“Socialism” in Israel and the United States

Sermon delivered April 24, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Observers around the world were interested in Israel’s recent elections. Global concerns, even those of most American Jews, focus on the candidates’ positions on the peace process, relations with Palestinians, other Arabs, and Muslim nations. Israelis, too, are focused on those issues.

The Israeli voter, though, confronts a wide array of domestic and international concerns. The price of bread in the Israeli supermarket, and the ability to afford that bread, is paramount to many. Just as in our own elections, particularly at a time of global economic crisis, financial matters are important at Israeli election time and always.

The ultimate winner of the February election was Benjamin Netanyahu, now Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu, who also served as Prime Minister in the late 1990s, most recently served as Finance Minister in the government headed by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Toni, Robert, Daniel and I were in Israel shortly after the recent elections. Our relatives told us that none of them had voted for Likud, Netanyahu’s party. The peace process is the primary issue in the minds of our relatives, and they voted for the candidate they thought had the best chance to bring a better future to the Jewish State.

As Zionists, Toni’s brother Todd and his wife and children would have preferred that Tzipi Livni become the Prime Minister. And yet, as a businessman, Todd was not at all unhappy at Netanyahu’s victory.

Of late, competence has been a significant problem in the Israeli government. Some will remember the infamous story of the Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, who was photographed, supposedly surveying a battle site, with caps on the wide end of his binoculars. Netanyahu, on the other hand, was widely praised for his performance as Finance Minister. Steering the government toward more of a free market economy, Netanyahu had overseen a time of growth in Israeli business. Even in worldwide recession, Israel was suffering less than most. For Todd, owner of a business incubator and a consultancy, the country’s economic success is paramount. Indeed, for all Zionists, and for everyone who cares about Israel, the economic future of the nation is terribly important.

Netanyahu and supporters of his economic policies credit his success to his limiting the socialist excesses of the past. According to this mindset, Israel has not historically been business-friendly. Labor policies are most generous. Taxes are high. Regulations have been stringent.

If we think about Israel’s history, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, for its first 29 years, and for well over half of its total history, Israel was governed by the Labor Party. Such heroes as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin, all of blessed memories, were Prime Ministers from the Labor Party, as were current Israeli President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, among others.

While perhaps not all of Israel’s Labor Party members would call themselves “socialists,” the Movement certainly did get its start with that philosophy.

In the days before the 1948, rival groups of Zionists battled for ascendancy among the Jewish residents of Palestine. The socialists were dominant, by far. They were Eastern Europeans, influenced by the revolutions that had swept Russia and other countries, but disillusioned by the anti-Semitism that followed. They believed in the Marxist dream: workers of the world should unite; workers should own the means of production. At the same time, they realized that Jews were not included in the socialist or communist revolutions of Eastern Europe. They went to Palestine, where they built a Jewish socialist state.

Few of us think of it as it was, but let us recall all those romantic visions of early Zionism. Men and women, together, worked the land. They drained swamps to create arable land. They made the desert bloom. They built kibbutzim. The workers themselves owned farm and factory. They worked their fingers to the bone, but they also took communal responsibility for the sick and the infirm and the elderly.

Furthermore, men and women together provided defense for the country. The heroic Haganah and Palmach, the groups primarily responsible for victory in the War of Independence, were the defense forces of Socialist Zionists, before they became Tzahal, the Israel Defense Force, the Army of the Jewish State.

The system worked for a very long time. Today, many lament that only a tiny percentage of Israelis live on kibbutzim, or even are aware of the socialist foundations of the State. Histadrut, the giant Israeli labor union, remains very large, but is a shell of its former self. Growing individualism, diversity in the population, and the need to participate in a global economy worked together to turn the socialist system into an anachronism. Israel’s economic future requires the reduction of its socialism. Entitlements, along with some taxes and regulations, have been reduced. Even with the greater emphasis on the market economy, though, nobody is thinking of privatizing medical care, for example. Israel may no longer be a socialist nation, but far more is socialized there than in the United States, for example.

“Socialism” has become an epithet here in America. Our President has frequently been termed a “Socialist.” Can socialism really be so bad, if it built the State of Israel? And what is Socialism anyway?

In biblical Israel, the people who worked the land were the people who owned the land. Or, put another way, the workers owned the means of production. Socialism!

The ancient and medieval Rabbis ruled that every city was required to provide a school for the education of all children, regardless of ability to pay. Socialism!

Maimonides, the greatest Rabbi in history, was also a physician. He wrote that doctors have an obligation to provide medical care to every man, woman, and child, and should be supported by the community on the basis of ability to pay. Socialism! No, worse, socialized medicine!

In San Antonio today, we have an active socialist movement. These socialists argue that the roads belong to all the citizens, and nobody should have to pay to use them. My guess is that the toll opponents don’t think of themselves as, you guessed it: Socialists!

And what of today’s Torah portion? Everybody was to be offered the possibility of atonement, equal access to the Temple, which belonged to everybody, even though the poor paid less. Socialism!

Now don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to suggest that the Torah or the Rabbis mandate that we engage in socialist revolution. Neither socialism nor capitalism, as we know them, existed in the days of the Bible or the sages of old. Christians have the same issues, with some claiming that Jesus was a socialist and others claiming that their faith mandates lower taxes. Neither is fair to the text. Moreover, nothing close to pure socialism ultimately worked in Israel, and it probably wouldn’t work any better in a larger, more complex economy like ours.

Honesty, though, is a clear value of our faith. If we are honest with ourselves, public education is “socialized education.” Public roadways constitute “socialized transportation.” The police and fire departments are examples of “socialized safety.” We are all supposed to receive equal services; and we are all supposed to pay according to our means. We all “own” the roads, the schools, and the fire trucks. Each of these is, among other things, a big business, socialized. And need I mention the United States Armed Forces? We have no bigger business; we all pay according to our means; we are all defended equally.

As we move forward – evaluating universal health care, for example – let us determine what is best for our nation. Let us admit that we could not get along, and that no society has every succeeded, without some degree of socialism. Let us confess that the State of Israel was built, explicitly, by socialists practicing their dream. Let us also be realistic, and admit that socialism has its fault.

But “socialism” is not a dirty word. To suggest that socialism is anti-American – or in our case, anti-Jewish – is simply not true. In a market economy, with limits that include some socialist elements, we do and we can build a great future. Let us do so with truth.