Like much else in Israel then, the choices were political: Tisha B’Av for the religious types, Yom Yerushalayim for nationalists and May Day for Labor loyalists.
My choice wasn’t simple. Reared in a Labor Zionist family, my friends and relatives on kibbutzim rested on May Day. But most of my coworkers celebrated Yom Yerushalayim. And Tisha B’Av? I’ve always fasted; working faint and hungry in Israel’s summer wasn’t appealing.
Then I remembered my first Israeli May Day, in 1968. I’d come to Israel after high school in September 1967 for my youth movement’s kibbutz year course. The Six-Day War had just ended. Its traces were in every conversation, in the mysterious alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, the wild hills of Samaria, the bewildered faces of Palestinians, the armies of teenage volunteers. It was all as new to Israelis as to us.
And we saw darker signs in people’s eyes—the horror of battle, the ecstasy of redeemed soil, bitterness at the world’s abandonment.
I sensed something else there, unexpected and disorienting: Israel’s newfound hatred of the Soviet Union. Relations had long been tense, yet a kinship endured—in shared melodies, foods and memories. Now war intruded. Soviet communism meant Syrian tanks and Egyptian jets. American teenagers in 1967 had trouble seeing communism as the enemy. In our world of civil rights and Vietnam protest, anti-communism was the enemy. Anti-communism was the language of segregationists and arms industries. We had come to the kibbutz to find the wellspring of our communal ideal and found a world turning upside down.
Most unsettled were those of us from Labor movement families. Democratic socialism was our birthright. We had been raised as the spiritual children of David Ben-Gurion, heirs to an old-new Judaism. Friday nights at summer camp, we blessed the candles and wine traditionally, then blessed our meals with Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s “Song of Work and Labor.” We studied the writings of Karl Marx, A.D. Gordon and the prophet Amos (Chapter 2:6): “…three sins of Israel…I will not forgive, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes….” We learned that today’s Labor Israel couldn’t commit that sin, that it left the corners of its fields for the poor, as the Torah commands.
Arriving in Israel, we found our Judaism on trial. The debate erupted in January, at the Labor Party convention. When delegates rose to sing the anthem of Labor, the “Internationale,” a group led by Golda Meir remained seated in stony silence. No one was more shocked than our American group. Golda was from our Milwaukee branch. We felt abandoned.
Approaching May Day, kibbutzim across Israel debated whether to fly the red flag as usual. The young fighter pilots, the kibbutz movement’s pride, insisted the red flag symbolized Soviet-made MIG jets buzzing their tails. A few loyalists objected: It wasn’t socialism that betrayed Israel, but communism that betrayed socialism. We can’t let them steal our flag, one old-timer told me.
I thought of him as I signed my employment contract in 1973. I checked off May Day. Years later, his words echo stronger than ever. Now I’m the old-timer, often asked how I can celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, how I still salute the blue-and-white in an age of rampaging settlers and segregated buses. I give the same answer the old kibbutznik once gave me: We can’t let them steal our flag.
J.J. Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward.