In 1904, after having been employed as a clerk for more than twenty years, Aaron David Gordon left his native Russia for Palestine, to begin a new life there as an agricultural laborer. He was then forty-eight years old. In spite of the great hardships involved in adjusting himself to physical toil, Gordon held to his vow that he would do no other kind of work, refusing all offers for sedentary jobs, taking part in the early development of a number of the major Jewish agricultural settlements, and working in the fields with fellow pioneers who were, on the average, at least twenty years younger than he was. In the early hours of each morning, before starting the day's chores, he would write his essays—devotional works filled with echoes of Wordsworth and Tolstoy—about the reclamation of the human spirit and the Jewish people through labor and intimate contact with nature. To his youthful co-workers he became a comforting father in their trials, a prophet who gave words to their vision, and, after his death in 1922, a legend, whose life and work embodied the historical movement in which they had participated.

Outside of Israel and Zionist circles, however, Gordon is a little-known figure; the literature on him in English is sparse. Rabbi Herbert H. Rose's new book1 therefore helps fill a gap, although it falls short of its task in many ways. The book does serve as a primer on Gordon, but since it is more a eulogy than a critical and reflective work, it leaves us with many problems only vaguely understood. It does not, for example, offer any enlightenment on the major question of what elements went into the making of Gordon's decision to change his life. We know that by 1904 he had lost his long-standing position with the estate of Baron Ginzburg, that his parents had died, and that he had become permanently estranged from his son, who had turned into a religious fanatic and had repudiated his “impious” father (who was, in fact, an observant Jew all his life). This was clearly a time of upheaval in Gordon's life. Still, he had a family, which would have been enough to deter many another man from doing as Gordon did. When he left Russia he was, to be sure, able to provide his wife and daughter with enough to live on for a time, and they did rejoin him in Palestine four years later. But conditions there were terribly hard for the two women, who both contracted malaria; his wife died from it. Gordon was superficially frail of physique, and had himself suffered from malaria, but clearly he was a man dominated by a powerful and transcendent will, like his son. It would be useful to know more about this aspect of his character.

The question of what brought about Gordon's major decision is of more than merely biographical interest, for he was participating in a historical movement, and has since become one of the foremost of the figures that characterizes it to us today. If Gordon was wilful, then so are the Jewish people, and Zionism seems to be another of the remarkable acts of self-regeneration that are unique to Jewish history, equal in magnitude to the one that took place when a nation-in-exile, capable of lasting at least another two thousand years, was created out of the rubble to which Palestine had been reduced by 73 C.E. How have such things been possible? When we apply the question to the era of the revolt against the Romans we have little more to go on than legends and pious parables, but for the Zionist period we have a historian's feast. For instance, we know a good deal about the nationalism that was rife among the Eastern European peoples in the latter part of the 19th century. Historical writers have stressed the parallels between Zionism and these other nationalist ideologies, as did many of the early Zionists themselves. This comparison is certainly valid up to a point, but the fact remains that the Jews—even those living in a relatively contiguous community within the Russian Pale of Settlement—were lacking in two fundamental attributes of the other nationalities: a territory beneath their feet that they could claim as their own, and a reasonably well-rounded social structure. The Jews of Eastern Europe were as much a mere social stratum as they were a nation, and in order to achieve the fullness of nationhood, they had both to transfer themselves physically to another territory and reconstruct themselves as a social order. As a result, the Zionist movement had to take on many of the attributes of a class revolution, and its parallels with socialism were no less significant than its parallels with the other nationalist movements.

In devoting a considerable portion of his work to a critique of the Marxian socialism of his day, Gordon was tacitly recognizing it to be the most important rival ideology to his own. Zionism and socialism were the two great alternative courses being chosen by the secular-minded Jewish intelligentsia of his time. Many Jews passed from one to the other during their lives, and in their younger days both Weizmann and Jabotinsky made something of a specialty out of gaining entry into meetings of Jewish social-democratic student organizations and winning converts to Zionism. Both ideologies appealed to the messianic impulse of the Jewish intellectual, and to his desire to achieve Jewish emancipation. To those whose Jewish nationalism was accompanied by the ideal of a worker's society, Zionism was given added appeal by the creation of a Labor Zionist movement. Alternatively, the Jewish social-democratic movement responded to anti-Semitism and to the strength of Jewish feelings among its adherents by establishing the Jewish Socialist Federation, the Bund. Thus the two movements answered to a very similar set of impulses. Gordon wrote of the glories of labor and the collective as glowingly as any Marxist—more so, in fact, and yet he knew full well that the aims of Marxian socialism were diametrically opposed to his own. What was the source of divergence between two such intimately related ideas?

The choice between them was largely based upon the sense of one's own relationship as a Jew (and, incidentally, as an intellectual) to the proletariat. To the adherents of both movements who were at all concerned with this question, it was clear that the Jews on the whole, for all the poverty and oppression under which they suffered, were not, properly speaking, a proletariat. In the eyes of Bundists and Zionists alike, this was a failing that had to be overcome. The Bundist achieved his solution vicariously, by identifying Jewish suffering with that of the proletariat at large; this is parallel to the way in which the socialist intellectual in general seeks to transcend his middle-class situation through vicarious identification with the workers. For Gordon and the Labor Zionists, on the other hand, the only solution was to transform themselves into a proletariat through a personal and direct act o£ will. In so doing, they avoided the paradox of a merely vicarious identification, but they had nevertheless unconsciously come upon a paradox of another sort. For the Jewish pioneers in Palestine were not really a proletariat at all; rather, they were a kind of laboring elite. The Gordonian ideal of “self-realization,” of a personal act of regeneration, which guided their behavior, represented the very opposite of what could be expected from a class governed by economic necessity. Even those among the pioneers who were of authentically proletarian background were now acting in a way indicating that they had transcended those origins, for they were making a revolutionary change in their lives through a free and personal choice. There is a common element in this choice and in that of a man who rises from poverty through business or professional activity, and thereby also changes in class: both are founded primarily upon the principle of self-help. Gordon criticized Marxism for laying stress upon the group as the instrument for the regeneration of man; the process, said Gordon, should begin with the individual. The greatness of this type of individualism lay in its repudiation of worldly selfishness, its stress upon the collective, and its ideal of personal austerity. This spirit produced, as Martin Buber has pointed out, the last and most successful of the great “utopian” socialist experiments. It also produced a pioneer Jewish laboring class in Palestine, the prerequisite for the establishment of a Jewish state there.


Today, however, this same set of ideals finds itself confronted with moral difficulties arising from the conditions of an established and maturing society. For Israel is now beginning to develop something like an authentic and traditional proletariat. The immigrants who have arrived since the birth of the State in 1948 have largely formed the personnel to perform the new and dreary tasks of growing industrialism. A.D. Gordon could speak lyrically of labor, making of it a kind of mystique of spiritual transcendence, and it may well be that those of us who do not toil with our hands have lost something morally; but no man who has no choice in life but to do hard physical labor can feel that way. In the end, Gordon is expressing a middle-class ideal; the glorifification of work was the ideology with which the middle classes achieved greatness in Western civilization. There is no reason, however, why human beings in general should harbor such an ideal, least of all the laboring classes.

But many elements among the old pioneering elite in Israel today are having difficulty confronting the lack of Gordonian idealism among the new proletariat in their midst. The average workingman does not want to work for the sake of the collectives, and his notion of the good life is far from the austere one of the pioneers. Among the worst sufferers from the pain of adjustment to this fact are the kibbutzim. Although many of them face a growing shortage of manpower, they are quite naturally reluctant to use what seems to be the only viable solution to the problem: hired labor. By bringing into their midst workers who do not share their ideals, by introducing cash payment and the whole set of relationships of employer and employee, the kibbutzim are thereby introducing some of the very conditions of society at large from which they had sought to escape. Yet can a socialist institution seek only to be a form of escape? Such an aim was the weakness of the classical “utopian” socialism. The alternative proposed to it by Marxism was that the task of socialists, rather than being one of turning away from society at large to form elite communities, was to seek to work with the conditions of society itself to bring about its liberation. This, in the end, is the principle of social-democracy, whether called “Marxist” or not, that has achieved dominance in the industrialized welfare-states of the world. Utopianism could not stand up against it historically, except in the one instance in which it was buttressed by (and in turn became the buttress of) Jewish nationalism; this made it indispensable. But this ideological synthesis arose to serve a historical epoch which is now over. The kibbutzim today are faced with the choice either of accepting a new conception of social responsibility at the cost of setting aside an old and cherished ideal, or of gradually turning into a mere byway of Israeli life, a retreat for idealists of a certain kind. It is a tragic choice. Gordon and his contemporaries laid the groundwork for the very existence of a Jewish state, but they did it within the framework of their aspiration to realize a new conception of man. If the Gordonians now wish to continue serving the society they helped create, they must, at least for the time being, revise that conception.

1 The Life and Thought of A. D. Gordon, Bloch, 151 pp., $3.50.

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