Ha-shomer Ha-tza‘ir and Egyptian Zionism
Although organized Zionist activity began in Egypt at the turn of the century, the movement had a very limited social base until 1942–43. During the 1920s and 1930s, Egyptian Zionism was focused around philanthropic and cultural work, such as funding the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Until the 1936–39 Arab Revolt in Palestine, such activity was not considered inconsistent with patriotic loyalty to Egypt. Zionist activism declined as the pan-Arab reverberations of the Palestinian resistance to Zionist settlement convinced many Jews and non-Jews that there might indeed be a contradiction between Zionism and loyalty to Egypt.
Because most Egyptian Jews were relatively secure and comfortable during the 1930s, few saw the point of risking their position by ostentatious support for Zionism. Moreover, before 1948, the small minority of Jews who identified themselves as political Zionists rarely expressed this in the form of immigration to Palestine. Between 1917 and 1947, only 4,020 Jews had left Egypt for Palestine, and a large proportion of them were Yemenis, Moroccans, or Ashkenazim who had resided only temporarily in Egypt. The strength of Egyptian Zionism at the end of World War II may be measured by the fact that in preparation for the Twenty-Second Zionist Congress in 1946, 7,500 Jews—about 10 percent of the community—purchased shekels, the financial contribution bestowing the right to be represented at the congress.
The concerted efforts of the Zionist emissaries from Palestine who arrived in 1943 and Zionist activists among the allied troops and the Palestinian Jewish Brigade stationed in Egypt gained Zionism a significant base of support in Egypt for the first time. They conveyed the news of the mass murder of European Jewry to Egypt and, by presenting this information in Zionist discursive terms, encouraged Egyptian Jews to draw conclusions about their future based on a particular understanding of the significance of the catastrophe in Europe. This message, especially in its labor Zionist from, appealed to French-educated youth influenced by internationalism and the united front against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s who might otherwise have joined one of the several communist groups.
The most dynamic elements of Zionism, in Egypt as elsewhere, were the youth movements, which advanced a radical vision of Jewish renewal through immigration to Palestine and physical labor in agricultural colonies on the frontier of Jewish settlement—immigration (‘aliyah), settlement (hityashvut), pioneering (halutziut), and self-realization (hagshamah atzmit) in the labor Zionist lexicon. The largest labor Zionist youth movement in Egypt before 1947 was he-Halutz ha-Ahid (The unified pioneer): a new organization created by the Zionist Executive as a means to avoid exporting the factional tensions within MAPAI to the Middle Eastern diaspora. Suppressing the vibrant political debate within the Zionist left preserved the overall dominance of MAPAI and was probably also linked to an assumption that Middle Eastern Jews were too backward politically to appreciate the nuances of such debate. The most disciplined and ideologically committed of the youth movements, and the largest after 1947, was ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir (The young guard), which was affiliated with the Kibutz ha-Artzi federation and later with the Marxist-Zionist MAPAM after its establishment in 1948. The other youth movements active in Egypt were Bnai ‘Akivah (Sons of Rabbi Akiva), affiliated with the labor wing of the National Religious Party, and Betar (Trumpeldor covenant), the youth movement of revisionist Zionism. Less ideologically committed members of the Maccabi and ha-Koah (Strength) sports clubs were also drawn into the network of Zionist activity.
Ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir in Egypt was locally known until late 1947 as ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir (The young Hebrew). The movement was established in Cairo in the early 1930s. A small group of senior members left for Palestine and joined Kibutz ‘Ein ha-Horesh in December 1934. For the next several years, like other Zionist activity in Egypt, ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir stagnated, and none of its graduates went to Palestine.
Ezra Zanona (Talmor) was the central figure in revitalizing ha‘-Ivri ha-Tza‘ir in the late 1930s. He wrote to the leaders of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir in Palestine requesting that an emissary be sent to provide leadership for the Egyptian movement. In response, Sasha Korin of Kibutz Mesilot was despatched to Cairo in May 1938. Korin and Talmor reorganized ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir and opened a new branch (ken; pl. kinim) in the middle-class suburb of Heliopolis. Relying on educational materials in English that Talmor requested from ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir in New York, Talmor and Korin reinforced the ideological and organizational foundations of the movement—a combination of scouting, Marxism, and an intensely emotional collective life emphasizing immigration to Palestine and life in the kibutz. Between 1938 and 1944, five kinim of ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir were established: three in Cairo and two in Alexandria, with 700–800 members by the end of World War II. The movement continued to use this local name until late 1947, when it went underground and adopted the name of the international movement: ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir.
The Heliopolis ken, led by Ezra Talmor, became the largest and most developed in Egypt, with about 150 members by 1945. The ken met at the Abraham Btesh Jewish Community School. Most of the families of students at the Btesh school, like most other middle-class Egyptian Jewish families, were not religiously observant, but “traditional.” They attended synagogue on major holidays, ate matzah at Passover, and observed the Jewish rites of passage. Although the curriculum at the Btesh school included Hebrew and other Jewish subjects, the primary language of instruction was French. Graduates of the school were not usually fluent in Hebrew. Perhaps even more so than other branches, the Heliopolis ken of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir was socially selective, even snobbish. At the older levels, only high school students were accepted for membership, a stringent requirement when secondary education was rare in Egypt. All kinim of the movement imposed strict rules of conduct on their members and expected that senior members would immigrate to Israel and settle on a kibutz.
In this milieu, Jewish culture had a cosmopolitan, radical, French inflection—an outlook that regarded Parisian intellectual and cultural life as the highest (perhaps the only true) form of civilization. The activities of the ken were conducted in French. Even today, many of the movement's graduates living in Israel speak French among themselves at social gatherings in their homes. Recommended reading for leaders of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir included Marx, Engels, Leontiev, Borokhov (the articulator of the Marxist-Zionist synthesis), the French communist daily, L'Humanité, and the classic literature of French, English, and Russian social realism. There was relatively little study of the history and politics of the Middle East or the Arab world.
Ezra Talmor personally exemplified this ambience. His parents had emigrated to Egypt from Aleppo. His grandparents spoke only Arabic, but his parents spoke both Arabic and French at home. The family was not religiously observant, and he received no Jewish education. Ezra's two older brothers studied at a French Catholic school, but Ezra attended the secular Collège Français du Caire. His brothers then transferred there because their parents feared they might be converted to Christianity. Ezra's older brother, Zaki, was not a Zionist. He worked for the National Bank of Egypt, rising through the ranks despite having finished only the eighth grade to become head of the foreign currency department before he left Egypt for Switzerland in 1956. Ezra knew Arabic well enough to read al-Ahram and pass the Arabic section of the Egyptian baccalaureate, but he was more comfortable in French, the main language of instruction during his schooling. Like many members of the Zionist youth movements, Ezra Talmor was attracted to ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir for social reasons before becoming fully committed to its ideology. While serving as the leader of the Heliopolis ken and secretary of the Egyptian movement and working part-time as a clerk in the Crédit Foncier Egyptien, he completed his O and A level exams in preparation for pursuing an external degree in philosophy at London University. He was attracted to European philosophy because he had learned that understanding Marxism required a study of Hegel and dialectics.
Because their social backgrounds and political positions had much in common, there were frequent ideological debates between members of ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir and the Jewish communists. One evening in 1938 two Marxist Jews—an English doctoral student in Orientalism, Bernard Lewis, and Henri Curiel, the future leader of the most influential of the Egyptian communist organizations, HADETU, visited the Heliopolis ken. There, Talmor, Lewis, and Curiel publicly argued in English and French over the relative merits of communism and socialist Zionism. Such exchanges continued between left Zionists and communists in Egypt for the next ten years and more.
From 1942 until November 29, 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir had a distinctive position within the Zionist movement opposing the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. Instead, the movement favored a binational Arab-Jewish state—a position with some similarities, though based on different arguments, to the stand of the all-Jewish Communist Party of Palestine (Arab party members had left to form the National Liberation League) after 1946 and HADETU. In mid-1947, as the Soviet Union moved toward endorsing partitioning Palestine into two states, Lazare Guetta (Giv‘ati), a leader of ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir in Alexandria, asked the movement headquarters in Palestine to despatch political materials in French and Arabic because they were “in deep discussions with Communist Jewish circles about Zionism,…Bi-nationalism, etc.”  The pressure of constant debate with the communists led ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir to take its Marxism very seriously. In addition, Eli Peleg of Kibutz Gat, the movement's emissary from Palestine from 1946 until late May 1948, encouraged the older members of the movement to adopt a particularly militant version of the movement's ideology that attempted to fuse orthodox pro-Soviet Marxism-Leninism and Zionism.
In theory, ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir and ha-Kibutz ha-Artzi struggled to uphold socialism and Zionism as coequal components of their ideology. In practice, a decisive majority of the movement always favored Zionism whenever there was a contradiction between Jewish national interests and socialist internationalism. The movement's conception of bi-nationalism and Arab-Jewish coexistence in Palestine was naive and paternalistic, as is painfully evident from this excerpt from an essay on “colonization” in the internal bulletin of one of the Alexandria groups:
Is that to say that our colonization in Palestine has harmed the Arabs and is to their detriment? No. Categorically not. Our colonization has been a balm for the backward eyes of our Arab cousins, and one may say that they have enjoyed a great benefit from it. With our colonization we hold out our hand to assist our cousins.
The entire essay is framed by the same Eurocentric colonial outlook that informed the entire Zionist movement. Nonetheless, the Arab presence in Palestine and the surrounding countries was far more concrete for these Egyptians than it could be for European or American members of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir, who would probably not have referred to Arabs as their cousins. The fact that a pro-Soviet, Marxist-Zionist organization with the most conciliatory approach to the Palestinian Arabs in the entire Zionist movement became the largest and most active Zionist organization in Egypt is not accidental. Although movement members were themselves in the process of de-Arabizing their culture, they retained a respect for and familiarity with Arab culture that influenced their Zionist outlook in ways that tended to distinguish them from their European and North American comrades.
When ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir and two other left Zionist currents—Le-Ahdut ha-‘Avodah and Left Po‘alei Tzion (Workers of Zion)—fused to form MAPAM in January 1948, ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir abandoned binationalism and agreed to support the establishment of the state of Israel. Le-Ahdut ha-‘Avodah and most of Left Po‘alei Tzion opposed the creation of an Arab state in Palestine and did not accept the Palestinian Arabs' right to self-determination. Although Le-Ahdut ha-‘Avodah and Left Po‘alei Tzion were a minority in the united party (a very large one to be sure), their presence blocked MAPAM's adoption of a clear stand on this and other vital issues. The internal struggle among the component elements of MAPAM became an important influence on the fate of many graduates of Egyptian ha-‘Ivri ha-Tza‘ir.