Losing Labor: What If the Party Is Over?

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 19, 2011, issue of January 28, 2011.
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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.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg

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