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A Dream Dies In Israel : Born Socialist, Reared In The Egalitarianism Of The Kibbutzim, The Jewish State Finds That Capitalist Reality Is Eroding Its Founding Ideals.

November 22, 1992|ZE'EV CHAFETS | Ze'ev Chafets is associate editor of the Jerusalem Report and author of "Heroes, Hustlers, Hardhats and Holy Men," published by William Morrow

Indeed, a week after Labor returned to power, largely on a pledge by now-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that he had a plan for peace with the Arab states, his government moved boldly to wrest control of the nation's health care from Histadrut. It seemed incongruous, the attack on the huge union whose HMO covers 70% of all Israelis. The union had long been a virtual extension of the party and was an economic octopus, owning businesses from banks to insurance companies to construction firms, all quasi-governmental. Ronald Reagan's beginning his presidency by trying to shut down Wall Street would be comparable to the move that Rabin made on the Histadrut HMO.

The collapse of socialism seems remarkable in view of Israel's brief existence--just 44 years as a state. At the time of independence in 1948, Ben-Gurion's Mapai Party, with its socialist beliefs, was firmly in charge of the country and its resources. It established a system in which the party controlled the state and the state controlled or dominated virtually everything--land, transportation, commerce and industry, jobs, housing, labor unions, education, the radio (television was outlawed until 1968 as potentially subversive to Zionist ideals), even art and cultural events (in the mid-'60s, a public committee prevented the Beatles from performing in Tel Aviv).

The first of the kibbutzim, the agricultural collectives that formed the soul of Israel's socialist ethos, had been established decades before independence. They were the laboratories for the new Jewish society. Dedicated kibbutzniks worked the land without pay, shared communal dormitories and meals and reared their children--the first Jews born in Israel in millennia--in the idea of selfless labor: one for all and all for the future state.

Under Ben-Gurion, the ideals of labor Zionism became a national orthodoxy. The country's small private sector was tolerated only as a necessary evil and any quest for personal pleasure was decried as hedonistic and unpatriotic. "Ben-Gurion was not a Communist, but he borrowed heavily from them," says Anita Shapira, a history professor at Tel Aviv University. "In his policies--centralism, control of the individual by the collective, party authority over all other systems, he was a typical Bolshevik." Religion was treated as an anachronism, and Orthodox Jews were given no meaningful role in the country's affairs. Holocaust victims were scorned for having gone "like sheep to the slaughter."

The socialists used their power to impose their ideals. In the early 1950s, immigrants from post-Holocaust Europe and the Arab world flooded into the country. They were quickly classified as good or bad "human material," based on their value in building a socialist state, and treated accordingly. Orientals (the term used for Jews from elsewhere in the Near East and North Africa) were spurned as products of a culturally and politically reactionary Middle East. The older generation of these undesirables was basically written off, and its children were encouraged to renounce their parents' beliefs and cultures.

Conformity was rigidly enforced. There was a right way to think, act, vote and even dress. In the scouts, for example, girls were customarily subjected to skirt checks to make sure their clothing wasn't too tight. "Except for the fact that it held free elections, Israel in the '50s most closely resembled a people's republic in Eastern Europe," Shapira says.

In 1959, Yisrael Galili, one of Israel's leading socialists, visited the United States for the first time. Upon his return, he told his kibbutznik comrades, "I must tell you that capitalism is not going to collapse." His opinion occasioned great surprise and even outrage among the dedicated but politically closeted ideologues.

By the mid-'60s, Ben-Gurion had retired and Israel, although still ruled by old-time socialists, had softened into something more closely resembling a West European-style social democracy. Israel's success against its Arab enemies in the Six-Day War of 1967 accelerated the process by kicking off an economic boom and a period of Americanization. It wasn't exactly the Age of Aquarius, but for the first time a majority of Israelis began to concentrate on improving their standard of living, even though it was considered impolite to admit it. The government retained its central role in the national economy, but labor Zionism was no longer a militant ideology.

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