No such thing as socialist Zionism
The historic contradictions of the Zionist left are being played out in the death throes of Meretz, writes Tony Greenstein
Gideon Levy is one of the few, lonely voices of sanity in an Israel that has veered towards the lunatic far right. In a recent article Levy describes the terminal decline of the Zionist left, as represented by Meretz, the Civil Rights Party.1 Also worth reading is Ron Cahlili’s article, ‘Meretz, Israel’s ‘Zionist left’ party, is finished’.2
In a 2012 interview with Arutz Sheva, the settlers’ radio station, the leader of the Israeli Labor Party (ILP) at the time, Shelly Yachimovich, complained that calling the ILP a leftwing party was “a historical injustice”.On the contrary, “Labor has always drawn its power from being a centrist party.”3
I agree. It would indeed be an injustice to pretend that the ILP has ever been leftwing. Indeed it is a wicked calumny. Only fools or liars, such as Emily Thornberry, would ever subscribe to such nonsense (I cannot decide which she is, though I tend to the latter).
As holocaust survivor and Hebrew University professor Zeev Sternhell showed in his book The founding myths of Israel, the ILP was never a socialist party. In 1930 the two existing labour Zionist parties, Ahdut Ha’avodah and Hapoel Hatzair, united to form Mapai, the Israeli Labor Party. Ahdut was the direct descendant of the right wing of the ‘Marxist’ Poale Zion, while Hapoel Hatzair was an avowedly non-socialist party of Zionist labour, preaching ‘constructivism’. Hapoel Hatzair only agreed to the merger when it was satisfied that the ‘socialism’ of Ahdut was purely verbal and secondary to its Zionism. The class unity of Jewish workers with the Jewish bourgeoisie was a sine qua non of Zionism - and far more important than ideas of class struggle and common action with Arab workers.
Poale Zion and Ahdut were bitterly opposed to any idea of class unity with the Arab working class. This came up repeatedly because there were some Jewish workers who genuinely believed in the ‘socialism’ of Zionism. This issue of class solidarity with Arab workers had split Poale Zion before World War I - indeed at its first Palestinian conference in 1906.
It was a certain Vyacheslav von Plehve - minister of interior in the tsarist government and organiser of the pogrom against Russia’s Jews in 1903 - who in a visit to London described Zionism, which he supported, as an “antidote to socialist doctrines”.4
Even the very term, ‘socialist Zionist’, is an oxymoron. A socialist believes in the class struggle, opposing racism, colonialism and oppression. Socialism is about a society where the ownership and control of wealth is in the hands of those who produce it, not the few who own it. Socialism is about unity of the working class and the oppressed, regardless of religion, ethnicity, colour or national origin. Zionism is about the unity of Jewish people, regardless of class.
These are simple things really. Socialism is about universal values and the common struggles of humanity. Zionism is about particularism and Jewish chauvinism. In Palestine David Ben Gurion, the leader of labour Zionism and chair of the Jewish Agency in the 1930s, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, coined the slogan ‘From class to nation’. In other words the class struggle of the Jewish workers was transformed into the national struggle against Arab workers.5
‘Socialist’ or labour Zionism is predicated on colonisation and nationalism. The first question it asks is not whether something is good for the workers or humanity, but whether it is good for the Jews. ‘Socialist Zionism’ is bourgeois Zionism dressed up in social democratic and collectivist language. But today even this is not true. The Israeli Labor Party has abandoned any pretence of being on the left, even verbally.
Labour Zionism built the Israeli state. Labour Zionism pioneered the settlement of the land via its collective agricultural settlements, the kibbutzim, which were stockade and watchtower collectives that excluded all non-Jews. The kibbutzim were established at first on land bought from absentee Arab landlords. The indigenous peasants were then evicted and because of the policies of Jewish labour they were not re-employed on the land, as was traditional in most colonial societies. Thus the Palestinian refugee situation began from the start of the second Aliyah in 1904.6 Until 1948, there was an internal refugee problem in Palestine. It was only in 1947-48, with the onset of ethnic cleansing and the nakba, that the refugee situation was externalised and the Palestinians were expelled not only from the economy, but from the land altogether.
This is not a matter of speculation or partisan propaganda. In response to the Arab riots of 1929 the British government sent out to Palestine first the Shaw Commission, which in turn recommended a further inquiry into the causes of the riots. Thus in 1930 the Hope Simpson Commission under Sir John Hope Simpson went out. Its Report was titled ‘Immigration, land settlement and development’ and was issued in October 1930, along with the Passfield White Paper implementing its recommendations (which Ramsay MacDonald promptly nullified in an infamous letter to the Zionist Organisation).7
Its conclusions were devastating. It found that, despite the warm words of the Zionists about how much they valued the Arabs, their policies were designed to exclude them from all employment and labour. Indeed the labour Zionists were going out of their way to force the existing colonies of the Palestine Jewish Colonisation Agency (PICA), which had been founded in 1891 by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, to dismiss their Arab workers and replace them by Jewish workers.
Apartheid and the colour bar were at the heart of labour Zionism. Whereas the revisionist Zionists were happy to employ Arabs as cheap labour, the labour Zionists fought to exclude Arabs, regardless of cost. Of course, the socialist answer would have been for Jewish-Arab workers to combine to fight for high wages, but such unity was anathema to the labour Zionists. This is important to understand. Historically Labour Zionism was more racist than its ‘rightwing’ Zionist opponents.
Ben Gurion, who was the chairman of the Histadrut trade union centre, railed against Moshe Smilansky of the Farmers Federation, who, for the sake of narrow calculations of “petty profit”, preferred to hire Arab labour: “It is for this petty profit, not a 20th of net income, that he would foist on the colonies the evil of mixed labour, which can only provoke trouble on national and social fronts alike.”8
To the labour Zionists ‘mixed labour’was an evil. But that had not always been publicly stated. In its 1929 submission to the Hope Simpson inquiry, Histadrut (which excluded Arabs from membership) stated:
The Jewish Labour Movement considers the Arab population as an integral element in this country. It is not to be thought of that Jewish settlers should displace this population, nor establish themselves at its expense. This would not only be impossible both from the political and economic standpoint, but it would run counter to the moral conception lying at the root of the Zionist movement. Jewish immigrants who come to this country to live by their own labour regard the Arab working man as their compatriot and fellow worker, whose needs are their needs and whose future is their future.9
Here you see an early example of Zionist ‘hasbara’ at its finest. Zionist leaders would proclaim for all to hear the exact opposite of what they were doing. These ‘socialist’ Zionists would quite happily say that “It is not to be thought of that Jewish settlers should displace this population, nor establish themselves at its expense” - even though they were pursuing exactly this policy.10 To understand Zionism you need to understand that historically it has always proclaimed its adherence to peace, whilst waging war. Indeed to understand Zionism it is best to assume the exact opposite of what it says.
It is worth quoting more from the 1930 Hope Simpson report - the most important description of Zionist colonisation in Palestine that the British ever produced. It explains succinctly how the policy of labour Zionism immiserated the Arab workers and thus was responsible for the Arab riots of 1929:
Actually the result of the purchase of land in Palestine by the Jewish National Fund has been that land has been extra-territorialised. It ceases to be land from which the Arab can gain any advantage either now or at any time in the future. Not only can he never hope to lease or to cultivate it, but, by the stringent provisions of the lease of the Jewish National Fund, he is deprived for ever from employment on that land. Nor can anyone help him by purchasing the land and restoring it to common use. The land is in mortmain and inalienable. It is for this reason that Arabs discount the professions of friendship and good will on the part of the Zionists in view of the policy which the Zionist Organisation deliberately adopted (my emphasis).11
The report also stated:
The principle of the persistent and deliberate boycott of Arab labour in the Zionist colonies is not only contrary to the provisions of that article of the Mandate, but it is in addition a constant and increasing source of danger to the country. At the moment this policy is confined to the Zionist colonies, but the General Federation of Jewish Labour is using every effort to ensure that it shall be extended to the colonies of the PICA, and this with some considerable success ...
Anyone who seriously wants to understand why there was such bitterness and antagonism between the Zionist settlers and the Palestinian Arabs can do no worse than read the Hope Simpson report, which is widely available online.
The early mode of Zionist colonisation necessitated that it be carried out collectively as the most efficient mode. This was incidentally true in the American and South African settler colonies. Settlements could only be defended on a collective basis. Private enterprise was incapable of building up the institutions necessary to create the Zionist framework of the future Israeli state. It was because collectivism was the most efficient and effective method of colonisation that it was the bourgeois Zionists who helped fund the labour Zionist settlements. As Ben-Gurion remarked:
Private investment, making so many openings for Jews, has done great things and the Jewish worker must not decry its importance and advantage for the Yishuv. But, however private his capital, a settler can only possess his land by grace of Zionism and its work. Take away the resources of Jewry, its help and protection which buttress the Yishuv and no Jew here can enjoy peace or property.12
In the diaspora things were different. The fight against capitalism, poverty and anti-Semitism was at its sharpest in Poland and Russia. Zionism, with its dreams of colonisation, was irrelevant. In the words of Zionist historian Dr Noah Lucas,“Zionism came into direct conflict with the Jewish proletariats’ perceived interest. It was in this context that the ideas of socialist Zionism were formulated.”13
This was the context in which Poale Zion groups formed in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, primarily in competition with the much larger and more influential Bund, a Jewish anti-Zionist party.
In Russia Poale Zion ended up joining the Bolshevik revolution and fought as the Borochov Brigade. It effectively abandoned Zionism, whose essence is about postponing the class struggle until the achievement of a Jewish state in Palestine. Zionism no longer had any relevance, because Zionism believed that the struggle in the diaspora was futile, as Jews did not belong there in the first place.
The World Union of Poale Zion split into two at its fifth world congress in Vienna in 1920. The disagreement was on the priority accorded to socialism. Left Poale Zion refused to join the World Zionist Organisation, seeing it as a bourgeois movement. Right Poale Zion moved away from socialism altogether. Palestinian Poale Zion, because it was involved in colonisation, moved swiftly to the right. Ze’ev Sternhell describes the battles in the 1920s between the left kibbutzim of the work brigades, Gdud Ha’avodah, and the rightwing kibbutzim, which centred on Ein Harod. The former were starved out by Histadrut and the Labour Zionists.
In Palestine Poale Zion split into two in 1919 and members of Left Poale Zion ended up forming the Jewish Communist Party. Right Poale Zion became the main engine of Zionist colonisation and Ahdut Ha’avodah.
In Poland, where the struggle against fascism and anti-Semitism was at its sharpest, Poale Zion split into two, with Left Poale Zion drifting away from Zionism. Right Poale Zion, which was smaller, became more and more irrelevant. Left Poale Zion’s most famous member was Emanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto.
Today in Britain the only function of labour Zionism is as an agent of the Israeli government inside the Labour Party. The Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel are essentially Trojan horses for the right. They have no class politics. They are thoroughly Blairite organisations. The JLM and LFI have been the main engines of the false ‘anti-Semitism’ smears against the left.
When the JLM balloted its members prior to the 2016 leadership election, they voted 92%-4% for Owen Smith. The wonder is that even 4% voted for Jeremy Corbyn!
It is clear today that labour Zionism does not have even a trace of radicalism left. Although the support of the Tribune left of the 1950s for Israel was part and parcel of its overall support for colonialism (something that the Labour Party as a whole had been guilty of), at least at that time this labour Zionist component was part of the left in the party. Figures like Ian Mikado, Tom Driberg, Jo Richardson and even Michael Foot combined support for Israel and a version of socialism.
The alliance with the left in the Labour Party (and indeed outside it) died with the Lebanon war in 1982. It was now clear that Israel was the major watchdog of imperialism in the Middle East. Both Tony Benn and Eric Heffer resigned from Labour Friends of Israel shortly afterwards.
Historically it had been Labour’s right that had been sympathetic with the Arabs and the Palestinians. Labour pro-Arabists such as Christopher Mayhew, Andrew Faulds and David Watkins were all on the right. But Tony Blair changed that. With New Labour, support for Israel as the imperialist war horse was almost an article of faith.
And now the contradiction between socialism and Zionism has been resolved wholly in favour of the latter. The only function of labour Zionism in Britain and other countries is as apologists for the Israeli state. Formally affiliated to the Israeli Labor Party, which they describe as their “sister party”, the JLM and LFI effectively act as the mouthpieces of the government of Binyamin Netanyahu. It is notable that, when Netanyahu positioned snipers in Gaza to murder 120 Palestinians and injure 14,000 others, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) immediately tweeted its support blaming the Palestinians for their own deaths.
Not one word of criticism was made by either organisation of the mass murder of unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli army. If one had not known better, one would have assumed that the killings must have been carried out by Hamas. Their racist statements depicted Palestinians as its pawns, pure and simple. It was a classic example of the conspiracy theory.
It was only after a massive backlash that LFI’s tweets were withdrawn and a cleverer statement, which still blamed Hamas (as a code for ‘Palestinians’) was issued. The idea of condemning unreservedly the actions of the Israeli troops was and is anathema to these people.
The reasons for LFI’s predicament are simple. Politically there is no difference between the ILP and Netanyahu, when it comes to the Palestinians. The ILP supported the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza just as it has supported every war or armed attack by Likud, from Lebanon to Gaza. Recently the ILP backed Netanyahu’s attempt to deport black African refugees from Israel on the grounds that they were not genuine refugees - and because they were both black and non-Jewish.14
What then of what is left of the Zionist left: that is, Meretz? Meretz was formed in 1992 by a merger of three parties - Ratz, the civil rights party; Shinui, a centre party of Amnon Rubinstein, and Mapam, the United Workers Party. Today it has five seats in the knesset. In 2015 Meretz was unsure whether it would gain representation, because of a change in the law that had been designed to eliminate the Arab parties (the threshold for representation in the knesset having been raised from 2% to 3.5%). In the end it managed to slip in.
The history of the Zionist left is reflected in the number of seats gained in the knesset over the past 70 years. In the first elections in 1949, Mapam stood with Ahdut Ha’avodah and gained the second highest number of seats - 19. In 1951 Mapam won 15 seats, but during the 1955 elections Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avoda split - Mapam gained nine seats and Ahdut 10, making a total of 19. In 1959 and 1961 Mapam retained its nine seats, but Ahdut dropped to seven and eight respectively. From then on Ahdut disappeared - or rather united with Mapai. It became the most militaristic and racist element of Mapai and it is no accident that two of its senior figures, Yisrael Galili and Yitzhak Tabenkin, became founder members of Gush Emunim, the Greater Israel Movement, after 1967.
In 1965 Mapam gained eight seats. From 1969 to 1984 it was part of the labour Alignment coalition, but in 1988 it stood separately again and picked up just three seats. In 1992, as part of Meretz it gained 12 seats: a historic high. From then on it was all downhill - in 2009 it was down to a mere three.
Between 1973 and 1988, Ratz stood as a separate party and won between one and five seats. Shinui stood between 1981 and 1988 and gained either two or three seats each time, so that in 1988 the combined total of the three separate parties was 10 seats. In the past 30 years the strength of the Zionist left has halved and in the 70 years since the formation of the Israeli state it has decreased by a factor of four. This is the context for Gideon Levy’s article, mentioned at the start.
However, the seeds of the political degeneration of the Zionist left, as represented by Mapam, began far earlier. Until 1948 it had - on paper at least - supported a binational, not a Jewish state, but in practice it had been wholly in support of the racist policies of Histadrut and the ILP. Its members formed the backbone of the shock troops of the Palmach brigades in 1947-48. It was Mapam members - Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Sadeh, Moshe Carmel and others - who led Palmach’s ethnic cleansing in the nakba.
Mapam entered the 1948 coalition government with a radically different policy towards Arab civilians from that being pursued by David Ben-Gurion. Mapam’s executive committee advocated Jewish-Arab coexistence, opposed the expulsion of civilians and was in favour of the right of refugees to return to their homes after the war. In July 1948, Ben-Gurion accused Mapam of hypocrisy, citing events at Mishmar HaEmek15: “They faced a cruel reality ... [and] saw that there was [only] one way and that was to expel the Arab villagers and burn the villages. And they did this, And they were the first to do this.”16
Mapam was also opposed to the establishment of settlements on Arab land. But this created a dilemma, as the kibbutz movement ideologically closest to Mapam, Kibbutz Artzi, was in the vanguard of the settlement movement. Of 12 new settlements created during May and June 1948, six were the work of Mapam-related groups. In the following months Mapam further diluted its position on the right of refugees to return by adding that there should be no return while a state of war existed and then it should only apply to the “peace-minded”.
In November 1948, Eliezer Peri, the editor of Mapam’s newspaper Al HaMishmar, received a letter describing a massacre at al-Dawayima, when hundreds were said to have died.17 Agriculture minister Aharon Cisling referred to a letter he had received about the atrocities, which declared: “I couldn’t sleep all night ... This is something that determines the character of the nation ... Jews too have committed Nazi acts.”18
Mapam’s political committee was briefed on November 11 1948 about the killing of civilians. But the problem was that the commanders of these operations were senior Mapam members, Yitzhak Sadeh and Moshe Carmel. Ben-Gurion, however, was opposed to any investigations of atrocities committed by Israel’s military.
The history of the Zionist left has been a history of retreat from socialist principles in favour of Zionist chauvinism and exclusivism. It has been a history of hypocrisy - saying one thing and doing another. But in Israel today left Zionism appeals only to those intellectuals and academics - a tiny section of the Jewish intellectual elite - who still fondly imagine that the Zionist dream can be reconciled with universalist principles.
Today what is left of the Zionist left is a phantom because it has no objective reason for existing any more. Zionism and Israel have moved on. Zionism no longer has any ideological need to maintain one face for socialist and labour parties abroad and another for the home audience. Israel today is the most rightwing and racist society on the planet. A mere 8% of Israelis identify as leftwing19 - indeed ‘leftist’ is a term of abuse in Israel.
Hopefully all this will help to explain why it is an utter disgrace that apologists for apartheid are still affiliated to the British Labour Party.
4. The Times February 6 1904.
5. See https://electronicintifada.net/content/histadrut-israels-racist-trade-union/8121.
6. Movement of Jewish migration into Israel.
8. D Ben Gurion Rebirth and destiny of Israel London 1954.
12. D Ben Gurion Rebirth and destiny of Israel London 1954, p76.
13. N Lucas A modern history of Israel Westport CT 1975, p35.
18. B Morris The birth of the Palestine refugee problem revisited Cambridge 2004, p488.