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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Justice, Justice III

February 1, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Another theme we will be exploring in our field day on social justice for the local tenth grade is that of labor relations. There is, of course some irony in the fact that as of this writing there’s a good probability that the whole activity will be cancelled because of an expected wave of strikes by teachers and maintenance workers. In any case, labor relations are a particularly interesting topic in Israel, as the founding fathers of the state were socialists; we had labor unions here long before we had a state, and for generations the state bureaucracy and the union bureaucracy were intertwined (pathologically so, it seems in retrospect). But that’s not all. One of the dominant themes of Zionism from the beginning – and not only socialist Zionism – was the centrality of physical labor in the revitalization of the Jewish people. In returning to our land, we were being reborn normal, healthy, rooted, and self-sufficient. No more the stereotype of the “luftmensch” (one who lives on air)! Jewish mothers would be proud to raise not doctors and accountants, but farmers and mechanics.

One of the most remarkable figures in Zionist history was A.D. Gordon, who at the age of 47 (in 1903) left his white collar existence in Russia and immigrated to Palestine, where he worked for the rest of his life (almost 20 years) as an agricultural laborer. Charismatic and articulate, he became a kind of “guru” to a whole generation – and his writings are still studied. For example…

…We ourselves must do all the work, from the least strenuous, cleanest, and most sophisticated, to the dirtiest and most difficult. In our own way, we must feel what a worker feels and think what a worker thinks – then, and only then, shall we have a culture of our own, for then we shall have a life of our own…. Only by making Labor, for its own sake, our national ideal shall we be able to cure ourselves of the plague that has affected us for many generations and mend the rent between ourselves and Nature… We must all work with our own hands.

This mindset gave rise to the ideal – and policy – of “avodah ivrit:” the Zionist settlers should not hire Arab laborers to do their dirty work, but instead, we should employ the newly created Jewish peasants and laborers. This ideal, of course, turned out to be a double-edged sword, for with our drive to productivization and self-sufficiency we drove the local Arabs out of the economy and created deep-seated resentments (not to mention economic stagnation) the consequences of which we still suffer.

As the 20th century wore on, the proletarian vision of bourgeois, college-educated idealists dreaming of romantically dirty fingernails collided with the bourgeois vision of thousands of poor refugees from Europe and North Africa dreaming of a nice house in the suburbs and a comfortable middle class life.

Therefore, in order to teach our students about labor relations we will take them to visit factories turning out garments for major international brands, where all of the sewing machines are operated by young Arab women working at minimum wage, and then we will visit prosperous Galilean fruit orchards all of whose workers send their pay home to Thailand. If should we run into the spirit of A.D. Gordon, with his long white beard and his hoe, how will we even begin to explain ourselves?


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