This long and erudite book by Professor Sternhell, who is the Leon Blum Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is a further illustration of the controversy between Israel's "new historians" or "critical sociologists" on the one hand, and those official historians whom the writer calls "jealous custodians of national myths" on the other. "New historian" Benny Morris has written that the old school of historians was "mobilized to serve Zionism and saw as a supreme value the preservation of its pure image, even at the expense of the truth" (Ha'aretz, 16.6.97).
Sternhell's book has been the subject of much controversy and some bitter reviews because he sets out to reinterpret the course of the Labor Zionist or Socialist Zionist elite, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion himself, which dominated Zionism and then Israel from the early 1930s until 1977 (and whose party is back in power today). Preventing holy cows from grazing peacefully is bound to arouse some unpopularity.
The author accuses this Labor Zionist leadership of fostering "nationalist socialism" which they called "constructivist socialism." As an expert on European Fascism, Sternhell makes it clear that this has nothing to do with "national socialism." Opposed both to Marxism and to liberalism, nationalist socialism is a socialism whose first priority is "the mobilization of all classes of society for the achievement of national objectives" within which "the workers were the heart of the nation and their welfare was also the welfare of the nation."

Conquering the Land

As far back as 1922, Ben-Gurion spelt out that "we are conquerors of the land facing an iron wall, and we have to break through. The one great concern is the conquest of the land and building it up through extensive immigration. All the rest is mere words and phraseology" (this reviewer's emphasis). Sternhell notes that in this concentrated programmatic speech there isn't a single word about justice, universal values or the creation of an alternative society. A personal and cultural revolution, yes, but not a social revolution demanding a change in the general economic and social system.
In asking what was behind all this, the author deals at length with the political profile of the Jewish Diaspora where it was born; with the ideological struggles of the streams which were to give rise in 1930 to Mapai and in 1968 to the Israeli Labor party, and how they overcame leftist opposition; and, especially, with the harsh reality with which they had to contend in the formative 1920s in Palestine. The essence of the ideology which won the day, nationalist socialism, was that socialism was above all a means of achieving Zionism. Socialism interested Ben-Gurion only to the extent that it served national objectives. As he said in 1919, "Our movement makes no distinction between the national question and the socialist question; there is no such distinction in life."
As a person, Ben-Gurion himself comes out badly from these pages. He is presented as less interested in ideology than in power, an organization man with centralist tendencies and a special ability to control the party apparatus, a champion of "bossism" rather than democracy, and averse to criticism. The elitist group to which he belonged is said to have preached equality and the cult of labor and land, while he enjoyed a good standard of living in a large and relatively expensive apartment in Tel Aviv, piling up debts which were paid by the Histadrut. His children studied not in a Histadrut (Labor movement) school, but in a prestigious private school.

From Class to Nation

Once he had discarded his earlier leftist views (he had been an admirer of Lenin), Ben-Gurion led the Histadrut along a consistent and forthright course. Berl Katznelson (1887-1994), perhaps the outstanding theoretician of the movement, saw its socialism in Sternhell's words as "free from most of the ideological principles to which social democracy adhered." Marxist-style class struggle, or what was called class incitement, had no place here. In 1933 Ben-Gurion published his collection called From Class to Nation. This was his basic position both before and after Israeli statehood.
Early ideas about egalitarianism in the new Jewish society were quashed. The Gdud Avoda (Labor Corps), which was founded in 1920 with the aim of "building up the land through the creation of a general commune of Jewish workers in Eretz Yisrael (Palestine)" was destroyed by Ben-Gurion and his colleagues. (Its leader, Menachem Elkind, despaired of Zionism and went to the USSR where, ironically, he was the victim of one of Stalin's purges.) In the 1930s, a Jewish agricultural laborer earned only a quarter of the average wages of a Histadrut bureaucrat and only a tenth of those of the Histadrut leaders. In its early days, as today, the Histadrut never really came to grips with the growing problems of wage disparity and inequality.

The Kibbutz: Not a Utopia

Sternhell has particularly strong words to say about the kibbutz, which was not created, in his view, as a rejection of private property, but as a pragmatic solution to the problem of conquering the land. He sees the kibbutz as a numerically limited showcase which actually gave legitimacy to the existing order since its communal principles were never to have any impact outside its own framework. Explaining his program in 1920, Ben-Gurion said the point is not "how to organize a socialist society... but how to create a Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael." Berl Katznelson declared in 1944 as part of his "ideological testament" that "the first kibbutzim were founded not to realize a socialist utopia, but to lay the groundwork for... national independence."
Sternhell's dismissal of the role of the kibbutz is a challenge not only to orthodox Zionist historians, who see it as one of the movement's peak achievements, but also to observers like the eminent French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the gurus of the European and international left in the post-1945 period. After visiting a kibbutz in 1967, he spoke of it as a miracle, "a community of people that is different from all others which I have met until now. There is no exploitation or alienation within it and it lives with a sense of full equality and freedom. What you have accomplished can serve as an example to the world... and I hope the world will follow your example." Hardly, in his eyes, a showcase or an alibi.

The Arabs and Zionism

In Sternhell's view of Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, "the main preoccupation of Jewish workers was 'the conquest of labor,' in other words, the dispossession of Arab workers in order to take their place... for an autonomous Jewish existence." He remarks that "the Arabs, who knew from the beginning that Zionism's aim was the conquest of the land, made perfectly clear their refusal to pay the price for the Jewish catastrophe." The moral justification for the Zionist enterprise as a whole is in the author's eyes "Jewish distress" and the need to find a solution for it. As we shall see, there is room to ask whether he is always equally sensitive to the distress of Arabs.
In this interpretation of Israel's founding myths, the writer naturally seeks and finds implications for contemporary Israel. He sees it as a capitalist society no different from any other developed capitalist society, in which the Histadrut recently suffered a rapid decline under the weight of mismanagement and even corruption, traces of which Sternhell finds in its earlier days.
As regards the movement's relations with the Arabs, in the early 1940s, Berl Katznelson "went to great lengths to refute the idea that a struggle was taking place between two national movements of equal legitimacy." Individuals are entitled to compensation if dispossessed, but the Arab population, as a national entity, has no right of ownership over the land. He said in reference to the Arab population of the Jezreel Valley (which was purchased in the early 1920s by the Jewish National Fund) that "we do not regard the fact that they live there as a right of permanent occupation."

Link with the Land

The author finds a direct link between the "tribal nationalism" of the founders and the national-religious settlement of Palestinian territories after 1967 for "the reason the Labor party drew the country into an occupation of the West Bank was its nationalism... the denial of the legitimacy of the Arab national movement was not a form of blindness that afflicted only Golda Meir" (who refuted the existence of a Palestinian people). "For her, as for Katznelson, there was room for only one national movement in Palestine."
Sternhell's book is not only long but, at times, also repetitious. Neither is it very readable, perhaps because this translation from the French, while understandable, tends to be heavy and clumsy. A good editor could have improved the style, as well as greatly reducing the 419 pages of text, without sacrificing content.

Not Always Fair

In spite of the general importance and authenticity of this book, which is extraordinarily well documented, writers who set out to prove a thesis have a tendency to select, or stress, what fits into it. The two examples which follow are not central to the author's thesis, but raise issues of selectivity in presenting historical material.
The first is the writer's dismissal of any influence of the kibbutzim over the wider society since "they had not been founded for ideological reasons," "never affected more than a small minority," were "isolated pockets," and "most of all... led to a renunciation of concern with society as a whole." Here, the author overlooks the fact that the kibbutz movement owned some of the country's leading publishing companies and major daily newspapers; that, while the Histadrut neglected education, the kibbutzim had good schools which took in non-kibbutz pupils from outside and educated immigrant youth in the "Youth Aliya" framework; that the kibbutz movement had quite large and dynamic youth movements all over the country and abroad, which did not only provide, as Sternhell claims, "a happy childhood" and "nostalgia," but had a strong influence on the way many people later thought and acted.
Though the kibbutz's primary task was settlement, in the 1950s a quarter of the Knesset members from the parties of the Labor movement were kibbutz members. Of Israel's eight prime ministers, four had been kibbutz members, including kibbutz-born Ehud Barak, who doesn't seem to have renounced concern with society. All these factors shouldn't be forgotten even if, in recent years, the collective settlements have indeed been in a period of retreat and decline.
Second, he is not always fair to the left Zionist Hashomer Hatzair, which he describes as a loyal and even dependent minority to Mapai on the organizational level. But what happened when as an opposition and in the name of class solidarity Hashomer Hatzair showed ideological independence in supporting "organized labor" with the Arab workers rather than exclusive "Jewish labor" in the early 1920s? Sternhell sees this as naive and unrealistic.
This is odd, since the author himself saw the Labor movement's policies as dispossessing the Arab worker; what viable alternative was there except joint organized labor? He notes that the policies of the labor movement on this crucial issue were not the result of circumstances beyond their control, but of "a conscious ideological choice." In this case, so was the alternative and it should be treated with more respect. In the 1949 elections, Mapam (Hashomer Hatzair and its leftist allies) won 17 percent of the votes, as against 35 percent for Mapai. Perhaps Sternhell thinks that the binationalism of Brit Shalom was also unrealistic, but it deserves more than four lines in the whole book.

Omitting a Central Fact

In general, Professor Sternhell seems to regard his mandate as dealing with the Arab population of Palestine only insofar as it is directly related to the subject of his work, namely Labor-Zionist policy. The "Arab question" occupies only a few pages in the book. Absurd as this may sound, I failed to find any mention of the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians during and after the 1948 war, though the index notes 16 references to the War of Independence. One reads a lot about "the Arabs remaining in Israeli territory" after 1948, but nothing about those who didn't remain, and why.
The author is entitled to his view that, in contrast to 1967, "the conquests of 1949 were an essential condition for the founding of Israel," but there is no excuse for this glossing over the creation of the refugee problem as one of the central facts in the history of the conflict. Reflecting on this, the omission is even stranger because the Israeli behavior and attitude to the subject fit well into the thesis concerning nationalist socialism.


The Epilogue, called "From the State-in-the-Making to the Nation-State," is convincing as long as it deals with the continuity in outlook and policies between the two periods, including the significance of the 1967 occupation, and settlement in the territories. However, the few pages devoted to the 1978 Camp David and 1993 Oslo agreements, where the two national movements began to cross the watershed and move toward mutual recognition, explain what happened, but not why. How come, for example, that Labor Zionists Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres changed their policies so completely after all those decades during which, as Sternhell explains in such detail, their ideological mentors failed to recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian national claims? This needs further elaboration.
Yet the main lessons that the author draws from his history seem to ring true. Writing on "A New Zionism" in Tikkun (May/June, 1998), he says that following the turning point of Oslo, we need "a second Zionist revolution," for "if a 'Jewish state' that does not recognize the absolute equality of all human beings is considered to be closer to the spirit of the founding fathers than a new liberal Zionism, then it is time to say good-bye to the ghosts of the founders."
In presenting us with such a full, in-depth account of the foundations on which Israel was built, this book provides indispensable material for those striving to reconstruct it along more humanistic lines.