|"Let Me Work!"|
(Socialist Zionist poster, 1930s)
THE PHRASE, HEBREW Labor, was originated by Ben-Gurion and the pioneers of the Second Aliya. They were (as I write in the current Harper's) intoxicated by the prospect of evolving a new Jew: Hebrew-speaking, emancipated, communitarian, self-reliant. They understood land to be an instrument of cultural reconstruction and therapeutic heartiness. They determined to put down contiguous agricultural collectives, in which the Hebrew language could be modernized and incubated, unfettered by rabbinic dictates.
Especially during the 1930s, Ben-Gurion’s Histadrut, the colonists’ labor federation, set about building a state within a state, establishing urban industries from construction to food processing, social benefits from a health insurance fund to sporting clubs, providing Polish Jews a commercially viable refuge from European fascism. Displaced Arab peasants, streaming into the cities, were mainly excluded. Histadrut leaders believed the Jewish proletarian class would evolve into a nation, but that this would shrivel up, and lose moral prestige, if colonists became nothing but Arabic-speaking overseers of Arab labor.
Anyway, the Hebrew nation is no longer hypothetical, and the exclusion of Arab workers from Jewish enterprises--provisionally, arguably, justified in the revolutionary 1930s--is now just another feature of how Jerusalem is degenerating. Nor are things really better for those Jerusalem Arabs who are employed by Israeli Jews. Here is a little story, published in the Los Angeles Times in 2008, about my friend Abed, whose fate seems indicative. Try to read it without blushing for me.
“The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself,” Sherwood Anderson writes in Winesburg, Ohio, “[the moment he] called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” Meir Ettinger is a very young man. I wish him the strength to escape the gravitational pull of his grand-father's pathetic life--and death. I wish him the strength of, say, Abed.