I don’t know why Bernie Sanders has declined to say what kibbutz he spent time on during his first visit to Israel. However, a search of the Ha’aretz archive has revealed that in 1990 Bernie told the newspaper’s former intelligence correspondent, Yossi Melman, that “in 1963 he visited Israel as a guest of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir (The Young Guard) and spent some time on Kibbutz Sha‘ar ha-‘Amakim.” What’s the big deal?
I was a member and eventually a leader of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir from 1959 to 1969 in Queens and Brooklyn. Bernie was not a member of the movement and, since there was no branch in Chicago during those years, it’s unlikely he had much, if any, contact with it while he was a student at the University of Chicago. Ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir didn’t organize a group to go to Sha‘ar ha-‘Amakim in 1963 or any time during the 1960s. Neither did Bernie go to the March on Washington with a group of members of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir. Several of us did go. No one in my circle knew Bernie.
Ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir was historically the most left wing current in the Zionist movement and defined itself as a socialist, and even Marxist-Zionist. It was one of the three major kibbutz movements. That is to say, it participated fully in the Zionist colonial settlement project. It’s members were also prominent in the officer corps of the Palmach and Hganah. In the late 1930s and 1940s ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir, along with Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and intellectuals organized around Brit Shalom, advocated, a binational state in Palestine, not a Jewish state. It abandoned that position after the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state on November 29, 1947.
Ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir then united with two other socialist Zionist parties to form Mapam (United Workers Party), which was the second largest party in Israel’s first Knesset. Today Mapam is organizationally and ideologically a shadow of its former self. It is a component of the dovish, pro-two state Meretz, which holds a mere 5 (out of 120) seats in the Knesset elected last year. Is that a problem?
Yes, if you are Haim Saban, or Democratic National Committee Chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL -23rd district, or the National Jewish Democratic Council) and your version of two states is defined by capacious concessions to Israeli settlers, a largely imaginary notion of Israel’s security needs, and insistence that Jerusalem (including the eastern part of the city and its surrounding Arab suburbs and villages) is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.” Very few Palestinians would consider such a “two-state solution” worth discussing. But Saban, Wasserman Schultz, et al are not supporting Bernie no matter what kibbutz he spent time on in 1963, and not only because of his views on Israel-Palestine, which are only somewhat more enlightened than theirs.
If one views the world through a McCarthyite lens, perhaps it’s relevant that during the 1940s ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir was strongly pro-Soviet. The context for that orientation, of course, was the monumental contribution of the Soviet Union to defeating Nazi Germany, which was arguably greater than that of the United States and its allies. For most of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir, its pro-Soviet orientation came to an abrupt halt in November 1952, when Mordechai Oren, stopped in Prague to visit a relative after representing Mapam at a meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions in East Berlin and was arrested and charged with being a Zionist agent, which he technically was. Oren’s arrest was linked to the round up of leading members of the Czech Communist Party, including its Secretary General Rudolf Slansky, who were accused of participating in a Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist conspiracy. Eleven of the 14 party members arrested and subjected to a macabre late Stalinist show trial were Jews, giving this purge a clear anti-Semitic character. The political thrust of the trial was to repudiate Czech support for the State of Israel. Czech arms, which reached Israel in part due to the work of Mordechai Oren, were a critical component of its victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
A minority of Mapam members, including about 200 members of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir kibbutzim, maintained their loyalty to the Soviet Union and Stalin despite the frame-up of Oren. They argued that while Oren was innocent, standing with the “world of revolution” and the “forces of tomorrow” took precedence. They were expelled from their kibbutzim. Many of them eventually joined the Communist Party of Israel.
As far as I know, no one from Sha‘ar ha-‘Amakim was expelled from the kibbutz over this issue. However, one kibbutz member, Aharon Cohen, was ideologically close to those who were expelled from other kibbutzim. Cohen was also deeply devoted to the study of Arabic and the Arab world, hoping to facilitate a rapprochement between Zionism and the Palestinian Arabs. Cohen voted “yes” on the three part loyalty oath that ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir kibbutzim imposed on their members and remained on Sha‘ar ha-‘Amakim. He was nonetheless removed from his positions as director of Mapam’s Arab Department and a high school teacher in the kibbutz.
Aharon Cohen retained more affection for the Soviet Union than almost anyone else in ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir. In 1958 he was arrested and charged with “unauthorized contact with a foreign (Soviet) agent,” but not espionage. In his 1961 trial no evidence was presented that he had engaged in any substantive illegal activity. He claimed that the meetings were for the purpose of scholarly exchange. He was convicted and spent 17 months in jail. There are grounds to believe that the prosecution was intended to discomfit Mapam, which it did, although the party upheld Cohen’s innocence.
By the 1960s ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir, while continuing to define itself as Socialist-Zionist, was deeply embarrassed about the movement’s previous embrace of the Soviet Union and Stalin. Even though I was a national leader, I knew about this in only the vaguest terms until I researched my book Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965. Any socialist ideas Bernie Sanders may have encountered via ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir wouldn’t have included a positive evaluation of Soviet communism. It wouldn’t be unusual if his political opponents – Democrats as well as Republicans – tried to convince us otherwise.