A construction project of Solel Boneh, Israel's first construction comapny, in 1974 (Photo/Wikimedia-Colonel Mike Eldar CC BY-SA 3.0)
A construction project of Solel Boneh, Israel's first construction comapny, in 1974 (Photo/Wikimedia-Colonel Mike Eldar CC BY-SA 3.0)

The laborers and thinkers who gave up everything to build a nation

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Learning about Israel and understanding Zionism are distinctly different undertakings. While I had a Hebrew education all throughout childhood, and can recall the contours of our David Project-inspired curriculum, it seemed force-fed and propagandistic. It was inconsistent with the questioning and exploration that characterized our approach to talmudic study, so I never particularly took to it.

I largely neglected Israel until a few years later. When the Second Lebanon War broke out in July 2006, I happened to be on my first visit to the country. We were staying at Kibbutz HaOn on the southeastern shore of the Kinneret, and I remember standing — rooted firmly in place with my head upturned — staring at the rockets landing 18 kilometers away in Tiberias.

These two memories represented the whole of my Israel experience until university. At the end of my junior year, I decided to write a thesis on the origins of Mandatory Palestine and why the British Expeditionary Force chose to invade Ottoman territory in the winter of 1916-17. It was an academic exploration hinging on World War I, as opposed to any long-held interest in Israel. So when my research introduced me to the work of Chaim Weizmann — the intrepid immigrant who moved to Manchester without a word of English, became a leading contributor to the British war effort and established himself as the principal Zionist statesman — I was fascinated by his story.

Though Weizmann wrote ardently in support of Zionism, his writings struck me as consistently well reasoned and measured. He was thoughtful, poised and armed with answers to the most interesting questions that I’d never even considered. Is there such a thing as Jewish nationhood? Why do humans feel attachment to land? What’s the value in maintaining a homeland? How can one rationalize the existence of nation-states if striving to achieve a multiethnic society?

Weizmann’s work led me to that of David Hacohen, the understated founder of the construction company Solel Boneh in 1921 and an early member of the Histadrut, Israel’s major labor union. He was a principal architect of Israel’s construction industry, and guided the country’s development from the ground up. His memoirs exposed me to the world of labor Zionism, and the secular impetus underlying much of Eastern European Zionism. Hacohen’s aspiration wasn’t for a country defined by religious practice, or even for one founded only to protect against anti-Semitism. Rather, it was rooted in a desire for social equality, meaningful industry and the development of institutions that reflected the best of his Jewish values.

Hacohen’s work with Solel Boneh led me to other accounts of labor Zionism: establishing moshavim in the Hula Valley and communal development projects in ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Haifa. It also led me to the writings of Asher Ginsberg — better known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am — and the cultural Zionism that sought to advance Jewish flourishing and secular spirituality, as opposed to simply a state for Jews. And, for the first time, I began to develop a sense of admiration. I respected the passion that defined each of these leaders, their commitment to causes greater than themselves, and willingness to fashion reality from the ground up.

I was also left with a sense of responsibility. Israel had been founded by laborers and thinkers who gave up everything in order to build a new country. And imperfect though it may have been, they attempted to lend their grandchildren the chance to develop something even better. Not simply an escape from anti-Semitism, or the creation of a state for Jewish people, but a country that reflects the very best ideals of a people. And now, 70 years after Israel’s founding, it’s more important than ever that we protect these dreams, and continue building an Israel we can all be proud of.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Michael Brodsky
Michael Brodsky

Michael Brodsky works with Countable, a civic technology startup in San Francisco that lowers barriers to political entry. Before moving to the Bay Area, he received a master’s degree in international relations and worked with a foreign policy think tank in Tel Aviv.