Across the United Kingdom, a generation of leftists still remember the first time they heard Akiva Orr speak. One of the founders of Matzpen, the revolutionary socialist, Israeli anti-Zionist, group, Orr – who died last month – moved to London in the mid-1960s, when left-wing politics was in resurgence there.
“That’s what people tell me now,” says Moshe Machover, another of Matzpen’s founders, who relocated to London shortly after Orr. “Wherever you go, you meet people who say, ‘I heard Akiva’s talk in such-and-such place circa 1970 and that changed my whole opinion of the Middle East conflict.’”
Matzpen had only a few dozen members, but the group’s durable impact rippled across the United Kingdom. The first Israelis to present a documented, theoretical stand against Zionism as a colonial project, Matzpen was isolated and subject to denunciations within Israel.
As Akiva Orr said, in a documentary about the group by the independent filmmaker Eran Torbinger, “In the 1970s it was ‘in’ to hate Matzpen. If you didn’t hate Matzpen you weren’t a patriot, you were garbage.”
But in the United Kingdom Orr and Machover both brought formulated, documented thinking to politically engaged audiences that were more receptive to new ideas.
“It is not sufficient to form a moral opinion about Zionism, you need to understand what is behind it and what its dynamic is,” says Machover, in London. “To understand it as a specific form of a colonizing project you need theoretical analysis and fact-based literature.”
Members of Matzpen used publicly available documents to support their arguments - in that sense they were the original "New Historians," long before Israel was prepared to accept such a thing.
Crucially, new-left politics in London was properly waking up to the Palestinian issue in the years after the Six-Day War, as journalist, filmmaker and writer Tariq Ali, one of the leading figures of the new left, explains:
“That period opened a lot of eyes as to the role of Israel in the Middle East,” he says. “[Matzpen] came at a time when people were desperate to find out what was going on.”
Ali recalls that in the early 1970s Akiva Orr, Moshe Machover and the Palestinian intellectual Jabra Nicola, a member of Matzpen (who died in London in 1974) came into the Soho offices of Black Dwarf, the radical newspaper Ali was editing at that time.
“They became regular contributors, educating a whole generation and educating me,” Ali says. “I had a very basic idea of what the problems were, but they knew it from the inside.”
During those years following Israeli’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians galvanized as an independent political force, comprising different resistance movements.
“The Palestinian liberation organizations that emerged attracted the European left,” says Ali. “We wanted to know what was going to happen to the region – and in the U.K. we were very lucky to have Matzpen to explain the situation for us.”
Akiva Orr’s relocation to London - he moved back to Israel in 1990 – also allowed for discussions with Palestinian activists, another crucial area in which Matzpen was a pioneer. The group was always clear of the absolute necessity for joint struggle, at a time when the concept was anathema.
One of those Palestinians in London was leading activist, academic and writer Dr. Ghada Karmi, who met Orr in the early 1970s. “It was a pretty big thing for a Palestinian to be interacting with an Israeli, outside of Israel,” she says. “But what impressed me enormously was his personality, his knowledge, his ability to inspire politically - he was this guru of political thinking. Here was someone coming up to you from the enemy camp, where you would not normally look, but he was saying things that were so comprehensible, so humane.”
That talent for inspired, political thinking reached the next generation, too, says Arthur Neslen, journalist and author of "Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche.
“Akiva’s writing on the inherent contradictions of Israeli identity wasn’t just groundbreaking, it opened up a whole new horizon for a lot of people in my generation,” he says, adding that, crucially, Orr’s work “opened doors to discussion and a neutral ground in which toxic traditions could be deconstructed and separated from the individuals born into them,”
According to Karmi, Matzpen also helped to crystallize developments for Palestinians like herself. “I became devoted to him really, I learned a lot from him, he shaped my thinking,” she says, adding that at that time there was a search for cohesive political concepts among Palestinians and, more widely, among all people with universalist ideas.
And Karmi adds another vital component to the mix: “He was so funny, one would have liked him anyway, apart from his politics.” Truly an added bonus in leftist political circles - and a rarity.