When I moved to Israel one of the questions they asked me was what kind of Jew are you? My answer was Shomer, (a member of “Hashomer Hatzair”). A few bureaucrats along the way tried to get me to change my answer to Reform or secular or unaffiliated, but I pushed. I grew up in the community spaces of Hashomer Hatzair, my heroes growing up were the people who fought back during the Shoah, members of the movement like Abba Kovner and Mordecai Anielewicz, and “our” thinkers like 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.
At the time that I was growing up in the movement the aim was far less focused on Aliyah (moving to Israel) to build a Kibbutz, than it once was. Instead the focus was on developing critical thinking youth with sense justice and of Jewish identity through the lens of a leftist Zionism. Still, many of the historical ideologies and identities at the core of our history were very much in the background, quietly guiding the education we took part in.
I remember when Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. I was fourteen and it was the first time I can remember thinking of Israel as a place, with people, that I was connected to. 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.
Later, as I took on more leadership positions in the movement, my generation began exploring where all of this education was leading us. After all, a movement should be heading toward something, right? We spent years relearning our history; the founding and the decline of the Kibbutz movement, poetry by Rachel, texts by Ber Borochov, Erich Fromm and Martin Buber. We developed an understanding of how our summer camp and community centers had become so central to our lives as educational, experimental, and communal spaces.
We met people from Hashomer Hatzair in Israel, other youth movements that are similar to ours, and the urban kibbutz movement. We started to reach out to people from other social movements in Israel, New York and Toronto, and as we began to deconstruct past ideas of Socialism and Zionism in order to construct new ones we built a framework for living life based on our ideals. We worked to build 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. We chose it because they are birds that can survive in all sorts of conditions.
It was the education and upbringing that began in those youth-led dialogues that 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 and 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 though shalt progress”. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t shocked when I began to learn about the devastating realities including the ongoing occupation, the Nakba, racism, and militarism facing Israeli society and the Zionist project. Instead of shock I feel determined to work to counter those destructive aspects and build positive alternatives in their place.
For too many people, however, Jewish education does not prepare them for an encounter with the complex reality in Israel and they are turning away because so many end up feeling disillusioned and unable to reconcile previous exposure and ideas with present disappointment and resentment. The absence of preparation leaves people unequipped to engage with and work to fix the problems.
It is worthwhile to wonder what value an ideology – a world view and strategy for positive change – can have for us in the 21sty century. Like Torah, ideology can be seen as trite, tired and wrong headed, 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 story of creation and throughout Jewish text is at the core of Socialist-Zionism as well.
When I moved to Israel, I did so with two aims: To learn Hebrew as an expression and process in the cultivation of myself and my role in my culture, and to take part in the movement to end to the occupation; military rule over Palestinians who live and die without self-determination in a system of oppression that also tears Israel apart as it continues. I’ve been doing this 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. This balance of working to better one’s self and better the world simultaneously is referred to in our movement as Tikkun Adam-Tikkun Olam. “Repairing the world” is impossible without also repairing one’s self. This repair work can take place as individuals in groups and as groups as are part of a wider society.
Hashomer Hatzair had its 100th anniversary in 2013 and the Socialist-Zionist movement has, for more than a century, understood 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. This means that Zionism, in order to truly call itself a movement for liberation, must be in solidarity with all other people’s struggles self-determination, and because we call the same place home, Palestinian self-determination in particular.
Socialist-Zionism is unwavering in its call for human liberation on economic, social and environmental fronts and is unwavering in its call for Jews to be a part of that struggle as Jews. Socialist-Zionism holds solidarity along with a deep sense of identity as the fundamental bases for changing the world.
Of course, both of those words, “Socialist” and “Zionist”, have been, for many, drained of positive meaning after a 20th century so full of failed attempts at actualizing them. But it is the roots at the heart of these words that make 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.
The Jewish people is made up of individuals and groups who view themselves as religiously, ethnically and/or culturally Jewish. One can identify in all or some of those ways and be Jewish. For Socialist-Zionists (indeed for the vast majority of Zionists for much of the 20th century) the idea of a Jewish state was, and is, only compatible as an expression of Jewish culture, not of religious law. All nation-states have cultures and a state informed by and rooted in Jewish culture would be one among the community of nations. Socialist-Zionism’s historical aim is to oppose the oppression that homelessness creates 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. Now, there is a major difference between being informed by a culture and being beholden to and limited by that culture. On many fronts, Israeli culture limits itself by letting identity, religion, ethnicity and culture indicate points of exclusion and privilege as opposed to starting points for connection and growth. Too often here, difference is protected and guarded in a fortress. Instead, it should be celebrated and cultivated, and solidarity with others must be the bottom line.
The Socialist-Zionist vision for Jewish national liberation was a project based on and determined by the history, identity, and culture of the people who took part in it. Jewish self-determination is Jewish because Jews take part in it, propel it and shape it through labour, experience, and, vision; not because it follows halacha or adheres to one reading of the Torah, and certainly not because it excludes others from shaping it too. Indeed, in the place that Jews and Palestinians both call homeland whatever shape it takes will be one forged in partnership.
Early in the movement’s history, just after the First World War, a seminal conference took place in Tarnaw, Poland. A group of Shomrim (members of the movement) came up with three paths for what actualization of the movement’s ideals might look like. Some would work to revolutionize the academic world, some would work to unionize the working world, and others would be chalutzim (pioneers) in moving to Palestine to set up the first kibbutzim. Eventually, the latter became the centrally relevant path for the movement’s members, and at the same time the movement’s communities spread, and today it has centers in twenty three countries throughout the world.
After a century of building secular Jewish communities around the world, joining and leading struggles for justice, building frameworks for a shared society, and developing critical and participatory education and leadership it seems that we are in a similar historical moment. We are again choosing a few paths and engaged in an extended process of delineating which path(s) make sense based on the actions we actually take.
This movement’s allegiance is to the future of the Jewish people and the world, informed by, but not stuck in the past. The Abrahamic view of the universe as holistically connected, Jewish history and narrative along with our role in humanity as a whole, and our own “Shomeric” culture and identity inform and inspire us as we build that future.
As we move forward it is vital to both uncover challenges to who we are and how we see ourselves in our history, and cultivate the examples that we ought to emulate here and now. Our 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 is not free of fear of reaching out, but we are also among those who understand the historical reality that mutually agreed upon peace agreements is the only thing that has actually led to peace for Israel, while continued occupation leads to more violence.
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. It’s a question at the heart of our literature, our movement and the conflict here; and his ideas were diametrically opposed to others who also called themselves Zionists.
Today Israel is facing 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 that oppresses millions and eats away at Israeli society. The Jewish world is finding deep fractures in its midst over these and other issues. In this day and age, nearly fifty years after Buber’s death, Zionism, as an expression of Judaism, must exemplify his vision for a world of justice and equality. Those who see Zionism as an invitation to supremacist ideologies are 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.
The 21st century demands rethinking old ideas, reorganizing our conversations, and experimenting anew. As a friend and fellow Shomer pointed out not too long ago, Israel is (in terms of population) the size of New York City and if we start thinking about national policy in a similar way to municipal policy we can radically shift everything here.
Those willing to accept the challenge to think about, for example, the Law of Return, may strike gold and push all of us forward. In this example, perhaps the problem we face today isn’t that the Law of Return allows some people in who call this place home, but that some people are kept out who call this place home too. We need to stand up for the values at the center of self-determination in envisioning a solution for Israel and Palestine. If old solutions aren’t working it is time to look for new ones. Perhaps two separate states or one liberal state are not the answers. What about two states with open borders, or bi-nationalism that enshrines rather than dampens both peoples’ cultures in the national institutions (a stance Hashomer Hatzair held for much of its history)? If support is lacking for the solutions we are used to, we must be strong and courageous in looking for solutions that will work. Ongoing inequality has only resulted in violence and will only end in disaster.
It’s not enough to think critically and believe in solidarity and autonomy as a framework for liberation. Closing the divide between real and ideal requires action. Ours is a movement meant to equalize the Jewish people in the world. It is a movement that has aimed to gain the freedom to develop our culture and the safety we so desired in the place where our culture and people come from in order to share the many great things we have done and can do with the world. We need to reconstruct that idea. These days too many use it as a flag to bear in the systemic oppression of others.
We have a long history of success in Israel and around the world. We can see examples of Jewish life thriving and adding to life on this planet. The revival the Hebrew language, literature and art, the kibbutz as a unique and revolutionary way of life and the built-in democratic identity in the Israeli declaration of independence are examples of that success. Spiritual, cultural and technological exploration, taking part in human culture and art, and participation in justice movements are all a part of that history too. Still, we can see in the humiliation of checkpoints, the endless violence, and the poverty, fear and hate that we have so much still to do.
Now, as we look forward, it is clear that the 21st century demands movements that understand that radical means digging into the roots of an idea and working from there. In the case of Israel, if justice seems out of reach today, if racism is a growing problem, if education is painting a false picture and leaving a growing number of people shocked at the past and present and disconnected from the future, we have to repair these things at the roots.
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.
As well, these early years of the 21st century have seen global conflict grow (particularly in Israel and Palestine). The fine balance that Socialist-Zionist ideals and actions demand seem out of reach and antiquated to some, and though the movement is small right now and obstacles abound – with so much to fix in this world it is hard to feel that any particular vision will have a real impact, but make no mistake, there are committed people throughout the world building these ideas into realities for the 21st century.
The century long experiment did not fail. For two decades people who count themselves among 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 the 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. For example, throughout recent violence and public racism in Israel, Givat Haviva organized the Neighbors of Peace in response; a way for Jewish and Palestinian Citizens of Israel to connect and oppose the wave of hate.
The movement and its members are active throughout the world, building educational programs for peace and justice, for environmental sustainability and for leadership development. For example, 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.
Though there is a clear, and in some cases extreme, rightward shift on both social and economic lines, today our movement's ideas defiantly continue to hold an anchor on the Left in Jewish communities around the world. These ideals also lead people like me to move to Israel 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.
This movement has been central over the last hundred years in developing strong Jewish identity, centered on secular values and traditions. Hashomer Hatzair developed the Jewish traditions found in the Passover “Hagaddah” of the Kibbutz movement and the secular and labor-minded contact with Shabbat. The new routes into ancient traditions that we build together, in turn build unshakable identity of the individuals who make up our communities.
This steadfast connection to our peoplehood and Jewish identity also stands at the core of our stand against anti-Semitism throughout the world. Our movement must continue to build Jewish identity through education, and a process of connecting our vision for a better world in the future with the beautiful traditions of our ancestors. We have a long history of taking leadership in standing guard against hate and oppression directed toward our people wherever we find it, whether in the streets, online, and in halls of power.
As we move forward in the 21st century it is clear that Anti-Jewish hate is not a relic of the past, but a dangerous reality. Our movement must be unfaltering in our commitment to the safety of our people everywhere, as we stand committed to the same thing for all peoples.
In the 21st century we must educate to re-humanize from the dehumanizing effects of media and capitalism and militarism – both as oppressed and as participants in the oppression of others.
The interconnections of the 21st century demand that we take part in global movements, incorporating 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 with one another and demand power be taken into public hands or 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. We’ve got poverty around the world and in our home towns. People are suffering and struggling in the places that 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.
One ingredient that Hashomer Hatzair can offer beyond critical pedagogy, for taking on the enormous challenges ahead is building communal living frameworks in urban and rural centers. Collectives that can work together to take on those challenges; to take part in movements to oppose oppression, while building models based on justice here and now. These networks can materially, emotionally and spiritually support our struggles by pooling resources and building a backbone for the movement’s ongoing efforts. As public institutions are attacked by neoliberal policy makers Socialist-Zionism in the 21st century aims 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.
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 where we sit alone while connected to everyone we ever knew, where 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 whether ours is a successful movement for liberation.
A. Daniel Roth was born and raised in Hashomer Hatzair in Toronto and lived in a commune of the movement in New York City. He is currently based in South Tel Aviv where he is a journalist and educator, building programs including Solidarity of Nations-Achvat Amim. His writing and photography is here at allthesedays.org and you can follow him on Twitter @adanielroth