Labor pains

How Mapai was transformed From a pre-1948 voluntary movement Into a political party in a sovereign state.

Berl Katznelson 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Berl Katznelson 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mapai in Israel's Early Independence By Avi Bareli Yad Ben-Zvi Press 548 pages I've been sifting through this volume in an attempt to understand how Mapai (Israel's Labor Party) of the pre-1948 years emerged as the political spinal cord of a state in the making while the country was fighting to survive. Some could find this tome slightly cumbersome, but it encompasses a broad range of the factors that make this story so fascinating. The book depicts the impact of the ideological and organizational transformation from the voluntary zeal of pre-state days to the constraints and opportunities offered by a sovereign state. Historians have tended to underscore the dominant role Mapai played in the life of the Jewish community under the British Mandate - a role that carried on into the first three decades of independence. This continuity undoubtedly contributed stability and order to the young state. Bareli claims that evidence encountered in his research shows that Mapai became the leading political organization in the country only during the first five years after independence, coming to dominate the government, the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency. On several occasions, he says, its leaders had to exert political leverage to achieve their objectives. Mapai, as it now appears, wasn't an easy organization to run. It is worth recalling that it was formed in 1929-1930 by the merger of two parties - the larger one, Ahdut Ha'avoda, headed by David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson and the smaller one, Hapoel Hatza'ir. Both partners shared the perception that the "pioneering spirit" was an instrument for the fulfillment of the Zionist vision of settling the land. Repeated attempts were made by leaders of the kibbutz movements, especially those of Hakibbutz Hameuhad, to portray the kibbutz as the elitist model for the Labor Party. These attempts were all rejected by Ben-Gurion. He and Katznelson considered the "pioneering spirit" to be vital, but argued that any legitimization of the elite was dependent on the support of the general public. Gaining this support required a pragmatic national agenda. They maintained that there was no use in the Right declaiming hollow slogans, or in the Left attempting to disrupt its "deceptive messianic dreams." Hence Ben-Gurion's endorsement of the Peel Commission's partition scheme in 1937, leading Mapai and the world Zionist movement to accept the UN partition plan in 1947. The radical socialist factions on the Left and the militant groups on the Right vehemently opposed the UN scheme, but managed to get only marginal support from the public. Mapai, on the other hand, gathered impressive electoral backing. In 1946, it reported 29,947 members. In May 1951, 118,837 were recorded, and on September 1, 1953, the party claimed 132,472. Paradoxically, however, the recognized and esteemed leader of Mapai, Ben-Gurion, was rather in solitude. Until the political and military breakthrough in 1947-1948, Ben-Gurion's senior associates within Mapai were known as "Weizmannists" (these included the likes of Kaplan, Remez and Sprinzak) - all known for their caution and lack of daring at one of those rare moments in history when bold decisions were required. After Katznelson's death in 1944, and much before the younger crop of Dayan, Peres and their colleagues matured enough to matter, Ben-Gurion felt the need to cultivate and rely on people like Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, who were considered "activists" ready to support his policy. In the turmoil caused in Mapai by the dramatic transformation from voluntary norms to the reality of holding powerful and influential positions in a functioning government, the rising prestige of military commanders or senior bureaucrats naturally challenged the aura of the kibbutznik. The traditional Histadrut principle of paying salary based on the size of a family looked absurd in a state that had to engage skilled personnel and establish salaries and other benefits for ministers, directors-general and high-ranking officers in accordance with their responsibility, not family size. The naivete of some as to how the civil service should be built was often staggering. A distinguished kibbutznik and member of the Knesset proposed that senior labor politicians as well as diplomats and army officers introduce a system of rotation - five years, let's say, in diplomatic posts or in the army, to be followed by a return to three or four years of working the land or milking the cows. Mapai's intellectuals were upset by the party's lack of a democratic mechanism. Their motives may have been worthy, but one wonders how they would have managed to run a government with the party trying to get involved at every turn. The author rightly asserts that Ben-Gurion's greatness was manifested not only by his pursuit of national strength and his insistence that it be applied only when necessary, but by his pragmatic, moderate course on social and economic issues, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of fanaticism. It is incredible to learn today how much nonsense was touted by so many well-meaning people in the first years of Israel's independence. A good case could be made that some of these nostalgic symbols probably had to be revived and tried before they could be proven obsolete.