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Myth. Counter-Myth, and the Birth of Neo-Zionism

Originally presented at "Colloquium '97" of the International Society for Secular Humanist Judaism, Farmington Hills, Michigan

By Derek Jonathan Penslar, University of Toronto

In 1882, the French Orientalist Ernest Renan observed that "To forget 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."[1] A prescient statement, coming from a scholar in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, an era of symbiosis between nationalism and historicism. Nationalism legitimized itself through appeals to history, which provided evidence of the antiquity, unity, and glorious heritage of the nation. In turn, historical thought often conceived of the nation-state as the prime catalyst of historical development.

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...."[2]

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 Palestine as they strove to create the state of Israel. In recent years, the Israeli intelligentsia, which is far more closely linked with the West than with its Middle Eastern environment, has absorbed much of Western academe's self-image as the adversary of state power and the nationalist myths that justify it. At the same time, many American Jewish intellectuals have come to feel increasingly alienated from Israel. A country which, American Zionists long believed, represented the Jewish people as a whole has, of late, appeared to champion the interests of only certain political and religious movements. Finally, the half-century of Israel's existence calls into question the fundamental tenets of Zionism, whose mobilizing power, like that of most revolutionary movements, is inversely proportional to its successes.

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 East Europe, lived in dire poverty. Zionists claimed that ironically, the only defensive weapon held by this starveling people was money - the wealth of a minuscule elite of bankers and manufacturers, who obsequiously served the state, normally for their own benefit, but who at times sought protection for the Jewish masses as well.

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 land of Israel and lived under sovereign, Israelite rule.

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 Damascus blood libel through well-orchestrated and public protests. By the end of the nineteenth century, European and American Jewry had developed an interlocking network of political organizations that aggressively defended the civil liberties of Jews both at home and abroad. True, these organizations were often led by members of the Jewish financial and mercantile elite, and they were as likely to engage in quiet diplomacy as public demonstrations, but the same was true of the Zionist movement. After all, both Herzl and Chaim Weizmann conducted extensive, secret negotiations with world leaders. Zionists accused Diaspora Jewish political organizations of toadying to their respective governments. But there was little difference between claims, such as those made by the French Alliance Israélite Universelle that it could advance French interests in the Middle East, and Herzl's promise to the Ottoman Sultan that, in exchange for Palestine, the Zionists would take on the management of the ailing empire's finances. A similar client-patron relationship characterized Weizmann's negotiations with the British, to whom he presented the Palestinian Jewish community, the Yishuv, as Cerberus, zealously guarding the eastern approaches to the Suez Canal.

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 Palestine, and in Herzl's time some rabbis were willing to co-operate in what they saw as a humanitarian effort to remove endangered Russian Jews to a safer environment. But during Zionism's first years, many rabbis in Eastern Europe opposed it. The unwillingness of Orthodox Jews to join a movement actively seeking to recreate a Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land was not a product of cowardice or passivity, but rather a deep-seated belief, rooted in traditional Jewish sources, that the Jews' exile from the Holy Land was divinely willed and should only be ended in the presence of divinely-sent signs and wonders. Further, even Orthodox Jews willing to make a pragmatic alliance with Herzl's purely political Zionism could not stomach the cultural nationalism preached by Herzl's nemesis, Asher Ginzberg, better known by his pen name, Ahad Haam. This consummate intellectual, raised in an environment steeped in Hasidic piety, aspired to create a secular Hebrew culture that, however great its intellectual debt to the rabbinic tradition, represented at least as great a rupture with the Jewish past as Herzl's program for global Jewish organization and transplantation.

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 to Palestine in 1878, Ben-Yehuda expressed a fanatical passion for Hebrew, a passion so great that he prohibited the use in his home of any other tongue, this despite the fact that he could barely communicate his own feelings in Hebrew, and his first wife was forced to live virtually as a mute. Yet this Hebreophilia dwelled within a secular spirit, a spirit so anti-clerical, so hostile to the Orthodox Jewish grip over the Yishuv's cultural life that in 1903 Ben-Yehuda championed the notorious Uganda Proposal, which would have created a Jewish colony in British East Africa.

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 Palestine, it was engineered by the Zionist political and intellectual elite, particularly by the Labor movement, which dominated the country during the three decades before and following the achievement of statehood in 1948.

Although Labor Zionism drew its strength from secular Jews in Eastern Europe, the fact is that during Zionism's first decades, revolutionary socialism and various other forms of Diaspora-centered ideology were more popular than Zionism. In 1885, some 14,000 Jews worldwide were members of Zionist societies; by 1898, the number was up to perhaps 100,000 - one percent of world Jewry. In Russia in 1906, out of 100,000 Jews involved in socialist politics, only fifteen percent affiliated with Zionist parties; the rest were in the revolutionary, Yiddishist Bund or parties that championed Jewish autonomy within territory in East Europe.

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 Palestine, in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, augured a steady development of what was known as the Jewish National Home. During the 1930s, Orthodox opposition to Zionism softened; the worsening situation of Jews in Germany and East-Central Europe and American immigration restrictions made Palestine appear increasingly necessary as a place of refuge, while the 1929 riots and the 1936-38 Arab Revolt in Palestine demonstrated the frailty of the Jewish hold over that land as well. In the United States over the same period, Reform Judaism softened its traditional, anti-Zionist stand. By 1935, the Zionist Organization could claim 1.2 million members, and perhaps half that number affiliated with the rival New Zionist Organization, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. All in all, at least ten percent of world Jewry was formally linked with the Zionist movement.

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 in Palestine had produced a Yishuv more than a quarter-million strong. Palestine had Jewish cities and farms, and the secular Hebrew culture envisioned by Ahad Ha-am was taking root in schools, cafes, and theaters. The wounds caused by the great rupture with the Jewish past had not healed - the scars would be opened again and again in subsequent decades - but a viable Zionist body politic was taking form.

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 Palestine. Myths of continuity with the distant past, and of rupture with more recent history, are common to the nationalist movements of small and stateless peoples. They compensate for their ignoble status by hearkening to a remote and glorious era. The Davidic monarchy played for Zionists the role assumed by the ancient Khmer state for modern Cambodian nationalists, or the Pharaonic period for Nasserism in Egypt, or the Chaldean empire for the builders of modern Iraq. (A recent Iraqi postage stamp depicts Saddam Hussein shaking the hand of Nebudchadnezzar.)

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 Europe. The seeds of nationalism had been disseminated from Europe to Asia and the Middle East. It was an era of universal rebellion; throughout the world, the downtrodden threatened the status quo through a combination of political and social revolution. And at times, the oppressed were co-opted into supporting a status quo that appeared to pander to their interests through demagoguery, populist social-welfare policies, and appeals to unity in the face of a common enemy. The driving force of the era was resentment. Jews were victims of the rage of others and, in turn, developed their own politics of anger.

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 Russia's nascent socialist movement. Outside of Jewish circles, 1897 witnessed the beginning of an effort to establish an African-American homeland in Oklahoma. Back in Europe, it was Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, a celebration of the British imperial grip over the Middle East without which Zionism could never have succeeded. And finally, it was the year when Karl Lueger, an antisemitic demagogue, was seated as mayor of Vienna, Herzl's home for most of his life.

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 Israel as clients in search of a patron. Zionists looked at first to Palestine's Ottoman Turkish lords. The 1908 Young Turk Revolution, which instituted some aspects of liberal, parliamentary rule, was interpreted by Zionists (wrongly, as it turned out) as auguring a multi-national federation, in which both Jews and Arab could enjoy autonomy, the former in Palestine and the latter elsewhere in the Middle Eastern heartland. Thus the young Ben-Gurion and moved to Istanbul, learned Turkish in a shockingly short period of time, donned a fez, and enrolled in the university's Law Faculty in order to become an Ottoman political official. Unfortunately, the Ottoman Turks had few Zionist sympathies, and the collapse of the empire during the first World War put an end to any possibility of Ben-Gurion becoming, say, the postmaster-general of Jaffa. Zionist attention focused now on Britain, which not only granted the Balfour Declaration, but also, for a period of some thirty years, systematically developed the Palestinian economy and infrastructure, while allowing substantial Jewish immigration, often substantially less than what the Zionist leadership demanded, but certainly more than what the native Arab majority desired.

Ever since Israel's birth, Arab scholars have branded Israel a "settler-colonialist" state, like South Africa or Algeria. Like all imperialist creations, settler-colonialist societies are designed to benefit the motherland; not only do they exploit native labor, they also relieve the motherland of its surplus population by absorbing waves of immigration. This line of reasoning has become popular of late among some leftist Israeli scholars. On the one hand, they criticize the exploitation of Arab labor in the Yishuv's agricultural colonies and in many of its urban industries. On the other hand, they note that the Labor Zionist watchword, "Hebrew Labor," was a hidden call for the extrusion of Arabs from the Palestinian political economy, and hence from the polity itself. Thus the defense invoked most often by Zionists against charges of imperialism - that they wanted Jews to be productive workers and not live off of sweated native labor - is turned around and become a testimony to Zionism's connection with a particularly virulent imperialist practice.

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 Israel. Zionist mythology stressed the legal means by which, from the 1880s up to 1948, Jews obtained real estate in Palestine. The land was bought, so the story went, usually at exorbitant prices, from Arab landowners, often absentees who lived the high life in Beirut while neglecting their latifundia and the wretched Arab peasants thereupon. The land was infertile, rocky, swamp-ridden, and malarial, but a combination of heroic effort and Western technological genius turned it into verdant farmland. (As the Zionist folk song went, "A dunam (1/4 acre) here, a dunam there, clod by clod: Thus we redeem the people's land from north to south.") In 1948, hundreds of thousands of Arabs left Palestine either of their own accord or under orders from their leaders, who urged them to leave the field of battle until the Zionist foe could be vanquished by the Arab armies.

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 Palestine, so Arab and some Israeli scholars tell us, was arable and well-tended before and without the Zionist presence. Blinkered by their European world view, the critique goes, Zionists associated fertility with verdure, and thus could not appreciate the harmonious balance of grain, olive, and viticulture in the semi-arid Palestinian ecology. More ominously, the Zionists' sense of cultural and technological superiority, combined with their conviction that their was the only legitimate claim to the land, ensured that Zionism would become an aggressively militarist movement, which employed all means, including the mass expulsion of noncombatant, civilian Arabs, to win the 1948 war and establish the state of Israel.

There is perhaps no more typical characteristic of recent cultural debates within Israel than the dispute over Israel's responsibility for the Palestine refugee problem, decades of border violence, and the major Arab-Israeli wars. Traditional Zionists maintain that the young state of Israel practiced extraordinary restraint (tohar neshek, purity of arms). Acts of wanton terrorism, such as the massacre of the villagers at Deir Yassin in April 1948, were highly exceptional, and could be attributed to splinter groups, outside of the Zionist mainstream. After 1948, raids into Egypt and Jordan were fully justified acts of defense against terrorist infiltration. All Israel's wars have been defensive wars, acts of last resort.

Until a decade ago, voices challenging this sympathetic view of Israel's military behavior came primarily from the Arab world. Now they come from Israel and from the community of American-Jewish scholars as well. In a recent, highly controversial book, a noted Berkeley professor, Daniel Boyarin, has written a stinging critique of Zionism as trumped-up colonialism, a yearning for power and prestige, a dream of riding on horseback, hefting phallic weapons, and lording it over the natives.[3] Theodor Herzl, dressed in colonial linens and the obligatory pith helmet while in Palestine in 1898, is likened to a drag queen, strutting his stuff before the German emperor Wilhelm II, with whom, at the agricultural school Mikveh Israel, he had a long-anticipated, but disappointingly brief, encounter.

Only somewhat more civil is the Israeli scholar Zev Sternhell, who, in a recent polemical work on the history of Labor Zionism,[4] 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. Israel is experiencing acute political, social, and cultural tensions. Relations between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs are intolerable, and those between secular and Orthodox Jews within Israel are little better. Thus the shrill, litigious, and adversarial tone that characterizes so much of public discourse in the contemporary West is magnified in the state of Israel. It is true that conventional Zionist ideology is no longer meaningful to many intellectuals, but it has been replaced not by dispassion, but rather by irritable exhaustion. Cool-headed historical re-appraisal requires irony; in Israel one encounters either cynicism or a dogmatic anti-establishmentarianism.

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 Senegal, Egypt, or Vietnam without the dialectical relationship between the European colonizer and the colonized?

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, Israel would never have come to be. Although the historian is free to make moral judgments, those sentiments should be separated from evaluations of the practical benefits and drawbacks of the use of force in given situations. Historical hindsight allows for distinctions between useful and counterproductive displays of state power. For example, whereas most of Israel's military actions against civilian Palestinians in 1948 were probably unavoidable and, ultimately, beneficial for the young state, Ben-Gurions' doctrine of deterrence of border raids through massive reprisals did not work well, and, in fact, did much to exacerbate the tensions that brought about the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian war. The conundrum facing Israel today is not whether or not the state should abandon the use of force, but the conditions and limitations it should place on its exercise. In this situation, hindsight can stimulate insight.

The contemporary intellectual movement known as post-Zionism involves far more than a critique of Israel's misdeeds or a belief that the state of Israel has outgrown the ideological cocoon in which it matured. At its most extreme, it delegitimizes the Zionist project itself by claiming that Zionism was nothing more than assimilationism in a revamped form; to reverse the metaphor, it was a sheep in wolf's clothing. (On this point, secular post-Zionists and Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists can readily agree.) As we have already seen, Theodor Herzl is the most tempting target for such criticism. The very figure who founded the political Zionist movement yearned for acceptance by gentile society and internalized many antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and Judaism. He was vain and egotistical; he turned to Zionism in a desperate search for honor, dignity, and inner tranquility. Indeed, Herzl was that most exquisite of neurotics: a Narcissist suffering from unrequited love.

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 Israel, by contrast, is an advanced industrial society, with the deteriorating public sphere and increased individualism that usually accompany rising affluence. Western material and popular culture have overwhelmed the country like a tidal wave. At the same time, the pervasive threat of terrorism and war create hungers that material prosperity cannot satisfy. Growing numbers of secular Israelis, unhappy with living by focaccio alone, are searching for connections with the Jewish past. Although the unenlightened Orthodoxy which dominates Israeli religious culture impedes this process, there are signs of rapprochement between secular Israelis and Jewish observance and textual study.

How would the founders of the state of Israel view this development? They were rebels, secular and iconoclastic, but rebels from observant homes, steeped in Judaic learning. This confluence of tradition and radicalism made possible secular Zionism's blend of humanism and Hebraism. No doubt, Ben-Gurion and his comrades would be dismayed by Israel's crass consumerism, its yearning for the flesh-pots of America, and its devolving martial spirit. They would be appalled by the growth and political clout of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-Zionist, right-wing Orthodox. Yet they would probably realize that their aggressive secularism had done much to create this nightmarish landscape. Berl Katznelson, the chief ideologue of mainstream Labor Zionism, would ruefully recall words from an essay of 1936: "For every generation will rebel against its elders - this is natural - but if a generation disconnects itself from its predecessor so that the [former] generation becomes as if it never was - this is a special curse in our annals of rebuke...For a generation that does not recognize its father does not know itself. It does not know what it inherited and that against which it rebelled. And in this our shame is greater than that of any other movement."[5]

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.

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[1] Reproduced in Omar Dahbour and Micheline R. Ishay, eds., The Nationalism Reader, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 1995, 145.

[2] Ibid

[3] Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Male, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Calfornia Press, 1997.

[4] Zev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel, Princeton, 1998

[5] Cited in Yael Berkovitch, Le-hamtsi aretz, le-hamtsi `am, Tel Aviv, 1996, 13.


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