Abigail Jacobson. Nations & Nationalism. Volume 25, Issue 4. October 2019.
This paper focuses on the National Liberation League (NLL), a Palestinian Arab communist movement which operated in Palestine between the years 1943-1948. The paper examines its short‐lived history in light of the relevant three contexts in which it operated: the local Palestinian national context; the regional context of communist activity in the Middle East and the external‐internationalist context of the Soviet Union. The paper further discusses the activities of the NLL during the period of the 1948 War in Palestine, as well as in the first period of military rule, imposed on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. An analysis of the NLL during the late Mandatory period and the early years of the State of Israel allows a close examination of the ways by which concepts of identity, nationalism, class and ethnicity were conceptualised, debated and contested during times of a national conflict and anti‐imperial struggle and brings to the fore tensions between ideology and practice, nationalism and internationalism. The NLL offers an important opportunity to look into the complex matrix of communist movements that combine anti‐imperial struggles with struggles for national liberation in the context of a national conflict and to examine their dilemmas and what may seem as internal contradictions.
On 29 November 1947, the United Nations adopted what came to be known as the Palestine partition plan, calling for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish States and for the termination of the British Mandatory rule in the country. The Jewish community in the country adopted the plan, which acknowledged the Jewish national rights over parts of Palestine. The Arabs, under the leadership of the Arab Higher Committee (hereinafter AHC), rejected the plan. Their rejection marked the first sign of the opening of the violent struggle over the future of Palestine, which led to the 1948 war and eventually to the establishment of the State of Israel in May of that year.
However, the rejection of the partition plan among the Palestinian Arabs was not unanimous. One group supported the plan and opposed the bloodshed between the two peoples. This group, the National Liberation League (Usbat al‐Taharur al‐Watani, hereinafter NLL), was the Palestinian Arab communist organisation, which split from the (until then) bi‐national Palestinian Communist Party (PCP) in 1943. For five years, 1943-1948, the NLL operated as a uni‐national organisation. In 1948, during the war, its members reunited with the Jewish communists to establish the Israeli Communist Party (ha‐Miflaga ha‐Komonistit ha‐Israelit, hereinafter MAKI). Some of the NLL’s members also took part in the establishment of the Jordanian Communist Party.
The support of the NLL for the partition plan was unique within the Palestinian national movement, which demanded the establishment of an Arab State in all parts of Mandatory Palestine. Nevertheless, it was not devoid of internal contradictions and struggles among its members. The NLL’s political agenda also went through a complete transformation regarding partition, following the surprising decision of the Soviet Union to support partition: from opposing the Zionist movement and the right of the Jews to self‐determination, the NLL and most of the its members shifted their view to support of the establishment of a Jewish national state in Palestine, side by side with an Arab state. This transition raises, obviously, many questions, including some regarding the degree of independence of the NLL vis‐à‐vis the Soviet Union, as well as some doubts which were raised in recent years regarding the possible cooperation of the Palestinian communists with the Zionist movement during the 1948 war (Manna: 131-70; Sa’di: 169-83).
This paper focuses on the NLL and examines its short‐lived history in light of the three relevant contexts in which it operated: the local Palestinian national context; the regional context of communist activity in the Middle East; and the internationalist context established by the Soviet Union. An analysis of the NLL provides a case study that calls for a close examination of the ways in which concepts of identity, nationalism, class and ethnicity were conceptualised, debated and contested during a time of national conflict and anti‐imperialist struggle and highlights tensions, and sometimes contradictions and ambivalence, between ideology and practice and between nationalism and internationalism. The NLL offers an important opportunity to look into the multifaceted matrix of communist movements that combine anti‐imperialist struggles with struggles for national liberation in the context of a severe national conflict. Other communist movements that dealt with a similar set of dilemmas were the French and Algerian movements, among others, as well as communist movements throughout the Arab world, as will be briefly explored below. In the Palestinian case, the close analysis of what might seem to be its internal contradictions and pragmatic choices is important in adding another layer of complexity to the history of the evolving national conflict, and to the realisation that alternative visions to that of the hegemonic national movement exited as well, and should be considered.
Communism and Nationalism in the Palestinian Society
The NLL entered the Palestinian political scene after splitting from the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP) in early 1943. The PCP itself was established in 1919 (and adopted this name in 1922), mainly by Jewish communists, but it subsequently became a bi‐national communist party operating according to communist ideology and following the guidelines of the Comintern, which accepted it as a member in 1924. The history of the PCP is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to note that throughout its history, the party went through various nationally based crises as well as some intra‐national tensions and conflicts. The nature of both Jewish and Arab leadership changed during its years of existence: in some periods, the Jews were more dominant than the Arabs; in others, the reverse was true (Beinin; Ben‐Zaken; Budeiri; Dothan; Kaufman; Lockman; Miller Rubenstein).
The Arabization of the PCP, together with the growing national tension between the Jewish and Arab national movements, accelerated the national crisis in the party, which was exacerbated by the dismantling of the Comintern in 1943 (Budeiri: 98-108; Ismael: 57-63). Following the growing national‐based disagreements in the party, in September 1943, the Arab members decided to form a separate Arab organisation that would focus primarily on the national question in Palestine and the problems of Arab workers. At the beginning of 1944, the new organisation was named the National Liberation League. Its leaders were Emile Touma, Emile Habibi, Tawfik Toubi and Fuad Nasar. The Jewish communists, under the leadership of Meir Vilner, Shmuel Mikunis and Esther Vilenska, re‐established the PCP as a Jewish party (Porat: 356).
The split in the PCP was mainly a national one, resulting from the growing gap between how its Jewish and Arab members regarded the national conflict in Palestine so that joint membership, in one party, became extremely difficult to sustain. Both Jewish and Arab communists were perceived as traitors within their respective societies, which resulted in their need to compromise and abandon their internationalist ideology. Interpretations of the division within the PCP varied among the communist leaders themselves, and there was certainly some embarrassment arising out of a national split in a movement that was supposed to be based on Marxist internationalist ideology. Contact between Jewish and Arab communists, however, continued to a certain degree throughout the five years of national split.
Communism, Nationalism, and Anti‐Imperialist Struggle
The founding manifesto of the NLL was published on 1 February 1944. This document, its national pact, presents the main political goals of the NLL, as well as its economic and social agenda. Following its main slogan, ‘National Unification for National Liberation’, its main political goal was presented as establishing an independent national rule in Palestine, by means of national political activity and by developing national consciousness among the Arabs in Palestine. The NLL would fight against fascism, its manifesto proclaimed, in all its forms.
The first article of the national pact defines the NLL’s political goal: the independence of Palestine and its national liberation. It calls for stopping Jewish immigration and land sales to Jews, a similar demand to that raised by the Palestinian national leadership. It also calls for the protection of democratic rights, including the rights of free speech and a free press, the right to unite in different organisations and freedom of religion. It demands a democratic government guaranteeing the rights of all inhabitants without distinction and calls for an end to foreign (mainly British) intervention in Palestinian internal affairs. In the seventh article of the pact, the NLL states its national vision: that all the minorities in Palestine should be allowed to live peacefully in a free Arab country (watan).
The rest of the national pact discusses primarily economic and social issues, focusing mainly on workers and peasants, as well as small merchants, clerks, intellectuals, craftsmen and teachers. By addressing these groups, the NLL tried to disassociate itself from the Palestinian national movement, which consisted mainly of notable urban families, landlords, religious administrators and the bureaucracy (Beinin: 42). The NLL called for strengthening the status of teachers, women and the intelligentsia, for the establishment of more schools in Palestine and for the revival of Arab nationalist education.
The NLL was an exclusively Arab organisation. Every Arab who supported its national pact and paid the membership fee was entitled to become a member. The NLL’s main branches were in Haifa, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Tulkarm, Nazareth and Hebron.
There is no mention of communism in the document, which raises the question of what was its real place in the NLL’s ideology (Budeiri: 108). The national pact also does not discuss the social regime hoped for in Palestine, although it pays close attention to different social groups and their concerns. The reason for this absence may have been the fear of communism in Palestinian society and the NLL’s attempt to appeal to a large audience. Yet the communist leanings of the NLL and the way it considered its primary audience to be Arab workers and the urban intelligentsia are very clear from its newspaper and main organ, al‐Ittihad, whose editor was Emile Touma. In its first issue, on 14 May 1944, al‐Ittihad stated clearly that ‘Our newspaper is the Arab workers’ newspaper, the first newspaper to speak on their behalf, a newspaper that will protect the people’s interests… and [that] represents the working class’.
Palestine should become an independent Arab state, according to the NLL, where Jews, as a minority group, would enjoy full and equal civil rights. By comparison, Jewish communists called for the formation of a bi‐national Palestinian state, which would include Jews and Arabs alike. The Jews, then, were not recognised as a national group, and the national aspirations of the Jews are ignored in the NLL’s founding document. This issue would be revisited and revised within a few years.
The unique place of the NLL in the Palestinian political atmosphere of the 1940s was apparent also in the profile of its leaders. Its main leaders were Christian Orthodox, part of the urban intelligentsia and not the working class. Some of them were active in different labour organisations and in some intellectuals’ clubs. Among the main leaders was Emile Touma, one of its founding members, who was the editor of al‐Ittihad and the chief secretary of the NLL until 1947, when his membership was withdrawn following his rejection of the partition plan. Other prominent members of the NLL were Emile Habibi, Tawfik Toubi (Segev), Fuad Nassar (Beinin: 50) and Boulus Farah (Adiv). All of them were young, in their twenties and thirties; all considered themselves to be agents of modernisation in Palestinian Arab society and as representatives of a different political and social agenda from that of the traditional Palestinian national leadership.
The Palestinian Political Context: The NLL and the Palestinian National Leadership
In its social and political vision, as well as in its overall stance with respect to Jews, the Zionist movement and the anti‐imperialist struggle, the NLL distanced itself from the hegemonic Palestinian national leadership and did not hesitate to criticise the AHC, the leading voice of the Palestinian national movement. Notwithstanding this criticism, however, the NLL’s leaders did try, on different occasions, to join the AHC, and to take an active part in the decision‐making process regarding the future of Palestine.
Palestinian national identity emerged much before the British colonial rule. The mandatory years, and the struggles against British and Zionists, deepened the shared sense of Palestinian identity, which, at the same time, faced internal and external challenges. For most of this period, the Arab political leadership was dominated by political rivalries and factionalism, representing generational, interfamilial, institutional and ideological differences (Khalaf: 86-8; Khalidi: 192-4; Khalidi: 65-90). Traditional patron‐client networks, family ties and local loyalties supported the inter‐factional rivalry between two main camps, led by the Husayni and Nashashibi families, transforming Palestinian politics into more of a locally, rather than nationally, based system (Sela:118-20). As Khalidi argues, both these factions of Palestinian notables were appointed and supported, in one fashion or another, by the British. In many ways, then, both the British and the Zionists played a major role in creating and encouraging these political rivalries and internal divisions (Khalidi: 69). The NLL expressed strong criticism of all of these forces, the Palestinian elite, British colonial rule and the Zionist movement, and joined other movements and parties that opposed the Husayni-Nashashibi traditional leadership.
The NLL also differed from the Palestinian traditional leadership in its composition and target audiences. Unlike the Palestinian national movement, whose urban‐based, mainly Muslim leadership had gained much social, religious and political influence since the beginning of the British mandate, the NLL attracted groups of professionals, intellectuals and urban workers, all of whom criticised the factionalism and family‐based rivalries that characterised the national leadership (Al‐Hout: 85-111; Khalaf: 43).
The NLL shared the AHC’s agenda regarding the struggle against the mandate, the goal of establishing an independent Arab state in Palestine and its opposition to the Zionist movement. The two organisations also held similar views regarding the fate of the Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and their possible immigration to Palestine: namely, that it was the responsibility of the international community to decide where to relocate the Jewish refugees, either in their home countries or in new countries that would be willing to accept them (Porat: 361).
However, the NLL disagreed with the AHC on several major issues. Unlike the AHC, the NLL differentiated between the Jewish population in Palestine and the Zionist movement. According to the NLL, the interest of the Jewish population in Palestine is similar to that of the Arabs: the establishment of a democratic state in Palestine. The Arab leadership has to cooperate with the Jewish populace and convince them that their real enemy is not the Arabs but the Zionist, reactionary movement. The Palestinian national movement should hence recognise the democratic rights of the Jews and cooperate with the Jewish population in a joint anti‐imperialist struggle for independence. A political solution that ignores the Jews in Palestine, claimed the NLL, is impossible.
The second distinction between the NLL and the AHC was the NLL’s belief in the need for all people living under occupation to fight against imperialism. This explains the possible cooperation between the NLL and the non‐Zionist Jews living in Palestine. The third major point of contention revolved around the issue of democracy and the NLL’s demand for an elected and representative national leadership (Budeiri: 142). The NLL criticised the way in which the AHC sought to solve the national conflict in the country, as well as the violence and acts of terror it used to carry out its goals. It demanded that the discussion regarding the Palestinian problem be transferred to the UN so that Britain and the United States would not be the sole international mediators resolving the question of Palestine. By these means, the NLL was hoping to involve the Soviet Union in the discussion regarding the future of Palestine.
The decision to establish the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in May 1947 without the participation of Britain and the United States was viewed by the NLL as a success. As it had demanded all along, the discussion on Palestine became an international one, which would proceed without the involvement of the two imperialist powers. After the AHC announced its intention to boycott UNSCOP, the NLL declared that it intended to testify before the Committee and to demand the withdrawal of foreign forces from Palestine and the establishment of a democratic state. It prepared a long memorandum for submission to the Committee in which it strongly rejected the idea of partitioning Palestine. Partition would signal a final separation between Jews and Arabs, it argued, and would increase hatred and antagonism; Jewish immigration to Palestine would damage the economic and social conditions of both peoples living there. It is in the world’s interest to intervene and to solve the problem of Palestine, argued the NLL.
Surprisingly, however, under pressure from the AHC, the NLL decided to boycott UNSCOP as well, explaining that its decision was motivated by its concern for national unity. This surprising change in the NLL’s attitude was heavily criticised by the Jewish communists. Even Tawfik Toubi, in retrospect, regretted the NLL decision and admitted that it had surrendered to public pressure and to the political environment of the time.
The NLL’s ambivalent position regarding the national leadership may have resulted from its realisation that it was incapable of influencing the direction of national politics without gaining cooperation from that leadership (Budeiri: 147-8). Despite its harsh criticism, the main leaders of the NLL tried to maintain some contacts with the AHC and its leader, Haj Amin al‐Husseini, who was based in Beirut. During the years 1946-1947, delegations from the NLL’s central committee visited al‐Husseini. However, the criticism directed at the AHC and the Arab League would intensify and become even more vocal following their rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan, Arab military involvement in the 1948 war and the devastating consequences of that war for Palestinian Arabs.
The NLL and the Debate on Partition
The NLL’s political agenda of demanding a democratic Arab state in Palestine changed dramatically when it decided to support the 1947 UN partition plan. It thus became the only Palestinian organisation that accepted the idea of partitioning Palestine into two states and recognised the national rights of the Jews. The change in its political programme raises many questions, both regarding the degree of independence of the NLL, as well as regarding its activities and positions throughout the 1948 war. The NLL’s position regarding the national question created quite a dramatic debate within the NLL’s leadership and led to a temporary split in the organisation. Similar debates took place within the communist movements of Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, as will be briefly explained below.
The change in the NLL’s position began with a speech by Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet representative to the UN, to the UN General Assembly on 14 May 1947. Mandatory rule in Palestine had failed, argued Gromyko in his speech. One could not ignore the aspirations of the Jews in Palestine, he continued, especially considering their suffering during World War II. The history of Palestine and the current realities could not justify a unilateral solution to the problem, Gromyko maintained; only an independent, democratic Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, based on the equal rights of both peoples, could fulfil the just legitimate aspirations of both groups. At the end of his speech, however, Gromyko added: ‘If this solution [an independent, democratic state for both Arabs and Jews] is not realistic, and considering the bad relations between the two parties, it would be necessary to consider the partition of Palestine as a solution to the problem. I say again that this solution would be justified only if it will be proven that coexistence between the two sides is not possible. The UN committee needs to consider these two solutions’ (Pinkus: 168-9).
Gromyko’s speech left the NLL’s leadership confused. Gromyko did not differentiate between the Jewish inhabitants and the Zionist movement, but rather treated the Jews as one group, ignored the Zionist movement altogether and did not refer to Zionism as a national liberation movement (Pinkus: 169-70). Gromyko saw Jews and Arabs as two peoples, each with historic roots and a right to self‐determination. This sense of symmetry had been missing in the NLL’s ideology up to this point. The change in the Soviet position, which until then had been anti‐Zionist in essence, was most probably driven by the Soviets’ desire to remove Britain from the Middle East, to become a significant power that would be able to impact political decisions in the region and to gain the support of the Zionist movement and the American Jewish community, in the hope that they could influence American foreign policy (Pinkus: 172-3). The transformation in Soviet policies affected not only the NLL but also the other Arab communist parties in the Middle East and resulted in some ideological splits (Ben‐Zaken: 158-68; Ismael: 64).
Gromyko’s speech signalled the beginning of the change in the NLL’s political programme. It still continued to present its former views in al‐Ittihad and elsewhere, but it is clear that the leadership was embarrassed because of the revised Soviet position. Their official reaction to this position was that the USSR still supported an independent state with an Arab majority and regarded partition or the establishment of a bi‐national state as a first step towards such a regime.
When UNSCOP declared its support for partition, the NLL again rejected it while also accusing Arab national leaders of having paved the way for partition through their racist and negative approach towards the Jews of Palestine. The AHC had not suggested any alternative solution to the problem of Palestine, claimed the NLL, but rather had allowed the Arab League, Britain’s ally, to decide the issue. The NLL also pointed out the danger of turning the struggle for independence from an anti‐imperialist struggle to a racist and ethnic one. The AHC’s use of violence and terror, it argued, would damage and divide the Arab national movement (Budeiri: 156-7).
The Soviet policy became clear on 13 October 1947, when Semyon Tsarapkin, the Soviet consul in Washington, publicly announced Soviet support for partition as the solution to the Palestine problem (Ebon: 262). Tsarapkin’s announcement, which presented the official Soviet position, put further pressure on the NLL. One of the few responses from the NLL was published in an editorial in al‐Ittihad on 19 October 1947, six days after Tsarapkin’s speech. In a very rare move, the NLL openly opposed the Soviet position: We are united with all the citizens in the struggle against partition, [the struggle] for the evacuation of the British forces, the end of the mandate and the application of independence in Palestine …. We disagree with [the representative of] the Soviet Union on its position towards the Palestinian problem. We believe that partition is an unfair solution, which separates between the inhabitants of Palestine and carries out the imperialist mission. We shall act according to an independent policy, which will not be limited by the Soviet Union or any other external force. … The mission of our people is just liberation.As the time for the UN vote approached, the NLL stopped openly rejecting the partition plan; its spokesmen maintained that the Soviet Union supported partition only to end the British mandate in Palestine. On 29 November 1947, the day of the vote in the UN General Assembly, the NLL’s secretariat met in Jerusalem to discuss the UN decision in the presence of the NLL’s prominent figures. Most of the leaders, the exception being Emile Touma, accepted the partition plan, claiming that it also had some positive aspects. Tawfik Toubi, for example, argued that partition was the best way to end the British mandate and to establish an independent state in Palestine (Toubi: 16). The NLL’s decision to support partition was clearly influenced by the change in the Soviet position. In order to justify this dramatic change, the NLL explained that in light of the changing circumstances, supporting partition was the only way to protect the chance of establishing a free Arab country in Palestine. The two other alternatives – that Palestine would become a Jewish state or that it would be taken over by King Abdullah – were worse options.
The public announcement of the NLL’s new position regarding partition took place at a general conference in Nazareth in December 1947. Many of the NLL’s activists participated in the debate taking place there, at the end of which the majority agreed to follow the Soviet position and support partition. The main opponents were Emile Touma and Khalil Sanir. Bulus Farah, who also opposed partition, did not participate in the debate (Adiv: 101-2; Ben‐Zaken: 161; Dothan: 500). Meeting before the conference, some representatives of the PCP and the NLL discussed the effect of the new developments on the situation in Palestine and agreed to establish an organisation of the communists in Palestine, regardless of their national affiliation. The way to unification between the NLL and the PCP was already paved, then, a year prior to its actual achievement.
At the conference, the secretariat of the NLL admitted that the Jews in Palestine were a ‘nation in formation’. It also admitted that the NLL, throughout the years, had not seen the struggle for self‐determination of the Jews, together with that of the Arabs, as pointing the way to a solution of the problem of Palestine. The speakers admitted that the national split in the PCP had harmed the NLL and reduced its ability to influence political affairs in Palestine. This was the first time that prominent members of the NLL admitted that the Jews were a national group entitled to self‐determination.
The NLL’s acknowledgement of the weakness stemming from its uni‐national nature in a multinational country was surprising as well, in light of the NLL’s positions in the past. Partition was now the only way to free Palestine from imperialist rule, the conference speakers asserted. They stressed the importance of cooperation between workers and peasants and between Jews and Arabs, which would enable all of them to fight imperialism, and to struggle for the establishment of democratic regimes in two states, one Jewish and one Arab.
Following the Nazareth conference and the NLL’s declaration of its position, a final split in the NLL occurred when Emile Touma, Bulus Farah and Khalil Sanir were expelled from its ranks. They established a small organisation, ‘The National Liberation League – Northern District’ which was more radical in nature. Touma joined the fight against the Zionist forces in Haifa during the 1948 war, subsequently escaping to Lebanon and returning to Israel after spending a few months in prison. Upon his return to Israel, Touma joined MAKI, the Israeli Communist Party, only after publishing a ‘self‐criticism’ document regarding his previous opinions during the debate over partition. In the 1960s, Touma was again elected to participate in the central committee of the party (Dothan: 501; Manna: 141).
The NLL’s explicit support for the right of the Jews to self‐determination and for an independent state made the national split among the communists meaningless: the Jewish communists, too, expressed their wish to reunite with the Arabs in one party. The unification conference took place in Haifa on 22 October 1948. Emile Habibi, greeting attenders on behalf of the NLL, promised to maintain the ‘full organic unification of the Jewish and Arab Communists’ and observed that this unification represented a victory for the working class in the State of Israel as a whole as well as in the Arab parts of Israel, as only the workers, he declared, could create peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs. Habibi also referred to the important role of the NLL, which, he noted, led the anti‐imperialist struggle in Palestine and fought against Arab reactionary forces – the supporters of the Mufti and of King Abdullah – as well as against the British and the Arab armies. After five dramatic years, then, the Palestinian Communist Party was united again.
The NLL in the 1948 War and After: Criticism and Counter‐Criticism
The reaction of the NLL to the 1948 war and the statements it issued during that war were quite remarkable, considering the realities in Palestine at the time and the position of the Palestinian national leadership. In a series of leaflets, the NLL strongly condemned the Arab armies’ invasion of Palestine, claimed that it was an attempt to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state and publicly called for the establishment of two independent states, side by side.
In June 1948, for example, the NLL addressed Arab soldiers in a leaflet, calling on them to return to their countries and fight against imperialism; the leaflet maintained that the war served only the interests of the world’s imperialist powers and not the interests of the Arabs (Beinin: 53-4; Ben‐Zaken: 178-9). King Abdullah of Jordan was accused by the NLL of cooperating with Britain and of attempting to annex the Arab territories of Palestine to Jordan.
The NLL harshly criticised the Palestinian national leadership for fleeing the country, for encouraging the Arabs to leave their homes and for demoralising the Arabs in Palestine, who, it claimed, lacked any real leadership. The Palestinian leadership was also accused of rejecting any possibility of living with the Jews in peaceful coexistence (Budeiri: 160-1). This surprising and unusual position of the NLL has led, in recent years, to a critical scholarly debate regarding the possibility of collaboration between the Arab and Jewish communists, as well as with the Zionist movement (Sa’di: 169-183).
In an attempt to explain the change in its position towards Palestine, the NLL accused the reactionaries, both among the Palestinian national movement and among the Jews, of unwillingness to reach an understanding between the two peoples. The unwillingness of Palestinian nationalists to acknowledge the Jews as citizens of a Palestinian Arab state also contributed to the deterioration of the situation, they argued. The NLL called for immediate implementation of the partition plan, for cooperation between the Jews and their Arab neighbours and for the liberation of the Middle East from British imperialism (Budeiri: 160). The combination of the leaflets against the Arab armies, the open criticism against the Mufti and the possible contacts with the Jewish communists all turned the NLL’s activities during the war and after into unusual and full of internal tensions (Manna: 144-7; Sa’di: 179).
The NLL was active to a certain degree during the final stages of the war and the early years of military rule that was imposed on the Arab citizens of Israel between 1949 and 1966. It was active in Acre, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Haifa as well as in some villages, and its activities are mentioned in various reports issued by the Ministry of Minority Affairs during the years 1948-1949. In Haifa and Nazareth, the NLL was operating with the permission of the military authorities, and it was in touch with the Ministry of Minority Affairs concerning the attempts to assist the Arab residents who remained in these cities. In Jerusalem, the NLL held the British and the Zionist forces responsible for the chaotic situation in that city, and suggested ways of assisting the local population to deal with the war crisis.
The reports, leaflets and letters that were published by the NLL and that discuss its operations during this period shed some light on the first years of military rule in Israel and the role of the communists during this period. The NLL’s operations in the city of Haifa are of special interest. Haifa was the base of the NLL until the war and was also one of the main Jewish-Arab cities in Palestine, whose Arab population shrank dramatically as a result of the 1948 war. On 10 May 1948, only a few days after the occupation of Haifa by forces of the Jewish paramilitary group the Haganah, the NLL published a leaflet addressing the ‘Jewish workers and democratic forces’ as follows: We, the members of the National Liberation League that unites the workers and progressive Arab intelligentsia, write to you from ‘occupied’ [sic] Arab Haifa, beyond the barriers that the reactionary and imperialist (forces) set between us. We address you because we want to bring the truth out. 90,000 Arabs lived in Haifa and Balad al‐Sheikh , and on behalf of the 4,000 Arabs who remained [in the city], we write to you today. 15 days ago the Haganah forces occupied Haifa with British consent, while murdering many innocent people and looting homes and businesses. … 15 days have passed since the ‘occupation’ [sic] but the looting continues. … the restrictions on the movement of the Arabs in Haifa, on the return to their homes and the opening of their businesses prevents the return to normal life. We, the few Arabs who decided to continue living in the place where we were born, are willing to struggle and fight for our human existence, for our right to live in our city. We are determined to fight against any policy that aims at weakening us. We cannot sit quietly while observing the destruction of our economic life, the looting of our homes, and the unemployment of our workers. However, we know that our struggle is your [the Jewish workers’] struggle as well, and we hope that you will help us to radically change the situation. Democracy and friendship between the two peoples in the country will be severely damaged by what is happening in Haifa today. You can make a difference, which is why we address you. The military rule in Haifa should be brought to an end! Conditions of peace, freedom, security and labour should be provided for the peaceful Arabs who remained in Haifa, and to those who want to return to the city. Conditions should be made to weaken the reactionary and imperialist forces and to strengthen democracy and independence in the country!This leaflet was attached to a report addressing the provincial government and the Haganah command, written by the central committee of MAKI and focusing on the grave situation of the Arab neighbourhoods in Haifa following the occupation of the city. What is most interesting about this report is not so much the descriptions of the situation in Haifa but rather the way in which the writers choose to portray and analyse the developments that led to the occupation of Haifa. According to the report, the Arabs fled the city as a result of the fear and panic that ‘the imperialist forces and the [Arab] gangs’ caused. Haifa was ‘liberated from the gangs’, but the situation in the city may ‘turn our military victory into a grave moral and political defeat’. The mass exodus of the Arabs from Haifa was organised by our enemies, the report continues, in order to harm the prestige of the Jewish community, but only few among the Arab residents of Haifa joined and supported the gangs; the majority among them want to live peacefully. This is true, the report avers, regarding the Arabs of Haifa as well as those in the country at large, and so the authorities should not treat them as a hostile population but rather as equal citizens in the Jewish state. The Jewish community should fight against the gangs and should cooperate with the majority among the Arabs who want to live in peace. A list of demands from the provincial government appears at the end of the report, which concludes by calling for treating the ‘calm Arab residents of our country’ in a democratic way (Adiv: 113-17).
The report and the leaflet attached to it reflect the complex situation of the communists, Jews and Arabs alike, during this crucial time of war. The lack of mention of any forced deportation of the Arabs from Haifa is striking, as is the way in which Arab gangs and imperialist agents are solely blamed for the situation and not the Jewish forces. Just a short time after the destruction of Arab life in Haifa, it is stunning to learn that the remaining NLL activists are struggling to restore their rights and can still imagine some sort of coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs. It is this belief that led them to unite with the Jewish communists and to continue to struggle for the rights of the Arab minority during the years of military rule and afterwards. But it is also exactly this kind of ambivalence, which is reflected in the leaflet, that made the Arab communists suspicious of cooperation with the Jews.
NLL activists, especially those in Haifa, were also mentioned and discussed at the meetings of the provisional Israeli government. In late September and early October 1948, for example, the government discussed the NLL’s request to be represented in Haifa’s municipal council and to allow the renewal of its newspaper, al‐Ittihad, which was suspended during the war. The debate that took place at those meetings touched upon crucial questions regarding the nature of Israel as a democratic state, the limitations on freedom of speech, the role of censorship and the state’s general position towards its Palestinian citizens and towards the communist party. Despite its limited presence and activities, the NLL managed, in this way, to challenge the state and to generate a debate on these sensitive and fundamental issues.
Two founders of the NLL, Tawfik Toubi and Emile Habibi, continued to struggle for the rights and protection of the Arab citizens of Israel for many years as members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Toubi was elected to the first Israeli parliament in January 1949 as part of MAKI and served as a member of the Knesset until his resignation in 1990. During the years of military rule and afterwards, Toubi challenged the state over various issues concerning the rights of Palestinians in Israel, as well as on the question of refugees. Toubi’s and Habibi’s families, who left for Lebanon during the 1948 war, were allowed to return to Israel after several appeals by Toubi to different governmental authorities – an unusual case of refugees being allowed to return to Israel following the war (Ben‐Zaken: 212-13; Manna: 152-55).
The Regional Context: The NLL and Arab Communist Parties
The dilemmas and debates discussed by the NLL did not occur in a vacuum. The NLL and the PCP were closely connected to other Arab communist groups in the Middle East, including those in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. As such, there was a network of Arab communist movements in the Middle East that were all influenced, in one way or another, by the changing policies of the Soviet Union, especially regarding the Palestine question.
Before the national‐based split in 1943, the PCP had played a central role in leading and guiding communist activities in the Middle East, in a form that Avner Ben‐Zaken calls ‘cultural imperialism’. In 1943, after the dismantling of the Comintern and the split in the PCP, the last internationalist framework in the Middle East had disappeared. Still, the NLL remained very influential in determining the Arab communist line regarding the Palestine question (Ben‐Zaken: 137-38). Hence, in 1945, the Syrian and Lebanese communist parties adopted the political line of the NLL and called for the establishment of a democratic Arab state in Palestine with full civil rights for Jewish residents but without acknowledging Jewish national rights (Ben‐Zaken: 141). In Egypt, where the communist movement was split along different ideological lines and agendas, and where many Jews played central roles, the general position towards the Palestine question was similar, calling for ending British imperial rule and fighting against the Zionist movement while distinguishing between Jews and Zionists. This unanimous position changed when Henri Curiel, the leader of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, began adopting a political line closer to that of the Jewish communists in Palestine, namely, recognising the national rights of Jews in Palestine. Curiel’s position had shifted even before the change in the Soviet position and gave rise to much animosity and debate within the Egyptian Left (Amitay:104-9; Botman; Ginat).
The change in the Soviet position created great confusion among Arab communist parties as well and gave rise to ideological debate. While Curiel’s group in Egypt supported partition and acknowledged the national rights of the Jews, other groups continued at first to reject partition and adhered to the Soviet line only after some debate (Amitay: 112-14; Ben‐Zaken: 165-69). The communist parties of Syria and Lebanon at first rejected partition, despite the Soviet shift, but later changed their political line and expressed support for partition, probably because they sought to maintain their position of superiority among the Arab communist parties and due to their fear of risking their relationship with the Soviets (Ben‐Zaken: 163-64, 184). The same late support was provided by the Iraqi Communist Party as well. Similarly to the NLL, the internationalist struggle against imperialism took priority over the national struggle in other parties as well.
Personal connections between NLL members and leaders of the Arab communist parties existed throughout all these years, including during the 1948 war. Various leaflets were distributed by the NLL and by the Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi communist parties against the war and against Arab involvement in it. The NLL also received support from some representatives of communist countries who were positioned in Palestine in order to help arrange its underground activities (Ben‐Zaken: 188). Many communists in all these countries also paid a high price for their support of partition, for their opposition to the Arab invasion of Palestine and for what seemed to the general non‐communist public to be a pro‐Zionist stance. In Egypt, many communist activists, including Curiel himself, were arrested, and communist activity in the country was prohibited. In Palestine, NLL activists were targeted by the Arab armies, who perceived them as traitors and Zionist collaborators. Simultaneously, they were targeted by the Israeli forces as well. Many activists were arrested during the war, only to be later released on account of pressure put on the Israeli authorities by the Jewish communists and by communist movements worldwide (Ben‐Zaken: 198-207).
Conclusion: National Liberation, Anti‐Colonial Struggle and National Conflict
In many ways, the dilemmas and contradictions that characterise the NLL during its short history can teach us something about the complexities and challenges of communist anti‐imperialist struggle in the context of a severe national conflict. And indeed, many of the questions that the NLL was engaged with were similar in nature to those that other communist movements, acting in colonial settings, faced at times of war and conflict. Two examples are the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the French Communist Party (PCF), and the ideological and strategic tensions they encountered during World War II (Gupta: 187-214, 258-69; Joly: 68-79, 94-98; Manzer). In the early stages of the war, the PCF’s stand, for instance, moved between describing the war as an imperialist one and between considering it as a just war. Later, it called for national unity as well as class struggle and tried to combine the struggle against fascism with a working class struggle (Adereth: 91-130). In the Indian case, the dilemma facing the communists was between supporting the war in the Eastern Front but considering the war between Germany and Britain as an imperialist one (Manzer: 59). How, then, should the NLL’s activities be assessed, given its unique position within the Palestinian realities of its time? What is its significance in Palestinian and Israeli history?
The NLL can be analysed from different perspectives. On the one hand, it can be viewed as an avant‐garde organisation, which voiced an unusual and unique voice in the tragic and harsh realities of the Palestinian national struggle of the 1940s. As such, it can be viewed as presenting a national, progressive identity which was very different from the hegemonic Palestinian national leadership of the time. The drastic change of its political agenda as a result of the Soviet policy reflects, according to this line of analysis, the NLL’s ability to face the changing political realities of the Palestinian struggle and as the only strategy to achieve self‐determination for the Palestinian Arabs. According to this view, accepting partition was the only pragmatic way to secure Arab independence and to reach what seemed to be an anti‐imperialist (British), anti‐Zionist and anti‐reactionary (Arab) solution.
On the other hand, one cannot ignore the tensions and inconsistencies in the overall positions of the NLL, both pre‐1948 and during the early years of the State of Israel. Hence, the activities of the NLL can also be viewed as cooperating with the Jewish communists and the Zionist movement. Such a position is articulated, for example, by Ahmad Sa’di, who argues that the Jewish section of the communist party in many ways endorsed and cooperated with Zionist ideology and the Zionist establishment and, as a result, was afforded relative freedom of activity by the Israeli authorities during the years of military rule. Regarding the NLL, Sa’di argues that the Arab communists not only affirmed the Soviet pro‐Zionist position in support of partition but also ‘endeavoured to undermine the legitimacy of the Arab struggle for Palestine’ (Sa’di: 179). Moreover, according to Sa’di, ‘a division of labour between Jewish and Arab communists existed: while the Jews purchased weapons and mobilized volunteers for the Haganah, some major Arab figures engaged in a propaganda battle to de‐legitimise and undermine the Arab armies’ intervention in Palestine'(Manna: 158-160, 169-170; Sa’di: 180).
The short history of the NLL, as unfolded here, presents the great complexity and maybe even the dissonance felt by its members in this dramatic period of turmoil, affecting Jews and Arabs in Palestine alike. It also reflects the internal contradictions and ambivalence that characterised the members of this group, as well as similar groups operating in the Arab world and elsewhere, that attempted to bridge between ideology and practice, nationalism and internationalism, often at the price of substantial compromises. The history of the NLL, then, should be examined without shying away from, or simplifying, the political imagination it presented, together with the unresolved tensions, many of which are still very relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian realities until today.