"Early members of ‘HaShomer’ at the beginning of the 20th Century"

The Receiving End of our Dreams: book review of “A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement”

Originally published on the New Left Project.

‘A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement’ by James Horrox (AK Press, 2009)

"Early members of ‘HaShomer’ at the beginning of the 20th Century"

In his seminal book Expulsion of the Palestinians, Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha writes of Israel Zangwill’s infamous slogan “a land without a people for a people without a land” that it was not intended as a literal demographic assessment: “[Zionists] did not mean that there were no people in Palestine, but that there were no people worth considering within the framework of the notions of European supremacy that then held sway” [1].

James Horrox’s book on anarchism in the kibbutz movement marginalises the Palestinian people in a similar way – they do not really exist in his narrative of how the Israeli collective settlements were established and then functioned. He is writing about Palestine, a country whose population was around 90% Arab (Christian and Muslim) when the first kibbutz was established in 1910, as if its primary importance was as a plaything for European experiments in group living [2].

The book is a strange attempt to blend Zionist mythology with anarchism. In the forward, Israeli anarchist Uri Gordon questions “the validity of applying anti-colonial hindsight to people that any progressive would otherwise consider economic migrants or refugees” (p. iv).

Gordon is, in part, referring to the Jewish refugees who fled the Russian Empire because of antisemitic pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Horrox similarly claims that “Palestine was rapidly becoming the destination of choice for Jewish refugees” with the rise of the Zionist Organisation (later renamed the World Zionist Organisation) and the pogroms of 1903-1906 (p. 14). In reality it was a relatively small minority of ideological Zionists who chose to go to Palestine. As Mike Marqusee points out in his extraordinary memoir, 1.7 million of the 2 million Russian Jewish refugees between 1881 and1921 in fact left for the USA [3]. Estimates suggest that from the mid-1850s to 1914, the number of Jews who fled Czarist Russia was about 2.5 million of whom about 50,000 (2%) emigrated to Palestine [4].


Although very few in the kibbutz movement ever explicitly called themselves anarchists, there does seem to have been a certain degree of anarchist influence on some kibbutz thinkers in the early period. Horrox examines even the most tenuous connections between the kibbutz movement and anarchist thinkers, but neglects to address a far more pertinent question: if a key aim of leftist anarchism is a society free of oppression and exploitation, how, in fact, did the kibbutz founders treat the indigenous Arabs of Palestine?

In this respect, Horrox displays scant regard for basic historical fact. He correctly starts his narrative during the period in which Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but ignores the impact Zionist colonisation projects such as the kibbutzim had on the Palestinian Arabs. He makes reference to the claims of groups such Hashomer Hatzair to be in favour of “Arab-Jewish cooperation” but doesn’t assess how these claims played out in reality.

Horrox entirely neglects the contemporary context. Rashid Khalidi points out that the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 had began to slowly concentrate state land in the hands of a few private owners [5]. The Palestinian fellahin (peasant farmers) often worked such state land, holding it on a communal basis for generations. The new law meant that canny businessmen began to register large tracts of land as their personal property. Some of the Arab merchant class, such as the Sursuq family of Beirut, did land deals with the newly established Zionist agencies. The fellahin who actually worked the land in question had no say.

Khalidi notes that the first wave of colonists (1882-1903 – often called the First Aliyah) were “pragmatic and relatively un-ideological”. After disputes between the fellahin and their new Jewish landowners, the settlers often ended up leasing the land back to its occupants or “came to treat the fellahin little differently than had their former Arab landlords. They disappropriated the fellahin, but in most cases they did not fully dispossess them, as they integrated them into plantation-style colonies” [6]. The First Aliyah represented a traditional colonial enterprise that sought to exploit, not expel.

The more staunchly Zionist settlers of the second wave (or Second Aliyah) had different ideas. Their ideology was “Hebrew labour,” and had what Khalidi describes as “a more aggressive, forceful attitude to the Arabs” [7]. Horrox seems unperturbed at the future kibbutzniks’ horror to find Arab workers on the land: “even more distressing to the newcomers was the fact that the First Aliyah Jews had resorted to hiring Arab workers” (p. 14).Horrox makes allowance for this racist attitude by claiming the colonists did not want to be “a class of bourgeois Jewish landowners exploiting the indigenous Arab population” (p. 15). But this is a faux-socialist rationalisation.

In reality, the new Zionist landowners, those Horrox argues were anarchist-influenced, often had to rely on the violence of the Ottoman state or their own militias to evict Palestinians from land they wanted for themselves. Khalidi describes how this happened:

“The process would begin with the purchase of land, generally from an absentee landlord, followed by the imposition of a new order on the existing Arab cultivators – sometimes involving their transformation into tenant-farmers or agricultural laborers, and sometimes their expulsion – and finally the settlement of new Jewish immigrants… most of the land purchased… was fertile and therefore inhabited, and fellahin with long-standing traditional rights of tenure frequently stood in the way… The fellahin naturally considered the land to be theirs, and they would often discover that they had ceased to be the legal owners… only when the land was sold by an absentee landlord to a Zionist settlement agency” [8].

Horrox notes that the first kibbutz was Degania. A group of Russian Zionists had become disgusted by the way Rishon Le Zion “and other farms like it were run ‘with their Jewish overseers, Arab peasant labourers, and Bedouin guards’.” In October 1909, while working a different farm, a strike broke out because “Jewish workers decided they could no longer put up with the oppressive, arbitrary administration and the use of hired Arab labour” (pp. 16-17, emphasis mine). From this, a small group broke away to found Degania in 1910 “on a piece of land on the banks of the Jordan River called Umm Juni” (p. 18)

In one footnote Horrox admits that “[a] sizeable part of this land, including the plot at Umm Juni, was bought from absentee landlords – in Degania’s case the Sursuk family of Beirut… settlers paid often outlandish sums in compensation to tenant farmers” (p. 141, note 38). This offer of compensation for the fait accompli of eviction misses the point, as Khalidi explains:

“Sometimes, the fellahin accepted compensation from Jewish settlement bodies, presumably feeling themselves unable to stand up to the new owners of the land… But at other times, they resisted their dispossession, on occasion with violence. In such cases, it was necessary for the purchasers to depend on the power of the state, whether the Ottoman, or, later on, the British Mandatory authorities, to enable them to take control” [9]


The Zionist Movement

Horrox claims that Degania’s “emergence was not down to any premeditated social or economic planning on the part of the Zionist Organisation” (p. 16). In fact, the real force behind Degania was Arthur Ruppin, a key Zionist movement official responsible for land acquisition. Here Horrox contradicts himself: he admits Ruppin funded Degania, but still argues that the settlers themselves were the prime agents of change behind the new settlement. His argument in favour of the primacy of ideology rather than immediate pragmatism is unconvincing, especially as he is forced to narrate the key role played by the Zionist Organisation. In reality, the early communal settlements were established because they were the cheapest and most efficient way of settling the land.

As the representative of Theodore Herzl’s Zionist Organisation, Ruppin established the Palestine Office in 1908. The forerunner of the Jewish Agency, the office was “the central agency for Zionist settlement activities in Palestine” [10]. He was also a racist who had deeply internalised the antisemitism of his native German society: “I hate the wild thorns of Judaism,” a 17-year-old Ruppin wrote in his diary, “more than the worst anti-Semite” [11]. In 1942, not long before he died, Ruppin wrote that “the shape of the nose” can give us an indication of racial affinity, and he sketched a series of Jewish “types”. He attached to each type names of Zionist leaders including Herzl and Menachem Ussishkin [12].

Horrox claims that Degania represented “a permanent social system in which the group assumed complete responsibility for the farm and developed it according to its own principles” and that “private property was non-existent” (p. 18). But Bloom gives a rather different picture. He notes that the workers actually had to sign a contract with the Palestine Office (PO):

“We, the undersigned workers, are obliged to work for the PLDC [Palestine Land Development Company] and to follow the instruction of its clerks’… The contract noted explicitly that the inventory was the property of the PO” [13].

Ruppin was under no illusions about Palestine being empty. He would write in 1938: “I do not believe in the transfer of an individual. I believe in the transfer of entire villages”. As Israeli historian Tom Segev aptly summarises: “’[d]isappearing’ the Arabs lay at the heart of the Zionist dream” [14].

Horrox accepts the official kibbutz narrative in relation to the Palestinians uncritically. While he describes early kibbutz ideologues as “pacifistic and anti-militarist” (p. 27, see also p. 29), the reality of the kibbutzim’s establishment was very different. In fact the kibbutzim led directly to the establishment of the first Zionist militias.

A settlement plan that Horrox argues was influenced by the famous Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin was “treated positively by Zionist leaders and actualised to a certain degree in the short-lived Merhavia cooperative” (p. 32). But Horrox ignores, or does not know, the reality of Merhavia’s establishment.

As recounted by Khalidi, Ruppin’s Jewish National Fund (JNF) made a deal with Beirut landlord Elias Sursuq [15]. Against the will of the Palestinian farmers who had worked the same land for generations, he bought the land of al-Fula out from underneath them. Shukri al-‘Asali, the Arab governor of Nazareth region, heard that thirty armed members of the Zionist militia Ha-shomer had been sent to occupy al-Fula on the instructions of the JNF. He responded by dispatching “a large body of troops” to drive them away. This was to prove only a temporary respite, as his Turkish superior overruled his insubordination and expelled the fellahin, allowing the establishment of Merhavia on the lands of al-Fula in January 1911.

Horrox’s delusions sometimes reach farcical levels. At one point he describes Ha-shomer as a “Zionist scouting organisation” (p. 44 – he later describes them as a “defence organisation”). In fact Ha-shomer was one of the first Zionist militia groups to be established in Palestine (in 1909) [16].

A different group, Hashomer Hatzair, Horrox notes were “at the forefront of the process of kibbutz-building” during this period (p. 44). They established a federation that would form “the ideological backbone of the kibbutz movement” from 1927 onwards, by which time there were a number of kibbutzim in existence (p. 44). Writing of the period after the Nakba (the 1948 ethnic cleansing of half the Palestinian Arabs from Palestine), Ilan Pappe says of Hashomer Hatzair that it “officially carried the slogan of bi-national coexistence… It was the most leftist, but at the same time proved to be the greediest, of the three major kibbutz movements in the young state of Israel” and that it was the “main beneficiary” of a “campaign of land and village confiscations” from Palestinians in the newly declared Israel between 1949 and 1954 [17].

Yosef Baratz, who Horrox references several times and correctly describes as a pioneer of the kibbutz movement, said at the Twentieth Zionist Congress in 1937:

“Didn’t we transfer Arabs from D’ganya, Keneret, Merhavya, and Mishmar Haemek? I do remember the nights on which Shmuel Dayan [the father of Moshe Dayan] and I were called to Merhavya to help ‘Hashomer’… carrying out [Arab] evacuation. What was the sin in that?… Members of Hashomer Hatza’ir are saying: by the establishment of a Hebrew state [a partition proposal] we are creating a barrier between us and the Arabs. Isn’t such a barrier already existing and permanent in the country? Aren’t we building exclusive train stations, an exclusive post service, exclusive government office, an exclusive sea port, exclusive roads, and an exclusive economy as far as possible?” [18]”

Masalha notes that as a founder member of Degania (which he transliterates as D’ganya) Baratz had witnessed such “transfer” first hand. His remarks were addressed to the Hashomer Hatzair delegates, who had argued against plans to uproot the Arabs, but only because they were “dangerous” and “anti-socialist”.

On page 82, Horrox says correctly that the kibbutzim have “always been connected to the country’s trade union movement, the Histadrut”. But he neglects to inform us that this racist union federation barred Arabs from its membership until 1959 [19].

Horrox writes on page 87 that the Palestinian Arab and Zionist “economies were largely integrated” before the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. The Zionists, however, had done all they could to discourage Arab-Jewish contact and mixed labour. David Hacohen, the director of the Histadrut’s construction company, later recalled arguing in favour of racial segregation during his student years in London, not long after the First World War:

“When I joined the socialist students – English, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, African… I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs into my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there… To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought; to praise to the skies to Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] that sent [Zionist Organisation agent Yehoshua] Hankin to Beirut to buy land from absentee effendis [landowners] and to throw the fellahin off the land… to do all that was not easy.” [20]

Horrox is critical of the kibbutz movement, but only in narrow terms that have nothing to do with its crimes against the native population. His critique relates to differences between factions of Zionism, and how the “dream” was “betrayed” by leaders such as David Ben-Gurion who favoured a Jewish state over “an organic commonwealth” (pp. 88-90). In reality it is clear that, as Yosef Baratz pointed out at the Twentieth Zionist Congress, the Palestinians were either excluded or “transferred” from this “commonwealth”.


Horrox refers to the “different types of power networks that have complicated” the kibbutzim’s existence (p. 9). His argument seems to be that they were essentially well-intended, but lost their way because of a drift towards Marxism, and betrayal by the Zionist leadership. To Horrox, it seems, the crimes of Zionism are only worth mentioning when they caused discomfort to the settlers’ experiments in collective rural life – what Segev describes as “a hyperintense adolescent fantasy come true” [21]. His approach divorces the kibbutzim from their colonial context, and focuses on form over substance.

Any attempt at understanding the kibbutzim’s impact on the native Palestinian population is either ignored, or dismissed as passing “judgement on the efforts of the past in light of the injustices of the present” (Gordon in the foreword – p. iv). It is as if the Zionist movement and the kibbutzim were all sweetness and light up until a few years ago. This narrative of a well-intended experiment that ultimately went wrong should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the standard apologetics for British or American imperialism.

Segev argues that the most important contribution of the kibbutz movement to Zionism was “military, not economic or social. They were guardians of Zionist land, and their patterns of settlement would to a great extend determine the country’s borders” [22]. And it is indeed true that the kibbutzim were the vanguard of Israel’s militarism and aggression. As Horrox admits, “the country’s fiercest fighters were drawn from the kibbutzim, including the… core military leadership” and Moshe Dayan, later one of Israel’s most infamous generals, was one of the first people to be born on Degania (p. 116). Artzi, the kibbutz federation founded by Hashomer Hatzair, nurtured the Palmach – the elite units of the Haganah militia – which were often based in kibbutzim [23]. The Palmach carried out some of the main ethnic cleansing operations against the Palestinians in 1948 [24].

The main cause of the book’s problems is the narrowness of its source material. Horrox’s footnotes demonstrate an almost exclusive reliance on Zionist historians (along with some anarchist literature), and no Palestinian or other Arab historians or sources whatsoever. He seems to rely mostly on kibbutz historians such as Avarham Yassour and Yacov Oved, essentially accepting the kibbutz movement’s internal narrative as given. For example, his account of the foundation of Degania is largely culled from Baratz’s memoir.

Another factor seems to have been tension between the book’s author and publisher AK Press (a small anarchist press). While reading this book, I mentioned on Twitter what I thought of it. James Horrox must have seen this, as he emailed me out of the blue to say he had “disowned that book as soon as it was released” and wondered if I would give it a worse review than he could. And indeed, the book does not appear on his website (accessed 21st September). I questioned him a little more and he said the reasons behind his attempt to “strike it from the record” were partly that his opinions had since changed (he’d written the original version as his undergraduate dissertation) and partly because AK had “distorted [the book] beyond all recognition from what I’d set out to write” (Correspondence with the author, 17th of August).

This claim sits uncomfortably with the glowing praise he heaps on his editor in the book’s acknowledgements. He later clarified that:

‘my main criticism is that the book was turned into a history, whereas it was originally intended simply as a study of the internal workings of the kibbutz’ (Correspondence with author, 27th of August).

In other words, he had originally wanted the book to be even more isolated from history than it is now. I contacted AK Press for their side of the story. A spokesperson told me the following:

‘AK always checks changes, revisions, additions, and anything else with our authors… James’s book was definitely no exception; he was involved in the editorial process right up to the last moment… that relationship isn’t going to work out every time, and this is, apparently, just one of those times. It’s definitely a shame that James is so unhappy with the book, I’m very sorry to hear that, because we really do wish him nothing but the best.’ (Correspondence with AK Press US publishing department, 27-28 August)

Another Anarchism is Possible

There is a different anarchist narrative, as the 1938 debate between Emma Goldman and Reginald Reynolds on the pages of the long-running anarchist newspaper Freedom shows. Goldman astonishingly offered a defence of the settlers, claiming in all seriousness that “the land should belong to those who till the soil” – a principle she ignored for the Palestinian fellahin kicked off that same land. Freedom also published an article titled “Anarchist Tactic for Palestine”, Albert Meltzer’s March 1939 denunciation of Zionism (recently republished in Freedom): “The struggle must be against imperialism first, Zionism second, and lastly against the bourgeois nationalist government when created” [25].

There are also the Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW), the small network of committed Israeli activists deeply involved in solidarity demonstrations all over occupied Palestine. Disgracefully for anyone who has spent any time working in solidarity actions in the West Bank, Horrox actually criticises AATW for “focusing on the Occupation and Palestinian solidarity actions” (p. 120) and also for being so highly critical of the kibbutzim’s militarism.

The general tenor of the book is summed up in Horrox’s introduction. There, he quotes English anarchist Colin Ward, to argue that we need to understand the kibbutzim “without reference to the functions they have performed in the last decades in the service of Israeli nationalism and imperialism” (p. 8). Mike Marqusee describes such attitudes as the left’s “failure to imagine the people on the receiving end of your dreams. It’s a failure rooted in Western and white supremacy” [26].

The quotes from anarchists in support of the kibbutzim that Horrox gathers seem to demonstrate that such colonial blindness on even the radical left has not gone away. Some Western anarchists, it seems, are just as susceptible to colonial logic as those who claimed, in the words of 1930s Labour Party leader Herbert Morrison, that “[t]he Jews have proved to be first class colonizers, to have the real good old Empire qualities” [27].

This of course relates to the wider question of European social democracy’s active participation in imperialism, as it founded its welfare states based on the oppression of the Third World. The book is a wasted opportunity, and its publication is a regressive step at a time when many in the Western left are reassessing their historical alignment with Israel.

State or no state, left-wing or right-wing: it makes little difference to those on “the receiving end of your dreams”. The logic of colonialism was, and still is, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

Many thanks to Tony Greenstein for his important contribution to this essay.

Asa Winstanley is an independent journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.


[1] Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought: 1882-1948, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992, p. 6

[2] Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 96

[3] Mike Marqusee, If I am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, Verso, 2010, p. 9

[4] History, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, vol. 8, col. 729-730

[5] Khalidi, pp. 94-96

[6] Khalidi, p. 100

[7] Khalidi, p. 100

[8] Khalidi, pp. 98-99

[9] Khalidi, p.102, emphasis mine

[10] Etan Bloom, ‘Arthur Ruppin and the Production of the Modern Hebrew Culture’, Ph.D. Dissertation, Tel Aviv: Porter School of Cultural Studies, 2009; p. 1, note 1

[11] Bloom, p. 42

[12] Bloom, p. 126

[13] Bloom, p. 241

[14] Tom Segev, One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, Abacus, 2001, p. 405

[15] Khalidi, pp. 107-109

[16] Khalidi, pp. 105-106. He also cites General Yigal Allon to the effect that Ha-shomer were the nucleus of the Haganah, itself the forerunner of the Israeli military

[17] Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine, Cambridge University Press, second edition 2006, p. 146

[18] Masalha, p. 75

[19] Martin Gilbert, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Its History in Maps, third edition 1979, p. 57; Tony Greenstein, “Histadrut: Israel’s racist ‘trade union’”, The Electronic Intifada, 10 March 2009.

[20] David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, Nation Books, third edition 2003, p. 185; see also Greenstein, “Histadrut”.

[21] Segev, p. 250

[22] Segev, p. 249

[23] Lawrence Joffe, “100 years of Kibbutzim”, Jewish Quarterly, 23 July 2010

[24] Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld, 2006, p. 45

[25] This article and the controversy between Reynolds and Goldman are collected in British Imperialism and the Palestine Crisis: Selections from the Anarchist Journal Freedom, 1938-1948, Freedom Press, 1989.

[26] Marqusee, p. 210

[27] Marqusee, p. 127

Front-page image: ‘Early members of ‘HaShomer’ at the beginning of the 20th Century’ – source. Source for other images: Baratz, ‘A Village by the Jordan’ (Tel Aviv: Ichud Habonim, 1956).

I’ve closed comments on this page so as to keep any discussion all in one place, over at the New Left Project.