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More details about Bernie Sanders and Kibbutz Sha’ar ha-‘Amakim

US Politics
on 11 Comments

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.

Joel Beinin
About Joel Beinin

Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University.  His most recent books are Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa 2nd edition (Stanford University Press, 2013), co-edited with Frédéric Vairel and The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Solidarity Center, 2010).

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11 Responses

  1. annie
    February 12, 2016, 10:56 am

    It’s members were also prominent in the officer corps of the Palmach and Hganah

    Prof Beinin, if you’re reading this, is this intentional/alternate spelling for haganah?

    normally i would just fix it but i thought i would check w/you. i know phil and adam are busy.

  2. David Doppler
    David Doppler
    February 12, 2016, 11:36 am

    I thought it interesting in the debate last night that Bernie pointed out that, if he is elected, that, too, would have historical significance (with reference to Hillary’s first-woman argument), but without specifying why. The first Jew (however that might be defined), the first Kibbutznik, the first former Communist, the first Israeli citizen?

    On what planet is it off limits to ask Bernie if he is or was a Communist, or a Zionist, or an Israeli, and, if so, what that means to him now as a POTUS wannabe? Or just, “in what way would your election be historically significant?”

    I also thought his venting on Kissinger carried some personal emotion possibly tied to their shared Jewishness, and how they’ve dealt very differently with it, in public service to America. Exploring the various facets of how he sees himself in comparison to others he clearly sees himself as representing in an historical campaign is REQUIRED.

    Deliberate blindness is not a journalistic virtue.

    • Leahj
      February 15, 2016, 3:46 am

      David,” the first Israeli citizen? On what planet is it off limits to ask Bernie if he is or was a Communist, or a Zionist, or an Israeli”

      I think the key word here is ‘ask’. Last June, on Diane Rehm’s radio interview with Bernie, she said “Senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel.” He got a little snippy & made it very clear that she was mistaken, & that he is a US citizen, period, who has never had, nor wanted to have dual citizenship with ANY other country.

      She said that he was on a ‘list’ on the internet. Turns out that list includes pretty much every Jewish member of the House & Senate & Cabinet & Ambassador corps, claiming the are all American/Israeli dual citizens. (It’s very popular on anti-Semitic sites.) She brought the issue up with him, based on a post on the station’s Facebook site, requesting her to ask why we should make him POTUS, when he’s a citizen of another country. Ms. Rehm has apologized, & said she should have ‘asked’ Bernie if he was a dual citizen, rather than declaring it as a fact.

      • annie
        February 15, 2016, 3:56 am

        he wasn’t “snippy”. is that code for uppity? he was direct

      • Leahj
        February 15, 2016, 4:20 am

        Annie, I used the word ‘snippy’ affectionately, & was indicating that he was upset by her remark.
        I’m not the enemy.

      • annie
        February 17, 2016, 2:07 pm

        i never suggested you were an enemy. but i can’t figure out why you’d think he sounded upset. affectionately or not, i posted the recording because his voice doesn’t sound upset in the least to me. he called it nonsense you hear on the internet, which it was. others may have made a big deal about it, maybe he did too later for all i know. but his voice on the recording sounds normal.

        he said he gets offended a little bit by that comment, but he didn’t sound upset.

    • Leahj
      February 15, 2016, 4:46 am

      David, “the first former Communist …? On what planet is it off limits to ask Bernie if he is or was a Communist …”

      If mommy is a commie then you gotta’ turn her in! :-) Are you proposing that we ask all of the presidential primary candidates (in both parties) whether they are now or have ever been, members of the communist party? If it’s only Bernie you’re worried about, on what do you base your concern? Is it just because he & his 1st wife volunteered on that kibbutz in Israel for a few months, during his early 20s? He’s 74 now. I think you’re making too much out of it.

    • Leahj
      February 15, 2016, 5:29 am

      David, “I also thought his venting on Kissinger carried some personal emotion possibly tied to their shared Jewishness, and how they’ve dealt very differently with it, in public service to America.”

      Uh, sure, that must be it. What other explanation could there possibly be?

      • Leahj
        February 15, 2016, 5:36 am

        This is an excerpt from a piece on Counterpunch.
        “As Secretary of State, Kissinger facilitated the horrendous September 11, 1973 coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende that brought to power the ruthless Augusto Pinochet in Chile. As some 5,000 people were being detained and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium, Kissinger told Pinochet, “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” The Pinochet dictatorship, which lasted for two decades, left over 3,000 people dead or missing, thousands tortured and hundreds of thousands driven into exile.

        There was also Kissinger’s role in the brutal 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which took place just hours after Kissinger and President Ford visited Indonesia. They had given the Indonesian strongman the US green light—and the weapons—for an invasion that led to a 25-year occupation in which over 100,000 soldiers and civilians were killed or starved to death. The UN’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR) stated that U.S. “political and military support were fundamental to the Indonesian invasion and occupation” of East Timor.

        The report by the UN Commission on Human Rights describes the horrific consequences of that invasion. It includes gang rape of female detainees following periods of prolonged sexual torture; placing women in tanks of water for prolonged periods, including submerging their heads, before being raped; the use of snakes to instill terror during sexual torture; and the mutilation of women’s sexual organs, including insertion of batteries into vaginas and burning nipples and genitals with cigarettes.

        From 1969 through 1973, it was Kissinger, along with President Nixon, who oversaw the slaughter in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—killing perhaps one million during this period. He was the one who gave the order for the secret bombing of Cambodia. Kissinger is on tape saying, “[Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything about it. It’s an order, to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”

        In 2001 the French Judge Roger Le Loire issued a warrant to have Kissinger appear before his court to account for his actions. When Kissinger received the summons at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, he fled the country. More indictments followed from Spain, Argentina, Uruguay—even a civil suit in Washington DC.

        The late writer Christopher Hitchens, in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, skewers Kissinger for ordering or sanctioning the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of “unfriendly” politicians and the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers, journalists and clerics who got in his way. He holds Kissinger responsible for war crimes that range from the deliberate mass killings of civilian populations in Indochina, to collusion in mass murder and assassination in Bangladesh, the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Chile, and the incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor.

        Hitchens was a lot harder on Kissinger than the civil Bernie Sanders. “Kissinger should have the door shut in his face by every decent person and should be shamed, ostracized, and excluded,” Hitchens said. “No more dinners in his honor; no more respectful audiences for his absurdly overpriced public appearances; no more smirking photographs with hostesses and celebrities; no more soliciting of his worthless opinions by sycophantic editors and producers.”

        Hitchens could have added another category of people who shouldn’t solicit Kissinger’s dangerous opinions: presidential candidates.”

  3. Leahj
    February 15, 2016, 4:21 am

    And, no, it was not “code for uppity”.

  4. Kay24
    February 15, 2016, 6:43 am

    An interesting article about Hillary and the Syrian bloodbath.

    “The hubris of the United States in this approach seems to know no bounds. The tactic of CIA-led regime change is so deeply enmeshed as a “normal” instrument of U.S. foreign policy that it is hardly noticed by the U.S. public or media. Overthrowing another government is against the U.N. charter and international law. But what are such niceties among friends?”

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