This piece originally appeared in Jewish Currents Magazine.
WHEN I MOVED TO ISRAEL THREE YEARS AGO, one of the questions asked of me was “What kind of Jew are you?” My answer was “Shomer” — that is, a member of Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist-Zionist movement.
A few bureaucrats along the way tried to get me to change my answer to Reform or secular or unaffiliated, but I pushed back. I grew up in the community spaces of Hashomer Hatzair. My heroes were the people who fought back during the Shoah — many of them members of the movement, such as Abba Kovner and Mordecai Anielewicz — as well as “our” thinkers, such as Martin Buber. Growing up in the Socialist-Zionist movement as a member of Hashomer Hatzair in North America, I was exposed to education about Zionism, Israel, oppression, justice, and identity.
This education was far less focused than it once was on aliyah (moving to Israel) to build a kibbutz. Instead, the focus was on developing critical thinking through the lens of a leftist Zionism among youth who had a sense justice and of Jewish identity. Yet many of the historical ideologies and identities at the core of our history were very much in the background, quietly guiding the education in which we took part.
I WAS 14 WHEN ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER YITZKHAK RABIN was murdered. It was the first time I can remember thinking of Israel as a place with people to whom I was connected. It was also the first time I understood that it was no fantastic, far-off place, but a project with broken parts that I could help fix.
The next year I took part in a “values” auction at Camp Shomria. We were each given a budget of fake money to bid on the values we wanted to carry forward into our adult lives. It was fun and thought-provoking, but the element that stayed with me most was that at the end of the activity a group of us, 14-year-olds, sat around in the shade of Camp Shomria debating the merits of the values we had “bought.” We didn’t run off to smoke cigarettes and gossip in the forest; we talked about the world we wanted to live in and the values that might help bring it about.
Later, as I took on more leadership positions in the movement, my generation began exploring where all of this education was leading us. We spent years relearning our history: the founding and the decline of the kibbutz movement, texts by Ber Borochov, Erich Fromm, and Martin Buber, poetry by Rachel. We developed an understanding of how our summer camp and community centers had become so central to our lives.
We met people from Hashomer Hatzair in Israel, from other youth movements similar to ours, and from the urban kibbutz movement. We started to reach out to people from other social movements in Israel, New York and Toronto, and we deconstructed past ideas of socialism and Zionism in order to construct new ones and to build frameworks for living life based on our ideals. We built communal groups to take on these challenges together. The commune I co-founded in Israel and New York City was called Orev (which means “blackbird” or “raven” in Hebrew), named for the lesser-known bird that Noah sends out to look for land after the flood — birds that can survive in all sorts of conditions.
This education and upbringing, begun in those youth-led dialogues, allowed me to learn how to think critically about the world, about history, and about Israel and the Zionist movement. I was taught to examine the texts, tropes, and ceremonies more deeply. I was taught, as the Jewish sage Maimonides suggested, to “teach thy tongue to say ‘I do not know’” and thereby make progress. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t shocked when I began to learn about the devastating realities — including the ongoing occupation, the Nakba, the racism, and the militarism — facing Israeli society and the Zionist project. Instead of shock, I felt determined to work to counter those destructive aspects and build positive alternatives in their place.
For too many young people, however, Jewish education does not prepare them for an encounter with this complex reality in Israel, and they are turning away because they end up feeling disillusioned, unable to reconcile previous exposure and ideas with present disappointments and resentments. The absence of preparation leaves people unequipped to engage with and work to fix the problems.
WHEN I MOVED TO ISRAEL, therefore, I did so with two aims: 1) to learn Hebrew, as a way to cultivate myself and equip me for my role in my culture, and 2) to take part in the movement to end to the occupation. Military rule over Palestinians, who live and die without self-determination, is a system of oppression that oppresses them and also tears Israel apart as it goes on. The Socialist-Zionist movement has, for more than a century, developed Zionism as a movement for Jewish self-determination. That all liberation movements must be in solidarity with one another to succeed is essential to this idea, which means that Zionism, in order to truly call itself a movement for liberation, must be in solidarity with all other people’s struggles for self-determination — in particular, because we call the same place home, Palestinian self-determination.
I’ve been expressing my opposition to the occupation by working with others to build programs like the critical pedagogy-based, language-learning project called “This is Not an Ulpan,” and groups like “All That’s Left,” an anti-occupation collective. Our effort to balance bettering one’s self and bettering the world simultaneously is referred to in Hashomer Hatzair as Tikkun Adam-Tikkun Olam.“ Repairing the world, we believe, is impossible without also repairing one’s self — work that can take place among individuals in groups and among groups as are part of a wider society.
IT IS WORTHWHILE TO THINK ABOUT what value an ideology –- a worldview and strategy for positive change — can have for us in the 21st century. Like Torah, ideology can be seen as trite, tired and wrongheaded, or as an inspiration for something greater, a basis for connecting identity and culture to the future we are trying to build. (Indeed, the central tension between oneness and division found in the biblical story of Creation and throughout Jewish text is at the core of Socialist-Zionism.)
Both of those words, “Socialist” and “Zionist,” have been, for many, drained of positive meaning, after a century full of failed attempts at actualizing them. Yet there is an ideology at the heart of these words that makes them meaningful and worthwhile as we look forward. Our Socialism maintains that our liberation is only found in solidarity with the liberation of others; our Zionism informs how we are a part of that human movement for freedom: as Jews. Socialist-Zionism is unwavering in its call for human liberation on economic, social, and environmental fronts, and in its call for Jews to be a part of that struggle as Jews. Socialist-Zionism holds solidarity along with a deep sense of group identity to be the fundamental bases for changing the world.
Socialist-Zionism’s historical aim has been to oppose the oppression that collective homelessness fosters by creating a society of workers, in which Jews are free to work in all facets of life and take a leadership role in society-building. But there is a major difference between being informed by a culture and being beholden to and limited by it. On many fronts, Israeli culture limits itself by letting identity, religion, ethnicity and culture become points of exclusion and privilege rather than starting points for connection and growth. Too often here in Israel, difference is protected and guarded in a fortress. Instead, it should be celebrated and cultivated, and solidarity with others should be the bottom line.
EARLY IN THE MOVEMENT’S HISTORY, just after the First World War, a seminal conference took place in Tarnow, Poland. A group of shomrim (members of the movement) came up with three paths for actualization of the movement’s ideals: Some would work to revolutionize the academic world, some would work to unionize the working world, and others would be khalutzim (pioneers) in Palestine and set up the first kibbutzim. Eventually, the third path became the most relevant one for the movement’s members, even while the movement spread (it today has centers in twenty-one countries throughout the world).
For much of the 20th century the Socialist-Zionist movement focused on developing a path for its members to move to kibbutzim in Israel, build the kibbutz federation, work the factories and fields, join its affiliated political parties, and participate in the educational centers and cultural hubs that society offered. But the kibbutz was not immune to the Western drive toward privatization and the post-modern desire to explore what lay beyond the large, modernist collective dining halls. Most blame a change in attitude and a natural end of the kibbutz’s life span. Any analysis that underplays the era’s move toward privatization (throughout the West) is incomplete.
After a century of building those secular Jewish communities, joining and leading struggles for justice, building frameworks for a shared society, and developing critical, participatory education and leadership, Socialist-Zionism is again at an historical moment, choosing a few paths and engaging in an extended process of delineating which ones make sense to pursue. Our allegiance is to the future of the Jewish people and the world, and we are informed by, but not stuck in, the past. Our Abrahamic view of the universe as holistically connected, our view of Jewish history and narrative as part of our contribution to humanity as a whole, and our understanding of our own identity as a people while looking out to all people — these are the perspectives that inform and inspire us as we build that future.
As we move forward, it is vital to uncover the realities that challenge who we are and how we see ourselves in our history, and to cultivate the realities that reinforce our ideals and our Socialist-Zionist identities. Hashomer Hatzair’s history includes fighting, killing, and dying in Israel’s wars, as well as standing up and being with those opposed to militarism, hate and the violent horrors of a society at war. Our history includes fear about reaching out, as well as efforts to reach out for peace for Israel, an end to violence, and mutual dignity and self-determination.
Socialist-Zionist thinkers such as Martin Buber laid out beautiful visions of intimate communities, peaceful partnership, and just societies. Buber wrote about the need to balance oneness and division, solidarity and autonomy. Yet such ideas were diametrically opposed to the ideas of others who also called themselves Zionists.
Today Israel is experiencing a rise in racist violence from South Tel Aviv to South Hebron; government plans to uproot people from their homes in the Negev based on ethnicity; and the continuation of the occupation, which oppresses millions and eats away at Israeli society. The broader Jewish world is also suffering deep fracturing because of these and other issues.
Those who see Zionism as an invitation to supremacist ideologies are, to me, not only morally repugnant but strategically short-sighted, without a coherent vision for the long-term sustainability of Jewish self-determination. It seems they are not really concerned with the liberation of the Jewish people at all.
CLOSING THE DIVIDE BETWEEN THE REAL AND THE IDEAL in Zionism requires deep thought and passionate action. Our century-long experiment has not failed: For two decades people who count themselves within the Socialist-Zionist movement have been building new frameworks for collective life, in urban centers and rural expanses, in Jewish spaces wherever they are. Urban kibbutzim, a revival of classic kibbutzim, and communes have sprung up in recent decades from Haifa to Sderot and from Jerusalem to New York. Collective dedication to one another and to activism outside is a strong force, and more and more movement members are finding this to be a potent way to effect change through education and collective action. Members of the Urban Kibbutz, Migvan, in Sderot founded “Kol Acher (Another Voice)”, a voice for peace among Israelis living in the South near Gaza.
We can see success in the programs and community action of institutions that the movement has built in politics, art, and education. This includes Givat Haviva, active since 1949 in building frameworks to combat racism and hate and to build a shared society in Israel. Throughout the recent violence and public racism in Israel, Givat Haviva organized the Neighbors of Peace, a way for Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel to connect and oppose the wave of hate.
Similarly, I am a co-founder of the Solidarity of Nations - Achvat Amim program, named after one of the founding principles of Hashomer Hatzair. The program provides a framework for young adults from around the world to live collectively in Jerusalem and take part in volunteer projects toward building a just peace while learning about history, the current realities, and strategies for making change.
These projects defiantly anchor the Jewish Left in communities around the world. Our ideals also lead people to move to Israel, as I did, to join thousands of others to build a just society and to develop secular Jewish identity. There are tens of thousands of Israelis in communities large and small and thousands of people who count themselves as members of this movement, dedicated to building a world based on strong sense of self and courageous commitment to solidarity. Importantly, we stand guard against hate and violence directed toward our people and we seek solidarity from others in opposing anti-Jewish hatred, too. Our actions and conversations hold on to our foundational ideals of liberation while empowering those with the most at stake in the future: youth. We do not count victories in single elections, marches, or days in the field. Our victories in education and activism are found in the growth of the collective and the individual together, and our forward motion toward equality and freedom.
THE INTERCONNECTIONS OF THE 21st CENTURY demand that we take part in global movements and incorporate environmental sustainability and the struggle against climate change into all of our movements. If we don’t, as the American civil rights activist, James Farmer said, we will face the “equality of extinction.” As well, patriarchal structures are still the paradigm and so, in our motion forward toward human equality, feminism must be front and center in our movement. Sexual diversity should be celebrated and hetero-normative culture should be challenged. We must be vocally anti-racist and actively interested in learning about other cultures as we teach and celebrate our own.
In a time of massive austerity measures and privatization of public services and power, we must stand by fellow citizens and demand that power be taken into public hands, and build new structures that will encourage democratic economic and social systems. The attacks on the welfare state taking place in the West are declarations against the state in general, but it is the support that we provide one another that is important in human civilization. As we envision a better future, we must think large-scale, building new systems and associations that keep us safe and healthy, and that encourage mutual responsibility and creativity. People are suffering and struggling in the places where we live, meet, work, play and learn. The 21st century demands that we continue to build a participatory and democratic socialism that enriches our lives and cultures. As public institutions are attacked, we aim to take the Jewish, anarcho-socialist roots of Hashomer Hatzair and apply them to the ills we are fighting today by working as educators, as well as artists, lawyers, farmers, welders, and builders, and on and on.
Socialist-Zionism in the 21st century needs to do all these things and affirm the importance of Jewish life in communities around the world and especially in determining our collective future as an inclusive, culturally Jewish society in Israel. We ought to be active in a multitude of communities around the world, while continuing to emphasize the concrete reasons for focusing on Israel. Israel is the center of the Jewish world, not because it’s more important than the many and beautiful Jewish communities around the world, but because its actions, both positive and negative, affect all of us and the world at large. The size and scope of the Zionist project puts enormous weight on both its successes and its failures. The reigniting of the Hebrew language has sparked something brilliant in the Jewish people. The occupation tears us and the Palestinian people down. We, as members of the Socialist-Zionist movement with a very real history, must take responsibility for pushing the constructive aspects forward and working to end the destructive ones.
Working toward a radically different future demands that we be unafraid, as Buber was, of potential partnerships with others. It means allegiance to justice and equality for all peoples. It demands that we work for large scale change even as we work for daily wins.
We live in a world in which we sit alone while connected to everyone we ever knew. It is a world in which it is hard to know where your food came from and what’s in it, and where climate change and corporate power are challenging environmental sustainability and democratic power. Facing the challenges of the 21st century demands that we be able to hold up the rights of the individual while enshrining collective identity and culture in our institutions. As a shomer I feel equipped to view the world through a critical lens and in a holistic way and to balance solidarity and autonomy in word and deed. The Socialist-Zionist movement’s past has much to teach us, but it is our actions now and in the future that will determine how ours can be a successful movement for liberation.