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Why Kibbutzism Isn’t Socialism

Labor Zionists tried to build a communal utopia. They created an oppressive form of ethnic nationalism instead.

A ceremony on an Israeli kibbutz in July 1951. Wikimedia Commons

During the Democratic primary, as mainstream media outlets struggled to define Bernie Sanders’s avowed socialism, many latched onto his time volunteering on a Jewish kibbutz in Israel. “Bernie Sanders’s Kibbutz Found. Surprise: It’s Socialist,” read one characteristic headline in the New York Times.

But Sanders’s 1963 trip was less illustrative than the Times and others have assumed. Held up as something of a socialist paradise, the kibbutz — and the Labor Zionism that animates it — is anything but.

As envisioned by its founders, the kibbutz (or gathering, in Hebrew) was to be a utopian rural community, fusing egalitarian and communal ideals with those of Zionism and Jewish nationalism. In this voluntary collective community, Jewish newcomers would enjoy joint ownership of property, economic equality, and cooperation in production, and the maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would reign supreme.

The early kibbutzniks (kibbutz members) were idealist young Zionists who immigrated to Palestine from Europe in the early twentieth century. Fancying themselves revolutionaries, they were eager to realize the kibbutz founders’ vision of integrating socialism and Jewish nationalism.

What they built, however, was a negation of socialism. Just as with Labor Zionism (the driving force behind the kibbutz movement in pre-state Israel), the experiment’s nationalism quickly won out over its egalitarian ideals. What began as an attempt to build a socialist utopia ended up yielding an oppressive form of ethnic nationalism.

Building Socialist Zionism

Perhaps the best refutation of the purportedly socialist foundations of the kibbutz comes courtesy of the progenitors of Labor Zionism themselves.

Founded in the wake of the 1899 third Zionist Congress, Labor Zionism sought to solve the so-called Jewish question by facilitating the mass transfer and territorial settlement of European Jews in Ottoman Palestine. Its founding European theoreticians — notably, Dov Ber Borochov — believed that Zionism would emancipate the Jewish people both economically and historically, finally ending centuries of oppression. They looked to the rise of world capitalism to spur European Jews to migrate en masse to Palestine, where the class struggle of the Jewish proletariat would culminate in the national liberation of the Jews.

At the time, Socialist Zionists distinguished themselves from Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Congress, which opposed mixing Jewish nationalism and socialism. Members of the Socialist Zionist camp ranged from orthodox Marxists like Moses Hess and Ber Borochov, to non-Marxist socialists like Nachman Syrkin and A. D. Gordon, to populist socialists like David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson.

Yet even in the case of someone like Hess, an early associate of Marx and Engels, the insoluble tension at the heart of the kibbutz was apparent.

More a manifesto for colonization than a socialist tract, Hess’s 1862 book Rome and Jerusalem celebrated the messianic return of Jews to Palestine. Indeed, Hess maintained that if Jewish emancipation and Jewish nationalism were irreconcilable, it was the former that had to be ditched. It is little surprise, then, that Marx and Engels openly mocked their old comrade and jointly denounced him as a “proponent of bourgeois society.”

To his Zionist followers, though, Hess was more of a saint than an outcast. Rome and Jerusalem became a seminal text for Labor Zionists and kibbutz founders in Mandate Palestine, and Nachman Syrkin, “the intellectual Godfather of Labor Zionism,” became a disciple of Hess.

Syrkin argued that Jewish liberation could only be won through the creation of a socialist Jewish state in Palestine. He was also clear on the means: attract Jews from Europe, and expel the indigenous Arab population. Syrkin, whose treatise “The Jewish Question and the Socialist State” (1898) is clearly fashioned after Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem, was arguably the first to define Socialist Zionism’s mission as fostering mass immigration to, and collective settlement in, Palestine.

Otherwise Orthodox Marxists like Ber Borochov agreed. In “The National Question and the Class Struggle” and “Our Platform” (1906), Borochov insisted that the establishment of a socialist Jewish state in Palestine, backed by Europe’s imperial powers, would necessarily wipe out the native Arab population.

Though still small, the ranks of Socialist Zionists began to expand in the first decade of the twentieth century. In particular, they gained popularity in the wake of Hertz’s Uganda Program in 1903 — which sought to establish, with British support, a homeland for the Jewish people in East Africa — and the subsequent rise of the Territorialist Jewish Organization, which proposed building a Jewish territory (or territories) in various parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Soviet Union.

Ironically, it was the Socialist Zionists who most vehemently opposed Jewish Territorialism, believing the current verged on internationalism. The future Jewish state, Socialist Zionists maintained, could only be realized through the creation of multiple cooperative and communal agricultural settlements. The Jewish kibbutz was thus cast as the project’s apotheosis, both symbol and manifestation of the Labor Zionist union between socialism and nationalism.

Once in Palestine, however, Labor Zionism effected something far different from proletarian revolution. Nowhere was this failure more evident than in the Zionist youth movements, which flourished following an enormous influx of Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early decades of the twentieth century. For example, Hashomer Hatzair — a group founded in 1903 by Eastern European Zionists and which later played host to Bernie Sanders’s kibbutz volunteering — were critical in helping set up the first rural kibbutzim in Palestine.

But despite its socialist and egalitarian platform — and a membership largely inspired by Borochov’s Marxist philosophy — Hashomer Hatzair saw its aim as settling Jewish newcomers on confiscated Arab lands. The first kibbutz — built in northern Palestine in 1909 and named Degania, Mother of the Kibbutzim — put this vision into practice, with predictable results.

From the early stages of the Jewish yishuv in Palestine, the leaders of Labor Zionism and the kibbutz movement made Arab-Jewish fraternity their primary target. One such leader was David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister and widely hailed as the country’s founding father. In 1907, one year after his arrival in Palestine from the Russian Empire, the young Ben-Gurion began calling for the formation of an exclusively Jewish labor force on lands owned by the Jewish National Fund.

Ben-Gurion’s ideas eventually hardened into two highly nationalistic doctrines: Hebrew Labor and Hebrew Conquest of Labor. Together, they provided the intellectual justification for replacing Arab workers with Jewish ones in Jewish communal settlements, built on annexed Arab lands.

The two policies ultimately received widespread support, at once backed by non-Marxist Zionist parties (such as Hapoel Hatzair) and Zionist formations that were otherwise quite socialistic (notably Poale Zion, Workers of Zion).

In 1919, Ben-Gurion and his comrades founded Ahdut Haavoda (Union of Labor), a labor federation that opposed membership in the Communist International and aligned itself with the Zionist Organization. By the 1920s, Ben-Gurion was pushing for the realization, by force, of his Hebrew Labor doctrine across the entire Jewish economy in Mandate Palestine.

What’s more, he called for complete segregation between Palestine’s Jewish and Arab communities: “Jews and Arabs,” he wrote in 1920, “should live and work in separate settlements and economies.” In 1924, in an address before the joint railway workers’ union council, he pronounced himself in favor of dividing unions along ethnic lines in mixed workplaces like the Palestine Railways.

In fact, Ben-Gurion repeatedly disputed the more romanticized views of the kibbutz. In a 1956 pamphlet, he conceded that the kibbutz movement was not predicated on socialist ideals as widely believed, but was “a means to protect Jewish labor.” Hebrew Labor, Ben-Gurion explained, didn’t grow out of class struggle, but ethnic separatism; adherents of Labor Zionism should elevate ethnic and national interests over class solidarity.

Socialist Zionism thus entailed the total racialization of the class struggle and the reconfiguration of labor along strictly demarcated ethnic lines. For Labor Zionists, Arab labor was nothing but a primitive mode of production unfit for the proletarian revolution. Only Hebrew Labor could power the Socialist Zionist project.

To foster its national and state-building enterprise in Palestine, Labor Zionists worked to organize Jewish settlers into a Jewish-only working class. Even here, though, the ultimate goal was not the liberation of the Jewish proletariat, but Labor Zionism’s total monopoly over the local economy, its modes of production, and market share. The Jewish kibbutz, meanwhile, was branded as the prototype of the future Jewish state. “Our state is neither capitalist nor socialist,” Ben-Gurion noted in 1951. It was, simply, a Jewish state.

In Mandate Palestine, Socialist Zionism made more enemies than comrades — not surprisingly, its Jewish-only policy both alienated and antagonized the native Arab population. By 1935, only 5 percent of the Arab workforce had worked in the Jewish sector (mainly in agriculture), with virtually none on kibbutz-owned land.

Over the next half-decade, the dispossessed rebelled. A five-month general strike in 1936 — triggered by the near monopoly of Labor Zionism and its Hebrew Labor policy — was quickly followed by a three-year national uprising led by thousands of impoverished workers, marginalized laborers, and landless peasants. British Mandatory forces, with the help of Zionist paramilitary forces, responded by crushing the uprising — a decisive victory for Labor Zionism, and a decisive blow to socialism in Palestine.

The tragedy is that there were a variety of genuinely left-wing paths on offer — the Labor Zionists just rejected them.

They spurned Territorialism, which called for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine or elsewhere; they opposed autonomism, which advocated non-territorial national rights for Jews in multinational empires; and they denounced folkism, which promoted a Jewish cultural identity among the Yiddish-speaking masses.

Groups such as the Bund — a Jewish workers’ party that eschewed Zionism and saw the answer to the “Jewish question” as the winning of both socialism and non-territorialist, national-cultural autonomy in Eastern Europe — were suppressed. So too were non-Jewish socialist parties, whose Jewish members opposed Jewish nationalism in both its Zionist-territorialist and Bundist-cultural forms, calling instead for a socialist revolution.

And pacifist formations — including Jewish anti-Zionist communist organizations, who advocated Jewish integration into the local Arab society — met the same fate.

Liberation for Some

By the final years of the Mandate, Labor Zionism had morphed into a militaristic movement. Most of its labor groups were collapsed into the defense and paramilitary organizations of the Haganah and the Palmach, which constituted the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Labor Zionism, laden with nationalism and now acute militarism, thus culminated in what historian Sven Beckert calls “war capitalism” — a labor- and land-intensive capitalism that flourishes not in the factory but in the field, and rests on the violent expropriation of land and labor. (The roots of this nascent form of capitalism can be traced back to proto-Zionist organizations like Bilu and Hovevei Zion, which were established in the late nineteenth century to promote Jewish agricultural settlements and colonies in Palestine.)

Initially an uneasy marriage of conflicting characters, Labor Zionism’s socialism was quickly stamped out by the nationalism permeating Zionism’s settler colonial enterprise. The divorce was then consummated with the founding of the State of Israel.

The kibbutz — the building block of Labor Zionism, the practical expression of its deepest ideals — is inseparable from this history.

Ethnic separatism, not class-based egalitarianism or socialist internationalism, guided the founding of the modern kibbutz. Rather than forging class solidarity across ethnic lines, Labor Zionists reinforced social hierarchies, ethnic hegemony, and religious oppression.

Yet while the notion of “Socialist Zionism” — or, for that matter, “socialist kibbutz” — should strike us as oxymoronic, the media coverage during the primary season testifies to the enduring confusion surrounding the kibbutz.

Part of the reason for the muddied waters is the conflation of “communal” and “socialist.” As defined by its founders, the Jewish kibbutz was a communal settlement based on the principles of joint ownership, economic equality, and cooperation of production. But it was Jewish ownership, Jewish equality, and Jewish cooperation — a communal paradise, perhaps, but only for one ethnic group.

Those looking for an exemplar of genuine socialism could hardly be farther afield.