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Zionism: Socialist/Labor Zionism

Socialist/Labor Zionism strove to achieve Jewish national and social redemption by fusing Zionism with socialism. Its founder was Nachman Syrkin, who promulgated this view shortly before the third Zionist Congress (1899).

Its philosophy was based on the assumption that the problem of Diaspora Jewry would remain unsolved even after the socialist revolution, and that the solution to the anomaly of Jewish existence was the emigration of Jews to, and their concentration in, a territorial base. Dov Ber Borochov, a prominent advocate of Socialist Zionism, argued that the development of capitalism would inevitably prompt Jews to immigrate to Palestine, and that only there could the economic structure of the Jewish people be reconstituted as a base for the class struggle of the Jewish proletariat. Zionism, he asserted, is a historic-economic necessity for the Jewish people and the historic role of spearheading the Jewish national liberation process is reserved for the Jewish proletariat.

Disagreements about the conceptual and philosophical foundations of Socialist Zionism, the methods to use in achieving it in Palestine and relations with socialist organizations and parties in other countries, led to the formation of many and sundry socialist Zionist parties. Some of these entities eschewed Marxist terminology and refrained from explicitly terming themselves socialist. Others, considering themselves more socialist and less Zionist, forswore membership in the Zionist Organization at various times.

The Socialist Zionist idea gave rise to many pioneering youth movements, such as Hashomer Hatzair and Hehalutz. The leaders of Socialist Zionist parties were among the most prominent in the pre-independence Palestine community and the State of Israel; David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Berl Katznelson are but three examples.They undertook a number of measures aimed at establishing an autonomous Jewish presence in Palestine, such as employing only Jewish labor, encouraging the widespread use of Hebrew, and forming the first Jewish self-defense organization, Hashomer (The Watchmen).

Another important Labor Zionist, and the first actually to reside in Palestine, was Aaron David Gordon. Gordon believed that only by physical labor and by returning to the land could the Jewish people achieve national salvation in Palestine. Gordon became a folk hero to the early Zionists by coming to Palestine in 1905 at a relatively advanced age – forty-seven – and assiduously working the land. He and his political party, HaPoel HaTzair (The Young Worker), were a major force behind the movement to collectivize Jewish settlements in Palestine. The first kibbutz was begun by Gordon and his followers at Deganyah in eastern Galilee.

Before Gordon’s arrival, the major theorists of Labor Zionism had never set foot in Palestine. The others came in the Second Aliyah.

Socialist Zionism is the progenitor of most of Israel’s settlement movements and the Israeli Labor Party.

Source: Labor Zionism, U.S. Library of Congress.