Ziva Galili. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 24, Issue 1. Spring 2005.
Soviet Russia in the 1920s was the scene of intensified Zionist activity, fed by an economic and existential crisis among large segments of the Jewish population and tolerated to a surprising degree by the Soviet authorities. The article explores these factors and the “Soviet context” of Zionism, and documents the powerful influences they exerted on the young membership of the Zionist organizations. The author’s interest goes beyond articulated ideological positions to include learned habits of work, political and cultural practices, and perceptions of the social and the personal. She analyzes the transplantation of these elements of political culture into Palestine by the 3,000-odd young Zionist immigrants who arrived between 1924 and 1931, cautioning that ideas and practices were borrowed selectively and modified by the reality of the Jewish settlement in Palestine.
The influence of Russian culture, especially Russian revolutionary culture, is a common theme in conversations about society, culture, and politics in Israel. The demographic facts speak for themselves. An overwhelming majority of the immigrants who came to Palestine during the first two waves of the nationally inspired immigration (aliyah) that are presumed to have laid the foundations for the State of Israel—the First Aliyah in the early 1880s, and the Second Aliyah in 1904-14—came from the Russian empire. Over half of the immigrants of the Third Aliyah (1919-23) carried Russian or Soviet documents. Moreover, it was the “Russian” pioneers of the second and third immigrations who founded the Histadrut (Federation of Jewish Labor) and made it in the 1930s into the decisive political force in the evolving Jewish polity in Palestine. They stood at the head of the State of Israel during its first two decades of existence. The parties in which they organized themselves dominated the political discourse for many decades. The organizations they built under the umbrella of the Histadrut created the economic structures and the social service networks that supported a fast growing Jewish population and helped shape its identity through a variety of cultural and educational institutions.
And yet, the consciousness of the “Russian” dimension in the public work of Israel’s founders and leaders had to await the arrival of later-day social observers and historians. The “Russian” immigrants rarely stopped to assess the impact of their roots in Russia. For most of them, the ideas and practices carried from the country of their birth and youth (ranging from ideology and literary tastes to preference in food and dress, accustomed living conditions and standards of hygiene) were second nature. Only the more self-reflective discussed their own “Russianness” as a phenomenon beyond and outside their personal biographies. Matters stood differently with regard to the revolutionary legacy of Russia. Many of the immigrants of the Third Aliyah saw the October Revolution as the ushering of a new world in which they, in Palestine, were determined to participate. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a deliberate effort among leaders of the Zionist-socialist youth movements in Palestine and in Europe and of the underground Palmah in Palestine to distill foundational elements from the ideology and practice of the Russian revolutionary movement and the Soviet Union, to be used for mobilizing young people into personal sacrifices in the name of a socialist interpretation of Jewish nationalism. The essence of these positions was the radical impulse, which became increasingly divorced from the Soviet political reality of their time.
The “Russianness” of Israeli society turned into a subject for observation and discussion only when the influence itself was no longer as intense. The fading of Russian and Soviet elements began in the mid-1950s, the result in part of Israel’s changing political orientation under the impact of the Cold War as well as a new domestic ideology of a “melting pot.” To be sure, certain elements identifiable as “Russian” were preserved, especially in the culture of the youth movements—still a central aspect of socialization and elite building in Israel of the 1960s—but these elements were now dissociated from the radical impulse that had characterized much of what the historian Anita Shapira has termed “Zionism’s unrequited love for Soviet Russia.” It was at that time, especially after the watershed of 1967, that the “Russianness” (and in other formulations, the “Bolshevism”) of Israeli society first appeared in social commentary and literature and became established in the popular mind.
The most influential among early works on the subject was doubtless Amos Elon’s extremely popular and controversial book, The Israelis: Founders and Sons (published in Hebrew in 1971). After Elon, fiction writers could appeal to readers for whom the “Russianness” of certain Israeli prototypes was a given. Most notable in this genre are the novels by Amos Kenan Tzivonim, aheinu (1989) and Meir Shalev, Roman rusi (1990). Together, these publications marked a crossing point from Russian influence as an item of personal history to its objectification as a social-cultural phenomenon requiring attention and worthy of study.
Since the 1970s, several historians have studied the roots and nature of Russian influences, especially the ideology, tactics and solutions formulated by the pioneers who arrived in Palestine during the first three waves of immigration. Jonathan Frankel, in his seminal work on Jewish socialism in the Russian empire, Palestine, and the United States, laid the foundations for an understanding of the processes of transplantation and translation of ideas developed in the context of Russian Jewish life in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Ideas borrowed from the Russian context, he shows, came in many shades, and an important principle of their regrouping in Palestine was the layering of imprints of different periods in Russia’s political history. Whereas many of the immigrants of the early 1880s (the First Aliyah) were vaguely influenced by the Narodnik worldview and the ideals of “Going to the People,” the immigrants of 1904-14 (Second Aliyah) responded to the ideologically charged revolutionary politics of 1905 and adhered to the Socialist Revolutionaries or, alternatively, the Russian Marxists. Among the latter, many adhered to the synthesis of Marxism and Jewish nationalism developed in Russia by Ber Borochov and his party of Po’alei Tziyon.
Anita Shapira carries forward this study of the process of layering in her political biography of one of the legendary leaders of the Second Aliyah, Berl Katznelson, and her work on the Third Aliyah (1919-23) and the processes of radicalization among the labor parties in Palestine. As Shapira shows, during the 1920s it was not only the young immigrants of the Third Aliyah who were inspired by the Soviet Revolution and accepted the Leninist dictum of radical action. For a time, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Tabenkin (two of the most striking figures of the Second Aliyah) were also staunch admirers. Many others expected the Soviet Union to embrace the Zionist socialists in Palestine and their dream of a country-wide commune.
As both Frankel and Shapira show, there was never a simple process of transplantation. Ideas and practices developed in Russia (themselves frequently an adaptation of ideologies born in the Russian context to the peculiarly Jewish situation) were refracted and modified by the reality of Palestine. At times, ideological practices borrowed from Russian socialism or Soviet usages were twisted to serve purposes specific to Zionism and the politics of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. And, of course, the meaning and utility of such “Russian” or “Soviet” patterns changed over time.
The present article carries forward the consideration of the layering of Russian influences in the political culture of the evolving Jewish settlement in Palestine. It seeks to examine the impact of the period of consolidation of the Soviet system in the 1920s, which has been identified with the relative stability and moderation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). This chapter has been, so far, largely obscured by two underlying assumptions: first, that Bolshevik dictatorship and the existential and political dislocations of the early revolutionary years had essentially eradicated Zionism from Soviet Russia; and, second, that migration to Palestine had ceased after the end of the Third Aliyah, because of the consolidation of Russia’s western borders and the severe penalties for illegal border crossing. Indeed, in Zionist periodization and the historical literature, the second half of the 1920s is identified with the Fourth Aliyah (1924-29), commonly characterized as a non-pioneering, “economic” immigration of middle-class and lower-middle-class families from eastern Europe (especially Poland). In as much as historians have identified traces of NEP-time Soviet patterns in the political and cultural life of the Jewish settlement in Palestine, it was through the interest of immigrants from the earlier Second and Third Aliyah in the events taking place in Russia.
As will be argued here, Soviet Russia in the 1920s was the scene of intensive Zionist activity, which drew tens of thousands of young people into participation in as many as ten parties and organizations. Some three thousand members of these organizations arrived in Palestine between 1924 and 1931, all of them young people whose formative years were passed in NEP-time Russia. It was the first generation of Russian Jews to have experienced not only the revolution of 1917 and the bloody civil war that followed, but the web of institutional, political, and cultural phenomena that emerged in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s. At the heart of the present examination are the varied ways in which young members of Zionist organizations responded to the conditions of Jewish life and Zionist work in Soviet Russia and to other features of its evolving society and polity.
What conditions, we will ask, allowed Zionism to flourish for a few years in Soviet Russia, and in what ways were the young “Soviet” Zionists distinct from earlier generations of committed Zionist immigrants from Russia? Our interest here is not only in articulated attitudes towards the Soviet system, but in learned habits of work, political and cultural practices, perceptions of the proper interplay between the social and the personal. Since “Soviet” practices of that time drew on a wide array of earlier traditions, it will not be possible to attribute every occurrence of similarity with Soviet patterns to specifically Soviet imprints. But the goal here is more limited: to begin to develop a framework for fitting the role of Soviet Zionism into the broader architecture of Russian elements—and, more specifically, socialist and revolutionary elements—in the political and social culture that shaped the Jewish settlement in Palestine.
The Soviet Context of Zionism
It is not all that surprising that Zionism found a ready response among Jewish youth in Soviet Russia of the 1920s. Less than a decade had passed since the enormous explosion in Zionist activity and influence during the democratic revolution of February 1917, when the Organization of Russian Zionists claimed 300,000 members, organized in 1,200 local branches, and the Zionist parties received more than two-thirds of the votes given to all Jewish parties in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. During that year, Zionist associations, publications, and cultural institutions appeared in every city, town, and village. It is hard to imagine the expansion Zionism enjoyed in the 1920s without the organizational, emotional, and cognitive foundations laid in 1917. The Zionist message reached messianic fervor after the Balfour declaration (2 November 1917). In Odessa alone, over 100,000 people marched under blue-and-white flags and the slogan “Freedom in Russia, Land and Liberty in the Land of Israel.”
But the legacy of 1917 was seriously deflected when the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 in the name of a “proletarian revolution.” Politically, October marked the beginning of a transition from the open political arena of 1917 to a restrictive, monopolistic system, and it was in this new context that Zionism would have to operate from now on. Ideologically and symbolically, the Bolsheviks’ declaration of a regime based on the soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies was hailed by many as a victory over the old (and, in Russia, frequently anti-Jewish) social and political structures. Young people, in particular, responded enthusiastically to the promise of building a socialist society. October formed an ideological pole that attracted potential supporters away from the Zionist cause while also exercising powerful influence on many individuals and groups who remained within the Zionist orbit. A tug of war unfolded—between socialism and nationalism, between a universal solution to the “Jewish question” and a particularistic response—in which one side was supported and disseminated through government- and party-backed organizations and increasingly commanded broad appeal among organized urban youth.
If Zionism continued to attract large numbers of young Jews, reaching a level alarming to some Soviet observers in 1925, it was due in large measure to the “Soviet context” as experienced by Jews: the violence visited on them during the Civil War, an economic crisis that was as much the result of Bolshevik policies as of the Civil War itself and which lasted for many even during the economic recovery of NEP, and a sense of marginalization and foreclosing of the prospects for national self-expression and self-determination within Soviet Russia. It is to a brief exposition of these three aspects of the Soviet context that we turn first.
At the level of physical and material survival, the first few years of Bolshevik rule were the harshest. During the Civil War and foreign intervention, the areas of dense Jewish population repeatedly passed from hand to hand. The effects of the fighting and the Bolshevik policies of “war communism” were especially severe for the Jewish population, since the autarchic subsistence economy left no space for the traditional Jewish occupations in trade and crafts. These years also saw unprecedented violence against Jewish life and property. The pogroms of 1918-20—mostly perpetrated by forces fighting against the Bolsheviks—swept through Ukraine and southern Russia, leaving some 150,000 Jews dead, 500,000 homeless and 300,000 orphaned. Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees made for the western borders, hoping to reach a safer place. The demographic, economic, and psychological consequences of those pogroms lasted for at least a decade.
The end of the Civil War and the intervention removed the physical danger, but the effect on the material and occupational crisis was mixed. In part this was so because the Soviet government was ill equipped to deal with the long-standing crisis of the Jewish economy, exacerbated as it was by the wartime deportation of over a million Jews from the western regions into Russia’s interior and by the effects of the Civil War. The abolition of the “Pale of Settlement” and the freedom of movement during NEP allowed many Jews, especially the young and the educated, to leave their small towns and villages for the big cities of the former “Pale of Settlement” or the metropolises of southern and central Russia, where they found employment in the expanding Soviet bureaucracy, entered institutions of higher education, or engaged in a variety of entrepreneurial and commercial activities. But millions of Jews continued to live in the traditional small towns, their sources of livelihood restricted to small crafts and petty trade, and their fortunes dependent on Soviet economic policy. During the first half of the 1920s the New Economic Policy brought relaxation in state controls on trade and small-scale industry. But Soviet handling of private producers and traders remained ambivalent at best, and changed periodically with devastating results for those living precariously on the margins of solvency. Even small-scale Jewish producers were penalized for employing hired labor, while traders were frequently accused of price speculation and black marketeering. For much of the 1920s, private producers and traders were subject to heavy taxation.
Keenly aware of the economic impasse affecting Jews who continued to live in the former Pale of Settlement, the Soviet government launched in 1924 a large project to settle Jews on agricultural lands in Crimea, Ukraine, and Belorussia. It created a government agency, the Committee for Agricultural Settlement of Toiling Jews (KOMZET), and a public organization—the Society for the Agricultural Settlement of Toiling Jews (OZET)—which worked to win support among the Jewish population. But the results of this initiative and other measures aimed at “productivizing” the Jews did not become apparent until the next decade. Moreover, other government policies undercut the goal of productivization, most famously the denial of political rights to individuals and families deemed unfriendly to the socialist regime (lishentsy). Included in this category were Jews who had engaged in religious occupations or “exploited” the labor of others in their artisanal shops. Along with voting rights, the lishentsy lost the right to access post-elementary education or medical services, and were denied membership in the Komsomol, the trade unions, and the employment bureaus that the unions operated. Jews labeled lishentsy found it especially difficult to earn a living and felt rejected and marginalized by the Soviet system.
In addition to the demographic and material consequences of violence and Soviet policies—and the doubts they raised about the prospects for Jewish survival—a series of actions by Soviet authorities left Jews devoid of established avenues for communal and national organizations for self-expression. To be sure, such actions did not reflect an anti-Jewish position (indeed, the Bolsheviks under Lenin spoke frequently and strongly against anti-Semitism). Rather, it was that the Bolsheviks” attack on organized religion, and their suppression of any form of local self-government save for the soviets, hit Jewish organizations especially hard. In mid-1919, the Bolshevik government announced the immediate dissolution of the Jewish communal institutions (kehillot), which had been turned during 1917 into democratically elected instruments of national as well as religious self-regulation.
It helped little that the Communist Party created, already in 1918, a special Jewish Commissariat (Evkom) and a Jewish Section (Evsektsiia) of the party’s Central Committee. While staffed with Jewish Communists, the principal goal of the Jewish Commissariat and Section and the network of local affiliates they attempted to build was neither to represent the Jewish population nor to alleviate its most pressing problems. Instead, they sought to establish a Bolshevik monopoly over Jewish politics, not unlike the monopoly given to the “proletarian dictatorship” in local and national politics of the new Soviet realm, and towards this goal they fought to undermine and outlaw all other Jewish parties and organizations. Only in mid-decade did the Evsektsiia “turn its face to the shtetl,” taking up the advocacy of economic improvement for the Jews, their “agrarization” (that is, settlement on agricultural land) and their “productivization” through industrial and artisanal labor.
Soviet Jews found themselves in the first decade after the Bolshevik takeover not only deprived of their communal, religious, and political organizations, but also denied one of the avenues for cultural self-expression. While first steps were being taken towards the construction of a wide array of cultural and educational institutions based on the Yiddish language, Hebrew literature, culture, and education were condemned and outlawed. The Evsektsiia led the campaign against Hebrew, pushing an argument developed decades earlier by the Bund: that Hebrew was the language of religion, artificially revived by nationalists and used by the middle classes, while Yiddish was the true language of the Jewish lower classes. The prevalence of Yiddish among working Jews was indeed unquestionable, but for a significant number of Jews the attack on Hebrew represented an attack on their national self-expression. This attack stood in contrast to the official Soviet policy of national-cultural autonomy for the “territorial” nationalities, which made up the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics established in December 1922. As part of the project of building communist-controlled national elites, Ukrainian and Belorussian nationals, and their national languages, were given preference in governmental, educational, and cultural institutions. The new nationality policies highlighted the problematic status of Jews as a “non-territorial nationality” and undermined their confidence in a possible communist solution to the persistent “Jewish question.”
The problematized status and the perception of marginalization laid particularly heavy on young Jews, that is, those who had no direct experience of Jewish life under tsarist rule and whose future was tied to Soviet Russia. It is important to stress that the Zionist message was received enthusiastically not only by the young Jews who were trapped in the traditional Jewish towns without opportunities for education or work. In fact, the organizers of the Zionist youth movements came from among the growing population of Jewish students fortunate enough to live in a big city and enroll in one of the institutions of higher education now open to Jews. The majority of these Jewish students, to be sure, accepted the implicit offer to leave religion and organized national culture behind in order to join a new Soviet society. Yet, for significant numbers among them, these elements of identity were not negotiable, all the more so when the “territorial” nationalities around them were being encouraged—if one believed the rhetoric—to develop their national cultures.
The foregoing discussion suggested several major elements of the Soviet context that left Jews looking for solutions outside the Soviet vision. But in view of the political and penal apparatus supporting this mandated vision, how were the Zionists able to broadcast their alternative vision and organize a following? I will now turn to the conditions for Zionist activity during the period of NEP, conditions that were shaped by certain well-known traits of NEP-time Bolshevik rule as well as by the less recognized role of several key Soviet figures
A central feature of Soviet politics during the 1920s was the Bolshevik retreat from the maximalist expectations and the total mobilization of the Civil War while maintaining the dictatorial measures designed to silence opposing ideologies and political interests. The Bolsheviks sought broad support for their economic recovery program and this goal dictated an adaptation to social, national and economic realities. Every major Soviet policy of these years—the New Economic Policy and the nationality policies, as well as the specifically Jewish projects of productivization and agrarization, the public campaign for support of these projects, and a reliance on aid from international Jewish organizations—represented an adaptation of this sort.
These circumstances created a relatively free sphere for public activity, including Zionist activity. NEP and the agrarization project gave rise to a variety of public forums and trade and cultural associations, while the new nationality policies legitimized some forms of national cultural work. The Zionists were able to exploit these opportunities in part because, until the Soviet leadership adopted the Birobidzhan project of an autonomous Jewish territory, Zionism as such did not appear to contradict the fundamental tenets of Soviet policy. Some even saw it as a potential solution to the presence of a large Jewish minority, which complicated the implementation of the national-territorial principle in Ukraine and Belorussia (although, when its influence grew, Zionism itself became a source of worry for the leaders of the two republics). In addition, Zionist work on behalf of Jewish “productivization” and agricultural settlement was effectively presented as beneficial to Soviet goals in these areas, while the economic plight of the Jewish population brought pressure from international Jewish organizations and foreign governments at a time when the Soviet government was seeking foreign economic aid.
All these factors played a role in carving out a sphere for Zionist activity and could do so, in part, due to the ambiguity and indecision concerning Zionism in the upper echelons of Soviet power. All available documentation indicates that Soviet policy towards Zionism during those years consisted of ad hoc decisions and was determined by an ongoing competition between two loose coalitions. On one side were the Evsektsiia and elements within the security forces; on the other—a group of Bolshevik leaders whose institutional or programmatic interests, personal loyalties and political alliances disposed them to lend a sympathetic ear to the Zionist search for a legal status.
For obvious reasons, the Evsektsiia presented the most determined opposition. The ubiquitous Zionist accounts of persecution by the Evsektsiia—long suspected by historians to have been exaggerated to political purpose—are largely borne out in the Evsektsiia’s own documents, now open to researchers. The Evsektsiia called for the liquidation of all Zionist organizations; when unsuccessful, it complained repeatedly to the communist leadership about Zionist infiltration of the public forums created to mobilize support among the Jewish population. Whatever its intentions, the effectiveness of the Evsektsiia’s campaigns depended at every step on support from the centers of power in the Soviet system: the leadership of the Communist Party, the security services and governmental agencies. Of these, the security forces—Cheka, GPU, OGPU—did, in fact, support the attack on Zionism at several junctures, resulting in occasional arrests of Zionist activists.
Still, such harassment remained sporadic during the first half of the 1920s. For there was fundamental disagreement about the danger posed by Zionism even in the highest reaches of the Soviet leadership. Thus, in 1924 and 1925, Felix Dzerzhinskii, the head of the OGPU, questioned the claims of his chief subordinates that the network of Zionist organizations challenged Soviet rule and had to be disrupted. Instead, he asserted that the Zionist goals in Palestine were useful rather than dangerous to the Soviet government and commanded his lieutenants to stop the harassment and arrests of the Zionists. During these same years, Lev Kamenev, one of the most powerful men in the Communist Party and the Soviet government, was reported to have intervened repeatedly against the harassment of Zionists. Kamenev also provided the Zionists with access to Joseph Stalin—his ally in the fight for Lenin’s legacy—whose position as commissar for nationalities and head of the all-powerful Secretariat of the Communist Party was crucial to their quest for legal recognition. Other Bolshevik leaders helped to establish opportunities for legal Zionist work and frequently protected Zionists from the full force of Soviet dictatorship. They were for the most part men who oversaw state institutions and were entrusted with implementing the NEP policies in the economic and legal spheres and negotiating the relations among the nationalities in the Soviet realm. In addition to the concerns they developed through their experience in governmental work—including the growing worry about the implacability of the Jewish economic crisis and a certain frustration with the Evsektsiia’s failure to effectively address this issue—these men were united and connected to Kamenev by a web of personal and political alliances.
The intervention of Kamenev, Dzerzhinskii and others allowed the Zionists a striking measure of access to the Bolshevik leadership. Zionists of various stripes exploited these openings with remarkable gusto, appealing to individual Bolshevik leaders and the supreme Soviet authorities with well-crafted arguments that were both calculating and bold. They disclaimed any opposition to the regime but were open about their national goals, anchoring their argument of migration to Palestine in the presumption of Jewish nationhood and the power of Zionism to solve the “Jewish question” and to “productivize” the Jews, both in Palestine and in Russia. The socialists among them also touted their collectivist goals. These arguments held significant appeal for the Soviet leaders who were frustrated by the intractability of the Jewish condition. They yielded a conditional authorization of Zionist activity by an action of VTsIK in July 1919; the speedy release of Zionist leaders whenever arrested by the security forces; and, in 1923, the registration of He-Halutz (Hebrew for “the pioneer” or “the vanguard”—an organization dedicated to training pioneers for work in Palestine) as a legally recognized organization. As a result, Zionism was able to operate in Soviet Russia with significant impunity. It occasionally suffered harassment, but was not subjected to consistent repression until the mid-1920s.
A New “Soviet” Zionism
Soviet Zionism—the Zionist organizations operating in Soviet Russia—displayed certain fundamental continuities with historical Russian Zionism, especially its long-standing insistence on the primacy of “practical” action over formal international recognition, the centrality accorded to migration and the building of a viable settlement in Palestine. Yet, there was much that was new in this later-day Russian Zionism: it was “Soviet” both because it was shaped in response to the unique conditions of revolution and Soviet rule and because its organizations and movements embraced or absorbed elements of ideology and practice from their Soviet environment. Our discussion of the unique features of Soviet Zionism commences with general observations, then moves on to consider individual organizations.
Discontinuities with historic Russian Zionism existed at every level and facet. At the level of political leadership, the well-known leaders of the Organization of Russian Zionists (the movement’s mainstream turned in 1912 into an umbrella organization) had left Russia within the first few years of Soviet rule. Not only was it hard for older and established figures to adjust to the difficult life conditions, but their social base in the Jewish middle classes (those who could pay the Zionist “shekel,” the condition for membership) was shaken and they were ideologically and culturally ill-suited to addressing the material crisis plaguing the Jewish population. During the Civil War, the organization’s formal affiliation with the London-based World Zionist Organization also exposed it to suspicions of collusion with the foreign intervention. Such accusations were used when members of the Central Committee in Petrograd were imprisoned for a few days in September 1919.
The leaders of the new Zionist organizations were younger, less established and far more capable of adapting to unstable living circumstances and to changing political conditions. Politically, all of them had belonged before the war to the “popular,” “democratic” wing of Russian Zionism. In 1917 they had established their own party within the Organization of Russian Zionists—Ha-Fraktziyah ha-Amamit-Tze’irei Tziyon (The Popular Faction-Young of Zion). During that year and for a while longer, the Tze’irei Tziyon faction maintained an opaqueness that accommodated at least two strands of Zionism: socialist and labor, or “toilers’,” Zionism. But in May 1920 the faction split into two parties: the Party of Zionists-Socialists (TsS) and the Party of Tze’irei Tziyon-Hitahdut (also known as the Zionist Toilers’ Party or STP). The enmity between them, and their competition for support among the young people who flocked to Zionist organizations, dominated Zionist politics in Soviet Russia until their end a decade or so later.
Discontinuity was also apparent in the modes of operation adopted by the new Zionist organizations. In the war-ravaged and economically depressed Jewish towns of Soviet Russia, the locus of Zionist activity shifted from the synagogue, where the General Zionists had preached and raised money, to the farms and workshops of He-Halutz and the branches of the youth movements. And while cultural activity in Hebrew was effectively restricted, the Zionist message was aired at officially sanctioned or semi-legal meetings of “unaffiliated” youth, workers and students. The message itself changed. Socialists and non-socialists alike placed economic issues and the need for productivization and normalization of Jewish society at the center of national revival. For the socialist wing, the realization of these goals and national revival itself depended on close and complete interweaving of national and socialist goals.
The most striking feature of Zionism in Soviet Russia was its youthfulness—the result of the crisis of traditional Jewish institutions and leaderships, the place of youth organizations in the Soviet project, and the greater legal protection available to those under eighteen. Thus, the founders of the two competing parties were mostly in their twenties, the oldest among them in their early thirties, and members of He-Halutz usually in their late teens or early twenties. Moreover, the greatest number of recruits to the Zionist cause were organized in youth movements (ages 17 through 23) and children’s organizations (10 through 16). Several such movements appeared between 1922 and 1924: the United All-Russian Organization of Zionist Youth (EVOSM), with perhaps as many as twelve thousand members in 1925; Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir (The Young Guard), a scouting movement for both children and youth, which claimed in 1925 twelve thousand members; TsS Yugend Farband (the Youth League of the Zionists-Socialists), claiming six thousand members in 1925; and the smaller Jewish Socialist Youth League (ESSM), which split off from the student society He-Haver (The Comrade) in 1923. A non-socialist children’s movement also calling itself Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir was organized by EVOSM in 1924.
The youthfulness of the Zionist organizations of the 1920s, their activities among the working poor and on behalf of Jewish productivization, the predominance of labor and socialist parties, were all responses to new economic, legal and political circumstances. In addition, a subset of the Soviet Zionist organizations—those adhering to socialism—borrowed directly, at times deliberately, from their Soviet environment. Different Zionist organizations displayed one or another set of borrowed elements of Soviet culture, ideology and practice. To begin to understand the patterns of borrowing, and the effect on a wide range of Zionist practices, we must consider the phenomenon in the context of individual organizations.
The Party of Zionists-Socialists (TsS)
Within the world of Zionist politics in Palestine and worldwide, TsS stood in the 1920s for the socialist wing of Zionism in Soviet Russia. It overshadowed the veteran Marxist-Zionist party Po’alei Tziyon (founded in 1906 on the ideas of Ber Borochov), which renamed itself in 1923 the Jewish Communist Party or EKP-Po’alei Tziyon and was maligned among all other Zionists for its championship of Yiddish as the national language and its presumed desertion of the idea of a national territory in Palestine.
At the level of ideology, TsS was hardly in the orbit of communist influence. While insisting (like Po’alei Tziyon) on the absolute interdependence of socialism and Zionism (“Jewish socialism can only be Zionist socialism, and Zionism, likewise, can only be realized as socialist Zionism”), borrowed its socialism from the Socialist Revolutionaries. The party rejected the special role assigned by Marxist doctrine to the working class and expected Jewish socialism to be built by the “laboring classes,” encompassing all those who live by their own labor. It also paid special attention to the economic advantage and educational role of cooperatives, again under SR influence.
What, then, marks TsS as a party “imprinted” by its Soviet experience?
To its non-socialist critics, what was most provocative about TsS, and the cause of the schism that dominated Zionist history in Soviet Russia from 1920, was its declared acceptance of the “Soviet platform.” TsS accepted the government of the soviets and saw the dictatorial means it used as a legitimate response to counterrevolutionary attack, although it rejected the political dictatorship exercised by the Communist Party within the soviets. In essence, TsS formulated a position not unlike that which had been adopted by the “Internationalist” leadership of the Menshevik Party (that is, the Russian Social Democratic opposition to Bolshevism), but in the case of TsS, its origins were not in doctrinal considerations. Like other positions they articulated, support for the “Soviet platform” was born of the encounter with Soviet reality. At the level of political realism, the consolidation of Soviet power sent the socialist Zionists looking for whatever opportunities the Soviet system afforded to spread the message of socialist Zionism. (For example, they intended to participate in the Jewish soviets demanded by EKP-Po’alei Tziyon). But Bolshevik victory and the Bolsheviks” decisiveness also exerted a powerful emotional pull. Yisrael Bar-Yehuda (formerly Idelson), the party’s leader in Russia and Palestine, confessed in later years to have envied the Bolsheviks for the enormity and daring in their actions and their readiness to search for unorthodox answers. “We were fascinated by the Bolsheviks” resolve to translate socialist thought into a revolutionary deed, although we objected on principle to the seizure of power by a minority, by force of arms.” In contrast, TsS leaders felt contempt for the Mensheviks with their scholastic lack of action and for the old Jewish socialist parties, “whose legacy is nothing but sharpened and mutually hostile theories.”
The Bolshevik example taught the leaders of TsS political activism in general, and party politics in particular. The latter lesson was evident already in the schism they forced within the faction of Tze’irei Tziyon in May 1920. Another sort of activism, new to Zionist work in Russia, grew from the encounter of the Zionist Socialists with the radically changed circumstances of Jewish life and politics. Among these new circumstances were the desperate state of Jewish life at the end of the Civil War, the political void left by the disappearance of the Jewish socialist parties, and the failure of the Jewish Communists to address the Jewish condition. For TsS, these created both a need and an opportunity to present itself as the authentic alternative to the vanquished parties, albeit one that retained a strong Zionist component.
From 1920 to 1925, the party’s energies were largely invested in its practical work among the artisans and the unemployed who populated the lower classes of Jewish society. Conducting much of its activities and publications in Yiddish, TsS worked to establish cooperative associations of producers and consumers, mutual saving and loan societies, and unions of artisans and agricultural laborers. The youth movement organized by TsS in 1923—TsS Yugend Farband—likewise focused on Jewish working youth. Its members participated in many of the public forums available under NEP: cultural clubs, trade organizing in individual factories and in branches of production (such as Kustram and Yugend Kustram, the organizations of artisanal workers), production groups organized in collaboration with the Zionist training organization, He-Halutz, as well as meetings of “non-affiliated youth,” often organized by the Evsektsiia.
In TsS and its youth movement, then, Zionism was fused with “constructive socialism” as it was practiced in Soviet Russia. This point is evident as well in the political platform elaborated for the youth movement (intended to counterbalance the ideological appeal of the Komsomol and the Jewish Communists). The overarching goal it posited was the building of a socialist Jewish society in Palestine, within the framework of the world socialist movement, a goal that required the melding of a “revolutionary socialist war” with “constructive work.” Of all the Soviet Zionist movements, TsS would have the greatest influence on politics and society-building in Palestine, and this was due in no small measure to the close fit between its Soviet-bred “constructive socialism” and the version of “constructive socialism” developed in Palestine by the immigrants of the Second and the Third Aliyah, as a blueprint for the role of socialism (and socialist parties) in building the nation.
The He-Halutz Organization
The most striking examples of adaptation to Soviet conditions and assumption of Soviet ideas and patterns took place within He-Halutz. In the 1920s, He-Halutz became a worldwide organization for training Jewish pioneer-immigrants and channeling them to Palestine, but its earliest roots were in Russia at the dawn of Soviet rule, where its message was especially timely. The collective farms and artisanal shops of He-Halutz served in war-ravaged Russia not only to train “pioneers” but also to meet the urgent need of many young Jews for work, food and a place to live. He-Halutz attracted them with its message of “agrarization” and “productivization,” which it preached long before these issues were picked up by the Evsektsiia, KOMZET and OZET.
He-Halutz was not simply an organization for Jewish material self-betterment or social normalization. As conceived by its legendary founder, Yosef Trumpeldor, the organization combined national and socialist goals with a good dose of Bolshevik method. He-Halutz, Trumpeldor wrote, would be the vanguard of the nation, leading it in building the Jewish settlement in Palestine on revolutionary foundations, including national ownership of land, Jewish labor, and communal principles. To ensure its unified move towards these goals and organize massive emigration to Palestine, it would employ a centralized, disciplined organization. This curious combination of nationalism, revolutionary socialism and militarism can be traced to Trumpeldor’s own career: he was an officer in the Russian army (losing an arm fighting in the Russian-Japanese war) and later, during the First World War, in the British army’s Zion Mule Corps; and he spent several years in Palestine with the radical immigrants of the Second Aliyah. Trumpeldor himself was open about his sympathy for the Bolsheviks and the lessons of war communism. While emulating Bolshevik organizational patterns within a national Jewish organization, he also believed that He-Halutz should adapt to Soviet conditions and could then work legally in Soviet Russia.
Trumpeldor’s death in March 1920 while defending a Jewish outpost in northern Palestine has made him into the paradigmatic patriotic hero of Zionism, and so it was that both the socialist and the “national” wings within He-Halutz drew on his authority for their competing visions. Central to the agenda of the socialist wing was the question of legal status, a goal reached when the NKVD agreed in August 1923 to register He-Halutz as a recognized public organization.
At one level, the “legalization” of He-Halutz was an all-Zionist achievement—a direct continuation and consummation of similar efforts by the Organization of Russian Zionists during 1919-20. It allowed the Moscow Bureau of He-Halutz not only to oversee the organization’s far-flung economic enterprises, which expanded quickly in 1924 and 1925, but to publish a legal mouthpiece (1923-24), maintain an office in Moscow that became the central Zionist address in Russia (closed down in 1928), sponsor an array of cultural activities at a time when Hebrew culture was generally outlawed, and provide an organizational base for Zionist political activity.
Yet legalization was the apparent cause for an acrimonious debate within He-Halutz and an organizational split between the “legal” (or “class”) wing and its opponents in the “illegal” (“national”) wing. To the nationalists, the readiness of the advocates of legalization to work within the context of a Soviet system, which had by then consolidated its rule in Russia, meant neglect of the national agenda. In contrast, “legal” He-Halutz took pride in its ability to exploit the framework of NEP for Zionist activity, and it embraced certain Soviet positions and practices, which its leaders saw as appropriate for socialist Zionism. In practical terms, this meant using the institutions and channels of the Soviet system itself. During their twenty-month campaign for Soviet recognition, the leaders of the Moscow Bureau corresponded with several Soviet institutions, including the Presidium of VTsIK, the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities, and the NKVD. They also met in person with a large number of high-ranking Soviet leaders, among them Stalin’s deputy, Grigorii Broide, with whom they worked closely on the legalization documents, as well as Mikhail Kalinin, Avel Yenukidze, Petr Smidovich, Aleksandr Kiselev and, in summer 1923—Stalin himself.
In the realm of international Zionist politics, He-Halutz accommodated the Soviet authorities by dissociating itself from the World Zionist Organization. Significantly, its action did not undermine the appreciation of leading Zionist socialists outside Russia for the legalization achievement, nor the high expectations it raised among labor leaders in Palestine for cooperation with the Soviet regime. David Ben-Gurion reflected (and shaped) these attitudes in letters he wrote from Moscow in fall 1923. Here is one excerpt:
In no other land does He-Halutz have so responsible a task or such broad possibilities for work as in Russia. Circles in the Soviet government know the value of He-Halutz as an important contributor to the transition of Jews to a life of labor, especially agriculture. To a degree not imagined in any other country, [He-Halutz] can prepare and provide to Eretz Yisrael an array of experienced, dedicated and loyal workers, the likes of whom I doubt we could find in any other country.
Within Russia, He-Halutz supported the government’s agricultural settlement project in spite of the anxiety expressed by many Zionists in Russia and abroad, who feared that the project was meant to undermine Zionist goals and claims. To be sure, the “legal” wing of He-Halutz, just like the “illegal” organization, denounced the Evsektsiia for claiming that the project provided a solution to the “Jewish question” in Soviet Russia and beyond. But “legal” He-Halutz was willing to admit that Palestinocentric Zionism could not offer an immediate solution to Jewish poverty and suffering. The socialists in He-Halutz were also eager to use the opportunities created by the discussion of agrarization for legal Zionist speech within the Soviet system.
A most provocative element in the program of the “class” wing of He-Halutz was its vision for the Jewish settlement in Palestine: “a society of Jewish workers,” to be built on “class and collective principles,” which would be an integral part of the worldwide workers’ movement and serve as an outpost of revolution in the Near East. To guarantee the ascendancy of this vision, the leaders of the Moscow Bureau demanded that membership in He-Halutz farms be conditional on avowed commitment to the collective principle. Moreover, their definition of collectivism was remarkably close to the Soviet formulation, emphasizing economic structures and efficiency over social justice: “Collectivism has no value unless it embraces all the workers, in the cities and the countryside … Collectivism is important to us not only as a just social form, but as a framework for the greatest economic usefulness … The collective rejects irrational waste of resources and uses the [collective] income more rationally, as it sees fit.”
In the economic sphere, the leaders of the “class” wing of He-Halutz worked hard to make their organization a conduit for cooperation between Soviet economic networks and the Histadrut in Palestine. Following a series of contacts and negotiations with the Soviet monopolies on oil, lumber, cement and banking, the Central Committee of “legal” He-Halutz resolved in December 1924 to send an emissary to Palestine “to examine the possibilities for establishing close ties between cultural and economic state institutions in the Soviet Union and the economic organization of the labor movement in Palestine.” It also worked to obtain permits to open an office of the Histadrut in Moscow, distribute its publications in Soviet Russia, and give its economic operations (the “Workers’ Corporation”) a monopoly on imports from Soviet Russia. In Palestine, these efforts of “legal” He-Halutz were not seen as mere fantasies. Levi Dobkin, a member of its Central Committee who had participated in the negotiations with Soviet economic organizations, was invited to report to the Executive Committee of the Histadrut. The Committee distributed details of the plans to all Histadrut agencies, asking them to “discuss these [plans] and make practical suggestions for economic and commercial ties between the Histadrut and Soviet Russia.”
The Zionist Youth Movements
The youthfulness of Zionism in Soviet Russia reflected as no other phenomenon the fundamental transformations under way among the Jewish population of Soviet Russia. Traditional family and communal institutions were undermined both by economic deprivations and new opportunities, by the outlawing of religion, the delegitimization of certain cultural patterns, and by the dominant rhetoric of revolution. Young people were hit particularly hard by the Jewish employment crisis, and it was young people who took the initiative in responding. Societies of Jewish students—both high school and university—had appeared in Russia on the eve of the revolution and expanded in popularity during 1917. Paralyzed during the Civil War and depleted by the flocking of many young supporters to the communist cause and the Red Army (seen as the defender of the Jews against their anti-Bolshevik attackers), the student societies began to revive in the early 1920s, due in part to the growing number of Jews in institutions of higher education.
The students—especially those under the influence of socialist ideas—were quickly drawn into helping working Jewish youth and the unemployed. Many of them later reported that the encounter with the sense of hopelessness pervading the lower strata of Jewish society contributed to their own increasing radicalization and heightened the tension, already felt within the student associations, between their earlier rejection of intra-Zionist politics and the growing sway of socialism. Socialist tendencies were deepened in many localities when young Jews who had previously joined communist organizations, be it the Komsomol or Evkomol (Jewish Communist Youth), became disappointed and turned to Zionism. This phenomenon underscored the significant fluidity in the ideological self-definition of many young Jews. Participants in the socialist Zionist youth movements explained later that the socialist dimension eased the tension between their Zionism and their socialist selves: “it gave me the feeling that I, too, am going with the flow of revolution. It helped me look into the eyes of my schoolmates who joined the Komsomol.”
All of the youth movements—whether socialist or not, autonomously developed or organized by one of the political parties—were saturated with Soviet influences. Jewish youth, particularly in the big cities that served as the centers of the youth movements, were likely to read Russian and to have been familiar with Soviet texts in economics, social theory or the history of socialism and communism, which were easy to obtain. In schools and in Soviet youth organizations they were exposed to the dominant language of revolutionary politics. “The combination of the Bolshevik ruling ‘practice’ and Marxist theory was the all but exclusive social-spiritual reality, a climate that was just there.” Veterans of the socialist movements testified to the powerful attraction of this intellectual, cultural and political environment: the “extreme ideologization,” the “hegemony” of the October revolution, the revolution in “ways of thinking, style of living, intellectual demands, organizational patterns.” For the Jewish students, revolutionary culture and its language were also the conduit for the influence of other elements of Soviet life. The effect of such elements was all the greater because in the 1920s it was still relatively difficult to distinguish between the Bolshevik myth of revolution and the reality of the party’s actions. “Sensitive youth in Russia, both Jewish and non-Jewish, growing on the idealistic-moralist epos of the Narodniks and other [revolutionaries], tended to attribute these values to the Bolsheviks.” The attraction of Bolshevism was a source of great anxiety to all Zionists, and especially to the non-socialist among them. Nevertheless, many young Jews embraced the spirit of revolution and searched for ways to fuse it with national identity and action.
Adaptation to Soviet ideas and practices took different forms. The Jewish League of Socialist Youth (ESSM) exemplified an ideological adaptation. Its young leaders elaborated a doctrinal platform (in a document from fall 1923, entitled “Our Way”), which focused on the relevance of Marxism to the Zionist goal. They postulated a “monism of Jewish socialism,” that is, the absolute identity between the national and the socialist goals. In later years, they insisted on the connection between the imperative of socialist revolutionary action, encapsulated in the October revolution, and the “moral and socialist” imperative of pioneering work in Palestine. The moral imperative was, indeed, a central aspect of both their Zionism and their socialism. In their retrospective writings they attributed it to the ideological tenor of Soviet discourse in the early 1920s, especially the call for the realization of political and social goals in the life of each individual. This, they said, was the inspiration for their own resolve to make their youth movement into a reservoir of young, enthusiastic forces for erecting a socialist society based on Marxist principles in Palestine.
As shown already, the Youth League organized by TsS—TsS Yugend Farband—concerned itself mostly with “constructive” work among young working Jews. Its adaptation to Soviet reality was foremostly through patterns of organization and activity, although it could not avoid the need for at least a brief ideo-political platform to distinguish itself from both the non-socialist Zionists (who also began in the mid-1920s to organize among working youth) and the Jewish Communists.
Yet another mix of Zionism and Soviet ideas developed in Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir. Initially a Jewish scouting movement, it melded scouting education with contemporary Soviet notions of socialist education and the creation of a “new man.” Veterans of the movement testified that the idealization of the proletarian man in Soviet culture had prepared them—Jewish students from middle-class homes—to see the project of Jewish proletarization in Palestine as a way to realize the revolutionary dictum of social and personal transformation. Lacking the doctrinal elaboration of ESSM, Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir nevertheless mixed with little evident conflict national goals and Soviet coins of speech and thought. A movement of youth and children, Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir stated that its goal was the “comprehensive preparation of a worker-collectivist” for life in a proletarian communal society; it expected its graduates (those over 17 or 18) to constitute a “national-class organization” of young Jews in the final stages of their training for the mission of building this society in Palestine. Notwithstanding such formulations, the young leaders of Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir were even less inclined to ideological self-definition than the leaders of TsS and they steadfastly held apart from that party. Only in the late 1920s, when the movement had gone deep underground, did the absence of ideological foundations appear to its leaders as a source of weakness and the main reason for the appearance of Soviet-inspired radicalism among the membership. (To counter these, the surviving nucleus of Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir sought doctrinal and programmatic formulations from the TsS.)
As the brief sketches above demonstrate, each socialist Zionist organization and movement developed a singular identity, ideology and mode of operation, and did so within a particular set of social, educational and political conditions. The “Soviet context” or Soviet experience they encountered was far from uniform, ranging from the context of organizing among the working and unemployed poor to that of shaping a Zionist alternative to communism in the ideologically and personally charged environments of higher education and Soviet youth culture at large. Moreover, the patterns of influence and borrowing varied: there was calculated adaptation to political realities, but also examples of a deeply felt need to harness the universalistic vision of Marxism to the quest for a national rebirth, as well as expressions of instinctual affinity for the daring and sheer force of Bolshevism and for its project of remaking society and the individual. Some of this multiplicity of Soviet imprints will carry over into the spheres of activity chosen by the immigrants of the 1920s after arriving in Palestine.
The End of Soviet Zionism
In 1925, Zionism was arguably the largest organized force among the Jewish population in Soviet Russia. While membership in Zionist organizations was never more than a small minority within this population, concentrated among youth in their teens and early twenties, its scope and influence were a source of concern for the Soviet authorities. This is how the deputy chairman of the Ukrainian GPU summarized the situation in a confidential communication to the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine:
At the present time we face quite a serious situation: our means of administrative struggle against the Zionist movement are not attaining their goal since active Zionist forces are arising with frightening alacrity from the depths of the Jewish masses and the predominant majority of these forces are the youth…. It would be no exaggeration to say that there is not a single Jewishly-inhabited location of any size in Ukraine without a Zionist cell or group that is active in all areas of life of the given location and even prevails in terms of its influence and leadership role among local masses over communist cells and public or government organizations.
Such concerns, we can assume, helped tip the political balance against the Zionists among the political leaderships of the Ukrainian and Belorussian republics. A parallel shift of attitudes was under way among the relatively sympathetic leaders in Moscow, fueled in part by the growing militancy of the Zionist youth organizations. As these organizations extended their work to the Jewish lower strata and raised in public the issues troubling their constituency—work opportunities, trade unionizing, agricultural settlement—they came into confrontation with the Soviet agencies and organizations engaged in promoting the same issues among the Jewish population, that is, the Evsektsiia, OZET and KOMZET. Inevitably, local Soviet authorities came down on the side of the Jewish Communists and Soviet agencies, leading to arrests and other forms of harassment. The Zionist youth movements, including the decidedly socialist among them, reacted with open denunciations of Soviet dictatorship, thus deserting the Zionist strategy of accommodation.
A key event in this dynamics was a broadsheet distributed on 16 August 1924 in more than ten thousand copies by TsS and its youth movement. The leaflet’s brunt was directed against the Evsektsiia, which was blamed for the economic destruction suffered by the Jews and the political defeat of Jewish hopes for autonomy. But the scope and daring of the action (the broadsheet was mailed to thousands of union members and to communist leaders) was an open challenge to Soviet authority, whose honor, the leaflet claimed, was “being soiled by unjustified terror and the ever-increasing crimes [of the Evsektsiia].” Two weeks later, 3,000 Zionists were arrested in Ukraine, though many were released within days. Another wave of arrests took place in March 1925. By mid-1925, all of the Zionist movements had issued broadsheets containing sharp attacks on the legitimacy of the regime and condemnations of the Communist Party for its “dictatorship” and “provocations.” In this confrontation, the impetuousness of the young and the personal experience of facing up to the dictatorial regime appear to have played a greater role than political orientation.
There were, of course, other reasons for the Soviet crackdown against the Zionist organizations, including the gradual desertion of NEP; the shift in alliances within the Bolshevik leadership, which effectively removed Kamenev and those close to him from the most authoritative positions; and Dzerzhinskii’s illness. Whatever the causes, the second half of the 1920s saw a systematic effort by the Soviet security organs to dismantle the organizational base of Zionism in Soviet Russia. The Zionist organizations struggled to adapt to the new conditions, but sooner or later they all succumbed. These final years of Zionist activity under duress became for many an inseparable part of the Soviet experience.
Of the youth movements, some disintegrated quickly, as succeeding “generations” of leaders were arrested and imprisoned. Other movements went underground, where they survived until the early 1930s, albeit in drastically altered and reduced forms. Much of their energy and ingenuity was now consumed in trying to survive the increasingly powerful security services. He-Halutz was destroyed when its farms were taken over by KOMZET; the “illegal” farms were the first to be taken, beginning already in 1926, the “legal” ones followed in 1928 and 1929, after the closing of the central office in Moscow. Many hundreds of Zionists were sent into administrative exile in Central Asia, Siberia and the Far East. Several dozens were given prison terms. But of those exiled, some twelve or thirteen hundreds were allowed to leave for Palestine under an unusual practice that was initiated in 1924, with help from Kamenev, Dzerzhinskii, Katanian and others. They and a roughly equal number of other Soviet Zionists—among them the expelled members of He-Halutz farms—sailed to Palestine on Soviet Merchant Marine vessels serving the Odessa-Jaffa line.
The Soviet Zionists in Palestine
Of the nearly three thousand Zionists who arrived in Palestine from Soviet Russia between 1924 and 1931, at least one half had been subject to arrest, many more had been harassed and expelled from their farms, and many—especially those arriving after 1925—had spent several years in exile. They had been treated as opponents of the Soviet regime and its projects, and by the time of their departure from Russia most viewed themselves as such. In Palestine, one position in which most of these immigrants were united, no matter their political affiliations, was a deep suspicion towards the Soviet Union and towards communism. For many, this was a natural reaction to the harassment and repression they had experienced during the last years of their activities. Their opposition to the Soviet regime crystallized during years of exile, when they came into close contact with veterans of Menshevism, the Socialist Revolutionary Party and other representatives of the Russian political opposition. But the suspicion they bore towards communism (which many of them extended to Marxism) was also the result of another, earlier, experience in Soviet Russia.
Many of the socialist Zionists had been attracted in their youth to the universalist message of communism, the revolutionary culture and enthusiasm of the communist youth and the promise of the Soviet project. They had seen other young Jews succumb to these temptations; the Jewish student societies and the socialist Zionist youth movements lost many members to the Komsomol. As Zionists, they were determined to protect the Zionist youth in Palestine and elsewhere from similar dangers. This resolve played an important role in defining their place on the local political map, because so much of the politics of radicalism in the Jewish settlement in Palestine and in the early years of Israel’s statehood revolved around the question of relations with the USSR and around its place in global politics. In these debates, the immigrants from Soviet Russia, even the socialists among them, were leery about entering the Soviet sphere of influence. They thus became natural allies of the moderate socialist leadership of Mapai, the majority party in the Histadrut and in the polity that became Israel, led by David Ben-Gurion. Only a few (like the founders of the Zionist Marxist ESSM and, for a time, several former leaders of TsS) continued to look to the October revolution for political inspiration.
However important in the political debates of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, this suspicious attitude cannot be taken as a full representation of the “Soviet” imprints brought by the immigrants to Palestine. As we have seen, a good number of them—in He-Halutz and in the party and youth league of the Zionists-Socialists—had focused their attention on economic and social issues and valued practical work over theory. In these spheres, they had operated alongside the Jewish Communists and there was a good deal of mutual borrowing. Some, like the leaders of “legal” He-Halutz, had deliberately studied the Soviet economic system at the time (when, under NEP, a private sector of small producers coexisted with a socialized sector in heavy industries, transportation, banking). Meanwhile, the youth movements active among Jewish students found worthy examples in the Soviet youth organizations and the culture they propagated. To what extent, we may ask, did these experiences bear on their activities once in Palestine and on the society they joined there?
It is important to remember that the immigrants from Soviet Russia were almost always young people, usually in their late teens or early twenties, rarely older than twenty-five. Their youth and formative years had been spent under a relatively stable Soviet regime, during the years of NEP. A fair number of them, especially the students and the leaderships of the movements, had lived during those years in large cities, exposed to the culture and politics of the time. In spite of the fear of being engulfed by communist influence and Soviet domination, which many of them expressed later on, the immigrants are reported to have carried with them to Palestine many Marxist texts, which they said to have valued too greatly to leave behind. Moreover, in contrast to the familiarity of many of them with Soviet society and culture, the immigrants possessed almost nothing by way of useful information about their new country. In Russia, they had debated and split over the shape the new society should take and how best each of them could help its construction. Upon arrival in Palestine, many of them discovered how little they actually knew about the geography and climate of the country, its inhabitants, the prevailing economic and political conditions and the public life of its Jewish population. In apprehending the new reality and responding to it, they often fell back on what they knew—consciously or subliminally—from their pre-emigration years.
The Soviet immigrants generally followed one of two paths, each entailing a different manner of influence on their society. Agricultural settlement was the natural choice for many former members of He-Halutz. Those from the “illegal” wing tended towards cooperative, non-communal settlements (moshav ovdim), while those who came from the “legal” wing were more likely to join a communally based kibbutz. It is a well-established fact that the kibbutz movement as a whole exerted disproportional influence in politics and culture, not only because of its historical connection to the founders of the Histadrut, but due as well to the movement’s high level of organization, its role in settling the land, and its canonical place in the evolving identity of the new Jew and the new Zionist society.
Within this general frame, two groups of immigrants from Soviet Russia, based in a handful of kibbutzim, carved out for themselves a particularly significant sphere of influence, through their work in organizing Zionist socialist youth movements in various European countries and the United States. Both groups became agricultural settlers largely by default, but used the collective resources of their settlements to support their far-flung recruitment efforts. One group consisted of members of ESSM who joined kibbutz Ein Harod when it was still part of Gdud ha-Avodah (the “Labor Battalion”), envisioned at the time as the nucleus of an all-encompassing country-wide commune. When the “Battalion” split and some of its members returned to the Soviet Union (they were all immigrants who arrived before 1923, with the Third Aliyah), the ESSM leaders stayed in Ein Harod (and the closely allied Kibbutz Yagur). The second group came from Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir. Its members had planned to form a set of “platoons,” working wherever work could be found and, together, constituting a country-wide commune, called “Kibbutz Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir from the USSR.” But a prolonged economic decline and massive unemployment in Palestine forced them in 1927 into the decision to concentrate their members in one agricultural settlement, later named Kibbutz Afikim.
The former members of ESSM and those from Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir brought with them to Palestine a unique experience of building their own youth movements in Soviet Russia. Both sought to shape in their own image the politics of Zionist youth organizing in Europe—the principal channel for committed immigrants to Palestine and recruits to the labor parties. Their communities supported this goal and allocated funds to send their members abroad as educational and organizational “emissaries.” The educational and cultural work of these Soviet Zionists was greatly influenced by their experiences in Russia. Like the Soviet educational and cultural organizations around them, the socialist Zionist youth movements believed that education must begin from the study of economic and social factors. While still in Russia, they taught the history of the international and Russian labor movements (and Jewish as well) and used this education as a foundation for self-definition and understanding of the world. Most importantly, both in Russia and abroad, they saw the youth organizations as locations for political, social and cultural indoctrination, achieved through communal gathering around motivational slogans. An important element in their strategy of mobilization was the idea of the “new” man and woman, to be reborn through labor in Palestine.
These striking patterns of borrowing from Soviet youth organizing are complicated in two significant ways. First, it would be wrong to assume a purely Soviet source for many of the practices described here, since some had been developed independently, for example, in the non-Soviet Russian scouting movement and in Zionist movements outside Soviet Russia. Second, the Soviet experience was used selectively and served markedly different goals. To the former members of ESSM, socialism, revolution and the melding of these ideas to the goals of national and personal rebirth continued to be a central ideological tenet and mobilizational tool. The former members of Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir, always less ideological, moved away from the rhetoric of revolution and cast their socialism in the mold of the Second International and European social democracy. Once in Palestine, their followers tended to join the centrist majority party Mapai, whereas those trained and educated by former ESSM members and their comrades usually joined the more activist Ahdut ha-Avodah.
An entirely different life path was taken by many immigrants from Soviet Russia who settled in one of the three cities in Palestine—Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem. Life in the city was the preferred option for many members of Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir, a movement with a high percentage of youth from big cities. Likewise, members of TsS, which had done much of its work among the lower urban strata, chose to live and work in urban settings. The impact of these two groups was considerable. Their political, cultural and practical activism as Zionists in Soviet Russia had prepared them for a life of political and social involvement in Palestine. Their belief in one version or another of socialist and Zionist “constructivism” suited them well for the tasks on the agenda of the Histadrut. Furthermore, their brand of socialism coincided with the thinking and temperament of the Histadrut’s rising leader, David Ben-Gurion. As we have seen, the socialist Zionists in Soviet Russia had used an ideological language to position themselves among the parties and youth organizations competing for Jewish support. Yet very few of them were inclined towards doctrinal determinism, preferring social action within their broadly defined Zionist and socialist goals. In Palestine, they put ideological formulas at the service of organizational, constructivist action. Socialism was for them a large, all-embracing system, in which social issues were secondary to economic organization, and functional terms overshadowed theoretical ones.
The sphere of work of many of the socialist Zionist immigrants who chose urban living—especially the former members of TsS—was in the interlocking economic, social and cultural organizations of the Histadrut. These included a marketing cooperative which became the single country-wide supplier of agricultural products from the cooperative and communal farms; the largest construction and public works concern in the country; the Workers’ Councils operating in every city and town, and the services they built for their members; a country-wide health system for Histadrut members; the Council of Women Workers, which was clearly inspired by the Soviet “Women’s Section,” offering working women child care as well as opportunities for public activity; the organization “Culture for the People,” which brought lecturers, theater and music to audiences in cities, towns and villages. Outside the workplace, most men among the immigrants from Soviet Russia were active in the underground military organization, Haganah, and the socialists among them made up the organizational backbone of the labor parties, especially Ahdut ha-Avodah and, later, Mapai. The socialist Zionists found in these organizations an accommodating environment for implementing their Soviet-influenced understanding of how socialism could be built. In turn, they played an important role in shaping them.
This article attempted to present and explain the roots and conditions of Zionism in Soviet Russia of the 1920s and the powerful influence of various elements of the “Soviet context” on members of the Zionist organizations of that time, especially the socialists among them. These elements became an inseparable part of the worldview and practice of the socialist Zionists who came to Palestine in the second half of the 1920s. The activism of these young people—itself born in part of their Soviet experience—placed them at the center of the enormous work of constructing a new society and polity. Only a few of them became political leaders of the first order, but many made up the organizational backbone and most committed membership of the main socialist Zionist parties in Palestine and of their creation, the Histadrut. There, they participated in building the structures for the economic, social, political and cultural networks that would last into the 1960s.
It is not my intention to argue for a simple, direct transplantation into Palestine of the complex of ideological, organizational and cultural practices that together constituted Soviet political culture. Instead, the foregoing discussion attempted to chart the varied interactions between the Zionist movements and their Soviet environment. These movements, as we have seen, were united by little more than their acceptance of the traditional Russian Zionist dictum that a national Jewish home in Palestine can only be built by Jews themselves, through “practical” action, and must involve a process of “productivization.” The Soviet context these Zionists confronted was also heterogeneous. Revolutionary enthusiasm coexisted with a limited space for market economy and private enterprise. Jews found themselves both protected and marginalized. Hebrew culture was severely restricted while Zionist work enjoyed a measure of tolerance. And the drastic change in the treatment of the Zionists circa 1925 was only one of several policy shifts that affected the Jewish population. Indeed, Soviet practice was itself in a state of flux in the mid-1920s, although the changes were far less momentous or traumatic than in the preceding and succeeding periods.
Not only was the process of “borrowing” many-sided and at times contradictory, but “transplantation” was, as always, selective. Members of the socialist movements were more inclined then the non-socialists to activism, and they found a supportive environment in socialist-dominated Palestine. The revolutionary enthusiasm they brought with them was channeled into “constructivist” work in the building of a socialist entity that saw itself as the prototype for a national society and polity. In this context, their understanding of socialism as the construction of economic frameworks was especially valued and broadly used. Moreover, while from the outset ideological formulations were for most of them a requirement of political action in Soviet Russia rather than a pressing inner need, in Palestine the instrumentality of ideological language only increased. In this as in other aspects of their work, the Soviet socialist Zionists and the institutions they created continued to bear curious similarities to the Soviet system they left behind. Thus, it is no surprise that observers to this day often describe their creations—Mapai, the Histadrut, the municipal Workers’ Councils—as innately “Bolshevik.”
Before resting the argument advanced here, it may be helpful to explain the personal roots and public issues informing this work. For it represents not only a historical investigation into the usual archival and published sources (many of which had been closed in Soviet archives until recent years), but a revisiting by the author of family stories, childhood memories, and the foundational values inculcated in my generation by our elders. Put differently, the story laid out in these pages is the story of my family and of the society that shaped me. Both my parents were members of Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir; they met in 1924, when my father, a student at an Institute for Near Eastern Studies in Moscow and a leader of the movement, was touring the movement’s regional centers and was put up for a few nights at the home of my mother, an eighteen-year-old member of the Kiev Committee. Each was arrested in early fall 1924, my mother being offered the chance to exchange a three-year term for departure to Palestine, my father—released under the pretense of leaving Zionist activity and smuggled through the border into Latvia. Both were among the founders and lifelong members of Kibbutz Afikim.
I grew up in Kibbutz Afikim in the 1950s and early 1960s. By then, more than thirty years after its founding, the kibbutz was a collection of people from all over Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia. But everyday life was still suffused with things Russian. There were the Russian words so many adults used in naming parts of clothing, furniture or kitchen utensils (these, by the way, turned out to be Russian-inflected French terms), the Russian folk and revolutionary songs we sang whenever on a trip or around the campfire, the embroidered Russian-peasant tunics worn on Friday night, and the Soviet era novels borrowed from the kibbutz library (Gorky’s Mother, Makarenko’s Pedagogical Poem, the memorable Story of A True Man, translated into Hebrew as “The Amputated Pilot”). Russian and Soviet elements intertwined, their influence an undeniable reality. While the “Russian revolution” was a vague notion, it was never remote from the Israel we inhabited, with its socialist rhetoric, May Day parades, and red flags fluttering next to the national blue-and-white; all the more so in the kibbutz, where “the International” was sung at every major event—ahead of the national anthem on May Day, second to it on other occasions.
Why had my parents and their comrades left the land of revolution for Palestine? The question never arose, for Zionism and the new State of Israel framed not only our lives but our very sense of progression in history. But within that frame, we intuited a scheme in which the kibbutz here, and socialists elsewhere, held in common the goal of building a better society. Underlying our naïve conception was an argument that had been debated and refined by several generations of socialist Zionists: that the goal of “building a nation” could and should advance together with the goal of “repairing the society:” that socialism and Zionism, far from antithetical, were mutually complementary. The Soviet Zionists were not the first to offer this argument, nor were they its most articulate proponents. But, shaped as they were by life in Soviet Russia—a self-declared socialist society, where nationalism was acknowledged and harnessed to the goals of the socialist state—they embraced the slogan with few doubts or questions.
In exploring the role they played in proffering the claim of untroubled socialist Zionism, the present article joins a public discussion underway now for a decade. In this discussion— part of a broader retrospection concerning the origins and myths of Israeli society—historians and social commentators have focused on the reasons for what is increasingly recognized as labor Zionism’s ultimate failure to secure the just and democratic society it had promised. Inevitably, these debates involve the role of Russian influences in shaping the ideology and practice of the leadership of both the Histadrut and the national polity, though attention has so far focused on the earlier generations of Russian immigrants into Palestine. One effect of the present article is to bring the Soviet context and the Soviet Zionists into the scope of these rites of retrospection.