Essay: The aliya of a messianic visionary

The story behind Ben-Gurion's aliya: The importance of 'socialist' in 'socialist Zionist.'

ben gurion 88 (photo credit: )
ben gurion 88
(photo credit: )
'It's the 100th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion's arrival in Palestine," the Jerusalem Post's columns editor said to me on the phone. "How about doing a column on it?" Centennials are generally a subject of last resort, but sometimes a columnist doesn't have a first one. And not much else happened in 1906. My Random House dictionary, which has a 20-page end section on "Major Dates In World History" starting with 3200-2780 BC ("Rule of the first and second dynasties in Egypt"), skips over 1906 entirely. In 1907 Oklahoma became the 46th state to enter the Union, and in 1905 there was a veritable slew of activity, mostly centered on Russia: its defeat in its war with Japan, the uprising against the Czar, the short-lived granting of constitutional government. But in 1906, it seems, Ben-Gurion came to Palestine while the rest of the world took the year off. "All right," I told the editor. "I'll do it."
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Of course, 1906 was not unrelated to 1905. The Second Aliya to which Ben-Gurion belonged partially came out of the Russian revolutionary movement. The 1905 revolution, whose liberal gains were soon to be brutally rolled back by a reactionary and anti-Semitic government, spurred young Jews like Ben-Gurion to become socialist Zionists. On the one hand, it strengthened their belief in the potential and excitement of left-wing politics. On the other hand, by opening a window on a Russia that Jews could participate in fully, it forced them to ask themselves whether they wished to live their lives as Russians or as Jews; and then, by slamming the window shut again, it helped them to decide. Zionism was for them a way to have their revolution after all - in a Jewish Palestine. IT TAKES an effort today to remember how central the "socialist" in "socialist Zionist" was to the Second Aliya pioneers; it was as important as the "Zionist." The Po'alei Zion Party in which Ben-Gurion was active belonged to the Second International and considered itself a revolutionary organization. Soon after Ben-Gurion arrived in Palestine its leaders there held a secret meeting at which they affirmed that human history was driven by class struggle and that they were the vanguard of this struggle in the Land of Israel. It didn't matter that there were no Jewish capitalists in that land, hardly any Jewish workers, and a grand total of 60 Po'alei Zion members. The capitalists would be made to come by the iron laws of history, the masses of Jewish workers employed by them would rise against them, and the blue-and-white and red flags would wave proudly together. Even after Po'alei Zion grew less extreme and joined more moderate socialist groups after World War I, men like Ben-Gurion continued to view Zionism and socialism as inextricably connected. A non-socialist Jewish state was unimaginable to him, not only because he believed that socialism alone had the organizational power and determination to bring a Jewish state about, but also because - at least until the 1930s and the rise of Hitler - only a state brought about by it had justification in his eyes. It was Zionism's mission to create a better, more just, more utopian society. If it couldn't, it would be a failure whether it created a Jewish state or not. BEN-GURION was radically opposed in this, as he was in many other things, by his great rival Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the one 20th-century Zionist politician who was in every way his equal. Jabotinsky, too, had his ideas about what a Jewish state should be like, which were based on the model of a liberal, European-style country with a democratic political system and a capitalist economy, and he was prepared to fight for them; yet they were never a sine qua non of Jewish statehood for him. Jewish statehood for Jabotinsky was its own end; what was done with it afterwards and what its institutions would be like were important, but never as important as statehood itself. In this sense, although it was Jabotinsky who was politically closer to religious Zionism, it was the Second Aliya and Ben-Gurion who were emotionally closer to it. If they had one foot in Russian revolutionary tradition, they had the other in Judaism. Jewish life and a Jewish state only seemed meaningful to them if they embodied an ideal that defined what Jewishness was, and although this ideal was not the Judaism of the rabbis, it was in many ways a sublimation of it. As historians have pointed out, the Second Aliya's rhetoric, its messianism, its moralism, its asceticism, its peculiar ecstasies, had clear roots in Jewish, and particularly hassidic, practice and in the East-European Jewish world from which men like Ben-Gurion came. If Ben-Gurion who arrived in Palestine in 1906 thought that Zionism had to create something better and more perfect than existed anywhere else, this was because he carried this world inside him. Much of the Israeli Left still carries it. As anti-religious at it may be, it shares an essentialist position about Jewishness with the religious Israeli Right. It believes that a Jewish state has value only if it is about an ideal. Just an ordinary country, in which ordinary people go about their business in ordinary ways, is not good enough. Such a country would be not a fulfillment of Zionism but a betrayal of it. On the face of it, this sort of attitude is morally uplifting. Yet in fact, it is deeply demoralizing. To tell a people that it only has a right to a collective life of its own if it lives up to a certain standard is no different from saying the same thing to an individual. One should have a right to a life of one's own, period. Although how one lives that life is not a trivial matter, it should not be the test of whether one deserves to have it. The minute one makes Israel's "right to exist" contingent on its good behavior, one has joined with Israel's enemies. It took Ben-Gurion a long time to disentangle 1905 from 1906 in his political thinking, but it was part of his political greatness that he was ultimately able to do it. There are some of us today who have still not gotten to that point.