How it really was: Getting rid of myths – Was Israel ever socialist?

Two respected columnists have recently described Israel in its early years as “socialist.” They are totally wrong.

Then prime minister Levi Eshkol visits David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker to congratulate him on his 77th birthday in 1963 (photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
Then prime minister Levi Eshkol visits David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker to congratulate him on his 77th birthday in 1963
(photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
“ARE YOU out of your mind?”
In this imaginary conversation taking place in 1950, I can hear the voice of the dynamic Levi Eshkol, then 55 years old, booming out in his deep baritone. The dialogue would have taken place at a meeting of the “Young Guard” of the Israel Labor Party, Mapai. An idealistic young man, just returned from the War of Independence, in this fictional conversation asked, “What about Labor’s socialist ambitions? What now, that we are independent?”
Eshkol was then treasurer of the Jewish Agency and head of the Land Settlement Department, meaning his job was to get the funds to settle new immigrants and then to find them homes and work.
Eshkol would give that sweet smile that would foretell a tongue-lashing, delivered in a kind tone. “Young man, are you off your rocker? I have 15,000 immigrants coming in every month. Last year almost a quarter of a million new immigrants. I have to give them a roof over their heads, food, a table, a bed. Medicine. Everything. We need to import oil for electricity, wheat for bread! We are on strict rationing. And the army, it costs nothing? What socialism?”
Why this imagined conversation now? Well, two respected columnists have recently described Israel in its early years as “socialist.” They are totally wrong. Everything was centered on creating a Jewish “commonwealth,” a code word for a Jewish state.
Dr. Tom Segev, in a book recently published in Hebrew, a well-researched and very well-written biography of David Ben- Gurion, gave it the title “A State at All Costs.” (The English version should be out this winter.) The title hits the nail on the head: the aim of Zionist leadership as headed by Ben-Gurion was to create a Jewish state, not a Socialist Jewish state.
In brief, Israel was never socialist.
From 1935 until 1948, the pre-State Jewish community (the Yishuv) was ruled by a pragmatic state-building apparatus, which was centered on the Jewish Agency and was underpinned by the Histadrut, or General Federation of Hebrew Workers. The Histadrut, which was the powerhouse of the dominant labor movement, was led by David Ben-Gurion until 1935, when he became Chairman of the Jewish Agency. This central role of Labor helped create the myth that this was a socialist land in formation. The myth was fostered by the labor leadership, but essentially, except for a vocal left-wing minority, the kibbutz and the moshav (collective and cooperative settlements) movements were designed to enable the absorption of new immigrants and the staking out of the borders of the state-to-be. This was pre-state.
After statehood, Ben-Gurion demanded that the kibbutzim change their ideology and allow new immigrants to obtain paid jobs in the kibbutzim. Until then, “hired labor” was an anathema to the leadership of the kibbutz movement. Ben-Gurion told the labor movement that without mass immigration, “the State will not exist.” That was reality. Socialism was a dream, the ideal to build a workers’ paradise – like the Messiah – would come “later.”
In a book named “Ben-Gurion: State-Builder,” there is an entire chapter entitled “From Socialist to Non-Socialist.” That book appeared in 1973, and focused mainly on David Ben-Gurion’s role in forming the State of Israel. It makes clear that even in the 1930s the pragmatic Ben-Gurion and the pragmatic movements he led were focused on creating a Jewish state and that this would be taking place in a market economy. (Yes, this writer is the author of the book.)
Looking more broadly across the world in the post-World War II period, no country was socialist. Europe was licking its wounds, absorbing the loss of sixty million soldiers and civilians. Country after country was bound up in removing the rubble of shattered houses and factories, and rebuilding ravaged cities.
Ben-Gurion used his speeches and articles to present his comprehensive picture of Jewish history and made the return to Zion and creating a state as one of the four major events in Jewish history. After 1935 he seldom used the word socialist to describe the society he wished to create. It was the prophetic vision of decent human and social relationships on which he based his approach to society. By the early 1940s, he said, he realized that “socialist” meant nothing. Hitler was a “National Socialist” and Stalin a “Communist” (the Soviet dictator was a self-proclaimed Marxist socialist”) – what then was socialism?
When Israel entered upon statehood in 1948, the Histadrut had a business arm, which owned a major building compa- ny (Solel Boneh), a number of plants for dairy products (Tnuva), as well as interests in shipping and insurance. The labor movement saw these businesses as part of an economy which would lead to workers’ ownership of major enterprises. From that point of view, therefore, and probably to enhance their own power, the leaders of the Histadrut’s economic arm would try to get a 50 percent ownership role with private investors. After learning the ropes of how private enterprise works, that ploy faded rapidly.
In the basic principles agreement of the coalition formed in 1949, the government undertook “the encouragement of private and cooperative capital ... special benefits for productive capital investments.”
The state was living a hand-to-mouth economy.
In the 1950s, Israel’s economy rested on US government aid, the income of the United Jewish Appeal and Keren Hayesod, the sale of Israel Bonds (from 1952), and reparations from West Germany (from 1953).
In 1952 and again in 1953, the government and the Jewish Agency convened the Jerusalem Economic Conference, a meeting of Jewish leaders from all over the world. This writer covered the 1953 conference for The Jerusalem Post, and clearly recalls that the closing statement called for private investment. Soon, as the leadership of the state gained experience and self-confidence, the push to engage private investors became the personal effort of Pinchas Sapir, who was made Minister of Commerce and Industry in 1955. He worked assiduously to bring private investors to Israel, to create jobs, often by initially giving substantial benefits to the “capitalist” entrepreneurs.
Now to return to my colleagues, the columnists appearing in The Jerusalem Post who described early Israel as socialist. They are Amotz Asa-El, whom I highly respect for his vast knowledge and analytic depth, and Daniel Gordis, a widely read columnist and a senior vice-president at the rightwing Shalem College in Jerusalem. Both are gifted authors, and Gordis, who also holds rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has published, among other books, “Menachem Begin and the Battle for Israel’s Soul.” Gordis obviously reveres Begin, who was a man one could love for his honesty and warmth, among other charismatic qualities.
Now, an aside: in one of his columns, he refers to Begin (I quote from memory) as Israel’s most Jewish prime minister. One could argue that Ben-Gurion whose every speech was laden with a biblical quote was “most Jewish,” or Eshkol, who loved the Yiddish language and Hasidic nigunim (tunes, chants), and had studied Bible and Talmud at home in the Ukraine, and in Vilna, was the “most Jewish”; or the anti-religious Golda Meir, who spoke with a tremor in her voice as she described families of an entire people, across the many continents, on the same evening, marking the Exodus at the Passover Seder ceremony; or the generals like Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin, or Mossad operative Yitzhak Shamir, were the new Maccabees and “most Jewish.”
And finally, Ben-Gurion found a midrashic justification for a market economy and encouraging capital investment: “If there were no evil inclination, a man would not build a house, not marry, not beget children, not engage in commerce.” (Genesis Rabbah, ch. 9). Without the motive of “making money” the “evil” – rather natural – inclination to possess and to amass must be put to work. Without this incentive, he said, “the country will not be built.”
Avraham Avi-hai worked with or was well-acquainted with the prime ministers mentioned in this column