By Nir Kedar | 25/02/2010
The deterioration of the Social-Democratic movement in Israel, from a national movement to the "Left," is largely a result of the labor movement's ceasing to view itself as bearing responsibility for the entire society. Nir Kedar on the victory of the "ascetic" approach over the "pioneering-avant-garde" approach
Account-taking on the Israeli left should begin with the question of how it happened that social-democracy in Israel went from being a national movement, to the "Left," which arouses negative sentiments along large portions of the Israeli public. Although since the French Revolution socialist and democratic movements have been considered "left," the Hebrew social-democratic movement was not termed "Left," but rather, a "workers' movement" or "labor movement." This is not simply a mater of linguistics. It indicates that the labor movement viewed itself from the outset not as a party representing a sector, but as a national movement.
From the dawning of its beginnings in the early 20th century, the Hebrew labor movement was beset by internal tension between two trends: an elitist trend, and a popular trend. On the one hand, the labor movement viewed itself as a pioneering, avant garde movement, spearheading the Zionist revolution (without any Marxist-Leninist overtones intended). And yet, the Hebrew workers' movement also viewed itself as a popular-democratic movement. This populist self-perception had three causes: first, the workers' movement was initially based on the masses of Hebrew workers, and later, on a large portion of what was known as the "middle class"; second, beyond the numeric question, in keeping with the social-democratic tradition, the Hebrew labor movement also saw itself not as a sector-based party that represented a minority of the population, but the reverse, as a movement representing the "general class," i.e. the group whose interests were identical to those of the collective; third, the Zionist workers' movement aimed to foment revolution in Jewish social life, and therefore appealed to the masses of Israel in the Yishuv and in the Diaspora and sought to represent, educate, and lead them.
The first, supreme trend was pioneering and avant-garde in the basic sense of the word, that is, a trend that emphasized the Zionist laborer as a pioneer leading the camp, marking out its path, guiding, educating and leading it. The view that the labor movement held was not only one of separatist pioneering, but also of national, republican pioneering, placing great importance on the very active participation of the pioneer in society and in the political-public realm, and in essence, the cultivation of civic responsibility, a commitment to the collective interest of society and "civic" awareness of the importance of public life, law and order. "National pioneering" was indeed an optimistic view, characteristic to modern thought, which took shape during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and which was infused with a belief that society could be educated and shaped according to a desired model.
In contrast to the political-public trend, at the elite pole of the workers movement was a second trend, which I term "ascetic." This trend, in which modernist optimism mingled with "Christian" pessimism regarding human nature, emphasized that a true pioneering avant-garde was ethically obligated to adhere to the socialist idea, even if society was generally hostile to or unable to realize it, and therefore, adherence to socialist-Zionist ideas took precedence over general involvement in society. To the "state people," who demanded deeper social involvement, the "ascetics" replied that the personal example of the workers and of their pioneering enterprises would ultimately contribute to society-at-large. The adherence of labor movement folk to their movement's ideals is indeed extremely impressive: tens of thousands for many years lived in and created exceedingly difficult conditions, out of a commitment to and belief in Zionist and socialist ideals.
And yet, in Israeli public memory, the labor movement is not perceived as a popular or state movement, but actually as a separatist sector-based movement. The public-at-large identifies the labor movement mainly with the kibbutzim and the Histadrut labor union, two bodies that indeed emphasize separatism: the kibbutzim are a manifestation of the ascetic side of the movement, and the Histadrut, its hierarchical, bureaucratic and un-democratic side. The fact that during most of its history, the Labor movement saw itself as a royal pioneering corps, working for the good of the Zionist enterprise and society as a whole, is forgotten.
The labor movement indeed cast its vote in favor of a state focus and against asceticism. This was first of all at the level of ideas: the Hebrew workers' movement had already at an early stage shaken free of the Marxist idea of "class struggle," and instead sought to establish from the bottom up an exemplary Jewish socialist-democratic national state. During most of its history, the labor movement adhered to this idea: time and again it chose state-based action, and rejected ascetic isolationism in model frameworks. This ideational trend led to two political decisions: the decision of the labor movement to be a broad social-democratic movement; and its decision to make the transformation from "class to a people," in other words, to struggle for power in the society of the Yishuv and in the Zionist movement.
The labor movement viewed itself from an early stage as a broad, popular social-democratic movement. Although there were splinters, the central process in its history – at least during the first decades of its existence – was mainly one of growth and unity: In 1919, the Poalei Tzion party united with the un-organized (non-partisan) laborers to establish the Labor Union Association (Hitahdut Ahdut Ha-Avodah) (the name of the organization also points to its state-based orientation: it was an "association" and not a "party"). In 1920, the General Histadrut Worker's Union was established, and served, among other things, as a kind of federation of workers' movements; and in 1930 HaPoel Ha-Tzair, and the Labor Union Association merged and established Mapai (Mifleget Poalei Eretz Yisrael), which was in power in the Yishuv and in the State of Israel in various incarnations until 1977.
An additional important decision of the labor movement, mentioned above, was the transformation "from a class to a people," i.e. to become a leading force in the Yishuv and in the Zionist movement. This decision, as well, formulated in the late 1920s, was not easy. Many – including supporters of the maneuver and its leaders – feared that it would lead to the ultimate neglect of socialist ideals. However, the move "from a class to a people" did not merely express the desire for power and domination, but also explicitly represented an ideological decision that the struggle over the formation of Jewish society overall as a social-democratic society and as a "working people" was more important than self-seclusion into "socialist monasteries" like the kibbutzim and that labor groups (kvutzot avodah).
The state-based decisions taken by the labor movement were not easy, and many believed that they involved an over-extension, and even an abandonment of socialist ideals. During the 1920s and 30s, a furious internal debate raged in the labor movement between the majority, which supported the state-based approach (despite the many deliberations) and the "ascetic" groups, such as "Gedud Ha-Avodah." This internal debate stood out mainly in discussions that touched on the kibbutz movement, where the tension between the state-focused and ascetic approaches was particularly vitriolic and harsh. While the "ascetics" emphasized their ethical obligation to the socialist idea, the "staters" claimed that the behavior of the "ascetics" constituted irresponsible and un-state-like separatism that abandoned society and the Zionist goal, and that the move from "class to people" was the true socialist-democratic move. Ultimately, the tensions between elitism and populism, and between asceticism and the state approach, led to the division of Mapai in 1944 into two blocks: "the national block" (Mapai), and the "ascetic block" (Sia Bet and Ahdut Ha-Avodah), even though the previous tensions continued to exist in each of the halves.
History has shown that the split was mainly detrimental to the "ascetic" parties, which gradually lost their political power, while Mapai recovered from the split and just grew stronger (the height of its power was recorded in the elections for the fourth Knesset in 1959, when it received 47 mandates). The rise in Mapai's power is commonly attributed to the fact that as the party in power, it granted favors to voters, a phenomenon spoofed in the movie "Saleh Shabbati." Although there is a grain of truth in this explanation, it is not exhaustive, since in the Israeli reality of democratic rule and free and secret elections, the practice of granting favors cannot buy a government for three decades. The power of Mapai can therefore also be attributed to its national policies. Although it aroused much anger and bitterness as responsible for discrimination in Israel on the basis of politics, ethnicity and nationality, Mapai was ultimately perceived – and rightfully so – as a national party, and as the political-national axis on which Israeli society was predicated, for better and for worse.
State politics was the source of Mapai's power, and therefore, leaving them was the main reason for the decline of Mapai and the Israeli labor movement. The decline in power of the labor party thus began during the period of the Lavon Affair (that is, during the first half of the 1960s), when Mapai ceased viewing itself as a national party and chose to neglect its alliance with the "civic circles" in favor of a "workers" alliance, i.e., for the sake of a "kind of unity" with other workers parties who pulled Mapai to the left, towards the "ascetic" pole. Although the labor movement appeared in the 1960s to be more unified than the Labor Alignment (Maarach), it essentially had gradually grown farther from its state-based position as a popular party serving as the axis for a political/state-based alliance, and became the party representing a sector or segment of the population and ensuring preservation of the power of its institutions.
Many intellectuals interpreted Mapai's increased association with circles tied to the "ascetic Left" as a positive and even exemplary development, symbolizing the return of the labor movement to its ethical obligation and socialist ideal. However, in the eyes of most of the pubic, this maneuver was viewed as a distancing from state-related obligations of the ruling party, and even as a condescending separatism. The labor movement gradually came to be perceived as a party, one which turned its back on Israeli society at large and focused on the preservation of its own institutions. The fact that Mapai, since the founding of the state, had become a hierarchical and less democratic movement, only enforced this impression. Even the pioneering self-perception of the labor movement was not interpreted by the public as state-focused, but rather as an expression of elitism. This change in image was ultimately an important element in the political upheaval of 1977.
Quite unfortunately, the upheaval did not lead the labor movement to come to its senses and to return to its state-based policy; rather, it began to seclude itself even more. Now the pessimistic asceticism was not the lot only of the devout socialists or the intellectuals; it also spread among broad layers of Israeli society, and mainly among its elite groups, who until then had been staunch supporters of the labor movement (or at least of the alliance between the labor movement and the "civic circles.") This elite, which in the past had been obligated to social democracy and operating through the state, went into mourning over the 'demise of the state' following the Likud's rise to power, and failed to understand that the loss of the government and the social changes and other modifications that came with it were largely due to its closing-in and turning its back on society and its needs.
The tension between the popular and elite trends, and between the pioneering and state-based versus the "ascetic" perspective, led to debates and divisions within the labor movement and to tremendous deliberations and difficulties also at the personal level, but these tensions had been essential, in every sense of the word, to the labor movement and Israeli society alike. For, from the moment that the workers' movement abandoned for the most part the pioneering and state-based pole for the ascetic pole, the voltage that kept the movement going ceased, and it began dying. The labor movement's focus on caring for its institutional "monasteries" including kibbutzim and the like, and its dissociation from society and its responsibility for society, turned it from a popular movement into "the Left," which gradually lost its political and symbolic power in Israeli society. The Israeli social-democracy, which gradually rose to become a national force and was the basis for the nation of workers, shrank back down to size, from a people to class.
The fall of the labor movement dealt a fatal blow to Israeli social-democracy, and contributed to the rise of conservative, neo-liberal perspectives, and to the grave phenomena of increasing poverty and polarization. The collapse of the labor movement damaged the national alliance that had formed the basis of Israeli society: the political alliance that had been the platform of a social-democratic and national Israel collapsed and was replaced by an unstable two-bloc system, and the old political agenda of Israeli society was replaced with a narrow political discussion, comprising primarily the question of control over the territories. The new political order also took expression in the gradual fading out of Israelis' civic commitment to public life, law and order. This is the origin of the contempt and aversion that so many feel towards politic and public service, and it is the reason for the blatant harm to the rule of law. Moreover, the fading away of social-democracy and national focus turned the Israeli public from a civil-national society into a collection of groups and sectors, connected via a thin cultural veneer (often with religious or nationalist tones). The disappearance of the national discourse left behind a society lacking civic responsibility, devoid of a commitment to the collective interest, and bereft of an awareness of the importance of social life and the rule of law. In this sense, the damage to the social-democratic welfare state is powerfully tied to the damage to the rule of law. Both were central undertakings of modern social democracy, and both were fatally wounded by the labor movement's withdrawing from its responsibility to society.
The iniquity of the labor movement, then, is deeper than appears at first glance: the abandonment of the national-historic responsibility it once assumed towards civic and public society and life in Israel inflicted harm not only on the movement, but also on the young Israeli civil society, which was still in the midst of processes of construction and formation. The miserable regression, "from people to a class" turned Israeli social democracy into a sector, damaged the welfare state, and left behind a modular civil society. Account-taking on the Left must therefore begin from this same journey from class to people and back, that is, from the flight of Israeli social democracy from national responsibility.
Dr. Nir Kedar is a lecturer at the Bar Ilan University Law School