Tag Archives: Israel/Palestine

‘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

[I am a posting some autobiographical blogs, I hope towards writing a book about how my ideas and beliefs about Israel-Palestine and the conflict have evolved over the years. I might start here.]

“When David killed Goliath it was God’s doing. When Israel won the War of Independence, it was God’s doing.” That is how I remember the start of the essay I wrote about Israel in 1972, aged eleven, for which I won the Leon and Bertha Gradel Israel essay prize at King David Junior School in Manchester. My good memory at that age plays an important role in the story of the prize, which I was invited to read out an evening dinner for the school governors. I was terrified by the prospect and rehearsed a lot, carrying the essay around with me in the days leading up to the event. On the afternoon of the dinner, I realized when I arrived home that I had left the single copy of my text at school. When my father came home from work, he took me to the school in the hope of finding the caretaker to let us in, but there was no sign of him. So, I sat down to rewrite the essay, drawing as best I could on memory, filling in the gaps with equally florid prose where there were gaps. I spent the evening stuck as closely as possible to my two peers – both girls – who were also at the dinner, so closely that they went to the toilet to shake me off for a while. Needless to say, I made no mention that I was not reading out the actual prize-winning version when called up to the stage to speak. The following day our class teacher, the inspiring and much-loved Mrs. Abrahams, asked me how the reading had gone. When I told her and the whole class about forgetting the text in my desk, she was prompted to call one of the two local Jewish weekly newspapers [check cutting at Dad’s] , which published the story. We omitted just one detail, which was that my father and I had found an open outside door at the school but my classroom door was locked, my desk frustratingly close to it. There was no need to embarrass the caretaker.

On the left is Osmar Schindler’s 1888 painting “David and Goliath.” On the right is 15-year-old Faris Odeh throwing a rock at an Israeli tank during the Second Intifada. He was killed by the Israelis ten days after this picture was taken. Source: Beirut Today

The opening trope of the essay, of Israel as the David to its aggressive and monstrous Arab, non-Jewish neighbours, indicates how deeply I had absorbed a religiously-framed mythical Zionist narrative about the righteousness of the birth of the State of Israel. According to that narrative, Israel was. like David, relatively small and ill-equipped, the young Jewish underdog bravely standing alone against the might of the states of the Arab League, standing in for the Biblical Phillistines, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who invaded the newly-declared state on May 15th 1948. So outnumbered and overwhelmed was Israel that it was miraculous that it not only survived but triumphed over its enemies, just as in the First Book of Samuel David accredits his victory to the living God, not to the “sword and spear.” So, it was not just any sort of Zionism with which I had been inculcated, but a religiously-tinged version that saw the hand of God at work in the creation of the State of Israel, just as in the Biblical stories. There could thus be no question about the justice of Jewish nationalism, any more than of the Israelites victory over the Phillistines, achieved “in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” (Book of Samuel 1, 17, 45).

The trope of Israel as David and the Arabs as Goliath is still current and potent. A book published in 2012 that posits Israel as the aggrieved party in the conflict, the victim of outrageous global media bias, uses the trope for its title. A blogger in 2019 similarly targets the “Goliath Arab propaganda machine” and bemoans its efforts to rob Israel of its victim-status as David: “we cannot let the Arab Propaganda machine steal the truth, including our very history and identity, and take Israel from the real David back to the evil Goliath.” Another similarly-titled recent book laments that Israel has lost its David status not only because of the size of the Arab and Muslim Goliath but also because of a new paradigm on the Left, a “race-consciousness in which the struggle of the third world against the West … replaced the older Marxist model of proletariat versus bourgeoisie.” Some people are just sore winners, oblivious to the immense power disparity between Israel and Palestinians. I could say more, but it’s not worth the trouble.

Not that I thought of my childhood essay at the time, but my experience of living in Jerusalem throughout the first intifada thoroughly dispelled the mythology of Israel as the small David and Palestinians as the giant Goliath. The uprising pitched mostly unarmed Palestinians in the Occupied Territories against Israel, the regional military superpower. Frequently, Palestinian youths – the Shabab – throwing stones or using catapults confronted and harried Israeli troops whose commanders were ill-prepared for handling a mass civilian uprising.  Although I had no television at home at the beginning of the intifada, I did not need to see live pictures of slingshots pitched against rifles and armored vehicles to understand that the typical media framing of the conflict had shifted and even been reversed in Israel as well as abroad, even in the USA, as noted by Ella Shohat in 1991. Palestinians became David and Israel Goliath. Perhaps the Palestinians did not have God on their side, as did David, but they certainly had justice on their side as the rebelled against illegitimate and unrelenting military rule.