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May Day Reflections

01 May 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Today is May 1st, or May Day, the workers’ holiday and from an ideological standpoint the most important day on the Labor Zionist calendar.  Before the establishment of the state of Israel and until 1967 it was the proletariat who built the Jewish State-to-be and then the state itself, collecting scattered and battered Jewish communities across the Diaspora and turning them into farmers and industrial workers where they had once been shopkeepers, clerks and members of the free professions.  The youthful communist ideologues wanted to build a “New Jew” and the institutions of kibbutz (commune), moshav (semi-collective) and the Histadrut Labor Union were born.

May Day was a terribly threatening day for the Arab effendi (upper classes) as many flew red flags and spoke of workers’ equality.  The last thing the effendi needed was for the Arab lower classes to start absorbing such ideas and they would face a social revolution.  One could deal with Jewish nationalism but international worker solidarity would bring internal upheaval. 

After 1948 the red flags stood not only for the workers, but for equality of non-Jewish citizens in Israel (especially in the Communist Party), who were often suspect (not unrealistically) of pro-Arab sympathies.  Massive demonstrations were held, especially in ‘Red Haifa’.  In the 1950’s Lenin and Stalin were still revered as great heroes until Khrushchev disclosed the horror of the Stalin period.

The May Day holiday continued into the 1980’s more out of inertia than anything else but the workers did not have it in their hearts anymore since the moshav movement went bankrupt  (1986), the union lost its holdings and companies through mismanagement (1980’s) and the kibbutz movement began to unravel (1990’s).  All that remained were the Histadrut functionaries (see – The Labor Aristocracy) who made fat salaries at the expense of the average worker or entrepreneur.

I remember my first May Day on kibbutz 25 years ago, a college student had learned to be an iron worker.  We volunteered a half day’s work to present the kibbutz with a new front gate.  Then proudly I took two flags, one red and the other the national banner and placed them at the entrance to the kibbutz.

One day late in 1983 with great disappointment and regret I parted with my socialism, sensing something was wrong.  The Histadrut was not particularly defending its workers but was becoming the special interest of a chosen few.  It is said that ‘until the age of forty should a person not be a socialist, he has no heart.  If after the age of forty he continues to be a socialist he has no brains.’

Looking back on this May Day with the all encompassing national strike, certainly not done in the interest of the workers, one can only conclude the Histadrut has neither.