Akiva “Aki” Orr

My close personal and political connection with Akiva Orr and his family began in 1959 when Aki was still a member of Maki—an acronym for the Israeli Communist Party. He had growing doubts and criticisms of the party, which led him and Moshé “Moshik” Machover together with two other comrades to leave Maki and participate in the founding of the Israeli Socialist Organization (ISO or Matzpen) in 1962. It was only natural that I was one of the first to whom Aki sold the first issue of the organization’s newspaper, Matzpen, which he brought to the department of sociology in Givat Ram (the temporary residence of the Hebrew University until it returned to Mount Scopus after the 1967 war) where I was working and studying.

Aki’s wife Lea came to work together with me in the Henrietta Szold Institute in Jerusalem soon after the birth of my daughter Sivan. A year later when Lea and Aki’s daughter Sharon was born we met often, spending the afternoon hours with our baby daughters. No doubt the talks we had in those meetings strengthened the contradictions in my Zionist Left political viewpoint and prepared me to later accept the Marxist and socialist anti-Zionism of Matzpen.

However, my way to a full departure from Zionism was not easy. The circumstances surrounding my first meeting with Lea shed light on the extent of the enormous difficulty that then (and maybe even more at present) confronted anyone who attempted to release himself or herself from the tight grasp of Zionism. No doubt it was even harder for me, who identified with the “Marxist” stream of the Labor Zionist movement since my post as the secretary of Mapam (an acronym for the United Workers Party) in the Knesset in the years 1954–55. Lea’s application for a job in the Henrietta Szold Institute was immediately approved. This was after she was fired from the Central Bureau of Statistics when she married Aki, who was known as a member of Maki.

The sheer political persecution behind the alleged security risk Lea posed is especially conspicuous in light of the nature of the work she had done for several years after her graduation from the department of statistics at the Hebrew University. She was editing statistical reports and analyses that were ready to go to the print shop. Lea’s case reflected the prevailing policy of Zionist Left governments headed by David Ben-Gurion to which the “Marxist” Mapam was partner. These were years of despotic rule of the Labor Zionist movement in all walks of life, drawing boundaries for legitimate Zionist consensus. This was reflected in the official slogan coined by Ben-Gurion: “Without [the right wing] Herut and without Maki.”

It is important to emphasize the central role of Mapam in laying the legal and ideological infrastructure of Israel’s apartheid regime and to understand the enormous impact Mapam had on me as well as on others who were genuinely committed to socialism. Especially important was Mapam’s role in creating a false narrative of the Nakba, as emphasized by Stanford University professor of Middle East history Joel Beinin: “[Despite what they knew] after the war, it was Mapam’s prescription for the conduct of Israeli forces—rather than the reality of expulsion—that became official Israeli history, and eventually, came to define the Jewish Israeli collective memory of what happened in 1948.” 1 The Zionist Left intellectuals had articulated an ideology that granted moral and “scientific” legitimacy to the state-centered political culture justifying its alleged security as a supreme value. This clarifies not only my own relatively late departure from Left Zionism. It also confirms the courage of Aki, Moshik, and their comrades when they joined the Communist Party and even more so when they left it and founded Matzpen.

As a Stalinist party, Maki supported the UN Partition Plan. Its leader Meir Vilner signed the shameful “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” which recognized the historic right of the Jews to the land of Israel and negated Palestinian national rights. However, Maki’s commitment to the basic narrative and premises of Zionism did not deter the Labor Zionist establishment from persecuting its members. Since 1948, Maki campaigned against the second-class citizenship of the Palestinians and against military administrative rule (1948–66), which enforced spatial immobility and political paralysis upon the terrorized Palestinian population. This enabled the Labor-led coalition governments along with Mapam to seize Palestinian lands, the majority of which were taken in the first years of the state’s existence. Maki also opposed Israel’s support of British and French imperialism, which fought against the independence of the Arab peoples, as was revealed in the 1956 Suez war.

Hence it was not by accident that despite the persecution policies of Labor governments, a nonprofit research institute unaffiliated with the Labor government and directed by a “liberal” person hired Lea without any reservations. In a short time however, even the few islands of liberal thinking were smashed under the oppressive dominance of the “state-centered” version of the Labor movement. Hence the enormous difficulty experienced by me and by others to disconnect from the Zionist Left, especially from Mapam, which claimed a commitment to both Zionism and socialism.

As members of Maki, Aki and Moshik’s disassociation from Zionism was not yet complete. This made it easier for me to adopt their criticism of the state policies against the Palestinians as well as the anti-worker policies of the Histadrut—the arm of the Zionist colonial project since before 1948. These were the years (1959–61) in which Akiva and Moshé Machover wrote the book Peace, Peace, When There Is No Peace 2. As they said in the book’s introduction, the original plan was to show that “Israel’s participation in the British and French invasion of Egypt in 1956 was not a ‘war of no choice,’ as the Israeli government—and most of the public in Israel—insisted, but rather a contrived war and an integral part of Israel’s policy under Labor’s David Ben-Gurion: he preferred alliances with colonial powers over compromise with the Arab states.” However as they gathered material for the book, a wider understanding of Israel’s prevention of the creation of a Palestinian state was revealed to them: namely, the secret accord between Ben-Gurion and King Abdullah of Jordan in 1948. Under this agreement, Ben-Gurion robbed the Palestinians of half of the area allocated to them by the November 29, 1947, UN partition resolution, and the other half was given to Abdullah.

Learning about these facts was a shock for me and for a close group of people who still believed in Israel’s acceptance of the UN partition resolution and in Israel’s presumably genuine search for peace. However these new facts still were not enough to bring me to challenge the justification of Zionism and the Jewish state. My political development was then dependent on Aki and Moshé’s own departure from Zionism, since I by then already fully trusted their interpretation of Marxism for analyzing Zionism and the nature of the Israeli state. But they themselves had not yet reached an unequivocal challenge to the colonial nature of Zionism. As they emphasized in the introduction to the second edition of the book in 1999:

In the framework of this organization [Matzpen] we developed, together with our comrades, a principled critique of Zionism that was far more extensive than the one we had formulated in the book. We no longer see the 1948 war as an Israeli liberation struggle against British imperialism, as the book suggests, but as a continuation of the colonizing enterprise of Zionism. Our position on the Soviet Union also became, after 1962, much more critical than the one reflected in the book. But the roots and basic direction of our critical position on Israeli policies and Zionism are clearly discernable in this volume.

It was the founding of Matzpen, and especially the developing perspective depicting Zionism as a colonial project, which created an earthquake in my political and personal life. Matzpen’s positions and analyses wiped out the remains of my Left Zionism, and of my support for Maki. Matzpen helped me to remove the dust that Mapam and Maki teachings had piled upon the foundations of Marxism I acquired in my youth reading Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Now I could clearly see the state of Israel as a tool for the advancement and expansion of the Zionist project, in the service of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

Matzpen equipped me with the political and ideological principles that were to lead my thinking and activity in the years after Aki and Moshé moved to London, and later when Matzpen gradually stopped functioning as an active political organization. I could thus apply Matzpen’s perspectives, retaining a critical outlook when I joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League (Lakam, affiliated with the Fourth International) and the Alternative Information Center it founded. I sharply rejected the Oslo Accords, which my comrades at the time saw as a promising step toward the two-state solution they supported. By the same token, I could condemn the Lakam for “dissolving” politically into the 1967 protest movement, whose Zionist leadership supported the Palestinian Authority headed by Arafat.

After 1965, when Aki and Lea moved to London, I spent long summer vacations in their warm and open home. After 1968, I followed Aki’s gradual distancing from what he named “Orthodox Marxism,” until finally his membership in Matzpen came to an end. During these years there were other members and supporters of Matzpen who ended their connections with the organization in addition to the splits that took place on ideological grounds. Some withdrew to build their professional or academic careers. Others saw their main role in joining the movements—especially those connected with the protest against the 1967 occupation or with civil rights NGOs. There were also those who replaced their socialist anti-Zionism with what Moshik called “ethnic patriotism”—seeing their Jewishness as a central feature of their self-identity—a perspective contradictory to the universalist values embedded in genuine socialism by definition.

Aki did not adopt any of these defeatist non-internationalist positions, nor did he choose the comfort of a nonpolitical way of life. Although departing from the Marxist socialism of Matzpen, he retained his revolutionary passion and fighting spirit. His writings, activity, and style of life were directed toward his tireless search for a thorough change in the current “capitalist democracies.” His call for a “direct democracy” (presumably permitted by innovations in electronic communication since 1980) was indeed naive and unrealistic. However, it reflected his persistent drive for a full egalitarian society that would avoid what he assumed to be the shortcomings of socialism—namely, a system retaining power and authority within some political center, which does not truly represent the people. Instead he proposed “Autonarchy”—a political system of self-rule based on the right of workers and citizens in general to propose and decide on any political issue.

In his daily political activity and writings, Aki remained loyal to Matzpen’s main principles—fighting against Israel’s political apartheid and economic neoliberalism and enthusiastically supporting the Palestinian struggle for freedom and the liberation of the Arab world from the yoke of US imperialism.

Aki’s lifestyle embodied a kind of anarchism that usually does not prevail among members of radical Left organizations. For Aki there was no separation between his personal and political life. Each of the political campaigns in which he was involved was soon translated into a personal relationship with his partners in the struggle with whom he was sharing his daily schedule. Thus when he wholeheartedly enlisted in the campaign for the release of Mordechai Vanunu (the famous whistle-blower who disclosed nuclear secrets to a British newspaper) and for a Middle East free from nuclear weapons, Mordechai’s brother Meir Vanunu directed the campaign from Aki’s home in London.

When Aki returned to Israel, he used to visit weekly the Marxist-socialist Daud Tourki, by then lonely and almost completely forsaken by his past comrades, at his home in Haifa. Tourki was released in 1985 after spending seventeen years in an Israeli prison. He had been accused of heading a “spy network” affiliated with Syrian intelligence. Some members of the network were Matzpen or ex-Maki members who left those organizations to found a Jewish–Arab underground to fight against the Israeli occupation and for an independent Palestine by attacking military and governmental facilities.

Aki, like all members of Matzpen, opposed this initiative, but unlike Maki, he and Matzpen never engaged in the hateful, mass hysterical condemnation of network members during their widely publicized trial. Moreover, in 2007, following Tourki’s death, Aki bravely published on Maki’s Left Bank site an obituary in which he expressed his admiration for Tourki’s socialist stance and the noble motives which brought him to adopt incorrect methods for fighting against the Zionist state.

As it had been in London, Aki’s home in Israel was opened to dozens of young activists who were looking for answers to their growing doubts regarding the nature of the Jewish/Zionist state and its bloody policies toward the Palestinians. Many of them were involved in various protest activities against the 1967 occupation, like their joint militant weekly demonstrations against the separation wall that separated the Palestinian villagers from their cultivated lands. Aki’s personal, simple, eye-to-eye style of communication with them and with other young people resulted in deep admiration for him and his teachings. Through his easygoing and seemingly “nontheoretical” approach he sowed in them the aspiration for more fundamental change in Israeli society and its state, and taught them not to be satisfied solely with their protest activities.

The spark of radicalism Aki lit brought some of these activists to Matzpen’s fiftieth-anniversary commemoration, where Aki contradicted those ex-Matzpen members mentioned above who expressed their admiration for protest as such but rejected the theoretical debate among some Matzpen veterans regarding the solution of the Israeli–Palestinian “conflict.” Aki addressed the youngsters with a clear-cut message that Matzpen was not merely a “protest movement,” but a revolutionary organization aimed at changing the state and its society, and as such it needed theory.

Some of the young activists attended his funeral and later joined other Matzpen members and supporters who met in a private home—feeling it difficult to return to their daily routine. The young followers of Aki looked like orphans who had lost their ideological father.

Aki had a magnetic impact on those who over the years met him personally or listened to one of his many public talks. I have chosen to conclude my obituary of comrade Akiva Orr with words written by a woman who does not officially belong to the ranks of the radical Left in Israel, that were posted in her personal blog named “Radically Blond.” Her moving words demonstrate Aki’s deep political influence on people throughout the long years since he left Matzpen. Aki’s teaching has made these people ripe to join a living radical socialist organization, which unfortunately does not exist in Israel.

“Radically Blond” expressed her “feelings of loss and confusion” when she heard of the death of Aki, whom she saw as her political mentor. After listening to him in a meeting she attended by chance many years ago, she felt she was “fortunate to meet an astonishing person,” and began to follow attentively his and Matzpen’s publications:

Aki was one of those who have not given up; who determinately continued to struggle against the occupation, Zionism and Capitalism… He was one of those who attempted to delineate the road we should take… Aki was one of the few who knew how to be a genuine Left and at the same time criticize the camp to which he belonged. He refused to compromise on his determined fight on the side of the oppressed.

We have so few models to follow on the Israeli Left—so few torches to light our way and aid us in a search for the right road. Aki was one of them. And now, when he has gone, the road seems a little darker. Rest in peace, Aki. I hope to follow your political mission. Aki joins now the long list of heroes of the working class whose legends we, revolutionaries, nourish. They dedicated their life, albeit in different ways, to our joint cause: liberating our societies from oppression and exploitation.

  1. Joel Beinin, No More Tears: Benny Morris and the Road Back from Liberal Zionism, Middle East Report 34, no. 230 (Spring 2004), http://www.merip.org/mer/mer230/no-more-tears
  2. http://www.akiorrbooks.com/files/PEACE.pdf