Where would Israel be without its democratic–socialist roots?
Readers of modern Israeli history understand that the people of Israel and world Jewry are focused on Israeli security, a peace agreement with the Palestinians, economic growth and many domestic issues.
However, had there not been the first four waves of immigration, 1880-1930, and the dominant Socialist Zionist democratic leadership, the State of Israel would never have existed.
By 1905, the pioneers of the settlement movement were already creating collective, self-sufficient farms, which they defended in such “pioneering” groups as the Shomrim (Guards).
The first settlements of the early 1900s, and eventually the democratically governed Socialist Workers’ Federation (Histadrut) laid the framework for a democratic and socialist state, which arose in 1948 and competed economically with the capitalist world. Many years before Israel became independent, the Histadrut, and the Jewish Agency put in place the needed infrastructure. To this day, the Socialist International recognizes Israel’s socialist elements.
Although public ownership of the land and the amount of public spending and production were certainly at a minimum from 1905 to 1930, by 1911, the settlement society was collective, democratic and egalitarian.
In recent articles and books, however, that society’s steady demise has been highlighted. In an article posted in September, in the newsletter of Ameinu, the Progressive Labor Zionist Organization in the United States, Leonard Fine called the kibbutz movement “comatose.” He claimed that now there were only 20 kibbutzim, which had not privatized themselves. His feelings about the kibbutz movement were negative and nostalgic because suddenly Kibbutz Ein Harod had privatized. For Fine, this was the straw that broke the back of the kibbutz movement’s earlier ideological achievements.
Ein Harod was one of the most democratic of the early kibbutzim. In the 1930s, wrote Henry Near, a kibbutz movement historian, the women of Ein Harod demanded that one-third of all places on the kibbutz’s committees be reserved for women.
Although Fine and many idealists have become critical of the withering of that socialist and democratic transformative settlement society, other writers such as Jo-Ann Mort and Gary Brenner from Kibbutz Hazor, maintain that there are still many pure kibbutzim in Israel — their ideological purity based on the fact that they have retained the socialist and democratic institutions of the kibbutz of the 1930s.
They list some of the wealthiest kibbutzim such as Gan Smuel being the purest kibbutzim. Hazor is in the middle of the pack of 287 kibbutzim because it still has collective responsibility for its members’ health, education and welfare; and its members believe that they were making the world a better place. In some cases, such as Gesher Haziv, the original kibbutz ideology had disappeared completely.
Near, in his kibbutz movement’s history, pointed out that in 1939 there were “twenty-five thousand people in 117 collective groups ranging from the northern border of Palestine to the northern approaches of the Negev and from the Mediterranean to the new settlements along the Jordan Valley.” There were not any illusions in 1939 about the dangers they faced, but “whatever the course of the struggle to come, they were convinced of the rightness of their cause.”
Since that time, however, there have been major social and economic changes in kibbutz ideology, which stemmed from specific political policies, and the nature of Israeli attitudes after the Six Day War. Israel Kirschner, however, claims that those changes created “renewal” not privatization. (New York Times 2008)
Schlomo Avineri is a well-known progressive political science professor at the Hebrew University. David Grossman and Amos Oz are two of the most popular Israeli writers today. Aaron Barak is the former chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court. All of these men have high expectations of the Israeli democratic state and the social justice values of the prophets.
Leonard Fine and Annie Rophie, columnists for the Forward and the Jerusalem Report, have commented extensively about their expectations for the Jewish state. The ideas of these journalists, scholars and rabbis are congruent with the democratic socialist values of the early chalutzim (pioneers). They ask whether we should be normal like all others or an “exemplar of what human society can be.” (Rophie in the Jerusalem Report 2007)
The pioneers of the Second Aliyah (1905-1919) were, as a worker named Lukia said to Manya Shohat, (a creative chalutza in developing self-sufficient collectives), “We are composte for the next generation.” Democratic and socialist principles had to be established each day in the Galilee in the early kvutzot (Small groups of 10 to 12 men and women living communally).
In 1959, Dr. Ferdynand Zweig, a professor at the Hebrew University agreed that there were both democratic and socialist aspirations, but added that it was even more. He stated: “It is not enough to say that Israel aspires to a democratic structure of society in its Western version, it is not enough to say that it aspires to Western socialistic patterns of society. Israel aspires to something more or let us say to something different.”
These articles and statements advocate call upon Israel be a light unto the nations. They relate to democratic, socialist and Jewish values and refer to the Jewish settlement movement of the early decades of the 20th century.
The impact of those pioneers is still felt today in Israeli society, and the expectations for institutional decision-making to contain elements of social justice and the democratic means to establish policies is still relevant and held at a high level of expectation by this prominent generation of literary, spiritual, scholarly and legal-minded people.
(Ivan Frank, a retired teacher and author, lives in Squirrel Hill.)