Schechter Logo for Print

Between Land and State – ‘Greater Land of Israel’ according to Tabenkin and the United Kibbutz Movement

Yaakov Tsur
| 13/02/2012

A few months ago I submitted my doctoral thesis to Haifa University. The dissertation examines the theoretical sources of the concept of the ‘Greater Land of Israel’ in the worldview of Yitzchak Tabenkin and the United Kibbutz Movement, as well as his influence on the political struggles in the country from the time of the Yishuv until the Yom Kippur War. Under Tabenkin’s leadership, the United Kibbutz Movement adhered to the principle of settling the ‘whole Land of Israel,’ as opposed to the majority of the Labor Movement under Ben Gurion, which favored partitioning the land.

The United Kibbutz Movement was a major player in the political scene of the Yishuv and the Labor Movement, particularly until the end of the War of Independence. Following the Six Day War, the Movement renewed its idea of Greater Israel and its settlement; Labor leaders Yisrael Galili and Yigal Alon were central figures in the Israeli government from 1967 to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The paper follows the historical and political context in which the proponents of Greater Israel operated, and attempts to understand how this ideal was transmitted through the generations, with each generation adding a new layer to the model. I began this research six years ago while still a student at Schechter, in a combined Jewish Thought and Land of Israel Studies track, under the direction of Drs. Alexander Even-Chen and Michal Oren.

The subject is of personal interest to me, because about 60 years ago I joined the youth movement known as ‘Olim Camps’ that subscribed to the Greater Israel position held by the United Kibbutz Movement. The emblem of the movement depicted a map of Greater Israel, on two sides of the Jordan. I recall that on each year on 25 Tishrei we celebrated the founding of the movement with a parade on Mt.Carmel. A scout would stand at the edge of the cliff and proclaim loyalty to the notion of Greater Israel: “My child, I have brought you to the highest point, see this Land, the mountains opposite, these skies are yours, behold the one Land, seal and engrave its image upon your heart.” I later joined Kibbutz Netiv Ha-Lamed Hei and was a member there for 40 years. I served as Secretary of the United Kibbutz for 5 years, and was the movement’s representative to the Knesset and the government from 1981-1996.

My research sets out to explore how an inherently secular, almost Marxist movement adopted the Greater Israel worldview for over 40 years. What was it about those years that enabled this, and why did this outlook appeal to the elite of the youth? The paper examines three periods: 1) the pre-State Yishuv; 2) the State in a partitioned land; and 3) post-Six Day War, when the State became identified with Greater Israel.

The split between Tabenkin and Ben Gurion over the Land of Israel was already apparent in the first years following the First World War. Tabenkin perceived the main goal of Zionism to be settling the Land and building a pioneering, socialist society. Ben Gurion believed that the most pressing aim was to establish a politically independent Jewish state, even if limited to a part of the Land. The argument was over priorities: Land versus State, pioneering settlement versus political power and government. Ben Gurion stressed the importance of attaining normalcy – being a nation like all others – while Tabenkin also emphasized the cultural, spiritual dimension that should be an expression of the uniqueness of the people of Israel.

The open argument between the two first surfaced after the Peel Commission (1937) proposed a partition plan, which called for two states, Arab and Jewish, with international status for Jerusalem. The dispute continued after the Biltmore Program (1942), initiated by Chaim Weizman and Ben Gurion, which pronounced the establishment of a Jewish State to be the main goal of the Zionist Movement. The United Kibbutz Movement took this to mean acceptance of partition. The disagreement between the United Kibbutz and the majority of the Zionist Movement became apparent after World War II, when political processes led to the United Nations vote in November 1947 on the establishment of two states in the Land of Israel.

Throughout the debate Tabenkin argued that the organic entirety of the Land made it impossible to divide. He explained the interdependence between its various areas, between the water sources in the north and the arid areas of the south, and its dependence on one transportation network and one River Jordan. Tabenkin’s reasons were ostensibly practical but he drew on Jewish heritage and Israel’s claim to the Land based on Biblical sources, claiming that the Jewish people formed its national identity in the Land of Israel and remained loyal to it. The Labor Youth Movement, especially the ‘Olim Camps,’ embraced Tabenkin’s credo and rejected partition, adding to their argument an emotional element of love of the Land and the natural, ‘native’ bond between the people and the Land. Only after the U.N. vote in 1947 did Tabenkin and the United Kibbutz Movement reconcile themselves to the political reality, “with mixed emotions of joy and grief – grief over the partition and joy over the State.”

In the last stages of the War of Independence, Yigal Alon, Palmach and Southern Front commander and United Kibbutz member, pushed for establishing the country’s border along the Jordan River, liberating the entire western Land of Israel, including the Gaza Strip,Jerusalem and the West Bank. Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ben Gurion opposed Alon’s proposal; he sought to end the war and was against annexing areas with large Arab populations. Alon’s vision of Greater Israel was based chiefly on border and security concerns, but it also expressed the traditional United Kibbutz view that the entire Land of Israel was the rightful homeland of the Jewish people.

The United Kibbutz leadership regarded the outcome of the Six Day War as a victory in the long struggle for Greater Israel. They now understood the mission of the Movement to be to settle the new territories and so prevent a withdrawal, as had occurred after the Sinai Campaign. The tremors that had rocked the Israeli public – the tension leading up to the war, the overwhelming feeling of power at the Israeli victory, the identification with the pioneering ideal – brought Israeli leadership, headed by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, closer to the settlement ideology of the United Kibbutz Movement.

But it was actually Yigal Alon of United Kibbutz who cast doubt on the validity of the Greater Israel ideology in its complete form. Immediately following the war, he formulated his plan, which although it called for annexation of the Jordan Valley and Mt. Hebron, it also called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank. The Alon Plan was rejected by the government, but provided a guideline for settlement in the territories. At the same time, the United Kibbutz Movement was working towards a national consensus to make the Golan Heights part of Israel, to be settled and under no circumstance be returned. This shifted the focus of solidarity from the historical heart of theLand of Israel to the Golan.

Over the years, opposition to the Greater Israel ideology increased among members of the United Kibbutz Movement, especially among the younger generation, and the split within the movement remained until the Yom Kippur War.

The research tracks the development of the Greater Israel idea within the movement and in the public sphere over a 40-year period, examining its force as an ideology and its tangled evolution and transmission to subsequent generations.

Yaakov Tsur is a Schechter Institute graduate and past Executive Committee Chair of the Schechter Institute’s Board of Trustees. A former Knesset Member, Tsur has held a number of key positions in Israeli governments, including Minister of Health, Immigrant Absorption and Agriculture.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

Photo by: KKL’s Photos Archive.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone