Origins of Democratic-Socialism in Israel: Foundations and Leadership

Origins of Democratic Socialism in Israel: Foundations and Leadership by Ivan C. Frank, Ph.D.

— reviewed by Jerry Blaz

During our current moment when Israel seems to be a Jewish embodiment of an American state with the bad fortune of living in a more chaotic neighborhood, it is easy to forget that Israel and the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in pre-state days, did not have as its goal to become a “free-market economy.” Much of the early Zionist immigration to Palestine was oriented to creating a working class. Indeed, they were socialists.

More after the jump.
They were more interested in getting Jews who would do the manual labor and the crafts that often were accomplished by non-Jews in many countries from which they came. At the same time, most of those who came to “the Land” during this period were socialists. They didn’t have confidence that the general socialist movements sweeping would solve the Jewish vulnerability of intermittent anti-Antisemitism of the region where they lived, mostly in the “Pale of Settlement” in Eastern Europe. These Socialist-Zionists reached Palestine and comprised the Chalutzim or pioneers, the most important segments of the population that created the State of Israel.

This little book by Dr. Frank is a source-book for the history of this movement that saw socialism as a solution for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael.  How and why this came about is explained in a cursory language for a story that could easily take a series of books, but is told in an economy of only 115 pages. For someone who believes that Israel was always a capitalist bulwark, and is unfamiliar with the real narrative, Origins of Democratic Socialism in Israel is a good eye-opener.

The origins in the Bilu movement — Bilu is an acronym of a Biblical expression meaning “House of Jacob let us ascend” (to Eretz Yisrael) — in the 1880s had more prosaic plans, like starting a farm and hiring local people to work the land for them, was sponsored by philanthropists like the Montifiore brothers and the more famous family, the Rothschilds. They created “colonies.”

The socialist emphasis of an aliyah (or “ascent” as immigration of Jews to Eretz Yisrael was [and is] called) came with the second aliyah, a wave of newcomers that became the workers’ movement, generally between 1905 to 1918. This period witnessed a great deal of experimentation in creating institutions, some of which didn’t “take hold” and others that at a later time, came to characterize the Jewish State. There was the organization of “kvutzot,” small groups of workers who shared their resources communally. There was the Jewish National Fund that began to purchase land in “the name of the Jewish people” (who doesn’t remember the omnipresent blue box?) and which held to that truth until the state took over much of the JNFs work.

In 1917 the first communal settlement, a kvutza called Degania was established on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Workers attached to the G’dud Ha-avodah or workers’ battalions went to work doing hard labor Jews did not generally engage in while in diaspora, like paving the roads and draining the swamps. These were key developments in the establishment of a new Zionist institutional structure.

The third aliyah commenced in 1919 and brought the idea of the large kibbutz, a commune comprising several hundred members. Ein Harod was established in the Valley of Jezreel, and a problem that had been previously discussed, the fate of the nuclear family placed in a communal setting, thus losing its economic function, was evident for anyone who made the commune home. At a later date, when the kibbutz/kvutzot movement reach a stasis and maturity, the communal children’s house was one of the first social institutions in the communal settlements to begin to disappear, with the children returning to the more conventional spending their nights in their parents’ quarters rather than under the watch of a kibbutz member, usually trained for this kind of duty, in the children’s house.

And it also created a divide that became almost permanent in the movement. Ben Gurion did not favor the large kibbutz, while Yitzhak Tabenkin, leader of the kibbutz movement, was in favor, and the ideological difference was felt through the movement and probably was an element in the great pillug or split-up of the United Kibbutz Movement in the 1950s, though the precipitating factor was external. Hapoel Hatzair becoming the larger part of the Labor Party, and Tabenkin’s group, Faction B (Si’ah Bet), which later became Achdut Ha’avodah. Achdut Ha’avodah joined with Hashomer Hatzair to create Mapam together. Later Achdut Ha’avodah quit Mapam over Soviet anti-Jewish actions, and was an independent faction for a period, and has been a part of Labor again for many years.  

As a result of these ideological differences, Hakibbutz Hameuchad movement had found some of its kibbutzim physically split up by the great pillug of this United Kibbutz movement, and was to suffer a smaller convulsive split several years later with the more radical elements of its membership over what was then called the Snehist faction, again over stances regarding the Soviet Union, which was also the incentive for Achdut Ha’avodah to leave Mapam and become an independent political party. These radical elements left their kibbutzim, some going to Yad Hanna, where the majority of the people were “Shnehists” and others going to the city. The term “Snehist” comes from the name of the leader of this movement, a former chief of staff of the Haganah by the name of Moshe Sneh, who went further left than the Labor Zionists.

This had already been reflected in the Mapai (Labor) orientation of the Chever Haq’vutzot (the kvutzah) movement while the Kibbutz Hameuchad movement was largely oriented towards Si’ah Bet. Perhaps, the largeness of some of the Kibbutz Hameuchad kibbutzim contributed to their problem when a large area of commonality of thought was necessary for a commune to remain intact, but I know personally of some of this ideological mischief occurring in small kibbutzim as well.

Nevertheless, the kibbutz movement, though inordinately influential during these early days, comprised only about three percent of the Jewish population of Israel. Yet its members were influential in the Zionist institutions and in the state institutions. In fact they were in the front-line of the creation of the state and were active in the Haganah and the pre-state “shock brigades” or Palmach.

Today, with Labor in the decline, history has been rewritten to give more credit to the right-wing underground movements like the Irgun Zvai Leumi, usually called by the Hebrew acronym Atze”l and referred to often as the “Irgun,” and its offshoot, the Lochmei Cherut Yisrael, known by the Hebrew acronym Lechi.

My own personal historical memory of a different pre-state history was the unwillingness of the right-wing groups to accept the discipline of the Zionist movement which had put limits on how the nascent state would oppose Arab opponents, like differentiating between friendly and non-friendly villages, treatment of civilians, etc.

When the state was established all the military groups accepted the discipline of the new state, and one of Ben Gurion’s first acts after the army was formed was to disband the Palmach because of its reputed leftish kibbutz orientation. The right-wing organizations were not brought in as organizations though many joined the army as individuals. These ideological differences continued and, to some extent, still continue to this day, a time when Israel is currently ruled by its most rightist government since its establishment.

Dr. Frank also outlines the development of other workers’ institution like union, the Histadrut, which began in 1920, its Sick Fund, Kupat Holim; its contracting arm; Solel Boneh, Paving and Building; T’nuva, the marketing cooperative of the workers’ settlements; Hamashbir Hamerkazi, which was the buying coop; Bank Hapoelim, which was the “workers’ bank;” the Labor exchanges where people could find employment, and even a publishing house, Am Oved. Most of these organizations were attached to the Histadrut through a holding firm called Chevrat Ovdim or Workers’ Community.  How these various industrial and organizational arms of the Histadrut  have developed since then is this description of Koor, which handled manufacturing of steel, and other manufacturing now describes itself:

Once a socialist vision, now a model of capitalism, Koor Industries is Israel’s leading holding company” and so it brags its capitalist characteristics, and is an indication of the changes that have occurred in Israel since the Labor-led governments have become a part of this past.

In general, the role played by the Histadrut can be summed up in the words of Ronald Sanders in his 1966 book, Israel: The View from Masada 1st edition:

The Histadrut was, in fact, in a unique historial situation; it had not only to serve as an instrument for organizing workers and as the creator of such welfare institutions as a system of socialist medicine but also had to be the medium for the development of an economy. In time the Histadrut became as much an entrepreneur — and a large-scale one, at that — as it was an organizer of labor. From the point of view of Histadrut ideologists in the early days, this arrangement made the organization all the more a potential instrument for the creation of a society that would be socialist and worker-owned from the outset. It is only in recent years that contradictions have clearly emerged from the fact of being both a national labor union and the largest employer of labor in the country.

During the pre-state days, while Dr Frank doesn’t dwell on it, there were at least three more waves of immigration which included the larger wave of German Zionist immigration, before the state-sponsored mass immigration called Kibbutz Galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles.  

Some of the personalities whose prominence Dr. Frank mentions in the establishing of a socialist-Zionist philosophy and movement were Ber Dov Berochov, A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson, Manya Shahat, who, with the aforementioned Ben Gurion and Tabenkin, and their roles are described by Dr Frank. Each individual deserves his or her own biography.

Today, Israel is a capitalist, free-market economy, and as such, has the internal problems of all such economies as the tent cities in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities can attest to, and socialist Zionism seems to have been eclipsed by this capitalism. Many kibbutzim have often ceased to epitomize communal living, but are now often members who have a cooperative share in a meshek or agricultural/industrial group of enterprises, very often worked by outside labor rather than members of the kibbutz, many of whom are already retired. Those members who do work, receive wages in addition to their share of any profits the meshek earns, and the wages are generally commensurate with the level of skill of the member-worker, just as it would be for an hired worker.

Their children have deserted the “old homestead” for other endeavors. After all, it was their parents’ choice to become Chalutzim (pioneers), and not theirs. So very often, after army service, many of the children find other life-paths. However, there have been cases during this period when the economics have created the aforementioned tent city protests, there have been reports about kibbutz children, now adults, returning. While the story isn’t finished, it would be a nice conclusion to say: “Your future is filled with hope, declares the LORD. Your children will return to their own territory.”Jeremiah 31:17.