Category Archives: Autobiographical

‘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).

David and Goliath, Part Two

David and Goliath by Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (between 1542 and 1544)

From my perspective now, and while remaining thoughtful of and compassionate towards my eleven year-old self, with his sweet smile inherited from his mother and his curly ginger hair brushed as straight as it would go, I would want to push myself further in my analogy of the 1948 war to David and Goliath which I drew in my 1972 essay. It is not that I could expect of my younger self to know what I know now, that the victory in 1948 was not miraculous or righteous. The paramilitary forces of the Yishuv – the pre-state institutions of the Zionist community in Palestine – did relatively well in the civil war against poorly equipped and organized Palestinian and Arab forces from November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine, until May 1948. This was particularly so in the last few months, when the nascent state captured the main Arab and mixed cities on the coastal plane, Jaffa and Haifa, clearing those and other areas of Palestinian residents. There was a tougher spell, lasting twenty eight days, after British rule officially ended in May 1948 and Arab states advanced, but they were not dramatically better armed, numerous or coordinated compared to the newly-formed Israeli Defence Force, which was able to halt their advance. But they could not prevent the fall of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem – surely the most appropriate site for divine intervention. After the first truce, from 11th June to 8th July 1948, Israeli forces counter-attacked, now reinforced by Czech weapons and more recruits. They were mostly successfully except on the Syrian front, in a ten-day campaign followed by another violated truce. In subsequent Israeli campaigns against Egyptian forces in the south and the Arab Liberation Army in the north more territory was seized, and more Palestinians were expelled or fled, creating about 700,000 refugees as well as internally displaced people. The new State of Israel secured control over 78% of Mandatory Palestine, 22% more than it had been allocated in the UN Partition Plan, in a series of armistice agreements with the Arab states.

I could not know all of that then because Israeli New Historians had not yet written their rather more sober accounts of the war, based on released Israeli and British archives, in the late nineteen eighties. I followed the debate about the New Historians during my decade living in Israel, mostly based in the academic culture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where their work was discussed in the cafetaria and in newspaper columns as much as in academic seminars. I also could not know then what I know now because I was a child, still living in a magical universe of divine intervention that made more sense to me than the results of careful archival work. In my world, the narrative of oppression and heroic redemption rang truer than one of successful institution and state-building.

What I could possibly expect of my eleven year-old self was to pay more attention to the story of David and Goliath. Somewhere in my early Jewish education I learned what is written in the First Book of Samuel 8, though whether or not we read it I cannot recall. The elders of Israel asked the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over them, “to judge us like all other nations. … and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:6, 20). God commands Samuel to “hearken to the voice of the people,” not because they are right, but because “they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. They have forsaken me, and served other gods” (1 Samuel 8:7-8). God also tells Samuel to remind the people of what a king will expect from them, taxation, military conscription, and servitude, but they do not care. Another prize I was awarded by the Emmanuel Raffles cheder in December 1972, some months after I wrote the Israel essay, a four-volume history of the Jewish people,  Our People,can serve as a likely approximation to whatever I was told, because the first two volumes basically paraphrase Biblical history.[1]

The message I recall is that although Saul was selected by God through Samuel to be king, his anointment as king speaks to a deeper failing of faith among the Israelites who should not have wished to be like the other nations. Moreover, Saul was not a great example as a king. I have to look back at volume two of Our People to recall the details of Saul’s shortcomings, but one detail that was close to the surface of my memory is that Saul did not follow through on God’s instruction through Samuel to annihilate the Amalekites. He spared their King Agag and allowed their best cattle to be taken as spoils after defeating them in battle.  For this sin, Saul lost Samuel’s support and divine right to be king, which passed to David, still a shepherd boy. Subsequently, David comes into the royal circle as a lyre player and armor bearer for the melancholic Saul, prior to the story of Goliath.

In addition to knowing more of the back story to David and Goliath, as an eleven year-old I could have paid more attention to the details of the story. The Israelites under Saul and the Philistines were once again at war, but rather than engaging in full battle, the tall, mighty Goliath issued a challenge to individual combat with an Israelite champion to decide which side would vanquish the other. David, still caring for his father’s sheep, arrived at the scene to take provisions to his older brothers. David expressed surprise that no Israelite from among “the armies of the living God” (I Samuel 17:26) has the courage to accept Goliath’s challenge, word of which reaches Saul. Let us leave aside the oddity that Saul does not appear to know who David is when he is brought before him. Let us focus instead on the detail that David does not go out armed only with his slingshot and five stones against the well-armed Goliath for lack of equipment, but rather because when he tries on Saul’s armor and weapons he cannot walk with them. As David tells Goliath, whereas Goliath comes with his weapons, David comes in the name of God, to demonstrate divine might. David is the hero because, unlike Saul, who has not fulfilled the earlier expectation of the elders of Israel to go in front of their armies to fight their battles, he has faith in God. David is thus fit to become king, unlike Saul becomes increasingly jealous of David, even trying to kill him and forcing him to flee. Another element of David’s story which stuck in my mind is that, though he was a great king who built a united kingdom for all the Israelites, he had too much blood on his hands to become the builder of the new temple in Jerusalem.  

As an eleven year-old boy, I might then have been able to see that the story of David and Goliath is more complicated than that of a brave little underdog vanquishing its well-armed and larger enemy. I might have been able, with some prompting, to see that the story is as much about Saul’s unsuitability to be king as it is about David’s faithful, God-fearing bravery.[2] But it would have been too much of a jump for me to consider that the story can be read as an ongoing current of Judaic critique of the sort of power embodied by the modern sovereign nation state, which is what came about in the war of 1948 and is taken to be a fulfilment of the Zionist movement. The Israelites of Saul’s time demonstrated a lack of faith by wanting a king, so they could be like all other nations. State-focused Zionism – which eclipsed cultural Zionism and Zionism willing to have a Jewish homeland in Palestine within a bi-national state – demanded that the Jews to be like all other nations. It regards the power of a state as that which protects Jews from antisemitism both physically and by normalizing Jewish collective life as modern nationhood. Max Weber claims that the state is the “only human Gemeinschaft (community) which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force. However, this monopoly is limited to a certain geographical area, and in fact this limitation to a particular area is one of the things that defines a state.”[3] The emphasis of the modern state is on secular might wielded in demarcated territory. That is Goliath’s power, not the power of religious faith or of a divinity intervening in human affairs. Yes, the Biblical narrative does proceed to legitimate David’s militaristic nation-building (though it is anachronistic to see a modern nation state in his kingdom). But the united kingdom does not last for long. Division (at first between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) rather than unity characterizes most of Israelite life in its-post Exodus homeland. I would like to think that even at my early age, with a teacher asking the right questions, I might have been able to see that David’s faithfulness, his rejection of Saul’s armor, indicates an alternative line of Jewish legitimacy to Zionism and militaristic state-building, casting doubt that the latter is the divine destiny I took it to be.


[1] Jacob Isaacs, Our People: History of the Jews, Volume II (Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Inc.: Brooklyn, NY, 1957), pp. 58-60. Unlike The Golden Thread and A Guide to Jewish Knowledge these volumes do not establish continuity from Biblical times to the modern day and the State of Israel, ending their account around 1000 C.E, after the writing of the Talmud and the end of the era of the Gaonim, when the Talmudic seminaries in Babylon closed. I am not sure I read all of this history at the time, but it does offer a model of rich, viable Diaspora Jewish life that is missing in accounts of Jewish history with a Zionist teleology that takes the Jewish State to be the pinnacle of history.

[2] Interestingly, Azmi Bisharah picks up on Saul’s jealousy of David’s military success as an angle for analysis when using the story as an analogy to analyse the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Azmi Bishara (2008) David, Goliath and Saul: repercussions on Israel of the 2006 war, Contemporary Arab Affairs, 1:2, 211-236, DOI: 10.1080/17550910801951755.

[3] Max Weber in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (Palgrave Books: London, 2015), p. 136.