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Israel Studies 1.1 (1996) 295-305

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The Historical Reality of Constructive Socialism

Yosef Gorny

TWO DECADES AGO, WHEN I was engaged in post-doctoral research, I spent time in England studying the British labor movement's stand on Zionism. As part of my research, I interviewed Lord Fenner Brockway, a former leader of the radical left-wing Independent Labour Party, whose stronghold was in Scotland. In the past, both as an intellectual and a politician, Brockway had often dealt with various aspects of Zionism. In fact, he even described his involvement with Zionist issues as the most difficult problem he had faced during his entire political career. In our conversation, Brockway severely criticized Israel's policy toward the Arab states, even claiming that, from many aspects, Israel was, by its own actions, developing into a foreign element in the Middle East. Nevertheless, he took pains to emphasize that he supported the existence of Israel. When I asked him how he could reconcile this seeming contradiction, he replied: "Because Israel is the greatest achievement of Western social-democracy."

In this, Brockway was following in the footsteps of the renowned leftist historian of socialism, Richard H. Tawney. After a visit to Palestine in the late 1920s as the guest of the Histadrut [General Federation of Labor], Tawney described the achievements of the Jewish labor movement in Palestine as the only constructive reply to Bolshevik Communism, which had just launched its first Five-Year Plan.

At about that time, in the mid-1920s, Abe Cahan, the socialist and anti-Zionist editor of the New York Yiddish daily Forrevts, paid a visit to Palestine. Despite his anti-nationalist stand, Cahan published a series of articles (which itself stirred up an interesting controversy) warmly praising the socialist achievements of the Jewish labor movement in Palestine and its special relationship with the Zionist movement, that unique connection between socialism and nationalism.

These three intellectuals did not have the inclination or the time for the kind of in-depth study of the true character of the Zionist labor movement recently attempted by an Israeli intellectual, Professor Zeev Sternhell. Sternhell [End Page 295] informs us that his analysis of this large and well-researched subject began in 1991/92 with a year's leave from his work, when he was able to devote a portion of his time to the project. He subsequently benefited from graduate seminars he conducted for the ensuing two years. During this time, he made the rounds of Zionist labor movement archives and read many academic studies which have been the product of systematic, serious, and critical research in this field over the past few decades. Sternhell then published his findings in a substantial volume, Nation-Building or a New Society? The Zionist Labor Movement (1904 - 1940) and the Origins of Israel. 1

Sternhell's work is open to serious criticism on several grounds. The work appears hurried and offers little that is new in information or insights. More troubling are those cases where Sternhell presents evidence, completely out of context, to support theses, or when he deals with personalities in a way that suggests a personal grudge. Such lapses create a strong impression of bias and undermine the seriousness and objectivity of his study. Flaws in Sternhell's book have been widely discussed in the Israeli press and at a public seminar at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. 2 Rather than reiterate or amplify what has already been said, my intention in this review is to try to outline what I see as a climate of opinion that increasingly encourages this kind of scholarship and to suggest an alternative view of the historical reality of constructive socialism upon which Sternhell bases his work.

Sternhell's basic premise, that the Jewish labor movement in Palestine from its very inception until the establishment of the State of Israel was devoted to the development of a national society, is certainly no novelty, having been thoroughly discussed two decades ago. What Sternhell does try to present as his innovative contribution, however, is that this movement had actually never been...