Category Archives: Zionism

‘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).

On not seeing Kuwaykat

This is another excerpt from the third chapter of the book I am writing. This chapter covers the year I spent in Israel as part of a Zionist youth group, Habonim. The excerpt is about my time on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek.

The months spent on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek further instilled a deep sense of familiarity with and connection to the land. I enjoyed the beautifully landscaped and gardened grounds of the kibbutz as well as the productiveness of its agricultural fields. It certainly felt like home for a while, or at least a place in which I belonged.

One weekend I was late coming back to the kibbutz on a Saturday night (a night on which Israel won the Eurovision song contest with the song “Halleluya,” performed by “Milk and Honey”) after visiting my relatives in Jerusalem. I found myself in Nahariya after the usual sherut (shared taxi service) had ended so I had no choice but to hitch a ride, about which I was quite nervous. First a lorry driver took me to a junction closer to the kibbutz and then a sherut with three Arabs in it gave me a free ride for the rest of the way, and, as I wrote in my diary “did not stab or rob me.” Although that was meant humorously, the fearful thought had obviously crossed my mind that I was relying on the kindness of potentially hostile strangers. Why should I be anxious that I would be kidnapped or attacked by neighbours of the kibbutz where I was staying? I cannot remember any case in which a Jewish hitchhiker has been attacked by a Palestinian driver within the 1967 borders, though there have been such incidents during the intifada periods in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Zochrot. All that remains of the village. 2008.

I would suggest that part of my fear stems from what I could see at Bet Ha’emek but did not acknowledge, what I was dimly aware of but did not want to know. On the road that connected the kibbutz to the main road there was a shrine which was visited by Arabs every now and again. It is the shrine of Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Qurayshi, a Druze religious leader. I never asked, or even wondered, why this shrine was next to the kibbutz. There were also some old stone buildings on the kibbutz, one of which housed the dark room which my kibbutz father used for his photography hobby. I do not recall asking when they were built, or why there were so few such buildings around. If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that the olive trees on the kibbutz looked older than the kibbutz. Perhaps others in the group asked more questions, but I did not.

Dr. Avishai Teicher, Olive Trees on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek,

It was not until many years later that the Israeli organisation Zochrot, which has worked “since 2002 to promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948,” produced a map and an app that told me about Bet Ha’emek.[1] When the kibbutz was established in 1949, it was on the site of the Palestinian village of Kuwaykat, which had about 1200 residents and whose land was considered to be among the most fertile of the district, growing grain, olives and watermelons.[2] It was captured and destroyed by Israeli armed forces as part of Operation Dekel in July 1948. The village had withstood three previous attacks in January, February and June, but in July a heavy bombardment forced out the villagers, most of whom fled to nearby Abu Sinan and Kfar Yusif.[3]

We were awakened by the loudest noise we had ever heard, shells exploding and artillery fire … women were screaming, children were crying… Most of   the villagers began to flee with their pyjamas on. The wife of Qassim Ahmad Sa’id fled carrying a pillow in her arm instead of her child...[4]

The car I was in that night was most probably on its way to Kfar Yusif, which gave shelter to many of the refugees from Kuwaykat. They were among the approximately 46,000 Palestinian refugees, or internally displaced persons, who remained within the new State of Israel, under the oxymoronic status in Israeli law of “present absentees.” They and their descendants, now numbering well over a quarter of a million souls, have never been allowed to return to their homes.[5] In her book, Erased from Space and Consciousness, Noga Kadman observes that even recently the publications of the kibbutz barely mention Kuwaykat or the previous residents. But they do mention the olive trees, which kibbutz youth now harvest to pay for their “root trips” to Poland where they visit sites of the Jewish catastrophe, the Holocaust. The Palestinians who gave me a ride that night probably knew that I was not an Israeli, but even if they took me for a foreign volunteer on the kibbutz, they would have known the history of the place in which I felt at home and which I was then certain that Jewish Israelis had a right to inhabit exclusively. I lived on Bet Ha’emek and I did not see Kuwaykat, even though its traces were around me. The fields on which I became a Zionist subject had been farmed by Palestinians before me and before the pioneers from British Habonim arrived. The Palestinians did not rob me, but I enjoyed the fruits that had been robbed from them.

A 1940s map of the area of Kuwaykat from the Survey of Palestine.

[1] See Zochrot, “Our Vision,” Accessed 3/16/2021. The Nakba app is especially useful for learning about the Palestinian presence that has been erased by Israeli settlements and forests, often planted by the Jewish National Fund, while traveling around Israel-Palestine, as it shows information according to one’s current location.

[2] Government of Palestine, Department of Statistics. Village Statistics, April, 1945. Quoted in S. Hadawi, Village Statistics of 1945: A Classification of Land and Area ownership in Palestine (Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, 1970), p. 81.

[3] See Zochrot, “Kuwaykat,” . Accessed 3/16/2021.

[4] Walid Khalidi, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), pp.  224-25.

[5] Wikipedia, “Present Absentees,” Accessed 3/16/2021.