Author Archives: Jon Simons

‘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.


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).

To Russia with love: Jewish Diaspora in the USSR

The Jewish community’s ongoing campaign to support Soviet Jews facing persecution was supplemented by an Israeli programme of sending UK Jews on Intourist holiday packages to the Soviet Union. A steady stream of Habonim members travelled under these auspices, whose precise character was kept quiet but we believed was based in the Israeli foreign ministry. Our purpose was to meet up with refuseniks, Jews whose applications to emigrate to Israel had been denied and were then generally victimised, losing jobs and educational opportunities. We were tasked with taking them information pamphlets in Russian about life in Israel, as well as easily barterable goods such as toothpaste and jeans. Being still youthful, I was far less concerned about the risks than my parents were. The worst we had heard of was some visitors being roughed up by KGB agents during the tense period around the Moscow Olympics.

I was paired with an old Habonim friend from Manchester and we were due to travel in early January 1981 for a week, visiting Moscow, Kiev and what was then still Leningrad. There was something thrilling about the cloak and dagger preparatory interview for the visit with an Israeli calling himself Moshe, whom we met while attending Habonim veida (conference) at a nearby hotel in Shrewsbury, where we ate sandwiches and he looked around furtively every now and again. We were instructed in how to try to conceal printed information on our persons as went through Soviet customs and immigration, given some numbers and names to call when we got there, and asked to disguise any information we brought back, such as new names and addresses, among university files we took with us. If stopped and questioned, we were to deny meeting Moshe, even if when asked where we got the pamphlets from and we said, from our local rabbi, they responded, is that Rabbi Moshe? We were also told not to pretend not to know other people on the tour we might recognise.

When we checked in for the Aeroflot flight to Moscow we immediately saw that the Habonim camps organiser was going to be on the same plane. We arrived in Moscow when it was already dark. At first, I thought I was being waved through passport control and customs, but then I was beckoned aside and asked to start emptying my pockets. I had taken one of my father’s old overcoats, stuffed full of the pamphlets, so I looked broader than usual. My suitcase was also searched, but it had little or nothing in it. After a while waiting in a side room, my fellow traveller was brought in, who I was very glad to see. There were two non-uniformed men asking us questions and a uniformed woman who translated for them. The questioning was not particularly aggressive, though one of them got it into his head that I knew some Russian, because I had with me my address book which my father had given me years earlier as a souvenir from his business trip to the USSR, which was decorated with palekh, Russian lacquer. We ended chatting in a friendly way with the translator while the other officials wrote up a long document, a protocol, in which they detailed everything that had been confiscated from us. Then we were allowed to join the bus, our prim tour guide and the other three people on our particular tour, one of whom (a carpenter from Liverpool) had been very disconcerted to have also been brought in to empty his pockets.

We had been told to go on the trips included in the tour package, so we got to see Red Square and no doubt other sites I do not recall. We were to use our free time to make contact with refuseniks and arrange to meet them. In Moscow we met Benjamin Bogomolny who had been sent out of Moscow for the Olympics but had managed to sneak back to be interviewed by Western media. He told us to go to the metro to a particular station and sit in the last carriage. As we made our way of the station with him, he pointed out the KGB agent who passed us on an escalator. Bogomolny had to wait twenty years, until 1986, to be granted an exit visa. Soviet surveillance was not intended to be covert, but to demonstrate that it was constant and proximate.

We flew from there to Kiev, where we felt most nervous, as if feeling the closeness of the site of the 1941 massacre of Babi Yar, where some 33,000 Jews from Kiev were murdered by Nazis and Ukrainian auxiliaries. We had to find our way to the apartment of Lev Elbert, another well-known refusenik who had applied for a visa in 1976, using the tram and a street map and got lost in the dark and the snow. Fortunately, someone helped us out, so we assume that person was not a KGB agent. It turned out Lev needed to go out so his brother Mikhail hosted us for most of the time. He told us he had been beaten up outside the apartment quite recently. So, we had some trepidation we made our way back to the hotel. The following day, when out guide told us that she had arranged for a radio journalist to interview our group, we felt compelled to participate, as if it were a scheme to keep us out of mischief.

From Kiev we flew to Leningrad, which was the most enjoyable leg of the trip for me. The contact we had led us to a group who were not aiming to emigrate to Israel but to the US and were learning English rather than Hebrew. We had a few visits over the days we spent in Leningrad, including mid-morning drinks, and were also taken on a trip or two, including one to the fabulous Hermitage museum where I feasted on its Impressionist collection. In principle, our purpose was to support refuseniks and bolster their connection with Israel. But after hearing so many experiences of state-sponsored antisemitism, especially denial of educational and professional opportunities, it would have extremely churlish to have denied the deep sense of connection we felt. The secretive circumstances of the trip and the eagerness with which the group embraced us had the intense emotional feel of a Russian novel. In any case, we were both Western Jews, not Israelis, the descendants of earlier emigration from Eastern and Central Europe to the West. Maybe Moshe would be disappointed, but so what?

The Hermitage Musem today. Image by Q K from Pixabay

Some more intense emotion came as we left Leningrad and the USSR. As we checked out at the airport, I noticed our tour guide pointing myself and my traveling companion out to the passport officials. We were both taken away separately but I was not detained for long. An official held up the protocol I had been given when I entered and told me it had cause me a lot of bother, so I pointed out to him that it had really been more bother to them to list everything. When I emerged there was no sign of my companion and as time went on, I became more worried. Had they found or planted something on him that would be grounds to hold him? What if they did not release him before we boarded? Would I be allowed to stay behind and if so, how would we pay for a new ticket? Would I be taken for further questioning? I went to the toilets and disposed of a photograph of a group we had been given by the Elberts to give to Moshe and which was hidden in one of my university files.

Much to my relief, my partner appeared before boarding time and we were on our way. On the plane, an older bearded traveller said to my companion, ‘I see you are becoming a refusenik  yourself.’ When we landed, we were finally able to talk to the Habonim camps organiser and found out that on her tour of five, which went to Riga, four were there for the same purpose as us and had surprised each other by visiting the same person. The other person was there to visit relatives. We also told the other people on our tour what we had been up to, though their reaction did not betray what their view was. If I recall correctly, the older man with us may have had an ideological reason for taking the trip while the pair of women, around our own age, were simply curious. There was an unmemorable debrief with Moshe some time later. Despite the intensity of the connection I felt in Leningrad, I did not keep in touch with the group there and am not sure we even took names and addresses.

My visit to the USSR and especially the affective charge of the ties felt in Leningrad demonstrate that in practice I had a good deal of affinity for other Jews suffering antisemitic persecution. Our trip was funded by Israeli funds and the ostensible purpose was Zionist, to support emigration to Israel. Yet, the Jewish solidarity I sensed in Leningrad was diasporic, an affection for other Jews who wanted the same diaspora life as I enjoyed in a pluralist, liberal democratic country. Many Jewish organisations and communities, in the US in particular, practiced this solidarity, rather than focusing on the right to emigrate to Israel. They embodied the destiny chosen by the majority of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia fleeing persecution and seeking better opportunities. My own family has branches who did not stop in the UK but went all the way from Eastern Europe across the Atlantic. Between 1881-1914, around two million Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire to the Americas, about half a million to Western Europe and only 80,000, or about 3%, to Palestine. The transatlantic route has also been the path chosen by my younger sister who is now a US citizen and, as I shall show, could have been my path too. I did not have a diasporic awakening as a result of my visit to Soviet refuseniks, but in practice I afforded as much legitimacy to Jewish diasporic existence as to Zionist settlement in Israel.