The other Israel: an interview with Meir Vilner

(First of a series)

by Tim Wheeler

This article was reprinted from the July 19, 1997 issue of the People's Weekly World. For subscription information see below. All rights reserved - may be used with PWW credits.

TEL AVIV - With fresh headlines every day of a new scandal implicating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with hourly reports of lethal provocations by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, Israel is in the deepest political crisis it has ever faced. Netanyahu, with U.S. complicity, has brought the peace process to a standstill. During my 10-day visit, 50,000 Israelis demonstrated in Rabin Square demanding that he be ousted from office.

Yet in the midst of this firestorm, Meir Vilner, a lifelong Israeli Communist, radiates an air of serene confidence in the future. I spent more than 10 hours interviewing Vilner over two days.With his son, Micha, an activist in the Israeli Young Communist League, we met at the lovely Abu Nasser-on-the-Hill restaurant in Jaffa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and the next day at a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Admirers came up to shake his hand in a steady procession.

Meir Vilner served 40 years in the Israeli parliament or Knesset and for 25 years as General Secretary of the CPI from 1965 to 1990. He told me with a chuckle that he is now sought after by Israeli and foreign journalists as a "founder" of the State of Israel.

Vilner never misses an opportunity to remind Israelis that the project is less than half finished. He and his party - as well as the other Israeli parties, committed themselves in 1947 to "two states for two peoples," Israeli and Palestinian. Now it is a position embraced by a majority of the Israeli people.

Vilner attended the United Nations session on the status of Palestine in November 1947 when resolutions calling for the two states were approved.

"The Soviet Union strongly supported the resolutions but the U.S. proposed to cancel them and establish instead a joint U.S.-British trusteeship in Palestine," Vilner told me. "It would have meant U.S. domination. Later the U.S. reversed its position and has used Israel as a gendarme in the Middle East ever since while maneuvering to undermine statehood for the Palestinian people."

On June 16, 1996, at the opening of the 14th Knesset, a ceremony was held in the Marc Chagall Assembly Hall in Jerusalem to put on public display Israel's Scroll of Independence. The guests of honor were the two living signers of the Scroll, Meir Vilner, representing the Communist Party of Israel, and Zerah Wahrhaftig of the Misrahi Party (now the National Religious Party).

"It's a very good idea that you are taking out from under ground the Scroll of Independence so everyone can see what is written," Vilner told the crowd of lawmakers and their families.

"Perhaps you have forgotten that in that document we said we are establishing a Jewish state in accordance with the United Nations Resolution of Nov. 9, 1947. It is also written that the State of Israel will cooperate in implementing the UN Resolution of Nov. 29, 1947 which calls for the creation of an independent Arab state. So it means a Jewish state and an Arab state. That is what we signed. All parties."

Vilner chuckled at the stunned expressions that greeted his blunt language. "Netanyahu came up to me afterwards and told me he had heard my words," Vilner said. "Well, we will see. It is possible that he will soon be out."

Netanyahu, he added, is demanding that 60 percent of the West Bank must be part of Israel. "The others say 40 percent. They are arguing over this difference. They say they will never agree that Jerusalem will be divided. Now they have seized on a new scheme, 'Greater Jerusalem.'"

Vilner said, "They want to incorporate about 20 percent of the West Bank into Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli control. As long as the ruling parties cling to these positions, the crisis will continue and deepen."

He denounced the arrogant Israeli settlers. "In Gaza, the conditions are terrible. The majority is unemployed. Sanitary conditions are terrible. In some places in the West Bank, they don't even have drinking water but 50 meters away the Israeli settlers have swimming pools."

"We are in favor of the Oslo Agreement but it could be better. It is a step forward. Among the Palestinian leaders, some are opposed and don't cooperate. I don't agree with them. The majority of the Palestinian leadership, the majority of the Palestinian people, support it. Get inside and struggle under these new conditions."

Vilner was born Ber Kovner in Vilnius, Lithuania, Oct. 23, 1918, son of impoverished shoe shop owners. As he became active in the working class movement, he changed his name to protect his family from reprisals. The first syllable of his adopted name is from Vilnius.

As a teenager, he joined the Hashamir Hassayir or "Youth Guard," a Zionist-socialist organization. A young worker, toiling in a sweatshop, came seeking help in forming a union. Vilner and his co-worker Esther Wilentz, enthusiastically greeted the idea. But his cousin, Abba Kovner, a leader of the group, in consultation with the group's top leaders, vetoed worker solidarity in any form on grounds it might alienate employers. Vilner said he was shocked and disappointed.

Vilnius was then under Polish occupation and fascist elements regularly staged pogroms in the Vilnius ghetto. A committee of Polish students offered to provide defense. Vilner welcomed the offer. But Abba Kovner and the Youth Guard leadership rejected the proposal on grounds that the Polish student group was "Communist."

"So this was a second shock. Here was a group of non-Jewish students offering to defend us! It was the beginning of my doubts about the principles of Zionism. I was 17 years old."

He and Wilentz resigned in protest. Abba Kovner later emigrated to Israel and became a prominent Zionist political leader. Vilner and Wilentz embarked on a year-long study of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg, taking notes, and discussing their conclusions. Both soon embraced Marxism-Leninism.

In 1938, Vilner and Wilentz enrolled at Hebrew University in Jerusalem where they studied under the eminent Jewish scholar, Martin Buber. Vilner never returned to Vilnius and within a year the Nazis invaded. His entire family perished in the Holocaust.

He got active in the struggle against British Imperialism which controlled the region under the 1920 League of Nations Mandate. In 1940, he joined the Communist Party of Palestine and was soon appointed secretary of the Jerusalem branch, distributing leaflets and the Party's newspaper, traveling regularly to majority-Arab East Jerusalem for meetings with the Congress of Arab Workers. It was the beginning of Vilner's lifelong struggle against racism and for the unity of Arabs and Jews.

I attended a CPI rally of 1,500 people in Haifa a few days before I met Vilner. It was the kickoff of the CPI's 23rd Congress. A procession of Israeli and Palestinian leaders told the crowd of the CPI's heroic "vanguard role" in the struggle for unity of Arabs and Jews, for a comprehensive peace that upholds the national aspirations of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. No leader of the CPI deserves more credit for that policy than Meir Vilner.

"I met many times with Yassir Arafat, leader of the PLO," Vilner said. "It was a 'crime' at the time. Now people greet me on the street and tell me they knew all along that the Party was right. Israel's recognition of the PLO, the meeting of Yitzhak Rabin with Arafat was such a shock! One Knesset member in a speech denounced Rabin. He said, 'You are doing now what Meir Vilner has proposed all these years!"

Vilner played a leading role in forging the CPI into a party of Israeli Arabs and Jews. The Party was also instrumental in forming the Hadash Front for Peace and Equality. Together, the Party and the Front doubled their vote among both Jewish and Arab voters in the most recent elections and increased their seats in the Knesset from three to five.

When one of the religious parties pulled out of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's coalition, the CPI-Hadash Front provided the Knesset votes Rabin needed to form a majority - the first time in history that the CPI had become part of a ruling coalition in the struggle for a just peace. It was cut short by Rabin's assassination at a giant peace rally here Nov. 4, 1995.

At the same time, the Histadrut, Israel's labor federation, which had excluded Communists and Arabs since 1921, changed its rules and invited the Party to participate. The reason given for inviting the Party to join Histadrut was the need to organize the working poor and the belief that the CPI has the most experience in this sector of the workforce.

All these advances were a reward for the CPI's consistent defense of the working class, its rejection of racism and its stand for peace. The CPI has been among the most consistent, Marxist Leninist parties in the world. Vilner told me the ranks of the CPI, Arab and Jewish, are staunch. Yet he told me there is a "crisis" in the leadership of the CPI. Recently, the leadership closed down the CPI's theoretical journal, "Values" of which Vilner was editor. Members of the CPI told me that Vilner's exclusion from the CPI's Central Committee is proof enough that something is amiss. Vilner said resumption of the publication of the Marxist-Leninist journal is imperative.

"Because of the conflict between Arabs and Jews, the class struggle is hampered," Vilner said. "Wages and living conditions for working people in Israel are going down. The gap between rich and poor is widening. If we achieve peace, we can reduce the two-thirds of the budget that goes for the military, the secret police, for the settlements, for nuclear weapons. Peace would open the way for solving many other social problems.

"I have always stressed that we are defending the rights not only of the Palestinian people but also the Israeli people," he said. "The expansionist policies endanger Israel. In fighting for a just peace, we are the real patriots."

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