The Challenges of Success

Secular Zionism since 1948

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For millenia, Jewish thought concerning the Land of Israel was the job of theologians. But after Israeli independence in 1948, practical political thought about the Land became much more important than abstract theological musings. The following article looks at secular Zionism since 1948. 

Before the state of Israel was created, secular Zionism consisted of political and cultural variants. The transition from ideal to reality that accompanied statehood posed serious challenges to both these notions. 

Secular political Zionists pursued the dream of reestablishing Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel through political means. Cultural Zionism strove to establish the new Jewish state on the basis of a revived Hebrew culture. Labor-socialist Zionism combined political and cultural elements, attempting to merge Jewish nationalism with an egalitarian, collectivist ideology that emphasized the value of labor, agriculture, and social justice. 

secular zionismLabor Zionism's strong emphasis on institution building enabled it to establish ideological and cultural dominance in the pre-statehood period and continue its reign through the first 30 years of statehood. These institutions--which included the collective settlements (kibbutzim), the semi-collective settlements (moshavim), the labor union and workers cooperatives (histadrut), and the sick fund (kupat hulim)--became the foundations of the new socialist-leaning state of Israel. 

The cultural goals of labor Zionism were advanced through the institutions such as the Davar and Al Hamishmar newspapers, publishing houses of the kibbutz movement, and hapoel sports clubs.

Splits Within Labor

Within the labor Zionist movement, a small left wing (Mapam) emphasized socialism as the economic and social building block of the new country and favored one state for Jews and Arabs in Palestine. A larger right wing (Mapai) favored developing Israel according to social-democratic lines and campaigned for a distinctly Jewish state, even at the price of reduced territorial boundaries. 

The dominant Mapai party--led by David Ben-Gurion, Beryl Katznelson, Moshe Sharret, Pinchas Lavon, and Pinchas Sapir--gradually developed a pro-American and pro-Western foreign policy for Israel. 

Mapam--led by Meir Yaari, Victor Shem Tov, and Yaakov Hazan--advocated initially for a pro-Soviet line, which became more difficult to support with the mounting evidence of Stalinist atrocities and anti-Semitism.

Secular Political Zionism

Secular political Zionism achieved a great victory with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Ironically, it was this great success that raised deep questions about the future of the movement. 

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Ilan Wagner

Ilan Wagner directs Makom in North America, the Jewish Agency's effort to enhance Israel identity in local communities. He was previously the Director of Student Activities for the Department of Education of the Jewish Agency.