“Bring on the bulldozers and let’s plant trees”

The Story of Labour Zionism

In Philadelphia on May 18, 2008, the Jewish Federation hosted its annual Israel Day Parade. Thousands of youth and adults carried banners and sang songs to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. A small contingent of anti-Zionist Jews dressed in black confronted the paraders with signs about the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of displacement and massacre that was part of Israel’s founding. Near the front of the parade was a large contingent from Camp Galil, a labour Zionist summer camp in Pennsylvania that emphasizes youth empowerment, communal living, and social justice along with support for Israel. It was an especially bitter moment for some of the protesters, who were themselves Camp Galil alumni. It was as campers at Galil that they had first learned to make signs, invent chants, and articulate political demands.

Labour Zionists, perhaps more than anyone, have shaped the idea that Israel stands for democracy and social justice, an idea that has become common sense across much of the political spectrum.1 However, for 100 years, labour Zionism has played a major role in building Israel as an ethnically exclusivist state. At the same time, it has presented itself as a movement of the left that emphasizes collectivist and working class-based institutions, and it has mobilized progressive-minded people into supporting that state. In softer form, its portrayal of Israel has been taken up by Zionists further to the right and used as a public relations tool.

At the heart of labour Zionism has been a contradiction between its Zionism and its avowed socialist commitment to human equality and social justice. The movement has dealt with this conflict by using its progressive self-conception to make Zionism look like an exciting vehicle for social change, while subordinating social justice to Zionism in practice. But the contradiction also makes labour Zionism vulnerable to internal critique and defections by those members willing to reframe Israel’s history and politics in the context of imperialism. By training people in radical politics and structural analysis, labour Zionist youth movements give them tools that some have used not only to “un-learn” Zionism, but also to work against it.

Labour Zionism’s contradictions are important, in part because they exemplify problems that have affected many leftist movements. Labour Zionism highlights the need – in North America as much as in the Middle East – to address ethnic oppression and specifically settler-colonialism as both ideology and material reality, both historical legacy and living entity.2

Labour Zionism also challenges us to look critically at the Left’s relationship with nationalism. While many leftists have drawn a distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed, Zionism is both. Zionism developed as a response to Jews’ oppression, and many Zionists – especially those who identify with the left – still consider it a national liberation movement. But Zionism’s strategy has not been to fight Jews’ oppression, but rather to recast Jews as the dominant group in a new oppressive system. This oppressor status is inherent in the concept of Israel as the state of the Jewish people: any ethnically exclusivist state will be oppressive because it depends on expelling, erasing, or subordinating populations defined as Other.

But labour Zionism isn’t just a useful case study for exploring these broader issues. It’s also a weak point in the ideological justification for the last century’s history of Palestinian oppression, which is getting worse year by year, sometimes week by week. We hope that this essay offers a useful analysis for confronting those who rationalize this oppression using leftist or progressive terms.

Labour Zionism in Palestine and Israel

Israel is one of several settler-colonial states created in the modern era through forcibly displacing a whole people and building a new society on conquered land. However, Israel is the only settler-colonial state in which an avowedly socialist, working class-identified movement played the dominant role throughout its formative period. Labour Zionism spearheaded the Zionist project across three pivotal time periods: during British rule in Palestine (1917-1948), when a large Jewish settler community was established; during the 1948-1949 war that created the state of Israel; and for the following three decades, when labour Zionists dominated Israeli politics.

Labour Zionism originated in the early 1900s among eastern and central European Jews, around the belief that Zionism’s success depended on building a strong Jewish working class in Palestine.3 Various political currents influenced labour Zionism – Marxism, anarchism, romanticist nationalism, and Russian populism – and the movement included a shifting array of parties and factions over the decades. Broadly speaking, there were two main currents. On the right, the larger and more powerful tendency came together in 1930 as Mapai (Land of Israel Workers Party), the main forerunner of today’s Israeli Labour Party. Mapai presented itself as social democratic rather than revolutionary, promoted various forms of collectivism, and took a highly centralized approach to developing the Jewish settler economy and society. Mapai (or the Labour Party after 1969) held political leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine and then Israel from 1935 to 1977.

On labour Zionism’s left wing was a smaller current that saw itself as Marxist and revolutionary. Its most important organization in Palestine starting in the late 1920s was Hashomer Hatzair (Young Watchman), which was mainly based in the kibbutz (communal farm) movement.4 Hashomer Hatzair joined with two smaller parties in 1948 to form Mapam (United Workers Party), which in turn merged with other groups to form Meretz in the 1990s.

Most Zionists were influenced by European colonialist attitudes, such as the assumption that it was right and appropriate for Europeans to rule over other people, either because non-Europeans didn’t matter or because European rule would help them. This was true of labour Zionists as well as others, including many who considered themselves Marxists.

From the movement’s early years on, most Zionists were also shaped by anti-Jewish attitudes and beliefs.5 This included accepting claims that the Jewish people were somehow abnormal or deformed and that Jews were condemned to a parasitic existence as long as they lived in “other people’s” countries. Many Zionists vilified diaspora Jews in classically anti-Jewish terms, as cowardly, devious, dirty, secretive, effeminate, and weak and pale from constant book-learning. Zionism was about creating a new Jew who was the opposite of all that: somebody who was strong, physically active, masculine, forthright.

Labour Zionists shared these anti-Jewish attitudes to varying degrees. A 1917 Hashomer Hatzair pamphlet, republished in 1936, declared that “The Jew is a caricature of a normal, natural human being, both physically and spiritually. As an individual in society he revolts and throws off the harness of social obligations, knows no order and no discipline.” Labour Zionists argued that remaking diaspora Jews as workers and farmers in Palestine offered the key to revitalizing or “normalizing” the Jewish people. This took different forms. In Marxist-Zionist terms, building a Jewish working class in Palestine meant escaping marginal petty bourgeois status and gaining the ability to wage successful class struggle and achieve socialism. In romanticist terms, it meant transforming rootless, unproductive diaspora Jews into productive Hebrew workers rooted in the soil of their ancestral homeland. These two idioms, the Marxist and the romanticist, came together in the mythology of the kibbutz.6

Labour Zionism took on a leading role for Zionism as a whole during the period of the British mandate in Palestine. With their combination of idealism and pragmatism, grassroots involvement and centralized organization, labour Zionists were better able than anyone else to bring Jewish immigrants to Palestine, settle them, mobilize them for economic development, and train them as a military force. Labour Zionists, in turn, depended on investments and subsidies from the Zionist Organization (the movement’s international umbrella) and its business supporters. For most of the period of the British mandate, they also depended on British colonial authorities for protection against the indigenous population (most dramatically during the 1936-1939 Palestinian uprising and general strike).

During this time, from the 1920s to the 1940s, labour Zionists were at the forefront of building a self-contained Jewish economy and society in Palestine. That meant acquiring land and developing Jewish businesses, the all-Jewish kibbutzim, and the Histadrut (General Federation of Hebrew Workers), a powerful trade union and development organization that was for Jews only. It meant campaigns pressuring Jewish employers to hire only Jewish workers (“Hebrew labour”) and Jewish consumers to buy only Jewish-made goods (“Jewish products”). Kibbutzim have long hired Palestinians as wage workers but have consistently excluded them from membership. Non-Jews could not join the Histadrut until 1959 or vote in its elections until 1965.7

Some labour Zionists recognized that these policies clashed with socialist principles. David Hacohen, who became an influential Mapai leader, later recalled his arguments with socialist students of other nationalities in London in the 1920s:

...I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there… To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs that they bought; to praise to the skies the [Jewish National Fund] that sent Hankin to Beirut to buy land from the absentee [landlords] and to throw the [peasants] off the land…; to take Rothschild, the incarnation of capitalism, as a socialist and to name him the ‘benefactor’ – to do all that was not easy. And despite the fact that we did it – maybe we had no choice – I wasn’t happy about it.8

Labour Zionists rationalized these policies of ethnic exclusion in various ways. Some claimed that it was Jewish settlers, not indigenous Arabs, who made the land of Palestine productive (“made the desert bloom”) and thus had a greater right to it. Some argued that being concerned about the rights or interests of non-Jews was a reflection of diaspora mentality, with its subservience and weakness, which Zionists had to reject in order to be strong, new Jews. Some claimed that developing a Jewish settler society and specifically a Jewish working class in Palestine uplifted Arab peasants and workers economically and culturally. As David Ben Gurion (future head of Mapai and Israel’s first prime minister) declared in 1921, “the conscious and cultured Jewish worker, whose historic mission is the building of a free community of labour in Eretz Yisra’el [the land of Israel], [must] educate the Arab worker to live an orderly and cooperative life of labour, discipline, and mutual responsibility.”9

Labour Zionists sometimes claimed solidarity with Arab workers and peasants against evil Arab elites, who supposedly misled the masses into nationalism and anti-Zionism. Labour Zionists disagreed among themselves about how to organize Palestinian workers.10 The majority favored separate Arab unions under Zionist leadership, while a leftist minority advocated unified organizations of Jews and Arabs. But they all agreed that organizing Arab workers must serve Zionist goals.

Hashomer Hatzair had the most left-wing policies toward Palestinians of any Zionist group. They promoted the slogan “brotherhood of peoples” and, during the 1930s and 1940s, advocated a Jewish-Arab binational state. This made them the only labour Zionist group to recognize Palestinian national rights in any form. Yet only a few isolated groups and individuals within Hashomer Hatzair made serious efforts to develop good relations with their Arab neighbours or to actively counteract the anti-Arab racism that was common on Hashomer Hatzair-affiliated kibbutzim. Also, Hashomer Hatzair remained a loyal participant in the Zionist community and international network, which meant de facto support for the whole policy of ethnic exclusivism. Even their call for a binational state was coupled with the demand for unlimited Jewish immigration, not simply to provide a refuge to Jews but also to bring about a Jewish majority.11

Hashomer Hatzair formally abandoned its binationalist goal when it helped form Mapam in early 1948. Following a 1947 United Nations partition plan, Zionists initiated the campaign of forced displacement, land seizure, and massacres that constitute the Palestinian Nakba. On May 15, 1948, Israel declared its independence and was immediately at war with the neighbouring Arab states. Israel (whose military was substantially larger, better organized, and better equipped than the combined armies it faced) used the war as an opportunity to drive out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and expropriate their property. Mapai headed Israel’s provisional government during the war and Mapam held two cabinet posts. Mapam protested against some of the measures used against Palestinian civilians, but most of the Israeli military officers were Mapam members, and they supervised some of the most important forcible expulsion operations, as in Ramle and Lydde, where 50,000 civilians were driven out.12

The 1948 war highlighted the kibbutzim’s ugly underside.13 Kibbutzim have often been held up as great models of communal living and of putting socialist ideas into practice. Hashomer Hatzair regarded them as the revolutionary vanguard. But this socialist model was for Jews only and was integral to Zionist settler colonialism. Most kibbutzim depended on continual subsidies from the Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency, which paid them willingly because the kibbutzim played an important strategic role in establishing Jewish settlements and as military strongholds. Many kibbutzim took over land that was seized during or shortly after the 1948 war from Palestinians, including some who were driven out at gunpoint and some who remained in Israel.

Joel Beinin describes the case of Sasa village in the Upper Galilee, which was attacked without provocation by Zionist military forces in February 1948 and conquered by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) eight months later. The army expelled all villagers and killed civilians who had surrendered. A few months later, Hashomer Hatzair members from the US and Canada founded Kibbutz Sasa on the site of the village. After the IDF blew up the local mosque in early 1949, an entry in the kibbutz diary commented that the village was “now a mass of ruins, and yet most of us agree it’s better this way. The hovels, the filth, the medieval atmosphere – it’s gone now for the most part. Bring on the bulldozers and let’s plant trees.” The kibbutz then hired Palestinian workers to build all of its buildings in traditional Arab style.

After independence, Mapai and its successor, the Labour Party, headed all Israeli cabinets from 1948 to 1977 and led the construction of an Israeli state based on inequality. Because Israel defined itself as “the sovereign state of the Jewish people,” not of its own citizens, ethnic discrimination was built into the core of its legal system. Thus Jews have always been privileged over non-Jews in the laws governing Israeli citizenship, immigration, development policy, access to land, and many other areas. This same system gave Orthodox rabbis legal authority over Israeli Jews for “personal status” issues such as marriage, divorce, abortion, rape, and domestic violence. In this way, Mapai helped to enshrine the sexism and heterosexism of reactionary religious rules with the force of law over labour Zionism’s own secular principles.14

Following the conquests of the Six-Day War in 1967, Mapai/Labour Party-headed governments also began promoting Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip (a practice in direct violation of international law), where they established an ethnically segregated system of rule even harsher than that within Israel itself. In the occupied territories, Jewish settlers were afforded full Israeli citizenship rights while Palestinians were subjected to military rule and denied even the limited protections held by their compatriots within Israel who had themselves endured military rule until 1966.

The Israeli Labour Party’s policies in power fuelled its own political decline. Enshrining the power of Orthodox rabbis in the Israeli state (coupled with Labour’s alliance with religious political parties) helped to lay the basis for the growth of the religious Far Right after the 1967 war. (In their aggressiveness and zeal to expand Jewish settler society in Palestine, right-wing settler groups such as Gush Emunim are the successors to the labour Zionist pioneers of an earlier generation.) At the same time, Labour’s discrimination against Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries alienated a fast-growing constituency and helped the right-wing Zionist party Likud come to power in 1977.15

Labour Zionism’s left wing declined more quickly after 1948. Mapam’s pro-Soviet line was discredited by Soviet anti-Jewish campaigns in the early 1950s. The party quickly split with one faction moving back toward union with Mapai and another joining the (non-Zionist) Communist Party, a pro-Soviet party that today maintains a small base of support, mainly among Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. The remnant of Mapam, consisting of Hashomer Hatzair, drifted rightward, criticizing Mapai/Labour in details while increasingly supporting it in substance. In the 1970s, Mapam advocated legal rights for “Israeli Arabs” within narrow Zionist-defined parameters while rejecting any concept of Palestinian self-determination and arguing paternalistically that “Jewish settlement [has] the power to grant Arabs as well as Jews the blessings of socio-economic progress and prosperity.”16

Since the 1980s, the labour Zionist left (centred on Mapam and, since the 1990s, its successors Meretz and Meretz-Yachad) has been central to the rise of the Israeli peace movement. Sections of this movement represent the leftward limit of the Zionist consensus, advocating an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (although rarely challenging Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem), the dismantling of all or most Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in these territories. But none of Israel’s peace movement (unlike the country’s tiny but currently growing anti-Zionist left) has substantively challenged the Israeli state’s underlying principles of legal racism, or the mass expulsion of Palestinians that helped bring that state into being.17

Labour Zionism in North America

Labour Zionism came to North America in 1905, when Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) established a branch in the US and Canada. The party merged in 1931 with another labour Zionist organization, Zeirei Zion Hitahdut (Youth of Zion). Labour Zionism was always a small current within the North American Zionist movement (unlike eastern Europe, where it had substantial Jewish support before World War II), but it achieved a disproportionate influence, thanks partly to its direct ties with the labour Zionist leadership in Palestine. A series of Poale Zion-affiliated projects culminated in 1935 with the founding of a North American branch of the Habonim (Builders) youth movement. Other labour Zionist youth movements active in Canada and the United States included Gordonia (named for early Zionist leader A.D. Gordon) and Dror (Freedom), which merged with Habonim in 1938 and 1982, respectively, and Hashomer Hatzair. Through these youth movements, members learned the ideology of labour Zionism and the practical skills for making aliyah (literally “ascent,” the Zionist term for Jewish immigration to Palestine or Israel) and founding kibbutzim (such as how to farm or drain swamps); such youth movements in Europe and North America were largely responsible for the first kibbutzim. Some youth activists also ran guns to the Zionist underground in Palestine.18

This is one of the unique aspects of Zionism as a settler-colonial project: Zionist groups abroad had a material connection to settlement in Palestine; thus there was back-and-forth on strategy and politics between members in Palestine/Israel and in Europe, and later in Canada and the US; and labour Zionist organizations in North America since the early 20th century have not seen themselves as auxiliaries to Zionist organizations in Palestine/Israel, but rather as strategic centres of movement in their own right.

Today, North American organizations that identify to varying degrees with labour Zionism’s socialist heritage include Habonim Dror North American (HDNA), Hashomer Hatzair, and the Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ), which are active in both the US and Canada; and Ameinu (formerly Labour Zionist Alliance, a descendant of Poale Zion) and Meretz-USA, which operate only in the United States. These groups have few members or resources compared with the big liberal and conservative groups of the Zionist establishment, but they continue to speak to sections of the North American Jewish community and are a significant voice on some college campuses and among groups promoting Israeli-Arab dialogue and reconciliation. The labour Zionist tradition also provides a kind of historical cachet to the broader progressive Zionist movement, exemplified by Tikkun magazine or Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), whose members may or may not relate directly to labour Zionist organizations.

Historically, labour Zionist groups were divided, sometimes bitterly, over their various relationships with Marxism and with Jewish religious practice, their allegiances to various labour Zionist thinkers, and their specific strategies for building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In recent decades these conflicts have mostly been reduced to differences of emphasis and language. (Hashomer Hatzair is anti-religious while HDNA tends to be more religiously pluralist, yet the two have drawn closer together in recent years and jointly sponsor the UPZ.) In North America, the most significant political contrast now is between adult organizations, which tend to distance themselves from socialism, and youth groups, which remain oriented toward communal living and ground their ideology and analysis more squarely in labour Zionism’s socialist tradition. Our discussion centres on youth organizing, which is a long-standing focus of labour Zionism.

Today, labour Zionist organizations in North America pursue a number of goals, from providing political and cultural education for young Jews to supporting the work of progressive Zionist organizations in Israel, from advocating for a two-state solution to recruiting and training North American Jews to immigrate to Israel to live the labour Zionist dream. Labour Zionist groups offer participants a sense of collective purpose, social and cultural connections with like-minded Jews, training in politics and organizing skills, and an opportunity to combine progressive values with a strong assertion of Jewish identity.

Given the declining state of the kibbutz movement, in recent years these movements have developed the concept of the “irbutz,” or urban kibbutz, where members live communally and usually pursue social justice work (within Zionist limits, of course). However, for most labour Zionists within these organizations, the contemporary focus is not on moving to Israel to live the dream so much as on influencing US and Israeli policy from North America. As compared to the kibbutz-building years of the ’40s and ’50s, few members of labour Zionist youth movements “make aliyah” to kibbutz, irbutz, or anywhere. Hashomer Hatzair and HDNA run summer camps in North America and programs in Israel that focus more on educating members to continue work in the movement back in North America, with few opting to stay in Israel or deciding to move back later. HDNA’s Israel programs, for example, include a two-month summer program for 16 year olds, a 10-month program between high school and college in which members live communally on kibbutz and in a city, and a semester-abroad program in which students live together and study in Haifa (known as Habo U).

Campus activism has recently been a major focus for labour Zionists, mainly through the UPZ, which mobilizes young left-leaning Jews as an alternative to the Palestine solidarity movement and presents itself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace.” The UPZ claims to represent the rational middle course between right-wing Zionist crazies and pro-Palestinian crazies. The UPZ, like other liberal Zionist campus projects, focuses on “dialogue” and “prejudice reduction” rather than an analysis of Palestinian oppression as a system of power, offering young Jews who are concerned about racism a way to stay in the Zionist movement, rather than pushing them to rethink the concept and examine its structural problems. In this way, the UPZ and related groups undermine Palestine solidarity work.

Hillel, a well-resourced Jewish campus organization with offices across the US and Canada, uses labour Zionism’s progressive appeal in its motto, “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” Hillel proposes a kind of pluralistic Zionism that takes a hard-line stance on some campuses and a progressive one on others, sometimes working with the UPZ and sometimes pressuring them from the right. This has been a widely successful strategy in painting Palestine solidarity groups as extremist, anti-Jewish, and unwilling to engage in “civilized” dialogue with Hillel’s broad-minded pluralism. (Pressure from Hillel has also fueled UPZ’s self-perception as a leftist, pro-peace organization.)

The cover that UPZ provides for Zionism on campus is analogous to labour Zionism’s public relations utility for more conservative (and more powerful) Zionist organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose work labour Zionists themselves often find reprehensible. The progressive self-representation of labour Zionist organizations, and their often-progressive stances on issues unrelated to Israel, makes it possible for other organizations to hide the more obvious racism of mainstream Zionism, or to package Zionism as deeply and historically linked to progressive causes.

Habonim Dror North America

Habonim Dror is an international youth movement run by separate regional organizations in countries around the world, with a central office in Israel. Each country’s or region’s organization has separately articulated aims and each includes labour Zionism in its mission statement. In the United States and Canada, Habonim Dror operates from a central office in New York that runs seven summer camps and a number of local chapters whose activities during the year range from hosting Chanukah parties to organizing contingents at Israel Day parades. Habonim Dror North America (HDNA) has five pillars it uses for educational purposes: socialism, progressive labour Zionism, actualization, cultural Judaism, and social justice.

At summer camps, on trips to Israel, and in chapter activities, HDNA provides for its youth a political education that ties analysis to action, a Jewish cultural home that links leftist political engagement to Zionism, and a creative, dynamic community. HDNA’s political education inspires many of its hundreds of members to do progressive work on a range of issues during and after their time in the organization. On the other hand, the deep links between Zionism and leftist political education in HDNA have led some members to leave the movement as the contradiction between these commitments becomes unworkable.

A close look at HDNA’s approach to pedagogy reveals further contradictions. The teaching is focused on current realities but nostalgic for labour Zionism’s heroic past, directed toward empowering young people yet consciously manipulative, and designed to reveal and attack structural oppression while shrouding and protecting Zionism’s own oppressive core.

To spell out these issues in concrete detail, co-author Nava EtShalom discusses her experiences in HDNA, as a first-person case study of labour Zionism.

* * *

I was a member of HDNA from 1995 to 2001. As a camper at HDNA’s Camp Galil in Pennsylvania and later as a counsellor and chapter leader, I experienced – and implemented – a range of HDNA’s educational and cultural practices.

Youth leadership is central to HDNA’s culture. Camps are run almost exclusively by counsellors who are in their early twenties or younger; movement leadership in the New York office tends to be a bit older, but not much. From the time we entered HDNA as summer campers, we had a strong sense of our own potential to be leaders, and of the importance of our participation in HDNA as chaverim t’nua – members of the movement.

From the beginning of their time in HDNA, youth are taught to organize and take leadership, as in “Revolution,” an event that happened twice each summer during my years as a camper and then counselor at Camp Galil. During Revolution, the 17 year old junior counsellors would physically shove everyone older than themselves out of camp and take over for a day of extreme sugar, costumes, and dance parties, which was both an allegory for political change and an important leadership development moment. All summer, impatient campers sang songs demanding Revolution, chanting, “Revolution is the solution – we shall revolt, we shall revolt, we shall revolt.”

A more complicated example of youth “empowerment” in HDNA was an activity at Galil one summer in which counsellors announced to their nine-year-old campers that their bedtimes would be made earlier, a terrible proposition for the youngest kids at camp. Other counsellors fomented protest and the campers picketed for a later bedtime and engaged in civil disobedience to make their demands. Afterwards their counsellors led a discussion about modes of resistance.

These kinds of manipulations were common in HDNA; we called them “mind-fuck” activities. They ran the gamut on issues from bedtime to the settlement of Palestine. One of my favorites at the time was “Aliyah Bet”: every summer, HDNA camps hosted historical re-enactments simulating clandestine Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1930s, in which 14 year olds developed their leadership skills by helping younger campers flee an imaginary pogrom in the middle of the night to escape to Palestine. As campers, we were given fake papers and snuck through the woods in groups, avoiding counsellors dressed as British soldiers who might “deport” us. When we got to the spot that had been designated Palestine, we celebrated – sometimes with hot chocolate, sometimes with Israeli dancing.

Meanwhile, daytime activities about Israel for younger campers included making maps of Israel out of ice cream to learn the locations of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Be’ersheva, while older kids simulated Knesset debates on the 1967 occupation or on religious pluralism in Israel. Once our relationships to Israel had been formed, it became important to give us a handle on the complexities of contemporary Israel so that we could engage with those issues in Israel and in North America as educated activists.

Socialism at our summer camps started with shared shampoo and candy among campers, within a culture that made sharing of resources a given. Echoing Marx, “give what you can and take what you need” was a basic and often-articulated tenet of HDNA community that applied to the collective stash of M&M’s as well as to the spending money of the 18 year olds on their year of living communally in Israel. All of this was meant to be training for a future utopian socialist experience, either in a bayit (collective house, usually with other HDNA members) or on an irbutz. The M&M’s and the irbutz were strategic elements of a bigger vision – according to the preamble of HDNA’s constitution, one of “a new social order throughout the world, based on the principles of social justice, cooperative economics and political democracy embodied in the vision of the Prophets and exemplified in the achievements of the Chalutzim [pioneers/settlers].”

The use of Hebrew in HDNA settings was a central part of the education process; we referred to daily activities like cleaning our bunks and ideological concepts like self-actualization in modern Hebrew terms. The Hebrew vocabulary and grammar we used in these settings was often archaic or particular to our camp in Bucks County, Pennsylvania rather than Israel. In any case, a private language set us apart as Habonim Dror youth and helped give our summer camp experience an intensity that other kids at school didn’t understand. This private language bounded not only a community, but an ideology. If the word for our collective resources was kupa, part of a private HDNA vocabulary, how then could we think about sharing, or about a new world order in which resources are redistributed, outside of the framework of Zionism?

In a mix of Hebrew and English, Galil campers went through daily activities that included morning work groups, modelled and named after kibbutz work groups, to take care of the animals, clean camp, build fires, and so on; learning Hebrew words; raising the Israeli flag while singing a labour Zionist anthem and the American flag while singing Phil Ochs’s “The Power and the Glory.” (A sardonic anti-nationalism prevailed on the topic of the US, while Israeli nationalism was seen as deeply tied to revolutionary aspirations.) Other activities might have included a life-size monopoly game about the functioning of class in a capitalist system or a workshop on gendered violence using an Ani DiFranco song to trigger discussion. In all of these conversations, sophisticated approaches to structures of violence were encouraged, even among young campers. Older HDNA members who attended biennial decision-making meetings would hear in the preamble of the organization’s constitution the language quoted above that calls for “a new social order…based on the principles of social justice, cooperative economics and political democracy…”

This commitment to justice, and the structural analysis on which it relies, was often applied to the Israeli occupation of 1967. I remember an activity from 1995, when I was a camper, in which my counsellors divided the tennis court into sections with masking tape and placed a deck of cards in each section. We were split into two teams – half dealers, half not. In each of the sections, we would play blackjack, and the winner would get to claim that section for their team until all the sections were claimed for one side or another. The rules favored the dealers, while the non-dealers could only move into unclaimed adjacent territory. At the end of the game, of course, the dealers had claimed much more territory and the non-dealers were stuck in isolated sections, unable to move anywhere.

Being used to the kinds of activities and conversations featured in HDNA settings, we knew what to do in the follow-up discussion; we talked about power differentials on the West Bank and in Gaza, and the processes through which land has been seized. In this conversation, however, there was no room for a challenge to Zionism itself or to the mass expulsions and expropriations of 1948. A Zionist anti-occupation approach to Israel was maintained through the logic that as Zionists, we cared about Israel, and because we cared about Israel, we wanted it to be the most moral state possible, “a light unto nations” – that is, a state that was not occupying the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. This fixation on the 1967 occupation as the primary problem for the integrity of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians made it almost impossible to look at the problems of that state’s fundamental premise and foundational practice of expulsion and displacement.

The political analysis taught in HDNA, together with the conflict between its Zionism and its progressive ideological commitments, have led a significant number of HDNA members to abandon the organization and the Zionist movement as a whole. For me, the turning point came with the beginning of the Second Intifada in September 2000, three weeks after I had started college at Oberlin. Just a couple of months before, I had gone with a group of HDNA counsellors to take our 14 and 15 year old campers to a rally outside of Camp David, the US presidential compound outside Washington, where we held signs declaring to Clinton, Barak, and Arafat that HDNA supported a two-state solution. There had been, as usual, no discussion among us about our investment in a Jewish state in the first place.

After years of being active in protesting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it became clear to me in the wake of the new intifada’s outbreak that the problem went deeper than the occupation to Zionism itself. I expressed my sense of betrayal in a letter to the movement, which in my frustration I never sent:

I feel lied to by Habonim: I was taught that we were the left of the Left, the really progressive ones who understood and wanted to interrupt racism (a word I don’t think we ever used about Israelis interacting with Palestinians). That the Israel/Palestine thing was so complicated, and we were willing to take it on in all its intricacies. That Israel, represented by a map made out of ice cream or a gameboard on the [clubhouse] floor, should be important to me, and that once its importance was established in my value system I could begin to learn about the sad and complicated story of the incidentally occupied local Arabs.

The divided tennis court and a clear-sighted structural analysis of power made it impossible for some HDNA members to reconcile the Second Intifada with labour Zionism. As we watched images and read analyses of the new Palestinian uprising and learned about historical and contemporary Palestinian displacement and resistance, it became untenable for us to remain allied to the idea of an ethnically exclusive state. Around this time, several HDNA members left the movement, as disaffection with Zionism among progressive Jews began to grow in response to the Intifada.

In 2002, some of us ex-HDNA members were at Oberlin College where, inspired by the launch of the student divestment movement, we helped to revive Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine and start a college divestment campaign. Now, some of us and other ex-HDNA members are involved in divestment campaigns, Jewish anti-Zionist study groups, and organizing with other anti-Zionist Jews around the 60th anniversary of the Nakba (the “No Time to Celebrate” campaign). Many of us have found that we draw directly on political skills and values fostered in the labour Zionist movement (from challenging authority and critiquing oppression to facilitating meetings, designing popular education, or organizing direct actions) to understand the problems with Zionism – and to speak out and organize against it.


What practical conclusions can left anti-Zionists draw from these experiences or from this article’s larger critique? How should we respond to labour Zionism strategically? One approach would be to use labour Zionism’s contradictions as a recruiting tool, by seeking dialogue with labour Zionists and challenging them to break with Zionism based on their commitment to social justice and human liberation. This approach might be particularly promising (if emotionally complex) for those of us who have close personal connections with people in the labour Zionist movement. Arguably, there is particular value in recruiting more former Zionists to anti-Zionism, because they can bring a kind of “insider” authority to the debate analogous to military veterans opposing war. The recent shift from labor Zionism to anti-Zionism by a number of former HDNA members follows in a long tradition that includes such figures as Abram Leon and Eli Lobel.19

Ultimately, however, we don’t think a focus on recruitment is the best strategic response to labour Zionism. Labour Zionist organizations in North America wield rhetorical influence but very little political power. Instead, our focus should be on challenging labour Zionism as an ideology, because its impact extends far beyond its members. Labour Zionism presents support for Israel as a social justice issue and promotes it to people who consider themselves progressive. More broadly, labour Zionism (including the legacy of its heroic pioneers) is pivotal to many Jews’ conceptions of Israel as an expression of community, solidarity, and home. It is the basis for claims about the purity of the Jewish state (“with such noble socialistic beginnings, how could Israel have done anything wrong in its founding days or in its current struggle to survive?”) and even the inevitability of the free market (“we started off with kibbutzim, but eventually everyone wants their own washing machines”).

Critiquing labour Zionism can help us cut through the facade of righteousness that Zionism in general has built around itself. When mainstream Zionist groups use claims about democracy, social justice, and anti-racism as covers for Israel’s apartheid laws, assassinations, and continuing mass displacement, they are drawing on labour Zionist mythology – whether or not labour Zionists would agree with them. Some argue that the power of this rhetoric is waning, that the increasing brutality of the occupation is wearing the progressive sheen off of Zionist public relations. We can’t take this for granted, since public discourse about Israel has long accommodated glaring contradictions, but we agree that there are growing opportunities to expose these contradictions. By targeting labour Zionism in particular, we not only challenge Zionism’s overtures to people on the left, but also deepen the critique beyond Israel’s 1967 conquests. That work is especially important this year, the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s founding – and of the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948.


Thanks to Alissa Wise, Claire McGuire, David Lyons, Dan Berger, Haley Michaels Pollack, Hannah Mermelstein, and Josh Friedman for critical comments and suggestions.


1 Labour Zionism is the precursor, historically and ideologically, to the concept of “progressive” Zionism in North America. Progressive Zionism, whether or not it allies itself explicitly with socialism or with labour Zionism’s history, generally subscribes to the liberatory premise of labour Zionism, borrows from its principles and symbols, and is committed to a Jewish state with the belief and hope that it can be democratic. Progressive Zionism embodies many of the contradictions we discuss here, but labour Zionism’s history, ideology, and organizational practice enable us to explore them more fully.

2 In the years before World War I (a formative time for labour Zionism) many European and North American social democrats openly embraced colonialism as a civilizing force and called for restricting the immigration of so-called backward races. Racial or national oppression has been particularly promoted by many socialists in settler-colonial societies – such as the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and French Algeria – either explicitly as in the South African Communist Party’s 1922 slogan, “Workers of the World Fight and Unite for a White South Africa!,” or implicitly in policies that failed to challenge structures of ethnic privilege. See Lenore O’Boyle, “Theories of Socialist Imperialism,” Foreign Affairs 28 (January 1950): 290-298; Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 276-88; John Riddell, ed. Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents, 1907-1916 (New York: Monad Press, 1984), 4-20. The SACP slogan is from Edward Roux, Time Longer Than Rope: A History of the Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964), 148; quoted in J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (Chicago: Morningstar Press, 1983), 60.

3 On labour Zionism’s early period see Jason Schulman, “The Life and Death of Socialist Zionism,” New Politics 9, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 35 (Summer 2003),; Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), chaps. 1-2,

4 Hashomer Hatzair was formed in 1913 through the merger of two distinct groups, Hashomer (Watchman) and Tseirei Zion (Youth of Zion). Originally it espoused a sort of populist idealism influenced partly by the German Wandervogel movement and only embraced Marxism in 1926-1927. See Elkana Margalat, “Social and Intellectual Origins of the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement, 1913-20,” Journal of Contemporary History 4, no. 2 (April 1969): 25-46. On the formation of Mapam, see Joel Beinin, Was the Red Flag Flying There?: Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 25-26.

5 See “Zionism and Anti-Semitism” in Arie Bober, ed., The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 167-75; Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 238-40. Zionist derogation of diaspora Jewish culture was embodied in the transformation of Hebrew from a liturgical language into a modern, living language, a project initiated by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in the 1880s and quickly embraced by other Zionists. Modern Hebrew was a uniquely Jewish language native to Palestine that connected Jews with their past while erasing centuries of exile; Yiddish (the language common to most eastern European Jews) was derogated as a corrupt, comical jargon or dialect. Hebrew had long been the province of men while women only spoke Yiddish and other vernacular languages; Zionists further masculinized Hebrew by using it for farming and guard duty instead of religious learning.

6 This and the following paragraphs are based primarily on Lockman, Comrades and Enemies, especially chaps. 1-2. The Hashomer Hatzair pamphlet is quoted in Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators: A Reappraisal (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983), 22-23.

7 Emmanuel Farjoun, “Palestinian Workers in Israel: A Reserve Army of Labour,” Forbidden Agendas: Intolerance and Defiance in the Middle East, edited by Jon Rothschild (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984), 81.

8 Quoted in Bober, ed., The Other Israel, 12. The Rothschilds are a Jewish family whose members achieved wealth and power through international banking, and served as fodder for many anti-Jewish stereotypes and conspiracy theories. Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France subsidized Jewish settlements in Palestine beginning in the late nineteenth century.

9 Lockman, Comrades and Enemies, 73 (chap. 2).

10 The meaning of the term “Palestinian” is complex and contested, and has changed over time. Our usage here is admittedly imperfect. When we say “Palestinians” we are referring mainly to non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs. We recognize that Palestine has also been home to significant numbers of Arab Jews for centuries, and during the British Mandate non-Arab Jews who lived in Palestine were also sometimes called Palestinians. Today, there are probably a few thousand Jews who call themselves Palestinians, such as some members of Neturei Karta and other ultra-Orthodox groups that consider the State of Israel to be a violation of Judaism, members of the Samaritan community, and anti-Zionists who reject Zionist ethnic categories, such as Uri Davis and probably Ilan Halevi, who is a high official in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Further, when we say “Arabs and Jews” we are describing historical Zionist attitudes toward ethnicity in Palestine/Israel, which set the two categories up as oppositional, despite the patent existence of Arab Jews in Palestine and elsewhere.

11 Beinin, 26-28; Lockman, Comrades and Enemies, chaps 6-8.

12 It is impossible to know exactly how many Palestinians became refugees in the Zionist campaigns of 1947-1949, but most sources estimate at least 700,000. For example, see Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar, “Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer,” Middle East Research and Information Project, On Mapam members’ role in expulsion operations, see Beinin, 32.

13 This and the following paragraph are based on Beinin, 79-81. The kibbutz diary quote is from Beinin, 81.

14 Roselle Tekiner, Jewish Nationality Status as the Basis for Institutionalized Racism in Israel (London: International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1985); Nira Yuval-Davis, “The Jewish Collectivity and National Reproduction in Israel,” in Women in the Middle East (London: Zed Books, 1987); “Question of the Violation of Human Rights in the Occupied Arab Territories, Including Palestine” (statement submitted by North-South XXI, a non-governmental organization), United Nations Commission on Human Rights, 57th session, 12 January 2001,; Walter Lehn, “The Jewish National Fund,” in Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World, edited by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Baha Abu-Laban (Wilmette, Ill., Medina University Press International, 1974), 43-53; Andrea Dworkin, “Israel: Whose Country Is It Anyway?” Ms., September-October 1990, 69-79.

Mapai/Labour policies also fostered the growth of ethnic hierarchy among Jews in Israel. Although most of the Zionist settlers who came to Palestine before 1948 were Ashkenazim (“German” Jews, i.e., those of central or eastern European origin), the community’s ethnic makeup shifted dramatically in the decades after Israeli independence. One million Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries moved to Israel between 1948 and 1967, responding to a varying mixture of ethno-religious discrimination, Zionist propaganda about the glories of life in Israel, and (according to disputed accounts) anti-Jewish provocations by Zionist agents. In Israel, these Mizrahi (“Eastern”) Jews faced systematic social, economic, and cultural discrimination by the Ashkenazim who controlled most Israeli institutions. On the oppression of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, see Raphael Shapiro, “Zionism and Its Oriental Subjects,” Forbidden Agendas: Intolerance and Defiance in the Middle East, edited by Jon Rothschild (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984), 23-48; Ella Habiba Shohat, “Reflections of an Arab Jew,” 1999,; Ilan Halevi, A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern, translated by A.M. Berrett (London: Zed Books, 1987), 197-98, 202-11; David Green, “Arab Jews and Propaganda: Exploring the Myth of Expulsion,” Palestine Solidarity Review, Fall 2003,

15 Although Ashkenazim have always been central to the Israeli right (especially the far right), many labour Zionists have blamed Mizrahim for Israel’s oppressive and militaristic policies. Halevi, 212, 220-21; Green.

16 Khalil Nakhleh, “Israel’s Zionist Left and ‘The Day of the Land,” Journal of Palestine Studies 7, no. 2 (Winter 1978): 92. See also Zachary Lockman, “The Left in Israel: Zionism vs. Socialism,” MERIP Reports 49 (July 1976): 10-11.

17 What we are referring to as the anti-Zionist left in Israel includes a diverse range of groups, some of which do not use the term “anti-Zionist” but do work that challenges the fundamental principles of Israel as a Jewish state. Some of these groups include the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen), the Alternative Information Center (a joint Palestinian-Israeli project), Zochrot, and Anarchists Against the Wall.

18 On labour Zionism in the United States before 1948, see Mark Raider, The Emergence of American Zionism (New York: New York University Press, 1998). Chapter 4 discusses labour Zionist youth organizations. On the history of Habonim-Dror, see J.J. Goldberg and Elliot King, eds., Builders and Dreamers: Habonim Labour Zionist Youth in North America (New York: Herzl Press; Cornwall Books, 1993), and Raider, 140-142.

19 Abram Leon (1918-1944), a Trotskyist and member of the Belgian anti-Nazi underground, is best known as author of The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. Eli Lobel (1926-1979), an Israeli economist and independent Marxist, supported several revolutionary and anti-imperialist causes and became a member of Matzpen while living in France. Leon and Lobel were both active in Hashomer Hatzair in their earlier years (Lobel also in Mapam). See Ernest Germain, “A Biographical Sketch of Abram Leon,” in Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1986), 9-26; and “Eli Lobel,” in Forbidden Agendas, 13-15.