Zionism: Labor

Nahman Syrkin (Russia, 1868–1924): Russian intellectual who worked to combine Zionism with an ethical, utopian socialism.

Excerpt from: The Jewish Problem and the Socialist Jewish State (1898)

Contemporary Political Zionism is striving for a Jewish state based on the rights of private property. The exodus of the Jews from their places of exile will be collected through a recognized public body; the new life to be created is to be a replica of the old In order to appeal to the workers, a shorter workday is promised in the future Jewish state. In essence, this does not differ from the practical attempts at colonization that have already been made in Eretz Israel and the Argentine, for these, too, were based on private property.

And yet, it is inconceivable that people will agree to the creation of an autonomous state based on social inequality, for this would amount to entering into a social contract of servitude. No new social contract will ever come to be unless its foundation is freedom. Primarily, social inequality is the product of the impersonal forces of history, it is the aim of conscious social action to transmute the status quo along rational lines and to elevate it morally. A republic born out of an act of will, which would have no rational plan for society and would merely tread the old path of free competition and class distinctions-this would be social and psychological folly.

The moment that all doors are opened to a system of laissez faire, the economic process will put its indelible stamp on social life. The factories will be established by the capitalists, who will thus control the means of production. Since this entire effort at colonization will be taking place in an underdeveloped country, wages will be depressed far below any level of subsistence that a European Jew could find acceptable. Most of the workers will, therefore, be recruited among the native populace, because they will work for less. Colonization will thus more and more become a pure business venture; Jewish immigrants will be forced to leave, and the groups intending to follow will be stopped by fear. The entire movement will disintegrate almost before its beginning.

A future Jewish state founded on capitalism is impossible for technological reasons, as well. Within the limits of petty capitalism, it is not possible to mechanize agriculture and to create large industries.

In order to realize the maximum benefit from machinery, and the greatest productivity from labor, large-scale enterprise is a must. Nor can the law of supply and demand, with its wastefulness and the depressions which are its inevitable result, be allowed to regulate the economy.

Only socialism can bring supply and demand into equilibrium.

For a Jewish state to come to be, it must, from the very beginning, avoid all the ills of modern life. To evoke the sympathetic interest of modern man, its guidelines must be justice, rational planning, and social solidarity. Once a Jewish state has been realized on such scientific social principles, the time will come for modern technology to flourish within it. The Jewish state can come about only if it is socialist; only by fusing with socialism can Zionism become the ideal of the whole Jewish people-of the proletariat, the middle class, and the intelligentsia. All Jews will be involved in the success of Zionism, and none will be indifferent. The messianic hope, which was always the greatest dream of exiled Jewry, will be transformed into political action. The Jewish people, presently living in misery, will gain lofty content...

Rachel Bluwstein (Russia & Palestine, 1890–1931): Known simply as Rachel the poetess, Bluwstein had a profound impact on the Yishuv. Her poetry gave voice to Labor Zionism's vision for the Land of Israel and is still sung today.

My Country (1926)

I have not sung you, my country,

not brought glory to your name with the great deeds of a hero

or the spoils a battle yields.

But on the shores of the Jordan my hands have planted a tree,

and my feet have made a pathway through your fields.

Modest are the gifts I bring you.

I know this, mother.

Modest, I know, the offerings of your daughter:

Only an outburst of song on a day when the light flares up,

only a silent tear

for your poverty.

Ber Borochov (Russia, 1881–1917): A Jewish Marxist theoretician and one of the founders of the Poalei Zion movement. Born in present-day Ukraine, Borochov advocated for the synthesis of socialism and Zionism, believing that the establishment of a socialist Jewish state in Palestine was essential for the liberation of the Jewish proletariat.

Excerpt from: Our Platform (1906)

Antisemitism is becoming a dangerous political movement. Antisemitism flourishes because of the national competition between the Jewish and non-Jewish petty bourgeoisie and between the Jewish and non-Jewish proletarized and unemployed masses. Antisemitism menaces both the poor helpless Jews and the all-powerful Rothschilds....

Capitalistic economy has reached the stage where no revolutionary changes are possible without the participation of the working masses and especially of the organized sections of the proletariat. The emancipation of the Jewish people either will be brought about by Jewish labor, or will not be attained at all. But the labor movement has only one weapon at its command: the class struggle. The class struggle must assume a political character if it is to lead to a better future....

Political territorial autonomy in Palestine is the ultimate aim of Zionism. For proletarian Zionists, this is also a step toward socialism.

The broadening and consolidation of Jewish economic and cultural positions in Palestine will proceed at a rapid pace along with the above-mentioned processes. Parallel with the growth of economic independence will come the growth of political independence. The ideal of political autonomy for the Jews will be consummated by political territorial autonomy in Palestine.

Aaron David Gordon (Russia & Palestine, 1856-1922): A key figures in the early Zionist movement. Born in Russia, Gordon played a crucial role in shaping the ideology of Labor Zionism, emphasizing the importance of physical labor, agriculture, and a return to the land as integral components of Jewish national revival in Palestine.

Excerpt from: People and Labor (1911)

The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls these two thousand years. We have become accustomed to every form of life, except to a life of labor—of labor done at our own behest and for its own sake. It will require the greatest effort of will for such a people to become normal again. We lack the principal ingredient for national life. We lack the habit of labor — not labor performed out of external compulsion, but labor to which one is attached in a natural and organic way. This kind of labor binds a people to its soil and to its national culture, which in turn is an outgrowth of the people's soil and the people's labor....

We are a people without a country, without a living national language, without a living culture—but that, at least, we know and it pains us, even if only vaguely, and we seek ways and means of doing what needs must be done. But we seem to think that if we have no labor it does not matter-let Ivan, or John, or Mustapha do the work, while we busy ourselves with producing a culture, with creating national values, and with enthroning absolute justice in the world...

What are we seeking in Palestine? is it not that which we can never find elsewhere-the fresh milk of a healthy people's culture? What we are come to create at present is not the culture of the academy, before we have anything else, but a culture of life, of which the culture of the academy is only one element. We seek to create a vital culture out of which the cream of a higher culture can easily be evolved. We intend to create creeds and ideologies, art and poetry, and ethics and religion, all growing out of a healthy life and intimately related to it; we shall therefore have created healthy human relationships and living links that bind the present to the past. What we seek to create here is life-our own life— in our own spirit and in our own way....

We need a new spirit for our national renaissance. That new spirit must be created here in Palestine and must be nourished by our life in Palestine. It must be vital in all its aspects, and it must be all our own.

What we need is zealots of Labor-zealots in the finest sense of the word.

Excerpt from: Yom Kippur (1921)

I ASK MYSELF, and I wonder whether I am alone in this question: What is the Day of Atonement to us, to those who do not observe the forms of religion?

Facing me are a fact and a possibility. It is a fact that for many generations it was a day which the entire people dedicated to repentance, prayer, and the service of the heart. It presented a possibility to spiritually sensitive people to make their inner reckoning on the loftiest plane.

I ask: Is this day for us merely a heritage from the past, a remnant of antiquity? Do we not really need such a day, especially as part of the national culture we are creating? If this day ceases to be what it has been–if it becomes an ordinary day like all others–will this not represent a great national and human loss, a spiritual disaster from which none of us, neither the people as a whole, nor we, its individual children, can ever recover?

As long as we were penned within ghetto walls, ragged, and cut off from the great life of the world, from man and from his broad and abundant life, we accepted what our ancestors had bequeathed to us. We believed in it and we gave our lives for it. When the walls of the ghetto fell, when we saw the world and all that is in it at close range, when we came to know man and his life, when we added cultural values from without to all this–we realized that the traditions of our ancestors were no longer in harmony with what was growing and developing in our own spirits. But did we deeply ponder this problem? Did we analyze and examine what had really become antiquated and unsuitable, utterly useless or decayed? ln the final analysis, did we ask: What has become obscured or unacceptable in form only? What needs merely a more fitting and noble form, since it is alive and fresh? What is, in essence, sound, awaiting only a higher regeneration?

During all our long exile we existed by the strength of our religion. It sustained us in our grave and prolonged suffering and inspired us to live–often to live heroically. Is it possible, can the mind entertain the possibility, that such a force is a mere figment of the imagination, of the ramblings of an ignorant soul, and that it possesses no elemental and lasting core? Has the accepted idea been suffciently examined and analyzed critically-is it sufficiently founded in logic and in the human spirit—that with the loss of the basis for the blind faith the basis for religion has also been destroyed?