Tony Judt revisits his Zionist youth
Tony Judt, 18 January 2010
My Sixties were a little different from those of my contemporaries. Of course, I joined in the enthusiasm for the Beatles, mild drugs, political dissent, and sex (the latter imagined rather than practiced, but in this too I think I reflected majority experience, retrospective mythology notwithstanding). But so far as political activism was concerned, I was diverted from the mainstream in the years between 1963 and 1969 by an all-embracing engagement with left-wing Zionism.
I spent the summers of 1963, 1965, and 1967 working on Israeli kibbutzim and much of the time in between was actively engaged in proselytizing Labour Zionism as an unpaid official of one of its youth movements. During the summer of 1964 I was being “prepared” for leadership at a training camp in southwest France; and from February through July of 1966 I worked full time at Machanayim, a collective farm in the Upper Galilee.
This decidedly intense sentimental education worked very well at first. At least through the summer of 1967, when I graduated from voluntary work on a kibbutz to auxiliary participation in the Israeli armed forces, I was the ideal recruit: articulate, committed, and uncompromisingly ideologically conformist. Like the circle dancers in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I joined with fellow feelers in happy collective revels, excluding dissenters and celebrating our reassuring unity of spirit, purpose, and clothing. I idealized Jewish distinction, and intuitively grasped and reproduced the Zionist emphasis upon separation and ethnic difference. I was even invited—at the absurdly immature age of sixteen—to make a keynote speech to a Zionist youth conference in Paris denouncing smoking as a “bourgeois deviation” and threat to the healthy outdoor commitment of Jewish adolescents. I doubt very much whether I believed this even at the time (I smoked, after all): but I was very good with the words.
The essence of Labour Zionism, still faithful in those years to its founding dogmas, lay in the promise of Jewish work: the idea that young Jews from the diaspora would be rescued from their effete, assimilated lives and transported to remote collective settlements in rural Palestine—there to create (and, as the ideology had it, recreate) a living Jewish peasantry, neither exploited nor exploiting. Derived in equal measure from early-nineteenth-century socialist utopias and later Russian myths of egalitarian village communities, Labour Zionism was characteristically fragmented into conflicting sectarian cults: there were those who believed that everyone on the kibbutz should dress alike, raise their children and eat in common, and use (but not own) identical furniture, household goods, and even books, while deciding collectively upon every aspect of their lives at a mandatory weekly gathering. Softer adaptations of the core doctrine allowed for some variety in lifestyle and even a modicum of personal possessions. And then there were multifarious nuances between kibbutz members, often as not the product of personal or familial conflict recast as fundamentalist discord.
But all were agreed on the broader moral purpose: bringing Jews back to the land and separating them from their rootless diasporic degeneracy. For the neophyte fifteen-year-old Londoner encountering the kibbutz for the first time, the effect was exhilarating. Here was “Muscular Judaism” in its most seductive guise: health, exercise, productivity, collective purpose, self-sufficiency, and proud separatism—not to mention the charms of kibbutz children of one’s own generation, apparently free of all the complexes and inhibitions of their European peers (free, too, of most of their cultural baggage—though this did not trouble me until later).
I adored it. Eight hours of strenuous, intellectually undemanding labor in steamy banana plantations by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, interspersed with songs, hikes, lengthy doctrinal discussions (carefully stage-managed so as to reduce the risk of adolescent rejection while maximizing the appeal of shared objectives), and the ever-present suggestion of guilt-free sex: in those days the kibbutz and its accompanying ideological penumbra still retained a hint of the innocent “free love” ethos of early-twentieth-century radical cults.
In reality, of course, these were provincial and rather conservative communities, their ideological rigidity camouflaging the limited horizon of many of their members. Even in the mid-1960s it was clear that the economy of Israel no longer rested on small-scale domestic agriculture; and the care that left-wing kibbutz movements took to avoid employing Arab labor served less to burnish their egalitarian credentials than to isolate them from the inconvenient facts of Middle Eastern life. I’m sure I did not appreciate all this at the time—though I do recall even then wondering why I never met a single Arab in the course of my lengthy kibbutz stays, despite living in close proximity to the most densely populated Arab communities of the country.
What I did, however, come quite quickly to understand if not openly acknowledge was just how limited the kibbutz and its members really were. The mere fact of collective self-government, or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables, does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others. Indeed, to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard, it actually reinforces the worst kind of ethnic solipsism.
Even now I can recall my surprise at how little my fellow kibbutzniks knew or cared about the wider world—except insofar as it directly affected them or their country. They were chiefly concerned with the business of the farm, their neighbor’s spouse, and their neighbor’s possessions (in both cases comparing these enviously with their own). Sexual liberation, on the two kibbutzim where I spent extensive time, was largely a function of marital infidelity and the attendant gossip and recrimination—in which respect these model socialist communities rather closely resembled medieval villages, with similar consequences for those exposed to collective disapproval.
As a result of these observations, I came quite early on to experience a form of cognitive dissonance in the face of my Zionist illusions. On the one hand I wanted deeply to believe in the kibbutz as a way of life and as an incarnation of a better sort of Judaism; and being of a dogmatic persuasion, I had little difficulty convincing myself of its principled virtues for some years. On the other hand, I actively disliked it. I could never wait to get away at the end of a work week, hitchhiking or hopping a bus to Haifa (the nearest significant city) where I would while away the Sabbath gorging myself on sour cream and staring wistfully from the dock at the passenger ferries bound for Famagusta, Izmir, Brindisi, and other cosmopolitan destinations. Israel felt like a prison in those days, and the kibbutz like an overcrowded cell.
I was released from my confusions by two quite different developments. When my kibbutz colleagues learned that I had been accepted into Cambridge University and planned to attend, they were appalled. The whole culture of “Aliya”—“going up” (to Israel)—presumed the severing of links and opportunities back in the diaspora. The leaders of the youth movement in those days knew perfectly well that once a teenager in England or France was permitted to stay there through university, he or she was probably lost to Israel forever.
The official position, accordingly, was that university-bound students should forgo their places in Europe; commit themselves to the kibbutz for some years as orange pickers, tractor drivers, or banana sorters; and then, circumstances permitting, present themselves to the community as candidates for higher education—on the understanding that the kibbutz would collectively determine what if any course of studies they should pursue, with the emphasis upon their future usefulness to the collective.
With luck, in short, I might have been sent to college in Israel at the age of twenty-five or so, perhaps to study electrical engineering or, if very fortunate and indulged by my comrades, to train as an elementary teacher of history. At the age of fifteen, this prospect had rather appealed to me. Two years later, having worked hard to get into King’s, I had no intention of declining the opportunity, much less abandoning myself to a life in the fields. The utter incomprehension and palpable disdain of the kibbutz community in the face of my decision served merely to confirm my growing alienation from the theory and practice of communitarian democracy.
The other stimulus to separation, of course, was my experience with the army on the Golan Heights after the Six-Day War. There, to my surprise, I discovered that most Israelis were not transplanted latter-day agrarian socialists but young, prejudiced urban Jews who differed from their European or American counterparts chiefly in their macho, swaggering self-confidence, and access to armed weapons. Their attitude toward the recently defeated Arabs shocked me (testament to the delusions of my kibbutz years) and the insouciance with which they anticipated their future occupation and domination of Arab lands terrified me even then. When I returned to the kibbutz on which I was then living—Hakuk in the Galilee—I felt a stranger. Within a few weeks I had packed my bags and headed home. Two years later, in 1969, I returned with my then girlfriend to see what remained. Visiting kibbutz Machanayim I encountered “Uri,” a fellow orange picker of earlier days. Without bothering to acknowledge me, much less trouble himself with the usual greetings, Uri passed in front of us, pausing only to demand: “Ma ata oseah kan?” (“What are you doing here?”) What indeed?
I don’t regard those years as squandered or misspent. If anything, they furnished me with a store of memories and lessons somewhat richer than those I might have acquired had I simply passed through the decade in conformity with generational proclivities. By the time I went up to Cambridge I had actually experienced—and led—an ideological movement of the kind most of my contemporaries only ever encountered in theory. I knew what it meant to be a “believer”—but I also knew what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance. Before even turning twenty I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.
Unlike most of my Cambridge contemporaries, I was thus immune to the enthusiasms and seductions of the New Left, much less its radical spin-offs: Maoism, gauchisme, tiers-mondisme, etc. For the same reasons I was decidedly uninspired by student-centered dogmas of anticapitalist transformation, much less the siren calls of femino-Marxism or sexual politics in general. I was—and remain—suspicious of identity politics in all forms, Jewish above all. Labour Zionism made me, perhaps a trifle prematurely, a universalist social democrat—an unintended consequence which would have horrified my Israeli teachers had they followed my career. But of course they didn’t. I was lost to the cause and thus effectively “dead.”