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The Old Young Guard

Hashomer Hatzair poster.

One of the most significant movements of Jewish renewal in the 20th century was Hashomer Hatzair: the Young Guard.  Founded as a youth group in Vienna in 1916, the movement set itself in opposition to what it regarded as the emaciated character of Jewish life. In place of this, it aimed to restore vitality, community, and optimism to the Jewish people by founding communal settlements (kibbutzim) in the land of Israel. There, life would be reorganized along Marxist-Zionist lines and people would be re-educated to share everything. Against the "idolatrous worship of books" typical of traditional Jewish society, Hashomer Hatzair also called for a return to the simplicity and beauty of nature.

Relevant Links
Last Words from the Warsaw Ghetto  Mordechai Anielewicz, Jewish Virtual Library. In his final communication, dated April 23, 1943, Mordechai Anielewicz reasserts his conviction that “great things are happening and what we dared do is of great, enormous importance.”

For a time, the kibbutz movement associated with Hashomer Hatzair and other such groups was a wild success, especially among young Jews attracted by the idealism of a collective life on the land. After the founding of the state of Israel, the kibbutzim produced a disproportionate number of elite Israeli soldiers and officers.

One Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz was Yad Mordechai, established in 1943 about a mile north of the Gaza Strip. It was named after Mordechai Anielewicz, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and himself a member of the movement. In his final letter from the besieged ghetto, Anielewicz celebrated the revival of the Jews' martial spirit: "The dream of my life has risen to become fact. . . . I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle."

That spirit would be put to the test when Yad Mordechai came under attack by Egyptian forces during Israel's war of independence. Abandoned in May 1948, the kibbutz was razed by the Egyptians before being retaken by Israeli troops toward the end of the year and later rebuilt from the ground up.

In 1968, a museum was opened at Yad Mordechai to commemorate the lost world of European Jewry, the battle for the kibbutz, and the rebirth of the Jewish state. Since it lies off the beaten path and is now within range of Kassam missiles fired from Gaza, the museum has tended to attract relatively few visitors.  But it recently made a bid for greater attention by hiring a prominent designer to bring an Epcot Center-like sensibility to its exhibits. Among the innovations was a technologically sophisticated tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, complete with yellow stars projected onto visitors' clothing and a reconstruction of the basement bunker housing the command center of the Jewish resistance.

Criticized for applying a theme-park mentality to matters of the utmost seriousness, the museum has moved to bring the technological innovations in line with the kibbutz's own more down-to-earth sensibility. According to the curator, Vered Bar Samech, the yellow stars, now turned off, will be switched on again only if they answer to a need arising from a particular tour group. Consistent with her emphasis on education, Bar Samech would also like to add a wing where students will be introduced to the basics of modern Jewish history, since all the technology in the world cannot give a young person the context to understand what he is seeing, let alone help him to think about it.

There is undoubtedly something charming about the old-school simplicity and straightforwardness still on display at Yad Mordechai. These values have to a large extent disappeared from the Israeli scene. But, from the outset, Hashomer Hatzair as a movement suffered from the limitations of its strident rebellion against Jewish tradition and its contempt for religion; these limitations, now a source of stagnation, remain unfortunately on display at the museum. 

Thus, a tour of the exhibits begins by descending into a dark, gloomy basement where seven columns depict Eastern European Jewish life through, among other things, a wall lined with photographs of stereotypically scraggly Jews in traditional garb. The visitor then ascends a set of stairs, where, now in the light in more senses than one, religious Jews and other evidences of Jewish tradition have all but completely disappeared. The stark dichotomy faithfully reflects the encrusted perspective of Hashomer Hatzair but hardly the living reality of present-day Israel, where it is no longer the secular left-wing kibbutzim but the religious-Zionist community that produces the disproportionate share of elite Israeli troops.

True, the museum does feature one religious-Zionist kibbutz. This is Kfar Darom, founded in 1946 as one of a family of Gaza-based settlements that, along with Yad Mordechai, were attacked by the Egyptians in 1948. Kfar Darom, too, fell in the war of independence; it was not rebuilt until after Israel re-conquered the territory in 1967, only to be abandoned again in the Gaza disengagement of 2005.

In the Yad Mordechai museum, however, the history of Kfar Darom is told without any mention of the disengagement plan or of what followed afterward, including the Kassam missiles that promptly began falling on Yad Mordechai itself. One can make sense of this oversight only by reference to an ideological commitment to "peace" that tends to ignore inconvenient details of political reality and that was and is another aspect of the Hashomer Hatzair program. Indeed, the movement was originally in favor of a binational state, declaring in 1945 that the choice for the Jews of Palestine lay between "fascist reaction and democratic progress," the latter to be achieved by sharing government with the Arabs. Presumably, some variant of that dream is still alive.

How then does one explain the fact that so ideologically freighted a movement produced some of Israel's most inspiring fighters and patriots? According to Ber Borochov, an early theoretician of Marxist Zionism, the true internationalist perspective did not ignore national differences, but worked through them. In this view, Zionism was a necessary, if temporary, stage in a long, historical process whose ultimate goal was to do away with nations as we know them.

It's hard to believe that most members of Yad Mordechai, raised on sacrifice to the Jewish state, really believe this any longer. Besides, capitalism in the form of private industry was introduced into the kibbutz over the course of the past decade, and it appears that real estate will soon follow. But that just goes to show that while both the movement and the kibbutz are deeply entwined in Israeli history, they also remain rich in the internal contradictions and ambiguities that characterize secular and left-wing Israeli identity as a whole.

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Ellen on March 7, 2011 at 10:16 am (Reply)
Noone can deny or should denigrate the irreplaceable contribution of secular, socialist Zionists to the Zionist Movement as a whole and to the establishment of the State of Israel. Anyone who starts out an argument on this subject with that approach is not worth talking to. In addition, lamentably, it is a fact that the Orthodox religious leadership in Eastern Europe was disastrously out of touch with the modern world and the needs of the millions of Jews living in the precarious conditions of Eastern Europe and Czarist Russia in the late 19th century.

Nonetheless, the group that is most disastrously out of touch with the conditions of our contemporary world and the needs of the current Jewish people is the remnant of this old secular left. They have been left behind by the ebb and flow of history, just as much as the Orthodox were in the 19th century.

A Jewish state in the Land of Israel that has no connection to historic Judaism is a contradiction in terms and would have minimal future viability. Ben Gurion - no religious fanatic himself, understood that very well, and was concerned about the decline in Jewish consciousness among secular Israelis way back in the 1960's. The dinosaur Jewish left did their utmost to fit in with the secular post-Christian left of Europe and the West, and were paid for their kindnesses by the secular antiSemitism that exists today in those precincts, while Evangelical Christians are the strongest supporters of Zionism today, other than traditional Jews.

The Bible is our mandate, was the phrase that the early Zionists used, even though ostensibly secular. Their hearts were in the right place, even if their ideas were a bit muddled. The secular Jewish left will disappear in the diaspora through assimilation and in Israel they will suffer with no respite from the "internal contradictions" of their views, as a good Marxist might put it.
Yehuda Beinin on March 8, 2011 at 2:25 am (Reply)
Internal contradictions is a double-edged sword, and applies aptly to the religious right as well. The Rambam had it correct when he implored the middle path.
becky on March 8, 2011 at 9:54 am (Reply)
Dear Aryeh, Ellen and Yehuda,
I almost don't know where to begin. The first place would be a fact check; since none of you have a clue as to who or what Hashomer Hatzair is or is doing today. They are spearheading the Zionist left along with the other socialist Zionist movements - all vibrant, connected to their Jewish heritage, immersed in the Jewish bookshelf, connected to the Land of Israel and dedicated to a just and progressive Jewish State. In fact, they are very much the vanguard in terms of their ideology and deep commitment, remaining in touch with the ideas of Katznelson and Borochov while always rethinking them in terms of the current situation. Their ideology is not as you present it; it is thoughtful, complex and multidimensional - not some slogan-based platform. Find out a little about what Hashomer Hatzair is today before you write about it. There is no progressive demonstration today without a sizable blue-shirted element.
These young blue-shirted Zionists are in fact are doing the most to preserve Israel as a "Jewish" state; by clearly calling for a two-state solution. Whereas the "religious" Zionists, intoxicated by cheap real estate and addicted to self-glorification are dragging the entire State of Israel to a dangerous endgame - in which there is no chance that we will be able to live in a State with a Jewish majority. The religious right does a lot of self-righteous chest-beating, but can never come up with a direction or sensible solution.
Ellen - to blame the secular anti-Semitism on the Jewish left is shallow and specious - or perhaps just muddled. The left Zionists of today also see the Bible as their mandate - as did Ben Gurion. It doesn't mean they have to believe that the Bible is the word of God, which they never did. It is the heritage of the Jewish people, just as Homer, etc. is the heritage of the Greeks. You can learn, admire and grow from it, but you don't have to worship it.
My goodness - the world is propelled by internal contradictions - bring em on. Better than a thoughtless, by the book, just ask the rabbi, one-dimensional "ideology".
All the best
Ellen on March 8, 2011 at 10:47 am (Reply)
Not knowing where to begin is definitely a chronic problem of the left. They usually date the beginning of civilized history as when St. Marx wrote his little manifesto and discovered that the material forces of production are the great drivers of history. If there was ever a group of people more addicted to thoughtless, by the book, one-dimensional ideology, it certainly is the modern left - and especially its Jewish proponents who replaced the Bible with Das Kapital.

I didn't blame secular anti-Semitism on the Jewish left (although one could definitely make an argument of that sort with a fair level of supporting evidence). What I blame the Jewish left for is cowardice and intellectual decrepitude in being unwilling to summon the courage or honesty to expose these leftist antiSemites, as they have done with rightwing or Christian antiSemites. You see, leftists are supposed to be universalists, so how could they possibly suffer from an ethnic or religious prejudice? Oh dear, those internal contradictions are a mighty nuisance.

The problems of the left are far deeper than unwillingness to see antiSemitism among their comrades when it rears its ugly head, which explains the fall from grace of the left in most of the world. Except, of course, in the academic world, where the tenure system has preserved these fossilized relics of a dead ideology.
Yehuda on March 8, 2011 at 10:57 am (Reply)
Your contention that I have not a clue regarding what Hashomer Hatzair is doing today is interesting. You have my full name. Google it, please, before you make public accusations, hiding behind the anonymity of the Web.

You are also invited to join the Shomernet @ yahoo groups, where you can read my posts, along with those of another 450 or so Shomrim from North America. I promise you, in THAT listserve your comments regarding my Hashomer Hatzair credentials would be met with a great deal less civility than I have shown you here.

Now to the issue at hand: Hashomer Hatzair has always been the middle path. It is that fact that allowed Mordechai Aniliwicz to lead the Warsaw Ghetto fight: Hashomer Hatzair was the only Zionist movement with ties to other leftist (the Bund and others) forces who were the source of needed weapons.

If you want, or require further information, just ask.
Stephen on March 8, 2011 at 11:07 am (Reply)
Most probably a mistake though to bring up the Greeks.
Talk about clash of Civilisations!!!
Yehuda on March 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm (Reply)
Your use of broad strokes of the pen, with terms like "the leftists," "they," as well as a slightly cynical bent with your "St. Marx" comment clearly reveal what is perhaps an agenda other than knowledge for the sake of knowledge, dosed with a fair share of (apparently) preconceived notions regarding what Marx and Marxism is about and what the difference between the two is.

The imprecision of your comments is bothersome and reveals a penchent for polemic rather than dialog. That is a shame, particularly from the side which I can only imagine is all in favor of Jewish unity. I guess that unity comes only on your terms.
Ellen on March 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm (Reply)

If you want precision, that would require a doctoral thesis. Discussion forums on the web are meant to be polemical, to a degree, that is what makes them interesting.

If you are truly interested in precision, furthermore, you would not call Hashomer Hatzair the middle of the road. It was never anything of the kind. The Hashomer-affiliated kibbutzim (one of which I spent 6 months on as a young person) were considered the far left of that movement as was Hashomer generally.

When people start talking about Jewish unity, it usually raises a red flag. No one in Jewish life or anywhere else really wants unity. People want to unify a segmented population usually to enforce their writ over other fractious opponents. Liberal Jews now talk about unity because they are going down and the religious or right wing elements in Jewish life are in the ascendency. When Jewish liberals in America and the left in Israel were overwhelmingly dominant, unity was the last thing on their mind. Please consult a history book to refresh yourself about what the attitude of the Labor party in Israel was toward its opponents during those years, or analogous forces in American Jewish life.

Yasser Arafat, that iconic figure for the Western left, had the correct understanding. His favorite slogan was: "Revolution, revolution, until victory."
becky on March 8, 2011 at 1:58 pm (Reply)
Yehuda Shalom
I am truly sorry. You should not have been addressed in my post. I got confused and thought that Ellen's comment was yours. Oops. I am also sorry if I was not civil. I was never in Hashomer Hatzair and I am sure you have stellar credentials. I am not trying to hide behind anything. It just seemed to me that with so much verbiage on Hashomer Hatzair, someone should set the record straight about the fantastic youth in Israel that are part of the movement and the amazing, brave, creative and forward-thinking work they are doing.
I think they are an example to the Jewish people worldwide.
Thats all, Chazak Ve'ematz
Yehuda on March 8, 2011 at 2:33 pm (Reply)
@Becky: Ackowledged.

@Ellen: Your statements reveal a grievous lack of information on your part. A lot of neshama, perhaps but empty facts. Impressions, yes; facts no. Fine. What is left to say is that Aryeh is a very skilled polemicist who wields his pen with a degree of prestidigitation that only the very best magicians ever succeed in mastering. If you want to buy that, fine. I am apparently a bit more experienced than you to know when I am being served up a portion of narischkeit.

For the record, on the eve of WWII, Hashomer Hatzair, with its 50,000 members in Poland alone, was smack in the middle of the road in relation to the overall Jewish Community; a community where the non-Zionist, or anti-Zionist elements were the majority by far.

But I guess it doesn't interest you too much.
Aryeh Tepper on March 8, 2011 at 2:41 pm (Reply)
Hi Yehuda,

I'm not sure why you refer to me as a polemicist. I agree with your statement that talkbacks can be a great place for dialogue. So, in that spirit, perhaps you could explain what you find polemical about the piece. Or perhaps you simply meant mistaken, or wrongheaded. In any case, I would be happy to listen.
Ellen on March 8, 2011 at 2:48 pm (Reply)
So, you're going back to a dead, destroyed Jewish community of preWWII Poland to prove that Hashomer was a centrist movement? How about talking about 2 living Jewish communities over the last 60 years - Israel and America, where Hashomer was always located on the far left?

This is beside the point. The point is the Jewish left has become an archeological specimen due to two long-term negative (for them) trends. To paraphrase Linda Richman of SNL fame: The Jewish left is neither Jewish nor leftist anymore. Discuss.

The item to discuss would be how the Jewish left lost its Jewish soul and how the left, generally, lost its intellect by remaining committed to an ideology proven bankrupt by empirical failure. What passes for the Jewish left today is neither very Jewish nor very leftist. The term mostly refers to cultural relativists promoting the nasty ambitions of anti-Western and antiJewish groups under the guise of "Progressivism" (another useless word emptied of its original meaning). Try discussing that without becoming verklempt.
Al Ramy on March 20, 2011 at 10:00 pm (Reply)
Please be reminded that they were the more Stalinist pack of Israeli politics, with diminishing firepower from the 60's onward. It used to be a party with significant mandate, a suspicious lot of schnorrers, tailed by the Shin Bet in the 50's, fearing their dual loyalty to Joe Stalin. Their biggest traitor, Colonel Israel Baer, deputy Defense Minister, the deepest spy Moscow had , was nailed in 1961, RIP. So is my opinion of this party and its youth movement.

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