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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important account of how Mapai lost its way., April 26, 2001
This review is from: The Founding Myths of Israel (Hardcover)
Zeev Sternhell is best known for writing several volumes on the origins of fascism. His controversial interpretation is that Fascism originated as a "pure doctrine," in France, as opposed to Italy and Germany, and that this idea was a heresy of socialism, a sort of nationalist socialism. Critics have challenged this opinion on the grounds that, among other things, Sternhell concentrates on a handful of intellectuals while the more serious movements like the Croix de Feu are ignored.
Sternhell's new book also concentrates on intellectuals and advocates. Much of it is therefore rather abstract, and relatively little is said about Mapai's relations with Israel. But it is better than has previous books for a number of reasons. First off, it is very clear that Aaron David Gordon, Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion were vital to the development of Zionism, the Labor Party and the State of Israel. Here, the idea of Mapai ideology as a nationalist heresy from the universalist traditions of European Social Democracy is clearly on stronger grounds that with Barres and Deroulede.
What does Sternhell argue in particular? He argues that the ideal of the kibbutz worker and of agricultural labor was a nationalist idealization clothed in socialist rhetoric. It was believed more as an alternative to the urban diaspora Jew rather than as a serious and well thought model for a democratic worker's society. By being strong workers Israelis could overcome their diasporan selves, while actual issues of power and control were evaded. There was much hostility to individualism and many cliches of nationalist discourses were repeated, such as a "socialism of producers," an emphasis on "national spirit," and hostility towards cosmopolitanism. Sternhell is quite clear on the consequences of this ideology of class unity. By 1948 only 5% of Jews lived in kibbutzes. Mapai was an oligarchic institution with infrequent elections (in the thirties perhaps once every six or seven years). Katznelson and Ben-Gurion claimed that they disliked the very concept of leaders, but in fact a narrow elite controlled Labor Zionist institutions. Here we see a firm application of Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy. Corruption and economic incompetence were tolerated: what was truly unforgiveable was political and organizational dissent. The gap in wages among Jewish construction workers in 1928-31 was the fifth highest in twenty-five countries studied. Similar figures were the same for metalworking and printers. Talk of a "family wage" to equalize matters in Histadrut was mostly talk, while Ben-Gurion lived a rather comfortable lifestyle with Histadrut picking up much of the tab.
Once the new state was established, the nationalist reality continued, leading the Labor Party to make the unforgiveable mistake of occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in complete disregard of the wishes of its inhabitants. Sternhell believes that Israel must now try to recover the pluralism and liberalism that Ben Gurion and his allies have so long neglected. "Today, more than ever, settlement in the territories endangers Israel's ability to develop as a free and open society. But like all previous attempts at colonialism, the one the Israeli Right wishes to impose on the Palestinians is sure to come to an end. The only uncertain factor today is the moral and political price Israeli society will have to pay to overcome the resistance that the hard core of the settler is bound to show to any just and reasonable solution." With the election of Ariel Sharon this message now has greater urgency than ever before.
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