The very posing of this question is profoundly dispiriting. It shows how bad (that is, not left-wing) the political situation of contemporary Israel is; how radically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has deteriorated; and how historically ignorant and blindly anti-Israeli today’s American left is. The short answer is: yes, of course. Zionism has been Leninist, socialdemocratic, liberal, secular, pacifist, anti-imperialist, proletarian, even, until this became impossible, binational. It has also been militaristic, authoritarian, bourgeois, racist, religious, messianic, imperialist, and neofascist.
This article examines the social experience of belonging to the British section of the international Socialist Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair. The study is based on interviews conducted with 10 former activists across four generations and focuses primarily on the movement in London. It will be argued that Hashomer Hatzair represented a unique alternative youth culture based on a model developed by the movement’s founders in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This model synthesized Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting, the Jugendkultur of the German youth movements, Socialist Zionism and Marxism. Imported to Britain by young German and Austrian refugees from Nazism, this youth culture was reproduced initially in the English countryside, and after the war plugged into the pre-existing politics of Jewish radicalism in London and the general Zionist fervour that anticipated the establishment of Israel. Hashomer Hatzair emphasized autonomy from adult society. By creating autonomous youth spaces, the movement opened a portal for young Jews to shape their own identities. Through a process of politicization and education, the movement’s adherents would identify life on Israeli kibbutzim as an ideal future in adulthood. In tandem with the projection of heroic Jewish role models, this process encouraged Hashomer Hatzair’s followers to define their Jewishness in secular and existential terms, in opposition both to contemporary consumerist and urbanized capitalism, and to the traditional communal associations of the past.