Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mariner with a Compass


SAD to hear the news this weekend that Akiva Orr has died. An Israeli ex-mariner, he was one of the founders of the radical left-wing group 'Matzpen', - lit. compass, in the navigational sense, - and he helped many of us find our way out of the befogged sandbanks of "left" Zionism and towards an international socialist perspective, even if he can't be held responsible for our varied subsequent courses. 

'Aki', as he was to become affectionately known, was born in Berlin two years before the Nazis took power, and was three years old when his parents decided to leave Germany, and took him to Palestine. Growing up in Tel Aviv, he became a keen swimmer, winining medals as a teenager, which may be why, after being drafted into the semi-underground Haganah, he was assigned to serve in the Israeli Navy in the 1948 war. He remained in the navy until 1950, and then joined the merchant navy. In 1951 he took part in the Israeli seamen's strike, an event which politicised him, particularly after he was beaten up by Israeli police.

That year he joined the Communist Party.

Then in 1962, dissatisfied with the CP's inadequate analyses and tame tail-ending of the Soviet bureaucracy, Aki and three other members broke with the Party and started the Israeli Socialist Organisation, better known by the name of its publication, 'Matzpen'. One of this group was another ex-seafarer, Moshe Machover, still active in London. Another significant figure who joined them was the veteran Palestinian Trotskyist, Jabra Nicola, who had been editor of the journal al Ittihad.

Though never gaining more than a few dozen members, this group had a pioneering role not only in analysing Zionism and Israeli society, but in recognising Palestinian national rights, supporting the struggle of underprivileged Israelis from Middle Eastern and Maghrebi backgrounds (the Black Panthers) and calling for an end to the post-1967 Occupation. Despite the difficulties, and risks at this time, they made some contacts and exchanged ideas with left-wing Palestinians. Many on the left today in Israel/Palestine would acknowledge a debt to Matzpen

But not only there. Towards the end of the 1960s, Akiva Orr moved to London, where he took up scientific studies, but also continued to be politically active. He was one of the founders of the Israeli Revolutionaries' Action Committee abroad (ISRACA), together with Moshe Machover and the cartoonist and humourist Shimon Tzabar. Another person in this circle was Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, who had briefly been entertained as a "dissident" in Israel until he expressed sympathy with the Palestinians.

At this time, the British Left knew little and perhaps cared less about Israel and Palestine. The old Labour Left, such as Ian Mikardo and Eric Heffer had been staunchly pro-Israel, the new mostly student Left, Maoist and "Third Worldist"-influenced might be equally starry-eyed and blurred in its support for the "Arab revolution", but for most people Palestine was way behind Vietnam and South Africa as deserving attention.

It was together with Aki Orr and his friends that I took part in my first ever demonstration outside the Israeli embassy, supporting the son of one of their comrades in Israel who must have been among the first young people to refuse to serve in the occupation. I also remember Aki speaking in London University, possibly the first time students had heard from an anti-Zionist, left-wing Israeli.When it came to questions some gent in a suit, possibly from one of the embassies, read out a prepared speech which had clearly been written on the assumption that we were to hear a Zionist hasbaranik, and bore no relation to what Aki had actually said. Still, Aki and therefore the audience were very patient about this misundestanding.

(In later years the opposition came from right-wing Zionists who would not attempt speeches, but chant inane slogans, try to intimidate people, and if not put out, start to throw furniture about. Still, this seems to have abated, though it is as well to be on guard).

The Orrs  had settled in a house near Willesden Green, which was not far from where I lived, so that in those pre-internet days I was able to drop in on my way back from the library and discuss with Aki over a cup of tea rather than sitting at a computer exchanging e-mail messages. (Computers were great big things filling a room, Aki and Moshe Machover could feed them programmes and speak their language, but e-mail and blogs had not yet been invented).

Another couple with whom Aki became friends were C.L.R. and Selma James, who lived in the same block if I am not mistaken. Other friends he made included poet Erich Fried, veteran revolutionary Rosa Levine-Meyer (whose book was translated by Waguih Ghali, I believe), and Rudi Dutschke..

When Aki came to London his first port of call, politically, was to see Tony Cliff, founder of the International Socialists who became the Socialist Workers Party, and remembered by left-wing Israelis as Yigael Gluckstein, who had left Palestine before 1948. They had much to discuss, and Aki was able to get Cliff's take on the Left in Britain, though he would check it against his own observations, He eventually decided to join not the SWP or its nearest rivals but Solidarity, a group inspired by the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoradis.

 Emphasising rank and file militancy and self-management, Solidarity questioned idealised versions of the Russian Revolution to explain what went wrong. Its members included seasoned working class militants who had been in the Communist Party or the Socialist Labour League, as had neurologist Chris Pallis who wrote as Martin Grainger, and later Maurice Brinton.  Though roughly characterised by opponents as "anarcho-syndicalist", Solidarity was not simply "workerist" or "economist" (in fact it criticised economic determinism). It took part in the Committee of 100 anti-nuclear protests, and may have had a hand in the clandestine "Spies for Peace" publication exposing the location of secret bunkers set up for nuclear war and unelected government.

So perhaps it was not surprising that when Meir Vanunu came to London to try and raise support for his imprisoned nuclear whistleblower brother Modechai, it was Akiva Orr who took him under his wing and rushed around introducing him to people and helping to start protest rolling.

In 1990 Aki returned to Israel. In recent years I heard that he was one of a small group campaigning for a nuclear weapon-free Middle East, something Mordechai Vanunu had also urged. With so much talk of the alleged nuclear weapons plans of Iran, and so little mention of the existing nuclear weapons stockpiled by Israel, which has never signed the non-proliferation treaty, this is a very timely issue to raise.  Of course we would like to see a world free of the nuclear menace, and the huge resources involved put to benefit human needs. But where better to make a start than the volatile Middle East? 

In 2011, Akiva Orr achieved recognition of sorts when he was invited to speak to the young people engaged in the tent protests demanding social justice, on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv. He spoke about the seamen's strike of 1951, and about direct democracy. 

Akiva Orr did not live to see the aims for which he strove, but he may rest assured that he inspired younger generations to carry on the fight.

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