Khamsin is bereaved. Eli Lobel, editor and founder of our journal, has died tragically on Thursday, October 4th 1979.
The life-story of this outstanding revolutionary socialist and great internationalist is, in more than one way, the story of a whole generation, the tragedies and noble struggles of a whole epoch.
Born in Berlin in 1926 to a family of Polish-Jewish refugees, Eli spent his early childhood in the Germany of the late Weimar Republic and the early years of Nazi power. Then the family was forced to flee back to Poland. But Poland too was unsafe; and in 1939, just in the nick of time, the family managed to leave for Palestine. There Eli soon joined the left-zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatza’ir, and in 1946 was one of the founders of kibbutz Nirim in the northern Negev.
A few years later, he went to Paris as a journalist for the daily paper ‘Al Hamishmar, organ of MAPAM, the political party of Hashomer Hatza’ir. There, in Paris, he studied statistics and economics; one of his teachers was the socialist economist Charles Bettelheim. There too the seeds of his political radicalisation had germinated.
Hashomer Hatza’ir – like all left-wing zionists – was a living contradiction: it claimed to combine zionism with marxism. Throughout the history of that movement there were always individuals and small groups within it who took marxism more seriously than the left-zionist leaders had intended, and who resolved the contradiction by jettisoning zionism. Just as, in the years immediately after the Russian Revolution, it was dissidents from the older left-zionist Po’alei Zion who founded the Palestinian Communist Party and helped to spread marxism in the Arab East, so from the 1930s onwards the revolutionary marxist movement – in Europe and Latin America as well as in Palestine and later in Israel – was drawing to itself a continual if small stream of dissidents from Hashomer Hatza’ir. (One of the most notable figures among them was Abram Leon, author of the brilliant marxist analysis of the Jewish Question, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944).
Back in Israel, Eli joined the left opposition inside MAPAM. In 1953 the opposition was expelled from that party and formed itself into the Socialist Left Party which developed in an anti-zionist direction. Like other adherents of this new party, Eli was expelled from his kibbutz, Nirim.
At the end of 1954 the Socialist Left Party joined the Israeli CP. Eli would most probably had done the same, but by that time he had left Israel again: at the invitation of Charles Bettelheim he joined a team of economists in India (including Bettelheim himself and Joan Robinson) who were working on that country’s problems of under-development. From then on, Eli was passionately involved in the economic and social problems of the third world and eventually became an authority in his own right on the economics of colonialism and under-development.
Returning to Paris, he devoted much of his energy to work in support of the Algerian revolution of national liberation. As a result of this activity, it was necessary for him to leave France, and he joined a team of economic advisers in Mali, which, under Modibo Keita was then one of the more progressive states of black Africa. In Mali Eli fulfilled tasks of great responsibility and represented that country at the World Bank. During all this time he kept up his interest in Israeli politics and established contacts with the Socialist Organisation in Israel (Matzpen) which had been formed in 1962.
After a brief stay back in France, Eli left for Cuba as a member of a team of left-wing economic experts. Not long after his return from Cuba, the Paris events of May 1968 broke out. Eli was passionately involved in these events, which marked the happiest period of his life. At the same time, as a member of Matzpen, he developed an intensive activity in France (as well as in other countries) against zionism and in support of the rights of the Palestinian people. It is in large measure due to his internationalist activity as a speaker, journalist and writer that the revolutionary left in France and in many other countries has been able to understand the true nature of zionism and adopt a revolutionary socialist attitude towards the problems of the Middle East.
Eli was profoundly committed to the struggle against zionism. But he was not a simplistic anti-zionist: he did not reject zionism merely to exchange it for support for some other nationalism, no matter how ‘progressive’, but in order to transcend all nationalism in the struggle for a united socialist Middle East and a socialist world. In particular, while being wholely committed to supporting the struggle of the Palestinian people against social and national oppression and for emancipation and self-determination, he was highly critical of, and deeply grieved by, recent regressive developments within the Palestinian movement.
His great and fruitful political activity is widely known to the revolutionary left in many countries. But his personal friends and close comrades also knew his purity of heart, his noble simplicity. Socialism for him was not a mere abstraction or an alienated ‘purely political’ activity. It was a deeply felt moral commitment of a man who hated all privilege and oppression and identified with the deprived and oppressed.
With his death, the socialist movement in the Middle East and elsewhere has lost an outstanding torch-bearer, and we who knew him have lost a dear and beloved comrade. His memory will illuminate our struggle for the ideals in which he believed.