My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: The Core of a Tragic Vision


Ari Shavit

III: The 1920s – The Valley of Harod


Upon reading the second chapter, a reader understands the organizing device of the historical first half of the book – one specific area of Israel, one critical Zionist figure, one key event and all brought together as an illustration of turning points in the history of Israel. In this chapter, the specific spot is Ein Harod in the Valley of Harod on the western foot of the rocky ridge known as MountGilboa located in the larger expanse of the JezreelValley where Ari, using the archives of the kibbutz, locates the genesis of what he calls the Zionist adventure.

Mt.Gilboa itself is a place of historical tragedy for the Jewish people where King Saul and his sons died when the Philistines defeated the army of Israel.  “And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in mountGilboa.” (Samuel I 38:8) To that valley came the kibbutz pioneers to drain the swamps after the National Jewish Fund had purchased 30,000 dunams of Anophole mosquito infested land from the Sarsouk family of Alexandria.

Ari links that purchase with the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 when the purchase of the Sarsouk holdings was first considered with 1920 when the purchase was concluded following a number of other pogroms and The Great War. “In the summer of 1920, it was clear to all concerned what was required: decisive, rapid action. Action to be carried out by a new breed of Jew.” “The choice was clear: the masses who wanted a life went to America. The few who wanted utopia made aliyah to the land of Israel.” Note a particularly novel trope of Israeli historical writing! For Ari, all the immigrants to Israel were humane socialist utopians. This is but one of a long list of false dichotomies that riddle the book.

These false bifurcations are then combined with some puzzling history. Ari begins the real history of Israel with the kibbutz in the Valley of Harod just over a decade later. In the standard textual histories of Israel, pride of place goes to Degania on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee on land bought from Bedouin Arabs. This what Ari writes: “In 1909 they [the utopians] established Degania, the first, small, intimate commune, with the aim of respecting individual needs and freedom. Degania survived, but the utopians failed. Many felt lonely in the harsh, barren land. Some sank into depression. A few committed suicide. Most gave up and left for America.” One would not know that he was describing an initial effort by ten young men and two women.

In contrast, a more standard history reads: “On October 29th, 1910 ten men and two women who arrived originally from Romany in White Russia established the mother of the collectives and the kibbutzim (אֵם הַקְּבוּצוֹת, em hakvutzot) – Degania A (דְּגַנְיָה אָלֶף). This inspiring group established the first Zionist farm on lands bought by the ‘Jewish National Fund’ (קק”ל – קֶרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, kaka”l – Keren Kayemet Leyisra’el). They crossed the Jordan River to its east bank on an assignment for the Land of Israel Office, under the direction of Dr. Arthur Ruppin. They camped at Umm Juni, south of the Sea of Galilee. We came to establish an independent settlement of Hebrew laborers, on national land, a collective settlement with neither exploiters nor exploited – a commune” – they wrote. They revived the people in the Land of Israel as a working people, returning to nature and to the tilling of the land, living from the fruits of its own labor.

The settlers named the place “Degania” after the five varieties of grains growing there (wheat, barley, oats, corn and sorghum). On 1912, during the harvest days between Pesach and the Shavuot holidays, the group moved from the woods of Umm Juni to the area where the Jordan emerges from the Sea of Galilee. The group of settlers not only established Degania, they established the principles of independent work and collective life – they established the basic principles of the kibbutz. They also trained many members of the kibbutzim that followed them. Degania, however, was different from the rest of kibbutzim as their children never slept in special quarters, (called children homes – בָּתֵּי יְלָדִים), but slept in their family units. This romantic history of Degania from idealism to disillusion is portrayed in Yitzhak Rubin’s 2008 documentary, Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights Its Last Battle (Hebrew: הקרב האחרון על דגניה)

The impression one has is that the settlement in Ein Harod is chosen because Ari had family there. But that is not the only reason. For Ari, it is “Our Source, our point of departure”. Somehow, Israeli tragic history will be marked not simply by the founding of the kibbutz rather than moshavs or Petah Tickva or the wide variety of settlements. It will not be marked by Degania. The Israeli political and cultural DNA will be marked and impressed by a particular Bolshevik, centralized very small “c” communist kibbutz.  Further, it will be accompanied by the founding of the Shomrim, the guardian movement that began in parallel to the founding of Degania. For the Shomrim were founded “to replace the armed protectors of settlements with Jews. It does not take a great deal of sensitivity to recognize the connection between the Shomrim designed to replace the Arab armed protectors of settlements to the shift to replacing the Arabs per se and not just their role.

The evidence is found in the kibbutz archives. A Mapai circular named Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’Emek is the first to demand destruction of Arab villages. Are we provided with a military or economic or social context? No. Instead, this find is immediately conjoined with the despairing observation in 1948 by Aharon Cohen, Hashomer Director, who was ashamed and afraid as he reflected on the flight of the Arabs from Haifa that, to win the peace, the new state will have to live by the sword because the new state requires ethnic cleansing. Security requires turning resident Arabs into refugees. Tragedies are built on Greek tropes of inevitably.

The displacement of Arabs is built into the DNA of Israel. The option of war is built into the DNA of Israel. Whether Arabs played a role in forcing such a choice on the new Jewish inhabitants of the land is of little consequence. For that is simply a contingent circumstance. What matters in the Lysenko-like inherited historical genetic material that forged the Israeli personality. One, therefore, need not attend to all the Arabs who stayed except insofar as they remained as future victims of this original genetic heritage. The pogroms in the Ukraine were just part of the contingent circumstances that led to this fundamental mark of Cain on the Israeli psyche and personality. In Europe, Hermann Cohen’s model of a Jewish diaspora driven by the ethical and social heritage of Judaism could be ignored for that was a route and an option that was destined to lead to a dead end. In America, the path that Carl Laemmie took in founding Universal Studios in Hollywood and set a model in which Jews played such an important role in establishing the imaginative structure and framework of their adopted land that would become the leader of the Western world could also be ignored. The genetic history of Jews was forged in Israel via a singular route and not via a continuing dialectic between the varied strands within Israel and the various strands of development in the diaspora.

In Israel, why is the Moshav tradition, either in its more collectivist version or in its cooperative variations, but always rooted in the concept of private property as fundamental, not viewed as part of this so-called genetic history. After all, the first moshavim are virtually coterminous with the kibbutzim. But that is not how Ari Shavit writes. He is an orthodox Darwinian, and not one based on weighing evidence. The DNA of Israel that survives out of necessity is forged in one kind of kibbutz and not in moshavim and not in liberal business farming pioneered by bourgeois investors like Baron de Rothschild (or the owners of the orange orchards – see next chapter) and certainly not by the urbanites who planted their feet in cities.

“Kibbutz socialism is now essential for several reasons. Without group effort, Zionist colonizers will not be able to endure the hardships involved in the colonizing process. Without the idealism of kibbutz socialism, Zionism will not have the sense of moral superiority that is essential for the colonization process to succeed. Without the communal aspect of the kibbutz, socialist Zionism will lack legitimacy and be perceived as an unjust colonialist movement. Only kibbutz socialism can give Zionism the social cohesion, the mental determination, and the moral imperative needed at this revolutionary stage. And only the Labor Brigade ethos of kibbutz socialism will enable Zionism to take the valley and to take the land.” (31)

More importantly for our purposes, by stressing all these “onlys”, the tragedy and the triumph will become predetermined. One path is essential; all other factors are contingent and accidental. Ari Shavit may not be a Marxist, but he has a clear and unequivocal Marxist mode of writing history. “Godless, parentless, and homeless, they had to survive.” Survival of the fittest gave Israel its DNA, but a DNA serviceable for a warrior state but a destructive force in forging a peace and irrelevant for a new post-Zionist prosperous Israel for a communication age. What will later prove to be counter-productive are at the pioneering stage indispensable – – no fathers, no boundaries, no restraints. “There is no compassion in this just-born kibbutz. There is no indulgence, no tolerance, no self-pity. There is no place for individual rights and individual needs and individual wants.”

It does not matter whether these generalizations contain only a smidgen of truth or a great deal of insight. In Sharit’s version they become absolute imperatives. This is how Jews returned to history and regained their masculinity and transformed themselves from object to subject, from passive to active, from victims to sovereigns. The correlate of this primitive Zionism is that Jews in the diaspora remained objects, passive and lacked any sovereignty. They presumably were never practical, imaginative and innovative. It took the ruthlessness of a kibbutz like Ein Harod to make them so. The fallout is that the weak die – commit suicide.

Then Yitzhak Tabenkin is introduced, an ideologue rather than a pragmatist, a believer in Greater Israel but from the left rather than the right, a believer in socialism more than the state, an opponent of the Peel Commission, of partition, an ideological purist – in my mind, one of the many false prophets in the history of the Jewish people, a man possessing neither brilliance, analytic skills nor eloquence, but who talked the talk and loved to talk but could not plow, a man who became the secular rabbi of Ein Harod at the core of the kibbutz movement. He stood as the voice that gave socialism rather than nationalism the foundation for Zionism and that, in turn, provided Zionism with its legitimacy and image of justice.. He would have fit right into the leaders of the Cultural Revolution in China for he had no sense of human rights only of human sacrifice. Though Ari has no sympathy for his Soviet style, for his propensity to preach while incapable of practice, and while acknowledging that he lacked the political genius of Ben Gurion, or any intellectual depth, and lacking an impressive work ethic and moral rectitude, Ari claims that what redeems him is his understanding of the diaspora and the fire in his belly.

Inspired by a prophetic voice linked to their practical approach to the land without sentimentality, smugness or self-aggrandizement, these pioneers are still haunted by the shadows, not just of the serfs of Ein Harod who are now gone, but by the serfs of Shatta and the villagers of Nuris and Zarin, Tel Fir and Komasy who remain. What is more, they love music and are deeply stirred when a genius of Jascha Heifetz’s stature comes to play at their kibbutz and the two great icons of Jewry, one from the diaspora and one from Israel bow down to one another ten years before the Arabs burn the fields of Ein Harod. and twenty-two years before the Jewish centurions bred in this hard landscape will attack the Arab villages of Nuris, Zarim and Komay and drive their inhabitants out. As Ari re-imagines Haifetz playing, he thinks “of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the State of the Jews could not have been founded.” But Ari knows “that the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself.” (47)

When Ari leaves the archives of Ein Harod and has supper with his elderly relatives, he looks at the deteriorating kibbutz, a kibbutz that has lost its way because the economic base of Ein Harod collapsed and its social fabric unravelled, when the young have left leaving despairing elders behind with an empty communal dining hall, closed children’s homes as the collective spirit of the ideology escaped and collapsed the idealistic balloon.

Thus, the future of Israel has been foretold.

I think. Does any Canadian historian write of the pioneers who settled the west in Canada in 1890 and endured harsh lives of self-sacrifice in such Haifetzian tones of high drama and the weeping of violins for the world as it was?