Judd L. Teller here concludes his discussion of the thought and personalities of the men who shaped the faith of Israel’s present governing class. His article last month dealt with the ideas of Nachman Syrkin, Ber Borochov, Joseph Chaim Brenner, and A. D. Gordon. He now turns to Berl Katznelson, who synthesized the various concepts of the past into today’s prevailing political philosophy, and whose weight in Labor Zionism may be partly measured by the fact that at every moment of crisis in Israel there are many who say, “If only Berl were alive. . . .” Mr. Teller then goes on to discuss in what ways the present political and moral crises of the new state can be illuminated by a glance at the past.
It fell to Berl Katznelson, still a very young man when Gordon died, to codify the diverse doctrines of Syrian, Borochov, and Gordon. There was nothing formal about his performance. In fact, he himself may never have been aware of what it was that he was doing. At the very outset of his public career Berl had set himself the task of bringing about the unification of all the Labor Zionist groups. Codification was an automatic by-product of his success in this task. Each of the several groups that came together to form Mapai brought with it its own ideological trappings, but Mapai as a whole embodied their point of “confluence” rather than of conflict. Berl reflected this “confluence” in all his writings and discourses. If there was little of Borochov in his eclectic system (perhaps only the latter’s affirmation of the value of the Yiddish folkskultur of the golah), there was a great deal of Syrkin (yet none of Syrkin’s contempt for the golah Jew), and even more of Gordon (the religion of labor, the moral regeneration of man, deference to tradition).
Berl Katznelson was a gadfly to international Zionism. In the early 1920’s he anticipated many of the issues that now trouble the relations between Israel and the world Zionist community. “The Zionist parties in all of Eastern Europe have become local bourgeois parties with all the appurtenances which characterize this type of party. . . . But Palestine’s problems are today no longer those which agitated [previous] Zionist Congresses. Today’s problems involve the interests of authentic humanity, of groups of men and women already in Palestine or clamoring for admission to it. The leadership and the solutions cannot be left to fortuitous skills and circumstances. They require a profound knowledge, an unerring intuition of Palestine’s social structure, the forces in her and the interests, her finances and agriculture. … Is it proposed that problems such as these be handed over to men recommended by nothing more than their affiliation with parties abroad? Our public has nothing but contempt for the vacuous, ostentatious, and tumultous type of Zionist, and derision for aliens who come to rule, order, and command here in the name of Zionism.”
The issues are the same today, only the roles are reversed. Then it was the Palestine pioneer who claimed that he was being disregarded by the Zionist movement. Now it is the Zionist movement that complains of being disregarded by the new state. The pioneers’ demand for home rule revealed their impatience with foreign counsel, however expert; this impatience is still a habit in Israel, and it supports labor’s claims to the right to shape the new country’s future.
But this man, who was such a firm champion of home rule for the Jewish pioneers of Palestine vis-à-vis the rest of the Zionist movement, was also a passionate advocate of the continuity of Jewish culture and traditions. Katznelson obviously did not share Syrkin’s vision of a new society that would jettison “obsolete” Talmudic Judaism. Disturbed by the tendency of the “state en route” to exalt itself at the expense of golah, he reminded the Second Aliyah that it had been “well equipped for its journey to Palestine” with the rich traditions of the Diaspora, and that “not everyone had had the same privilege of an upbringing near the very springs of Jewish life.”
This theme ran until the end through all Berl’s speeches, writings, and works. In a speech delivered during the war he said: “Even without indulging in close analogies between the two spiritual worlds—our own and that of preceding Jewish generations—it can be said with firm certainty that they were endowed with greater moral fortitude. We have been conditioned to imagine the ghetto Jew as a bent and sycophantic creature, devoid of dignity, cringing and groveling before his tormentors. We have been accustomed to counterpose to him the emancipated Jew—the banker, doctor, lawyer, and statesman, free and poised men to their last inch. The reverse is true. . . . The ghetto Jew, that slinking, whipped dog, always cherished within himself the pride of royal purple: he was the son of kings, an exiled prince. . . . The emancipated Jew, on the other hand, who had broken out from bondage into freedom, from confinement into space, was furtive and shuffled along as if saddled with a hump. . . . He acquired the right to vote, but he lost the feeling of being one of the elect. . . . Even as he scrambled from rung to rung up the ladder of his success, he was always aware that he was only a worm, a repulsive Jewish worm, and that sooner or later a boot would descend and crush him.”
The Zionist effort in Palestine between the two world wars was a controlled experiment—largely, and inadvertently, because of the character of British cooperation. The very low Jewish immigration quota granted the Zionist Executive forced the Zionists to select carefully among the applicants for immigration certificates. None must be wasted. The trained halutz seemed the safest person in whom to invest these certificates, the one surest to stay and work. His type was established in Palestine by the Third Aliyah, which began arriving right after 1918. While still at home the trained halutz had come under the influence of one or another of the Labor Zionist groups, had been introduced to its doctrine, and trained for agricultural work under conditions approximating those he would meet in Palestine. There were Gordonists among these halutzim and all kinds of socialists, and in Palestine they established kvutzot, kibbutzim, and moshavim, all manner of communes and cooperatives. This kind of pioneering required the individual to adjust himself to the group, suppress his aggressive instincts, and devote himself wholeheartedly to work for the common weal.
Then came the influx of refugees from Hitler, while the British continued to refuse to relax immigration controls; along with this, three years of systematic Arab violence. It was Berl who led the fight to get Zionist Congress approval for illegal immigration. The struggle was no longer with the hard soil, but with man, and it called for all the techniques of underground warfare. But this kind of activity put a premium on aggressiveness, and some arrogant young men received important assignments in a struggle that had to be waged by heroes, not by saints. What would be the ultimate consequence? Berl was apprehensive and expressed his apprehensiveness at a conference of labor youth leaders in 1940; on that occasion he spoke against a proposal that a course be given in the history of underground movements in order to inspire young people by examples drawn from the revolutionary past.
Berl asked: where would this course begin, and what moral could it offer? “The early Christian martyrs were heroes, but so were those whom Christianity martyred. What [moral] safeguards could such study provide? Had the nobleness of the socialist underground [under Bismarck] been a guarantee [against the collapse] of the free socialist movement in Germany? The Russian socialist underground movements were amply endowed with idealism, heroism, self-sacrifice, yet Russia had not been spared civil war, rivers of blood, new fetters, new treasons, and the need for a new underground. . . . Knowing of these many misfortunes, have we the right to offer our youth the theater of romantic adulation instead of the bread of ideological, political, sociological, and cultural self-criticism?”
It was obvious by the end of World War II that immigration would take precedence over colonization in the Zionist effort. Labor unity within Mapai, and with Hashomer Hatzair, which stayed outside Mapai, was based on the controlled experiment of colonization under the leadership and ideals of labor. Now a new basis for unity was required, and the search for it revived some of the old differences, as each group turned to its sacred scriptures for guidance.
Ben Gurion, a leader of the Jewish Agency Executive even before the war, and general secretary of the Histadrut for many years before that, now came into his own. A propagandist, a capable organizer, a tough in-fighter, alert to any opportunity that might benefit his own side, he was well able to direct and channel the aggressive drives of the Labor Zionist rank and file in Palestine.
He proposed that the Zionist movement press for immediate sovereignty in Palestine. He was opposed by a leftist group—now Mapam—which demanded that the struggle be confined to the demand for uncontrolled immigration. Both Ben Gurion and the leftists agreed that guerrilla warfare should be counted on as a possibility if all other means failed in the struggle for their different aims. Ben Gurion’s public reasoning was this: the Mandatory government would never permit the uncontrolled immigration which was European Jewry’s greatest immediate need; Jews had to acquire state power in order to open Palestine to Jewish immigration; since uncontrolled immigration could not be won without Jewish statehood, the struggle must focus on that. The leftists argued, however, that the struggle for immigration would enlist worldwide sympathy, “expose the nature of imperialism,” and thereby force the British to yield; while a struggle for statehood would result, at best, in a freak state that would be too small to contain immigration, and that, because it was attached to the British colonial empire, would also be a tool of imperialism.
The doctrinal motivations of each of these positions were never stated precisely, yet they seem obvious. Ben Gurion’s was an uncomplicated Herzl-Syrkin approach: only a sovereign Jewish state could solve the Jewish problem; never had that problem been more acute than in 1945; never had a state been more necessary. The leftists believed in historical determinism: socialism was the only solution for mankind, yet socialism could not be operative for the Jewish people unless they were gathered together on their own ancestral territory; the most urgent problem therefore was not statehood, but immigration and territorial concentration. The processes of history had already begun to destroy the British Empire in India and would eventually do the same to British rule in Palestine.
This doctrinal division led even then to friction between Ben Gurion and a large sector of the kibbutzim movement (the sector that later joined Mapam). The leftists drew their strength primarily from the architects of the controlled experiment, the kibbutzniks whose attention for more than two decades had been concentrated on their little Utopias, and who had therefore become insensitive to the urges and responses of the larger community. The urban workers, the white-collar people, and the Histadrut bureaucracy from whom Ben Gurion drew his primary support were part of that larger community.
How had the founding fathers of Labor Zionism anticipated and dealt theoretically with all these, and other, momentous present-day problems?
Sybkin, like Herzl, had been confident that the Jews would voluntarily converge on Palestine and settle there in response to their awakened nationalism. Borochov maintained that this would happen only after the Jews had been rejected elsewhere and had no other alternative; then Jewish immigration to Palestine would follow automatically. Israel has been waiting for sizable voluntary immigration from the United States, or the “Western countries,” to give her the skills that she so direly needs. But she has waited in vain. Most Israelis are ready to concede that none of the large-scale waves of immigration to Palestine since the 1880’s would have materialized had the immigrants had any real hope for a future in their countries of origin. Thus Borochov saw this issue more correctly than Syrkin.
Borochov was convinced that the rejection and economic extrusion of Jewry would be worldwide. He generalized from the environment he knew best, East Europe, whose minorities were assertive and where the Jewish middleman was being squeezed by his state-encouraged Gentile competitor. But industrialized America neither woos nor extrudes its minorities; it absorbs them. The middleman over here is not an independent creature easily identifiable by his isolation; he is rapidly becoming the anonymous agent of anonymous corporations, hence unidentifiable with a race, religion, or any other non-economic entity.
As regards the new state’s relations with the Diaspora, Syrkin’s ideas seem to have won out. There is, for instance, the popularity in Israel of “Canaanism.” Not so long ago Ben Gurion himself drew a distinction between Midrashic and Biblical Judaism that Syrkin had borrowed from radical Reform Judaism. This distinction is certainly opposed to Berl Katznelson’s view of the continuity of Jewish tradition in Palestine. However, the battle Berl led for home rule for the Palestinian pioneers within the framework of the Zionist movement seems to have been definitively won—though this victory has encouraged the exaggerated self-esteem he warned against.
Syrkin’s vision of a federation of producers’ cooperatives as controlling the economy of the Jewish commonwealth seems to have been realized appreciably, as has also his vision of villages mixing agriculture and industry. But he could not foresee that self-employed stockholders would clash one day with their non-stockholding employees, with the general public, and even with their parent body, Histadrut—as the transportation cooperatives in Israel have. Nor did he foresee the bureaucracy that would encrust part of this cooperative empire. In fact, he hardly foresaw a civil service at all, except in his plan under which men of merit would be summoned to the capital for special temporary duty and then return home to their village communities. This plan was actually realized on frequent occasions in the old pre-statehood days. Men like Joseph Baratz of Dagania, often summoned to public service, never thought of this as their permanent work, and remained rooted in their kvutzot or kibbutzim. But this outlook is becoming less and less frequent, though many still hold to it—more in Mapam than in Mapai.
The conflicts and quarrels inside the kibbutzim have raised the question: how is this possible in Utopia? The answer may have been given in Brenner’s portrait of the Second Aliyah: “. . . stubborn and given to harsh language,” always inclined “to indict, arraign and condemn . . . and to grade all people.” It may be explained also in the light of Gordon’s warning that socialism began from the wrong end, that the true reformation of society depended on a prior reformation of man, and that even if socialism were installed, “no sooner was the honeymoon over than everything would relapse into its old state.” Gordon had, in fact, foreseen the present conflicts when he warned the Second Aliyah against “mass hypnosis,” against surrendering one’s individual judgment to a party or a leader. Nevertheless, the veterans of the Second Aliyah in the kibbutzim continue to represent some of the finest qualities of Labor Zionism. The real crisis in Israel lies elsewhere.
A new generation and, with it, a new type of personality seem to have taken over in the past half-decade. This type is not universal in Israel, but it is widespread: it is exemplified by men and women in their late thirties or early forties few of whom are sabras and most of whom belong to the hybrid aliyot that followed the Third Aliyah. This element advanced to power at a time when an emergency called for their aggressive drive and the religion of labor gave way to physical heroism. The individuals of this type are called “chevreman“ in Israeli slang; the term was laudatory in the years of underground struggle, but it is no longer that in today’s Israeli vernacular. The chief task of the chevreman—universally, in every land—is ostensibly to help keep his party intact, but the fact is that he generally ends up by taking it over. Gordon warned against this species: “Their status as . . . administrators . . . develops in each of them a consciousness of self, the wrong kind of consciousness of self . . . the kind that feeds on the weakness of others.”
Israel is only five years old, and she is exactly what a new state under the given conditions might be expected to be. Yet her doctrines have committed her to greater, more remarkable things. Many in Israel, especially the sabras, have become loud in their distaste for the new elite of the chevreman. Youth publications have been searching for greater “substance, meaning.” However much sabra youth may falter and err, it is bound to stumble across some of the forgotten early doctrines. Perhaps what is lacking most in Israel today is a teacher—an eclectic like Berl Katznelson, a codifier of doctrine, a Rashi to reinterpret for the young the ideals and doctrines of the Second Aliyah.
Mapai and Mapam have divided between them the legacy of Labor Zionism’s founding fathers, each party choosing what seemed most pertinent to its needs, aims, and experience, and synthesizing these in a new program. The fathers, were they living today, would undoubtedly be distressed by the arbitrariness with which their ideas have been handled.
Mapam’s rigid and dogmatic sectarianism, its acute class-consciousness, its tenacious faith in the possibility of a mechanistic reorganization of society, and its excessive tolerance of Soviet Communism would have profoundly shocked A. D. Gordon, who abjured class warfare and rejected any attempt to set international class loyalties above the regeneration of the Jewish people. As for Mapai—although it sends delegates to international congresses and its leaders occasionally succumb to socialist oratory, nobody takes its socialist commitments too seriously. Mapai’s vocabulary is the result of early conditioning, and is put to use only when needed for the purpose of competing with Mapam’s inflammatory radicalism. Mapai does not think in class terms, and operates more like an American farmer-labor party, as a coalition of moderately liberal-to-radical elements. Above all, it drives towards that national cohesion which Gordon advocated. But it fails him in other respects. He advocated the simple life, rural socialism, and personal dedication. What he envisaged was less a socialist society than a society of socialists. And that kind of society is best embodied in the kibbutzim. Since the split within Mapam’s Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Mapai’s kibbutzniks outnumber Mapam’s, yet the general impression is that Mapai no longer has much relish for Gordon’s “simple life.” It may well be that if Mapam had been in power as long as Mapai, it too would have begun to make such an impression.
If Mapam is still class-conscious, Mapai’s bureaucrats are, by and large, caste-conscious, and Gordon could abide the one as little as the other. A caste-conscious elite seems in-compatible with the religion of labor and incapable of the kind of personal dedication Gordon preached. The Mapai leaders are openly distressed by the fact that Mapam still holds a special attraction for many of the young people in Israeli, but this is not too difficult to understand. The party in power tends to attract careerists; a minority like the Hashomer Hatzair wing of Mapam, precisely because of its sterner demands upon the individual and the fewer promises of reward it holds out to him, is better able to attract idealists.
Mapam, committed though it is to Borochov, is in this one respect strongly Gordonist, laying great stress on the “personal covenant” as the only way to inspire a pioneer movement willing and able to conquer the wildernesses still within Israel’s borders. Ben Gurion, too, would like to see such a pioneering movement, but in its absence he is confident that the army can do the task, and that state authority can supply what voluntary effort will not. Thus he subscribes in some measure, unconsciously, to that faith in the mechanistic process which Mapam is nominally committed to—but only nominally, since in action it invokes Gordon’s ideals of voluntary self-sacrifice.
Mapam remains fiercely intolerant of religion in the best tradition of the apikorsim (freethinkers) of the shtetl. Nor does Mapai incline toward any positive gestures towards traditional Judaism, despite the religious loyalties of individual Mapainiks of the older generation. However, Mapai’s people in the government and in Histadrut do defer to, if not espouse, Jewish religious feeling both inside and outside Israel—and they have been called appeasers and cowards for it. But such deference towards religion is certainly consistent with Gordon’s and Katznelson’s heritage. It was the latter who wrote that “Sabbath rest . . . [is] to me of supreme importance, involving the preservation of the race, social hygiene, and national, social, and cultural [significance]. . . .”
Ben Gurion, it would seem, is relatively little inspired by the original teachings of Labor Zionism. He is said to have been amenable to Katznelson’s influence during the latter’s lifetime, but it was the influence of a brother, not a father. Berl is reputed to have been able often to check his impetuousness of word and deed—and also to have impressed upon him the necessity of unity within the labor movement. “From my earliest days here,” Berl wrote, “I have had an ‘obsession’ about eliminating the differences between workers.” After Berl’s death, Mapai split irreparably and the blame for this is laid at Ben Gurion’s door. But he is also known to have made efforts to repair the split, efforts that his friends say were sincere. Mapamniks say they were not.
Ben Gurion has certainly not shown any sort of sweet reasonableness like Katznelson’s in his dealings with opponents throughout his political career. Another thing he lacks that Katznelson had is a deep attachment to all facets of the Galut’s cultural tradition, whether it was Yiddish literature or the Talmud. Ben Gurion’s occasional pronouncements on Midrash or Yiddish always arouse a furor abroad. Primarily a politician, and a man intent on the things by which a nation establishes its power—he recently described the state as “bread, military power, and culture”—he has none of Gordon’s moral fervor. Gordon was a social prophet, Ben Gurion is a patriot. Nor can Borochov’s scientific theories appeal to a man of his temperament.
He may be said to have drawn his inspiration as a Zionist primarily from Herzl and—strange as it may seem—from Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Revisionist leader. In the 1930’s Ben Gurion risked his whole political future by seeking to get labor’s endorsement for an agreement with Jabotinsky. Like Herzl, Ben Gurion has indicated, or implied, that he sees himself in the role of a Deliverer. Like Jabotinsky, he appeals primarily to patriotic feelings. In common with Herzl and Jabotinsky, he has a flair for theatrics. Herzl had come from a Central European assimilated milieu. Jabotinsky began his career as a Russian liberal journalist with no knowledge of either Hebrew or Yiddish. Ben Gurion, although he comes from the Pale, cannot be said to have much deeper roots than they in Jewish folk culture.
Until his election to the Jewish Agency Executive, Ben Gurion was not too well known among Zionists abroad. He was more a “Yishuv regionalist” than a Zionist properly speaking, and when the Yishuv became a state he naturally became its first Prime Minister. Labor Zionism gave a nationalist movement a universalist direction. Chaim Weizmann, though not a socialist, regarded the Jewish state as incidental to a larger vision. Mapam claims to be still pursuing a universalist goal, but actually it has strayed off into ideological regionalism. Ben Gurion’s ultimate vision, blurred by ecstatic rhetoric, is closer to Garibaldi’s than to universal Jewish experience. He recently advised Hebrew writers to “revitalize” and “actualize” the Bible, treat the Song of Songs as a virile testament of love, Samson as a “real tough guy,” and to avoid Midrashic allegory. Yet all Labor Zionist doctrine—from Moses Hess through Borochov and Gordon—is in effect Midrash. That what Ben Gurion counter-poses to Midrashic allegory is not a superior realism, was made evident when he told those same Hebrew writers that they must remember that the Jewish people was “not two thousand years old, but much older.”
Since the decline of Weizmann, and the dissolution of Palmach and Irgun—the underground armies whose rise paralleled Weiz-mann’s eclipse—Ben Gurion’s authority has gone virtually unchallenged. The only exception is the indirect challenge offered by the relatively obscure rabbi, Hazon Ish, survivor of an earlier Talmudic culture. And this challenge was largely in Ben Gurion’s own mind, because that late rabbi’s spell worked only upon a few thousand Jews in Israel, and even less in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, crumbling fortress of an obsolete Orthodoxy. Yet this group, although minute, has been impervious to Ben Gurion’s influence, and his pilgrimage to Bnai Brak to convince the rabbi, on theological grounds, of the Tightness of the women’s conscription bill, was a demonstration of the ex-Prime Minister’s conceit, his flair for the histrionic, and his overwhelming fascination with the rabbi’s peculiar authority. Gordon, too, possessed such authority and, in some measure, Berl Katznelson did; it is of another nature and of another source than Ben Gurion’s own. This strange pilgrimage to Bnai Brak may indeed have been the seed of Ben Gurion’s recent decision to retreat to Kibbutz Sdeh Boker. Should Ben Gurion, with the collaboration of the Israeli press and his own party, succeed in this unconscious effort to recast himself as the Hazon Ish, Israel will have lost its most capable practical politician.