IBBUTZ HAOGEN SITS IN THE HEART OF THE PLAIN OF Sharon, an hour's drive north of Tel Aviv in rush hour. Founded in 1939 by young European idealists, it is a small green village whose manicured lawns and bucolic children disguise the fact that it is under siege from the forces of the modern world.
That world is very much in evidence when I drop in on Gary Hiller, a burly, 41-year-old former Detroiter dressed in a flannel work shirt and jeans, who is watching a satellite transmission of a game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Minnesota North Stars on his color television. Hiller, who runs the kibbutz avocado orchard, politely turns down the volume (while keeping a watchful eye on the screen) and tells me about the life of a modern-day Israeli socialist.
"When I came to Israel, I would say I was a Communist," he recalls. "I dreamed of cutting sugar cane in Castro's Cuba, that sort of thing. I wasn't really a Zionist; I figured I'd spend some time here and then travel, go to Paris, that sort of thing. But then I met my wife, and, well, I never got to Paris."
Hiller, who joined the kibbutz in 1975, describes what has happened to his community in the past few years with a good deal of perspective. By his account, most change has been bad. "In the '70s, the Labor Party was still in power and there was a very high work ethic here, real rah-rah stuff. Now we (the kibbutz) have huge debts, morale is way down and the work ethic has disappeared."
Kibbutz Haogen and the state of Israel were born socialist, the children of young pioneers who arrived here during the first two decades of the 20th Century. Products of both the religious and revolutionary influences of their native Eastern Europe, the pioneers had two seemingly contradictory goals: To "normalize" the Jews by bringing them to the land of Israel and transforming them into "a nation like any other" while, at the same time, creating a utopian society that would become "a light unto the nations."
The ideological basis for this daunting task was the doctrine of labor Zionism, a blend of Jewish nationalism and socialism. The political vehicle was the Mapai Party (forerunner of today's Labor Party) founded by David Ben-Gurion. He and his European-born comrades were deeply influenced by the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as a rootless, parasitic and unproductive people; they set out to remedy this image by creating a New Jewish Man--idealistic, unselfish, cleansed by physical toil and baptized by the sweat of his brow. And on the kibbutzim, the labor Zionists tried to erase 2,000 years of the Jewish Diaspora by re-creating what they imagined had been the pastoral purity of their ancestors, the biblical Hebrews.
The government provided the land for the kibbutzim, and Labor and a few smaller parties kicked in the start-up money. Envisioned as self-supporting agricultural collectives, almost all now are heavily subsidized by the government.
Hiller, his wife and six children are today's kibbutzniks, legatees of an almost mythical idealism in this small country. Ten-year-old Yinon Hiller enters the living room to check the hockey game but gets instead the third degree. "Are you a socialist?" I ask him. Yinon looks blank. "Socialist?" he says. "What's a socialist?"
ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO, MAY DAY was a major event in Israel. Schools and factories closed, newspapers shut down and tens of thousands of workers and students paraded in Tel Aviv and Haifa, waving red banners on behalf of the world's laboring masses. Orators extolled the glorious deeds of Israel's socialist pioneers and called for working-class solidarity.
This year nothing happened. With the national elections just six weeks off, the Labor Party chieftains sniffed the political winds and decided that displays of socialist enthusiasm could be disastrous. May Day, 1992, was celebrated only in a few Arab villages where the Communist Party remains powerful. For the vast majority of Israelis, it was just another spring day. When the teachers union asked for a holiday, it was rebuffed by the Ministry of Education and mocked in the press. Employees clocked in as usual at companies owned by Histadrut, General Federation of Workers, a union-cum-conglomerate and political bulwark of the nominally socialist Labor Party.
At Histadrut headquarters on Tel Aviv's busy Arlosoroff Street that day, a small group of right-wing activists mocked Labor by waving red flags. But the flags were red herrings: Hardly anyone, including the demonstrators in front of union headquarters, believed that there were any honest-to-God socialists in the building. Israeli socialism, once this country's triumphant, quasi-official political and social doctrine, is an ideological orphan, unloved and rejected by the political left no less than the right. In fact, it's dead. Even the Labor Party's victory in the elections will not turn back the page.