Ben-Aharon, the last unvarnished socialist

Three days before the Labor primaries, Amir Peretz, at that point still the underdog in the race, appeared before a group of kibbutzniks at Ein Shemer. He was accompanied by a former Labor MK and veteran educator who told them breathlessly of the visit they made earlier that day at Yitzhak Ben-Aharon's house in Givat Haim. "He's blind," he said, "but his mind is as clear as crystal and he held Amir's hands." Whether that last-minute endorsement was the final push that gave Peretz his sliver-thin victory over Shimon Peres is questionable. What's definite is that Ben-Aharon, who died on Friday morning, just two months short of his 100th birthday, was the last living icon of the left-wing of the Labor Party and the most suitable high priest to anoint its radical new leader. The outpouring of official announcements following his death described Ben-Aharon as a "founding father" and "last of the giants," but it would have been more accurate to describe him as the last remnant of an ideology that by in the 1960s was already regarded obsolete within Labor's mainstream. Ben-Aharon achieved his iconic status through his longevity, his outspoken loyalty to his socialist origins and a nostalgia among a younger generation of left-wing activists for the days of "the workers' hegemony." Yitzhak Ben-Aharon (Nussboim) was born on July 17, 1906 in the Bukovina region of Romania, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a teenager he was already active in the Zionist youth organizations, Hehalutz and Hashomer Hatza'ir. After studying economics and political science in Berlin, he immigrated to Palestine in 1928 and joined Givat Haim in 1932. Despite living on the kibbutz for the rest of his life, Ben-Aharon's main sphere of influence for the next four decades was the organized labor movement in Tel Aviv. He served as secretary of the Tel Aviv workers council in the mid-1930s and in 1938 was appointed secretary of Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor Party headed by David Ben-Gurion. In 1935, he spent a few months in Nazi Germany as an emissary of the Hehalutz leadership, until he was arrested and deported by the Gestapo. A year after joining the British army in 1940, he was captured in Greece and spent the next four years in a German POW camp. Upon arriving back in Palestine, Ben-Aharon joined Siah Bet (Faction B), a group of Mapai activists that eventually split with the party leadership over accusations of forsaking the battle for class equality. After independence, he was one of the founders of Mapam, which after the first Knesset elections became Mapai's main opposition on the Left. Ben-Aharon, who was an Mk from 1949 onward, represented Mapam in the Histadrut trade union council and was one of the bitter opponents of Ben-Gurion's decision to dismantle the Palmah, the main fighting force of the Yishuv in the War of Independence. Ben-Gurion feared that the Palmah would become an independent militia, outside the IDF command. Mapam saw the move as politically motivated, since many of the Palmah's commanders were party members. Another bone of contention with Mapai was the government's effort to position the new state within the American sphere of influence. Mapam saw its spiritual home as Moscow. Ben-Aharon was one of the signatories of the party's letter of condolence to "the Soviet peoples" on the death of Josef Stalin. In 1954, Ben-Aharon's group split with Mapam and ran in the elections as Ahdut Ha'avoda-Poalei Zion and later joined the Mapai coalition. In 1965 the two parties merged into what would eventually become the Labor Party. In 1959, Ben-Aharon was appointed transportation minister but resigned after two and a half years, blaming the government for not upholding "workers' principles." The peak of his public career was as secretary-general of the Histadrut from 1969-1973. Until then, the Histadrut had been seen mainly as Mapai's organized labor movement. Ben-Aharon was the first secretary-general to fight against his party and its government for what he saw as workers' rights. He widened the use of strikes in industrial disputes and tried to force private businesses to conform to Histadrut practices. Much of what he did brought him in to open conflict with his party's leadership, which preferred a more "pragmatic" version of socialism. Ben-Aharon refused to realize that his old-fashioned socialism was a thing of the past and left active politics in 1977. His parting shot, delivered on the night the Likud's historic election victory brought Mapai's hegemony to an end, was: "If this is the will of the people, then the people should be replaced." Over the last three decades, as the other members of his generation died off, he gained status as guru to those to the left of Labor and social revolutionaries. The leaders of his party - Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak - preferred to minimize contact with him, seeing him as relic. Instead he became a rallying point for young radicals, wanting to relive through him an age when the Israeli proletariat was in power, a period no less evocative for being totally imaginary. Some of these young followers even took the trouble to pore over his writings, collected in a dozen books. The Labor government awarded him the Israel Prize for his life work in 1995. Ben-Aharon could at least take comfort in the final months of his life that a politician in his mold, a Histadrut secretary-general opposed to the other kind of general to be found in the Labor leadership, an unabashed socialist who put the interests of the workers at the top of his agenda, had finally taken over his old party. It would have been interesting to hear what Ben-Aharon had to say about Peretz's eventually preferring the Defense Ministry, but now it's too late. Peretz said on Friday that "we have lost one of the greatest of the generation, a man who loved people and pursued peace and, with all his personality, influenced events in Israel, a man who set many challenges for the state and placed the human being in the center." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that "Israel has lost today one of its giants. Yitzhak was a real Zionist and an honest ideologue, who over decades never hesitated to sound his clear and distinct views." His coffin will be placed in the Histadrut building in Tel Aviv today, but there will be no funeral. In a last act of secular defiance, he donated his body to science. He is survived by his second wife Bilha and sons Yariv and Yishayahu.