Rodolfo Walsh: Revolutionary Anti-Zionist  

A few lines about Rodoldo Walsh written for The Z Word, back in 2009.


The memory of Rodolfo Walsh, journalist, author, political activist and revolutionary, is venerated with notable fervor among broad sectors of progressive opinion in Argentina today. No speech condemning the 1976 military coup is complete without a quote from Walsh’s “Open Letter to the Military Junta.” He is widely regarded as having provided an example of personal and journalistic heroism by setting up a clandestine news agency to defeat military censorship at the height of the campaign of state terrorism launched by the armed forces when they took power in a coup on March 24th, 1976. His reputation has been further enhanced by information that has come to light in recent years regarding his criticism of  the strategy of the leadership of the Montoneros, the principle armed wing of revolutionary left wing Peronism – a force of which he himself was an active member.

 A less remarked upon aspect of Walsh’s life is his evolution from youthful activism in the ultra rightwing and virulently antisemitic Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista to a radical anti-Zionism which, while it disavowed traditional antisemitism, rejected the exercise of national rights by Jews and thus bears comparison with current ant-Zionist discourses which see Israel as a uniquely illegitimate and evil state. The bulk of this essay is concerned with his writing on these matters; a brief historical and biographical sketch placing Walsh in the context of his country’s history is first necessary.

Walsh was born on January 9th, 1927 in the province of Río Negro. On March 25th, 1977, he was murdered by an armed gang on a street  corner in the city of Buenos Aires. His assailants were all members of the national security forces. Their intention was to kidnap, torture and kill him, thereby adding him to the list of thousands who suffered a similar fate during the military dictatorship which ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

Perón and After

As a young man, Walsh was an active supporter of the ultra-right wing and virulently antisemitic Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista. In 1955 he celebrated the military coup that brought down the government of Juan Domingo Perón, whose years in power were marked by the extension of a wide range of social benefits to the urban and  rural working class and the foundation of a Peronist political identity which has marked Argentine political life to this day. Nevertheless, by the time he died, he had embraced revolutionary left wing Peronism – an interpretation of Peronism which saw it as the only viable path to socialism in Argentina – to the extent of joining the Montoneros, its principle armed wing.

Walsh was an early and brilliant exponent of what later came to be called New Journalism and his Operación Masacre is a classic of that genre. It is the story of the June 1956 slaughter of a group of civilians by the military government of the day. The victims were suspected of plotting to restore the constitutional government of Perón, which had been toppled the year before. The massacre was botched and the identification and interviewing of one of the survivors by Walsh was the first step in the construction of a book that has become a landmark both in the history of Argentine literature and journalism. Over the course of his career he also wrote two other classics of investigative journalism – El Caso Satanowsky and ¿Quién mató a Rosendo?   – as well as short stories  and plays.

Peronism was proscribed on the downfall of its founder in 1955 and, with the exception of a couple of brief and half-hearted experiments with a limited form of democracy, the country was ruled by the armed forces until 1973. The working class that had supported Perón, and had received an unprecedented level of social and labor rights in return for its loyalty, did not meekly resign itself to his overthrow and exile.

There was civil resistance to military rule from the outset. The Cuban Revolution had a galvanizing effect on many on the left in Argentina. As the 1960s wore on the war in Vietnam, anti-colonial struggles in other countries and the atmosphere of revolution on  European and North American university campuses led some to see the long proscribed Peronism as a force that had the potential to become a national liberation movement and bring socialism to Argentina. Not a few of those who did so had, like Walsh, cheered the armed forces when they toppled Perón. However, they were sickened by years of military rule and were now joined by younger people who rejected their parents’ bitter anti-Peronism.  Liberation theology and the radicalization of certain sectors of the Catholic Church also played their part in the growing tide of opinion that favored armed resistance to the succession of obtuse and violent generals that were running the country.

A great variety of revolutionary organizations, both Peronist and non-Peronist, emerged in Argentina during this period. Walsh is believed to have joined one of them, the Fuerzas Armadas Peronistas(FAP), in 1970. This organization later merged with Montoneros, the largest Peronist revolutionary group, and the one that was eventually to absorb the bulk of the others. Curiously, it’s  easier to say who and what the Montoneros were against – the land-owning oligarchy, capitalism, imperialism, the conservative and right wing elements of Peronisn – than what they were actually for, state socialism on the Cuban model doesn’t seem to be an unfair guess. The armed forces finally permitted free elections in 1973. Héctor Campora, Perón’s nominee, was elected to the presidency by a landslide. He resigned shortly afterwards to pave the way for the election of Perón himself, who had returned to country after 18 years in exile. Perón died in 1974 and was succeeded by his widow, María Estela Martínez de Perón, a woman who was plainly unfit to hold the office that fate had thrust on her. She presided over a weak government, elements of which supported far-right death squads which went on a killing spree aimed at those whom they perceived as leftists. The armed forces were also given ever greater scope to suppress Peronist and Marxist revolutionary groups. Even so, they quickly tired of the few restrictions placed on them and took power in  a coup d’etat on March 24th, 1976

The campaign of state terror launched after the 1976 coup was unprecedented in Argentina and led to the disappearance, torture and death of many thousands of people.  Thousands more were forced into exile. The various revolutionary groups, already struggling when the military came to power, were quickly crushed.

Walsh participated in the armed resistance to the military government but it didn’t take long for him to perceive that the struggle was hopeless and that fantasies and self-delusion of the leadership of the Montoneros were sending hundreds of activists to pointless and horrible deaths.  However, he remained loyal to the organization to the end and was killed in a shootout with a gang of security force members while attempting a clandestine meeting with another member of it.

 Walsh in the Middle East

Walsh travelled to Beirut, Algiers Damascus and Cairo on assignment for the newspaper Noticias in 1974; a consideration of his dispatches will form the basis for the rest of this essay.

The first three dispatches consist of a summary history of Zionism and the circumstances surrounding the birth of Israel, sprinkled with quotes from Palestinian refugees that Walsh encountered in Lebanon.  He starts by explaining what he sees as the fundamental illegitimacy of Israel. Despite his subsequent recourse to Marxism to explain the rise of Zionism, this pereceived illegitimacy  remains fundamental to his analysis.

First, they say, there were the Canaanites, then the Hebrews. The birth of Christ was still a thousand years in the future when Saul founded his kingdom, which later split into two parts. 2700 years ago the kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Syrians. 2560 years ago the kingdom of Judea was liquidated by the Assyrians and in the year 70 the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. These are the historical precedents of the state of Israel, its property deeds to Palestine.

The Shah of Iran could flourish similar deeds based on the Persian invasion five centuries before Christ, the Greek Colonels could point to the occupation of Palestine by Alexander in the year 331 and Pope Paul VI could recall the Catholic Crusaders who founded the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099.     

As I said in the context of a different discussion,

National sovereignty and rights are not like the title deeds to your house. If startling new archaeological evidence  was to demonstrate that some Roman emperor had ceded not only the land occupied by  Israel today but Gaza and the West Bank too, to the Jewish people for all eternity,  could that be taken to mean the extinction of Palestinian national rights? Of course it wouldn’t. Who occupies a given territory, who exercises sovereignty there, how the people identify themselves and what they want are all factors that must be taken into account when examining the political history of any region. However, there is no “originally” in history, no virgin moment when everyone was in their place and there was a place for everyone; there is only a certain state of affairs at a certain date and a certain balance of forces, with a scaffolding of class, national, ethnic and religious interests, yearnings and desires underlying them.

Under the heading “A late fruit of capitalism”, Walsh goes on to base himself on Abram Leon – the Jewish Marxist who wrote “The Jewish Question” and who was later exterminated during the Holocaust – in his examination of the roots of Zionism.

“Zionism, which claims to find its origins in events two thousand years ago, is in fact a product of the highest stage of capitalism.” In this phase all the nationalisms of Europe built their own states and no longer needed the Jewish bourgeoisie which helped to build them and which now constituted a dangerous competitor for native capitalism. In these countries antisemitic capitalism “suddenly” sprung up and Jews which had been integrated in them for centuries were abruptly  transformed into undesirable foreigners. They had, as Leon says “as little interest in returning to Palestine as the American millionaire of today.”

The 19th century persecution of Jews affected the middle more than the upper class. The best known members of the latter were to attain a new integration by way of international financial capital. Those persecuted Jews who saw in capitalism the real cause of their suffering joined the revolutionary movements of their real countries. Zionism, obviously, did no such thing and shaped itself into a petty bourgeois ideology which was nevertheless encouraged by those bankers who saw the [revolutionary] wave coming and wanted their “brothers” to be as far away from them as possible.

There’s quite a mixture of ideas here. Crafty Jewish bankers still stalk the stage, here not defrauding innocent Christians but rather their own poor brothers, in an attempt to divert them from the duty of all good and acceptable Jews – namely, to join the revolutionary Marxist movements in their own “real” countries. Walsh also takes an absurdly sanguine few of the condition of Jews in pre-capitalist Europe and seems to think that people have one “real” country to which they are bound by a sort of metaphysical bond. With that in mind it would be interesting to know what he made of the decision of his Irish forbearers to move to a country an immense distance from their own, with which they had no previous cultural connection one, two or ten millennia previously and who settled on land whose previous population had been exterminated to make room for them

As he sets it out here, Walsh’s view of Jews certainly represents a step forward from the traditional antisemitism of his youth.  Not all Jews are to be despised; only those who seek to exercise national rights and refuse to see the light of international revolution. Without straining ourselves unduly, we can here perceive a parallel with current “anti-Zionist but not antisemitic” discourse which is prepared to accommodate those Jews who reject Zionism but which spares nothing in its attacks on those who don’t.

Having dealt with what he sees as the rotten origins of Zionism, Walsh goes on to describe the early Jewish emigration to Palestine in terms that suggest it constituted an injustice unique both in its nature and its degree. When he gets to the First World War – “which gave a great opportunity to the Zionists” – he informs his readers that “the World Zionist Organization participated in the drafting of” the Balfour Declaration. This affirmation comes at the end of a paragraph and it would appear that he expects that his readers will be surprised and shocked by this revelation. But why should there be anything unusual or surprising about a Jewish organization trying to advance its goals in negotiations with one of the great powers of the day? Walsh also describes the promises made by the British to the Arabs during the First World War but seems to find them entirely unproblematic; indeed he chides the British for going back on them. Walsh, in short, is yet another commentator astounded by Jews behaving normally.

Walsh goes on to describe the UN resolution authorizing the foundation of Israel as having been passed solely by resort to pressure from the United States upon “docile Asian and Latin American countries.” And, of course, there would have to be some mention of money: “A Yankee business bought the vote of an African before the gaze of whole world.” Israel’s War of Independence is described as a series of atrocities and massacres carried out by its armed forces (organized by members of the armed forces of the United States!), massacre of innocent Palestinians follows massacre of innocent Palestinians and there is scarcely any mention of the existence or activities of another side in the conflict. Naturally, no consideration is given to whether that other side’s behavior  was at all times in accordance with the laws of war.

After making unblushing use of “Zionism is not only the enemy of the Arabs; it is the enemy of all mankind” to title his seventh dispatch, in his eighth, Walsh goes on to consider the question of terrorism and the possible justification for it.

Terror is a form of struggle that has been used by all revolutions […] its humanity or inhumanity depends on its ends. Our May Revolution [a reference to the first stage in the foundation of Argentina] was terrorist. When we bear this in mind we can refocus the problem of terrorism our view of the problem of terrorism in the Middle East. […] The objective of Palestinian terrorism is to recover the homeland which was stripped from them. In the most questionable of their operations that element of legitimacy remains. Israeli terrorism aims to oppress a people, condemn it to misery and exile. Even in the most reasonable of its “reprisals”, that original sin appears.

Walsh certainly cannot be accused of  attempting to sugar the pill. All Palestinian terrorist activities are legitimized, at least to some degree, by the original sin of the foundation of Israel, an historical event which he, elsewhere, describes in the dispatches as amounting to genocide of the Palestinians.

This original sin argument, both in relation to the circumstances of Israel’s foundation and its subsequent policy decisions and activities, simply doesn’t resist serious examination. Those who want detailed argumentation on this point can read this article here where I said that,

…there was no original sin and nothing artificial about Israel’s foundation; the violence and what we would now call ethnic cleansing that accompanied it were not in any qualitative sense different from those that accompanied the foundation of many other post-colonial states. To give just one example, the foundation of India and Pakistan in 1947 was accompanied by massive loss of life and huge population exchanges, they subsequently fought two major wars and continue to confront each other, eyeball to nuclear eyeball, over Kashmir. No one seems to consider that this calls the legitimacy of either one into question. On a more general level, there are many existing states that were founded against the wishes of some part of their original population and if we are to regard those states founded with a large number of immigrants or their descendants in their population and without any consideration being given to the wishes of the indigenous population as somehow illegitimate then Israel is only going to be one on a very long list.

It’s also worth remembering that Walsh’s own Argentina, were built on the sort of extermination of existing populations that makes the Palestinian experience in 1948, bad though it was, somewhat pallid by comparison.

Furthermore, Walsh’s approach to terrorism, like that of many commentators today, leaves out the question of whether or not it is likely to achieve its stated ends. Israel has been subjected to terrorist attacks since the day of its foundation. Sixty years later, it is stronger than ever. It should have been obvious, even in 1974, that just as no amount of Israeli military action against Fatah or negation of the Palestinian people’s existence was going to make them disappear, similarly no amount of terrorist attacks on Israelis was going to soften their resolve to exercise their right to self-destination.

Lastly, if anything is permissible as long as it is on behalf of a good cause, any basis for criticizing the actions of one’s enemy is lost. An adversary’s belief that his cause is just is as strong as one’s own. Without an explicit or implicit notion of human rights that cannot be violated no matter what the supposed justification, the condemnation of torture and mass murder in Walsh’s justly celebrated Open Letter to the Military Junta would lack any moral force and be little more than the loser bleating for mercy. Strange, indeed, therefore that Walsh was willing to grant a moral blank check to one party in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Walsh Assessed

It would be quite wrong to describe the mature Rodolfo Walsh as being antisemitic in the traditional jack booted sense. He left that behind in his youth and had many Jewish comrades in the revolutionary Peronist organizations in which he was involved. However, his dispatches from the Middle East reveal the continuing presence of at least one classic antisemitic stereotype: the rich and cunning Jew. The only difference in this case is that this representation of the Jew is dedicated to duping his own people into participating in a genocidal Zionist project, rather than swindling honest Christians and seducing their daughters.

His dispatches are also pervaded by a sense of the Zionists as being almost preternaturally gifted historical actors, duping the gullible, whispering in the ears of the powerful, manipulating the superpowers of the day, biding their time and, when the moment comes, acting with unlimited savagery. There is nothing innately antisemitic about this, but it does rather come across as a repackaged view of the traditional antisemitic take on Jews as a whole and not just those who elect to become Zionists.

Finally, if one is prepared to accept Jews as equals only insofar they do not exercise certain rights, principally that of self-determination, which are taken for granted in the case of other peoples, then, quite simply, they are not being treated as equals at all. But that, as we know, is the core problem of anti-Zionism, long-established and still continuing.


All  direct quotes from, Rodolfo Walsh: El Violento Oficio De Escribir, Obra Periodística 1953-1977. Ed. Daniel Link. Planeta, Buenos Aires. 1998

Also consulted, Rodolfo Walsh, La Palabra y La Acción. Eduardo Jozami. Norma. Buenos Aires. 2006


0 Responses to “Rodolfo Walsh: Revolutionary Anti-Zionist  ”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: