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The Invention and Decline of Israeliness
State, Society, and the Military
By Baruch Kimmerling
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2001 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Mythological-Historical Origins of the Israeli State
In Israel, even more than in any other society, the past, present, and future are intermingled; collective memory is considered objective history, and history is a powerful weapon, used both in domestic struggles and external conflict. On the domestic terrain, the past is used in order to determine who is entitled to full membership in the collectivity and according to what criteria, the type of laws and regime, and the desired borders of the state. Different pasts and their interpretations are also a central component in the construction of conflicting identities and identity politics.
In the foreign sphere, and to some degree the domestic, the distant past, in the form of ancient or recently invented and cultivated Jewish myths, archeology, and history, is used and abused to grant legitimacy to the very existence of the Jewish polity in the region. The ultimate weapon of the Jewish claim against the recently reconstructed Palestinian people, in their battle over the land, is the simple axiom "We were here from time immemorial," suggesting that the Palestinians are at best newcomers. As a direct response to this meta-historical argument, the Palestinians invented their own "time immemorial," alluding to their Canaanite roots, preceding the Jewish tribes who conquered the land according to the biblical description. This weird argument about "who preceded whom" is a daily and routine issue within the ongoing Israeli-Arab cultural dimension of the conflict.
Without knowledge of this complex of mythology, collective memory and history, and historical facts constructed and reinterpreted from context to context (or what Yael Zerubavel calls meta-narratives), the "Israeli story" is completely incomprehensible.
FROM BIBLICAL PALESTINE TO ISLAMIC CONQUEST
Hebrew mythology tells us that thirty years before the destruction of Troy, about 1200 B.C., the Israelite tribes, led by Joshua, conquered part of the Land of Canaan. Through conquest, the ancient Israelis annihilated most of the inhabitants of the country and established the territorial base for a semi-monotheistic religion and civilization, as well as a regional empire. No wonder that the Book of Joshua became central to the Israeli secular civil religion and later to the national religious movement's theology. This empire was then supposedly built up during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, following the collapse of the Assyrian world power in 1075 B.C.
This nascent Jewish civilization was based on, among other symbols, a mythology surrounding the "patriarchs" Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the prophet Moses; even today, Jews still consider themselves descendants of one common father. Recently, there have been many "scientific" efforts to "prove" genetically the continuity of the Jewish people. Moses is believed to have codified the "laws of Yahweh" into the texts known as the Bible during the exodus from slavery in Egypt and before Joshua's conquest of Canaan. According to these myths, however, Yahweh had even earlier designated Canaan to the first patriarch, Abraham, as the "Promised Land." This land later became known as "Palestine," named after the Philistines, who supposedly settled the coastal plain of the country in 1190 B.C., and were annihilated by King David in a series of bitter battles. These semi-historical and semi-mythological occurrences, which occurred 3,000 to 3,500 years ago, are still used and abused in the "historiography" of the present struggle over the land of Palestine.
In 587 B.C., the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, and deported a considerable part of the Judean population—mainly the elite and artisans—to Babylon. The dream of the Judeans there was to return to "Zion" (a synonym both for Jerusalem and for the "Land of Israel"), which they were finally able to do when Cyrus of Persia gained control over the ancient Middle East, and in 550 B.C., the Temple of Yahweh, which Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed, was rebuilt. The Judean polity rose again when struggles between rival candidates for the Jerusalem priesthood and attempts to Hellenize the religious cult led, in 168 B.C., to a peasant revolt against the Jerusalemite elite and their Seleucid Hellenistic patrons. The military leader of the revolt, Judah the Maccabee, turned it into a guerrilla civil war, which was eventually won. His family took over the Jerusalem priesthood and, in alliance with the Roman Empire, conquered large territories, converting their populations to Judaism. Quarrels among the Maccabean dynasty subsequently led Rome to crown Herod as king of Judea. The story of the Maccabean revolt was absorbed into ethno religious mythology as part of the struggle for the purification of idolatrous cults from the Jewish religion and the restoration of the "true faith," and it is commemorated today by the Hanukkah holiday.
After a series of Judean rebellions against the region's Hellenistic and Roman rulers, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. In A.D. 135, following another rebellion, the Jewish elite were again exiled, effectively destroying the Jewish polity, and the province was renamed Syria Palaestina by the Romans. It was subsequently known as "Palestine," a title officially adopted in the twentieth century by the British colonial state, and, later, by the local Arab population as their own ethno-national identity.
Two constitutive myths of Zionism are connected to this period—the fall of Masada and the failure of the Bar-Kochba rebellion against the Roman Empire. Masada was a fortress in the Judean desert built by Herod the Great (73-74 B.C.). During the great Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-73 against the Romans, a group of Jewish rebels took over the fortress. During the siege of the city, an extremist sect called the Sicarii, who had waged internal terror against other Jews, were driven out of Jerusalem. The Sicarii fled to Masada, where they assailed the Jewish villages in the vicinity for food and support. Having burned Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Romans went on to besiege Masada in A.D. 73. After a siege lasting four to eight months, the 960 Jews at Masada committed suicide in order to avoid being enslaved by the Romans. Despite the highly ambiguous story (including questions about the very identity of the Sicarii, their doubtful involvement in the battle against the Romans, the act of suicide or mass murder), Zionist myth makers, hungry for epic narratives, reconstructed the Masada events as a story of Jewish heroism and a Jewish "fight for freedom."
A second revolt against the Roman Empire in A.D. 131-35, led by a strongman and false messiah called Bar-Kochba, and supported by a zealous religious figure, Rabbi Akiba, ended in catastrophe and the elimination of the organized Jewish community from the country. Bar-Kochba and Rabbi Akiba were elevated by the Zionist mythology to the degree of saints and national heroes.
During these turbulent times, many Jewish religious sects appeared and disappeared in Judea. This history of turbulence in the Jewish world, and of Hellenistic and Roman religious oppression, included the crucifixion of Jesus (around A.D. 29-33) and St. Paul's trial in Rome (A.D. 60). After Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai established a new center in the town of Yavneh (A.D. 70), Judaism itself underwent a major transformation, which defined it in the first place as a religion, as opposed to the earlier proto-nationalist emphasis. Over the next 130 years, Rabbi Judah ("the Prince") and his successors developed the Mishna, a codification of Jewish religious law in the Diaspora that spread through the Greco-Roman world. Like the previous "culture of return," the Mishna was also based on the premise that the Jews would eventually return to their homeland, but at the same time it also laid the foundations for rabbinical Judaism by providing for the possibility of an ethno-religious Jewish existence without political-territorial foundations. At this time, too, Christianity separated itself from Judaism and spread among the Roman underclass and slave populations. By A.D. 391, Christianity had survived countless persecutions to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.
Several hundred years later, in the deserts of Arabia, a new culture and religion, Islam, came into being when mythic Muhammad defeated the city of Mecca at the battle of Badr (A.D. 630) and made it the center of the new religion, with himself as prophet. His successors, the caliphs Ab Bakr and 'Umar, conquered the Fertile Crescent and the Middle East (A.D. 630-43). Arabized and Islamized, Palestine now became ]und Filastin, the military district of Palestine, which included parts of Africa, eventually reaching as far as Spain.
Beginning in 1099, the Crusaders, under the leadership of European Christian kings, succeeded for a relatively short time in conquering the Holy Land and establishing the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1187, Saladin, a legendary Kurdish-born general and the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, started to take the Holy Land back for the Muslims by defeating the Crusaders at the battle of Hittin.
Saladin has since become a contemporary Palestinian hero, symbolizing the Arab hope for liberation of Palestine after a lengthy period of colonization and the establishment of the Jewish-Zionist state. For their part, the Zionists also drew a lesson from the demise of the Latin kingdom. By identifying the major "mistake" of the Christian settlers—their failure to maintain their cultural, technological, and military links with their countries of origin and their openness to the local Levantine culture—the Zionists hope to avoid it.
THE SEEDS OF ZIONISM IN EUROPE
About 150 years before the triumph of Zionism, traditional Jewish communities in western Europe slowly began to be dismantled. The political and social emancipation granted to Jewish citizens by several European states following the French and American revolutions produced a small but very influential Jewish cultural enlightenment movement, the Has kala, which was highly ambivalent about Jewish religion and ethnicity. More important results of the political emancipation included large waves of secularization, both in conjunction with and separate from attempts at complete assimilation of the Jews into local non-Jewish society. In addition, emigration increased from eastern Europe to North America and to a lesser degree to South America. The counter-effect of these processes was the appearance of Jewish Orthodoxy, which attempted to rebuild and redraw the boundaries of the religious community by imposing stricter social control on its members and overseeing their daily lives.
The ideological and lifestyle opportunities and options presented to Jews by the brave new world of sociopolitical emancipation and intercontinental mobility were immense. Even nationalism opened up new horizons for Jews, who could now choose to adopt a new collective identity and become loyal solely to their French, German, Dutch, or English citizenship. Alternatively, they could choose to divide themselves between private and public spheres, between religion and nationalism, and to be Jewish by religion at home and German, say, by nationality in public. In the context of European nationalisms, Zionism had no place. Other ideas also captured imaginations. A radical transformation of the entire world order, based on socialist, communist, or some other universalistic ideology, would also, it was thought, include personal or collective salvation for Jews. Later, the historian Simon Dubnow fused nationalism, internationalism, and secular Jewishness into a non-Zionist cultural nationalism.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were about 2.5 to 3 million Jews in the world. By the end of the century, their number had grown to close to 13 million—one of the most unprecedented demographic increases known to history. About four-fifths of the world's Jews lived in eastern Europe, including the "Pale of Settlement," a frontier zone of the Russian Empire designated by the government in 1794 as permitted territory for Jewish settlement. Here Jewish semi-autonomous communal life flourished in the absence of the newly created Western dichotomies between religion and secularism, private and public spheres, citizens' rights and oppression and persecution. During this period, the Jews rapidly transformed themselves from a semi-rural population into an urbanized people, socially organized around the almost exclusively Jewish ghetto, or shtetl, in which local leadership was able to exercise control over the members and boundaries of the community.
In 1881-82, a wave of pogroms directed at Jews broke out along the western frontier of the Russian Empire. At the same time, the Romanian government reduced many of the rights accorded to its Jewish subjects. Many of the Jews affected by these events immigrated to America, while a much smaller percentage established associations to prepare for their return to what Jews had always considered their utopian fatherland and patrimony—Palestine/Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel), the Holy Land. The best known of these movements was a small group of high school students in Krakow known as the Bilu association, which was supported by a larger organization called the Lovers of Zion, established in Katowice (Silesia) in 1884. Envoys were sent to buy land in Palestine and to establish agricultural colonies there. A striking similarity exists between this group's motives and those of the first Protestant immigrants to North America, as seen in the mixture of articulated religious convictions strengthened by a history of persecution. This movement founded colonies such as Zichron Yaakov, Hadera, Gadera, and Mish-mar Hayarden. In addition, and unrelated to the Bilu movement, an agricultural school (Mikve Israel) was founded in 1870 for Jewish students by a French-Jewish philanthropist organization, the Alliance Israélite universelle, and an agricultural settlement was set up by Orthodox Jews who had left Jerusalem in 1878. Later, in Zionist historiography, this immigration came to be considered the "first wave" of Zionist immigration and as such was linked to other, subsequent "waves," despite the fact that it was not politically driven and that the newcomers did not possess a coherent ideological vision.
All the lands on which these colonies were established were purchased from major landowners, and, in many cases, the Arab peasants who had previously leased the land, and often considered it to be their own property, were driven away. The Jewish colonists tried to be self-sufficient, but economic necessity soon forced them to employ hired labor. In many cases, the seasonal and permanent laborers they employed were the Arab peasants previously expelled from the same lands. This caused friction between the colonists and the local population and even led to attacks on colonial settlements, such as that by Bedouin tribal warriors on Petach Tikva. A circumstance that allowed for these frictions was the general weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the poor state of law and order outside urban areas and military garrisons. One response of the Jewish colonists was to adapt to the common pattern of cooperation at the time and hire protection from local Arab strongmen and chiefs.
On several occasions, the Ottoman authorities tried to bar Jewish immigration and impede the transfer of land to foreign ownership, as evidenced by a law to this effect promulgated in 1893. Support from the local Sephardi Jewish community, who all held Ottoman citizenship, and bribes to Turkish officials cleared many of these obstacles, but not all the Ottoman clerks were corruptible. A Tiberias district officer, Amin Arsalan, bitterly opposed the registration of extensive Jewish land purchases, because he saw it as part of the Arab "denationalization" of the district. This episode ended when, following Jewish intervention in Istanbul, Arsalan was fired. From 1892 onward, Arab notables sporadically resisted Jewish colonization. In Jerusalem, for example, they petitioned the Ottoman government, demanding an end to Jewish immigration and land purchases. In general, however, they never posed much trouble for Jewish immigration, mainly because the scope of immigration was very small and never amounted to a real threat to the interests of local notables. On the contrary, their lands actually rose in value.
Excerpted from The Invention and Decline of Israeliness by Baruch Kimmerling. Copyright © 2001 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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