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Moshe Sneh: The communist who defended Israel

Maki, for decades the Middle East’s only legal communist party, competed for votes in consecutive Knesset elections, though it never became a significant actor

By MARK REGEV Published: NOVEMBER 10, 2022 20:05

Readers of The Jerusalem Post can be excused for missing earlier this week the 105th anniversary of Russia’s 1917 “Great October Socialist Revolution.” However, in the 1950s and 1960s, when Moshe Sneh was a leader of the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), the November 7 Bolshevik seizure of power was conspicuously celebrated across the Jewish state.

Israeli communism predates the State of Israel, although throughout much of the British Mandate the party was outlawed. The communists emerged from the shadows with statehood in May 1948, and their representative, Meir Vilner, was one of the 37 signatories to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The party was later to have its own kibbutz, Yad Hanna, in the Sharon plain.

Maki, for decades the Middle East’s only legal communist party, competed for votes in consecutive Knesset elections, though it never became a significant actor. David Ben-Gurion famously declared that he could form a coalition with all Knesset factions “barring Herut and Maki,” but unlike Herut (the Likud’s predecessor), Maki’s representation was always minuscule.

In the elections to the first Knesset in 1949, Maki received four MKs. Its high-water mark came in the 1955 elections, when the party grew to six seats, but from then on it was downhill.

Tellingly, the party that championed solidarity between Jewish and Arab workers split along ethnic lines in June 1965. The largely Arab New Communist List (Rakah) echoed Moscow’s stringent anti-Israel, anti-Zionist line, while the Jewish Maki embraced an independent path, an Israeli version of what was to become known in the 1970s as Eurocommunism.

In the November 1965 Knesset elections, the first after the split, Maki received a single seat. Rakah did much better, electing three MKs. It was not that Israel’s Arab voters necessarily found communism more appealing than their Jewish counterparts; rather, Jewish support for Maki was limited to voters who were hardcore Marxists, while Rakah could enlist the backing of a much larger pool of Arab citizens adverse to the Zionist state.

In the 1969 elections, Rakah again received three MKs and gained one more in the 1973 elections. The party would unite with other radical leftists in 1977 and establish the communist-dominated Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), receiving between three and five MKs in successive Knesset elections.

In 2015, Hadash joined with Palestinian nationalists and Islamists to form the Joint Arab List, which became the third-largest Knesset faction with 15 seats. Last week’s elections saw four communist MKs elected on the joint Hadash-Ta’al list – one of whom a polygamist, to the great chagrin of feminists.

The Jewish Maki was to disappear. It was reelected to the Knesset in 1969 – once more with a single seat – but would never again receive parliamentary representation. (In 1989, Rakah would adopt the name of the defunct Maki.)

The historic leader of Maki: Moshe Sneh

OF ALL MAKI’S historic leaders, the most prominent was Moshe Sneh (1909-1972). He grew up in Poland, where at an early age he became a Zionist activist. His rise in the movement was meteoric, and in 1933, Sneh was already heading Poland’s centrist General Zionists.

He reached Mandatory Palestine in 1940, and by the following year was chosen to head the general staff of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish defense organization. In 1944, Sneh was elected to the Jews’ representative assembly and in 1945 to a leadership position in the Jewish Agency.

In his Haganah capacity, Sneh played an important role in the struggle against the British Mandatory authorities, including the 1945-46 insurgency when he coordinated the joint Haganah-Irgun-Lehi uprising against colonial rule. Wanted for arrest by the British, Sneh surreptitiously fled for Europe, from where he continued to orchestrate Haganah activities.

Influenced by the immense Soviet contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, and by Moscow’s opposition to the British Mandate and backing of Jewish statehood, Sneh’s politics took on a radical trajectory. He abandoned the General Zionists for the militant socialist pro-Soviet Mapam (United Workers) party and was elected to the first Knesset in January 1949 on the Mapam slate.

The blatant antisemitism that plagued the Soviet bloc in the final months of Stalin’s rule severely shook Mapam’s faith in the Kremlin, and the party incrementally moved toward an independent socialist position. This change was opposed by the staunchly pro-Soviet Sneh, who bolted Mapam in 1953 to establish the Left Faction, which merged into the communist Maki in 1954.

Over the next two decades, Sneh was the foremost leader of Israeli communism, repeatedly representing Maki in the Knesset while editing the party newspaper Kol Ha’am (Voice of the People).

In 1970, Sneh authored an essay titled “Arafat the adored and Lenin the ignored,” where he applied Vladimir Lenin’s communist principles to denounce the global left’s infatuation with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

While embracing Palestinian self-determination, Sneh condemned the PLO’s call for Israel’s destruction. He quoted Lenin’s distinction between progressive nationalism, which seeks national freedom, and bourgeois nationalism, which denies national freedom to others; Lenin’s writings endorsed the former while condemning the latter. According to Sneh, Leninist logic would clearly place the PLO’s negation of the Jews’ right to a state of their own in the second, reactionary category.

Moreover, Sneh elaborated upon Lenin’s critique of terrorism, contrasting it with the PLO’s sanctification of the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians. He also refuted the depiction of Israel as a colonial entity, pointing out that the Jewish state has no imperial mother country.

Sneh reminded his readers of the events surrounding Israel’s creation: the Jewish armed struggle against British imperialism; the communist bloc’s support for the November 1947 UN vote calling for the establishment of a Jewish state; and the masses of survivors of fascist persecution and genocide who found refuge in Israel.

Perhaps today’s radicals, from Brazil’s Lula da Silva to France’s Jean-Luc Melenchon to Ireland’s Mary Lou McDonald, who like Sneh’s 1970 leftist audience uncritically champion Palestinian nationalism, might benefit from familiarizing themselves with the political writings of Israel’s former communist leader.

Postscript: Moshe Sneh’s son, Ephraim, a member of the communist youth movement in his earlier years, nonetheless went on to become an IDF brigadier general and a Labor Party MK. He served as health minister in the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, deputy defense minister to Ehud Barak, and even transportation minister under the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. What would his communist father have said?

Published Originally in The Jerusalem Post

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