The Old Young Guard

By Aryeh Tepper
Monday, March 7, 2011

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.

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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