Yitzhak Tabenkin was, together with David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, one of three who made the Labour-Zionist revolution in Palestine during the pre-State struggles in the inter-war period. Indeed, Ben-Gurion was said to have joined Poale Zion at Tabenkin’s home in Warsaw at the turn of the century. All were highly influenced by the Marxist-Zionist theorist Dov Ber Borochov when he visited Warsaw and spoke to Poale Zion groups. Emigrating in 1912, he quickly became a leading figure in the labour movement and a founder of the Histadrut in 1920. Although Tabenkin, Katznelson and Ben-Gurion worked together through Achdut Avoda in the early twenties, differences developed when Ben-Gurion began to espouse national interests over class and pioneering ones. For a fundamentalist socialist Zionist as Tabenkin, this was anathema. Thus he strongly opposed the proposition to expand the Jewish Agency with non-Zionist businessmen at the end of the twenties.
Tabenkin and his United Kibbutz movement also took a strong stand against the growth of the Revisionist movement. Following the murder of Arlosoroff, the bitterness between Jabotinsky and the labour movement intensified. Tabenkin urged a militant approach against the Revisionists: “Our movement is not responding to the criminal means used against it as it should,” he commented. Ben-Gurion feared the continuing fragmentation of the Zionist movement and thus attempted to reach an accord with Jabotinsky. Yet these were intensely ideological times. The Revisionists were compared to the Fascists and Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky was labelled “Vladimir Hitler” by the Zionist left. Tabenkin resigned from the Mapai Central Committee in protest against Ben-Gurion’s moves.
We are not working to isolate Revisionism, but for an accord with it, in preparation for it to join the Executive. How did we become so impatient that we cannot suffer opposition within Zionism, to the point where we must suddenly espouse the principle of a coalition of everyone, of peace with everyone?
Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion’s biographer, termed Tabenkin and his followers “the party of values” in contrast to Ben-Gurion’s increasingly national and pragmatic stance. Significantly when a Histadrut referendum was held to essentially test whether Labour Zionism should politically accommodate the Revisonists, 60 per cent backed Tabenkin’s stand rather than that of their leader Ben-Gurion. Jabotinsky noted the point and formed his own New Zionist Organization and its military wing, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, in 1935.
Tabenkin was also severely anti-British. Indeed, Ben-Gurion later commented that “Tabenkin hates England the way an anti-Semite hates Jews”. Tabenkin regarded the Woodhouse Commission as “an imperialist plot” and wielded great influence within Mapai in opposing Ben-Gurion’s acceptance of British proposals for partition of the mandatory area in the late thirties. Unlike Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Tabenkin never diverted from the Socialist-Zionist approach he learned from Borochov.
He also believed in a maximalist Israel, comprised of a matrix of kibbutzim—with no compromise for Arab nationalist aspirations. “We are told that the alternatives to partition are even worse . . . nothing outweighs the importance of building another settlement and another—and hampering the partition of Palestine.”
Tabenkin finally split from Ben-Gurion’s Mapai in 1944 when he and followers reformed Achdut Avoda which later grew into Mapam and won nineteen seats in the first Knesset elections. He was also one of the founders of the Palmach. In a lecture in 1953, he commented that he perceived the doctrine of his movement as “Zionist, socialist-communist and progressive humanist”. Yet this coalition of the broad left subsequently fell apart due to Mapam’s close alignment with Soviet policy.
Tabenkin’s advocacy of a Greater Israel and a return to Labour Zionist values led to an ongoing blanket condemnation of the partition of Eretz Israel. Thus Tabenkin did not celebrate Israel’s independence in 1948 and regarded the declaration of the State as both premature and an act of betrayal. In some kibbutzim, 15 May 1948 was greeted in a spirit of mourning.
Tabenkin’s ideological heirs were numerous. After the Six Day War, the late Yigal Mon and Yitzhak Rabin were less than enthusiastic to consider the prospect of returning the territories than others in the Israel Labour Party. On the far right today, the advocate of transfer, Rehavam Ze’evi of Moledet comes from a Palmach background. Raful Eitan of Tsomet is similarly from a pioneering background—and, like Tabenkin, condemns the use of cheap foreign labour and calls for a return to pioneering Zionist values.
Thus, although the name of Yitzhak Tabenkin may be rapidly fading from collective memory—at least outside Israel—part of his maximalist socialist philosophy finds expression today both within the right wing of the Labour Party and on the peripheral far right.
Unfortunately Yitzhak Tabenkin committed little of his thought to paper and most of his ideological legacy was transmitted through the recording of his addresses and lectures.
Jewish Quarterly Winter 1991