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The End of Labor Zionism?

By Ralph Seliger

This top photo of a 1950s-era MAPAM socialist-Zionist celebration of May Day (distributed by Creative Commons.org CC by 2.5) accompanied my History News Network review article, “The Decline and Fall of Socialist Zionism.”  Tal Elmaliach, a young Israeli historian, has written a book (cover below) with a double focus: 1) the leftwing MAPAM political party and its allied Kibbutz Artzi Federation (KAF), which grew out of the Hashomer Hatzair (“Young Guard”) Zionist youth movement; 2) the broader labor-Zionist movement and institutions in which the former played a part (e.g., the Histadrut trade union federation).   

Historically, there were three streams of what we can call “labor Zionism,” all with their separate political parties, kibbutz federations, and supportive institutions.  The MAPAM/KAF movement was arguably the most leftwing and dovish.  MAPAM (a Hebrew acronym for the United Workers Party) originally arose from the short-lived merger (1946-1954) of the Hashomer Hatzair movement with the Achdut Ha’Avoda (Brotherhood or Fellowship of Labor) party.  Both movements were pro-Soviet; MAPAM continued to regard the USSR as the “socialist motherland” until Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin in 1956. 

The third, MAPAI, became the largest of the three and produced Israel’s earliest prime ministers, including its founding father, David Ben-Gurion.  He attempted to forge strong state institutions at the expense of the three labor/socialist ideological streams, an orientation known as “statism.”  MAPAI eventually merged with Achdut Ha-Avoda and a splinter party led by Moshe Dayan and Ben-Gurion (late in his career) to form what we know as the Labor Party.  

MAPAM was allied with Labor from 1968 until the early 1980s.  In the 1990s, MAPAM joined with other dovish elements to create the Meretz party, and together with Labor under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, tried to foster peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords.  Most of you know the rest: the assassination of Rabin and the wave of terrorism during the 1996 election campaign that elected Netanyahu for the first time, the short-lived prime ministership of Ehud Barak and his failed effort at peace (along with Arafat and Bill Clinton) at Camp David in 2000, the Second Intifada, etc., etc. 

A lot more can be said on this, but the 2019-20 series of three national elections has reduced both Labor and Meretz to a historic electoral low.  The Labor Party has all-but disintegrated, with its current leader Amir Peretz and one other of the three surviving Labor Members of Knesset joining as cabinet ministers in the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition government, and the third going into opposition.  The three remaining Meretz MKs stand firm in opposition to Netanyahu; Meretz seems at this moment to have a greater likelihood of surviving a future election than Labor.  Peretz is said to be angling to merge Labor with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, probably putting an end to the political entity that led Israel for its first three decades.     

My review article did not describe the transformed nature of living on kibbutz, but this is not something that the author wrote much about.  When I first visited a cousin on her kibbutz in 1982 (founded originally by members of the Achdut Ha-Avoda movement), she lived in a totally cashless society, with her children raised in the community “children’s house,” ate most family meals in the communal dining hall and took food from the common larder at will.  Today, on the same kibbutz, my cousin owns her own home, rarely eats in the dining hall (paying a modest charge when she does), and thinks of this and other changes (like children now living with their families), as “progressive.”  

My friend, Hillel Schenker, an Israeli journalist whose first home after moving to Israel from the US in 1963 was a KAF kibbutz, was active in MAPAM and now in Meretz.  He made the following comment (slightly edited from my Facebook page), about a relevant documentary film:

The film was “Ya Brechen!” about the 1951 seaman’s strike, a struggle between democratic-socialist workers supported by Mapam which was broken by the statist Mapai leadership just as it disbanded the Palmach left-wing underground and the labor-Zionist school system. In the follow-up discussion, Dr. Ami Venturi, one of the leaders of the “Coach La’ovdim” [“Power to Workers”] alternative to the general Histadrut labor federation, said that the difference between the original socialist-Zionist left represented by Mapam and the Kibbutz Artzi movement was that they had “the luxury” of being workers by choice, while most of the Mizrachim [Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern origin] were workers because they had no alternative.

That rather provocative description perhaps offers another partial explanation for the decline of the Israeli left. He seems to be saying that the Mizrachi workers would have preferred to be middle class or more, but were not given the opportunity. Clearly in his description, the Mizrachi proletariat had no class consciousness.  The challenge is how do you create a new Israeli left, with a message that resonates for a majority of the people?  That’s clearly a challenge not only for the Israeli left, but for the left everywhere.  

Elmaliach’s book, Kibbutz Ha’Artzi, MAPAM, and the Demise of the Israeli Labor Movement, ends in 1977, well before all the events depicted above.  It is as much an economic and sociological analysis as it is political.  He himself grew up on a kibbutz in the 1990s, when this small C communistic institution was in crisis.  I don’t know if any of the approximately 270 communities that still bear the name of kibbutz remain communes.  My sense is that the kibbutz movement as a whole has landed on its feet in this radically different era, but it’s hard to keep young people on the farm once they’ve seen Tel Aviv.  (Perhaps you know the original aphorism I’ve expropriated.)   

Consider reading my review at the History News Network by clicking on its title: “The Decline and Fall of Socialist Zionism.”

2 Responses to “The End of Labor Zionism?”

  1. June 5, 2020 at 9:17 am #

    Concerning the question above of whether “any of the 270 communities that still bear the name of kibbutz remain communes”, 75 of the approximately 250 kibbutzim are still defined as “Kibbutzim Shitufi’im” (collective kibbutzim), which means that they have not undergone privatization, and the members don’t have an individual salary. They also happen to be the most successful kibbutzim economically, whose members felt that they could afford to retain their collective communal structure.

    • Ralph Seliger
      June 5, 2020 at 3:37 pm #

      That’s an interesting observation, but I wonder if most of these would still be communes or more like cooperatives? The fact that my cousin on Kibbutz Kabri (which seems to be successful economically) owns her own house now does not fit with the classic kibbutz model.

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