Uri Davis, Israel: Utopia Incorporated (London: Zed Books, 1977).

Even if nothing else in the book were worthy of praise, Uri Davis would deserve credit for formulating its title — Israel: Utopia Incorporated. No other expression so succinctly captures the essence of the contradiction inherent in Labor Zionism (or “socialist Zionism”). This ideological trend dominated the Zionist movement from the early years of the twentieth century until the present government of Israel headed by Menachem Begin took power in May 1977. Labor Zionism created the institutions which today constitute the pillars of Israeli society — the army (and its precursors the Palmach and Haganah); the Histadrut (trade union federation) with its massive complex of industrial, financial and cultural enterprises; the national social insurance program; and the kibbutz and moshav movements (collective and cooperative agriculture). The managers and directors of these institutions constitute the single most significant power bloc in the Israeli ruling class.

Using the concept of kinship history as a theoretical framework, Davis shows that the core of leading Labor Zionist personalities (through 1976) is descended from a small number of interrelated families originating in the Ukraine and Galicia. These families arrived in Palestine during the period of the second aliyah (wave of Zionist immigration) from 1905 to 1914. These were the formative years for Labor Zionist ideology and practice. This self-constituted elite, representing only a small minority of the population and cultural ambit of world Jewry, set itself the task of constructing a Jewish society in Palestine in accordance with its own preconceived vision.

The particular cultural background of this ruling class in formation and the Platonic utopian character of its ideology are responsible, according to Davis, for many of the fundamental attitudes and practices of Zionism. These include hostility and discrimination against Sephardic Jews because of fear of their levantizing influence on Eastern European Jewish culture and disdain for those Jews who remain outside Israel because they reject the benefits offered by the Zionist utopia. Of course, such an ideological and cultural framework would necessarily be hostile to the resident Palestinian Arab society and culture which it hoped to supplant.

This theoretical conception is buttressed by an impressive array of biographical and statistical material, much of it previously unavailable to those who do not read Hebrew. This empirical data is the heart of the book. It is a valuable resource for those who are interested in US-Israeli corporate connections, the militarization of the Israeli economy, the status of Sephardic Jews in Israel, and the complex of personal and corporate ties within the Israeli ruling class. The data unequivocably demonstrate the capitalist character of the major institutions of Labor Zionism.

Another important contribution of this book is the thesis that the moral basis and self image of Zionism changed in the period 1967-1970. Previously Labor Zionists justified their activity in terms of glowing statements of their ideals. After the 1967 war many Zionist spokespersons were openly admitting that the state of Israel was the product of conquest and that “our right to Gaza is exactly like our right to Tel Aviv” (Israel Galili). This period marks the beginning of the end of Labor Zionist hegemony over the state of Israel and the start of an era of dual control shared with Menachem Begin’s Likud Bloc.

This shift is symbolized by the establishment of the Government of National Unity from 1967-1970 in which all parties except the Communists participated. The career shift of David Hacohen illustrates the process of the merger of Labor Zionist collective capital and Likud-supported private capital. In 1970 Hacohen retired from his post as managing director of Solel Boneh, the largest of the Histradrut’s industrial concerns. He then became chairman of the board of Atlantic Fisheries Company, a subsidiary of Maritime Fisheries Ltd. — a private enterprise whose directors are veteran leaders and supporters of the Herut wing of the Likud.

Uri Davis is a bold, forceful and controversial personality and these qualities are reflected in his book. His writing style is engaging and the text is punctuated with provocative phrases and concepts, some of which may seem contentious because they are not fully explained and developed. One gets the feeling that occasionally something is said mainly for its shock value.

A more serious shortcoming is the tendency to underestimate the importance of historical and objective conditions as a limiting framework for Zionist activity. It is a useful insight to describe the Labor Zionist ideology as Platonic in conception. But this is really not sufficient to explain why its socialist ideals had to be compromised if the Zionist project was to succeed. It is also necessary, and perhaps more important, to examine the concrete terms of the Zionist alliance, first with Great Britain and then with the United States, for the root cause of this phenomenon. There is material in the book to support this kind analysis, but it not fully developed.

Another unfortunate weakness of the book is the poor editorial work. Many Hebrew words are transliterated incorrectly and inconsistently. There are numerous typographical errors including ones misleading to those who do not know Hebrew. This detracts from the value of the otherwise excellent and extensive glossary of Hebrew terms which includes capsule definitions of Israeli political parties, social institutions and much more. These technical flaws should be viewed with a measure of tolerance, because the book is one of the first efforts of Zed Books, a new publisher committed to producing books with a revolutionary perspective. But, in order for such literature to have an impact on those who are not already convinced, it should be presented in a format which leaves no doubt as to the authority and reliability of the text.

These criticisms should be viewed as relatively minor in light of the significant contribution to the understanding of Israeli state and society which Israel: Utopia Incorporated represents. The book deserves to be widely read and discussed.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Davis, Israel: Utopia Incorporated," Middle East Report 92 (November/December 92).
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