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Between Vision and Power: The History of Ahdut-Ha'avoda
By Uri Izhar
791pp., Price N/A
Several political parties in Israel were, and still are, infected by a malady which results in eventual irrelevance. These parties have been noted for their propensity to be dazzled by wild dreams. As examples, we could point out the dream of reigning over the two banks of the Jordan, or the hallucination of a bi-national state. Incidentally, this penchant for messianic visions has taken root both on the Right and Left. Yes, some dreams have materialized in our lifetime, but the majority have not.
Between Vision and Power, the bulky new volume by Uri Izhar, underscores the tragic failure of one such party. Ahdut-Ha'avoda strove zealously to establish a position of leadership in Israeli politics, but was invariably rebuffed by the real world. Izhar's story of the party's short life is fair and balanced, though he compresses more details than necessary.
Ahdut-Ha'avoda had a brief but tumultuous life. It existed in different forms between 1944 and 1968 when it succumbed to the strong desire to be involved in affairs of state and decided to re-unite with Labor. While still thriving, it functioned under different titles, but always had its focal base in Kibbutz Hameuchad. When the kibbutz movement was flourishing (in the Forties, for example), the party was vibrant, but as the kibbutzim started to show signs of weariness, the party too lost strength.
Ahdut Ha'avoda was an offspring of Mapai, forerunner of the Labor Party. The split was caused by ideological differences, but also by a vehement clash of personalities - a phenomenon that often causes political parties to break down.
One does not have to go to much trouble to discover how consistent Ahdut Ha'avoda was in picking losing concepts and hopeless propositions. It was wrong on almost all the major issues of the day. For instance: For years the party's leaders considered Kibbutz Hameuchad as the core of the movement. But neither Ben-Gurion nor his colleagues in the Histadrut and Labor were prepared to endorse such a concept. Yitzchak Tabenkin, the spiritual leader of Kibbutz Hameuchad, was captivated by the "glory" of the Russian October Revolution. He criticized Stalin's authoritarian rule - as he rejected his anti-Zionist stance - but that never diminished his adoration of the Soviet "beacon of socialism."
The proposal to partition Palestine was a strongly divisive issue when first raised in 1937, and when, 10 years later, it was proposed by the UN General Assembly. In the Thirties, Ben-Gurion saw the opportunity to declare a state, even a small one, as the only effective way of saving Jews from Hitler. In 1947, he considered it to be the only realistic way to rescue the remnants of the Jews from the misery of Germany's displaced persons camps. Tabenkin considered Greater Israel as vital to achieving the full implementation of his far-fetched vision of the kibbutz performing the dominant role in Palestine. Had the Zionist movement in 1947 adopted his (and Menachem Begin's) position calling for rejection of the UN partition plan, it is unlikely that Israel would have been established.
In 1942 Tabenkin opposed the Biltmore declaration that called for the establishment of a Jewish state after World War II. Ben-Gurion and the American Zionist movement considered a Jewish state to be an urgent national necessity. Ahdut Ha'avoda urged international supervisors, including the Soviet Union, to replace the British Mandate. This rather bizarre concept was resurrected later, when Ahdut Ha'avoda split from Mapai. The US and Britain were perceived by these dreamers as imperialist countries, and the slogan of "relying solely on our own" was coined as an antithesis to the drive to achieve international support for establishing a state.
In September 1947, Ahdut Ha'avoda joined the Revisionists' rejection of the UN Commission's recommendation to end the British Mandate and partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state with Jerusalem under international control. Ahdut Ha'avoda (like Begin) did not believe the British would get out of Palestine. Here is another fatal error in their judgment: In 1952, when Israel reached an agreement with West Germany for the payment of reparations, Ahdut Ha'avoda (and Begin) viciously opposed it. The reason given was that reparations would have been all right if the agreement were negotiated and signed with the Big Four, including the Soviet Union. The argument was that direct discussions with West Germany were contrary to Israel's interests. Were they? The reparations made it possible for the young state to start building some of the vital elements of the country's infrastructure.
The author sums it up rightly when he says Ahdut Ha'avoda's original message of a "pioneering regime" was not relevant to Israel's new middle class, nor to today's predominantly non-Ashkenazi manual labor force. Tabenkin's idea that foreign capital should not be tolerated was an absurdity that could not survive.