Word of the Day / Avoda Zara

In pre-state Israel, an ideological labor policy took root, aimed at transforming Jewish immigrants into a self-sufficient nation.

Judd Yadid
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A Thai agricultural worker in Israel.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Judd Yadid

The modern global economy has divided labor duties between developed and developing countries: Those from the latter nations tend to migrate to do the jobs that very few in the former group want to do.

Israel, belonging to the group of developed countries, is no exception: Thai workers make a large percentage of Israeli agricultural laborers, Filipinos bathe Holocaust survivors, Palestinians pour concrete in Jerusalem and Eritreans sweep the streets of Tel Aviv. The Israeli economy, like many others in the world, has become addicted to the cheap labor of the foreign "other."

Israel’s founders would probably be rolling in their graves at this reality. Early in its development, the country’s Jews were once inherently hostile to the idea of avoda zara (literally "alien labor") – a socio-economic order that was viewed as a direct threat to the Zionist project. 

Whereas the settlers of the First Aliyah were dependent on non-Jewish – namely Arab agricultural – labor, the new generation of Second Aliyah ideologues viewed this reality with disdain. Of these first olim, David Ben-Gurion – chief developer and proponent of avoda zara’s opposing ideology – wrote that their employment of Arabs had introduced “the idol of exile to the temple of national rebirth,” and that the “creation of the new homeland was desecrated by avoda zara.”

The biblical analogy was not accidental. In its original context, avoda zara refers to idolatry among the Israelites, who were expected to worship Yahweh only. Like many other Jewish religious concepts, avoda zara was appropriated into secular nationalist terms - monotheism’s rejection of polytheism repackaged as Labor Zionism’s negation of the archetypal occupations of Diaspora Jews.

Indeed, a supreme – almost divine – importance was placed on socio-economic self-sufficiency as the key to achieving independence, with Ben-Gurion saying that “if we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.” 

In place of avoda zara, an antithetical new paradigm was propagated – avoda ivrit ("Hebrew labor").  While the former was cast as polluting, the latter was lionized as liberating.

Describing the ideology and practice of hiring exclusively Jewish workers in pre-state Israel, avoda ivrit came to symbolize the spirit of the emergent, post-exile Israeli nation. Labor was billed as transformative, and the New Yishuv’s leaders were adamant that Jewsagain do the hard work, the dirty work, and the dangerous work. Not only would they be doctors and lawyers and usurers, but builders and farmers and guardsman - laying roads, draining swamps, and building towers and stockades. With their own hands, they would redeem their lost homeland. 

Once this protectionist labor system became mainstream during the British Mandate – zealously promoted by Zionist leaders and the Jewish labor union the Histadrut – Arab resentment at being shut out of the New Yishuv’s economy grew. Some even cite this as a primary factor in the outbreak of the Arab Revolt of 1936. In contemporary times, Israeli Arabs oppose efforts at the revival of this Jews-only employment policy, claiming it to be racist and exclusionary, even though its origins lie in the desire not to exploit other population groups.

In any case, the reintroduction of avoda ivrit seems outlandishly unlikely. The employment of hundreds of thousands of Africans, Asians and Arabs/Palestinians to do low-paying, unskilled work shows just how Israeli Jews have reverted to their more diasporic form in what work they see as beneath them.

How times have changed, and how far, many would say, Israel has strayed. Still others would argue that foreign labor is economical and unavoidable in such a deeply capitalistic, globalized world.

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