An ironic side-note to the civil war over allegations – some of them surely justified, others just as surely not – of anti-Semitism in the UK’s Labour Party, has been the rapid demise of Labour’s equivalent in Israel, the Israeli Labor Party. Once a seemingly all-powerful force in Israeli politics, Labor’s different incarnations held power for the first 29 years of the state’s existence, yet since 1977 Labor has fluctuated between opposition and a weakened position in coalition governments.
In the past ten years, with a succession of ineffectual leaders, Labor has faced Likud-dominated governments under Netanyahu. It was the opposition party during the 33rd Knesset from 2013 to 2015, and in the 34th Knesset it was part of the coalition list for the opposition from 2015 to 2019 with the Zionist Union. In the most recent elections in April, Labor was the main victim of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, falling to a negligible 4.43 percent of the vote and six seats. It seems unlikely that Netanyahu’s call for fresh elections in September will significantly reverse Labor’s fortunes.
Labor’s collapse is partly symptomatic of a steady drift in Israeli society to the right since the 1967 Six Day War and occupation of the Palestinian territories and Syrian Golan Heights. It was a government led by a predecessor of Labor which fought the 1967 war and began building settlements, and another Labor government, the supposedly peace-seeking administration under Yitzhak Rabin, which presided over an explosion in settlements in the mid-1990s after the Oslo Accords.
Electorally, Labor fell upon its own sword. Israeli settler voices calling for ever greater repression of Palestinians have steadily been amplified, until far-right parties such as Jewish Home, Yisrael Beiteinu, and recently the extremist Otzma Yehudit, have exerted significant influence on political discourse. Simultaneously, Labor has failed to capture the small progressive, or even centrist, sections of Israeli society with any plan to end the occupation, or confront social problems in Israel such as inequality.
Increasingly irrelevant on the domestic front, Labor has also fallen out of step with the international social democratic movement. In the west, where once sympathy for Israel was almost unanimous, voices critical of Israel are being heard more and more from leading individuals and movements in the progressive tradition, from Jeremy Corbyn to Ilhan Omar, despite the push-back by pro-Israel lobbies. Failing to effectively oppose Netanyahu’s actions, the representatives of the Israeli center-left have also doubled down in unqualified defense of their state’s actions whenever Israel is criticized.
This was symbolized by Labor’s exit from the Socialist International, representing 147 social democratic parties worldwide, in July 2018, after the International supported boycott, divestment and sanctions against companies involved in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Despite Labor’s official stance supporting a Palestinian state, any meaningful action towards this goal was enough for it to turn its back on international social democracy.
Yet the Labor Zionist movement’s inability to be a truly social democratic movement goes much further back. This becomes evident in a comparison between the history of Israel’s Labor with the UK Labour Party. There have of course been many careerists in Labour quick to abandon once-professed principles. But the heroes of Labour, such as Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan, Tony Benn, and Jewish members such as Holocaust survivor Walter Wolfgang who passed away in May, were lifelong fighters for the advancement of workers, the peaceful achievement of socialism, and solidarity with the oppressed around the world.
These figures have no parallel in the Labor Zionist tradition. In the early twentieth century, a number of self-defined socialist parties dominated the politics of European Jewish settlers in Palestine. While differing on certain points of doctrine, all– except the Palestine Communist Party, the only organization to admit both Jews and Arab Palestinians – accepted the premise of Zionism, that whatever form of socialism was to be achieved, it was to be for Jews only.
The most important organization was the Histadrut, the trade union for Jewish workers formed in 1920. While trade unions around the world defend the interests of all workers, from the start the Histadrut was manipulated by the Labor Zionist leadership to be an exclusive state-like body. In the 1920s, the Histadrut fought to implement a policy of “Hebrew Labour,” to prevent employers hiring Palestinian workers. During the Arab Revolt of the 1930s, the Histadrut’s construction company Solel Boneh was contracted by the British occupiers of Palestine to build Tegart forts, military outposts infamous amongst Palestinians as sites of torture, and the Tegart Wall between Palestine and Lebanon, both named after the British general Charles Tegart, brought into Palestine after decades of suppressing Indian independence activists in Bengal. It was former Histadrut general secretary and leader of the main Labor Zionist party Mapai, David Ben-Gurion, who in 1948 organized many Histadrut members into the military units of the Haganah, predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces, which participated in the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian refugees in the Arab-Israeli war, known to Palestinians as the Nakba.
After 1948, Labor Zionism, the supporter of Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, became the guardian of Ashkenazi European Jewish supremacy over the newly-arrived Mizrahi Jews who fled or were forced to leave Arab states. Under Labor Zionist governments, Mizrahi arrivals were sprayed with DDT, housed in camps, and, in some cases, had their children taken away from them. After the radical Israeli Black Panthers movement in the 1970s, some of whom supported the Palestinian national movement, it is unsurprising that Mizrahi voters – a majority in Israel – largely abandoned the Labor Party, giving Likud a boost in the polls ever since.
The role which the Labor Zionist movement has played in establishing apartheid in Palestine/Israel, and the irrelevance of today’s Labor Party in Israel’s right-wing drift, reveal something important about Israeli society. Where in many countries, workers’ movements, parties and trade unions have passionately opposed inequality and discrimination, in Israel that space has been filled by organizations rooted in racial hierarchy, which have collapsed under competition with parties promising to implement apartheid more effectively. Today, the fact that there is no significant social democratic movement in Israel, should give members of the UK Labour Party and all considering themselves part of the progressive left-wing tradition, pause for thought.