“Labor Zionism and Socialist Zionism” by Ami Isseroff

Reference: MidEastweb

Ideology and Philosophy of Socialist Zionism and Labor Zionism

The philosophical outlook of Zionism">Zionism as well as its early practical development in Ottoman Turkish times and under the British Mandate, cannot be understood without examining the history of Socialist and Labor Zionism. Even before the beginnings of Zionist settlement, Moses Hess, a former friend of Karl Marx, laid the foundations for secular and socialist Zionism in his book Rome and Jerusalem.

Zionists of the second wave of immigration, the second Aliya, who came to Palestine between about 1903 and 1914, were greatly influenced by socialist, anarchist and Tolstoyan ideology which abounded in their native Russia in that period. Ber Borochov and  Nachman Syrkin became disillusioned with the program of Russian socialists, and founded the Poalei Tziyon (workers of Zion) socialist Zionist movement.  Borochov synthesized Marxism and Zionism, by fitting the national struggle into the rubric of class struggle.  His famous essay, National Question and the Class Struggle  maintained  that the nation was the best institution through which to conduct the class struggle. He maintained that Jews could participate in the revolutionary movement meaningfully only through a Jewish society controlling its own economic infrastructure, because real political power could not be gained without real economic power, based on the fundamental economic endeavors in capitalist society. Borochov believed that it was the newly rejuvenated Jewish proletariat, and not the elite leaders of Western Europe, who would be responsible for the Zionist revolution. He also noted the presence of Arabs in Palestine, but believed there would be no problem in integrating Arabs in the Jewish revolution.

Nachman Syrkin, leader of the American Poalei Tziyon, was not a Marxist. He was a voluntarist. He emphasized the importance in history of individuals and small minorities, rather than mass movements and the inevitable operation of economic forces. He also held a great many fashionable notions of European nationalism. He advocated socialism for moral reasons and represented a quite different current in Poalei Tziyon from Borochov, a current that in fact became the dominant one. He championed the ideas of building cooperative workers’ settlements and the building of a “labor economy.” Poalei Tziyon and a the Zionist movement evolved a “constructivist” strategy of building Jewish Palestine by collecting funds to finance institutions capable of organizing and settling significant numbers of immigrant workers. This would allow the creation of a workers’ economy not based on capitalist investment.

Joseph Trumpeldor, who later became a hero of the Zionist right, was an anarchist and disciple of Kropotkin. He declared, “I am an anarcho-communist and a Zionist.” His program for a syndicalist network of socialist communities, formulated in 1908-1909, was reflected in the foundation of the first Kibbutz (commune) socialist settlements.pia

Labor Zionists and Socialist Zionists held diverse opinions. Some were anarchists, some Marxists, some were probably closest to Tolstoy. Central ideas include:

  • Jews are socially inferior because they are landless and do not do “productive” labor (in agriculture and basic industry).
  • Jewish “restoration” had to be brought about by changing the economic and social reality of the Jewish people, because political power was rooted in the reality of economics and society. Political solutions would be possible only when there were Jewish workers and Jewish farmers with the economic power to influence events.
  • The dream of Zionism, rebuilding the Jewish national home, could only be implemented through the agency of the Jewish working class, a working class that would be reconstructed in the land of Israel.
  • Jewish life in the Diaspora (exile) could never be normal as long as Jews do not have their own homeland.

The idea that the Jewish proletariat would bring about the Zionist revolution was a unique contribution of Labor Zionism, and represented a revolution in the way that Jews thought about themselves. Herzl and other founders of Zionism looked for leadership and financing from rich Jews, and for backing from foreign potentates. In their views, the Rothschilds and the Montefiores and their friends would help to finance the transport of the Jews, as well as providing the funds and the financing needed to influence the Kaiser and the Ottoman Sultan. But the Kaiser and the Ottoman Sultan were indifferent. The rich Jews were quite willing to finance small scale charity projects, but they were not enthusiastic about the project of moving all the Jews to Palestine. The Jewish national fund could not raise funds for settlement from rich Jews, and so it devised the little charity boxes, which were placed in every Jewish home and place of business, and made it possible for the “little people” to finance the restoration of the Jewish people. Instead of a “restoration” from above, Labor Zionism brought about a Zionist revolution, a Jewish homeland created by the labor of the Jewish people. This revolution was at first all encompassing, so that a large part of the Zionist movement in Palestine was Labor Zionist. Not only the Israel Labor party, but the revisionists as well, have their roots in Labor Zionism, since the revisionist, Jabotinsky, was originally a socialist and a Labor Zionist.

In mainstream Jewish society, Labor Zionists and Socialist Zionists were outsiders in all senses. In addition to being workers, they were usually Jews from Eastern Europe, rather than the elite of Western Europe. Moreover, they were not religious Jews in the conventional sense. They often recognized and valued the traditions embodied in the Old Testament as well as facets of later Jewish religious philosophy, as part of the Jewish national heritage and in part, as a basis for their ideals. However, this agnostic or atheistic respect for Jewish tradition was hardly enough to endear them to the rabbinical establishment.

Organizational Foundation of Labor Zionism in Palestine

The Labor Zionist movement in Palestine can be said to have been born in 1905. It was formed by the first immigrants of the Second Aliya who were, for the most part, young socialists who fled the Tsarist police during the ferment of 1905, and especially following the Russo-Japanese war and the failed 1905 revolution. In all, there were about 550 Jewish workers in Palestine who might have identified themselves as such. Some of them tried to form a united organization, but they soon split into two groups: Hapoel Hatzair with 90 members, and  Poalei Tziyon with 60 members. The former were non-Marxist socialists, followers of Nahman Syrkin and A.D. Gordon whose ideology will be discussed below. The latter were Marxist followers of Ber Borochov, described above. In the course of its development, the Labor Zionist movement was to unite, redivide and fragment itself many times. Fundamental issues that divided the early movement were adherence to Marxism and primacy of national or socialist ideals. In the USSR, the Poalei Tziyon were quickly dissolved, and many of their members were sent to Siberia or executed, weakening the Marxist faction. In an economy where industry hardly existed, and in a land where the main dangers were anopheles mosquitoes that carried malaria, the Turkish authorities and later the Arab marauders and the British, the issues of Marxist class struggle hardly seemed relevant. True, working conditions were harsh, but the government was not run by the Jews and revolution against Jewish capitalists, if there were any, was pointless. These men and women had volunteered to live in these harsh conditions, and could not do much if they were paid poorly by the Jewish plantation owners. The latter had to struggle to make a living themselves, and any strikes could be broken by use of Arab labor, which was generally cheaper than Jewish labor and not amenable to organization. As the struggle between the Jewish Yishuv on the one hand, and the Arabs, and British on the other intensified against the background of Nazi persecution in Europe, the urgent threat to life and limb came on the front of national struggle rather than class struggle. Not surprisingly, the national, Zionist aspects of the ideology took progressively greater precedence over the socialist aspects. Some dissatisfied Poalei Tziyon socialists returned to the USSR, where they were eventually sent to Siberia by the Stalinist regime. (Laqueur, A History of Zionism, New York, Schocken, 2003, p. 277 ff).

A.D. Gordon: The Philosophy of  Labor Zionism

A.D. Gordon, an early member of the Hibat Tziyon (love of Zion) movement was an enthusiast of Tolstoyan philosophy, particularly its emphasis on the dignity of labor and the importance of nature. Gordon came to live in Palestine, founded the Hapoel Hatzair (young worker)  movement and worked at the first Kibbutz, Degania, founded in 1909.

Unlike Poalei Tziyon, Hapoel Hatzair was not Marxist and rejected the class struggle as harmful to the Zionist cause. Gordon’s philosophy, together with that of Ber Borochov, embodies the major tenets of the strain of Zionism that created Israel and that dominated the Zionist movement and Israeli politics for many years.

As important as the ideas was the devotion to implementing them and the pragmatic approach to solving the seemingly insurmountable problems facing early Zionists. Unlike Borochov and other ideologues who spent their lives publicizing their Zionist ideas abroad, Gordon came to Palestine, and though he was already 47 years old when he arrived, he insisted on engaging in physical labor and enduring the rigors of life in the early settlements.

Gordon wrote:

The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls for two thousand years. We have been accustomed to every form of life, except a life of labor- of labor done at our behalf and for its own sake. It will require the greatest effort of will for such a people to become normal again. We lack the principal ingredient for national life. We lack the habit of labor… for it is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture, which in its turn is an outgrowth of the people’s toil and the people’s labor.
Now it is true that every people have many individuals who shun physical labor and try to live off the work of others… We Jews have developed an attitude of looking down on physical labor…. But labor is the only force which binds man to the soil… it is the basic energy for the creation of national culture. This is what we do not have, but we are not aware of missing it. We are a people without a country, without a national living language, without a national culture. We seem to think that if we have no labor it does not matter – let Ivan, John or Mustafa do the work, while we busy ourselves with producing a culture, with creating national values and with enthroning absolute justice in the world.
In my dream I come to the land. And it is barren and desolate and given over to strangers; destruction darkens its face and foreigners rule in corruption. And the land of my forefathers is distant and foreign to me and I too am distant and foreign to it. And the only link that ties my soul to her the only reminder that I am her son and she is my mother is that my soul is as desolate as hers. So I shake myself and with all my strength… I throw the old life off. And I start everything from the beginning. And the first thing that opens up my heart to a life I have not known before is labor. Not labor to make a living, not work as a deed of charity, but work for life itself… it is one of the limbs of-life, one of its deepest roots. And I work….
“There is a cosmic element in nationality which is its basic ingredient. That cosmic element may be best described as the blending of the natural landscape of the Homeland with the spirit of the people inhabiting it. This is the mainspring of a people’s vitality and creativity, of its spiritual and cultural values. Any conglomeration of individuals form a society in the mechanical sense, one that moves or acts, but only the presence of the cosmic element makes for an organic national entity with creative vitality.
I think that everyone of us ought to retreat for a moment into his innermost self, free himself from all outside influences – both from those of the gentile world and even from the influence of our own Jewish past – and then ask himself with the utmost simplicity, seriousness, and honesty: What, essentially, is the purpose of our national movement? What do we expect to find in Palestine that no other place can give us? Why should we segregate ourselves from the nations among whom we have lived our lives? Why leave the lands of our birth, which have fashioned our personalities and so largely influenced our spirits? Why should we not share full and unreservedly with those nations in their great work for the progress of mankind? In other words, why should we not completely assimilate ourselves among those nations? What stops us?
Surely it is not religion. In our day it is quite possible to live without any religion at all…the answer is that there is a force within every one of us which is fighting for its own life – which seeks its own realization…
Jewish life in the Diaspora lacks this cosmic element of national identity; it is sustained by the historic element alone, which keeps us alive and will not let us die, but it cannot provide us with a full national life. What we have come to find only in Palestine is the cosmic element… We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substance…
We, the Jews, were the first in history to say: “For all the nations shall go each in the name of its God” and “Nations shall not lift up sword against nation” – and then we proceed to cease being a nation ourselves…
As we now come to re-establish our path among the ways of living nations of the earth, we must make sure that we find the right path. We must create a new people, a human people whose attitude toward other peoples is informed with the sense of human brotherhood and whose attitude toward nature and all within it is inspired by noble urges of life-loving creativity. All the forces of our history, all the pain that has accumulated in our national soul, seem to impel us in that direction… we are engaged in a creative endeavor the like of which is itself not to be found in the whole history of mankind: the rebirth and rehabilitation of a people that has been uprooted and scattered to the winds…
(A.D. Gordon, “Our Tasks Ahead” 1920)
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