A.D. Gordon: The Religion of Labor

Zionist thinker who advocated a return to nature.

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As a religious--almost mystical--thinker, Gordon was something of an anomaly in the resolutely secular Zionist Labor movement of the early twentieth century. Yet the "religion of labor" advocated in his writings provided an inspiration for generations of Zionist pioneers and was the driving force behind the settlement of the land, the creation of a Jewish economy, and the ultimate establishment of the State of Israel.

Gordon's Relevancy Today

A century later, Gordon's worldview seems increasingly incompatible with the values of Israeli society. Far from prizing labor, many Israelis are unwilling to undertake physical work in agriculture or industry. Those who are forced to take on these low paying jobs are not an ideological elite, but represent the bottom of the social pile. In an era when Israeli Jews aspire to work in high-tech and the free professions--reflecting a return to traditional diasporic occupational patterns--do A.D. Gordon's ideas have anything to teach us?

Gordon's most obvious audience is the contemporary settler movement, whose all-consuming goal is to sink roots in the Land of Israel through creating Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). However, although they agree with Gordon about the importance of settling the land, a minority of today's settlers share his estimation of manual labor's supreme importance. Moreover, since the Oslo Accords and the Disengagement Plan, the very future of the settlement enterprise is under direct threat. Perhaps Gordon's ideas are relevant to the establishment of new agricultural settlements in the Galilee and the Negev, but these are marginal ventures in today's Israel.           

A second opening for Gordon's values is the area of environmentalism. For Gordon, the goal of the return to labor, and of Zionism itself, was the repair of human nature and, ultimately, of universal nature. The idea that industry should serve rather than damage nature mandates the curbing of consumerist excess and the shaping of the economy in line with the principles of sustainable development and environmental protection. In this sense, Gordon's message takes on global, rather than purely Jewish-Israeli significance.

Finally, modern Israel suffers from a wide gap between rich and poor (among developed countries, only the USA has a higher inequality index), the erosion of workers' rights, and the employment of migrant workers at salaries so low that Israelis cannot afford to take the jobs. Gordon's belief in the dignity of labor combined with his passion for social justice provide a trenchant critique of this state of affairs.

Yet Gordon's relevance is that his commitment to equality sprang not from doctrinaire and possibly outdated ideology, but from a basic faith in national and human solidarity. In "Human-Nation" he wrote: "Most clear-thinking people now feel that no man with a soul can be happy in the possession of luxuries while there are those in want of the material necessities of life. Neither can a regenerated humanity rest content in its spiritual wealth when there are so many whose souls are poverty-stricken."

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.