Guest column: Hijacking history

It's a pity the controversy over a famous song doesn't provoke a reassessment of the Socialist Zionist myth.

As is our habit, we celebrated the 130th anniversary of Petah Tikva - the first Jewish settlement that realized the Zionist vision of renewing agricultural life in the Land of Israel - with a controversy. The anniversary marks the day when four Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem - Zerach Barnett, David Gutman, Yoel Moshe Salomon and Joshua Stampfer - rode with a Greek doctor to the land they had purchased for building Petah Tikva. The occasion is celebrated with the wonderful, popular ballad by Yoram Tehar-Lev that relates how Salomon, unable to persuade his friends to ignore the admonition of the Greek doctor to leave the spot cursed with malaria, stayed put while his friends left. Scions of the Gutman and Stampfer families challenged the veracity of the ballad, which is taught as history. Salomon, they objected, was the one who left and never ever settled in Petah Tikva. The "fleeing" trio actually came back and settled there. The media's fanning of the controversy focused attention on the anniversary. Otherwise, who would have paid attention to an event commemorating Zionism's heroic past? As for the controversy, myths are not history; they are legends woven from historical material. By capturing our imagination, myth shapes our consciousness. So we should enjoy the beautiful ballad without worrying too much about its historical accuracy. As it is, Tehar-Lev himself was honest enough to end his ballad with the line "perhaps (all this) was just a dream, perhaps only a legend." THE CONTROVERSY over the ballad diverts attention from a much more pernicious myth about Petah Tikva, a myth propagated by Socialist Zionism. In its effort to crown the collectivist settlements - the kibbutzim and moshavim - as the first pioneers who renewed agricultural life in Palestine, it argued that the farmers who settled Petah Tikva on their own private initiative, three decades before the first kibbutz was ever established, should not be considered true pioneers. They do not deserve the title because of accusations that they were money grubbing landowners who employed cheap Arab labor, refusing to hire Jewish workers. As a half truth, it is worse than a lie. True, the Petah Tikva pioneers employed Arab workers for seasonal work. Not only were these workers readily available and cheaper (economic considerations had to dictate the practices of these farmers - who unlike the kibbutzim and moshavim were not handsomely subsidized by the Jewish Agency - or they could not survive), they were adept in agricultural work. Nevertheless, in the 1920s, Petah Tikva alone employed several thousand Jewish agricultural workers, three times the number of those employed in all the collectivist settlements - and its output was far higher than that of all the latter combined. It employed "pioneers" even though many were unsuited to the rigors of agricultural work and some were not even devoted workers, since as radical socialists, they felt "exploited" by the farmers against whom they were committed to a class struggle and against whom they fomented violent strikes. To establish the primacy of the socialist pioneers and to promote the hegemony of Socialist Zionism (and also for fund-raising purposes, since the collectivist settlements were always dependent on heavy subsidies from the Zionist organization and the Jewish Agency), the Labor-dominated Zionist organization simply re-wrote history. It glossed over the role of the Orthodox Jews and of early Yemenite settlers who were the real first pioneers. Against all odds these first pioneers put roots in the land, relying on their own resources and their private initiative. At first they almost failed. They lacked agricultural training. More ominously, Turkish Palestine was not only a dangerous place choked by a brutal administration, it was also "the prince of desolation" as Mark Twain described it circa 1860, unsuited for agricultural development. Luckily Baron Edmund de Rothschild came to their rescue and generously assisted them in overcoming immense difficulties. By the time of the Balfour Declaration, they had developed 28 prosperous settlements, from which all the institutions of modern Israel first evolved. THE ZIONIST organization and the Jewish Agency ignored these spectacular achievements. Instead, they financed only collectivist settlements and promoted the myth that the pioneers of the Second Aliya were the true pioneers. But these late-arriving "pioneers" were really a tiny minority of several hundred shiftless youngsters among the 35,000 olim who arrived between 1900 and 1914. They established only three settlements, not one of which lasted. Even the collectivist settlements established later on were never social or economic successes. Despite true idealism, great devotion and extreme effort on the part of many of their members, and despite the plentiful subsidies they received (perhaps because of them), they went bankrupt every decade since their establishment in the 1920s. They also suffered from fierce political fragmentation and internal conflicts and repeatedly had to be bailed out. Finally in the 1970s, the withdrawal of massive subsidies by the Begin government exposed their fundamental social and economic weaknesses. In the novel T'mol Shilshom (Yesterday and Yesteryear), S.Y. Agnon's hero castigates a new immigrant: "You recognize only Messers, Ploticiansky, Politisovitz and Politisohn, who have arrived to enjoy a meal that others prepared for them, you are a generation of ingrates who do not know who your true builders were. If not for Barnett and his friends (the Petah Tikva pioneers), you would not even have a place to sleep here..." Some fiction is evidently better than "history." Daniel Doron is Director of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress and (in the interest of full disclosure) a scion of Zerach Barnett