When Yitzhak Ben-Aharon passed away on May 19 at the age of nearly 100, some prominent politicians and distinguished writers called him "mythological" and a "giant."
To live an entire century is indeed an extraordinary feat. Longevity of this dimension occurs rarely, but what makes it become "mythological"? It was reportedly Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who labeled him a "giant" without offering a yardstick for assessing this judgment.
What were the unique virtues and achievements of Ben-Aharon to warrant such adjectives?
To a seasoned skeptic, the accolades smacked of either hypocrisy or frivolity. After all, his socialist ideology became discredited years ago, his perception of the world was terribly distorted and his message tended to be irrelevant. Still, a plethora of superlatives was heaped upon his memory.
There remains the moral symbol of a leader who, in his youth, may have been ambitious, but never greedy. He preferred living the simple life, away from the splendor of power, though at various stages he was not aloof from seeking power. This phenomenon is rather odd in our time. It has apparently evoked admiration - real, or pretended.
Ben-Aharon was born in Romania. He joined Hashomer Hatza'ir, but when he moved to Palestine in the 1920s, he preferred Kibbutz Givat Haim, where he lived until his last day. He was active in Mapai, the precursor of the Labor Party.
Following the outbreak of the war in 1939, he volunteered to serve in the British Army, an act clearly reflecting his spirit of total dedication to the Zionist cause. In 1940 he was captured in Greece and spent the rest of the war as a PoW.
When he was repatriated in 1945, he discovered that his close comrades had split from the Labor Party. In no time he emerged as one of the outstanding leaders of the small faction of Ahdut Ha'avoda, which advocated a more radical and dogmatic socialist doctrine and also an activist Zionist policy.
His vision was based on a strongly motivated fulfillment of Jewish national aspirations, and on a firm commitment to settling the country. This was an age of revolutionary temperament and of facile attraction to socialist dreams, tinged occasionally by a stale Marxist vocabulary which was still in circulation.
AN EXPANDING kibbutz movement and a powerful Histadrut labor union were perceived at the time as vital vehicles for achieving the historic Zionist mission. In a way, they probably shielded Ben-Aharon and his colleagues from the murky temptations and the vicissitudes of the Communist appeal. The Russian Revolution was for years perceived by him as a majestic historical event, an affirmation of the vision of the world's road to salvation.
For much too long Ben-Aharon was mesmerized by the Soviet myth, notwithstanding his strong rejection of Moscow's persistent hostility to Zionism.
In response to questions addressed to him in 1984 and 1985 by the Hebrew magazine Igra, Ben-Aharon said: "I don't have today an unequivocal definition of socialism, and I don't know if one can reach such a definition."
And yet he was still espousing the antiquated line that capitalism was the "father of the fascist, Nazi and colonialist miasma," while Russian communism continued to be seen as a force that contributed to "the demolition of empires" and to the rising of liberation movements in Africa and Asia.
Forgetting or ignoring the bloody communist purges of the 1930s, the millions condemned to Siberia and Stalin's pact with Hitler, Ben-Aharon stuck to this dismal image.
REALIZING that Ahdut Ha'avoda was tiny and marginal in Israeli politics, in the 1960s he urged the reunification of the labor movement. That objective was finally attained following the Six Day War. While still in Ahdut Ha'avoda, he served for a few years as Minister of Transport, but his dreams were aimed at higher peaks.
Ben-Aharon was nominated by the reunited Labor Party to serve as the secretary-general of the Histadrut, which at that time was seen as the second most powerful job in the politics of Israel. He did not, however, follow his Kibbutz Meuhad hard core who, after the Six Day War, championed the Greater Israel idea. He vehemently rejected this vision, discerning at an early stage the moral dilemma and the political hurdles involved in the continuous domination over millions of Palestinians.
Where he unfortunately failed was in his inability to offer a pragmatic way out of the "corrupting occupation" while assuring a secure and a peaceful settlement.
WHEN, OVER 10 years ago, he gave up active political involvement, his prestige went up. Hailing his ideological presumptions became quite bon ton.
His ideological pretences resulted, however, in reproducing old ideas, nothing novel. Ben-Aharon was unable to offer a new ideological agenda, as did Tony Blair in Britain and Bill Clinton in the US, acutely realizing that obsolete cliches wouldn't work.
One of the most incredible features of Ben-Aharon's long Igra interview was his total rejection of "private ownership" and his call for restoring public ownership, which had proven to produce such a mess everywhere, including in Russia and China.
Ben-Aharon never understood that you cannot preserve the rule of law and the vital freedoms if you deny the legitimacy of private property. It's hard to believe, but he fought against encouraging private investments in Israel, and was dead wrong to oppose David Ben-Gurion's decision to close the separate laborite educational institutions and incorporate them in the state education system.
So why consider him "mythological"?
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador.