Tag Archives: Labour 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.

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).

Building the “New Jew”

In this excerpt from the third draft chapter of my book, I write about my experience working on kibbutz for five months as part of a ten month programme (like a gap year) in Israel, 1978-79. For the first five months I took a course at the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem (the machon), followed by time on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek. In the chapter, I discuss in quite intellectual terms my dubiousness about the relevance for the late 1970s of labour Zionist pioneering through settlement on a kibbutz. There was, however a more concrete way in which my life and that ideology encountered each other – through my body, especially my working body.

Some of my Habonim group on Bet Ha’emek. I am in the bottom right corner, with the ginger Jewfro

When we moved up to the kibbutz after the machon course ended in early February I soon realized that what mattered was to be assigned as a permanent member of a work team, rather than being assigned each day wherever an extra pair of hands was needed. That took a while, in part because I spent a while in the citrus groves, partly through a connection with my kibbutz family. The work there involved climbing up ladders and into trees to pick the fruit but I have a fear of heights I have never overcome. By the end of February, more often than not I was working in the bananas and mostly enjoying the work and the company. There were some bad days, about one of which when the work was dull and the supervision unpleasant I wrote: “how mad A.D. Gordon (a key labour Zionist thinker) must have been … The chalutzic (pioneering) challenge is boredom. The Yishuv (pre-State Zionist community in Palestine) was built by near-lunatics.” But for the most part I enjoyed the days and was downhearted when the team leader for the bananas told me towards the end of March that there was no room left on the permanent team. Yet, less than two weeks later, while I was paired with him for the arduous job of picking, he let me know I was part of the team, which cheered me up immensely.

I was aware of how my body was growing stronger as I worked, not minding that I would be so exhausted after the day’s labour, which normally ended at lunchtime after a 5:30 am start, that I would need to sleep through the afternoon. When someone in the group remarked on how my upper body had expanded, I was as full of pride as I had ever been when school-teachers praised my academic work. The values had changed, from cleverness and book learning to enthusiasm for hard and sometimes boring physical work, but I relished whatever praise I received about my work ethic. Some of the experience was about learning new skills, such as which of the shoots of new banana plants should be allowed to grow for the new season and which needed to be chopped and poisoned (having six leaves on the 6th of June was a good sign). I was given the opportunity to learn how to drive the tractor, the first time I had operated any vehicle. That was not an altogether successful experience. Once I nearly got into fight when I was failing to reverse the tractor with a trailer full of people in the parking area outside of the dining hall and someone from a youth group living on the kibbutz decided to take over. On my last day of work I was driving part of the team back to the dining room when we heard a group form the avocados shouting in our direction. Thinking they wanted to pass, I pulled in towards the side of the road, only later to be told that they were shouting because I was already clipping some of the avocado trees and that if it were not my last day they would have killed me.

Bet Ha’emek archaeological garden, Dr. Avishai Teicher, 2014 

Driving aside, I took great pleasure in proving that I could hold and carry the biggest bunches of bananas that were picked. One person would use a machete to first cut into the plant to lower the bunch to the point where the other person could take the weight on his shoulder (women were not allowed to perform this task). Then the chopper would cut the stem by which the bunch was attached to the plant and the bearer would carry it to the carriages in which the picked bunches were piled in a specific way. When I graduated to becoming a chopper, carrying a machete on my belt, I felt that I had really made it. Equally rewarding was being invited around for tea by a couple of my older workmates who were members of the kibbutz. During this period, which lasted until early July, someone gave us “an enlivening talk about the origins of the kibbutz movement, to the extent that I felt I was with those young people who became chalutzim.” As I was about to leave I wrote: “I am just about to get into kibbutz, ready to live in Israel, to learn Ivrit (Hebrew), and I am being taken away.

“A Nation Reborn on it’s Ancestral Soil” Jewish National Fund art by Otte Wallisch 1950. https://www.reddit.com/r/PropagandaPosters/comments/7d88aj/a_nation_reborn_on_its_ancestral_soil_jewish/

My body was the site for the realization of a Zionist slogan I already knew “we came to the Land to build and to be built in it.” Despite my predominant belief that agricultural work would not be fulfilling, not a path to my “self-realization,” it became a path to constituting myself as a “new Jew,” an ideal figure of the Zionist movement contrasting the  negative image of the Diaspora Jew. Whereas the diaspora Jew was weak, pale and timid, the new Jew would be muscular, bronzed and brave.[1] Working on the kibbutz, especially as a member of the team in the bananas, was the discipline and self-care through which I asserted both my masculinity and my Jewishness as part of a national collective in Israel. Where labour Zionist ideology had failed to persuade, labour Zionist practice had reached into the sinews of my limbs and fortified the muscles of my body. Where my intellect and soul had resisted the idea of fulfillment in physical effort, my body had relished the sense of corporeal empowerment. I had happily and enthusiastically become a Zionist subject.[2]

[1] See Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapter 11, “The New Jew.”

[2] On the Foucualdian notion of self-constitution as a subject and care of the self, see Jon Simons, Foucault and the Political (London: Routledge, 1995), Chapter 8.