Socialists in Name Only? Socialist-Zionist Wartime Progressivism

Udi Manor. Israel Affairs. Volume 25, Issue 2. April 2019.

Some 120 years after the foundation of the Zionist movement (1897), and although the State of Israel is a relatively prosperous democracy, the debate about what Zionism was, and still is, continues, with strong tendency to depict it negatively. And while there is little doubt that the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflicts make this debate particularly acrimonious and toxic, Zionism in general, and left-wing Zionism in particular, were already described as reactionary long before this conflict saw its first major conflagration in 1948.

Why did left-wing Zionism draw particularly strong fire? The answer is quite simple: its proponents’ commitment to their nation, to their ethnicity, to their identity. As Collin Shindler recently showed, this sort of criticism—namely, the commitment manifested by most Jews to their particular identity—had been part of the European intellectual outlook since the French Revolution. Yet more significant was the sort of attitude expressed by persons such as Lenin even towards The Bund, the socialist-Jewish anti-Zionist movement that pledged allegiance to the idea of the Revolution, but whose members were not good enough to be ‘true’ socialists such as the heroes to come of the October revolution. Lenin might have had a point, of course, as did John Lennon. It is quite easy to imagine ‘there’s no countries’ or ‘no religion’, let alone ‘people living in peace’ without ‘possessions’ and ‘no need for greed or hunger’, even ‘sharing all the world’. The permanent question—in 1789, 1897 or 1971—is what are the best ways and means to live in such a wonderful world, beyond writing manifestos or songs about it. For Zionists in general, and especially for left-wing Zionists, the answer was to combine progressive nationalism with democratic socialism.

This was exactly the case of the Poalei-Zion Party (PZ), and this article sets out to show how their progressivism was put into action in the first half of the twentieth century. The party was founded in 1905, with branches in Europe (east and west), the Americas (north and south) and Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). It was much more than a political party in the narrow sense of the word. Its members were dedicated to education, politics and economic activity and, in Eretz Israel, also to the creation of new settlements. In 1907 a Poalei-Zion World Union was created, aimed at coordinating the occasionally contradictory interests of its components. The main issue of controversy was to what extent PZ should dedicate its meagre human and physical resources to the nation-building endeavours in Palestine, while millions of members of the Jewish proletariat were suffering from economic hardship in the rest of the world. PZ’s legacy is beyond the scope of this article, which make its importance even greater. In 1930, it was one of the main components of Mapai, the main political movement that was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, safeguarding its hegemony until 1977. Even though from then on (with few exceptions) left-wing Zionism lost its hegemony in the ballots, its main legacy—progressive nation building—continues to influence the State of Israel up to the present time. This article focuses on the past, taking a close look at two historical PZ documents: ‘The Peace Manifesto’, presented in the summer of 1917, and ‘The Minority Memorandum’ of late 1942. Both documents reflect the progressive mindset of PZ activists and their non-Jewish comrades and partners.


As opposed to the greater war that followed, the ‘Great War’ was not necessarily bad news for the Jews of Europe. Although by as early as August 1914 millions of Eastern European Jews were in jeopardy, it was clear also that ‘The War to End all Wars’ would create a new world order in which Jews, like others, would find a safer place under the sun. While most of them waited, like other civilians, for the end of the war, and while hundreds of thousands of Jews served in the warring European armies, some of them were scheming and dreaming about the future. The Jewish Question had been in the air since emancipation had become a leading socio-political force in Europe in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth. In short, both Jews and non-Jews were wondering whether Jews were a group of co-religionists, a marginalised proletariat, or an ethnic group to be transformed into a national movement.

The Zionist answer, as mentioned above, was formulated at the 1897 Congress in Basel: ‘Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz-Israel secured under public law’. Whether or not Zionist leaders were under the illusion that all Jews wished to make Eretz Israel their personal home, it was obvious that it would take at least three generations to fulfil the goal. Jewish mass migration was heading for the industrialised and urbanised west back then. Even the United States was capable of absorbing no more than 150,000 Jews in 1906, a peak year of Jewish migration to America. Jaffa was no match, of course, let alone the rest of Palestine, which, under Ottoman rule, was a backward country with woefully poor administration, inadequate infrastructure and poor economic possibilities. Yet, even if by some miracle 150,000 Jews managed to squeeze themselves into their ancient homeland, it would take some 70 years to complete this mass migration process, taking into consideration that by 1900 there were some 10 million Jews in the world, mostly in central and eastern Europe. In other words, if Zionism was a national movement claiming to represent all Jews, Zionists had to pay attention to both facets of the Jewish question: the future to be built in Eretz Israel, and the present to be improved all over the not-so-emancipated world where most Jews were dwelling. And so it was that in December 1906, Zionists gathered in Helsingfors (Helsinki) and adopted the ‘work in the present’ principle. The idea was that to ‘strengthen Diaspora Jewry’ would facilitate ‘the creation of a sound national life in Eretz Israel’. The ‘work in the present’ included ‘providing the Diaspora Jews with new cultural, material, and political means’. In short, Zionism was seeking both minority rights for Jews all over the world, and the right to national self-determination (i.e. majority rights) in one specific place: Eretz Israel—the Jewish People’s ancestral homeland.

Until 1914, Zionists were able to push forward their goals with limited success. By August 1914, they had reached a stalemate. Once WWI broke out, Zionists, as well as most political groups and organisations, had to follow their national lines: German Zionists had to pledge allegiance to German interests; British Zionists to British; and American Zionists had to maintain their neutrality. On a personal level, some Zionist activists had to leave Palestine in fear for their lives. The official reason was that they were Russian citizens. Some of them, later to rise to prominence, such as David Ben-Gurion, made the journey from Jaffa to New York. Others remained in war-torn Europe. Either way, on both sides of the Atlantic, PZ members were trying to navigate towards their goal amidst the ever-growing political chaos. In both cases, they succeeded. PZ members in the USA and local and war refugees managed to become the pivot of a wide-scale Jewish initiative: ‘The American Jewish Congress’, a fully fledged, democratically representative body of the close to 3,000,000 American Jews of the time. PZ membership numbers in the USA were a few thousands. Nevertheless, they harnessed to their cause many persons and organisations, including US President Woodrow Wilson, who used them in his 1916 campaign. PZ achievement on this front is significant, taking into consideration its small size and very poor resources. PZ’s American Jewish Congress initiative had to overcome the staunch objections of the Wall Street-Hester Street coalition, namely the peculiar combined force consisting of Jewish plutocracy and Yiddish-speaking socialism.

As for PZ’s European front, shortly after the start of the war, its members decided to locate their World Union in the city of the Hague. The very first activity of PZ officers, headed by Shlomo Kaplansky (1884-1950), was the gathering of information and data for the pamphlet ‘Jews at War’, published in June 1915. Also known as ‘The Red Book’, this compilation was translated into the major European languages and it managed to spread the word: Jews were and should be considered as a national minority. Berl Locker (1887-1972), another leading PZ activist, was, by 1915, moving from Lvov to Vienna, along with hundreds of thousands of Jewish war refugees. He discussed ‘The Red Book’ with no less than Eduard Bernstein, the famous father of Marxist-socialist revisionism. Locker recalled that Bernstein, who before the war had ignored Zionism but had never even spoken against it, was ‘deeply impressed’ by the book—so much so that he started to publish pro-Zionist articles and to support PZ Zionist and Jewish minority-rights views. In 1928, Bernstein was one of the founders of The Socialist Pro-Labor-Palestine Committee. Locker’s encounter with Bernstein was part of his and his comrades’ endeavours to pull Bernstein’s comrades—namely, European Social Democrats—to their side.

A specific goal was set: to make PZ a member of ‘The Second Socialist International’ (SSI). PZ was supported by leading international figures, such as the Dutch socialist, Peter Troelstra (1860-1930) and the Belgian socialists, Emile Vandervelde (1866-1938) and Camille Huysmans (1871-1968). Locker explained Huysmans’ warm feelings towards PZ as stemming from the fact that he himself was part of the Flemish national minority of Belgium. Indeed, Huysmans’ involvement was essential in ‘finding the key’, as Locker described it, ‘to the closed door’ that prevented PZ from become part of the greater socialist family. The main obstacle was the Bund Party. As well as Locker, Kaplansky and many others, the Bundists were both pronounced Jews and pronounced socialists. Even more: unlike many other modern Jews, the Bundists regarded themselves—just as PZ did—as a national minority. However, the difference between these two parties was over the issue of Zionism. According to the SSI platform, an organisation could become a full partner only if it had ‘a territorial basis’. Bundists did, while PZ did not. Leaning on the British precedent, in which English socialists represented their Australian and South African comrades, Huysmans sought to convince the SSI to consider the Palestinian PZ as the ‘territorial party’ representing all other PZ parties. By the same token, he presented another similar solution: to make Armenian socialists, still located in the hostile Ottoman Empire, the ‘territorial’ representatives of all sorts of socialists working within this empire, including, of course, the Palestinian PZ. By December 1917, the Armenians accepted the idea, and PZ became part of the SSI.

PZ members did not stand still until late 1917. They were pushing forward their ideas through any crack or window available. In the summer of 1916, socialists from the neutral countries managed to gather in the Hague. The demand to discuss the ‘national uniqueness’ of ‘Austrian-Slavs, Czechs and Jews’ was not accepted on the basis that ‘this is the time to deal with war issues only’. Yet, in the final address, Pieter Troelstra demanded that in the future ‘independent Poland’, and the national minorities of ‘Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Jews’ must be safeguarded’. Troelstra stressed that ‘the freedom of any nation’ must not be used ‘to oppress’ the rights of another.

Although for PZ members Troelstra’s speech was ‘too soft’, they took it as an encouraging step forward. Kaplansky moved on to define the exact meaning of the specific minority rights demands, suggesting that three levels of national rights should be applied, depending on the circumstances: full sovereignty, territorial autonomy and personal autonomy. It was a sophisticated way to find the balance among conflicting factors: the individual, his larger specific community, and the majority right to enjoy full independence. Accordingly, Kaplansky saw in the sovereign state the upper limit of authority in cases of insoluble disputes. Kaplansky, like his partners, both Jews and non-Jews, took for granted an atmosphere of good will regarding all these issues.

For PZ, it was not an abstract question of political science, of course. Jews were facing these three aspects of nationalism: a single Jew should have the right to enjoy full freedom to express his Jewish culture all over Europe, especially in her central and eastern parts, where Jews constituted impressive communities in small and large cities. In addition, Jews wished to become a majority in Eretz Israel, without that voiding the personal or communal rights of non-Jews to express their national-minority rights. All in all, it was a practical utopia rooted in reality. No doubt, good will combined with a great deal of practical progressivism was a prerequisite to its fulfilment.

As the war dragged on, and now with an end in sight despite the US declaration of war on Germany, SSI members decided to push forward. Now the goal was to gather all socialists, both neutral and non-neutral, in order to refine the vision to be achieved after the war. A special committee was founded by Dutch and Scandinavian socialists, and a peace conference was planned for Stockholm, to be held in the summer of 1917. ‘At last’, recalled Locker, ‘we received an official invitation’ from the SSI authorities. On 26 July 1917, Ber Borochov (1881-1917) and Leon Chazanowitz (1880-1925), PZ representatives who had made it all the way to Sweden before Kaplansky and Locker, and who had to illegally cross some borders and forge documents, met with Huysmans and Troelstra. Playing the role of devil’s advocate, Huysmans and Troelstra showed no mercy to their Jewish comrades, posing them questions that lesser supporters of the Jewish national cause would probably ask. The main point of doubt was the PZ demand that the SSI endorse the territorial demand for Palestine, while ‘they are not living there’. As for the endorsement of the recognition of Jews as a national minority, the argument was as old as emancipation: the existence of ‘a state within a state’. Yet it was a showdown, an exercise, a drill to be rehearsed before the real battle at the conference itself.

In fact, PZ enjoyed a positive response. The reason was not only that their concepts were part and parcel of the reality in Europe, but also that ‘The Peace Manifesto’ they presented on the floor managed eloquently to put Jewish national demands within the larger minority rights question that had managed to tear apart Europe over the last three years. In other words, PZ’s specific demands were reflected a universal socialist mindset. The fact that the Stockholm conference did not manage to bring the war to an end is not the issue here. The point was to ‘go beyond the curtains’ of socialist-Zionist perceptions, so poorly presented in retrospect. These perceptions were clearly and unequivocally presented in ‘The Peace Manifesto’, which deserves a close look. ‘In the name of all the organisations affiliated with the Jewish Socialist Labour Confederation Poalei Zion’, read the opening statement,

We heartily greet the activities favouring peace conducted by the Russian Council of Workmen and Soldiers’ Deputies and the Hollando-Scandinavian Socialist Committee. We acclaim every step that can bring the world nearer to the ardently desired peace. We acclaim it the more heartily since the Jewish proletariat of all countries, in spite of all disappointments, has not for a moment during the war been shaken in its international sentiments and in its faith in mankind. The brotherhood of nations is a very ancient ideal of our people. The Jewish nation which has, as it were, been hostage like in all countries does not propose to realise its national aspirations by armed force. The Jewish people is well aware that it an only prosper and strive for its national aims in an atmosphere of mutual benevolence and peaceful cooperation among people.

The Manifesto goes on, opposing ‘the war aims of the various states’ and calling to ‘reunite the world proletariat’ in order ‘to organise the struggle for peace’, and to ‘pave the way for the social emancipation of mankind’. As for the specific ‘Jewish question’, the Manifesto states that it will have its answer ‘when the national questions are considered’. This statement was crucial, as according to PZ members, ‘the crisis in the International’ was a result of the poor judgment and incorrect attitude of SSI leaders towards ‘the question of nationalities’. The Manifesto pinpointed those ‘sections of the working class’ who ‘could not clearly differentiate between nationalistic chauvinism and the wholesome leaven of nationalist thought’. Hence, PZ members endorsed ‘the opinion of the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina that the peoples and not the states were to be considered as a basis for international negotiations’. Another shortcoming of the SSI, according to the Manifesto, was that ‘the International has never yet been anything but a loose alliance of the socialist parties of the various states’. The conclusion was that the SSI must ‘become the highest legislative and executive body of the organised proletariat of the world’. Until then, there were some specifics to which the Manifesto was referring. First and foremost, there was the question of war, formulated under a section titled ‘General Principles of Peace’. It is quite striking to see the resemblance between the PZ principles and those of President Wilson: ‘general disarmament, democratisation of foreign policies, neutralisation of the international highways, free commerce, free immigration, colonisation and settlement, and the unlimited right of every nation to determine its own destiny’. There was, of course, tension—if not outright contradiction—between the principle of ‘free migration and colonisation’ and the principle of ‘the right of every nation to determine its own destiny’. Either way, like Wilson, PZ members also thought highly of the necessity to ‘create a new international law’ to be applied and sanctioned by ‘extra governmental bodies’, namely a ‘League of Nations’. It was as if PZ members had looked into the future when writing that this League, ‘which has become a historical necessity, can have no prospect of duration if it should contain all the contradictions and antagonisms which ignited the world conflagration’. Hence the conclusion: ‘The League of Nations can only be a union of free nations’. For PZ, ‘free nations’ meant both ‘new independent states’ and ‘national territorial autonomy’. Both concepts were valid options from the Zionist point of view, providing a tangible and secure freedom. As for ‘territories of mixed nationalities’—which was the rule all over Europe and beyond—the principle to follow was ‘the protection of minority nationalities’. As the rights of nations generally, so the rights of minority nationalities must be ‘internationally settled and guaranteed’. One would expect an example to be given, and to be the Jewish one. Notwithstanding, the Manifesto indicated the rights ‘of the Ukrainian and Czech’ minorities. Nonetheless, a full chapter was dedicated to ‘The Jewish Question’:

We demand that an international guarantee of the rights of the Jewish people be included in the treaty of peace. In spite of the loss of their independence, of having been torn from their native soil, of being dispersed, and of continually wandering, the Jewish masses remain a nation, united by a common history, language, culture, custom, and peculiar economic position; and to preserve their national homogeneity and individuality, they have made the greatest sacrifices. The depriving of great masses of Jews of human rights in Russia and Rumania for decades has beclouded the fact that the Jewish question is essentially a national question. The Russian Revolution civilly emancipated the Jews of that country, and it is to be expected that other countries where Jews are deprived of civil rights, will be forced to follow this example. But contrary to the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution will also be a pioneer. Thus in all countries where masses of Jews are settled, the question of national emancipation is coming to the foreground. The demand for the international guarantees of Jewish equality is much more justified since the Jewish question assumes an international character. The gathering of large Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, America, and the Near East, the influence of their situation in one country upon the other, their lack of national rights in most states, the fact that Jewish minorities are employed against their will as instruments of oppression of other nationalities, the continual flow of hundreds of thousands of déclassé Jewish emigrants from one country to another, the catastrophic character of Jewish emigration at moments of increased economic and political pressure—all raise the Jewish question to a position of international significance.

The scale used to portray the problem, was, of course, the same as that to be used in order to solve it. There were three solutions: personal autonomy on an individual basis for Jews living in Russia, Ukraine, etc.; minority rights in countries where Jews comprised a large minority (Poland was the example, and the Manifesto warned that if these rights were not safeguarded, ‘Poland will become a national burial ground for a great part of our nation’) and, last but not least: ‘Palestine as the place to ensure a territorial solution to the Jewish question. In this regard, PZ members reminded their comrades that:

The main source of all sufferings of the Jewish people is the loss of their historic homeland and their dispersion over many countries. The lack of a homeland has deprived the Jewish people of the possibility of independently controlling its existence, and has brought its destiny into an unbearable dependence upon the rise and fall of nations under whose rule it lives. The lack of a homeland is the explanation of its abnormal existence and its exceptional position among the nations of the world; it is above all? the cause of the unwholesome economic structure and social grouping of the Jews; for their insignificant capacity for political and social resistance; for their unceasing migrations; and for their restlessness. It is not particularly necessary to indicate how far these abnormalities impede the development of the Jewish working classes.

A point to have a closer look at is the one related to ‘the revolutionary transformation of the basis of Jewish national existence’, to be achieved by the ‘territorialisation’ of the Jewish people. For PZ members, as for many other Zionists from centre, left and right, one of the main problems of the Jewish people was its socio-economic structure. In fact, this abnormality was used also to foster anti-Semitism, which offered a wholly inadequate answer to a real question; indeed, Jews were concentrated on the extreme ends of the modern economy. Again showing prophetic capabilities, PZ had already rejected, in 1917, the so-called ‘critical’ view of the ‘new-historiography’ that, decades later, depicted Zionism as colonialism: ‘It is clear’, stated the Manifesto, ‘that this colonisation has nothing in common with the politics of colonial conquest, expansion, and exploitation. This is because the Jewish people possesses no political power and seeks neither markets nor monopolies of raw materials for production in favour of a “mother country”‘. Instead, ‘the new Jewish colonisation in Palestine is therefore associated with the important colonisation interests of the human race, which should be concerned with returning the only homeless people on earth to its own country, because the world cannot become peaceful as long as even one people is in vain awaiting its deliverance’. Under the title ‘Summary of the Proposals’, the Manifesto repeated all the elements required for a better world. Its assumption was that all the measures suggested were essential for a ‘harmonious dwelling of peoples among each other and the securing of a stable peace’. Yet, not surprisingly, considering the fact that PZ members were Zionists, the bottom line was a specifically Jewish one. The Manifesto demanded ‘the establishment’ in Palestine ‘of modern legal relations and the settling upon socio-political measures for the purpose of developing the productive forces of the land’. All in all, the goal was ‘the transformation of Palestine into an autonomous and unified administrative district’, in order to facilitate the ‘national autonomy of the Jewish people’ in that land. ‘The fulfilment of these demands is to be internationally guaranteed’.

This document, beyond the fact that it reflects the progressive—and perhaps overly optimistic—mindset of PZ members and their SSI counterparts, served also as a point of reference for concrete political manoeuvres. Locker presented the Manifesto in some meetings he held with socialists from Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Estonia, Poland and Russia. The strategy was to promise to support the claims of these comrades in their right of self-determination in return for support for the Jewish claim. This strategy proved fruitful. PZ managed to check Bund opposition, based on the assumption that Yiddish-speaking Russian Social Democrats were the only true representatives of Jewish claims. So far did PZ succeed that socialists from Armenia, the United States, France and Britain were outspoken their support of both ‘legs’ of the PZ demands: Jewish minority rights and a Jewish Palestine. On 10 October 1917, on the eve of the Balfour Declaration, the Hollando-Scandinavian Committee published a Manifest of its own, calling for ‘an international solution of the Jewish question’. Specifically this Manifest pinpointed the necessity to ‘safeguard Jewish settlement in Palestine’ and to demand from Poland guarantees for the economic development and autonomy of the Jewish minority, as well as others.

This wartime diplomacy continued in full swing. In February 1918, socialists of the Entante powers gathered in London to discuss peace principles, and published a ‘declaration relating to rights of the Jews and a Jewish homeland in Palestine’. At the same time, on the other side of the continent, as Russia was about to leave the war, Locker and Chazanowitz were trying to get support from the the opposing sides of the Russian socialists. While Chazanowitz was negotiating recognition of PZ demands from the Socialist-Revolutionist Party of Russia, Locker met with their nemesis, the Bolsheviks, who had shortly before resigned from the SSI, the same organisation to which PZ wanted so much to be accepted as a full member. Locker, as well as his partners, understood perfectly the gambling aspects of these moves. Yet, as Locker put it, ‘we had to try to stick in our iron to any furnace available’. Again, this strategy proved itself, even though PZ was accused by the Bundists of cooperating with ‘the bourgeoisie’, while being criticised by their SSI comrades for flirting with the Bolsheviks. In February 1919, at the Berne SSI conference, Locker gave the main speech on behalf of PZ. Applying Huysmans’ suggestion, PZ was officially accepted into the organisation. Nevertheless, it was beyond any doubt that this achievement was a tool, not an end. For all socialists and other progressive forces, it was clear that the road to a better world was yet to be paved. In the Zionist case—socialist or otherwise—that was even an understatement.


‘The social democratic movement’, wrote Paul Kelemen, ‘was an important source of political support for the setting up of a Jewish state in Palestine’. This statement by Kelemen is fully supported by the data presented in this article so far. Yet, while the argument so far suggests that, indeed, Zionism in general and socialist Zionism, in particular, were part and parcel of early twentieth-century progressivism, Kelemen depicts ‘Labour Zionism’ (namely PZ, to which he refers specifically) as part of ‘colonialism’. In short, Kelemen suggests that PZ were ‘socialists in name only’. As opposed to the description above, Kelemen ascribes PZ’s success in entering the SSI not to creative wartime diplomacy, but to the ‘ineffectiveness’ of prominent Marxists, such as Karl Kautsky and Otto Bauer, in checking the SSI’s pro-nationalism shift, as well as the long-time polemic rejecting the definition of Jews as a people or a nation. Further, Kelemen suggests that Social Democrats in Western Europe were too amazed by the halo of the Labour-Zionist pioneers (he specifically uses the Hebrew term: Hhalutzim). Their socialism was a democratic one, as opposed to the socialism applied by Bolsheviks. In other words, for Social Democrats, PZ was serving as a model, not to mention its ‘imperial’ role in the service of His Majesty.

Paradoxically, Kelemen also refers to the shortcomings of ‘the Bund’s opposition’ to Labour Zionism, which was ‘more fundamental’, yet ‘did not carry much influence either’. The paradox, indeed the absurdity here, is that according to Kautsky and Bauer, there is no such thing as a Jewish nation, but if the notion of a Jewish nation is serving as a base for a Jewish national political movement that rejects Zionism, there is no problem with the notion that Jews constitute a nation. However, there was more in Kelemen’s account. To the failure of Kautsky, Bauer and the Bund to reject Zionism, socialist or otherwise, the dark history of late 1920s and early 1930s should be added. With fascism growing stronger,

The pro-Zionism of the social democratic movement was sustained not merely by its leaders’ imperial vision of extending socialism to the Orient but also by their sense of weakness in the face of fascism. They wanted to see some of the Jewish refuges diverted to Palestine, believing that efforts at their mass resettlement in Europe would strengthen the popular appeal of anti-Semitism and enable the extreme right to capture its working-class electoral base.

The hidden element up to here is the Arab. In order to establish reasonable doubt as to the genuine justice on which Zionism was based, especially the PZ sort of Zionism, Kelemen reminds the reader of the ‘rival claim: the Palestinian Arabs’ right to self-determination’. Does the term ‘Palestinians’ here refer to ‘Palestine’ geographically, or to the minority group that in the time Kelemen’s’ article was published (1996) was the Israeli partner of the Oslo Accords (September 1993)? This doubt is not a petty one. If 1919 is the crucial point of reference, not only was there no Palestinian (as opposed to pan-Arab) national movement, but the leader of the nascent pan-Arab movement, Emir Faisal ibn Hussein of Mecca (1885-1933), had formally endorsed the Balfour Declaration on the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

If there was a boundary issue, it was resolved by the effective British separation of Transjordan from the Jewish national home, although keeping it within the framework of the Palestine mandate. As for the Arab population between the Mediterranean and Jordan River, the League of Nations Mandate safeguarded their personal, civil, religious, social and political rights, but not their right to national self-determination, as that awarded to the Jewish People.

This history of the Mandate period, namely 1918-48, with however much complexity it may present, is actually quite simple: economically, there was no real problem. The land, if cultivated rationally, could and did serve for ameliorating the lots of all its inhabitants, old and new. Early Ottoman modernisation initiatives, already present in the nineteenth century, were accelerating in pace and spectrum from 1919. The outcome was a steady growth in the Palestine population, in an ever-growing demographic dispersion of both Arabs and Jews. In the 70 years before the 1948 war, Jews established some 300 new localities, while Arabs established about 200 more. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jews and at least 150,000 Arabs immigrated to Palestine, most of them, as in any other place on earth, being absorbed in urban centres. Haifa, for instance, grew 6.5-fold between 1922 and 1947 thanks to Jewish and Arab immigration. In the 1930s, while most of the world was suffering an unprecedented recession, the economy of Palestine was growing in leaps and bounds. So, why was the conflict accelerating steadily from 1920, culminating in the explosion of 1947-48?

The answer is not the economy, but politics. In short, the conflict was the outcome of the overall Arab rejection of any kind of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, divided or not, with politically shared (‘parity’) government or not, controlled by Jewish national home Mandate or not. As is already clear from PZ documents and manoeuvres, free Jewish migration to Palestine (or elsewhere) was unconditional. As free migration was coming to an end in the 1930s, Palestine became the only place on earth at least part of whose inhabitants (the Jews), and officially, although not always practically, whose government (the British), were in favour of (sort of) free migration of Jews into it. The conflict was inevitable. Yet solutions were possible, as the 1937 partition plan reveals. Notwithstanding, for the Arabs, any kind of Jewish sovereignty on ‘their land’ was unconditional: ergo the conflict, past and present.

When Kelemen refers to ‘Palestinians’ he is not talking about 1919 geography, but 1996 politics. From this point of view, the efforts to assess western Europe social democratic support of PZ is less a question of historiography and more an issue of not-so-hidden-agenda politics. As Kelemen put it:

The concerns which fuelled socialist pro-Zionism in the inter-war years do not readily conform to a history of heroic anti-fascism or of consistent anti-colonialism, to which the socialist movement lays claim. The post-1945 political climate in Europe did not bring about a reappraisal: support for a Jewish state was widely seen as a necessary recompense to the Jews who survived Nazi extermination. But support for the state of Israel could not be dissociated from taking a position on the future of the Palestinians or on the wider Arab-Israeli conflict and, over these issues, the social democratic outlook continued to reproduce the blind spots that had characterised its earlier endorsements of Zionism.


Kelemen’s reference to ‘blind spots’ calls for a review. A major belief, which became an absolute to be taken for truth, is the claim that ‘support for a Jewish state was widely seen as a necessary recompense to the Jews who survived Nazi extermination’. Nothing could be so remote from historical facts. The reader is invited to find even a shred of this argument in the UNSCOP report presented to the United Nations in the summer of 1947. Both majority and minority opinion recognised the existence of two national groups in Palestine, both with the equal right of self-determination, with the main conflict between them the question of free Jewish immigration. While reading this extensive document, one could come to the conclusion that nothing happened between the early 1930s and 1947. The Nazis are mentioned as one of the factors that enhanced Jewish migration to Palestine. There is no mention of extermination, persecution, or a ‘holocaust’ or the like. The arguments of the UNSCOP report are formulated in the same language used 30 years earlier by progressive thinkers envisaging a better world order to be built after the damage of (yet another) great war. The recommendation of the minority was a bi-national state, while the majority understood that with the main conflict between Arab and Jews—over free Jewish migration—the lesser evil was a plan of partition. However, this plan was also a continuation of the previous World War (and post-World War) paradigm: ‘In view of the fact’, read the final report of UNSCOP, ‘that independence is to be granted in Palestine … it is a proper and an important concern of the United Nations that the constitution or other fundamental law as well as the political structure of the new State or States shall be basically democratic‘.

Also, the concept of a ‘Jewish state’, so disputed today, is vividly present in that report, with no relation whatsoever to the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis: ‘the majority proposal’ UNSCOP report clearly ‘recommended the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish States‘. Again, a ‘Jewish State’ is not ‘a necessary recompense to the Jews who survived Nazi extermination’. As the observant and honest UNSCOP members eloquently explained:

The basic conflict in Palestine is a clash of two intense nationalisms. Regardless of the historical origins of the conflict, the rights and wrongs of the promises and counter-promises, and the international intervention incident to the Mandate, there are now in Palestine some 650,000 Jews and some 1,200,000 Arabs who are dissimilar in their ways of living and, for the time being, separated by political interests which render difficult full and effective political co-operation among them, whether voluntary or induced by constitutional arrangements […] It was recognised by all members that an effort must be made to find a solution which would avoid meeting fully the claims of one group at the expense of committing grave injustice against the other.

UNSCOP’s progressivism is present in each and every paragraph of their report. One of the most important recommendations was the economic cooperation to be established between these two politically separated states. Concern for the economies was also present in the commitment of the UN to provide financial help to both democratic new states, and even in a special chapter dealing with the possible impact of immigration to the Jewish state on the well-being of the Arab state. Just as 30 years earlier, the basic understanding was that the values of democracy, self-determination, civil rights and human fulfilment were shared among progressive thinkers and activists from all walks of life, and all creeds and nations. It is worthwhile mentioning that before the UN was created, the Bretton-Woods accords were signed with the purpose of forming a powerful tool for global economic development. Just as 30 years earlier, Social Democrats did not lag behind. In February 1945, a ‘World Conference of Organised Labor’ was held in London. Among a very long list of decisions, Article 26 read:

This world conference is of the opinion too that after the war, thorough-going remedies must be found, through international action, for the wrongs inflicted on the Jewish people. Their protection against oppression, discrimination and spoliation in any country must be the responsibility of the new International Authority. The Jewish people must be enable to continue the rebuilding of Palestine as their National Home, so successfully begun, by immigration, agricultural resettlement and industrial development.

Social Democrats from all over the world, including Arab representatives, even from Palestine, participated in this conference, whose majority saw—as they had 30 years earlier—a Jewish Palestine as a remedy for the ‘Jewish Question’. This question was not invented after 1948 and was not born in 1942.

This is the right moment to take a closer look at the specific answers given by PZ and to reassess them carefully, as did Kelemen. As opposed to the views expressed in Article 26, Kelemen questions even the basic methods by which Labour Zionism contributed to ‘agricultural resettlement and industrial development’. As a proof, he brought the seemingly petty story of the traditional Arab plough. The context was obvious: ‘the social democratic acceptance of Zionism’, he wrote, ‘on the basis of it being a positive form of colonialism, was accompanied by a portrayal of the Jewish settler as the representative of European civilization in the backward Orient’. Accordingly, ‘land under Arab cultivation “was not being ploughed: it was being tickled and annoyed”‘, as Henry Snell, another Zionist supporter, described the action of the traditional ‘nail-plough’. Jewish settlers, on the other hand, used the heavy plough, which penetrated the soil easily. Yet, Kelemen quotes a Jewish Agency expert who, ‘in 1930’, as Kelemen summarised it, ‘had the local conditions and cannot be suspected of undue sympathy for Arab farming methods’. This Jewish expert concluded that ‘the Arab plough is the only one by which work can be done’, while ‘the European plough […] makes bricks, rolls the earth into clods and damages the ground for years’.

In other words, he implies: so much for ‘progressive’ European colonialism; ‘Hurrah’ for traditional agriculture. The facts are that modern Zionist agriculture has managed from then to the present day to adapt modern methods supposedly unfit to this part of the world in such a way that only ideologues would ignore the fact that Israeli agriculture is a model to follow all over the world. The irrefutable triumph of Jewish agriculture in Palestine was a result of several factors, including, of course, learning from tradition. This was Zionism from start, and the facts—the quantity and quality of all sorts of agricultural goods produced on all kinds of Zionist farms (the Kibbutz, the Moshav, etc.)—are self-evident, regardless of this or that specific argument about this or that plough. These facts were clearly described in the same UNSCOP report, which was written by persons committed firstly to describing reality as it was, and not as part of a political agenda. The figures in that report, among others, reveal, for instance, that Jewish farms produced eight times more grain than their Arab counterparts; that 75% of ‘Jewish’ grain was sold on the market (making by this a capital surplus to be reinvested in further modernisation), as opposed to only 25% in the Arab case. To suggest even implicitly that Jewish settlement, namely Zionism, was not contributing to the economic development of Palestine (and Palestinians—both Jews and Arabs) is to ignore the facts. As previously suggested: it was not the economy, rather it was politics.


Kelemen raised more worthy arguments which require further discussion: the lack of cooperation between Jewish and Arab Unions; the use of violence in economic competition between the sectors; anti-Semitism in Europe and its contribution to the support Zionists enjoyed from left-wing Europeans, and so on. Yet there is an issue that should not be left for further discussion: the role played by ‘Austro-Marxism’. As mentioned above, for Kelemen, prominent socialists such as Karl Kautsky and Otto Bauer were ‘expert witnesses’ for the rejection of the notion that Jews comprise a nation. However, for PZ leaders, the teachings of these celebrated Austro-Marxists were used in the long battle Jewish socialists had been involved in since the late nineteenth century. This is the place to remind the reader that according to orthodox Marxism (quite different from the teachings of Karl Marx himself—another issue to be revisited on another occasion) nationalism and socialism were mutually exclusive. The options were quite clear, whether one is a soldier of nationalism or a partner of his class comrades.

Then came the ‘revisionists’ such as Eduard Bernstein, Max Adler, Karl Kautsky and Otto Bauer—later to be collectively nicknamed ‘Austro-Marxists’—who explained why the two political notions are mutually enhancing. Jewish socialists could not have put it better. Yet, there was a small fly in the ointment: in order to combine socialism and nationalism, both must be found in one person. According to Kautsky, Bauer, Adler and many others, Jews would not pass the basic test of nationalism, they shared no common territory, no common language, no common social institutions and no common vision of the future. Jews were an ancient religious minority soon to be absorbed, at a personal level, in their host societies, which were subject to an accelerated modernisation process. According to this view, any sort of Jewish nationalism was a spanner in the determinist wheels of change. In addition, the worst kind of Jewish nationalism was Zionism. (In 1901, Bundists adopted a ‘neutral’ approach regarding the future of Jewish nationalism, a principle that made it possible for them to continue to be part of the greater Russian social democracy.) Needless to say, the worst sort of Zionism was its socialist branch, namely PZ. Notwithstanding, for leading PZ thinkers—Borochov, Kaplansky, Chazanowitz, Locker and others—it was, for instance, Otto Bauer’s Social Democracy and the Nationalities Question, published in 1907, that boosted their already confident self-esteem as a legitimate progressive political movement. Locker, for instance, took upon himself the task of proving Bauer wrong by using Bauer’s ‘outstanding work’, as Locker referred to Bauer’s book. The method was quite convincing. In a brilliant, extensive, data-oriented article published in 1916, Locker applied ‘the eight rules of assimilation’ that Bauer used to depict Jews as a non-nation, to show the opposite.

Locker’s account combined social, political, economic, demographic and even psychological arguments that all pointed to the same conclusion: not only that Jews constitute a distinctive group of people, but most of them suffered from social problems best tackled from a socialist point of view—in their different yet similar diasporas, and in their national home (to be constructed progressively). Later observers, such as Edmund Silberner, did not hesitate to go to the heart of the issue when explaining this discrepancy between Bauer’s general ideas and his reluctance to apply it to the case of Jews, even though he knew as well as Locker the relevant facts. In a word, Silberner suggested that Bauer—as well as many of his comrades and followers—was an anti-Semite. The fact that Bauer himself was a Jew not only contradicts this interpretation, but also endorses it. Throughout the nineteenth century, there were many cases of ‘self-loathing’ applied and pronounced by Jews. Bauer was neither the first nor the last to express this ‘Jewish complex’ as Silberner named the phenomenon. By the late 1920s, the Austro-Marxists themselves were discussing the issue, with one section staunchly rejecting the notion of Jews being a nation, and the other rejecting this rejection, maintaining that the answer is positive, and hence Zionism in general, and socialist-Zionism particularly, merits their moral and political support.

Kelemen related this shift to the fact that ‘Socialist parties which had participated in government, or anticipated doing so, were only too ready to tone down their immediate post-war enthusiasm for national self-determination and instead emphasised the potential for the more humane administration of the colonies’. To support labour Zionism, which was, according to this view, a colonialist tool in the hands of British Imperialism, was obvious. Kelemen goes back to both aforementioned PZ documents of 1916-1917: Kaplansky’s and ‘The Manifesto’, which reflect, according to his understanding, the ‘Labour Zionist intention to promote the development of the “natives” within an existing colonial framework’. He quotes those paragraphs in which PZ leaders try to draw a line between their progressive goals and colonialism, and moves forward quoting Social Democrats in the west who took PZ seriously.

There is no doubt where Kelemen’s sympathies lie. His constant use of quotation marks reveals it quite clearly. This technique is commonly used in order to imply that those who use the term ‘primitive’, for instance, are condescending persons, if not actually racist. In the era of political correctness, it might be a must, a precept to be strictly observed by those who wish to be considered ‘enlightened’ and ‘progressive’, to avoid terms such as ‘primitive’. Yet for progressives who lived in the era in question, the term ‘primitive’ was not primarily a tool to reject ‘otherness’ or to exploit ‘natives’, but first and foremost a necessary observation to be made in order to find ways and means for creating a better situation. In other words, socialists 100 years ago did not tend to mix the tangible politics with politics of identity and political correctness.

They might—and they certainly did—have disputes as to the right ways and means to be used in the task of spreading economic prosperity, health care, education, transportation, communication and effective and coherent administration striving to apply justice for all. It was, and still is, a very complicated task. However, for socialists 100 years ago, there was no doubt that there was such a thing as primitive houses, primitive roads, primitive agriculture, primitive health care and primitive attitudes (not so say arbitrary violence) towards minorities, women and children. For them the question was not whether there were problems in the world beyond Western Europe, but how one should tackle them. For some of them, Labour-Zionism was part of the solution; for others it was part of the problem. Yet, for Bauer, Kautsky, Adler, etc. there was no doubt about the question of the existence of primitiveness, barbarism and backwardness; they used no quotation marks. Luckily enough for them, they died only a few years before Hitler and his followers gave a decisive answer to the question of whether Jews constituted a distinctive human group (or even a human group).

Kelemen lives long after Auschwitz. He should know better. The inter-war western-Social Democrats did. They understood history and reality better, and acted accordingly.


As opposed to Adler, Kautsky and Bauer, who passed away between 1937 and 1938, some of our PZ heroes had to confront the unprecedented atrocities inflicted in many countries by the Nazi regime. Amazingly enough, PZ optimism, as well as progressivism in general, was very resilient. In 1942, now serving as Chaim Weizmann’s right hand at his London Zionist headquarters, Berl Locker formulated and published, in the name of the major Zionist party Mapai (of which PZ was one of the main elements), a ‘Memorandum to the Socialist International’. Twenty years after some 100,000 Jews were brutally massacred by Ukrainian nationalists; after 20 years of disappointment in the way the Polish nation treated its Jewish national minority; a year after the terrifying news of Hitler’s persecution and extermination campaign was revealed—die-hard Zionist-socialists foresaw a post-war world order built upon the same fundamentals they had always promoted: human and civil rights, national-minority rights, self-determination, and a global system that would ensure global prosperity and global justice. Not only was the Jewish question not mentioned, but Locker explicitly added, at the end of the Memorandum, that ‘The Jewish aspect of the minority problem and the Jewish problem as a whole, are, for the time being, left outside the scope of these notes, which must not be regarded as anything like an exhaustive attempt to formulate a basis for a discussion within the International Committee’.

Accordingly, the opening paragraph of the document was a sentence taken from an article written by yet another progressive activist of that period: Edvard Benes, the President of the Czech government-in-exile, based in London: ‘The minority question will be one of the most momentous to be dealt with in connection with the new organisation of Europe’. Article 6 of the Memorandum relied on Professor Edward Hallett Carr’s assertion that ‘The Minorities treaties […] afforded no protection against the oppressive use of economic power [… that] during the years from 1919 to 1939 […] counted most’. As for the future, Locker, on the one hand, stated the obvious when writing that ‘it is clearly impossible to express any definitive view on the detailed settlements of the minorities problem, just as it is impossible […] to trace the general outlines of the coming European order: national sovereign states, regional federations, European Federation […] The future frontiers of Soviet Russia constitute another unknown factor’. On the other hand, Locker maintained that

One thing is clear: however the frontiers of national units are drawn, there will be millions of persons belonging to national, religious, and racial minorities living within the orbit of other nations. Unless the problem of protection for these minorities against legal, political, and/or administrative discrimination and against non-voluntary denationalisation is satisfactory solved, a factor of unrest, dangerous to peace, must remain. It is also clear that the experience of the last two decades has shown both that the protection of the rights of minorities cannot be left entirely in the hands of individual States, and that effective safeguards must be devised to protect the State against abuse of minority rights by the minorities themselves and by other States for disruptive purposes. Collective security and minority rights must be correlated.

Locker, as all of his Labour-Zionist comrades, did not need Hitler’s teaching to perceive these notions. For them, the quest for balance among the individual, the group he belongs to, and mankind as a whole, was their life project. They saw in progressive—namely social democratic—nationalism the main tool to apply in their quest. Being part of a dispersed minority, they saw no contradiction between claiming the Jewish right to be a majority in at least in part of their ancient homeland, and respecting the minorities as part of a Jewish State. As Ben-Gurion officially and overtly put it in 1942, in the future Jewish state there would be at least ‘one million Arabs’, enjoying full civil rights.

So they were not only Socialists by name, but also by nature. With all the reservations needed in any kind of historical account, the conclusion of this article is that the progressive thinkers and doers of the previous generations did their best to be part of the formation of a better world. Their main obstacle was not in the challenges stemming from reality, and not any alleged contradictions between competing elements in their world-view (such as universalism, nationalism, class and individualism). Their main obstacle was, and still is, the lack of good will in the mindsets of other nation’s leaders. For a balanced, not to mention harmonised, world order, of the sort sought by PZ members and their allies, reciprocity is a must. If minorities are ever to respect each other’s existence and rights, all of them must subscribe to the same basic notions. The role of historiography is merely to supply public political debate with a reliable historical perspective.