Roytenberg: A state forged in fire

Leo Marcus with David Ben-Gurion

The tumultuous political wrangling and seeming inability to form a governing coalition following the recent Israeli election may seem like a problem, but the Jewish state has a history of forging positive change through heated disagreement.

As Shabtai Teveth recounted in his book, The Burning Ground, in British-ruled Palestine in 1920, the Histadrut (the General Organization of Workers in Israel) was established by several Labour Zionist organizations. The largest of these groups was Ahdut Ha’avodah, which was led by David Ben-Gurion. In 1921, Ben-Gurion became the de facto leader of the Histadrut when he was elected to the three-person Histadrut executive committee (HEC).

Ben-Gurion, who came to Palestine from Poland in 1906, dedicated his life to the creation of a Jewish state, and being a socialist, he envisioned that state as a worker’s state and saw the Histadrut as the organization that would grow into that state.

To build the Histadrut into the state he envisioned, Ben-Gurion worked to centralize control in the HEC. The Histadrut ran a labour exchange, which helped workers find employment, as well as a sick fund, agricultural settlements, a food distributor, a construction company and a clandestine defence force, the Haganah.

In 1921, the Histadrut established Bank Hapoalim (Worker’s Bank). Each of these components had its own leadership and resisted control by the HEC. Ben-Gurion believed that a central authority encompassing all the Jews of Palestine was essential to his goal of building a Jewish state.

In 1923, a dispute in the agricultural sector allowed Ben-Gurion to assert his authority and that of the HEC. Two agricultural settlements had been established in the Jezrael Valley, Tel Yoseph and Ein Harod. The two settlements shared the same leadership and held all their assets in common, in an organization called the Great Kvutzah. The Great Kvutzah was a joint project of two groups, Ahdut Ha’avodah and the Labour Legion.

Yet division brewed between the two factions. The Histadrut’s leadership became aware that the Labour Legion had maintained its own secret armed group within the Haganah. Likewise, the Labour Legion seemed to be turning against Zionism and toward the idea of a global worker’s revolution aligned with the Soviet Union.


Labour Legion leaders allocated some money that was meant for Ein Harod to another purpose. Ein Harod’s leaders refused to transfer the money and were expelled from the Labour Legion and ordered to leave the settlement. The expelled members appealed to the HEC, which supported Ein Harod’s right to control its own finances and denied the Labour Legion’s right to expel the members. The Labour Legion insisted that it be able to determine its own membership. It said that, if necessary, Ein Harod could secede from the Great Kvutzah and divide its assets with Tel Yoseph.

Ben-Gurion, seeing this defiance as an existential challenge to the Histadrut, rejected this idea and insisted that all parties comply with the HEC ruling. Anyone who did not accept it would have to leave Ein Harod. To enforce compliance, he resorted to the draconian measure of cutting off all Histadrut services from Tel Yoseph, which meant food, as well as medical services.

Ben-Gurion did this without consulting the other two members of the HEC and, faced with starvation, the Labour Legion proposed a vote on whether Ein Harod and Tel Yoseph should split. The other two members of the HEC then overruled Ben-Gurion and agreed to the proposed referendum, but Ben-Gurion had made his point and Labour Legion submitted to the authority of the HEC.

This story from the early days of the Yishuv reminds us that the struggle to build the State of Israel has always been accompanied by passionate disagreement and factionalism. As we watch Israel’s leadership struggling to form a government, we can console ourselves that, in spite of bitter struggles such as the one described here, a strong and vibrant Jewish state emerged, thanks to the efforts of the early pioneers. So too may today’s struggles be for the good.