By Shaal, Gil
Contemporary Review , Vol. 276, No. 1609
THIS is the story of the Israeli Labour Movement (ILM), which for about 70 years was a great socialist movement of a special brand. And as Socialist movements come and go in our world, this was quite a unique one. It 'was', because it is no longer -- neither socialist, great, nor a movement. Its uniqueness was reflected in its many special virtues, ideological motivation and extreme political activity. The labour movement played a major role in the establishment and development of the State of Israel. And even before that, it dominated the day-to-day life of the Jewish population in what was then Palestine. In fact, the labour movement was the major driving force in the struggle for statehood and independence.
The term Labour Movement has different connotations in different countries. Thus, for example, in almost all Western European countries, one uses the term Labour Movement to describe the entire political-organisational camp, that includes Socialist, Social-Democrat and Labour Parties as well as Trade Unions organisations. From the late nineteenth century and onwards, the European labour movements -- mainly in Central Europe and in some Scandinavian countries -- aimed to embrace the entire life of the worker and his family and were involved in all political struggles against the existing social systems. In Great Britain, however, the Trade Unions are not called Labour Movement while the official 'Left' uses the term Labour to describe the entire camp. On the other hand, in the United States, the term Labour Movement is attributed exclusively to the Trade Unions organisations. The American labour movement of the modem era, has developed as almost a purely trade union affair. The Israeli Labour Movement is more of the continental European type, although its origins and structure are different. In Israel people always say 'The Trade Unions' -- or use its Hebrew name: the Histadrut -- but never call those 'The Labour Movement', a term used by everybody to describe the group of all labour organisations.
The ILM was not a typical political movement. It was quite a unique ideological social organisation. At the peak of its existence it was also a huge economic conglomerate involved in practically every area of economic activity. Nothing of the sort was known in the free world countries, although some of its features could be detected in the labour movements of several European countries - mainly in Sweden, Germany and Austria. On the whole, this was, in many ways, a very articulate anticommunist movement, most of the time vociferously confronting extreme socialist ideologies, in spite of having, at the edges, a few affiliates that promoted traditional socialist policies. In fact, the Communist world strongly opposed the Israeli Labour Movement and, in many instances, waged against it bitter ideological battles.
In the late 1970s, the ILM's political power started to decline and for the next 20 years its fortunes took a turn for the worse, until it finally collapsed and vanished from the Israeli public scene. Its downfall was the outcome of a series of events -- some intrinsic some exogenous -- which ultimately had a great impact on the Israeli society and economy. Although what happened had significant political effects, the demise of the ILM cannot be looked upon only as the fall from power of just another Socialist or Labour Party, as this sort of thing often happens in democratic countries everywhere. In the Israeli context, the labour movement stood for much more than a political party, and compared to similar organisations elsewhere, it was in fact quite an odd creature. The disintegration of the ILM, and the subsequent political changes, brought about a terrible split in the Israeli society and a great deal of political turmoil. In the course of events, Israel's political structure changed completely and caus ed a significant shift of priorities in the country's national policies. Therefore, at least for the vast majority of people of Israel, the downfall of the ILM symbolised the collapse of a way of life. …