Bernie Sanders’ Kibbutz Experience and ‘Stalinism’

Categories: Israel, Letters From Leadership

The entire phenomenon of Bernie Sanders as a credible candidate for President of the United States is one of the stunning stories of this extraordinary election year.   I need not comment here on another astonishing story going on in that other political party’s contest.

But the idea of a 74 year-old, secular, Jewish, socialist possibly emerging victorious as either the Democratic nominee or the eventual winner seems fantastic in both senses of the word.  (I’ve underlined these descriptive terms individually because normally any one of them would likely disqualify a candidate for high office in this country.)  I’m truly in awe over this and personally divided as to whether to vote according to my heart or my head.

I’m closer to Hillary Clinton on some foreign policy matters; specifically, I wish that Pres. Obama had taken her advice to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, back in 2012, to defend the millions of defenseless civilians being victimized by Assad’s air force.  Now, with the advance of ISIS and Russia’s strong intervention, the situation is infinitely more complicated, but I still think that US policy should try to enforce basic protections for millions of Syrians via a no-fly zone (albeit with extra care because of Russia’s presence).

Yet on my number one foreign policy concern — Israel and Palestine — I’m closer to Bernie.  For example, I’m heartened that he has consulted with J Street, and respect that he took the hard choice of abstaining from an overwhelming Congressional vote to support Israel in the Gaza war of 2014 (probably a difficult vote for him in more ways than one).  I know from his other statements that he’s not anti-Israel and that he knows that Hamas is a problem; I share his view that Israel should be trying harder (or let’s just say “trying” period) to forge a two-state agreement with the Abbas leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

With news that the kibbutz where he spent time as a volunteer in 1963 has been identified, the right-wing attack machine has given us a preview of how it will act if he is the Democratic nominee.  Namely, they are attempting to tar Sanders for spending time on a “Stalinist” kibbutz.

Among several pieces on this matter, this JTA article by Ben Sales is perhaps the most detailed.  Here’s a snippet, but I’ll comment after on how the middle paragraph gets the political nuances a bit wrong:

Founded in 1935 by immigrants from Romania and Yugoslavia, Shaar Haamakim sits at the nexus of two valleys near the northern port city of Haifa. During Sanders’ time, its members grew apples, peaches and pears, and were opening a factory for solar water heaters. The kibbutz also boasts a flour mill.

But as much as agriculture or industry, ideology drove Shaar Haamakim in the ’60s. The kibbutz belonged to the Israeli political party Mapam, which in the 1950s had been a communist, Soviet-affiliated faction. Kibbutz members had admired Joseph Stalin until his death, and they would celebrate May Day with red flags. They spoke of controlling the means of production, taking from each according to his abilities and giving to each according to his needs.

“All the members were equal in all ways,” said Yair Merom, the kibbutz’s current chairman. “They lived in identical houses. There wasn’t a salary; everyone received according to their needs. The kibbutz gave everything: food, shelter, education, health.”

This kibbutz belonged to the Kibbutz Artzi (“national”) Federation, founded by the Hashomer Hatzair movement which evolved politically into the Mapam (United Workers) party.  It was not “Soviet-affiliated”; Hashomer Hatzair had attempted to join the Communist International in the 1920s only to be rebuffed for being Zionist.  HH did in fact combine left-socialist ideals with Zionism.  Into the early 1950s, Mapam was second only to David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai as one of Israel’s largest political parties.  In 1968, it went into an alliance with the new Labor party (created from Mapai and two other leftwing factions) to create the Labor Alignment, which shared a common electoral list until 1984, when Mapam again ran separately.  In 1992, Mapam joined with two other parties to form a common list called Meretz, which became one unified party in 1997.  Meretz was Rabin’s main coalition partner in the Labor-led government from ’92 until ’96, and again briefly was in coalition with Ehud Barak during his 1999-2000 stint as prime minister.  It’s been an opposition voice ever since.

To call Mapam “Stalinist” in 1963 is a gross distortion and symptomatic of what the G.O.P. will do if Sanders becomes the Democratic party nominee.  It’s unknowable if Bernie will be more vulnerable to Republican attack as a socialist (or maybe, to put it crudely, as a “commie atheist Jew”), or if Hillary will be more vulnerable as a woman (think of assailants using the b word that rhymes with “switch”), or as an “entitled” face of the establishment.

As for Mapam and Hashomer Hatzair, they did feel some solidarity with the Soviet Union, which had made it possible for Israel to survive the 1948 war by facilitating a vital supply of weaponry via Czechoslovakia (at a time that the United States had imposed an arms embargo); and they had preferred a “neutralist” foreign policy to Ben-Gurion’s pro-Western orientation.  They also naively thought of the USSR as a positive progressive force.  Nevertheless, Mapam participated in government coalitions and in the Knesset in a fully democratic way — nothing like the “Stalinism” that some now claim.  As for the 21 year-old Sanders, we have no idea if he knew to which of the three secular kibbutz movements his kibbutz belonged, nor the fine points of the differences among them.

About Ralph Seliger

A veteran editor, freelance writer and blogger, I edited the print magazine, "Israel Horizons," from 2003 until 2011; and I've blogged for and edited the Meretz USA and now Partners for Progressive Israel Blog since its inception in 2006 (although I no longer edit the PPI Blog). I've been an active supporter of the Zionist peace camp since 1982. Other print and online platforms where I've been published include: The Forward, The Daily Beast, History News Network, Tikkun, In These Times, Jewish Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Jewish Currents, Huffington Post, and Dissent.
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