Losing Labor: What If the Party Is Over

Categories: Israel
By J.J. Goldberg

(This article first appeared in the Forward newspaper)

A few summers back, I took my kids up to the Kinneret to see the first kibbutz, Degania Aleph, and to visit the lakeside cemetery where the prophets of modern Israel are buried.

I wanted the children to sit for a moment beside the grave of the poet Rachel, whose love song to that lake (“…are you real, or was I dreaming?”) had lulled them to sleep since they were infants. I wanted them to pay respects to Moses Hess and Nachman Syrkin and Ber Borochov, the giants who first showed a century ago
how Jewish pride and social justice can and must go together like the braids on a Havdalah candle or the blades of a plow. I wanted them to feel the roots of their heritage under their feet, hoping they would remember that moment as they grew up and made it their own.

Lately I’ve been trying to explain Ehud Barak to them. That’s a lot harder. He’s the chairman of Israel’s Labor Party, or he was until January 17, when he bolted the party to team up with Benjamin Netanyahu. Now I need to explain to them how this guy ended up in charge of the movement that their great-grandfather helped found, that built Israel brick by brick, that once represented the peak of modern Jewish progressivism. How Barak used the party as his personal grandstand until the floor started to buckle and then left it shattered and gasping for life, reduced to just eight seats in the 120-member Knesset it used to dominate.

Not that my kids would put it that way. They’re more like, dude, who stole my history?

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, this guy has been turning his kids into mini-Bolsheviks. Isn’t that some sort of child abuse? He’s been stuffing their heads with fairy tales about a corrupt political machine that was booted out of office decades ago and making it sound like the Knights of the Round Table. Man, they finished
draining the swamps 80 years ago. Doesn’t he know that the dinosaurs are extinct?”

Indeed, alert readers will keenly recall the story’s broad outlines: that Labor governed Israel for the first 30 of its 60 years, daringly but high-handedly. That it built miracles but patronized and humiliated the hundreds of thousands of Sephardic immigrants who arrived after independence. That it confused party with nation and
ran everything from health care to sports leagues as political fiefdoms. That Labor’s arrogance and bloated socialism ran their course until the party was tossed from power in 1977 by Menachem Begin and his conservative allies. That it’s been slowly wasting away ever since, rallying only briefly under Yitzhak Rabin before entering its terminal descent.

It’s an oft-told tale. And some of it is actually true. Begin’s Likud did indeed trounce Labor in 1977, ending its long monopoly on power. But nine Knesset elections have been held since then. Of those, Labor came in first four times, effectively tied the Likud twice (with one Knesset seat separating them) and came in second two more times.

Only in the last election, in 2009, with Barak at the helm, did Labor lose its status as a major party, reduced to fourth place with just 13 Knesset seats. And now, of course, Barak has administered the coup de grace by taking five of the seats the voters gave Labor — his own and four followers’ — and handing them as a gift to
the Likud.

Looking at it another way, you could say the decline began in 2000, when the Second Intifada erupted in blood — during Barak’s brief term as prime minister — and shattered the Israeli public’s faith in peacemaking. Before that, every election except 1977 had ended in Labor either winning or essentially tying. Since 2000 it’s all been downhill.

The bottom line, then, is that Labor’s current crisis isn’t really the end of a long, steady decline. It’s more like a nasty cold that turned unexpectedly into pneumonia.

Yes, the party’s leaders and supporters, both in Israel and around the world, have felt a malaise for a long time. Since 1977 they’ve been trying to learn how to fight for their beliefs, without quite understanding why their answers aren’t obvious to everyone. It’s a bit like the Democrats’ current dilemma: How do you comport
yourself when you’re pretty sure the other side is wrong, but you don’t want to look hysterical? Do you ratchet up the volume to sound the alarm, or keep your dignity, act like a grown-up and hope to regain the public’s trust? There’s no easy answer. It’s a recipe for drift.

To grasp the full magnitude of Barak’s actions, though, you have to go further back. Labor’s rule didn’t really begin when Israel was born in 1948. Formally, it goes back to 1935, when David Ben-Gurion was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency executive committee, the de facto government of Jewish Palestine. What happened in 1948 was a name change: The executive committee became the Cabinet, and Ben-Gurion became prime minister.

In reality, the story starts even earlier. Before there was a Jewish Agency, before Hadassah Hospital or Hebrew University or the British Mandate, there were the parties. Born as tiny, squabbling debating clubs in Eastern Europe, they came to Israel with the students and radicals of the founding Second Aliyah, eventually
coalescing into the massive presence that was Labor.

This was the framework through which the young immigrant-pioneers governed themselves, debated their future, organized their job banks, sick funds and football games, recruited succeeding waves of pioneers from around the world. (The early Likud followed a similar path.)

Here, then, is the key to its hold on generations of Israelis. Israel didn’t give birth to today’s welter of political parties. It was the other way around. And none played a greater role in birthing the Jewish state than the factions that came together as Labor.

It might be that Labor’s run has ended. Perhaps it’s fallen too far to rise again. But it’s not easy to let go. For those who grew up in its orbit, it’s like losing a parent.

About J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg, editor at large, was the Forward’s editor in chief from 2000 to 2007. He previously served as a syndicated columnist, U.S. bureau chief of The Jerusalem Report, managing editor and New York bureau chief of the Forward, managing editor of the New York Jewish Week, editor of the magazine Jewish Frontier and metro reporter for the Los Angeles Hebrew-language newsweekly HaMevaker. His books include "Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment", and his essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Daily Beast, Salon, Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. His writing has been honored repeatedly by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Rockower Awards of the American Jewish Press Association, the New York Press Association, the Deadline Club of the Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations. A graduate of McGill University and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he has served in the past as an education specialist with the World Zionist Organization in Jerusalem, a founding member and secretary-general of Kibbutz Gezer near Tel Aviv, a sharpshooter with the Israeli Border Police Civil Guard, a New York City taxi driver and a member of the Pulitzer Prize jury. J.J. Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@forward.com
This entry was posted in Israel. Bookmark the permalink.

117 Responses to Losing Labor: What If the Party Is Over

  1. livwnjlh says:

    mPiKUo qgwxclxngctg, [url=http://jguywqvlpngs.com/]jguywqvlpngs[/url], [link=http://crwlqkjjzxgr.com/]crwlqkjjzxgr[/link], http://zmtsjfwajtrs.com/

  2. I have read some good stuff here. Definitely worth bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how much effort you put to create such a excellent informative site.

  3. Eli Dueber says:

    Simply wanna tell that this is extremely helpful, Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  4. tempat abors says:

    I am extremely inspired with your writing talents and also with the structure for your blog. Is this a paid subject or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep up the nice high quality writing, it is rare to look a great blog like this one these days..

  5. more says:

    Respect to author, some wonderful information .

  6. This blog is definitely rather handy since I’m at the moment creating an internet floral website – although I am only starting out therefore it’s really fairly small, nothing like this site. Can link to a few of the posts here as they are quite. Thanks much. Zoey Olsen

  7. I’ve been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this web site. Thanks, I’ll try and check back more often. How frequently you update your web site?

  8. Have you ever considered about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and all. However imagine if you added some great images or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and clips, this blog could undeniably be one of the most beneficial in its field. Very good blog!

  9. click here says:

    I have recently started a web site, the information you offer on this website has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work.

  10. Bong says:

    Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest writing a blog article or vice-versa? My blog discusses a lot of the same subjects as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other. If you are interested feel free to shoot me an email. I look forward to hearing from you! Excellent blog by the way!