Labor founder Yitzhak Ben-Aharon dies

A political dove with a hawkish personality, he shaped many Labor ideologies.

ben aharon 88 (photo credit: )
ben aharon 88
(photo credit: )
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 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 six months ago is questionable. What's definite is that Ben Aharon who died on Friday morning, two months short of his hundredth birthday, was the last living icon of the left-wing of the Israeli Labor Party and the most suitable high priest to anoint its new radical leader. The outpouring of official announcements following his death described Ben Aharon as a "founding father" and "last of the giants," it would have been more accurate to describe him as the last remnant of an ideology that already in the 60s was regarded obsolete within the mainstream Labor Party. Ben Aharon achieved his iconic status through his longevity, his outspoken loyalty to his socialist origins and nostalgia among a younger generation of left-wing activists to 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 Hatzair. After studying economics and political science in Berlin, he immigrated to Palestine in 1928 and in 1932 joined Kibbutz Givat Haim. Despite living in the kibbutz for the rest of his life, for the next four decades, Ben Aharon's main sphere of influence 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 original 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 being arrested and deported by the Gestapo. He was to be a prisoner of the Nazis again when 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), the 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 elections became Mapai's main opposition to the left. Ben Aharon who was a Knesset member from 1949 onwards, represented Mapam in the Histadrut trade union council and was one of the bitter opponents of Ben Gurion's decision to dismantle the Palmah, what had been 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 members 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 with the American sphere of influence while Mapam saw their spiritual home in Moscow. Ben Aharon was one of the signatories of the party's letter of condolence to "the Soviet Peoples" on the death of Stalin. In 1954, Ben Aharon's group split with Mapam and ran in the elections as Ahdut HaAvoda - Poalei Zion and later joined the Mapai coalition. In 1965 the two parties merged into what would eventually become the Israeli 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 the Mapai organized labor movement. Ben Aharon was the first secretary general to fight against his party and its government on 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 who preferred a more "pragmatic" version of socialism. Ben Aharon refused to realize that his old-fashioned unvarnished socialism was a thing of the past and left active politics in 1977. His parting shot, delivered on the night of the Likud's historic elections victory, bringing 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 out, he gained status as a guru to those on the left of Labor and social-revolutionaries. The leaders of his party, Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, preferred to minimize contact with him, seeing him as relic of a past standing between Labor and an estranged electorate. Instead he became a rallying-point for young radicals, wanting to relive through him an age when the Israeli proletariat were in power. 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 mould, a Histadrut Secretary General opposed to the other kind of 'General' to be find 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 Amir Peretz eventually preferring the Defense Ministry but now it's too late. He is survived by his second wife Bilha and sons Yariv and Yishayahu. Labor Chairman, Amir 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 today in the Histadrut building in Tel Aviv but no burial will take place. In a last act of secular defiance, he decided to give his body to science.