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Labor Zionism (Labour Zionism, , tsionut sotsialistit) can be described as the major stream of the left wing of the Zionist movement. It was, for many years, a significant tendency among Zionists and Zionist organizational structure and the major stream of the Zionist movement. It saw itself as the Zionist sector of the historic Jewish labor movements of Eastern and Central Europe, eventually developing local units in most countries with sizeable Jewish populations. Unlike the "political Zionist" tendency founded by Theodor Herzl and advocated by Chaim Weizmann, Labor Zionists did not believe that a Jewish state would be created simply by appealing to the international community or to a powerful nation such as Britainmarker, Germanymarker or the Ottoman Empire. Rather, Labor Zionists believed that a Jewish state could only be created through the efforts of the Jewish working class settling in Palestine and constructing a state through the creation of a progressive Jewish society with rural kibbutzim and moshavim and an urban Jewish proletariat.

Labor Zionism grew in size and influence and eclipsed "political Zionism" by the 1930s both internationally and within the British Mandate of Palestine where Labor Zionists predominated among many of the institutions of the pre-independence Jewish community Yishuv, particularly the trade union federation known as the Histadrut. The Haganah the largest Zionist paramilitary defense force was a Labor Zionist institution and was used on occasion (such as during the Hunting Season) against political opponents or to assist the British Administration in capturing Jewish terrorists.

Labor Zionists played a leading role in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and Labor Zionists were predominant among the leadership of the Israeli military for decades after the formation of the state of Israelmarker in 1948.

Major theoreticians of the Labor Zionist movement included Moses Hess, Nahum Syrkin, Ber Borochov and Aaron David Gordon and leading figures in the movement included David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Berl Katznelson.

Albert Einstein was among a number of prominent Jewish personalities that supported the Labor Zionist Movement.


Moses Hess's 1862 work Rome and Jerusalem. The Last National Question argued for the Jews to settle in Palestine as a means of settling the national question. Hess proposed a socialist state in which the Jews would become agrarianised through a process of "redemption of the soil" that would transform the Jewish community into a true nation in that Jews would occupy the productive layers of society rather than being an intermediary non-productive merchant class, which is how he perceived European Jews.

Ber Borochov, continuing from the work of Moses Hess, proposed the creation of a socialist society that would correct the "inverted pyramid" of Jewish society. Borochov believed that Jews were forced out of normal occupations by Gentile hostility and competition, using this dynamic to explain the relative predominance of Jewish professionals, rather than workers. Jewish society, he argued, would not be healthy until the inverted pyramid was righted, and the majority of Jews became workers and peasants again. This, he held, could only be accomplished by Jews in their own country.

Another Zionist thinker, A. D. Gordon, was influenced by the völkisch ideas of European romantic nationalism, and proposed establishing a society of Jewish peasants. Gordon made a religion of work. These two figures (Gordon and Borochov), and others like them, motivated the establishment of the first Jewish collective settlement, or kibbutz, Degania, on the southern shore of the Sea of Galileemarker, in 1909 (the same year that the city of Tel Avivmarker was established). Deganiah, and many other kibbutzim that were soon to follow, attempted to realise these thinkers' vision by creating communal villages, where newly arrived European Jews would be taught agriculture and other manual skills.

Joseph Trumpeldor is also considered to be one of the early icons of the Labor Zionist movement in Palestine. When discussing what it is to be a Jewish pioneer, Trumpeldor stated
"What is a pioneer?
Is he a worker only?
The definition includes much more.
The pioneers should be workers but that is not all.
We shall need people who will be “everything” – everything that the land of Israel needs.
A worker has his labor interests, a soldier his esprit de corps, a doctor and an engineer, their special inclinations.
A generation of iron-men; iron from which you can forge everything the national machinery needs.
You need a wheel?
Here I am.
A nail, a screw, a block?
– here take me.
You need a man to till the soil?
– I’m ready.
A soldier?
I am here.
Policeman, doctor, lawyer, artist, teacher, water carrier?
Here I am.
I have no form.
I have no psychology.
I have no personal feeling, no name.
I am a servant of Zion.
Ready to do everything, not bound to do anything.
I have only one aim – creation."
Trumpeldor, an Anarcho-Communist Zionist, gave his life in 1920 defending the community of Tel Haimarker in the Upper Galilee. He became a symbol of Jewish self-defense and his reputed last words, "Never mind, it is good to die for our country" (En davar, tov lamut be'ad artzenu אין דבר, טוב למות בעד ארצנו), became famous in the pre-state Zionist movement and in Israel during the 1950s and 1960s. Trumpeldor's heroic death made him not only a martyr for Zionists Left but also for the Revisionist Zionist movement who named its youth movement Betar (an acronym for "Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor") after the fallen hero.


Initially two labor parties were founded by immigrants to Palestine of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914): the nationalistic and anti-socialist Hapo'el Hatza'ir (Young Worker) party and the Poale Zion party, with socialist roots. The Poale Zion Party had a left wing and a right wing. In 1919 the right wing, including Ben-Gurion, and anti-Marxist non-party people founded Ahdut HaAvoda. In 1930 Ahdut HaAvoda and Hapoel Hatzair fused into the Mapai party, which included all of mainstream Labor Zionism. Until the 1960s these parties were dominated by members of the Second Aliyah.

The Left Poale Zion party ultimately merged with the kibbutz-based Hashomer Hatzair, the urban Socialist League and several smaller left-wing groups to become the Mapam party, which in turn later joined with other parties to create Meretz.

The Mapai party later became the Israeli Labor Party, which for a number of years was linked with Mapam in the Alignment. These two parties were initially the two largest parties in the Yishuv and in the first Knesset, whilst Mapai and its predecessors dominated Israeli politics both in the pre-independence Yishuv and for the first three decades of Israel's independence, until the late 1970s.

Decline and transformation

Already in the 1920s the Labor movement disregarded its socialist roots and concentrated on building the nation by constructive action. According to Tzahor its leaders did not "abandon fundamental ideological principles". However according to Ze'ev Sternhell in his book The Founding Myths of Israel, the labor leaders had already abandoned socialist principles by 1920 and only used them as "mobilizing myths".

Following the 1967 Six-Day War several prominent Labor Zionists created the Movement for Greater Israel which subscribed to an ideology of Greater Israel and called upon the Israeli government to keep and populate all areas captured in the war. Among the public figures in this movement associated with Left-wing nationalism were Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Yitzhak Tabenkin, Icchak Cukierman, Zivia Lubetkin, Eliezer Livneh, Moshe Shamir, Zev Vilnay, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Isser Harel, Dan Tolkovsky, and Avraham Yoffe. In the 1969 Knesset elections it ran as the "List for the Land of Israel", but failed to cross the electoral threshold. Prior to the 1973 elections, it joined the Likud and won 39 seats. In 1976 it merged with the National List and the Independent Centre (a breakaway from the Free Centre) to form La'am, which remained a faction within Likud until its merger into the Herut faction in 1984.

Other prominent Labor Zionists, especially those who came to dominate the Israeli Labor Party, became strong advocates for relinquishing the territory won during the Six-Day War. By the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, this became the central policy of the Labor Party under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. What distinguishes Labor Zionism from other Zionist streams today is not economic policy, an analysis of capitalism or any class analysis or orientation but its attitude towards the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with modern Labor Zionists tending to support the Israeli peace camp to varying degrees. This orientation towards Israel's borders and foreign policy has dominated Labor Zionist institutions in recent decades to the extent that socialist Zionists who support a Greater Israel ideology are forced to seek political expression elsewhere.

In Israel the Labor Party has followed the general path of other governing social democratic parties such as the British Labour Party and is now fully oriented towards capitalism and even neo-liberalism, though recently it has rediscovered the welfare state under the leadership of Amir Peretz.

The Israeli Labor Party and its predecessors have ironically been associated within Israeli society as representing the country's ruling class and political elite whereas working-class Israelis have traditionally voted for the Likud since the Begin Revolution of 1977.

Labor Zionism Today

Labor Zionism today has become near synonymous with the Israeli peace camp and its defining characteristic is support for a two-state solution. While Labor Zionist political and educational institutions are inclusive to advocates of a two-state solution who do not adhere to Left-wing economic views they do not include socialists who oppose territorial withdrawals. Some Left-wing nationalists who support retaining the West Bankmarker under Israeli control and hold socialist economic views have found expression in movements like the Nahalah Forum, Zionist Freedom Alliance, the Hatikva Party, Im Tirzu, and Magshimey Herut.

Labor Zionism manifests itself today in both adult and youth organizations. Among adults, the World Labor Zionist Movement, based in Jerusalemmarker, has affiliates in countries around the world, such as Ameinu in the United States and Australia, Associação Moshé Sharett in Brazil and the Jewish Labour Movement in the United Kingdom. Youth and students are served through Zionist youth movements such as Habonim Dror, Hashomer Hatzair and college-age campus activist groups such as the Union of Progressive Zionists of the U.S. and Canada.

See also


  1. Z. Sternhell, 1998, 'The Founding Myths of Israel', ISBN 0-691-01694-1
  2. Z. Tzahor, 'The Histadrut', in 'Essential papers on Zionism', 1996, Reinharz & Shapira (eds.)ISBN0-8147-7449-0, p. 505

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