Myth. Counter-Myth, and the Birth of Neo-Zionism
In 1882, the French Orientalist Ernest Renan observed that "To forget
and...to get one's history wrong, are essential factors in the making of a
nation; and thus the advance of historical studies is often a danger to
nationality." A prescient statement, coming from a scholar
Myths that nations were ancient and coherent structures, and that national feeling was organic, visceral, and spontaneous, reinforced myths of history as the key to the comprehension of human existence. Yet, as Renan astutely observed, it is only a certain type of engaged and ideological history that serves the interests of nationalism. A historian unsympathetic to or disinterested in nationalism may seek to demonstrate the novelty, disunity, or artificiality of the nation; (s)he may depict the nation as an epiphenomenon, a by-product of a social reality shaped primarily by class, race, gender, or psychic or linguistic structures.
In our era, a century after Renan, these latter categories increasingly occupy academicians. The nation is portrayed, on the one hand, as a product of modern industrial and middle-class society, emanating from the fecund bourgeois imagination like primal matter hurled forth by the Big Bang. On the other hand, the nation is shown to be the creation of the state, which is no longer seen, as it was in Renan's day, as Reason incarnate, but rather as a locus of coercion, the highest agent of social control, a vehicle of organized brutality. "Historical research," Renan notes, "casts fresh light upon those deeds of violence which have marked the origin of all political formations...."
Renan does not make clear, however, if the engine driving new forms of historical inquiry is genuine disinterest or simply a new ideology. That is, if the nationalist historical consciousness of times past was nourished by myth, could it not be that today's use of history to critique nationalism is informed by an iconoclastic counter-myth? Is today's historian truly more detached than his or her predecessors? How can we separate candid re-appraisal from engaged counter-myth? And finally, if nationalist myths, which inspired past generations, providing them with a sense of belonging and endowing their ephemeral lives with meaning, are expelled from the collective memory, what will fill the void?
The relevance of these questions to the study of Zionism is obvious. 1882,
the year in which Ernest Renan offered his well tempered critique of
nationalism, witnessed the founding of the Zionist movement. From the start,
Zionists wove a dense fabric of myths that legitimized and lionized their
revolutionary project. These myths were accepted as truth by generations of
Zionists; they justified the tremendous sacrifices endured by Jews in
In this paper, I will examine the myths underlying Zionist ideology and its state-building project. I will probe the myths' weaknesses and propose an alternative vision of Zionist history, one that is responsive to what we now agree to be historical fact while avoiding the blighted terrain of adversarial counter-myth. History, I believe, is neither Zionism's acolyte nor its enemy. Even when deconstructed and demythologized, Zionism survives, admittedly in a nuanced form, different from its muscular and monochromatic predecessor. We may call this historicized creation "neo-Zionism." I avoid the term "post-Zionism," which connotes the end of ideology, and is invoked by those who believe Zionism to be superceded. I call instead for a revived ideology, authentic and multivocal, but still possessed of the power to move, comfort, and inspire.
The Zionist mythological narrative presented Jewish nationalism as both a
continuation of and rupture with the Jewish past. Zionism claimed to be an
act of rebellion against the Diaspora as both a material and psychic
phenomenon. As Lev Pinsker wrote in his programmatic pamphlet,
Self-emancipation (1882), the Jews' Diaspora existence rendered them not only
powerless but also suspect in the eyes of the nations among whom they lived.
This small and scattered people, a "ghost-nation" in Pinsker's
words, naturally aroused unease among its hosts. Scattered across the globe,
Jews suffered ceaseless persecution, and most of the world's Jews,
particularly those in
For Pinsker, and even more so for Theodor Herzl, the Diaspora bred passivity, toadying, and cowardice. By calling his pamphlet Self-emancipation, Pinsker was rejecting the basic premise of the Jews' political existence for the previous century: that, in return for internal changes making them socially acceptable, Jews would receive emancipation from the state authorities. But for Zionists, emancipation had to come from within, as the antisemitic gentile environment would and could not provide it. Nor was emancipation a political affair alone; it was also economic, cultural, and spiritual. The gentiles were right, Zionists proclaimed, in demanding that Jews give up peddling and the money trade and become a people of honest farmers and craftsmen. But they must make this change for their own benefit, not for that of their gentile masters, and they must engineer this great social change in their own homeland. Zionists also tended to accept as true antisemitic accusations that Jews were frail and clumsy, disease-prone, nervous and neurotic, and lacking in honor, courage, and dignity. But Zionists blamed these flaws on Diaspora life rather than ineradicable racial characteristics, as gentiles were wont to do.
Thus in classic Zionism, Diaspora was more than a state of being; it was also a state of mind. It affected all aspects of life, including language and religion. Ever since the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, of the late eighteenth century, Yiddish had been the target of criticism as a bastard tongue, undignified and aesthetically sterile. For adherents of the Haskalah, and later for Zionists, it was only a short step from arguing that Jews spoke Yiddish because they were miserable to claiming that they were miserable because they spoke Yiddish. Hebrew was favored, partly because it was allegedly "purer" than Yiddish, (although rabbinic and medieval Hebrew had been enriched by thousands of loan words from Greek, Aramaic, Persian, and Arabic). Hebrew also enjoyed august status as the language of the Old Testament, which champions of the Haskalah, living in a culture obsessed with classical antiquity, could compare favorably with the work of Homer and Virgil, and in which Zionists, living in a later era obsessed with national epic, could take the same sort of pride that Germans expressed for the Niebelunglied.
Zionism retained the Haskalah's critique of Yiddish but augmented negative
associations between Yiddish and femininity. Nationalist discourse tends to
have a strongly gendered inflection; the nation may be represented as a woman
(e.g., the French Marianne or the English Britannia), but it is understood to
be forged and protected by men. Zionism was no exception. Yiddish, with its
extended vowels, blurred diphthongs, and sing-song patter (a product of its
accenting penultimate syllables), was portrayed as a feminizing, hence
enervating, force, as opposed to Hebrew, especially in its Sephardic form,
which accentuates final syllables and lends itself to the clipped,
tight-lipped way of speaking later affected by generations of native-born
Israelis. These aesthetic considerations combined with historical ones. As
the language of the Bible, Hebrew was associated with the ancient, heroic
period in Jewish history, when the Jews allegedly were concentrated in the
The Zionist critique of Diasporic existence, and the notion that a rupture with it would promote a re-awakening of authentic Jewish life, applied to eastern and western European Jews alike. The former, Zionists claimed, had been stunted by poverty and persecution, and their religious practices were shrouded in ignorance and superstition. The latter, seduced by the material benefits of emancipation and the lure of gentile acceptance, were rapidly assimilating: casting aside Jewish practice, intermarrying, and, selfishly longing to hoard their new-found riches, producing ever fewer Jewish children. The arid, lifeless Reform Judaism practiced in the West was even more repulsive than the ossified Orthodoxy endemic in the East, for the latter, at least, preserved Hebrew, visceral feelings of Jewish peoplehood, and hope for collective redemption.
Such was the mythological vision of continuity and rupture that informed classic Zionist ideology. How much of this vision was accurate?
First off, the Zionists did not invent modern Jewish power politics, nor
were their political efforts entirely free of the taint of shtadlanut, the
behind-the-scenes intercession that they so strongly criticized. As early as
the 1840s, Jewish leaders throughout Europe reacted to the notorious
The political and philanthropic activities of Diaspora Jews at the turn of the century had a profound psychological effect on their participants; they created a sense of group identity that, although not overtly nationalistic, was self-consciously ethnic. The Alliance Israélite's motto, "Kol Yisrael Haverim" (All Israel are comrades), was not substantively different from Herzl's famous declaration, in his pamphlet The Jews' State, that "we are a people - one people." The political and economic crisis of East European Jews, more than two million of whom emigrated over the period 1882-1914, stimulated a flurry of Jewish philanthropic activity in the West, and this activity forged bonds of solidarity across continents. Admittedly, tensions reigned between the relatively well-to-do Western Jews and their often impoverished, Eastern brethren, but the Zionist movement was not free of such tensions either.
At the same time, those areas where Zionism claimed continuity with the Jewish past were often sites of yawning chasms between the two. Zionist mythology has exaggerated the extent of Orthodox support for Zionism and obscured the amount of Orthodox opposition to it. To be sure, attacks on Zionism by rabbis in the West (the so-called Protestrabbiner) have been incorporated into the national myth, because these rabbis were seen to be craven assimilationists. But hostility to Zionism from the East European Jewish heartland was harder to explain away.
From the 1860s, a handful of rabbis with messianic motivations called for
a mass Jewish return to
The revival of Hebrew, the symbol of Zionism's link with the Jewish past,
was a profoundly subversive undertaking. Proof of this claim comes from the
father of modern Hebrew himself, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. From the time he moved
The thought of Hebrew being spoken on the veldt is jarring; only slightly less so is the gap between modern and earlier forms of the language. The syntax and vocabulary of modern Hebrew are modeled along the lines of European tongues. Hebrew words are easily and mechanically created via simple vowelling mechanisms or the addition of consonantal prefixes (e.g., the Biblical root `a-y-f, connoting exhaustion, becomes `ayefut, weariness, or `ayefet, jet-lag; the root g-v-r, connoting strength or manhood, is the source of tigbur, enhancement.) Its pronunciation is far simpler than that of its predecessors. To be sure, Hebrew is dotted with biblical words and phrases, and literary Hebrew, especially when at its most pretentious, is chock full of terms from rabbinic sources. But these are decorations on an unequivocally modern linguistic structure.
To be sure, all languages evolve over time, and, as anyone who has read
Shakespeare and Milton knows well, today's English differs radically from
that of centuries past. The difference is that the Hebrew revival was
relatively sudden and unnatural. In
Although Labor Zionism drew its strength from secular Jews in
Zionism only became a bona fide mass movement after World War I, when
Jewish nationalism flourished in the xenophobic successor states to the
Hapsburg and Russian empires, and British rule over
There was more than a sense of peril or humanitarianism behind the turn by
increasing numbers of Jews to Zionism. A half-century of Zionist settlement
It nourished itself, as young nations always do, from myths. One category
of myth, which we have thus far examined, is that of continuity with the
distant past and rupture with more recent history. It is the sort of myth
encapsulated in Haim Hazzaz's famous story, The Sermon, in which the
protagonist, the simple kibbutznik Yudka, uniformly depicts post-Biblical
Jewish history as dull and pallid, bereft of the valor that characterized the
Biblical heroes or the Jewish pioneers laborers in
Throughout the history of Zionism, Jewish nationalists have couched their appeals to world opinion in the language of anomaly. The Jews have been represented as a particularly ancient people, their contributions to civilization as unusually brilliant, their long history of suffering as spectacularly grim, and their accomplishments in the construction of the Jewish National Home as uniquely awe-inspiring. Ironically, this language of distinctiveness links Zionism with other nationalist movements, as does the simultaneous, and only apparently contradictory, call for "normalization" of the Jews, their transformation into a people like other nations. National movements seek to preserve or revive what are believed to be the unique characteristics of a people by implanting them into a common and universally-accepted framework, the nation-state.
Whatever its ties to the Jewish past, Zionism could only have been born in
the late nineteenth century, and it could only have flourished in the first
half of the twentieth. At the fin de siecle, nationalism flourished among the
stateless peoples of the polyglot empires of eastern and southern
1897 was one of those enchanted years of multiple, momentous, and
connected events, like an alignment of planets that, astrologers tell us,
profoundly affect the human psyche. It marked the birth of both political
Zionism and an alternative solution to the "Jewish problem,"
Yiddishist revolutionary socialism, embodied in the Vilna Bund yidisher
arbeter, which would become a pillar of
Zionism's debt to Lueger, or to the mass politics that he represented, should not be ignored. Herzl was a charismatic figure who appealed to emotion as much as to common sense; he appreciated the value of flags and ritual in the choreography of modern politics. During the 1930s, Jabotinsky's Revisionist movement combined Herzl's aestheticization of politics with a fondness for military drill and, at least for some of Jabotinsky's adherents, incendiary language and a penchant for street violence. Although the Yishuv's labor movement placed somewhat less stress on charismatic leadership and militarism, its leader, the formidable David Ben-Gurion, bullied its opponents through machine politics and control over much of the Yishuv economy.
Zionism's umbilical link with imperialism also demands scrutiny. Zionist
leaders took for granted some form of non-Arab hegemony in the Middle East
and saw the Yishuv and young state of
Closely related to this critique is a re-evaluation of the process by
which Zionists gained control of the territory that would become the state of
This Zionist mythological narrative evokes images of Arab incompetence,
deviousness, and cowardice. It has been challenged by reappraisals of the
"land question," which claim that a sizeable amount of territory
was bought from smallholding peasants and that Zionist land purchases
disappropriated many thousands of Arab sharecroppers, who were forced off the
land to make room for Jewish settlers. Much of
There is perhaps no more typical characteristic of recent cultural debates
Until a decade ago, voices challenging this sympathetic view of
Only somewhat more civil is the Israeli scholar Zev Sternhell, who, in a recent polemical work on the history of Labor Zionism, portrays Ben Gurion as a Leninist figure, expert at and uninhibited about the use of force to obtain his aims. Sternhell's main concern is Ben-Gurion's domestic policy - the crushing of opposition and the creation of a unified Zionist labor movement by subordinating socialist ideals to an integral nationalism. But one infers that the phenomenon that Sternhell provocatively, and deliberately, calls Zionist "national socialism," had, like its more famous German relative, a will to power that could not be limited to party and trade-union congresses. Ben-Gurion, a flurry of recent scholarship tells us, plotted as early as the 1930s to transfer the Palestinian Arabs out of areas designated for the Jewish state, ordered or at least sanctioned mass expulsions of Arabs during the 1948 war, and, in the early 1950s, authorized vengeful, punitive border raids that inflicted numerous civilian casualties and only deepened Arab animosity to the Jewish state.
Why are American-Jewish and Israeli scholars saying these things? Is it simply that they are true, and that the older narratives were false? Is it that, with the growing distance in time from past events, and with the loosening of the hold of Zionist ideology, we are able to see things more clearly than before, without a romantic or apologetic haze?
In part, yes. There is abundant, unequivocal documentary evidence of acts
of Zionist military aggression and brutality. Some of this evidence was only
recently made available to scholars; some of it has been long available, but
scholars did not choose to ask the questions that would lead them to the
sources in question. At the same time, there is a polemical tone in much of
the recent writing on Zionism that suggests that far more than dispassionate
intellectual curiosity is at work here.
Unfortunately, American Jewish public life is becoming equally fragmented,
as Jews form congeries of interest groups divided by political, ritual, and
sexual orientation. Division has always been part of Jewish life, but so has
the myth of Klal Yisrael, and that myth has exerted, throughout history, a
profound integrative effect. In this sense, Herzl was quite right in
asserting the primacy of slogans and symbols, of appeals to sentiment, in the
making of national movements. To be sure, Zionism's connections with the
Jewish past were largely imagined, but such is the case for all nationalisms,
and nationalism has become, in modern, industrial societies, the most
satisfying and viable form of collective identity. Yes, Zionism was born on
the back of imperialism, but so was all Third-World nationalism - how can one
imagine a modern
As to Zionism's military record, let us invoke Renan, whose observation,
cited above, that historical research inevitably brings to light a nation's
unsavory and violent acts, goes on to include even "those which have
been followed by the most beneficial results." A truly dispassionate
historian will acknowledge that a certain level of coercive force must be
exerted in any state-building process, and that without the use of violence,
The contemporary intellectual movement known as post-Zionism involves far
more than a critique of
The "neo-Zionism" which I called for at the beginning of this essay recognizes the necessity of Jewish nationalism, celebrates its accomplishments, and acknowledges that Israel's destiny profoundly affects that of Jews the world over. It neither conceals nor belabors the imperfection of Zionism's leaders and ideologues. Most important - and in this respect it differs sharply from its classic predecessor - neo-Zionism seeks continuity with the entirety of the Jewish past and with the Jewish religious tradition as well.
The purely secular ethos that inspired the first generations of Zionist
pioneers is no longer viable. That ethos relied on the dynamic of a permanent
revolution, of a society mobilized to gather exiles, settle the land, and
battle with the enemy. Early Israeli society was dominated by collective
social units such as the trade-union, political party, and youth movement.
The public sphere overpowered the realm of the private. Today's
How would the founders of the state of
Whereas Renan wrote of the unifying power of collective amnesia within a national body, Katznelson calls here for collective remembering. This marks an important step towards an authentic neo-Zionism, though as we have seen, linear memory, the positing of neat continuities and rifts between eras, has been all too often the slave of nationalist ideology. What we need is lateral memory, accepting of contradiction, overlap, and ambiguity. On the national level, such ways of thinking would welcome, rather than reject, the historian's probe.
 Reproduced in Omar Dahbour and Micheline R.
Ishay, eds., The Nationalism Reader,
 Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct:
Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Male,
 Zev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of
 Cited in Yael Berkovitch, Le-hamtsi aretz, le-hamtsi `am, Tel Aviv, 1996, 13.