Labor Zionism

Israel Table of Contents

The defeat of Herzl's Uganda Plan ensured that the fate of the Zionist project would ultimately be determined in Palestine. In Palestine the Zionist movement had to devise a practical settlement plan that would ensure its economic viability in the face of extremely harsh conditions. Neither Herzl's political Zionism nor Ahad HaAm's cultural Zionism articulated a practical plan for settlement in Palestine. Another major challenge facing the fledgling movement was how to appeal to the increasing number of young Jews who were joining the growing socialist and communist movements in Russia. To meet these challenges, Labor Zionism emerged as the dominant force in the Zionist movement.

The intellectual founders of Labor Zionism were Nachman Syrkin and Ber Borochov. They inspired the founding of Poalei Tziyyon (Workers of Zion, see Appendix B)--the first Labor Zionist party, which grew quickly from 1906 until the start of World War I. The concepts of Labor Zionism first emerged as criticisms of the Rothschild-supported settlements of the First Aliyah. Both Borochov and Syrkin believed that the Rothschild settlements, organized on purely capitalist terms and therefore hiring Arab labor, would undermine the Jewish enterprise. Syrkin called for Jewish settlement based on socialist modes of organization: the accumulation of capital managed by a central Jewish organization and employment of Jewish laborers only. He believed that "antiSemitism was the result of unequal distribution of power in society. As long as society is based on might, and as long as the Jew is weak, anti-Semitism will exist." Thus, he reasoned, the Jews needed a material base for their social existence--a state and political power.

Ber Borochov's contribution to Labor Zionism was his synthesis of the concepts of class and nation. In his most famous essay, entitled Nationalism and Class Struggle, Borochov showed how the nation, in this case the Jewish nation, was the best institution through which to conduct the class struggle. According to Borochov, only through the establishment of a Jewish society controlling its own economic infrastructure could Jews be integrated into the revolutionary process. His synthesis of Marxism and Zionism attracted many Russian Jews caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the Bolshevik movement.

Another important Labor Zionist and the first actually to reside in Palestine was Aaron David Gordon. Gordon believed that only by physical labor and by returning to the land could the Jewish people achieve national salvation in Palestine. Gordon became a folk hero to the early Zionists by coming to Palestine in 1905 at a relatively advanced age--forty-seven--and assiduously working the land. He and his political party, HaPoel HaTzair (The Young Worker), were a major force behind the movement to collectivize Jewish settlements in Palestine. The first kibbutz was begun by Gordon and his followers at Deganya in eastern Galilee.

Before Gordon's arrival, the major theorists of Labor Zionism had never set foot in Palestine. Zionism in its theoretical formulations only took practical effect with the coming to Palestine of the Second Aliyah. Between 1904 and 1914, approximately 40,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine in response to the pogroms that followed the attempted Russian revolution of 1905. By the end of the Second Aliyah, the Jewish population of Palestine stood at about 85,000, or 12 percent of the total population. The members of the Second Aliyah, unlike the settlers of the first, were dedicated socialists set on establishing Jewish settlement in Palestine along socialist lines. They undertook a number of measures aimed at establishing an autonomous Jewish presence in Palestine, such as employing only Jewish labor, encouraging the widespread use of Hebrew, and forming the first Jewish self-defense organization, HaShomer (The Watchmen).

The future leadership cadre of the state of Israel emerged out of the Second Aliyah. The most important leader of this group and the first prime minister of Israel was David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion, who arrived in Palestine in 1906, believed that economic power was a prerequisite of political power. He foresaw that the fate of Zionist settlement in Palestine depended on the creation of a strong Jewish economy. This aim, he believed, could only be accomplished through the creation of a Hebrew-speaking working class and a highly centralized Jewish economic structure. Beginning in the 1920s, he set out to create the immense institutional framework for a Jewish workers' state in Palestine.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress