The death notice published in the daily Al Hamishmar on May 6, 1953, quickly became one of the most cited documents in the history of Israeli politics. "The United Workers Party," it said, "was shocked upon hearing of the great disaster that befell the peoples of the Soviet Union, the world proletariat and all of progressive humanity, with the loss of the great leader and illustrious military commander, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin."
The Soviet dictator was described there as a great revolutionary fighter responsible for immense historic endeavors. But contrary to what is usually remembered, the appellation "sun of the nations" (as supporters liked to refer to Stalin ) did not appear in the paper's announcement. Sixty years later, the death notice can be seen on David Sela's nostalgia website, as if it merits only amused wistfulness.
In fact, it is of interest to recall - incredible as it may seem - that Stalin's Soviet Union was once at the center of Israeli identity. In the first Knesset, the left-wing Mapam (United Workers Party ) was the second-largest faction, with 19 seats. During the debate over the makeup of the government that was held in the Knesset on March 10, 1949, one of Mapam's two leaders, Ya'akov Hazan of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, said: "For us, the Soviet Union is the fortress of world socialism, it is our second homeland, the socialist one." That comment could go down as one of the 10 most-quoted sentences in the history of Israeli politics.
"I was not happy when Hazan voiced that sentiment," wrote Meir Ya'ari, Mapam's senior leader, a year later, although he went on to describe the People's Republic of China as "a dictatorship that safeguards democracy there," adding: "This is the doctrine we have been nurturing for decades."
They were not the only ones harboring such sentiments, of course. David Ben-Gurion returned in 1923 from a visit to the Soviet Union and declared: "I am a Bolshevik." Moreover, many of this country's early inhabitants were Russian-born. They spoke Russian, read books and sang songs in Russian, and thought and dreamed in Russian. Many of them owed their lives to the Red Army's war against Nazi Germany. Stalin was considered the father of the victory over Hitler. The Communists here had it easier: All they had to do was listen to Radio Moscow. Zionist socialists had a hard time living with the murderousness of the Sun of the Nations and with Communist-tainted anti-Semitism: Wrangling over whether to be sympathetic or disapproving split communities and destroyed families.
Politics back then was ideological ad nauseam - and also very personal. There is no clearer expression of this than the letters exchanged between Hazan and Ya'ari. Mapam's two great leaders loved each other, but also hurt each other for 60 years. This was perhaps the greatest love story local politics has ever known, a friendship between two teenage boys who never fully outgrew adolescence. Together they grew old and, even when they were really over the hill, acted as though they were still in a youth movement, forever sorting out the meaning of the love between them, forever torturing each other with jealous insults and all kinds of accusations.
Ya'ari was older and saw himself as more senior; Hazan demanded equality. Ya'ari inspired awe in his party; Hazan inspired affection. Hazan once suggested that Ya'ari burn one especially tortured and tortuous letter. Fortunately for history, Ya'ari kept everything.
The meaning of the friendship between the pair has often been defined by their attitude toward the Soviet Union. Hazan distanced himself from his "second homeland" as the years passed and the virulent crimes of Stalinism emerged. In late 1971, he took the stationery that identified him as a member of Knesset with him to Mishmar Ha'emek, and dispatched a five-page letter to Ya'ari at his kibbutz, Merhavia. Hazan spent the first four pages trying to convince Ya'ari that he, Hazan, was not "abandoning" his friend. It seems that Ya'ari saw in Hazan's criticism of the Soviet Union a betrayal of their friendship.
For his part, Hazan wrote in a most conciliatory tone, assuring his colleague that, "I am certain the Soviet Union is not a dead planet. I am certain a day will come when there, too, the sun of true, socialist liberty will shine in all its essence. Then the objective historian will come along and explain that what happened during Stalin's era, and what is happening there today, were stages en route to the future. Just as the beheading of [Georges Jacques] Danton was also one of the 'links' on the way to the victory of the great French Revolution."
Had Hazan stopped there, Ya'ari might have forgiven him, at least until their next lovers' quarrel. But Hazan continued: "Are such links necessary? Constructive? Are they links of necessary and constructive historical continuity? To all this I reply - not as a historian, but as a man who lived through that period: not necessary, not constructive and not part of necessary historical continuity, but rather a warping and distortion of that historical continuity.
"I only hope that humanity will overcome this as well. And I want us to be with those who overcome, not with those who find justification for this development. With those who rebel against it and not with those who succumb to it. And I am sure you want this, too. And I do not know to this day what happened to you - why you stood 'alone' against everyone."
Ya'ari died in 1987, aged 90. Hazan passed away in 1992, at 93. Plenty of years in which to admit countless times that he had erred in describing the Soviet Union as a second homeland.