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Founder of DSA Supported Zionism

By Mitchell Cohen

This post borrows from a longer feature in Fathom, the British online journal: “Democratic Socialism, Israel and the Jews: An Interview with Michael Harrington (1975), with new preface by Mitchell Cohen (2020).”  Most of what follows is from the newly-written preface:

Michael Harrington [1928-1989] was America’s most eloquent voice for democratic socialism for decades.  . . . 

But instead of revolutionary grandstanding, Mike Harrington advocated ‘the left wing of the possible,’ insisting on the democratic kernel in Marx’s ideas. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s is often credited to the impact of Harrington’s classic The Other America (1962). (He thought its failures were due to making a futile war in Vietnam the priority). His last book, finished as he was dying in 1989, was Socialism: Past and Future.

In June 1983 I was in Jerusalem researching a book . . .  .  I received a call from an American friend who had moved to Israel to join a kibbutz. Was I free, he asked, to spend a day in the West Bank with Michael Harrington?

It was Harrington’s first trip to the Jewish state and his hosts were the Israeli Labor party, with which I had close ties, and Mapam (the United Workers’ Party). The American kibbutznik, David Twersky, had been enlisted to take him around. Harrington met leaders of different parties, trade unionists, academics, and Arabs within Israel and the West Bank.

I immediately said yes to the invitation. I had known Mike, although not all that well, since I was a graduate student. I interviewed him for the Jewish Student Press Service in fall 1975 . . . .

. . . .  Many in today’s left will be surprised to learn that America’s foremost socialist, heir to the tradition of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, saw Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jews and chastised the UN for branding Zionism a form of racism.

. . .  As we traveled we talked about the American left as well as what he had experienced in Israel. I had been a member of his organisation, the pro-Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam war Democratic Socialist Organising Committee (DSOC) in the 1970s.  . . . 

Harrington’s DSOC merged into the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 1982, and I joined. Attending one of its founding conventions at Washington Irving High School in New York, I felt good about being in a socialist movement that, though small, seemed smart and anxious for an escape from the considerable mindlessness that swamped the 1960s and post-1960s left.

There were important things to do, in the leftwing of the Democratic party, in the trade unions, among civil rights workers and feminists. Moreover, most DSA leaders I met, like Harrington himself, didn’t parrot the simplistic hostility to Israel that was creeping into too much of the left. The same cannot be said of DSA today.  . . .

A lot had to do with Mike Harrington’s intellectual character. He was a man who valued distinctions; consequently, he made distinctions. He had long been an anti-Stalinist socialist. Communist regimes had caused appalling suffering, in his view, and myths about the Soviet Union or Third World dictators undermined any serious struggle for democracy and equality.

While some socialists twisted and turned to find ways of ‘understanding’ Moscow, he was on the side of east European dissidents. His disdain for apologetics on behalf of Maoism or Third World despots did not dent his passionate concern about Third World poverty. (See his book The Vast Majority). He admired the Olof Palmes of the left, not the Jeremy Corbyns.

Similarly, he understood that it was possible to support the existence of a Jewish state and back its need for security, while dissenting sharply from Israeli government policies. His sympathies were with Israeli and Palestinian doves and not with those in the left who thought that every discussion of Israel had to ascribe to the Jewish state all sin since… well, since sin began.

In fact, it was just a few months before I was with him in the West Bank that he had been an American representative at a meeting of the Socialist International in Portugal when Issam Sartawi, the leading Palestinian dove and advocate of Palestinian-Israeli mutual recognition, was assassinated. Credit for his murder was taken by ‘Abu Nidal,’ an offshoot of the PLO, which had also been partly responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Of course Harrington was also thoroughly out of sympathy with the nationalist extremism of right-wing Zionists. If he found the kibbutz attractive and Palestinian terrorism appalling (and not an ‘understandable’ aspect of ‘liberation’), he didn’t conclude that Israel should occupy Palestinian Arabs forever or build settlements.

. . . .  He knew realities rather than slogans – and never thought in mantras. It is impossible to imagine him joining those who chanted ‘From the Jordan to the Sea, Palestine will be free’ at a recent DSA convocation.  . . . 

What would he say today about the issues we discussed? . . . . He would have at once been heartened to see the word ‘socialism’ attain new legitimacy in American politics; yet he could only have been disheartened to find too many DSAers repeating some of the worst habits of the old and new lefts. And of course, he would have thought that everything must be done to defeat Donald Trump.

Israel? Surely Harrington would have supported the Oslo accords. Certainly he would have found their unravelling and the ascendancy of Netanyahu and the Likud party very depressing and destructive.

But he was, as once said, ‘a long distance runner.’ (That was also the title of his autobiography). Democracy, egalitarianism, social fairness – these were not short term commitments with which you identified when they were popular and went on to something else when it was more comfortable for you. Michael Harrington never succumbed to what Irving Howe, his close friend, once called ‘curdled realism.’

— Mitchell Cohen, February 2020

This is from the introduction to the 1975 interview:

When some groups in the American left took an anti-Israel and anti-Zionist line in the 1960’s Harrington advocated support for Israel on socialist grounds. He defended both Zionism and Israel’s right to exist. In a recent article in the Newsletter of the Democratic Left [DSOC’s publication], which he edits, Harrington expressed outrage at the recent UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. He wrote that,

The basic fact is that Zionism – which I take to mean the philosophy of support for, and identification with, a Jewish homeland in Israel – is the national liberation movement of a Jewish people asserting their right to self-determination. If one preposterously charges that Zionism is racist, then so are all nationalisms which joined to condemn it at the UN. And that is to drain the concept of racism of any serious meaning.

This is a snippet from the interview itself:

There is a legitimate Palestinian right to self-determination, no matter how you look at past history. Today there is a Palestinian identity. And I support the right of all people, including the Jews, to self-determination.

The problem is that there is a conflict between Jewish and Palestinian self-determination. Both want the same land, yet both cannot have self-determination on the same spot. I think that the best long-range solution in terms of both politics and justice is a two-state solution. We might talk at a later time of a federation, but in any event there must be a Palestine and there must be an Israel with defensible borders. And borders are not necessarily to be determined by what was in 1967 or 1948. What is needed is a politically and economically viable Israel.  . . .

Click here  for the entire article and the entire interview with the most prominent American advocate for “democratic socialism” in the second half of the twentieth century.

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