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Marxist Zionism: Israel's often forgotten socialist past - opinion

Not only is a synthesis between Marxism and Zionism possible, but the practitioners of such a fusion played a noteworthy role in shaping modern Israel

By MARK REGEV Published: AUGUST 4, 2022

For many contemporary western leftists, the very concept of Marxist Zionism is an oxymoron. Among radicals, the ideology behind Jewish statehood is often erroneously associated with colonialism, the antithesis of militant socialism. Yet, as I was recently reminded, not only is a synthesis between Marxism and Zionism possible, but the practitioners of such a fusion played a noteworthy role in shaping modern Israel.

Israeli families are known to embark on multi-generational vacations. Last week, four generations of my wife’s family, participants ranging in age from two months to eighty-four years, gathered for a three-day holiday at Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan in the Upper Galilee.

Established in 1945 by child refugees from Germany and Poland who had lost family in the Holocaust, Lehavot Habashan’s founders were united in their common membership of the pioneering Marxist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair.

The kibbutz’s original settlers would have been familiar with the theories of socialist Zionist Dov Ber Borochov (1881-1917), who believed that for the Jewish people to fully participate in the hoped-for international proletarian revolution they must first forgo the abnormal socioeconomic realities of the Diaspora. Borochov believed that if the Jews rebuilt their ancient homeland, they would once again become a nation with a worker majority, like in antiquity.

Borochov’s ideas were attractive to many because they fused together the particular (Zionism) and the universal (Marxism), placing the Jewish national struggle within the framework of the larger battle for a socialist world.

Revolutionary cells

Lehavot Habashan was part of Kibbutz Artzi, the most radical of the three major kibbutz movements. Accordingly, in election after election, the members of Lehavot Habashan consistently voted for MAPAM, the United Workers Party, created in 1948 by Hashomer Hatzair and other socialists as the left-wing alternative to the hegemonic rule of the more moderate MAPAI labor party.

In the 1949 elections for the first Knesset, MAPAI received 46 seats and formed the coalition government. MAPAM, with its 19 seats, was the second largest parliamentary faction and led the opposition.

Whereas MAPAI advocated a pro-Western foreign policy, MAPAM sought to align Israel with the Soviet Union; while MAPAI supported social-democracy, MAPAM embraced a militant socialism; and although MAPAI focused on state-building, MAPAM championed the non-state workers’ institutions, such as the Histadrut labor federation and the kibbutzim.

Kibbutz Artzi viewed its eighty-some collective settlements as revolutionary cells, the ideological avant-garde of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

A spartan socialist border settlement

Situated in the Hula Valley at the foot of the Golan Heights, Lehavot Habashan was right on the international frontier that separated Syria from Mandatory Palestine. In Israel’s War of Independence (1948-49), the kibbutz was repeatedly attacked by the invading Syrians but was always successfully defended.

The Israel-Syria Armistice formally ended that war, but the members of Lehavot Habashan still lived in a highly precarious security environment. The kibbutz suffered recurring violent harassment from the Syrian military on the Golan Heights, attacks that reached a crescendo on December 3, 1958, when the Syrians hurled some 300 shells on the kibbutz that destroyed the communal dining room and other community structures.

The direct military threat from Syria dissipated with Israel’s conquest of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War, and Lehavot Habashan’s circumstances changed for the better.

Characteristically, Kibbutz Artzi, unlike the other two kibbutz movements, did not push for the extensive settlement of the Golan Heights from which countless attacks had been launched. Instead, MAPAM held out the hope for peace, for which it was prepared to return the strategically important plateau to Syria.

A privatized kibbutz

Over the decades there have been many changes. In 2000, Lehavot Habashan officially joined the growing list of “new kibbutzim” who jettisoned elements of previous strict socialist practice to afford members greater personal freedom.

Today, Lehavot Habashan conveys the atmosphere of an agreeable rural community with quality of life. A large sign at the entrance to the kibbutz entices young families to purchase blocks of land – the new private housing increasingly dwarfing the traditional kibbutz dwellings.

The Kibbutz Artzi movement, to which Lehavot Habashan belonged, is no more, merging in 1999 into a looser pluralist kibbutz federation.

MAPAM has also ceased to exist. The party that was once Israel’s largest parliamentary opposition dissolved itself in 1997, uniting the erstwhile hardcore socialists with left-liberals to create the dovish, secularist, and social-democratic Meretz.

Of course, on Lehavot Habashan, there are still residual manifestations of the community’s radical heritage. In Israel’s 2021 Knesset elections, the residents of the kibbutz bucked the national trend and disproportionally voted Left. The single largest bloc of votes, 26.6%, went for Meretz. In second place came Labor with 18.6%, and Yesh Atid was in the number three spot with 18.2%. But with only 490 voters on the kibbutz, in national terms these numbers were miniscule.

Expulsion of dissenters

In the old days of resolute socialism, MAPAM could be guaranteed 100% backing on Lehavot Habashan. Back then “ideological collectivism” was the norm in Kibbutz Artzi, and political nonconformism was considered a legitimate justification for having a member physically removed from a kibbutz. Famously, when MAPAM split in 1953, those who supported the minority breakaway ultra-left grouping were unceremoniously expelled from their homes.

Al HaMishmar, the MAPAM daily newspaper read in Kibbutz Artzi, proclaimed on its front-page logo a commitment to “Zionism, Socialism, and the Comradeship of Nations.” When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, its banner headline declared “The Progressive World Mourns Stalin’s Death.”

Across Kibbutz Artzi events were held in honor of the deceased Bolshevik tyrant. Stalin’s praises were sung, especially for his victorious leadership of the Red Army over the Nazis in World War II. The Soviet Union’s diplomatic and military support for the newborn Jewish state was also lauded. Stalin’s antisemitism, obvious by then, was seen as a blemish on his otherwise proud socialist legacy.

Like their western counterparts, Israeli leftists chose to color uncomfortable truths, downplaying the many crimes committed by the Stalinist regime. Today’s European Mélenchonists, Podemites, Sinn Féiners, and Corbynists, and like-minded Americans, similarly elect to view reality with rigid ideological blinkers, adopting a knee-jerk anti-Zionism.

Perhaps these radicals should also visit the Lehavot Habashan holiday cabins. Not only would they enjoy a pleasant vacation, but if they speak with the kibbutz old-timers, they might discover a thing or two about the Jewish state that don’t dovetail with the current radical orthodoxy.

Published Originally in The Jerusalem Post

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