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The first Zionists were socialists

Zion refers to Jerusalem and is the goal of the general desire of Jews to return to their homeland, their historical space. The word Zionism was created by Nathan Birnbaum in the newspaper Self-Emancipation! (Selbstemanzipation!), in 1890. It was Theodor Herzl who gave it its modern meaning of creating an independent state for Jews, where they would be able to live without persecution, in safety.

The Zionist ideology has both socialist and religious roots. This return to the Promised Land is linked to the coming of the Messiah and the end of the Jews’ exile from their land. Characteristic in this aspect was the Uganda scheme, a 1903 British suggestion to relocate Jews in the African land (that same piece of land resides today in Kenya) –a suggestion which Herzl was fond of, but was categorically denied by the other, far more inexorable, representatives at the 6th Zionist Congress (and was definitively abandoned in 1905, during the 7th). To appease them, and reassure them of his determination to the original vision, Herzl sang from Psalm 137: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning”. But even Herzl only viewed the Uganda scheme as a temporary solution to save the Jews from the Russian pogroms and from German anti-Semitism until the plan to return to Jerusalem could be materialized. There were also plans to relocate to the US (in Texas), Cyprus, Australia, Libya or the Sinai, but they were abandoned as well for a variety of reasons (more here).

Theodor Herzl’s opening speech at Sixth Congress in Basel, 1903 (source)

As the theoreticians of Zionism were greatly influenced by their contemporary awakening of oppressed people and their aspiration for a just life (e.g. the Risorgimento – unification and birth of modern Italy), it is obvious why they turned to Marx and the socialist ideas in general for guidance. Following the socialist Zionist rhetoric as illustrated below, Stalin adopted a pro-Zionist foreign policy, expecting the new state to be socialist and undermine Britain’s influence in the Middle East. The Soviet Union became the second country to recognize Israel as a state and supported it with weaponry during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Here we’ll see the main actors of the early Zionist movement and how they were influenced by socialist ideas.

Moses Hess, a friend and colleague of Marx, was undoubtedly the first who attempted a composition of Zionism and socialism[1]. But he did not agree that economic issues and class struggle could explain the entirety of history, and saw the struggle among the races or nationalities as the main drive of history. So, living in Germany in 1861-1863, and studying Italian nationalism and the German reaction to it, he foresaw that the Germans would not tolerate any national ambitions of other groups, and that they were particularly intolerant against Jews (“Yet it seems that a final race struggle is unavoidable”). But nobody took him seriously during his lifetime (he died in 1875), not even his contemporary Jews, who were then devoted to the idea of assimilation in the German society. Only by the end of the 19th century, and when Zionism was crystallized, were his writings discovered, which Theodor Herzl lauded.

In contrast to Hess, the more orthodox Marxist Ber Borochov in his book The national question and the class struggle attempted to combine Zionism and Marxism. He thought that the reason for which the Jews were persecuted everywhere was that they were not productive. Jews were hucksters, vendors, craftsmen, writers or teachers –meaning mediators– detached from the productive activities of agriculture and industry (as Marx wrote in The Jewish Problem, “The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general”). They would be forced, therefore, hunted by the European countries, to immigrate to Palestine, so that they create a natural allocation of working Jews in the production process. Besides, he said, the squalor of the proletariat as it stems from capitalist growth, intensifies competition between Jews and non-Jewish workers, making immigration more urgent still. Borochov founded the first Zionist socialist party, Workers of Zion (Poale Zion), which looked to take on labor, class struggle between the bourgeois and the Jewish proletariat and the collective ownership of the means of production. He thought that Arabs and Jewish workers together should take part in this class struggle as soon as the Jews would return to Palestine. During the 1910s his theories were considered outdated, as impossible to act on, since the Jews who had already immigrated to Palestine were finding it difficult to establish themselves financially and thought that inter-class collaboration would be necessary, let alone that a class struggle was irrelevant.

The majority of the socialist Zionists, however, belonged to the socialism of collaboration and reciprocity. A main exponent of this view was Aaron David Gordon. Having in mind to assure the dignity of physical labor and that Jews would take root in the land, his cause was to create the “new man” in Israel, who would replace the alienated exiled Jew (the “new Jew”). Being non-dogmatic, anti-rationalist and a romantic, his approach was characterized as “the religion of labor”. He led the political movement The Young Worker (Hapoel Hatzair). Similarly to Hess, he thought that the cause of the Jews’ suffering was their parasitic life in the Diaspora, where they could not (because they traditionally they were not allowed to) partake in the production process. But in contrast to Hess, he believed that the physical labor would provide Jews with a vision and a spirituality they lacked –and would then unify as a people. “The Land of Israel is acquired through labor, not through fire and not through blood”. He believed that society was bound by organic ties, such as family, community and nation, and not “mechanical” ties, such as state, party and class. The biggest trial for the reborn state of Jews would be its attitude towards the Arabs, and Gordon believed that the relationship between the two peoples should be collaborative, not antagonistic or hostile, and based this belief on moral reasons, not strategic.

Aaron David Gordon

A materialization of this sentiment was the kibbutz, the collective community based on agriculture, where the common production and consumption were combined. They were comprised of workers who would sign a contract to cultivate the lands of a farm collectively and to then share the profits with the management. A second materialization of the movement was the Order of Labor. It was founded in 1920 by immigrants from the Soviet Union, inspired by the Bolshevik revolution and the Balfour Declaration –a promise by the British that they would be given a piece of land in the area of Palestine to found their own state. But the Zionist leaders forced them to dissociate their colonies. The desire for independence led to a rupture in the movement, and its far-left section was amplified, leading the movement to a definitive disbandment. A part of the far-left returned to the Soviet Union in 1928. They ended up in Crimea, where they founded the agricultural colony Via Nova and they were almost without exception purged by Stalin in 1936-1938.

Berl Katznelson (1887-1944) worked for the unification of all the socialist labor parties, which materialized in 1930. Among his plans were a full-scale immigration, the founding of a society based on the principles of equality and freedom, the collective ownership of land and natural sources, and self-government. He adapted socialism for the Palestinian reality: no proletariat, an almost non-existent industry, capitalism in a very early form, and lack of a class struggle, since he supported the existence of only one class in the new reality of the Jewish society; the “labor class”. The working class and the Jewish state, for him, are merged. The primary duty of the movement was the creation of a defensive force and the reception of the immigrants. He, too, desired the peaceful coexistence with the Arabs –“Over the generations in which we were persecuted and exiled and slaughtered, we learned not only the pain of exile and subjugation, but also contempt for tyranny. Was that only a case of sour grapes? Are we now nurturing the dream of slaves who wish to reign?” He even emphasized the religious element of the Jewish tradition and opposed the plan to divide Palestine (he had changed his mind by the middle of the Second World War).

Yitzhak Tabenkin (1888-1971) considered that Jews in communes would comprise a part of a “worldwide alliance of communist peoples” and he also opposed the division of Palestine, supporting the placement of the Jews throughout Eretz-Israel (the general region of Israel with vague geographical borders, as is mentioned in the Old Testament –“Promised Land”, “Land of Canaan”, “Holy Land”). He believed that the right of the Jews to occupy the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula was derived from the Ten Commandments. He, therefore, combined a strict religious strain in Zionism with an expansionist tendency and a dogmatic and austere socialism.

In the dichotomy Zionism/socialism, socialism was undermined and Zionism took ground. By the late 1920s the national struggle made it evident that the collectivist dream would be abandoned. As Ben Gurion phrased it: “From class to nation”. Gradually, Zionism turned into a nationalistic movement, while on the side of the Palestinians the conflict took, and keeps taking, a more and more religious flavor.

[1] Mosses Hess lived from 1812 until 1875. Since the term Zionism was used at the end of the century, Hess is actually considered as a precursor to Zionism.

Read more:

Ilan Greilsammer – Zionism [series “Que sais-Je?”] (To Vima / Gnosi, 2007) [Greek edition] Wikipedia

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