension ended with a preemptive Israeli attack on Egyptian airfields. Ironically, the hippie counterculture’s international “Summer of Love” was launched in San Francisco that same month. Israeli forces quickly followed up on their success in the air by all but destroying the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies in six days of fighting, capturing a huge amount of Arab territory in the process. Israelis and their supporters around the world celebrated the Jewish state’s victory in what they called the “Six-Day War,” rejoicing in what they believed was Israel’s salvation from bloodthirsty Arabs bent on its destruction. Polls showed that Americans were virtually unanimous in siding with Israel. Indeed, the percentage expressing sympathy for Israel skyrocketed from about 60 percent in 1966 to 95 percent the following year. Less than 5 percent sympathized with the Arabs and the Palestinians.1

By contrast, the Arab world in 1967 mourned what it called “al-Naksa”: the Setback. For the Palestinian Arabs in particular this was the second catastrophe they had suffered in under twenty years. The first was when the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 led to the creation of Israel out of 77 percent of British Palestine. No comparable Palestinian state emerged: the remaining 23 percent of the country, the West Bank and Gaza, came under Jordanian and Egyptian control. Wherever they found themselves living after 1948, Palestinians were either stateless or subjects of other peoples and governments. The war was also a socioeconomic and demographic nightmare for the Palestinians; they called it “al-Nakba”: the Disaster. In the process of the fighting, nearly three-quarters of a million Palestinians—one-half of Palestine’s Arabs—either fled or were expelled from their homes by Israeli forces, ending up as refugees in Arab territory. Israel destroyed their abandoned villages and forbade their return. The 1967 war nineteen years later triggered a second huge exodus of Palestinians in the wake of the fighting and the resultant Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The pro-Israeli triumphalism that swept over America after the war had its origins in earlier attitudes. Even before the war, some American leftists disagreed with what they considered this uncritical attachment to Israel and concomitant denigration of the Arabs. In November 1966, Daniel Rubin, a Communist Party USA (CPUSA) central committee member, decried American Jews’ “upside-down approach to Israel” and support of the Jewish state as a progressive country threatened by ignorant, reactionary Arab aggressors. “By accepting this picture, Jews in the U.S., usually unwittingly, find themselves aiding U.S. monopoly in its all too successful attempt to control the economy and the governmental policies of Israel to the detriment of the Israeli masses,” Rubin lamented. “They find themselves on the side of U.S. imperialism in opposition to national liberation movements and on the side of rabid anti-Communist cold-warriors.”2

This was the CPUSA’s party line: what best served the interests of Jews in the United States was not to support Israel blindly but to see that the real question in the Middle East was the struggle to overthrow imperialism, the common enemy of both Jews and Arabs in the region. The Jewish-Arab conflict merely diverted the attention of both peoples from what would lead to their liberation. Rubin also waxed personal in his commentary, stating, “As an American Jewish Communist, I feel ashamed and angry that a Jewish government coming from a people who have known so much oppression should oppress Arabs within Israel and play the U.S. imperialist game of supporting their oppression in neighboring countries.”3

Immediately after the 1967 war began, the CPUSA leadership also adopted the position that Israel’s actions were “aggressive.” Rubin’s fellow Jewish communist Sid Resnick strongly objected. For him, Israel was merely defending itself against a threatened Arab genocide. “The Arab chauvinist threat to Israel’s existence was real in May and June 1967,” he asserted. “In fact, ‘de-Zionizing’ the State of Israel and converting it into an Arab Palestine state is impossible without destroying the people and State of Israel.”4 Pointing beyond the CPUSA to the entire American Left, Resnick intoned: “Within left-wing movements, Jewish and non-Jewish radicals ought to challenge that sham ‘internationalism’ which glorifies Palestinian Arab terrorists and runs interference for Arab chauvinism. This disgraceful attitude which allows any slander of Israel, of the Jewish people and Jewish history to pass as ‘Marxist’ interpretation must be challenged both for its falsity and for its compromising of socialist humanism.”5 Resnick left the CPUSA a year after the war, and later recalled, “I thought the party was wrong in completely condemning Israel as the aggressor in the 1967 war.”6

That two Jewish members of the same left-wing political party held such divergent and mutually antagonistic views on the Arab-Israeli conflict is illustrative of a major problem that bedeviled and ultimately weakened the American Left in the 1960s and 1970s, ironically at a time when it was at its strongest since the 1940s: which side, Israel or the Palestinians, deserved the support of left-wing activists? Almost all white leftists agreed on the need to end the Vietnam War, support the black freedom struggle, and strive for a “new politics” in America. This is broadly what activists meant when they spoke of “the Movement”: a large, loosely organized collection of people pushing for an end to the war and radical change in America. And while many black leftists readily supported the Palestinians,7 their white comrades were deeply and sometimes bitterly divided over how to situate the Arab-Israeli conflict within their respective ideologies and strategies. In part, this conflict was doctrinal; in part, generational and even ethnic. Many scholars have written about the US Left in the 1960s and 1970s and the reasons for its weakening and decline, but none have analyzed the Arab-Israeli conflict’s role in this context, or indeed discussed the white Left’s grappling with that conflict to any great extent.8

The major split in the Left came down to this: how far did left-wing support for revolutionary internationalism and anti-imperialism extend? Did it apply across the board, or was one country, Israel, somehow exempt from scrutiny? Support for global revolution versus “Israel exceptionalism” proved to be a major source of contention and division within the Left in the 1960s and helped weaken it. The disproportionately large Jewish presence within the Left further complicated the question of how to situate Israel and the conflict in the Middle East. Whether to support Israel or the Palestinians sometimes became a particularly and deeply personal decision for many Jews, because the issue often was tied to their identity as members of a global minority that long had struggled against a bitter history of persecution. Should they be part of a broader revolutionary impulse seeking to change the world for all, or make an exception for Israel and exempt it from anti-imperialist, pro–Third World stances adopted by much of the Left?

With so many things already preoccupying the Movement during the 1960s and 1970s, what caused activists to begin grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict? The main reason was the 1967 war. The Arab defeat provoked an immediate surge in Palestinian nationalism. Many Palestinians believed not only that the Arab states had twice (1948 and 1967) proven incapable of helping them save Palestine, but also that the Arabs never could liberate Palestine for them. This would have to be a struggle they waged themselves, using a different approach. The Arabs’ loss in 1967 gave a tremendous boost to the Palestinian guerrilla group al-Fateh, which had emerged in the Arab world in the late 1950s and had been attacking Israeli targets from bases in the Arab frontline states since 1965. Al-Fateh guerrillas were soon joined by fighters from other groups that emerged during and after 1967, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These various fida’iyyin (Arabic: those who sacrifice themselves, “fedayeen”) soon launched more and more attacks on Israel, claiming they were launching a people’s liberation war, much as Algerian, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutionaries had done and were still doing. The guerrillas drew praise from the Arab world as the only Arabs still brave enough to continue the struggle, against great odds, the powerful Israeli enemy.

Extensive media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict during and after 1967 placed the new Palestinian resistance movement squarely in the world’s spotlight, which in turn situated it within the overall international revolutionary fervor of the global 1960s. Their faces wrapped in checkered kufīyya (keffiyeh) headscarves and their hands gripping AK-47 assault rifles, enthusiastic Palestinian fedayeen impressed both other Third World independence movements and the global media. It was not long before they caught the imagination of the American Left as well, particularly when viewed in relation to what was happening in Vietnam.

This book tells the story of the varying white left-wing American attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict during the 1960s and 1970s, and asks why these had such a tremendous impact on activists’ divergent agendas, identities, and understandings of how to effect change in American society and foreign policy. The truth is that intra-Left arguments over whether to support Israel or the Palestinians were not just differences of opinion; they also mirrored much deeper debates about identity and political action in the 1960s and 1970s. Two major rifts can be distinguished.

The first was the split over who in the Middle East deserved the Left’s support. This became a marker of whether or not one was committed to a universal restructuring of society, which pro-Palestinian leftists tended to advocate, or wished to make Israel an exception to that restructuring. “It was a major issue,” the famous SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) leader Mark Rudd recalled decades later. “It distinguished the true anti-imperialists from the liberals.”9 Pro-Palestinian radicals in New Left groups like SDS and the Yippies quickly began hailing the Palestinians as a Third World people fighting for freedom against an ally of American imperialism in the Middle East. This assessment was shared by Old Left Marxist parties like the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers World Party. As the 1960s faded into the 1970s, post–New Left underground revolutionaries like the bombers of the Weather Underground similarly declared their allegiance to the Palestinian struggle, as did aboveground Marxist parties within the New Communist Movement like the Revolutionary Communist Party USA and the October League.

These and other groups viewed themselves as revolutionaries seeking the fundamental restructuring of capitalist American society and dismantling its imperialist web of control over the Third World. For them, the Palestinian national movement against Israel fitted in perfectly with this worldview. On the other hand, some on the left (and liberal but not quite left-wing allies in the Democratic Party, trade unions, and mainstream anti–Vietnam War activists) lined up solidly behind Israel, even if they agreed with pro-Palestinian radicals on just about everything else. A total revolutionary restructuring of the world was not on their agenda; the restructuring stopped at the borders of the Jewish state. These activists saw Israel as a progressive socialist state seeking to defend its very existence against Arab dictatorships, and accordingly balked at jumping on the anti-Israeli bandwagon.

Among organized political parties, nowhere did this tension over which side to support create more significant intra-party problems than within the Old Left’s most venerable organization, the CPUSA, which underwent much conflict inasmuch as many Jewish comrades rebelled against the hostile, anti-Israeli attitude of their party bosses. For the communists’ rivals in the Socialist Party of America and its 1970s-era offshoots like the Social Democrats USA and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the choice generally was even clearer almost from the beginning in 1967: support Israel wholeheartedly.

Other parts of the Movement that were animated by the Left tried not to champion either side but keep the entire issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict at arm’s length. This was particularly true of the movement to end the Vietnam War. The large antiwar coalition called “The Mobe” exerted great efforts to focus solely on the war in Vietnam, not war in the Middle East, despite efforts by some, like those in the Workers World Party, to push it into condemning Israel. Antiwar figures like Martin Luther King Jr. similarly faced the dilemma of how to remain morally consistent in their denunciations of war yet not offend important pro-Israeli constituencies. In other instances, antiwar activists openly embraced Israel, which on occasion led to some strange contradictions. For example, some of those who denounced America’s use of advanced F-4 Phantom aircraft to drop napalm in Vietnam simultaneously urged American leaders to sell F-4s to Israel so that it could (and did) drop napalm on Arabs. Bitter divisiveness also broke out within the women’s movement; pro- and anti-Zionist women clashed viciously.

A second agonizing fault line emerged along questions of Jewish identity. Jews were disproportionately well represented on the American Left in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as among those from across the liberal-left political spectrum in movements like feminism and the campaign to end the Vietnam War. This worsened and often personalized the struggle between left-wing internationalism and Israel exceptionalism. Many Jews in the Movement had been raised to love Israel, but not all Jews on the Left were so moved. Indeed, some of the sharpest denunciations of Israel and expressions of support for the Palestinians came from Jews. The entire Left would feel the impact of this Jewish “civil war.”

The impact on the Left of these contending discourses was negative in terms of its longevity: disagreement over the Arab-Israeli conflict contributed to the Left’s eventual decline, starting in the 1970s. The CPUSA never recovered from its internal dissension over the issue. The post-1960s Marxist Left continued to champion the Palestinians’ armed struggle at a time when even the Palestinians themselves were starting to move in a different direction, further marginalizing these leftists and diminishing their effectiveness in reaching out to other Americans. The divisiveness pushed the democratic socialist Left in particular further and further to the right, with important consequences for future left-wing electoral activity. The emergence of revolutionary expressions of support for the Palestinians also spurred the growth of neoconservatism, particularly when certain erstwhile Jewish leftists abandoned the Left over its treatment of Israel during the 1960s.

Despite these negative consequences for it, the support for the Palestinian cause that the Left disseminated in the 1960s became rooted more widely in American society. In the 1970s, after the Vietnam War and its associated turmoil were over, more and more progressive Americans concerned about US foreign policy, global peace, and human rights began questioning Israeli policy and urging support for the Palestinians. The fact that the Middle East was changing, with more and more attention being paid to the idea of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, consolidated this trend. Despite the decline of the Left, pro-Palestinian consciousness had become ensconced permanently within the broader progressive mainstream by the late 1970s and early 1980s. On the other hand, so, too, had strongly pro-Israeli sentiments. Where progressive Americans stand on these issues today thus stems from the events of decades past.

This narrative history is the result of many years of deep research in many states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. In the process I not only examined documents housed in public and university archives, in addition to those available online and on microfilm, but supplemented this with research into printed primary and secondary sources, and also with requests, via the Freedom of Information Act, to view documents from US government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. I also interviewed American and other progressives who were active in the 1960s and 1970s, whether in person, by telephone, or by mail and email. These interviews were crucial not only to fill in the historical narrative but also to capture the feelings and words of key players in this drama.10

I often quote directly from contemporary activists and the various documents they produced. Why should we be concerned with the feelings and words of those who lived through these events decades ago? Writing in 2006, Bernardine Dohrn, a former member of the militant Weather Underground, commented on the surge in interest in that group in the early twenty-first century. “Hopefully there will be a blizzard of memoirs, films, and historical inquiries into the rainbow of other activities of equal or greater importance that were embarked on in that zesty, defiant era known as the sixties,” Dohrn observed. “Those stories too deserve loving attention, scrutiny, and lessons learned. Not from a nostalgic longing for past glories, which were never all that, but as segue to the urgent imperatives of today.”11 This book focuses attention on some of those stories and humbly aspires to prompt readers to consider such imperatives.

Notes

1. Amnon Cavari, “Six Decades of Public Affection: Trends in American Public Attitudes Toward Israel,” in Israel and the United States: Six Decades of US-Israeli Relations, ed. Robert O. Freedman (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012), 110. For more on contemporary public opinion about the war, see American Jewish Yearbook, vol. 69 (New York: American Jewish Committee; Philadelphia: American Jewish Publication Society, 1968), 198–200.

2. New York University, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Communist Party of the United States of America Records, ser. II: State and District Records, 1925–2003. subser. B: New York State Records, 1938–2003, box 227, folder 30, Jewish Affairs, 1966–71, Daniel Rubin, “Comments on the Resolution,” in Discussion Bulletin on the Draft Resolution on the Jewish Question, November 15, 1966, 12.

3. Ibid., 13.

4. Sid Resnick, “Can Radicals Support the Arab Terrorists? The Political Goals of Al Fatah Challenged by Progressives,” Jewish Currents 23, no. 7 (July–August 1969): 5–7.

5. Ibid., 1, 10.

6. David P. Shuldiner, Aging Political Activists: Personal Narratives from the Old Left (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995), 203, 214, 226.

7. I deal extensively with both left-wing and more conservative black attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict in my Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018). Accordingly, this study focuses on white leftists.

8. To give a few examples, the following treatments of the Movement during the “long sixties” make little or no mention of this issue at all: Terry Anderson’s The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987); David Farber’s The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s (New York: Hill & Wang, 1994); and Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin’s America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Wider histories of the American Left and its decline give it no mention either: e.g., Stanley Aronowitz’s The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism (New York: Routledge, 1996); James Weinstein’s The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003); Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2011); Paul Buhle’s Marxism in the United States: A History of the American Left, 3rd ed. (New York: Verso, 2013). However, several authors have in fact dealt with the historic stances of the Left toward Israel and Zionism, although they have done so quite polemically and almost exclusively through the lens of what they describe as a long history of left-wing anti-Semitism: Harvey Klehr, in Far Left of Center: The American Radical Left Today (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books: 1988); Robert S. Wistrich, in From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012); and Stephen H. Norwood, in Anti-Semitism and the American Far Left (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). By contrast, few books have explored other factors to explain how and why certain leftists in the 1960s and 1970s dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the ways they did. Alex Lubin’s Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-American Political Imaginary (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014) is one; it looks in part at black leftists in the 1960s. Keith P. Feldman’s A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) sheds some light on how black and Jewish leftists, as well as some feminists, approached the question of Israel and the Palestinians in the 1960s and 1970s. Pamela E. Pennock’s The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s–1980s (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017) looks primarily at left-wing Arabs and Arab-Americans but does pay some attention to the white New Left. Finally, my Black Power and Palestine, also looks at black leftists such as those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party.

9. Mark Rudd to the author, March 21, 2011.

10. Biographies of these and many other persons mentioned in this book can be found at https://folios.rmc.edu/michaelfischbach/biographies.

11. Bernardine Dohrn, “When Hope and History Rhyme,” in Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970–1974, ed. Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), 1.