Ben-Aharon: A Zionist tragedy

A giant to some and a dinosaur to others, Yitzhak Ben Aharon remained a dogmatic ideologue to the bitter end.

A giant to some and a dinosaur to others, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, one of Labor's "legendary" leaders, died last Friday close to his 100th birthday. An unrepentant Marxist, he exemplified in his person and career the tragedy that befell Zionism after it succumbed to the spell of Marxian socialism. The false god of Marxism failed many nations, but because it reigned so supreme in Zionism it had far more devastating effects, seriously threatening its economic viability and saddling it with terrible social problems. These are of course not the polite (or politically correct) sentiments to express when eulogizing an icon, a secular saint of the leftist academic and media elites that dominate public discourse in Israel. Haaretz - the paper that deems itself the elite's newspaper "for people who think" - had two of its top columnists eulogize Ben-Aharon, but typically, the criticism they dared express was mostly in the form of (appropriately) left-handed compliments, or buried under garlands of adulation. Both the center-left Doron Rosenblum and the farther-left Yossi Sarid are critical of Ben-Aharon. "Ben-Aharon," Rosenblum writes, "was considered 'a man of action' but by temperament was actually a man of words - big, huge, pompous words…." He indulged in "revolutionary gestures, that seemed less full of love for humanity and more enchanted by their own revolutionary fervor (this included impulsive decisions and dramatic resignations, whose reasons, purpose or effect no one remembers)." Sarid feels like a child, abandoned by a father figure, by his mentor, "the last of the socialists." But his eulogy includes the surprising confession that "the trinity of Zionism, socialism and the brotherhood of peoples" that defined Israeli ideology for decades is defunct, because "Zionism today... is very ill... the brotherhood of peoples is also not what it used to be and is declining... and socialism... is dead and buried." IF THIS is so, then most Israeli intellectuals, including Yossi Sarid, may be guilty of necrophilia, since despite its putative death, they never tire of trying to revive socialism by bringing it through the back door of the welfare state. Worse still, most Israeli intellectuals, Sarid included, want us to persist along a path of failure whether consciously or not. Perhaps this is the deep reason why the enterprise of Zionism, and the state it spawned, has been far from an unqualified success. Concluding his eulogy Sarid quotes Ben-Aharon, who wrote: "Political failure was built too deeply into our personality and conduct… the public wants to see in government political forces that know how to compromise, know how to listen to the people's voice, and draft as many partners as possible to their path." This is of course a cop-out. Ben-Aharon couldn't understand that it was total devotion to Marxist ideology, not a lack of political skills, that inevitably spawned corrupt bureaucracies that failed. Labor was very adept politically; otherwise it could not have ruled Israel for decades despite its many failures. Ben-Aharon, who thrived in Labor's cutthroat political culture, was in essence, as both Rosenblum and Sarid reluctantly admit, a political hack, a mediocre thinker full of the sound and fury of Marxian rhetoric that signified so little, yet ruined so much. Both Rosenblum and Sarid are wordsmiths in love with words like the subject of their eulogy. Their almost exclusive attention is to form rather than substance. So they ignore the great "calamity" (in Rosenblum's words) people like Ben-Aharon, and his ideological comrades and followers, have inflicted on Zionism by diverting their and their followers' energies to the pursuit of a Marxist utopia that was not only unattainable but terribly destructive. So destructive that the kibbutzim and the moshavim, the glory of their achievements, bit the dust. The Zionist movement and the State of Israel sunk into them most of the funds raised by Jewish people for the resettlement of the Land of Israel - even though they regularly went bankrupt every decade since their founding in the Twenties. Yet the kibbutzim, despite this help (or because of the welfare-state model that they have become as a result), despite the enormous dedication of most of their members and despite the high status and privilege they enjoyed, have ultimately failed. A kibbutz member to his last days, Ben-Aharon refused to face the lesson of these repeated failures. A dogmatic ideologue to the bitter end, he even led resistance to the attempt to save them from both social and economic bankruptcy. Ben-Aharon kept insisting that the kibbutz must continue to adhere to the ideal of strict, communist really, equality, though he could see that such equality can be preached but not practiced. As Ze'ev Jabotinsky realized back in 1927 (when he considered the kibbutz a possible settlement model), "productivity is impossible in a society from which individual advancement is excluded." But this is precisely what socialism, obsessed with equality, sought to do. The predictable result was the development of a politics of envy masked as a quest for equality. Politicized envy run rampant fragmented and destroyed both the economic and the social fabric of the kibbutz. The Zionist enterprise was saved from collapse because elements of free enterprise have survived despite efforts by socialists to stifle it. These productive elements still have to struggle against the incessant assaults of the likes of Ben-Aharon and his followers.