The passionate struggle over the future of Labor Zionist youth movements

Bogrim of Habonim Dror at Ben-Gurion Airport, Photo Credit: Nathan Brown
Bogrim of Habonim Dror at Ben-Gurion Airport, Photo Credit: Nathan Brown

Over the past 5 years, a major feud has erupted between the Kibbutz Movement and Dror Israel regarding how the values of Labor Zionism should be realised. This is how the story began. 

When Degania Aleph was established in 1909, Joseph Baratz, who was one of the pioneers of the kibbutz movement, aspired to create a new way for Jews to live a life of meaning. Reflecting on life in the yishuv at the time, he said, We were happy enough working on the land, but we knew that the ways of the old settlements were not for us. This was not the way we hoped to settle the country—this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them; anyway, we thought that there shouldn’t be employers and employed at all. There must be a better way.” And so the kibbutz movement was born.

The poet Rachel Bluwstein, the “prophet of labor” A. D. Gordon, and paramilitary commander Joseph Trumpeldor all worked at Degania Alef. Within a week of the kibbutz’s birth, there were fierce debates between the collectivist and individualistic tendencies of kibbutz members about how to best realise the values of Labor Zionism.

Ultimately, the socialist determination of the kibbutz movement created a new society, and later came to be one of the most iconic success stories of the Zionist movement.

Habonim and Dror were socialist Zionist youth movements founded almost a hundred years ago in the UK and Poland, now with branches all over the world. During the 1990s, many kibbutzim began to privatise and gradually lost the important role they played in Israeli society. From the 1930s until the 1980s, Habonim Dror garinim (aliyah groups) had pioneered some 50 kibbutzim around Israel, out of 270 kibbutzim in total. With the kibbutzim in decline, through the 1990s there was almost no aliyah at all from Habonim Dror Australia. As a result of this, youth movements connected to the values of the kibbutz movement needed to find new ways to realise their hagshama (fulfillment of ideology).

In parallel, a new sister movement called Dror Israel was formed in 2006, which sought to revive the values of the kibbutz in an urban setting. As of today, there are approximately 1,500 members of Dror Israel, made up of graduates of HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed Israel and Habonim Dror. Amongst this group are around 20 Australians, mostly living in Haifa and Tiberias. A relatively new movement, Dror Israel have 16 “educators’ kibbutzim” throughout Israel where young people live together in an urban, communal setting and work in Israeli society doing ‘mesimot’ (projects). The ‘educators’ kibbutzim’ strive for a new way of life that enables the members to actualize the Jewish values of Zionism, equality and social responsibility in the reality of Israel’s geographic and socio-economic periphery. Inspired by a vision for Israel that is humanist, Zionist, democratic and egalitarian, those living in urban communes mainly work in education, reaching all areas of Israeli society, including youth at risk, working class youth and projects that promote Jewish-Arab coexistence. Dror Israel members live in shared accommodation, and combine their income and possessions.

Watch: Life in a Haifa Urban Commune with Dror Israel

Living the socialist dream in Haifa The story of 14 Habonim Dror bogrim realizing their Zionist vision through collective living and action in Israel. Speaking to Ittay Flescher, these leaders share what they do in their mesimot (social justice work) with their sister movement called HaNoar Haoved Vehalomed and other organisations in Haifa.#HagshamaInHaifa #Caulfield2CommuneHabonim Dror AustraliaHabonim Dror Southern AfricaHabonim Dror North AmericaAZYC

Posted by Plus61J on Saturday, 7 July 2018

Over the past 5 years, a major feud has erupted between the Kibbutz Movement and Dror Israel regarding how the values of Labor Zionism should be realised.

Whilst one would assume the Kibbutz Movement would be thrilled with this extension of their ideals into a new setting, the opposite seems to be the case. Nir Meir, Secretary General and CEO of the Kibbutz Movement recently slammed the young adults living in urban kibbutzim in a facebook post which claimed that “after a decade of commitment to these mistaken ideals, no positive outcomes have arisen. In the not too distant future, these youth with pure intentions will be living a life of struggle and poverty.”

The kibbutz movements currently financially supports  Habonim Dror outside of Israel, through their shlichim and in a small part of the Hanoar Haoved budget. Nir Meir prefers bogrim to realise hagshama by making aliyah to kibbutz. Hanoar HaOved, in contrast, express their hagshama through living on urban communes. This is the key ideological difference. Due to this difference about the nature of hagshama, Nir Meir would like to completely cut of ties between the youth movements.

These comments have enraged many bogrim, who have each shared their own personal stories about the positives of their movement values in a campaign with the hashtag #wearehabonimdror

Adam Braitberg, 29 is a graduate of Habonim Dror Melbourne and is a proud member of Dror Israel. He writes in response to Nir Meir, “Since making aliyah with a garin to Haifa, I have led ‘at risk’ youth in a club, been an advocate for workers rights, ran a branch of Hanoar Haoved in a boarding school in Jerusalem, and today I am in the printing house of Dror Israel.” Braitberg added that through these many roles, “I learnt what it means today to build a Zionist society that is based on the equality of human value (shivion erech ha’adam), a value that is so internal to Habonim Dror, my movement. I didn’t join an external movement. I was and always will be a boger of Habonim Dror. We opened a new path, a path that renews what is Socialist Zionism, a path that finally allows us to actualise the values of Habonim Dror, that we all value.”

The parents of Shulamit Smith, who made aliyah with Habonim in 2015 wrote, “We are distressed to learn that the Kibbutz Movement currently has leadership that is attempting to deny Habonim Dror an active role in leading its youth movement. Your leadership has engaged in bullying practices, which reflect its lack of commitment to the spirit of dialogue. In addition to implementing funding cuts, the current leadership issues threats as well as insults, even labeling Habonim Dror as “property.” Traditionally, teens and young adults have been promoted to help generate the agenda. Your present leadership seeks not only to undermine this traditional role of the youth; it seeks to deny it entirely.”

Nir Meir has not been moved by posts such as these. In mid-January 2019, he requested Roeey Yesod and Pesach Houspeter sign an agreement whereby all members of Hanoar Haoved VeHalomed and Dror Israel will be forbidden from speaking to, running peulot for, sending shlichim or having any connections with, Habonim Dror (not including in North America). According to Australian Boger Bryce Kenny, if Hanoar Haoved and Dror Israel fail to implement this agreement, the kibbutz movement will pull funding from Hanoar Haoved and support an alternative sectorial youth movement in the kibbutzim and moshavim. Kenny added that Meir is “essentially holding thousands of chanichim hostage to force us to cut off our connection with the youth movement from which we have come.”

Australian Bogrim Respond

Rejecting claims that Habonim Dror Australia has been taken over by Dror Israel, Mazkirut member Noa Levin, wrote “For my last three years as a bogeret, I have watched my movement get passed around from adult to adult, and seen it try to desperately keep up with the reality they decided to create for it. One week before my garin was set to have an Aliyah seminar, it was cancelled, disrupting our ability to ask the hard questions about hagshama, zionism and shutfut to ourselves – as all good madrichim should do.”

Seri Feldman Gubbay, who currently lives in Sydney and was also on the Federal Mazkirut wrote, ‘For many of us, making aliyah is only an option if it is done through Dror Israel as they are partners with us in a vision for a better Israel… It is not Dror Israel who has forced their way into Habo Australia. Partnership is based on dialogue and vision’’.

Noa Levin and Noa Shaul at FedCamp 2019

Caden Feldman-Gubbay who was the mazkir of the Sydney Ken (club) in 2014, made aliyah with Dror Israel three years ago. He writes, “All I ask of you, Nir Meir, is to not be afraid. Do not be afraid of disagreements, of honest conversation. Do not be afraid of hadracha. Do not be afraid of the youth. Let them decide. I am not a politician, I am a madrich. Let my chanichim talk to me, and do not threaten them if they do. Let them choose their partners, and do not take away their shnat madrichim if they do. Take a deep breath, and let the youth decide. Let them write the next chapter of Zionist history. No voice should be shut out of the conversation. I ask you to not be afraid to see the common ground upon which we stand. Do not be afraid to call me partner, as I hope to one day call you. For if we succeed in that, a stronger society and Jewish People await us both.”

Nir Meir Responds

In an extended interview with Nir Meir, he explained that he supports all aliyah to Israel, especially that which builds secular communities. “Whilst I prefer aliyah to a kibbutz, all aliyah is good. I want all Diaspora Jews to stay connected to Israel.” 

Nir Meir speaking at Kibbutz Conference in 2019. Photo: Dana Bar-On

As Secretary General and CEO of the Kibbutz Movement, he added that “the Habonim Dror youth movement is a property of the kibbutz which we have  invested enormous amount of money in over the years. It is also our spiritual property, which we don’t want anyone to take away from us.”

Regarding the anger directed towards him, he explained that “the real dispute here is over who has authority over our shlichim in the diaspora. I’m not against those aligned with Dror Israel being shlichim in places like Australia, but when they forget who sent them, they are not ours. If they are sent on behalf of the kibbutz movement, they are representing us. If they give messages to youth in the diaspora, that the kibbutz movement is dead and the only way to make hagshama is in a communa, they are not ours and we will not support them.”

Slamming the idealistic youth on facebook, Meir asked, “What have you achieved? 150 magshimim (participants in Dror Israel) from the thousands of bogrim of Habonim Dror in Israel. Has any real change taken place in any of the neighborhoods where you work? Not really…”

In contrast to the small number of olim from Dror Israel, the Kibbutz movement brings over 300 olim per year through Garin Tzabar army program. “As you can see, we make over 10 times a contribution to Israel than does Dror Israel.”

This claim is contradicted by a report by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center which found that very few graduates of Garin Tzabar go on to become kibbutz members after their army service. The report stated that “half of lone soldiers left Israel immediately after completing their military service. And of the half that stayed, one third left shortly after.” This may have something to do with the fact that the membership requirements and costs of joining in a kibbutz in 2019, are far more rigorous than they were fifty years ago.

In regards to the conduct of those who support the rival socialist movement, Meir said, “I have no problem with Dror Israel. My only concern is when they say that they are the only way to do hagshama. I watched the dramatic Channel Two story  that criticized their way of life. Parents wanted me to be a part of the story, but I declined. I am not against them and the way they choose to live.”

In response to those who say the Kibbutz movement is dead, Meir claimed, “the Kibbutz movement has changed over the past few years. There is no financial crisis any more. We are stronger than ever. Huge numbers of people are returning to live in Kibbutzim. There is not a single empty house on a kibbutz in Israel today.”

“To the Australian Bogrim who wrote to me on facebook” said Meir, “I am not against you. You can lead in your movements and keep doing your work.” He warned that if they or any shlichim incite against the kibbutz movement, they will be kicked out. “I am against any missionary approach. I want to live in peace.”

The impact of having more than one way to realise Habo ideology

Yona Prital, a former central shlicha on behalf of the Kibbutz Movement to Habonim Dror in North America wrote on facebook this week in response that when she first arrived to the movement in 2003, it had very little connection to Israel and was almost “post-Zionist” in orientation. She wrote that bogrim only ran programs on “the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not about Aliyah and Hagshama.”

Praising the change that occurred, she added “then a miracle happened, and our bogrim met Dror Israel which brought a new spirit to the movement, renewing a path to aliyah. In the spirit of the kibbutz, they talked about moving to Israel in order to live in urban communes, working on reducing social gaps in Israeli society. It is a lie to say that leaders of Dror Israel infiltrated diaspora movements.” Based on her recollection, if anything, it was the other way around.

Bogrim respond to Nir Meir

Nathan Brown made aliyah from Sydney in 2012. He is currently a member of Dror Israel. Sharing views that would be common to his peers, Brown disputed many of the arguments made by Nir Meir. He said that allegations implying bogrim of Habonim favour aliyah to urban communes over kibbutzim is false. “I recognise the Kibbutz movements unique contributions to Israeli society, from the days of the Second Aliyah up until today. They’ve made unparalleled contributions in terms of the army, education, politics, agriculture, defense, aliyah and more. We don’t believe that the kibbutz movement is dead – we agree with Nir that it’s in a period of renewal. Not only do we see the kibbutzim as playing an incredibly important role in Israeli society, we think Israel’s future would be in jeopardy without them.”

The key issues on which Brown had a dispute with Meir is in regard to leadership. “Habonim Dror has always had two leadership bodies: Habonim graduates in Israel, who made aliyah and help run the World Habonim Dror office and its many programmes; and Habonim Dror mazkirut members in each different country – people around 22 years old. Both of those groups have felt completely pushed aside by Nir – both Australian olim and Australian mazkirut members for the last five years (2015-2019) are in deep agreement about that. From the 1940s until 2015, Habonim Dror’s world mazkir in Israel was a Habonim Dror graduate; since Nir Meir came along, he’s appointed two mazkirim – neither are Habonim Dror graduates. We have always wanted to work with and alongside the Kibbutz Movement, us as junior partners to their experience, influence and know-how. But Nir Meir’s choices have pushed us – Habonim Dror olim, madrichim and chanichim – to the sidelines.”

A way forward

Julian Resnick, who is a former mazkir of World Habonim Dror, now lives on Kibbutz Tzora. Reflecting on the dispute, he wrote, “my life on Tzora has been great, but it is not the progressive community I once dreamed of. It is a good place for me and one I would not swap at this stage of my life for anything, but I realised that new dreams were necessary if we were to recapture even in a small way the biggest dream of them all. The dream which was lost as the kibbutz turned into something clearly unworkable for bogrim of the movement to aspire to joining, was the dream of our bogrim coming to live in Israel to be part of the struggle to make this place worthy of Jewish History, of our civilization, of our struggles as a People.”

Sharing his hopes for the future, Resnik explained that even though he does not agree with everything that the Tnuat Habogrim does or stands for, he can’t help but be impressed and overjoyed by the fact that for the first time since the 1980s, bogrim are coming to live in Israel not just to ‘be’, but to ‘change’. “They are filled with the same hunger for building this country that I had some 43 years ago.”

Just like the disputes that began in the first week of Kibbutz Degania, one can only hope that the crisis of today is for the sake of heaven. Ultimately, the fate of Labor Zionism as a meaningful movement for social change in Israeli society depends on getting this right.

Shavuot Celebrations at Kibbutz Tzora, 2013
About the Author
Ittay Flescher is a freelance journalist and educator in Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts