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New Raw Deal for Israelis, Old Raw Deal for Palestinians: Labor Zionism and the Israeli Summer

[Israel Housing Protests Tel Aviv, 27 August 2011. Image by] [Israel Housing Protests Tel Aviv, 27 August 2011. Image by]

The vision document produced by the organizers of last year’s “Israeli Summer” demonstrations laments how, “for a number of decades, the various governments of Israel have opted for an economic policy of privatization that leaves the free market without reins.” It called for “ending privatization; increasing rent stipends to those who are entitled to aid; lowering the number of pupils per class; and increasing doctors, hospital beds and equipment in the health system”—all characteristic of the Labor Zionist collectivist state. Indeed, the demonstrations were deeply embedded with nostalgia for Labor Zionist idealism and dissatisfaction with the outcomes of neoliberal economics.

But what exactly is this idealism for which so many demonstrators on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard were nostalgic? And what about the deeper issues at stake, such as justice for the Palestinians? If the history of Labor Zionism is any guide, the Israeli Summer and its potential progeny, however well-meaning, promise to be narrowly focused and of no help to the Palestinians.

Labor Zionism is a child of the European Enlightenment, an epoch that inspired the interconnected emergence of modern nationalism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century. These forces together formed the theoretical basis to which Zionism responded and set a course for the Jewish national struggle. But Labor Zionists are also indebted to another idea of this age: socialism. Socialism prescribed not a national struggle, but rather an international class struggle. This gave rise to a perpetual tension within Labor Zionism between its definitions as an exclusively Jewish national struggle and as a universal class struggle. It is this contradiction with which Labor Zionism has struggled since its inception. At each turn it has prioritized national struggle over class struggle, always to the detriment of the Palestinians.

The early, influential Zionist Ber Borochov provided much of the driving ideological force behind the second aliyah (wave of Zionist immigration). He was first and foremost a Marxist, who wrestled with the contradiction of unifying class and national struggle. Ultimately, he avoided the conflict by offering a sequential explanation. He stated, “Our ultimate aim is Socialism; our immediate goal is Zionism.” He claimed that the completion of the Jewish national struggle was a prerequisite for the true class struggle to begin, thus resolving the contradiction simply by denying it.

But even Jewish socialist nationalism did not have to be territoriallet alone Zionistin nature. For instance, the Russian Bund, an influential Jewish labor union and workers’ party, accepted the need for Jewish “national emancipation as well as equal civil rights,” but remained wary of Zionism, whose “propaganda inflames the nationalist feelings and hinders the development of class consciousness.” [1] Thus, the Bund saw the conflict between class and national interests and, committed as they were to socialist ideals, prioritized their class interests.

Despite this difference, the views of the Bund and Borochov on Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) itself did not vary too much, in that both saw the land as primarily a means of production. The Bund considered Zionism “an objective of little value, because such a territory [Palestine] would be able to contain but a fraction of the whole [Jewish] nation.” [2] Thus, for the Bund, opposition to Zionism was merely strategic, and they did not in any way question the legitimacy or indeed supremacy of the Jewish claim to Palestine. For Borochov, on the other hand, the material productivity of the land was not a limitation for Zionism, but rather an enabling factor. He estimated that Palestine “can accommodate up to nine million people, whereas now it is even short of a half-million.” He did not trouble himself with the morality of the Jewish claim, writing, “[O]ur Palestinism is neither theoretical nor practical, but rather predictive.”

Conspicuously absent from this discourse is the indigenous population of Palestine. They never appear in the Bund’s objections to Zionism, which focus instead on its infeasibility and the negative effects of nationalism on the class-consciousness of the Jewish proletariat. Borochov does mention the native population, though only as an inaccurate number. While he claims that ‘short of a half-million’ Palestinians lived in Mandate Palestine, in fact the population numbered above zeven hundred thousand. His suggestion of the land's emptiness—one that is both numerically and qualitatively false—underscores his ignorance of the physical land of Palestine and his total assuredness of the superiority of the Jewish claim to an imagined Eretz Yisrael. The dismissal of the Palestinians by both these parties is unfortunate, but hardly surprising, since neither Borochov nor the vast majority of the Bund ever visited Palestine. This may explain their dismissal of the indigenous population, but it does not diminish the indelible role Palestinians played in the development of Zionism.

Zionists in Palestine did not contend with the reality of the land’s indigenous population until the second aliyah (19041914), at which time the woefully inaccurate character of Borochov’s theories came to light. He regarded the “accumulation of capital and labor in Palestine” as a “spontaneous process” which would quickly create a Jewish proletariat to facilitate class struggle. However, the relative scarcity of incoming capital and competition from Arab laborers—who worked for less and had more experience—necessitated securing “jobs for Jews by excluding Arab workers from privately owned Jewish enterprises” if the ideal of a Jewish proletariat was to continue. This was highly problematic to some Marxist elements of the Labor Zionist Poale Zion party, who were “initially dismayed at the prospect…[of] depriving fellow workers their livelihoods simply because they were Arabs.” Nonetheless, just as Labor Zionism had resolved the contradiction of nationalism and socialism, so too did it resolve this conflict by prioritizing exclusionary nationalist ideals. 

Resolution did not emerge from a Marxist framework. Labor Zionists abandoned Marxist class struggle in favor of A. D. Gordon’s mystical philosophy, which stressed “the value of Jewish Labor in the restorations of our land, and in the revival of our people.” [3] Gordon unequivocally rejected class struggle, saying that “there are those that see and desire to see such a relationship [class struggle] among us…not a few there are who do not wish to see it.” [4] He despaired that “we have no laboring class in our midst,” a scenario he could not tolerate because “if we do not till the soil with our very own hands, it will not be ours.” [5] Gordon was very much invested in the notion of “pioneers,” and is to a large extent responsible for the iconic Zionist image of the rugged Jewish laborer because of his call for “a pioneering movement for manual labor…and for use of the Hebrew tongue.” [6]

For Gordon, the Jewish relationship with the land was less religious than it was spiritual. He saw it not as a static religious connection, but as a dynamic bond, which Jews had to nurture by working the land themselves. By emphasizing the special spiritual bond between this people and this piece of land, Gordon invalidates Palestinian claims to the land, although they did indeed “till the soil with [their] very own hands.” Yet again, Palestinians are present only in their absence from the discourse, since the only “reference” to this vast swath of people is made indirectly, through insistences that “labor in all our settlements should be wholly Jewish.” [7]

Gordon’s ideas were widely influential in attracting ideologically-driven socialist immigrants during the third aliyah (19191923), and became the driving force behind the Hebrew Labor movement, which forced Jewish employers to hire exclusively Jewish labor. This so-called labor movement thereby justified the displacement of tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers in the “conquest of labor.” It was then that Labor Zionism, through the Histadrut, or Jewish labor union, took over the Zionist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. With its vision of the Jewish collective, it created an impressive social safety net for Jews at the expense of an ever-increasing number of displaced Palestinians. Labor Zionists held onto uninterrupted control until the 1977 Likud victory. Since then, Israel has embarked on a series of neoliberal policies and Labor Zionist idealism has largely faded into irrelevance.

Labor Zionism’s departure from the center of Israeli politics has had little impact upon Palestinians, to whom it never afforded adequate consideration. In what Mark LeVine calls the “welfare-warfare state,” the vast majority of Israeli citizens were willing to actively participate in decades of warfare against the Palestinians in exchange for state welfare that would provide them with a decent standard of living. Except in the settlementswhere “the Israeli welfare state is still alive and well”neoliberalism has necessitated reducing or eliminating welfare from the equation while maintaining and even expanding warfare. In other words, it is a new raw deal for Israelis, but an old raw deal for Palestinians.

Interestingly enough, modern neoliberalism offers a unique opportunity for cooperation and solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians, with the disassembly of the welfare state and falling standards of living altering Israeli conceptions of nationalism; this trend culminated in last summer’s massive protests of discontent. Neoliberalism has undoubtedly had a globalizing economic effect. Now in any nation, labor is labor. Capital is capital. Consumers are consumers. And while the original Israeli Summer protests have ended, Netenyahu’s quick fixes are over, and the conditions that allowed for the demonstrations are still more or less the same. Is it so inconceivable that newly-disillusioned Israelis and long-oppressed Palestinians could forget nationalism for long enough to see that the elite managing apartheid against the Palestinians is the very same elite that gutted the Israeli welfare state? True, it would go against the entrenched logic of apartheid, and it would be naïve not to be skeptical. But, as Matan Kaminer put it, “It is unnecessary to point out how many of the events of the past year in the Middle East were completely unimaginable a year ago.”

However, the other and more likely option for offshoot social movements (if they occur at all), is to demand a return to the basic Labor Zionist welfare-warfare formula of citizens serving their state and the state serving its citizens, without regard for the Palestinians. Itzik Shmuli, a leading figure in the protests, expressed this sentiment when he said, “The new Israelis love their country so much that they would die for it, but now they dare to demand to live decent lives within it.” In other words, what happened last summer was in total continuity with the history of Labor Zionism: prioritizing national over class interests and demanding justice for Israelis at the expense of justice for Palestinians. And it would take a massive rupture with the past to set the movement on the course of universalist justice, or even to “ask for welfare without warfare.” Until that time (should it come), the movement is a continuation of an ideology that has used religious, economic, and spiritual claims to the land to displace Palestinians for the benefit of an exclusive “socialist” Jewish collective. For those concerned with justice for the Palestinians, the choice between Netanyahu’s cold-hearted realism and the Israeli Summer’s idealism will be a false one indeed.


[1] The Bund, “Decisions in the Nationality Question,” in Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, The Jew in the Modern World, 340341.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gordon, Aaron David, and Burnce, Frances. “Labor,” in Selected Essays. New York: League for Labor Palestine, 1938, 59.

[4] Ibid, 5960.

[5] Ibid, 60.

[6] Ibid, 80.

[7] Ibid.

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