Yizhak Tabenkin: The Israeli socialist opposed to territorial compromise - opinion

The simplistic hawk-dove divide is not reflective of Zionist history, as is clearly demonstrated through the politics of kibbutz movement luminary Yitzhak Tabenkin (1887-1971).

 A MOTHER and two children cross the street in Kibbutz Yitav, named for Yitzhak Tabenkin, based on the acronym of his name in Hebrew. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
A MOTHER and two children cross the street in Kibbutz Yitav, named for Yitzhak Tabenkin, based on the acronym of his name in Hebrew.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

In the contemporary Israeli political debate, the Right is associated with hawkish security positions and a commitment to the Land of Israel, while the Left is synonymous with a dovish approach and a willingness to exchange territory for peace.

But this simplistic divide is not reflective of Zionist history, as is clearly demonstrated through the politics of kibbutz movement luminary Yitzhak Tabenkin (1887-1971), whose birthday falls out this weekend.

Tabenkin was one of the secular socialist pioneers who immigrated to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in the decade before World War I, in what historians have termed the Second Aliyah. 

Influenced by the radical ideas then prevalent across Eastern Europe, Tabenkin’s generation of pioneers sought to create a double revolution in the Jewish situation: a national revolution to free the Jews from the adversities of the diaspora; and a social revolution, based on the hegemony of organized labor in the new Jewish homeland.    

 Ya'akov Hazan and Yitzhak Tabenkin (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Ya'akov Hazan and Yitzhak Tabenkin (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A special status among the labor Zionist movement

The Second Aliyah was the vanguard of the labor movement, which was the dominant political force in Zionism from 1935 to 1977. Yet among the leaders of that immigration, Tabenkin held a special status. 

Unlike other Second Aliyah notables, who went on to lead the Jewish workers’ movement from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Tabenkin was conspicuous in his ongoing personal exemplification of the Labor-Zionist ethos through his membership of Kibbutz Ein Harod.

Tabenkin served as the ideological authority of what was the most prominent and largest of the kibbutz movements, the United Kibbutz (Hakibbutz Hameuchad), with its 75 kibbutzim and thousands of members. 

Already in the pre-state period, Tabenkin’s purist socialist Zionism brought him into conflict with the era’s preeminent labor politician, David Ben-Gurion.

In 1934, Ben-Gurion, then secretary general of the Histadrut labor federation, signed an accord with Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky to stabilize the fraught relations between Zionism’s Left and Right. Tabenkin rejected the deal with the Revisionists and led the fight against it: in a referendum among all Histadrut members, Tabenkin’s side won 70% of the vote and the Ben-Gurion-Jabotinsky accord was annulled. 

Tabenkin challenged Ben-Gurion again in 1937. In response to the Arab Revolt that broke out the previous year, the British established the Peel Commission to investigate the causes of the unrest. The commission’s report proposed the partitioning of Mandatory Palestine between Jews and Arabs, with the former receiving only 17% of the territory. 

While not applauding Peel’s plan, Ben-Gurion, now chair of the Jewish Agency, was nevertheless willing to engage with the British over the principle of partition, believing that a small Jewish state was better than no Jewish state at all.

Tabenkin held that Peel’s proposed mini-state would spell the end of socialist Zionism. In his eyes, the denial of requisite land for settlement would force the Jews to turn away from agricultural labor for the discredited urban petit capitalism emblematic of the diaspora.

Moreover, Tabenkin feared that the mini-state’s precarious frontiers would generate an ongoing security threat, planting the seeds for the growth of Jewish militarism. 

The 20th Zionist Congress that convened in Zurich in August 1937 voted to reject the Peel Commission’s proposed borders – a triumph for Tabenkin. However, the Congress empowered the Zionist Executive to negotiate with the British a more favorable plan for Jewish statehood, implicitly accepting the concept of partition – a victory for Ben-Gurion. 

THE TWO laborites faced off anew in November 1948 when Ben-Gurion, now the prime minister and defense minister of the newborn Jewish state, ordered the dismantling of the Palmah, the elite military formation associated with Tabenkin’s United Kibbutz. 

Ben-Gurion sought to create a non-political, professional military subservient to the elected government. Alongside the Palmah, he also insisted on disbanding the right-wing underground organizations, Irgun and Lehi. For Tabenkin, the Palmah’s socialistic esprit de corps should have been the archetype for the entire IDF. 

In the aftermath of Israel’s 1956 Sinai Campaign victory, Tabenkin’s United Kibbutz protested Ben-Gurion’s decision – under American pressure – to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. Menachem Begin’s Herut party (the precursor of the Likud) also opposed the pullback. 

Following the triumph of the June 1967 Six Day War, Ben-Gurion, then an opposition MK, called for trading most of the newly acquired lands for peace.

Tabenkin, again rejecting territorial withdrawals, was one of the founders of the cross-party maximalist Land of Israel Movement and advocated building kibbutzim in the new areas under Israeli rule. 

The first Israeli settlement established beyond the Green Line was Merom Golan, founded by Tabenkin loyalists in July 1967 on the Golan Heights. The new secular-socialist kibbutz predated by more than two months the first religious West Bank settlement, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.

Concurrently, minister of labor Yigal Allon (later deputy prime minister and foreign minister), a member of Kibbutz Ginossar, advocated a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict through territorial compromise. According to what came to be known as the Allon Plan, Israel would keep areas critical for its security while seceding others for peace, especially those heavily populated by Arabs. 

As the much-admired former Palmah commander, Allon had the prestige inside the United Kibbutz to publicly dissent from Tabenkin’s Land of Israel orthodoxy, but Allon’s ideological divergence was never a complete turnabout. 

In September 1978, prime minister Begin brought before the Knesset his Camp David peace deal with Egypt, involving the return of Sinai and the uprooting of the peninsula’s Israeli settlements. Allon broke with Labor leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in refusing to support the Likud leader’s historic agreement. Instead, Allon joined future Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and abstained in the vote.

Although disparate on the question of Israel’s final borders, the different wings of the United Kibbutz could cooperate on settling the areas that they agreed should remain under Israeli control in any final status arrangement – the other kibbutz movements, including the dovish Hashomer Hatzair, followed suit in their own way. 

Accordingly, numerous kibbutzim were established beyond the Green Line: Afik, Ein Zivan, El-Rom, Geshur, Kfar Haruv, Mevo Hama, and Ortal on the Golan; and Almog, Gilgal, Kalia, Na’aran, and Yitav along the Jordan rift (the latter’s name is based on Tabenkin’s Hebrew acronym).

Postscript: Tabenkin’s offspring continue to have an impact on the Golan. Grandson Ori Tabenkin, an educator, is a longtime member of Ein Zivan. Great-grandson Nimrod Tabenkin runs an Ag-Tech start-up for the commercial cultivation of black winter truffles that involves planting thousands of oak trees, which if duplicated worldwide could help combat climate change. 

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.