It was Malcolm X who first compared revolution to a forest fire. "It burns everything in its path," the radical Afro-American activist said in an interview with A.B. Spellman in 1964. "A revolution changes the system, it destroys the system and replaces it with a better one."
It was that spirit which imbued the May 1968 student revolt in France, in which I was fortunate enough to participate, out of enthusiastic identification with its spirit, motives and demands.
Louis Antoine Saint-Just, the 18th-century French revolutionary executed at the age of 27, said that "a homeland is not only land but a community of positive emotions, of mutual affection."
This sense of partnership crosses boundaries of nationality, country and even ideology, and connects people who ostensibly have no connection. Almost 43 years later, when I speak in Tel Aviv with Haim Hanegbi, a member of the group that founded the socialist Matzpen party in 1962, I have a similar feeling.
"We were a small organization with big dreams," Hanegbi recalls.
Although his ideas overlapped to a great extent with those that fired up and motivated the student demonstrations in France, this organization was unable to give birth to the revolution - even in thought - which it hoped for in Israel. On the other hand, the May 1968 revolt, which actually lasted until the end of June and had no parallel in France since the revolution in 1848 and the Commune of Paris in 1871, ignited the entire country.
The final straw was the government's decision to limit the number of students of the social sciences and the humanities. The government claimed that in any case there was unemployment in those professions, and there was no point in creating additional generations of jobless people. The goal of the general strike that united all the workers unions in France was not a salary increase, but rather participation: in running the factories, universities, cultural institutions, financial corporations and government authorities.
Hanegbi, 76, is a pensioner today. He was a journalist with the now-defunct Haolam Hazeh weekly news magazine and the monthly Monitin; for many years he had a column in Maariv.
I met him several times in the editorial offices of a business daily where I worked immediately after my discharge from the army, as a crime reporter. I remember him chain-smoking Gauloises, wearing a black leather jacket that perfectly matched the color of his straight hair and his blazing dark eyes.
Now, in 2011, we meet in his regular cafe, Marilyn Monroe, in posh Ramat Aviv. I give him a modest personal gift: "The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude," written by an 18-year-old Frenchman named Etienne de la Boetie almost 500 years ago, which I translated into Hebrew and published at Nahar Books.
He thanks me and opens it. Two or three minutes pass and he lifts his head and through his big dark glasses peers at me and smiles his sad-happy smile. "Look at this," he says excitedly, "it could have been written today," beginning to read in a voice hoarse from cigarettes: "Therefore it is fruitless to argue whether or not liberty is natural, since none can be held in slavery without being wronged, and in a world governed by a nature, which is reasonable, there is nothing so contrary as an injustice. Since freedom is our natural state, we are not only in natural possession of it but have the urge to defend it."
I was lucky to have played an active role, albeit a limited one, in the revolutionary historical event called the May 1968 student revolt. It was a formative experience, an experience of solidarity without vested interests, that had a purely human basis. On May 13 the big general strike began in France, and in the streets of Paris we marched in a demonstration of a million people. That strike led immediately to the reopening of the Sorbonne and the retreat of the police from it, as Prime Minister Georges Pompidou had promised, and to our takeover of it.
"I can only envy you," Hanegbi says, in response. For his part, he explains, he had begun traveling around Europe after the Six-Day War to spread the word of what he heard had happened in battle.
"The year 1967 caught me as a do-nothing reservist, who didn't fire and wasn't fired on," he recalls. "When after our release we were called to come to Jaffa to some small military base and to return equipment, we heard stories about what the soldiers had done on the Jordan River when the fighting of the Six-Day War had ended, and entire families crossed the Jordan from the east to the West Bank. Every night [the soldiers] would wait in ambush, fire on people, kill people, in the morning they would cross to see who had been hit and who was left, and would shoot the rest."
Hanegbi says a diamond millionaire who was a Matzpen donor paid for him to go to Paris and London to tell the stories "to all the papers, from the Times of London to the last of the underground newspapers.
"Toward the end of 1967 I returned to Israel. And in Paris, which had I recently left, a revolt broke out. I sat at home, made phone calls abroad, radio, newspapers and I tore my hair out - how had I missed such an event? ... May 1968, which caused a worldwide uproar, became an international revolutionary symbol that spread from one country to the next and seized an entire generation of young people, and new-old ideas arose from the depths of oblivion and turned into slogans, slogans of struggle."
According to Hanegbi, the coterie of Matzpen activists in Israel was not surprised by the revolutionary spirit that gripped France.
"We had dreamed of such a spirit," he explains. "Already in 1962, when Matzpen was founded, those ideas nested in the hearts of all the members. When I say 'all the members,' it began with 10 to 12 people and reached 20 to 30. We were a small organization with big dreams. Our hearts went out to what was happening in Paris. We received reports from friends, phone calls, letters. We lived that life as tortured spectators. We said that the New Left, which was rejected by the communist parties everywhere, was actually a family member born after Matzpen in late 1962. But beyond any barrier we shared a common fate, a common ideology with the revolutionary spirit of May 1968. Anyone who peruses the Matzpen newspapers from that period will see that illustrations and posters that were symbols of the revolt in France served us as well. We copied them word for word, with a small Hebrew translation below."
As an example of the influence of the events in France on Israeli life, Hanegbi points to a local student struggle.
"Shortly after May 1968 they arrested an Arab member of Matzpen, Khalil Toama, a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who was elected to head the Arab students committee. He was accused of having connections with a foreign agent and was sentenced to several months in prison. When we came to the military court in the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv to demonstrate against his arrest, we copied a famous slogan. They said in France in May 1968, 'We're all German Jews,' in the wake of the insulting nickname attached to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the revolt, so we said 'We're all Palestinian Arabs, we're all Khalil Toama.' We also used to write, read and translate in the spirit of that time."
Nevertheless, in Hanegbi's telling, the movement failed to gain a critical mass among the Israeli public.
"The Passover Haggadah tells of four sons," he says. "There's a wise son, a simpleton, one who doesn't know how to ask and a wicked son. The wicked son is the one who denies what is fundamental. 'He says: "What is this service to you?!" To you, but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental.' In Israeli society we were the wicked sons, because from the start we denied what was fundamental: We denied what is today called the 'Zionist narrative,' we denied the Zionist ideology. We had a dream of two nations living in total equality as part of the unity of the entire region. But this big dream is still far from us. Aside from the anti-bureaucratic viewpoint, what the communists call 'anti-Soviet,' we were described as agents of the pro-imperialist, anti-socialist propaganda, that's what they called our members who left the Communist Party."
Condemned and embraced
"Two worldwide events in the late 1950s made us understand the real nature of the Soviet Union, and realize that we had no place in the Communist Party," Hanegbi remembers. "The first was the revolution of Gen. Qassem against the pro-British regime in Iraq; the second, the Cuban revolution. In Iraq the So viets prevented the Iraqi communists from initiating a revolutionary struggle and forced them to refrain from seizing power. The order was to sit quietly and to support the conspiring officers. In Cuba, Castro's fighters, Che Guevara and their friends who had started a revolutionary struggle, were described by the Communist Party as dangerous adventurers, petits bourgeoises who had no idea about socialism as a science, about scientific Marxism - I'm saying all this of course in quotation marks. All those things motivated me to establish Matzpen in 1962.
"In its first years the organization was highly involved in the authority of the Histadrut labor federation over the unions and called for dismantling ties between the Histadrut and the Kupat Holim health maintenance organization in order to break the monopoly government leaders had over the workers. We called for full equality between Jews and Arabs, and we were opposed to the military government - but that didn't interest the general public. We were actually of interest to two large bodies: the Communist Party and Mapam [the socialist Zionist United Workers Party]. And what was called the Zionist left and the communist left in Israel condemned us."
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the German Jew who became the face of the student protests in 1968, was invited to come to Israel by the students union at the Hebrew University a couple years later, spurring Hanegbi into action.
"I wasn't a student but I contacted [the union], said that I was an activist in Matzpen and asked if they had received confirmation that Cohn-Bendit was coming," Hanegbi recalls. "I was told that they hadn't received confirmation, because they couldn't reach him. I promised them to try to contact him. I phoned friends in Frankfurt, where there was a group of Jewish and Jewish-Israeli friends who supported Matzpen. I asked them to contact Cohn-Bendit and I promised that we in Matzpen would make all the arrangements. After a day or two I received an affirmative response: Cohn-Bendit was willing to come to Israel.
"And on a certain day he did in fact arrive in Israel. Representatives of the students union waited for him at the airport and we, a small group of Matzpen members, also waited near them. When Cohn-Bendit arrived they ran toward him. We didn't move. We had self-respect, we didn't run like fools. They shook hands with him and then he came over to us. He asked the students when the Students Day events would begin. They said in another three days. Cohn-Bendit told them: 'There are friends waiting for me here and I'll be with them. Call and let me know about the program and I'll come.'"
Hanegbi says Cohn-Bendit stayed at his home for those two or three days: "We walked around Jerusalem and he told me, 'Why are you telling me that Matzpen is a small organization? I see that everyone in the street says "shalom" to you.' I replied, 'They say hello, but they're looking at you. They're greeting me because of you.' I knew half of Jerusalem, but nobody had ever greeted me like that. And everyone was looking at Cohn-Bendit and saying, That little guy, a Jew, screwed de Gaulle!'"
A worldwide idea
We (I'm including myself among the students who protested in France ) also detested President Charles de Gaulle, the conservative paternalist, although he and none other recognized the independence of Algeria after 130 years of occupation and French annexation, and brought peace. That's another example of the wonderful sense of solidarity that I felt which enabled me, a foreign student, to identify with a struggle against a regime that had actually treated me well.
I had been in France for two years; at the university they gave me a warm welcome and I even received a scholarship from the French Foreign Ministry, without my asking. I'm sure that the sense of solidarity stemmed from the fact that the struggle that took place in 1968 was tied to a universal human feeling, rooted in a profound desire for freedom and the wish of every person to be respected as a human being and a citizen.
In any event, Hanegbi recalls that when Students Day in Jerusalem rolled around, Cohn-Bendit stood up to defend Matzpen's right to be heard.
"All kinds of people spoke there .... Afterward they were forced to allow someone from Matzpen to speak too," Hanegbi explains. "I went onstage and then a wave of interruptions and shouts began. They didn't allow me to say a word. And then Cohn-Bendit jumped onstage and grabbed the microphone. There was total silence and he said to them, 'If Haim Hanegbi of Matzpen isn't speaking, neither am I.' There was silence."
Hanegbi adds that Cohn-Bendit also spoke against the occupation, much to the Matzpen members' delight.
"The only students union in the so-called 'free world' that didn't send a telegram of support to the French students union in 1968 was the one in Israel," he continues. "The person who told me was a Trotskyite French-Jewish friend. I told him that the telegram was probably delayed, but he smiled and said it was a shame to make excuses, the Israelis were enveloped in the euphoria of the Six-Day War and weren't interested in revolutions. He was right, of course. But he agreed to print an enthusiastic telegram of support with me ... and to place it on the desk of Jacques Soujot, the chairman of the French students union, who apparently said, 'So they're not such shits, those Israelis.'"
I tell Hanegbi that there are many who think and say today, in France and the world over, that May 1968 failed, that it was unable to fulfill its objectives. In the best case, they see the student revolt as rioting by young people for hormonal reasons, or at most a passing ignition of anti-establishment revolt without any real ideology, after which came a reaction which only made the situation worse.
Hanegbi responds that somebody like Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he calls "a foreigner in a certain sense," could not have been president but for the events of 1968.
I disagree, though. Sarkozy is not a foreigner, he was born in France as a Frenchman. The French Republic, as opposed to the "Jewish and democratic" State of Israel, is a state of all its citizens.
At the same time, in my humble opinion, without May 1968 it is doubtful whether he would ever have become a presidential candidate. Before May 1968 it was unthinkable that a person who is French, but still the second generation of immigrants (Sarkozy's father was a Hungarian aristocrat who fled from the Red Army and enlisted in the Foreign Legion in 1944 and thus acquired his citizenship, plus he married the daughter of a Parisian doctor who was born as a Jew in Salonika ) - that such a person is the president of the republic. All his predecessors were what is called in French Autochthones, or natives.
It is also doubtful whether the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, an unmarried mother, would have been accepted as a presidential candidate before May 1968, which to a large extent liberated the French woman from quite a few bonds of the conservative consensus. Not to mention the fact that Cohn-Bendit, "the German Jew" who was expelled from France in May 1968, is today a potential candidate for the presidency of the republic on behalf of the European Green Party.
According to Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greek philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst who immigrated to France, May 1968 began a new period in human history. It marked the outburst of a desire to connect, and a process of resocialization - exactly the opposite of what is claimed by detractors who believe that May 1968 began the process of the individualization of society.
French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, the son of a family of Jewish immigrants from Salonika, who has been a leftist all his life, says that "nothing changed and everything changed. Everything remained as it was and nothing remained as it was. Which of the two assumptions is the correct one? Both of them."
Morin notes that although the political, economic and social order remained in place and even strengthened, something happened in what he calls "the basements of society": A new culture of social and cultural sensitivity was established, while on the surface the leftist protest movement became part of the establishment and turned into an official political factor.
In my opinion, the revolution of May 1968 destroyed philosophical, cultural, social and political structures that were hundreds of years old in order to try to rebuild them more fairly.
Did it succeed? Most of the researchers and commentators reply to the question in the negative. But it's a fact that after these events, in spite of the reaction that came in their wake, many social and class walls fell in France. Paradoxically, those who now dismiss the student protest of 40 years ago might not have achieved their exalted position in society, economics and politics had that emotional, personal and social outburst, as naive as it was, not paved the way for them.
Reuven Miran is a writer, translator and publisher.
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