Introduction to Abraham Serfaty’s Letter to the Damned of Israel

Selim Nadi

In October 1979, while he was locked up by the Hassan II government in the Kenitra prison, the Jewish Moroccan Marxist thinker and organiser Abraham Serfaty wrote a text about one of his main political educators, Abdellatif Zeroual, who had died under torture 5 years earlier. Serfaty had been arrested, alongside Abdellatif Lâabi, in 1972, because of his involvement in the Marxist-Leninist organisation Ilal al-Amam [Forward]. The two men were only freed in 1991. One of the lessons Zeroual had taught him, Serfaty writes, was the meaning of concrete proletarian internationalism. This meant that while the task of the Moroccan Left was to organise the Revolution within the Moroccan borders, this task was never to be detached from the broader Arab Revolution.[1] This lesson would remain central to Serfaty’s theory and praxis. Indeed, as an Arab Jew, he attached a great importance throughout his life to the national question as an important component of the wider international struggle.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Born in 1926 in Casablanca – a city about which he wrote a study in 1988[2] – in a Jewish family, Serfaty entered the Moroccan Communist Party, which was led by another key figure among Arab Jewish Communists – the Algerian born Léon-René Sultan –, as soon as 1944. Later, during a stay in France, he also entered the French Communist Party (PCF), of which he was a member from 1945 to 1949. It was during World War II that Serfaty had his main political education. Indeed, while the antisemitic laws of the Vichy Regime targeted Moroccan Jews, Serfaty’s anticolonialism crystallised. As Alma Rachel Heckman writes: “Figures such as Abraham Serfaty represented a new generation of Moroccan Jews whose political consciousness had been shaped by the war years.”[3] Indeed, it is worth nothing that Serfaty was no exception and that a number of important Arab Communists were Jewish, such as the already mentioned Léon-René Sultan, or the anticolonial communist activist Edmond Amran El Maleh, who worked closely with Palestinians throughout his life.

While being a member of the Moroccan Communist Party, Serfaty did not follow the PCF’s conciliatory line regarding colonialism and national independence and committed himself to the struggle for Moroccan independence. Serfaty got a diploma in engineering from the famous French University École des Mines and reflected a lot on issues of development and on the continuity of neo-colonial economic relations in Morocco. While he could have chosen a convenient career as an engineer, he chose the political path and struggled against the poor conditions of the Moroccan working class (e.g.: he supported the miners’ strikes in Morocco).

Serfaty was also interested in a range of international issues beyond Morocco’s borders, such as the revolutions in Vietnam, China, or Cuba. Even if it would be worthwhile to write a whole article about his anti-imperialist and proletarian commitment, we will focus here on a particular issue at stake in Serfaty’s involvement: his political reflections on the relationship between Palestinian liberation, Zionism and the “Jewish Question”. In the text that follows, Letter to the Damned of Israel (published in 1982), Serfaty reflects on antisemitism, anti-Zionism, as well as on the oppression of both Palestinians and Jews by Zionism. Insofar as this Historical Materialism issue is organised around the question of Marxism and Antisemitism, this article is key for several reasons:

  • Beyond his anti-imperialism, the issue of Zionism was crucial for Serfaty as a Jew – and connected to his fight against antisemitism. His reflections on Zionism were significant because they helped him to think about the meaning of Arab-Jewishness, the specificity of the social conditions of Arab Jews, and their specific class position within the Israeli society.
  • He considered Zionism as a specifically European phenomenon and perceived Arab Jews as a potential internal threat to Zionism.
  • This focus on Serfaty’s political thinking is crucial in order to avoid erasing Arab-Jews from Jewish history and from the analysis of antisemitism – or to confuse them into a “universal” Jewish people (which tends to means, in practice, to collapse them into the history of European Jews).

As such, Serfaty’s relationship to Zionism, as well as the fact that his being Arab and his Jewishness played a role in his harsh critique of Zionism – a critique grounded on Jewish texts as well as on the tradition of Arab Judaism – can help us to bring an different perspective to some of the issues raised by today's political debates on anti-imperialism, as well as on the connection between Antisemitism and Zionism. As such, the main question that will guide this introduction to Serfaty’s text is to understand to what extent Serfaty understood “identity” as a social category instead of as an abstract and individualist category – not only the “Jewish identity” of Arab Jews in Israel but also their identity as Arabs. 

While the question of “identity politics” is often dismissed by the European and US radical Lefts, Serfaty’s political reflections on these issues can offer some important contributions to our understanding of the intimate connection between issues of “identity” (Arab and Jewish in this case), anticolonial struggles, and class struggle. Indeed, Serfaty’s understanding of “identity” had nothing to do with many contemporary understandings of this concept. Because “Jews”, “Arabs”, “Sahraouis”, etc. were racialized both by the colonial power and the colonial social structures, their “identity” was built on such a racialization. This is exactly why, as we will see, Serfaty did not conceptualise “Jewish identity” as a universal one, but speaks instead of “European Jews” and “Arab Jews” – the social situation of the latter being very different because of its origins within colonial social conditions. Hence, according to Serfaty, “in the countries of the third world – and this is especially true in Arab countries – one cannot dissociate the problem of the class struggle from the question of identity”.[4] From this analysis also emerged Serfaty’s answer to the so-called “Jewish Question”, which he argued was to be found in anti-Zionism, as well as in the history, culture, and class positions of Arab Jews.

Ethnicity and Autonomy: From Sahara to Palestine

As a Moroccan, Serfaty was surrounded by debates touching upon the issues of ethnicity, colonialism, and the need for national autonomy. In 1985, three years after the publication of Letter to the Damned of Israel, while he was in jail, Serfaty had access to Cuban journals thanks to a comrade whose mother was Spanish. In one of these journals, Serfaty read a contribution by a guerrillero from Guatemala who argued that the indigenous question was crucial to the wider revolutionary struggle.[5] While we do not have further information about this specific article, it is clear that his interest in it was part of a wider engagement with the national question, ethnicity, and related questions.

During the same period, Serfaty also read the work of Mikhaël Elbaz, a Jewish Moroccan anthropologist who wrote extensively about Jewish Immigration. Several years later, Serfaty published a book based on discussions he had with Elbaz. In it, Elbaz explains that while he was teaching at Laval University (Quebec) in June 1984, he received a letter from political inmate n°19 559: Abraham Serfaty.[6] In this letter, Serfaty discussed some of Elbaz’s work and asked him about materials in order to continue his reflexion on Arab Jews in Israel. While this correspondent would prove infliential, Serfaty’s interest for national and ethnic questions dates back to several years earlier.

Indeed, already in the early 1970s, Serfaty – along the above-mentioned Lâabi – participated in the building of the Marxist-Leninist Moroccan organisation Ila Al Amam[7] which was the only Moroccan political organisation that explicitly supported the right to self-determination for the Sahraoui people. According to Serfaty, Sahraoui national consciousness was the result of a two-way process:

  • The struggle for decolonisation which saw the rise of a common interest – against French colonialism – between Sahraoui tribes and the Moroccan people.
  • The post-independence dismantling of the Sahraoui Liberation Army by the Spanish and French armies, with the logistical support of the Moroccan state. This process, called operation “Ecouvillon” [Swab], had the consequence of triggering the mass exile and dispersion of the Sahraoui people. Serfaty compares this 1958 dispersion of Sahraoui people to the 1948 PalestinianNakba. However, he writes, exactly as theNakba, the Sahraoui exile also contains the seeds of the rise of the Sahraoui people as an autonomous, self-aware and organised people.[8] In his marvellous study on the Saharan question, Ahmed-Baba Miské argues that the leader of the pro-monarchist Istiqlal [Independence] party Allal El Fassi played an important role in the Moroccan claims on Sahara, stressing the contradictions that can exist within a national liberation movement, which can struggle against colonialism on the one side (France) and deny the right to autonomy to another people (Sahara) on the other.[9] Serfaty was similarly very aware of this contradiction and argued that a struggle for decolonisation has its own political and social contradictions, and that is not a linear process. As we will see below, the question of contradictions in a colonial situation was critical in Serfaty’s analysis of Arab-Jewishness in Israel.

Based on these analyses, Serfaty was also critical about Pan-Arabism because it ignored the questions of minorities (Sahara, Berber, etc.). While the text presented in this special issue aims to illustrate on Serfaty’s analysis of Zionism and of the “Jewish Question”, his engagement with questions related to national and ethnic minorities remains important in order to grasp Serfaty’s ideas about Arab Jews. In her book The Sultan’s Communist, Alma Rachel Heckman writes that “[i]n the 1960s, Abraham Serfaty, a fellow Jewish Communist, proclaimed his “Arab-Jewish” identity as a way of underscoring his Moroccan patriotism.”[10] Hence, one could say that his criticism of the Moroccan Makhzen [Regime] was deeply influenced by his “Arab-Jewishness”, a social identity that helped him to grasp the issues of minorities within an analysis of the wider social context.

As mentioned previously, Mikhaël Elbaz helped Serfaty to reflect on these questions. In the book they wrote together, based on their epistolary discussions, Serfaty tells Elbaz that the link between ethnicity and class struggle in the Third World was a crucial issue for Moroccan leftists because of the Berber question in Morocco. According to Serfaty, the denial of the Berber reality by national movements in Morocco and in Algeria was one of the main sources for their respective post-independence troubles. Indeed, he argued that because of the French strategy regarding Berber people in Morocco – isolating them from the broader Arab population – the vast majority of the national movement considered the affirmation of the Berber identity as imperialist and complicit with the French colonial power. This was also a point of disagreement between Serfaty and a significant part of the Moroccan Left. For example, in 1958-59, an insurrection in the Moroccan Rif region was suppressed and this repression was backed by every single Moroccan political party, including the Communist Party.

It is in the context of his reflexion about the Arab Nation and its minorities, that Serfaty’s engagement with the disaster that Zionism represented – not only to Palestinians but also to Arab Jews – should be understood. Indeed, he argues that prior to the foundation of Israel there were no problems between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. However, he also rejects the idea that conflicts between Moroccan Jews (some of which were Berbers) and Muslims did not mechanically derive from the foundation of the Zionist state. Rather, they emerged as an effect of the political decisions supported by the Muslim and Jewish Moroccan bourgeoisies. The bourgeoisie and the commercial petite-bourgeoisie saw an opportunity of getting rid of their “poor Jews” – especially the Jewish peasantry of the Atlas Mountains and of South Morocco – who became the favourite target of the Zionist recruiters who were “recruiting” Moroccan Jews in order to send them to Israel.

In his discussion with Elbaz, Serfaty takes the example of a meeting between the Moroccan National Movement and the World Jewish Congress at Aix-les-Bains (France) in August 1955, regarding the departure of 45 000 Moroccan Jews between September 1955 and June 1956. He writes:

The poorest and the most vulnerable became the target of recruiters with the tacit, if not explicit, backing of the bourgeoisie, both Jewish and Muslim, who got rid of this authentic Judaism.[11]

While these Jews were ripped from their land in Amizmiz, in the villages of the Atlas, or in the Moroccan South in the 1950s, the biggest turn came with the 1967 so-called Six Day War. Indeed, Moroccan Jews were ripped from their country in June 1967. This was both due to the promotion of Zionism by the Jewish bourgeoisie of Morocco but also because of the racist politics of the majority of the Muslim bourgeoisie of Morocco who, beginning in 1961, literally “sold” Moroccan Jews to Zionism – in Serfaty’s words. The process of immigration by Moroccan Jews to Israel was, thus, not a simple effect of Zionist policies or propaganda, but a consequence of antisemitism in Morocco – largely promoted by the bourgeoisie. It is worth nothing that this does not mean that the lower classes were free of any prejudices against Jews, but that their ability in influencing the latter’s lives was much more limited. Hence the Zionist project worked hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism in Morocco, an issue to which we return below.

The Social Specificity of Arab-Jewishness

From childhood, Abraham Serfaty’s father had explained to him, especially when going to the synagogue, that Zionism was antithetical to Judaism – an idea that we also find in Letter to the Damned of Israel. But a large part of Serfaty’s reflexion on the Jewish question was developed while he was accompanying his father, who had health issues, in a Parisian clinic, in May 1969. It is in this clinic that Serfaty discovered and read Marxist thinkers that were not discussed in Morocco – he read, for example, Karel Kosik’s Dialectics of the Concrete, as well as Althusser, Ernst Bloch and Lucien Goldmann. It is also during this stay that he really thought about the so-called Jewish Question. In a book written with his wife Christine Daure-Serfaty,La Mémoire de l’Autre [The Other’s Memory], he writes that Kosik,[12] Marx’s text on the Jewish Question, as well as a number of readings on Arab Judaism. helped him to better situate the Jewish Question in Europe on the one hand, as well as Moroccan and Arab Judaism on the other. At that time, he hadn’t read Abraham Léon’s book, On the Jewish Question, which he later considered to be a masterpiece of analysis, whilst also recognising the validity of Maxime Rodinson’s critiques.[13]It is also during this period that Serfaty discovered the work of Emmanuel Levyné, with whom he later exchanged letters, as we will see below.

Serfaty stressed the fact that while Israel was presented as a state founded by “their Jewish brothers”, Zionists were, in reality, the oppressors of Arab Jews and denied the specificity of their identity. Zionism was originally a European ideology, Serfaty writes, and its effect on Arab-Jews was to deny the specificity of their history:

Zionism is contrary to the glorious history, spanning more than a millennium, of Arab and Mediterranean Judaism, which was historically forged in symbiosis with Islam within the Arab civilization.[14]

One of Serfaty’s main ideas was that there is no homogeneous Jewish people – he asked Arab Jews: “Do you form one people with your oppressors?”[15] By oppressors he meant European Zionists. Indeed, he refused to inscribe Arab Judaism in an imagined general History of Jews, with a homogeneous “Jewish subject”.

However, Serfaty did not consider Arab-Jewishness as an abstract identity. The issue of identity was very concrete to him and he criticised the progressive forces that despised engaging with it. Regarding Arab, and more specifically Moroccan, Judaism in the 1950s – the period in which, as we have seen earlier, Zionism ripped Moroccan Jews off from their country – Serfaty categorises poor Moroccan Jews into three main groups:

  • A group that is still rooted in a “two thousand year old past”;[16] a past made of peasant communities from the Moroccan mountains. This group is an integral part of arabo-berber society, which forms the deep reality of Maghreb.
  • The second group is made up of traditional urban communities – working in small businesses and handicraft.
  • The third group consists of the proletariat and semi-proletariat from Casablanca – a product of colonial misery.

Serfaty writes that these groups were organised around two main structures: the Moroccan rabbinate, an older ideological and cultural organisation, and the “Israelites Communities”, a social structure made-up by the colonial power, supported by the middle class and the big bourgeoisies. Hence, Moroccan Jews coming from the lower classes were socially torn between the ancient tradition and organisation of Arab Judaism and another structure shaped by the colonial power and the local bourgeoisie. While the Moroccan rabbinate attempted to struggle against Zionism – which it considered in contradiction with the Jewish religion (Serfaty refers especially to the 1952 Rabbis Council organised in Rabat, as well as to a letter written by the President of the Rabbinic Court from Meknès in May 1952) – it was not powerful enough to prevent the denial of Morocco’s ancient Arab-Jewish tradition by the alliance between the Jewish and Muslim Moroccan bourgeoisies, the French colonial power and, later, Zionism. The assault on traditional identities among Moroccan Jews was led by both antisemitism at home and by Zionism (from) abroad.

In his Letter to the Damned of Israel, he stresses the fact that Zionism was a critical tool in the attempts to rip Arab Jews away from their past – and their specificity. Looking at Arab Jews in Israel, Serfaty argues that the difference between them – who come, for a large part, from the working class – and the European Jews, is the attachment to the Jewish religion. Indeed, Serfaty argues in the 1980s, secularism is much stronger among European Jews – and the religious attachment is stronger among Arab Jews. A direct consequence of this is that Arab Jews are more likely to vote for the Likud Party – an Israeli right-wing Party, whose religious references are more numerous – than for the socialist and secular Ma’arakh.

In sum, the consequences of Zionism on Arab Jews could be seen as contradictory but it is this contradiction that explains the specific position of Arab Jews in Israel. Indeed, Arab Jews are ripped from their traditions – including religious ones – but, in the same movement, the manipulation of the Jewish religion is pushing Arab Jews towards the more right wing Zionist political movements. Should Arab Jews then, Serfaty asks, reject the Jewish religion in order to struggle against Zionism? This question is even more relevant since within the Israeli State, the only political forces struggling against Zionism are Marxist ones – political forces in which religion plays a minimal, if any, role. He answered with an emphatic “no”. Revolutionaries’ duty was to analyse the deepest social reality in order to grasp the seeds from which the struggle could develop. In the case of Arab Jews, Serfaty writes, this deep reality was in contradiction with the immediate reality. He asserts that one should first take into account the level of cultural oppression of Arab Jews within the Zionist entity.

The first thing that was, according to Serfaty, deeply anchored into the Arab Jewish popular masses – and that was crushed by Zionism – was the awaiting of the Messiah which had mainly been formalised through the Zohar (the foundational work of the Kabbalah). Serfaty writes that while they were facing oppression, awaiting the Messiah was a kind of light for Arab Jews. It was the already existing light in the present, of a future where God’s Kingdom will be established on Earth for every human being. Serfaty especially stresses the fact that Jews should contribute to preparing for this Kingdom wherever they are – something that was opposed to the Zionist colonial project; a project that needed to “import” Jews from abroad.

Hence, Serfaty insisted that the spirit of the Kabbalah and especially of the Zohar was the claim that the exile would not end with immigration to Israel – since, in doing so, Jews were separated from their culture and traditions. The Jewish settlement in Palestine, and later in Israel, was not understood as a “return” but as the true exile. Serfaty notes, therefore, that Zionism is a negation and a “monstrous perversion” of the Zohar.[17] While he was not a believer himself, he underlines nonetheless in a lot of his texts that in the Arab World there cannot be a difference between people who believe and people who do not believe in God. The only difference should be between the people on one side of the social order, and the reaction on the other side.

Several years before the publication of Letter to the Damned of Israel, between 1969 and 1972, he exchanged some letters with the anti-Zionist specialist of the Kabbalah Emmanuel Lévyne – whose work was very important in Serfaty’s eyes.[18] In one of these letters, written in 1970,[19] Serfaty writes that an important effect of Capitalism in Europe was that the values of Judaism were betrayed and distorted by the “exploiters of Humanity”. In this very same letter, Serfaty writes to Lévyne that the historical period that they are living in (the 1970s) was not so much a time of erasure of national specificities, but a time of fulfilment of those specificities. Therefore, he argued, the struggle against capitalism should take these specificities into account – the anti-capitalist struggle could not be successful if it tried to erase cultural and religious differences. A similar idea is to be found in another great anti-Zionist Marxist Jewish figure of that time – a European one this time: Maxime Rodinson. He defended the idea “that the only barrier to socialism in Muslim countries would be to put in place anti-Muslim policies”.[20]

The issue of the “Promised Land” was also central in Emmanuel Lévyne’s work, which again found echoes in Serfaty. Indeed, according to Lévyne, Zion was the Land of God, and in order to enter it one should renounce the desire to possess it. Hence, Levitism was opposed to political Zionism – because the colonisation of Palestine was never present in Jewish religious texts.[21] For Lévyne, as well as for Serfaty, Judaism had nothing to do with the colonisation of Palestine. However, in linking these two questions, the European and Arab Jewish bourgeoisies presented the colonization of Palestine as the main solution to the “Jewish Question” – and worked, sometimes, hand in hand with local antisemitism (whether in Europe or in Arab countries). It would rid them of Jews at home, allow them to lay claim over their goods and wealth, while simultaneously reinforcing dominant social relations and imperialism across the region.

Emerging from Serfaty’s analysis was the claim that Jews in the revolutionary struggles in the Arab world should not be understood as the “Jewish people”, understood to be outsiders in relation to the wider national community, but rather as simultaneously Jews and an integral part of the national community (the Moroccan one, in the case of Serfaty). It would be a mistake to try to “unify” Jews in a homogenous people by negating their national specificities. The letter to Levyne where Serfaty develops these ideas is especially interesting because, while Serfaty and Levyne had important disagreements (not least on the question of socialism for instance), they agreed on the importance for Jews to participate to the anti-zionist struggle. They did so both because it was an anticolonial struggle but also because Zionism participated in the destruction of the specific identities of both Jewish culture and Jewish communities.

Arab-Jews as a Threat to Zionism

It is because of this contradictory position that Serfaty considered Arab Jews as a potential threat to the existence of the Zionist state. There was, Serfaty argues, a fundamental contradiction between Arab ethnicities, which are oppressed in Israel, and the Zionist structure of the Israeli state. Hence Arab Jews should be aware not only of their “Jewishness” but also of their Arab identity. Arab Jews could participate in the building of a political movement that might break the Zionist structures from the inside. As a consequence, the social group of Arab-Jews – and especially of poor Arabic Jews – appeared to him as a weak link in the Zionist edifice.

The fact that anti-Zionism is of crucial importance for Jews – and especially for Arab Jews – is a recurrent theme in Serfaty’s writing. This was, for example, visible in 1969 when the Moroccan journal Souffles published a whole issue on the Palestinian Revolution. This issue contained an important paper written by Serfaty on Moroccan Judaism and Zionism. This article is historical in natures and returns to the themes of the life and culture of Jews in Morocco, and on the disaster that June 1967 represented, not only for Arab Jews but also for the Moroccan nation as a whole. Serfaty argued that the future of Moroccan Judaism as well as of Morocco itself are deeply connected to the future of Palestine. The struggle for the liberation of Palestine contains, in this view, alwaysper se an international dimension. RegardingSouffles, it is interesting to stress the critical role Serfaty played in the politicisation of the journal, a process in which these questions were paramount. Andy Stafford notes:

It was the arrival of Abraham Serfaty, mining engineer and trade union activist, on the committee of Souffles in 1968 that heralded the hardening of the journal’s politics and the consequent split three years later.

In his two-part piece in 1968 (in Souffles, no. 12 and nos. 13/14) Serfaty brought a Marxist rigour to the debates over culture and scientific progress in the journal. The triumphalism of the West – Israel – over the Arabs in the 1967 war had now pushed the journal towards a Marxist, militant intellectual, position (…).[22]

In the first extensive study on Souffles, Kenza Sefrioui writes that the issue of Palestine constituted a pivotal point in the politicisation of the journal. It was also the starting point of huge disagreements within the editorial board, especially on the role “cultural issues” should have in its pages.[23] However, Sefrioui also writes that Souffles was a political project from the very beginning (the journal was created in 1966), even if it expressed itself in the form of cultural analysis during its three first existence years of existence.

In their introduction to the English Anthology of Souffles-Anfas (Anfas being the Arabic language counterpart toSouffles, founded in 1971), Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio write that the journal played – despite its modest print run – an important role in establishing a transnational intellectual dialogue with other key Third World actors:

The journal was instrumental in establishing transnational dialogues between writers, artists, and activists from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It published seminal works by tricontinental writers and political activists, such as the Haitian writer René Depestre, the Syrian poet Adonis, and Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the struggle for independence from Portugal in Guinea-Bissau, as well as key revolutionary and postcolonial texts, such as the ten-point program of the Black Panthers or the Argentine manifesto for a Third Cinema. Frantz Fanon, the theorist of decolonization and prophet of postcolonial disillusionment, was a particularly important interlocutor for the journal’s founding members. Heeding Fanon’s call to leave Europe behind, Laâbi advocated for what he called “cultural decolonization,” a process by which Moroccan writers and artists would break with stagnant French models and Arabic canons in order to forge new artistic forms and literary languages in dialogue with the rest of the decolonizing world.[24]

Andy Stafford also highlights this transnational dialogue in insisting on Souffles’ Tricontinental entrenchment: “Morocco became in the late 1960s, for a short period, the pivotal space […] for tricontinentalist ideas to take hold and be propagated. As with all pivots, sections of the Moroccan Left did as much to absorb and process the radical ideas emerging from Havana after January 1966 as to re-expedite them throughout the Arab and Muslim world”.[25] It is not putting it too strongly to say that if Souffles lost the important role it had played in this crucial political space, it was because of Serfaty’s involvement with the journal. This is not to undermine the role of the founders of the journal or of other important figures. However, Serfaty’s involvement brought an explicit Marxist framework to the journal and, as Stafford puts it, started the process of the “de-tricontinentalisation”[26] of Souffles – the orientation on Workers and Strikes “was to come at the expense of international coverage”.[27] However, Serfaty also played, as written above, an important part in putting the Palestinian question at the centre of Souffles – as well as a Jewish critique of Zionism.

Thus, as shown by his engagement in Souffles, as well as in the vast majority of his texts, the Palestinian issue was crucial to Serfaty’s political thought, not only as a way to fight settler colonialism but also as a way to stress the intimate bond between antisemitism and Zionism, which worked hand-in-hand and led, as a consequence, to the growing marginality of Arab-Jews in both their historical and Israeli societies. Because of this, Arab-Jews should play a central role in the anti-Zionist struggle.

Serfaty was opposed to the use of the expression “oriental Jews” (which included not only Arab Jews but also Jews from Iran or India) especially because the huge majority of these “oriental Jews” were, in fact, Arabs. Beside the fact that their cultural traditions were not the same as those of European Jews, it was important to him to stress the fact that Arab Jews were also Arabs. To achieve its mythical goals, Zionism had to crush Arabs. Hence, Serfaty writes that in order to make Arabs disappear Zionists do not hesitate to use the methods of genocide, like the massacres of Palestinians carried out in Sabra and Shatila (1982), but also before, in Deir Yassin (1948), Qibya (1953), or Kafr Qassem (1956). For the Israeli settler colonial project to succeed, the Arab has to become a sort of Untermensch and, as such, Arab Jews who are not just Jews but also Arabs, cannot escape this social condition. Hence, being Jew and Arab did not only mean being part of a long tradition and culture but did also mean that one had a specific social position inscribed into the social relations of (post)colonialism. While it is undoubtedly true that Arab Jews were not the victims of massacres like those meted out against Palestinians, their condition was not the same as the condition of European Jews living in Israel either.

Serfaty insisted on the fact that, in Israel, Arab Jews were treated as “schwartz”. Orit Bashkin writes that the “Arab culture of Iraqi Jews, as well as that of Jews from other Middle Eastern countries, was perceived as primitive and degenerate. In addition, it was racialized: these Jews were sometimes called kushim, shhorim, and schwartzes (derogatory terms meaning “black”) to signify their foreign and non-European racial identity”[28] This “schwartz” non-European racial identity meant that Arab Jews in Israel were forced into less qualified jobs, that their dignity was denied in society, and that they were used as cannon fodder for the Israeli army as well as for Israel’s colonial project. This was underlined by the fact that, as Serfaty puts it:

Zionism [is a] racist and chauvinistic ideology born from the crisis of Judaism in Eastern Europe at the End of the 19th century, in a context of European colonial expansion and is the contrary of every single tradition (…) of European Judaism.[29]

Hence, the fact that Arab-Jews were both necessary to the Zionist project but also had a lower social condition – a sort of internal antisemitism – made them, in Serfaty’s analysis, the weak link of Zionism. As a social group, they could sharpen the social contradictions within the Israeli state. However, in order to become an autonomous political force capable of challenging Zionism, Arab Jews had to become conscious of their identity – which was not a double identity but a unified identity based on their social conditions. In sum: Arab Jews living in Israel were both oppressed by Zionism but were also a tool of oppression of the Palestinian people – as Israelis and potential members of the Israeli army. The most exact terms to describe them was, according to Serfaty, as a “colonial minority”. But it is also this colonial minority, which he argued could become the best ally to the Palestinians.

Serfaty had participated in discussions with the Israeli Left – especially with Matzpen [Compass], the radical socialist Israeli Party, and the Israeli Communist Party. He acknowledged that the Israeli Left had a brave and difficult struggle to engage in. But he also added that this Left had to fulfil its commitments – which also meant committing to Arab-Jews as potential allies in the struggle against Zionism. This meant that Matzpen could not, for example, recognise both the unconditional right to resistance against occupation and, at the same time, decide to only support organisations of the Palestinian resistance which acknowledge the right to self-determination for the Israelian people. In Serfaty’s writings in the 1970s, the possibility for a part of the Jewish masses to liberate themselves from Zionism was intrinsically linked to the development of the Palestinian Revolution but also to the development of the Arab Revolution. Therefore, both had to be supported by Jewish activists.

For Serfaty, Jewish emancipation and the liberation of Palestine were linked – but it relied on the development of a higher level of consciousness among Jews living in Israel, and especially Arab Jews. On the issue of political consciousness, Serfaty developed his ideas over the years and, in the early 1990s, he wrote that one should not oppose “conscious” and “not conscious” ideas – using Paulo Freire’s idea that there is always an intuition inside an oppressed person, even if this person is overruled by oppression. Hence, consciousness was not something brought from the outside but it was the crystallisation of the “sensuous knowledge” – Serfaty used Mao’s concept. This is why a coherent project grounded on objective contradictions was needed in order to transform existing sensuous knowledge into a rational one. This was the role of Arab Jewish activists within Israel.

Simultaneously, Serfaty reflected on the Palestinian struggle. In his view, it was not only important for Arab Jewish activists in Israel to work on developing a revolutionary project, but it should also be articulated within the strategic project of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Hence, he argued that the PLO should incorporate within its strategy the resistance of oppressed Arab Jews in Israel. Regarding the different options within the Palestinian resistance, Serfaty was very clear about his position: the only project which could objectively answer the issues raised by the Zionist occupation of Palestine was the project led by Fatah, who wanted to build a democratic Palestinian state. Serfaty was opposed to the two-state solution. Not only was it impossible to achieve it, but he was also concerned for the future of Arab Jews in the Zionist state.

However, in the specific context of the early 1980s, he was clear that the first political step was a limited one and was for the Palestinian resistance to build its own state in the West Bank and in Gaza. This did not mean, however, that this Palestinian state should recognise the Israeli one. The second step was to politically divide the enemy forces from the inside, in the Israeli state but also in western opinion. In the context of the time, it was impossible for the Jewish population of Palestine – except for small groups of activists – to support the project of a Palestinian democratic state. This is why an intermediary step was needed in Serfaty’s opinion. This step was the building of two coexisting states based on the principles of secularism and democracy for all their citizens. Serfaty did not explain how to move from this intermediary step to the final goal. The only thing he stressed was that one cannot expect from the oppressed Palestinian or from Arab Jews to renounce revolutionary violence. His main political conclusion was that in fighting for this intermediary step without renouncing the armed struggle, it was possible to convince an important part of international opinion as well as of the Jewish Israeli population and to move to the next step: the liberation of Palestine and, with it, the liberation of Arab Jews in Palestine. 

The importance of Serfaty’s work today is critical. As accusations of antisemitism are used systematically to dismiss any critique of Zionism, the confusion between antisemitism and anti-Zionism has never been greater. Serfaty’s powerful commitment to the simultaneous struggle against both antisemitism and Zionism – a struggle which for him was always rooted in both anti-imperialism and the concrete analysis of identity formation amongst the oppressed – serves as an important intellectual guide for all of us today.


Bashkin, Orit 2017, Impossible Exodus. Iraqi Jews in Israel, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Elbaz, Michaël and Abraham, Serfaty 2001, L’insoumis. Juifs, Marocains et rebelles, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer.

Harrison, Olivia C. and Villa-Ignacio, Teresa (ed.) 2016, Souffles-Anfas. A critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Heckman, Alma Rachel 2021, The Sultan’s Communist. Moroccan Jews and The Politics of Belonging, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Lévyne, Emmanuel 1973, Le Royaume de Dieu et le Royaume de César, Beyrouth: Le réveil.

Miské, Ahmed-Baba 1978, Front Polisario. L’âme d’un peuple, Paris: éditions rupture.

Nadi, Selim 2018, ‘The Thinker and The Militant’, Translated by Joe Hayns, available at: <;

Sefrioui, Kenza 2013, La revue Souffles 1966-1973. Espoirs de révolution culturelle au Maroc, Casablanca: éditions du Sirocco.

Serfaty, Abraham 1977, Lutte antisioniste et révolution arabe, Paris : Quatre Vents Editeurs.

Serfaty, Abraham 1992a ‘Marxiste, décidément’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Dans les prisons du roi. Ecrits de Kenitra sur le Maroc, Paris: Messidor/Editions sociales.

Serfaty, Abraham 1992b, ‘La jeunesse militante marocaine’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Dans les prisons du Roi.

Serfaty, Abraham 1992c, ‘Mouvement ouvrier et révolution au Maroc. Le rôle du prolétariat de Casablanca’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Dans les prisons du Roi.

Serfaty 1992d, ‘Adresse aux damnés d’Israël’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Ecrits de prison sur la Palestine, Paris: Arcantère.

Serfaty 1992e, ‘Le sionisme : une négation des valeurs du judaïsme arabe’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Ecrits de prison sur la Palestine.

Serfaty 2018, ‘ ‘En tant que juifs antisionistes’ – Lettre d’Abraham Serfaty à Emmanuel Lévyne’ available at: <…;

Stafford, Andy 2019, ‘Tricontinentalism in recent Moroccan intellectual history: the case of Souffles’,Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 7, 3: pp. 218-32.

Rodinson, Maxime 2017, ‘Préface’ in Abraham Léon 2017, La conception matérialiste de la question juive, Geneva: éditions entremonde.

[1] Serfaty 1992b, p. 14

[2] Serfaty 1992c, pp. 158-69.

[3] Heckman 2021, pp. 67-8.

[4] Serfaty 1992a, p. 244.

[5] We do not have any information about this movement but it was probably the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres.

[6] Elbaz & Serfaty, 2001, p. 14.

[7] While we do not have the space here to develop on Ila Al Amam, we still have to say a few words about it. The starting point of this organisation was a theoretical debate held at Serfaty’s house. A leader of the Moroccan Communist Party asked Serfaty to host a meeting with Moroccan intellectuals and two PCF cadres. Hence, in April 1968, around fifty academics, writers, and politicians from several sections of the Moroccan Left came to Serfaty’s house, along with two important guests from the PCF. While the debate started on the topic of Althusser, it quickly shifted on the topic of Western culture’s inadaptability to handle the political issues faced by the Third World. As a heated debate ensued between the different persons present at the event, one of the two PCF cadres stated that this argument was to be found nowhere in the world except in China, and that Moroccan communists had to oppose the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Serfaty presents this debate, and especially the misunderstanding of the non-European reality by French comrades, as the starting point for the creation ofIla Al Amam two years later, in 1970.This organisation emerged as a split from the Parti de la Libération et du Socialisme (Socialism and Liberation Party (PLS), the former Moroccan Communist Party). Serfaty wrote several texts about this organisation, but a complete study is missing.

Brahim El Guabli gives a useful short description of Ila Al Amam : “In the case of Morocco, which I know best, the Marxist-Leninist movement, which also emerged as a response to the failure of the Moroccan Communist Party under the leadership of Ali Yata to disengage itself from Soviet domination and from its enthrallment with the monarchy in search of a dearly won recognition, sought to create the cultural conditions for the political revolution of proletariat. Since 1970, these groups formedIla l-Amām (Forward!) under the leadership of Abraham Serfaty, a Moroccan Jew, and Abdellatif Laâbi, a novelist and poet, and Abdellatif Zeroual, a philosophy teacher, and others. This revolutionary group congregated around the avant-garde social, cultural and political magazine Souffles/Anfās. In addition to its political engagement, Souffles/Anfās launched a “linguistic guerilla war” – to borrow Mohamed Khair-Eddine’s phrase in another context – on the Arabic language, which remained petrified in its classical moulds. After the brutal arrest and torture of hundreds of its members inside Morocco between 1972 and 1974, the movement mainly survived among the Moroccan diasporas. Upon the release of the majority of its leaders in the early 1990s, current and former members of the Marxist-Leninist organization have been the driving force behind the human rights movement in Morocco. Its members were also among the foremost producers of prison literature.” Mahdi Amel and Brahim El Guabli, February 1, 2018 [online].

[8] Serfaty 1992, p. 180.

[9] Ahmed-Baba Miské 1978, p. 51.

[10] Heckmann 2021, p. 1.

[11] Elbaz and Serfaty 2001, pp. 93-4.

[12] Serfaty was especially interested in Kosik’s chapters on the Metaphysics of Culture and on the Philosophy of Labor. Both chapters helped him to understand the fact that culture was rooted in the material history of humans. It is after having read Kosik that Serfaty started to reflect on the issue of cultural memory – especially concerning Moroccan Jews exiled in Israel.

[13] Rodinson 2017, pp. 9-60.

[14] Serfaty 1992d, p.3 translation.

[15]Serfaty 1992d, p.5 translation.

[16]Serfaty 1977, 16.

[17] Serfaty 1992e, p. 60.

[18] According to Serfaty, Lévyne was, at that time, a crucial person in the transformation of Judaism from a tribal religion to a universalistic ethic. It is through Lévyne’s work that Serfaty understood the Kabbale and the way it is deeply in contradiction with Zionism.

[19] Serfaty 2018 [online]

[20] Nadi 2018 [online].

[21] Lévyne 1973, p. 64.

[22] Stafford 2009, p. 225.

[23] Sefrioui 2013, pp. 92-3.

[24] Harrison and Villa-Ignacio 2016, p. 1-2.

[25] Stafford 2009, p. 218.

[26] Ibid, p. 224.

[27] Ibid., p. 224

[28] Bashkin 2017, p. 6.

[29] Serfaty 1992d, p. 32.