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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

Workers of the World? III

November 30, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

The current wave (or swamp) of strikes in Israel has been deemed by some to be the manifestation of a fundamental struggle between "right" and "left," between liberal and socialist streams of Zionism, between normalization and utopianism.

The people we tend to think of as the "founding fathers" -- Ben Gurion, Ben Zvi, Meir, Sharett, etc., arrived in Palestine in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, seeking to synthesize their socialist revolutionary idealism with their redemption as Jews rebuilding their nation. Within a few years they established experimental communities in which they sought to live out that synthesis: returning to their ancestral soil while modeling utopia; in their kibbutzim they were sure they heard the footsteps of the [secular] messiah. Socialist Zionism would redeem the Jews -- and the world.

In the pre-state -- or non-state -- of Mandatory Palestine, the needs of the people had to be provided for by voluntary organizations. Each political party set up its own network of institutions to serve (and attract) members. Competing HMOs, sports clubs, banks, labor exchanges, even school systems served essential needs on a bed of ideology. Early on, it was the socialist parties that dominated, and the Histadrut labor federation became a tremendously powerful provider of everything, owning significant industrial and commercial enterprises. But while the labor institutions dominated, they did not do so absolutely, and the competing institutions survived. To this day, all of the sports teams in Israel bear the names of the politically affiliated sports clubs that were their predecessors (Beitar and Maccabi on the right, Hapoel on the left). And banks and HMO's similarly retain vestigial references to their ideological roots ("The Workers' Bank;" the "The National HMO;" etc).

By the time of the establishment of the state, the dominance of labor had come to be taken for granted, and the revolutionary vision had settled into something that looked a lot like a political machine, with rampant waste and cronyism. Out in the periphery, kibbutzim were splitting apart in the debate over whether the Soviet Union under Stalin continued to represent the vision of socialist redemption. And the masses of new immigrants in the 50s and 60s from North Africa and the Middle East found the ideological debates of aging Russian college students a bit irrelevant, especially as they encountered a good deal of paternalism or just plain discrimination on the part of the Ashkenazic labor establishment.

And so it came to pass in 1977 that Menahem Begin became prime minister, and labor, for the first time, occupied the role of opposition. Since then, power has shifted back and forth, and we have come to associate "left" and "right" with foreign policy views, not with social policy. However, while our struggle to find and hold our place in the Middle East may seem to consume all of our energy, it appears that the old conflict between normalization and utopianism, between nationalism for its own sake and nationalism for the sake of a utopian ideal, is still very much with us. Indeed, it seems to me that this tension has found expression in the conflict between the "peace camp" and whatever you call the other side ("the right," "the national camp?"). While it is not clear that the socialist Zionist pioneers saw it this way, perhaps today's debate over whether Israel should be held to a higher moral standard than other nations, with respect to its treatment of "others" within and outside its borders, is a continuation of the same original conflict between differing overall visions of Zionism.


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