Enlightenment and pure joy

Judy Carousian reviews 'Compass and Moshé Machover' by Helena Aksentijevic (YouTube, 2022)

Moshé Machover is well known to Weekly Worker readers, in particular for his regular articles on Israel/Palestine, but Helena Aksentijevic, a filmmaker and photographer, heard of him through her local Palestine Solidarity group. She was making a series of short films about supporters of Palestine and decided to feature him in this one.1

She told me in an email that her technique is “to focus almost entirely on the subject of the film: the idea is that they are telling the viewer their story”. She continued: “Moshé is such a mesmerising and eloquent speaker - he really does keep the viewer’s attention.” And so he does. Except for some photographs, a few other film strips and the occasional question, Moshé speaks alone throughout the entire film, which lasts for well over half an hour.

To set the scene, at the start Moshé shows a paid advert taken from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, dated September 22 1967 (just after the six-day war), which says in part (translated by Moshé): “The right to defend ourselves against extermination does not give us the right to oppress other people.” Moshé goes on to translate what follows: “Holding onto the occupied territories would turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let us get out of the occupied territories at once.”

This letter was signed by 12 people, including Moshé, most of whom were members or supporters of the organisation he was a founder of, Matzpen (translated as ‘Compass’.) He says with a smile: “I am proud to be one of the signatories.”

Both of Moshé’s parents were born in the Russian empire and ended up in Palestine in the 1930s. Neither was religious, and most of his family were not practising Jews. Moshé grew up in Tel Aviv (then part of the British mandate of Palestine) and his first memory was the outbreak of World War II. Tel Aviv was once or twice bombed by Italian planes, but otherwise it was prosperous. He says that by 1944 they knew that something horrible was happening under the Nazis, but not the details.

Moshé as a boy was part of a socialist-Zionist youth movement. He remembers that in 1948, just after the foundation of Israel, they went on a hike, in which they saw some of the villages recently ethnically cleansed during the 1948-49 war. They saw the after-effects of the removal of the villagers - abandoned belongings, including cutlery and even a shepherd’s flute, buildings destroyed. What remained of the Palestinian community was simply left to rot and this made a deep impression on him as a youngster.

Moshé sketches in the nationalist militia groups in Palestine under the British mandate - Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Gang. The latter, a self-described terrorist military organisation, even wrote to the Nazis - before knowledge of the holocaust became public - stating it was prepared to work with the Germans as ‘fighters for the liberation of Israel’.

The 1948-49 victory was “incomplete”, because, as he explains, the “Holy Land, land of Palestine - whichever you want to call it” was not totally in Israel’s hands. It is noticeable that, when Israel became a state, it never declared its borders, as you might expect of a newly created country. It turned out that Israel’s military leaders were waiting for an opportunity to expand its territory.

That came in 1967. The Israeli leadership knew that the threatened annihilation of Israel was, as Moshé puts it genteelly, “poppycock”, and the six-day war, in his view, was a turning point for the rest of the region and maybe the world.

Previously, in 1962, as a reaction to Stalinism (“the Israeli Communist Party was not a revolutionary party, as it claimed to be”), Matzpen was founded. The name was actually that of the journal the founders previously published. They focused on working class issues at first, and were soon joined by Jabra Nicola, a Marxist, who was a great influence when it came to Palestinian issues. Moshé believes Nicola’s insights are still valid today.


Zionism, as anyone who has heard Moshé speak knows, is both an ideology and a project. When it comes to ideology, Zionists believe that Jews all over the world constitute a ‘nation’ and the land was promised by god to this nation. Moshé recalls a joke that to be a Zionist you don’t have to believe in god - but you do have to believe that god gave the land to the Jews!

It is important, Moshé says, to distinguish between differing modes of colonisation. The first, he says, were slave colonies, like the southern United States, the West Indies, etc, while Karl Kautsky called the second type “exploitation colonies”, where the colonisers exploited the labour of the indigenous people. This was the character of British colonies, such as India and much of Africa. The third type were called work colonies by Kautsky, where the colonists are the main direct producers. They are in fact ‘exclusion colonies’, where the indigenous population are ethnically cleansed or simply annihilated.

Israel is an example of the third. The Israeli ruling class wants more territory - but without most of the Arabs who currently live there. Moshé explains that the reason Israel did not annex the West Bank or Gaza Strip outright is because there are too many “unwanted people” there - namely, those very Arabs.

Matzpen’s view of Israel as a work colony was put forward even before the 1967 war, but afterwards a huge hate campaign was directed against it because the group was opposed to the occupation. There was, as Moshé puts it, “a frenzy of chauvinism”. Members were ostracised and threatened, but Matzpen remained uncompromising.

In an interesting few minutes towards the end of the film, Moshé discussed the kibbutzim, which he says shows the internal contradictions in one wing of Zionism. Leftwing Zionists believed this was a form of socialism - but, as he points out, only for Jews. And Moshé believes that Israel’s leaders are still not satisfied with what they have: they want more territory. Those who settled in the kibbutzim have played their part in helping to gain Palestinian land. Many are still attracted to the settlements for economic reasons - they receive good houses, cheaply, for example. But others are ideologically committed and are extreme in their criminal behaviour towards Palestinians.

And what of the future? Moshé does not see any grounds for optimism. One possibility is the ethnic cleansing or even annihilation of the Palestinians as a viable entity. This, he says, is what many in the Zionist establishment want. He believes that Israel might even instigate a new Nakba.

Those that argue for a single state are well-intentioned, Moshé says, but there is a catch - the Zionist regime would have to be overthrown, but the Palestinians simply lack the leverage to do that, as previous uprisings have shown. What Jabra Nicola and Matzpen insisted upon was that such an overthrow could only come about on a regional basis. Only the working class in Israel, combined with other working classes in the Arab world, including the Palestinians, of course, could have a realistic prospect of overthrowing Zionism - and that is only possible on the basis of a socialist programme. This has been Matzpen’s view from the beginning. Moshé considers that his work in Matzpen is the most important thing he has done in his entire political life - all his subsequent activism followed from that.

In an afterword towards the end, Helena Aksentijevic asks Moshé whether he thinks the Labour Party will once again try to expel him, or whether he will go quiet for a few years. His response is typical: “I’m not going to go quietly!”

This film consist of 36.39 minutes of education and pure joy for a Marxist. It is not often one gets the chance to hear anyone speak so clearly on his own, without interruption, articulating his life-long commitment. I have watched it three times and learned something new each time. Where else, and with whom else, could one half-hour be so enlightening?

Judy Carousian

  1. https://www.helenaaksentijevic.com/. Helena Aksentijevic’s website describes her as a travel photographer who specialises in the untouched corners of the world.↩︎