‘The co-operative aristocracy of labour’: my break with Labour Zionist ideology

In my final undergraduate year (1981-82) I underwent another political shift in my thinking about Israel that was driven to some extent considerable by academic inquiry. But it was also a way of processing the deep connection I felt to my temporary family in Ashkelon the previous summer as a youth leader of the Habonim Israel camp. Included on the bibliography for the Middle East course I took that year was a section about Israeli society and politics which served me well as a basis for the undergraduate dissertation I wrote about ‘The Israeli General Election of 1981’. Next to the title of a book on the course bibliography, Sammy Smooha’s Israel: Pluralism and Conflict, I wrote ‘go all way thru’.[1] Only one page of notes survives in my archive, but in my dissertation I remarked that he gave ‘an excellent account’ of the inequality in Israel between Ashkenazi Jews (of European descent) and Mizrahi Jews (of North African and Asian descent).[2] The first chapter of my dissertation was a six page overview of Israel’s political sociology, as I understood it at the time.

Underlying my understanding was the thesis of Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, whom I was to meet in later life, that early Israeli politics and institutions were, essentially, a continuation of the autonomous pre-state Yishuv (the Zionist community under British imperial rule until 1948).[3] I wrote: ‘Basically, there was a continuation of pre-state politics after 1948, in which nearly all the functions of the state had been performed by the Labour Zionists … At the top of the heap were the ‘collective aristocracy of the land’ and the ‘Co-operative aristocracy of labour’, that is, the kibbutzim, the Histadrut [trade union federation] and labour party functionaries’. The main victims in this society were the Oriental immigrants, who arrived after 1948, and the Arabs’.[4] For a while, the Mizrahim were clients of the patronage of Labour Zionist institutions, but that relationship was eroded among other things by David Ben Gurion’s strategy of ‘statism,’ the building up of state institutions independently of the political parties.

For a variety of reasons, including the failure to anticipate the October 1973 war, Labour Zionist dominance had ended in the elections of 1977, as Mizrahi political consciousness developed. Although I did not call it racism in my dissertation, I had learned enough to argue that inequality was experienced primarily along ethnic rather than class lines. The Ashkenazi establishment had appealed for Western immigrants, regarding the Mizrahim as ‘uniformly backward, though some were well educated and quite Westernized’. I noted Mizrahi ‘resentment of their previous treatment by Ashkenazim. They developed a dislike for former employers who claimed to be socialist but were scarcely distinguishable from the state or private employers. The murmuring began against the kibbutzim’. As a result, the Labour Party was stigmatized as an ‘Ashkenazic supremacist’ party, burdened with ‘the image of the haughty officials who deloused the Afro-Asian immigrants’.

The bitter and divisive 1981 election campaign was peppered with derogatory ethnic slurs, the most notorious insult coming from the entertainer Dudu Topaz at the final Labour rally in Tel Aviv, when he referred to the absent Likud hecklers as ‘chach-chachim’, to which Menachem Begin, leader of the right-wing Likud party which won the elections, responded with a call for Jewish brotherhood.

ELECTION 1981- CHEERING CROWD IN AN ELECTION RALLYWITH P.M. MENACHEM BEGIN. https://www.israelhayom.com/2019/04/05/the-1981-election-as-a-cautionary-tale/

Quite why I was so taken with the injustice of the ethnic inequality between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel is unclear to me now. I was motivated enough to attend a day seminar of the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East in London on December 6th 1981 about ‘The Ethnic Gap in Israel: Discrimination of Integration’. The presentations contributed to my impression that Mizrahim were motivated to vote against the Labour establishment and for Likud as the leading opposition to it. I learned that while some Mizrahim were doing quite well economically in small businesses, the progress of this new middle class (a social class I was familiar with from comparative study of the Middle East) was impeded by the better educated, more professionally oriented established middle class. The data about intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim was not entirely clear but did not indicate that the ethnic cleavage would resolve itself in a generation or two. I also learned to distinguish between Mizrahim, noting that North Africans were doing less well than the Baghdadis and Persians, though that level of detail did not find its way into my dissertation.

Whatever my motivation, my new political understanding impacted my views on Habonim’s Labour Zionist ideology and prompted a little political storm. Our annual conference came just weeks after the academic seminar about Mizrahim, giving me the opportunity to speak out to everyone. I followed up with a two-page article in the December 1981 issue of Koleinu, the Habonim newsletter, following the conference. I complained that our movement lacked a workable ideology and ‘all we were treated to … over the last year … was the wheeling out of a sterile notion called Chalutziut [pioneering] on Kibbutz.’ I argues that aliyah [literally ‘ascension’, the Zionist term for emigration of Jews to Israel] could have moral value only if it was undertaken with moral purpose, both in opposition to the growing right-wing tendency in Israeli politics and in support of positive social action in broader Israeli society, such as narrowing the ‘social gap’. On the basis of my week’s experience in Ashqelon, I advocated going to live there and preparing ourselves for the reality of life there by spending part of our shnat hachsharah in the town.  The argument played out in the newsletter for a few more months, but I was unable to persuade my peers to switch course, as this cartoon in the newsletter shows.


[1] Sammy Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).

[2] In my dissertation I did not use the term Mizrahi, instead switching between Sefardi (Jews of Iberian descent), Orientals and Afro-Asians, even though I was aware of the different meanings of the terms.

[3] Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, Origins of the Israeli. Polity: Palestine Under the Mandate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. I did not cite this book in my dissertation but it appears on another bibliography I used and the thesis seems to have been absorbed by other sources I do cite.

[4] The quotations came from Dan Segre, ‘Israel, A Society in Transition’, World Politics, 21 (1968-69).

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