You can no more be a socialist Zionist than you can be a meat-eating vegan

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Gideon Levy is a lonely voice of sanity in an Israel that has veered to the lunatic far-right.  In a recent article Levy described the terminal decline of the Zionist left as represented by Meretz, the Civil Rights Party.[1]  Also worth reading is an article by Ron Calili on the same theme. [2]

In an interview with Arutz Sheva, the settlers’ radio station, the then Leader of the Israeli Labour Party Shelly Yacimovich complained that calling the ILP a left-wing party was ‘a historical injustice’.  Yacomovich protested that ‘Labor has always drawn its power from being a centrist party.’ [3]

It is difficult to disagree with Yacimovich. It would indeed be an injustice to pretend that the Israeli Labour Party has ever been a left-wing, still less a socialist party. Unfortunately fools and liars[4] in parties like the British Labour Party, such as its Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, pretend otherwise as a way of defending the idea that Israel is just a normal western democratic state.

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 Labour Party.  Ahdut was the direct descendant of the right-wing of the ‘Marxist’ Poale Zion and Hapoel Hatzair was an avowedly non-socialist party of Zionist labour and Yosef  Trumpeldor.  It preached ‘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 unity 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 that they could reconcile socialism and Zionism and who didn’t understand that Zionism was about class unity with the same Jewish bourgeoisie who were financing the kibbutzim.  This issue of class solidarity with Arab workers had split Palestinian Poale Zion before World War I, indeed at its first Palestinian conference in 1906.

The appeal of Zionism to the European ruling class was that it diverted the Jews away from socialism and communism.  No less than Winston Churchill wrote that:

‘In violent opposition to all this sphere of Jewish effort rise the schemes of the International Jews… There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistical Jews. It is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others… Zionism offers the third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race. In violent contrast to international communism, it presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character.’[5]

In 1903, barely three months after the Kishinev pogrom ,when hundreds of Jews were murdered or injured, Zionist Organisation President Theodor Herzl was negotiating with von Plehve, the Russian Minister of Interior and organiser of the Kishinev pogrom, in order to ensure that Zionism was a legal movement in Russia.  He did this on the basis that Zionism was winning Jewish workers away from socialism.  When Herzl began to try and convince Plehve of the merits of Zionism the latter responded: ‘You don’t have to justify the movement to me. You are preaching to a convert.’[6]  When Plehve visited London he described Zionism as an ‘antidote to socialist doctrines.[7]

Even the 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.  Socialism is about universal values and the common struggles of humanity. Zionism is about particularism and Jewish chauvinism.  In Palestine David Ben Gurion, the first Secretary-General of Histadrut, the Zionist ‘trade union’, Chair of the Jewish Agency and first Prime Minister of Israel 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.[8]

Labour Zionism was predicated on colonisation and the nationalism of the oppressor. The first question Zionism asks is not whether something is good for the workers or humanity but whether it is good for the Jews. Socialist Zionism was bourgeois Zionism dressed up in social democratic clothes and fhe language of collectivism.  But today even this is not true.  The Israeli Labour 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 from the land and because of the policies of Jewish Labour they were not reemployed on the land as happened in most colonial societies.  Because Zionism was not interested in exploiting but excluding the Palestinians from the economy and land it was worse than Apartheid in South Africa.

The Palestinian refugee situation began from the start of the second Aliyah in 1904.  Until 1948, there was an internal refugee problem in Palestine.  It was only in 1947/8 with the onset of ethnic cleansing and the Naqba 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 the Shaw Commission, which in turn recommended a further Inquiry into the causes of the riots. Thus in 1930 a Commission under Sir John Hope Simpson went out to Palestine. It issued a Report 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).[9]

Hope-Simpson’s conclusions were devastating. They found that despite the warm words of the Zionists about how much they valued the Arabs, their policies were designed to systematically exclude them from the land and employment.

Apartheid and the colour bar were at the heart of Labour Zionism. Whereas the right-wing (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 Labour Zionism.  Historically Labour Zionism was more racist than its ‘right-wing’ opponents.

Ben Gurion railed against Moshe Smilansky of the Farmers Federation who, for the sake of narrow calculations of ‘petty profit’ preferred to hire Arab labour.

[I]t is for this petty profit, not a twentieth 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[10]

In its submission to the Inquiry the General Federation of Hebrew Labour, Histadrut (which excluded Arabs from membership) wrote that:

“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…. 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.”

Here you see an early example of Zionist hasbara at its finest. Zionist leaders would proclaim for all to hear the exact opposite of that which they were doing.  These ‘socialist’ Zionists would quite happily proclaim that they were eager to live amicably with the Arab population even whilst they were pursuing the exact opposite policy! Zionism 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.

The conclusions of this Report were the most important description of Zionist colonisation that the British ever produced. It explains succinctly how the policy of Labour Zionism immiserated the Arab workers and thus were responsible for the Arab riots of 1929.

The effect of the Zionist colonisation policy on The Arab: 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)

Policy contrary to Article 6 of Mandate.—….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 P.I.C.A., and this with some considerable success…

Indeed the Labour Zionists went 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 with Jewish workers.[11]

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.[12]

The early mode of Zionist colonisation necessitated that it be carried out collectively as the most efficient mode.  This was also 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 opening 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.[13]

In the Jewish Diaspora things were very different.  The contradiction between the fight against capitalism, poverty and anti-Semitism was at its sharpest in Poland and Russia.  Zionism, with its dreams of colonisation, was irrelevant.

‘Zionism came into direct conflict with the Jewish proletariats’ perceived interest. It was in this context that the ideas of socialist Zionism were formulated.’ [14]

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 the Soviet Union Poale Zion ended up joining the Bolshevik revolution and it fought as the Borochov Brigade. It effectively abandoned Zionism because the essence of Zionism is about postponing the class struggle until the achievement of a Jewish state in Palestine.  Zionism no longer had any relevance because it believed that the struggle in the Diaspora was futile and 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.[15]  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 1920’s between the left kibbutzim of the work brigades, Gdud Avodah and the right-wing kibbutzim which centred on Kibbutz Ein Harod.  The former were starved out by Histadrut.

In Palestinian 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 Ringleblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto.

Today in Britain the only function of Labour Zionism is as a mouthpiece 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 in the 2016 leadership election, they voted 92-4% for Smith.  The wonder is that even 4% voted for Corbyn! The newly elected Chair of the JLM is Ivor Caplin former Defence Minister under Tony Blair at the time of the Iraq war.

Today Labour Zionism doesn’t even have a trace of radicalism in it. Although the support of the Tribune left of the 1950’s 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 left was a component 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 between Labour Zionism and the Left in the Labour Party (& indeed outside it) died with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  It was now clear that Israel was the major instrument of imperialism in the Middle East.  Both Tony Benn and Eric Heffer resigned from Labour Friends of Israel.

Historically it had been Labour’s Right that had been sympathetic with the Arabs and the Palestinians.  Pro-Arabist MPs such as Christopher Mayhew, Andrew Faulds and David Watkins were all on Labour’s Right.  Tony Blair changed that.  With New Labour support for Israel was almost an article of faith.

The contradiction between socialism and Zionism has been resolved wholly in favour of the latter.  The JLM describes the Israeli Labour Party as their sister party. It is noticeable that when Netanyahu positioned snipers in Gaza to murder 120 Palestinians and injure thousands , Labour Friends of Israel 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 hadn’t known better, one would have assumed that the killings had been carried out by Hamas. Their racist statements denied agency to Palestinians depicting them as pawns of the evil Hamas.  It was a classic example of the conspiracy theory.

It was only after a massive backlash that LFI’s tweets were withdrawn and a slightly more subtle statement, which still blamed Hamas was issued.[16]  The idea of condemning unreservedly the actions of the Israeli troops was and is anathema to these Labour apologists for Zionism.

The reasons for LFI’s predicament is 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 they have supported every war or armed attack by Likud, from Lebanon onwards.  Recently the ILP supported Netanyahu’s attempt to deport the Black African refugees from Israel on the grounds that they were neither Black or Jewish.

In the same way the ILP has supported the barring of Israeli Arabs from most Jewish communities and villages (the Reception Committee Law).

What then of what is left of the Zionist Left?  Meretz was formed in 1992 by a merger of 3 parties – Ratz, the civil rights party, Shinui – a centre party of Amnon Rubinstein and Mapam, the United Workers Party.  Today it has 5 seats in the Knesset.  In 2015 Meretz was unsure, 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%, whether they would gain representation.  In the end they managed to slip in.

The history of the Zionist left is best described by the number of seats they have gained in Israel’s Knesset over the past 70 years. In the first Knesset elections in 1949 Mapam stood with Ahdut Ha’avodah and gained the second highest number of seats, 19.  In 1951 Mapam gained 15 seats.  During the 1955 elections Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avoda stood separately.  Mapam gained 9 seats and Ahdut 10 making a total of 19. In 1959 and 1961 Mapam retained their 9 seats but Ahdut dropped to 7 and 8 respectively. From then on Ahdut disappeared or rather united with Mapai.

Ahdut, which contained figures like Yisrael Galili, Yitzhak Tabenkin and Yigal Allon, became the most militaristic and racist element of Mapai and it is no accident that the first two became founder members of Gush Emunim, the Greater Israel Movement after 1967.

In 1965 Mapam gained 8 seats. From 1969 to 1984 Mapam was part of the Israeli Labour Alignment. In 1988 it stood separately again and gained just 3 seats.  In 1992, as part of Meretz it gained 12 seats, a historic high.  From then on it was all downhill – in 1996, 9 seats; in 1999, 10 seats; in 2003, 6 seats; in 2006, 5 seats; in 2009, 3 seats; in 2013, 6 seats; in 2015, 5 seats.

Between 1973 and 1988, Ratz stood as a separate party and gained 3, 1, 1, 3 and 5 seats.  Shinui stood between 1981 and 1988 and gained 2, 3 and 2 seats respectively, so that in 1988 the combined total of the 3 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 4.  This is the context for Gideon Levy’s article.

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 bi-national 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 Labour Zionist movement, Palmach in 1947/8. It was Mapam members– Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Sadeh, Moshe Carmel and others – who led Palmach’s ethnic cleansing in the Nakba.[17]

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.… At a Mapai Centre meeting, 24 July 1948, Ben-Gurion accused Mapam of hypocrisy, citing events at Mishmar HaEmek, he said:

“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.”

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 twelve new settlements created during May and June 1948 six were 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. Benny Morris estimated that there were ‘hundreds’ of dead.[18] Agriculture Minister, Aharon Cisling referred to a letter he had received about the atrocities from Eliezer Kaplan, declaring: ‘I couldn’t sleep all night … This is something that determines the character of the nation … Jews too have committed Nazi acts.[19] Cisling agreed that publicly Israel must admit nothing; but the matter must be thoroughly investigated. ‘The children they killed by breaking their heads with sticks. There was not a house without dead’, wrote Kaplan, the Jewish Agency [JA] Treasurer and later Minister of Finance.

The Political Committee was briefed on 11 November 1948 by the recently ousted Chief of Staff of the Haganah, Yisrael Galili, about the killing of civilians during Operations Yoav and Hiram. Aharon Cohen led a call for an independent inquiry.[20] The problem was that the commanders of these operations were senior Mapam members, Yitzhak Sadeh and Moshe Carmel.

In December party co-leader, Meir Ya’ari, publicly criticised the IDF for using the expulsion of civilians as an “imperative of strategy”. This was probably directed at Mapam member Yigal Allon, who had been chief of operations during Operation Danny.

The history of the Zionist left has been a history of retreat from socialist principles in favour of chauvinism and exclusivism.  It has also been a history of hypocrisy, saying one thing and doing another.  But in Israel today there is no need for a left-Zionist group.  It 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.  It is a lost battle.

Today what is left of the Zionist left is a phantom dwelling in Israel’s political underworld.  It has no objective reason for existing anymore.  Zionism and Israel have moved on. Zionism has no ideological need any longer to pretend that it is something other than what it is.  Israel today is the most right-wing and racist society on the planet.  Just 8% of Israelis even identify as leftists.[21]  Indeed the very term ‘leftist’ is a term of abuse in Israel. That is why it is a disgrace that apologists for apartheid are still affiliated to Britain’s Labour Party.


[1]           The Israeli Left Cannot Commit Suicide, It’s Already Dead, https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-the-israeli-left-cannot-commit-suicide-it-s-already-dead-1.5957703

[2]           Meretz, Israel’s ‘Zionist Left’ Party, Is Finished, https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-meretz-israel-s-zionist-left-party-is-finished-1.5456309

[3]           Shelly Yacimovich: Labor Is Not a Left-wing Party, https://www.haaretz.com/labor-isn-t-left-it-s-center-says-its-head-1.5197258
[4]           I cannot decide which she is though I tend to the latter.

[5]         Zionism versus Bolshevism,  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Zionism_versus_Bolshevism
[6]           Ralph Patai, (ed.), The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, p.1,525

[7]           Interview Lucien Wolfe, The Times, 6.2.04.

[8]           Histadrut: Israel’s racist “trade union”, https://electronicintifada.net/content/histadrut-israels-racist-trade-union/8121

[9]           Immigration, Land Settlement and Development, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015008167853;view=1up;seq=80

[10]         David Ben Gurion, Rebirth and Destiny, p.74, 1954, Thomas Yosseloff.

[11]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestine_Jewish_Colonization_Association

[12]         https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015008167853;view=1up;seq=80

[13]         Rebirth & Destiny, p. 76.

[14]         Dr Noah Lucas, A Modern History of Israel, p. 35, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

[15]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poale_Zion

[16]         http://www.lfi.org.uk/why-we-all-need-to-reflect-when-we-talk-about-gaza/

[17]         Early policy towards Arabs, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mapam

[18]         Survival of the Fittest, Ha’aretz 8.1.04., http://www.haaretz.com/survival-of-the-fittest-1.61345

[19]         The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem Revisited, p.488., Benny Morris.

[20]         Falsifying the Record: A Fresh Look at Zionist Documentation of 1948, Benny Morris Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3. (Spring, 1995), pp. 44-62.

[21]         Israel’s religiously divided society, Pew Research Centre, http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/

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Outstanding; a summary reference piece.

One necessary extension to this should be the story of the European colonialist “Socialist” treason (in addition to that of British Labor, already in your article) that was instrumental to the successful rape of Palestine.

Excellent, and I would like to add a few notes if I may. “Marxist Zionism” arose after 1900, in the person of Ber Borochov. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party but was thrown out for advocating Zionism. He was a Zionist youth leader and protege of Menachem Ussishkin of the General Zionists. Borochov argued that the class structure of Jewish society in the diaspora (the Pale of Settlement) was abnormal, and only in… Read more »

“The kibbutzim were established at first on land bought from absentee Arab landlords. The indigenous peasants were then evicted from the land … The Palestinian refugee situation began from the start of the second Aliyah in 1904. Until 1948, there was an internal refugee problem in Palestine.” This should be mentioned more often. The Zionists try to blame “anti-Semitism” for Arab hostility to the early Zionist settlers. But there were good reasons for that hostility… Read more »

“Today what is left of the Zionist left is a phantom dwelling in Israel’s political underworld.”

And the People’s Republic of Beersheba.

Zionism is like Ulster Unionism. Ethnocracy. It isnt even vaguely socialist. The economy is controlled by 14 plutocrats . Wealth distribution is appallingly skewed. Jewish working classes are kept in line by fear of the Arabs.