At Large

Israel Without Labor

Shockingly, a historic party finds itself pretty much washed up.

By 3.2.09

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I met Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister-designate, back when we were both graduate students (he at M.I.T., I at Tufts) in the mid-1970s. He struck me as a very smart fellow -- though a bit of an extremist. I was particularly taken aback when he casually referred to Israel's ruling Labor Party as "those Bolsheviks." As a student of Soviet foreign policy, I knew this was untrue. To be sure, Israel's Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were ardent socialists, but they were also, for the most part, strongly anti-Bolshevik. Strictly speaking, Netanyahu should have called Israel's Laborites "those Mensheviks" -- the kind of anti-communist socialists who, had they come to the United States instead of Palestine, would have become labor organizers, civil rights lawyers, crusading journalists and, in their old age, grumpy neo-cons.

But whether you call them Bolsheviks, Mensheviks or Social Democrats, it now appears that Israel's Labor Party is pretty well washed up as a major political force. This is astonishing. In the February elections, the party that is rightly identified with Israel's creation, the party of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and (for a while, at least) Moshe Dayan, the party that has always been the largest or second largest party in Israel's parliament and managed to leave its mark on virtually every aspect of Israeli life -- this party finished in fourth place, behind (centrist) Kadima, (conservative) Likud, and (???) Israel Beitaynu, a relatively new party that is militantly secular, stridently anti-Arab, and very difficult to categorize.

The Labor Party fell from grace because Israeli voters were fed up with its approach to foreign policy. As near as I can tell, the driving impulse behind that approach was a desire to be well-thought of in the world -- particularly in its more "progressive" precincts. I even suspect that many left-wing Israelis are secretly embarrassed by the warm support their nation enjoys from the likes of a George W. Bush, and would gladly trade it for a pat on the back from Nelson Mandela, or a friendly smile from Bishop Tutu.

But the Labor Party that went down in flames last month should not be confused with the Labor Party that founded Israel sixty years ago. Indeed, if some of those early Laborites returned to modern Israel, they'd probably feel much more at home in Netanyahu's Likud than in the party that pretends to embody their legacy. Similarly, I think Israel's Founders would feel much more at home in some of those West Bank settlements that Labor so despises than in the long-established kibbutzim (collective farms) that are the (shrinking) bedrock of Labor's remaining electoral strength.

A few years ago, a book came out in Israel that vividly described how Israel's kibbutzim have changed over the years. Titled From Silence, to Outcry, to Speech (Reader be warned: I'm translating directly from the Hebrew, and my linguistic skills are wobbly), it described the child-rearing practices of three generations of Israeli women who lived on kibbutzim. Most striking were the attitudes of the earliest, pioneering generation of women, who basically gave up on motherhood for the sake of nation-building. For them, writes Dr. Erala Lamdan, the study's author and herself a kibbutz member, "The main thing was the collective, and individuals surrendered their private interests for the sake of such great goals as building the land, founding the kibbutz and educating a 'new generation.'" The challenges facing these women were so great, and their determination to build a just society was so fierce, that they delegated the rearing of their children to collective nurseries, while they concentrated on more pressing matters: serving in health clinics for new immigrants, going on missions abroad, or even bringing in the grape harvest.

But the daughters of these pioneers and, even more so, their granddaughters, have an entirely different outlook. Their decision to live on a kibbutz, Dr. Lamdan maintains, has nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with the comforts, conveniences and amenities that kibbutz life offers. And, of course, they wouldn't dream of allowing their children to be raised outside the family -- motherhood is the defining experience of their lives.

The transition that Israel's kibbutzim have undergone -- from socialist hothouses fanatically dedicated to equality, to gated communities intent on enjoying the good life -- mirrors the changes undergone by the Labor Party. No longer does that party take either its Jewish or its Zionist legacy very seriously; no longer is it even committed to settling the Land of Israel. Today, it merely wants to be accepted into the club of bien-pensants, to bask in the approval of the right kind of people. Unfortunately for the Labor Party, modern Israel is increasingly filled with the wrong kind of people, who can't stand what the Labor Party has become.

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About the Author

Joseph Shattan is the author of Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War.