The Rise and Fall of the Israeli Labour Movement: Part Two

By Shaal, Gil | Contemporary Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of the Israeli Labour Movement: Part Two


Shaal, Gil, Contemporary Review


The February number described the rise of the Israeli Labour Movement. In this second part the author analyses the process of its disintegration and collapse.

The Israeli Labour Movement has ceased to exist. Its structure has collapsed, its institutions have disintegrated and its financial might is lost. Most of its affiliates vanished and the rest disavowed their association with the movement and changed their political and organisational identity. Although the disintegration was the result of a gradual process, the coup de grace occurred in 1995 in a rather impetuous way. This astonishing outcome took almost everybody by surprise. No one expected such a hard fall. Such was the end of a glorious social movement -- a unique creature of the 20th century.

This ending had some unusual aspects. Thus, for example, nowhere in the free world has a viable political structure disintegrated completely. True, not many known similar socialist-economic experiments survived the challenge of modern democracy and market economy. To mention just one such case: The West German labour movement's various economic organisations which owned and managed banks, construction and housing companies, distribution and retail chains, played for many years an important role in the country's post-war development. As part of its overall policy, the German labour movement was using those enterprises to promote its active involvement in the economy. After a series of scandals and upheavals that occurred in the 1980s this huge economic conglomerate totally collapsed. But in spite of this outcome the German labour movement still exists and almost all of its other political and organisational organs are still operating. This is not the case in Israel.

A series of unique aspects can be traced in a number of intrinsic issues that caused the downfall of the ILM. To mention just the most important ones:

* the rigid-old fashioned-redundant-socialist ideology;

* the ostentatious resistance to change on the part of the leadership;

* the mismanagement and politicisation of the labour economic sector;

* the defilement of the movement's institutions because of corrupt political standards;

* the weakened trade unions movement which led to the loss of the Histadrut's dominating role in the industrial relations system, and the decline of its power in the decision-making process of the economy.

The disintegration of almost all of the labour movement's institutions and the loss of ownership or control of properties, corporations and other kind of equity, occurred almost simultaneously in all areas of activity, in a sort of chain reaction. Nevertheless, the reasons that triggered the process were different and particular to each area, in each organisation and in each institution.

The most intriguing observation on what happened to the ILM is the observation that even when it became obvious to its leaders they were in trouble, they made little effort to reform, restructure and adapt to changing times. Moreover, in several instances, its leaders, mainly the old-timers, bitterly fought attempts by younger leaders who wanted organisational changes to ease the political grip on the establishment, adjust its antiquated ideologies and discard the autocratic management system that prevailed in the movement's enterprises. In the free and open Israeli society, this resistance-to-change attitude led to an inevitable process of self-destruction. Practically everybody did see that it was impossible to continue in the old way -- it was written on all walls, everywhere. Instead, the dogmatic ideologists passively watched the movement disintegrate, until it simply collapsed to no avail and vanished from the Israeli political scene. Why the established political leadership let this situation evolve i s a real psychological puzzle that definitely needs thorough research in a proper time perspective. …

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