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When May Day Was a Major Event in Israel

In some Israeli communities, the international workers holiday was just as important as the Jewish holidays

Armin Rosen
May 01, 2017
Israeli government
May Day March in 1957, Tel Aviv.Israeli government
Israeli government
May Day March in 1957, Tel Aviv.Israeli government

For a few magical hours later this afternoon, when Yom Hazikaron ends and Yom Ha’atzmaut begins, the Hebrew calendar anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel will briefly overlap with May Day, the international workers’ holiday and the all-around Communist equivalent of July 4th. The Soviet Union would eventually become the state of Israel’s most dangerous strategic foe, and even in the post-1989 world it’s possible to glimpse the remnants of communism’s longstanding alliance with anti-Zionism—just last week, Hamas thanked North Korea for its consistent opposition to Israel. But for most of the 20th century, there was no tension between left-wing utopianism and Jewish nationalism. If anything, the opposite was true: A durable and surprisingly fruitful synthesis ensured that May Day was a pretty big deal in Mandatory Palestine and the new state of Israel, well into the 1960s.

May Day demonstration in 1949, Ramle, Israel. (Israeli government)
May Day demonstration in 1949, Ramle, Israel. (Israeli government)

As Yossi Klein Halevi recounts in his 2014 book Like Dreamers, members of Israel’s many explicitly communist kibbutzim were “raised to revere the Soviet Union as a ‘second homeland’” and educated in the finer points of Marxist doctrine from a young age. Avital Geva, one of the paratroopers that Halevi tracks in his book, recalls that his Kibbutz Ein Shemer, in northern Israel, went into mourning when Josef Stalin died in 1953. It wasn’t just that Stalin’s Red Army had liberated Auschwitz, or that “the Soviets had shipped Czech weapons to the IDF in 1948” and supported Jewish statehood at a crucial moment, including in the United Nations partition vote in 1947. The ties went deeper than any political alliance: For many, Zionism was an avowedly secular pro-labor movement with the same utopian aims as Communism itself. As Halevi writes, the logo of the newspaper for the Hashomer Hatzair Marxist Zionist movement translated to “For Zionism—For Socialism—For the Fraternity of Nations.”

May Day was a major event for some Israeli communities, outranking most of the Jewish holidays in importance. Per Halevi:

For Ein Shemer’s founders, the day celebrating the workers of the world was sacred, joining their loyalty to the Zionist revolution and to the Communist revolution. May Day transformed them from a footnote into a harbinger: they weren’t merely a private experiment in altruism in a tiny country in the Middle East fighting for survival but a model that would no doubt be adopted one day, in one form or another, throughout the world.

May Day isn’t exclusively a communist commemoration, and in Israel, the event had some interesting local history. As University of Guelph scholar Amir Locker-Biltezky explained in a fascinating paper on the history of May Day commemorations in Israel, Madatory Palestine’s first May Day marches were organized by the Histadrut, the region’s consortium of Jewish labor unions, as a show of their power in the 1920s. At that point, the Jewish communists of Mandatory Palestine were both officially outlawed and numerically outnumbered, but they recognized the value of the annual May Day marches as a platform for their movement. “From the start, the Jewish communists defined May Day in universalistic terms,” wrote Locker-Biltezky. “Psychologically compensating for their weakness and small numbers, they used May Day to demonstrate their belonging to the—world proletariat, headed by the ‘magnificent building of the Soviet Socialist Federation.’” Israeli May Day got redder after the legalization of Israel’s communists in the early 1940s. While the rivalry between Israel’s mainstream labor and communist movements still played out through Israel’s May Day marches, by the 1950s, “the holiday march displayed a mix of Soviet elements and patterns of local Israeli origin.”

This all seems like ancient history these days. Any Israeli affinity for communism dimmed after the Soviets threw their support behind Egypt, Syria, the PLO, and other avowed enemies of the Jewish state throughout the 1960s and 70s. At the same time Israel became an imperialist oppressor in the communist political worldview, religious Zionism began to eclipse labor-leftism as the animating force in Israeli politics. Because of developments in Israel and the wider world, secularism became a less intrinsic and obvious aspect of Zionism than it had been during the state’s founding period, turning Israeli May Day into even more of a historical oddity.

Still, there was a time when there was little apparent contradiction in a Hebrew-language May Day parade float with Joseph Stalin’s face on it—and when a convergence of May Day and Yom Haatzmaut would have been a coincidence worth celebrating.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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