The Rise and Fall of Israel's May Day

Once May 1 was one of Israel's most popular holidays, often bringing Arabs and Jews together in solidarity. Why is it barely observed by anybody but a handful of teenagers any more?

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Israeli May Day posters over the years
Israeli May Day posters over the yearsCredit: The Central Zionist Archives
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The first of May, aka May Day, is no longer widely observed in Israel, though it used to be one of Israel’s most popular holidays. Its rise mirrored the key role of labor movement played in the development of the State of Israel, and the holiday's subsequent diminishment reflects the movement's decline over the years.

May Day, of course, wasn’t born in Israel but in the United States. In 1882 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada resolved that by May 1, 1886, the legal workday would be limited to eight hours throughout North America.

When this deadline wasn’t met, strikes and protests broke out in major cities across America.

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The protests in Chicago were particularly violent, culminating in the Haymarket riot, in which both police and protesters were killed. The incident became a symbol of the labor movement’s struggle. Three years later, in 1889, the Marxist International Socialist Congress in Paris passed a resolution for labor organizations around the world to strike and protest for an eight-hour workday on May 1 around the world.

Thus as of 1890, annual May Day events have been taking place in cities around the world.

May Day parade in Ramle, 1949Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO

During this period, many Jews living in Eastern Europe joined the Workers’ Movement and took part in these May Day events. Not many subscribed to Zionism in addition to socialism, but come the start of the 20th century, this minority started to emigrate to Palestine, where they made up a greater and greater proportion of Jews in the country, which were not many to start with. It was these people who brought May Day to Palestine.

Protesting in Petah Tikva

The first May Day protest in Palestine took place in 1904 in Petah Tikva, by a handful of recently arrived laborers. The townsfolk were appalled. That evening a meeting was held in the synagogue, in which fierce arguing ensued as to whether or not the demonstrators should be handed over to the Ottoman authorities that ruled in Palestine at the time. They decided not to.

But that protest in Petah Tikva was just the beginning. The next year, Poalei Zion, the first socialist party in Palestine was founded, and organized small protests on May Day in some of the Jewish settlements.

Those were the early days of what is known as the Second Aliyah, a period from 1904 to the outbreak of World War I, which saw a massive influx of Jewish immigrants, mostly young socialists from Eastern Europe. As boatloads of immigrants poured into the Jaffa port, the makeup of the Jewish community in Palestine changed drastically, becoming younger and more socialist. May Day strikes and demonstrations began to be more numerous and larger from year to year.

May Day parade in Tel Aviv, 1949Credit: Pinn Hans / GPO

In those years, the May Day events mostly took the form of small meetings, featuring speeches, musical and short dramatic performances, ending with the singing of “Tekhezaqnah” ("Be Strong"), a poem written by Chaim Nachman Bialik that the Socialist Zionists' adopted as their anthem, and "The International," the international workers movement’s anthem, in either Russian or Yiddish.

Then the Great War broke out. The Ottomans cracked down on the Jewish settlers, especially the socialists among them, and May Day celebrations were effectively doused until the war was over and the British took control of the country.

It was under British rule that May Day came into its own, as another wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe began to flow into Palestine.

The May Day events of 1920 were rather modest: the day fell on a Saturday so there was no work to strike. Only a handful of events took place around the country, the largest being a meeting in Tel Aviv’s Eden Cinema, which was decked out with a poster of Karl Marx and red flags. Only some 70 people attended.

But that year, the various Jewish Socialist parties in Palestine organized into a unified labor movement, the Histadrut, which would become a leading force in pre-state Palestine.

May Day parade in Tel Aviv, 2015, consisting of representatives from a number of youth organizationsCredit: Nir Keidar

That year the poet Avraham Shlonsky translated "The International" into Hebrew. It gradually took the place of Tekhezaknah as the Socialist-Zionist anthem.

The next year the Histadrut organized a May Day assembly in Tel Aviv. It started out as the biggest such demonstration the country had ever seen, but quickly turned into a disaster when a May Day parade by Jaffa Arabs was dispersed by British authorities and turned into an angry mob that attacked the Jews of neighboring Tel Aviv, killing 37 and injuring 200. Among those killed was writer Yosef Haim Brenner, who became a martyr of the Jewish Socialist movement in Palestine.

This did not put a stop to May Day. The next year, 1922, Eden Cinema could not hold the crowd of hundreds that came to attend the assembly, and filled the surrounding streets. The next year thousands came.

By 1924 May Day had turned into one of the most important holidays of the year. The festivities would begin the evening before, with parties and balls around the country. The next day, nearly all factories, building sites, ports, and large business were closed for business, and the streets were filled with laborers on their day off wearing red ribbons on their lapels. Large police forces were deployed in the cities to keep the peace and disperse any unlawful parades or protests.

The public buildings associated with the Histadrut, and there were many of them by this point, were adorned with red flags, green branches, lights, and posters declaiming socialist slogans such as "Workers of the world, unite!" In the afternoon, assemblies were held around the country, drawing thousands. These featured mainly speeches by dignitaries, music and dramatic performances, and ended with the singing of the International and Tekhezaqnah.

Year after year, May Day grew and grew, with more business shutting down their operations, some such as Haaretz begrudgingly, and more people attending the growing number of events which as of 1926, with the founding of the Socialist sports association Hapoel, began to include sporting events as well. By the mid-1930s nearly all business in the country would close on May 1, and assemblies were held throughout the country.

The largest was in the first stadium in the country, in north Tel Aviv, which drew over 30,000 people.

In addition to assemblies large and small, some years the British authorities permitted large parades to be held in the major cities - Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. By the final years of the British Mandate in Palestine, May Day was truly an all-encompassing event, with 50,000 people participating in the main event in Tel Aviv, and many thousands more taking part in events around the country.

Ben-Gurion breaks with Russia

May Day parade in Tel Aviv, 1950Credit: IDF Archive of the Ministry of Defense

Things began to change with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

To start with, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion decided not to make May Day an official national holiday. But while not an official holiday, May Day continued to be celebrated much as it had been celebrated before independence, with nearly all business closing, mass parades and assemblies, and red flags flying alongside those of blue and white.

At the center of these events was the labor union, the Histadrut, which not only represented most woskers in Israel but was in fact the direct employer of about a quarter of them, in the various companies it owned and operated, which included factories, retail chains, and even a bank - Hapoalim.

But soon after the war of Independence ended, the Cold War erupted. Ben-Gurion broke with the Soviet Union and began to ally the country with the West. This was one of the reasons for the break between Ben-Gurion’s governing Mapai Party and the also-socialist Mapam party. The split in the socialist camp began to take its toll on May Day as well, with Mapam and the Communist Party Maki holding separate assemblies, protests, and parades.

In 1955, Mapai and Mapam agreed to march together again and 20,000 people paraded under red banners in the streets of Tel Aviv; twice as many marched that day in Haifa, where some fighting broke out between them the main parade and Communist demonstrators.

Karl Marx grave in Highgate Cemetery, in LondonCredit: Yui Mok/PA via AP

The next year, 1956, the Histadrut decided to use May Day to mobilize its members to volunteer to build fortifications in Israel’s outlying towns, due to the building tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. 50,000 volunteered for the task. There were still assemblies and parades that year, but those were mostly youth movement events.

This would set the tone for the following years, with May Day after May Day being mostly assemblies of the various Socialist youth organizations, with the labor unions sending only groups of representatives to attend. The events were fast shrinking. For example, in 1958 only 15,000 marched in Tel Aviv, and these were mostly teenagers.

In 1960, May Day fell on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day. Business closed for May Day but no special events took place. This would happen again in 1962 when May Day fell on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in 1967 when it fell on the seventh day of Passover, and then again in 1968 when again it fell on Yom HaZikaron. The Hebrew calendar is quite laden with holidays in the spring and whenever one of them fell on the first of May, it trumped May Day, and the events were cancelled. But even on years when this didn’t happen, the participation in May Day events was usually small, and dominated mostly by members of youth organizations.

By 1965, the leaders of Israel’s workers movement were forced to admit that it was increasingly difficult to get people to come to its May Day assemblies and parades.

There were many reasons for this: The red banner came to be associated with the increasingly hostile Soviet Union and Israel’s Arab enemies, businesses owned and operated by the Histadrut constituted a smaller portion of the Israeli economy, less and less people were working in large factories which were historically the main base of support for the workers’ movement, and an increasingly large segment of immigrants from Arab countries and their children felt antagonism towards the old Socialist guard, which they felt had treated them unfairly. In addition to these reasons, people seemed to prefer doing other things on their day off rather than attend a Socialist rally.

On the May Days of 1969 and 1970 the Histadrut had its members work for half a day and donate their earnings for the fortification of outlying Israeli towns, which further eroded May Day in the eyes of the public. The Histadrut tried to change things up in 1971 holding large picnics around the country instead of parades and assemblies, but this did little to revive the enthusiasm.

During the 1970s, May Day remained a day off for many, but few participated in May Day events organized by the Histadrut and the leftist political parties, except for a shrinking number of teenage members of youth groups, Communists, and small protest groups such as the Black Panthers and Matzpen.

Communism collapses

The gradual decline of the left eventually led to its loss of power in the election of 1977, which would never be fully regained. Israel's right wing had been anti-May Day from the get-go. Right-wing labor unions and right-wing factions within the Histadrut appearing on the scene since at least the early 1980s called on members not to participate and even sometimes held small counter-protests.

Chaim Nachman BialikCredit: GPO

During the 1980s, the Histadrut and the left as a whole tried to fight the decline, muster their power and galvanize their base with large May Day parades, bussing in people from around the country in shows of force, which had 100,000 march in Tel Aviv in May Day of 1980, 350,000 in 1983, and perhaps even more than that in the May Day of 1988, which was said to have been the biggest in Israeli history. But that was the swan song of Israeli May Day, a last big hurrah before the end.

In 1989 as communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe, the Histadrut decided not hold any May Day events that year, officially because May Day fell on the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day.

After that and throughout the 1990s, gradually all business began to open on May Day as usual, and parades, demonstrations and assemblies became fewer and fewer, smaller and smaller, until they had become just a trickle of Communists marching down Tel Aviv’s trendy Rothschild Boulevard, barely noticeable in the regular day-to-day traffic. And that is much the situation today. There have been attempts to revive May Day: some protests and parades were organized in Haifa and Tel Aviv in 2009 and 2010, the latter drawing 5,000 protesters.

But they are far from the sweeping affairs of yore and what May Day even represents no longer seems to be common knowledge. Elsewhere the first of May remains a public holiday marked in many countries, for instance in China, Vietnam and France, and Germany still experiences large demonstrations. Britain takes it as an opportunity to declare a bank holiday, perhaps a fitting note for a day born of anti-capitalism.

May Day and Arab-Jewish relations

It bears adding that May Day also reflected the conflict in Jewish-Arab relations before and after the founding of the State of Israel.

Arabs often marched alongside Jews in May Day parades, especially in Haifa and in Nazareth. But at times this solidarity broke down and May Day became an occasion for Jewish-Arab conflict. This happened as early as 1921, when a murderous attacks took place, but less severe conflicts also broke out after the founding of the state.

In 1965, Arab youths in Nazareth grabbed Israeli flags from the hands of Jewish teenagers marching in the city on May Day, trampling them underfoot on the side of the road, and allegedly sexually assaulting the girls. In response, Israeli authorities arrested dozens of people in Nazareth. The Communist Party protested, claiming the arrests were arbitrary, cruel, unjustified, and politically motivated.

In 1976, May Day demonstrations in Arab towns and cities - on both sides of the Green Line - focused on Arab nationalist rhetoric, instead of the regular slogans in support of the unity of the proletariat. Protesters chanted slogans such as "The Galilee will return to the Arabs" and "Down with Israel," and clashed with Israeli security forces.

On May Day 1990, in the heyday of the Intifada, May Day saw rioting in East Jerusalem. Fire bombs and rocks were thrown and the riot was put down forcefully by Israeli security. Since then, though, May Day has returned to its place as a symbol of Jewish-Arab cooperation, and again May Day demonstrations usually have Jews and Arabs marching side by side.

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