Palestine’s left before Israel

Musa Budeiri’s The Palestine Communist Party charts the hidden history of the Palestinian communist movement from its formation in the aftermath of the First World War to the establishment of Israel and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinians. 

As Budeiri writes, “I was engaged in a political project to rescue and reconstruct a slice of history in Palestine in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.” The text, recently republished by Haymarket Books, is important reading for all those interested in the history of the Palestinian left. Budeiri chronicles the heroic attempt by Jewish and Arab communists to build a party that opposed the British Mandate—the 1923 League of Nations ruling that confirmed British control of modern-day Israel/Palestine and Jordan—as well as the Zionist colonizing project that was endorsed in the Mandate.

Budeiri states, “The Communist movement in Palestine was born within the confines of the Zionist movement in complete isolation from the Arab inhabitants of the country.” Various splinter groups from Poalei Zion, an international grouping of left-wing Zionist organizations, were heavily influenced by the Russian Revolution and by the politics of the Communist International, and were increasingly critical of the aspirations and goals of the Zionist movement, especially the movement’s cozy relationship with British imperialism. 

In 1923, several of these breakaway groups merged to form the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP). The PCP’s application for membership in the Communist International was met with skepticism, as the International’s executive committee (ECCI) was hesitant to accept a party comprised of Jewish settlers with no base in the Palestinian community. The ECCI wanted proof that the party was ideologically immune from Zionism and prepared to take up the struggle in the Arab street. Budeiri sums up the demands placed on the PCP: “When the party was eventually admitted to the Comintern in March 1924, the ECCI stressed the importance of ‘transforming from an organization of Jewish workers into a truly territorial party’ and outlined its tasks as one of support for Arabs against both Zionists and the British.” The party, which had been primarily focused on participating in the day-to-day economic struggles of the Yishuv (Zionist settlers), was instructed to recruit from the Palestinian population and to actively combat the institutions of Zionism.

Throughout the 1920s, the party continued to come under increased pressure from the Comintern to “Arabize” the party. Though the leadership of the PCP formally endorsed the Comintern’s instructions, a significant section of the party cadre resisted the development of a thorough orientation on the Palestinian community. Doing so required moving resources from the familiar confines of the class struggle within the Yishuv to a social terrain from which the vast majority of party members were linguistically and culturally separated. 

Despite this resistance from a portion of the membership, the PCP did indeed begin to make inroads into the Palestinian community in the 1920s. It recruited a small layer of Arab cadre, many of whom were sent to study at Moscow’s University of the Toilers of the East. The party’s first genuine breakthrough came about as a result of its willingness to directly challenge the eviction of native Palestinians from their land. In 1924, the party dispatched rank-and-file members to the village of Affula, where Palestinians were being kicked off the land as a result of a transaction between the Jewish National Fund and a family of wealthy Arab landlords.

The communists wholeheartedly opposed the Zionist “conquest of work” campaign, which strived for the physical liquidation of the small but growing Palestinian working class and for their replacement by Jewish immigrants. The PCP organized armed pickets to physically defend Palestinian jobs. In fact, the party made such activity a requirement of membership. Likewise, the party argued that the “duty of class conscious Jewish workers was to prove to the Arab peasant that they had nothing in common with those who occupied his land and work.”

However, a section of Jewish PCP activists continued to resist the party’s neglect of the Yishuv. Old wounds were reopened during the 1936 rebellion, with a section of the Jewish membership attacking the leadership of the PCP for uncritically accepting the leadership of the Palestinian national movement and for not developing an independent political strategy. Party members also began to question the PCP’s militant anti-Zionism, arguing that it was both possible and necessary to collaborate with “progressive” elements in the Zionist movement. The party was fraught with political tension throughout the period of the rebellion, as the leadership continued to estrange itself from a section of the Jewish cadre with its total support for the rebellion.

The Second World War proved to be a contradictory period for the party. It experienced a dramatic breakthrough in the Arab labor movement, particularly through its effort to organize in the labor camps set up for war production. However, when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the party perplexed many of its Arab supporters by openly calling for Jews and Arabs to join the British army in the fight against fascism. The political tensions eventually bubbled over into a split in the PCP, with a large section of the Arab membership setting up an organization called the National Liberation League (NLL.)

After the war, both wings of the Palestinian communist movement expected the USSR, with its seat on the UN Security Council, to block the partition of Palestine. When the USSR came out in favor of partition, however, both the NLL and the PCP accepted Moscow’s decision. Budeiri sums up the dynamic at play when he writes: “In the end, considerations of Soviet foreign policy proved to be the deciding factor in their political decisions, and it was this rather than any ideological revision which had caused them to turn their backs on their years of hostility to Zionism, and finally to accept the ‘national solution’ to the Jewish problem.” The PCP ended up signing on to the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. The NLL cadre were largely integrated into the ranks of the Jordanian Communist Party and the PCP following the Nakba, the war of ethnic cleansing that established Israeli “independence.”

Political shortcomings aside, the history of the Palestinian Communist Party from the early 1920s to 1948 is primarily a history of struggle against colonial domination and Zionism. The tragic political U-turns implemented by the party leadership during the Second World War and in response to looming partition in no way diminish the heroic efforts by Jewish and Arab communists to build a just society in historic Palestine. Budeiriʼs book successfully combines a sympathy for the aspirations of the PCP with a clear assessment of its contradictions and political weaknesses.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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