- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Peter BerkowitzIn The Jewish State, Mr. Hazony's book crafts a vision of the Jewish state that cherishes its Jewishness and honors its liberal and democratic character.
— Wall Street Journal
The Culture Makers Renounce the Idea of the Jewish State
The Israeli Urge to Suicide
In the summer of 1994, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz published a lengthy polemic by Aharon Meged entitled "The Israeli Urge to Suicide," in which the well-known novelist—a thoroughly acceptable and otherwise noncontroversial member of the small clique that constitutes Israel's cultural establishment—accused the nation's intellectual leadership, almost to a man, of conspiring to destroy the moral and historical basis for the Jewish state's existence, and with it the Jewish state itself.
"For two or three decades now," Meged wrote,
a few hundred of our "society's best," men of the pen and of the spirit—academics, authors, and journalists, and to these one must add artists and photographers and actors as well—have been working determinedly and without respite to preach and prove that our cause is not just: Not only that it has been unjust since the Six Day War [in 1967] and the "occupation," which is supposed to be unjust by its very nature; and not only since the founding of the state in 1948, a birth which was itself "conceived in sin" ... —but since the beginnings of Zionist settlement at the end of the last century.
Like overt anti-Zionists of the past, Israel's intellectuals had long ago abandoned the view that Zionism, while engendering rare acts of injustice, was a fundamentally just cause. Instead, they had come to believe that thecause of the Jewish state was wrong in principle, and the result was an entire culture of hatred against the Jewish state. But a single example was the cultural leaders' habit of identifying the IDF with the Nazis—a trend which had ballooned to include "thousands of articles ... hundreds of poems, songs, and satires, tens of documentary and dramatic films, exhibitions and paintings and photographs." Taken as a whole, these and other works like them "constitute a monstrous indictment against Israel," an indictment in the face of which sympathy for the Jewish state was fast becoming untenable.
Meged's essay was no ordinary piece of cultural punditry. It marked the beginning of a volcanic outpouring of accusation, justification, rationalization, and counter-accusation that continued to appear in all the media in the years that followed, under headlines emphasizing and reemphasizing the term post-Zionism—which was used to describe a new period in Israeli history, either already begun or else on the threshold, in which the idea of a Jewish state was recognized as being effectively dead. An attempt to gather the articles from the Israeli press on the subject quickly produced a volume almost six hundred pages long, and the debate has continued to flare up again every few months, seemingly without possibility of exhaustion.
Yet Meged's accusations, in and of themselves, could not have triggered such a furor; little of what he had to say was much of a surprise to anyone familiar with Israeli culture. Israeli society is small and its intellectual world is smaller. It only has a few hundred men of the pen and of the spirit, and these form a tight-packed and intellectually monochromatic clique whose cynicism with regard to the idea of the Jewish state has been a fixture of public discourse for decades. Who could have missed them? They are Israel's intellectual and cultural establishment—their works stocking Israel's three major theaters and its two main art museums, their ideas politically correct in its tiny cartel of universities and on Israel's two television stations, their constant comment filling the opinion pages, literary section, and weekend supplement of the only prestige newspaper, Ha'aretz. They are the ones who, together with North Tel Aviv's high society of business stars and yuppie-politicos with whom they socialize, are referred to by everyday Israel as "the branja"—a Yiddish word meaning "the experts" or "the guild." They're the people running the show. Why, then, the carrying on?
What allowed Meged's piece to draw blood was in part the identity of the author himself. A lifelong member of Israel's literary establishment and a political dove (who had long supported the establishment of a Palestinian state), Meged was as true an insider among Israeli culture-makers as one could have, so that when he spoke of the "emotional and moral identification" of hundreds of "society's best" with the enemies of Zionism, he was describing individuals nearly all of whom he had known well for years—a defection that ensured the piece would gain at least a certain notoriety.
More important, however, was the timing of the article, written at a political juncture that allowed it to draw unprecedented attention to the question of where Israel's leading academics, authors, and artists were trying to take the country. Israel is a country that concerns itself with war and party politics—tachles, as Israelis like to say, "the bottom line," "the action-item"—and the doings of the literati, despite their nightly appearances on talk shows, had long been regarded as irrelevant. A clear example of the disregard with which the political leaders of both major parties, Labor and Likud, had rejected the ideas of the culture makers was their long-standing dismissal of the idea that Israel should seek peace with Yasser Arafat by granting him an independent Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank, Gaza, and eastern Jerusalem. The branja had been widely known to support such a radical step for decades, but before 1993, no one had taken this option too seriously. Opinion polls had shown no real support for this scheme among Israeli Jews, and both parties had therefore remained adamant that Arafat was the kingpin of international terrorism, with neither the moral nor the political standing to negotiate with Israel about anything.
Yet with the signing of the Oslo agreement between Arafat and the Labor government in September 1993, the perennial theory of the political impotence of Israel's intellectuals began sickeningly to totter. Published less than nine months after the signing of the accords, "The Israeli Urge to Suicide" focused attention on the undeniable fact that the ideology of the intellectuals, which had been considered so irrelevant for so long, had in the end succeeded in undermining—and then reversing—the worldview of the political leadership. And if the opinions of the intellectuals could, apparently without warning, bring about so vast a political change in the country's foreign and security policy, was it not merely a matter of time before the rest of their ideas would become the policy of the state as well?
There was no waiting for the answer. The atmosphere of emotional liberation of those heady days gave intellectuals the confidence they needed to say out loud what previously had only been said in whispers, and it rapidly became clear that although the Oslo agreement may have been the branja's most spectacular political achievement, it was in fact only the tip of an iceberg. Suddenly, Israel opened its newspapers and found itself seriously discussing virtually any idea or policy that could be devised for undermining the legal and moral basis for the existence of Israel as a Jewish state—from discarding the national flag to placing the city of Jerusalem under UN authority to repealing the Law of Return.
"Is Zionism nearing its end?" Aharon Meged asked in "The Israeli Urge to Suicide." And in the years that followed, what had long been evident to insiders in Israel's cultural establishment gradually became obvious to all: that the idea of the Jewish state had grown so dubious and confused among educated Israelis that one could seriously question such a state would continue to exist.
The pages that follow survey the ideas of Israel's culture makers as they relate to the Jewish state; in Chapter 2 I will trace the influence of post-Zionist ideas on the institutions of the state of Israel and the threat that this influence poses to Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Obviously, a cultural threat of this kind cannot be described as precisely as a military threat, where one can count tanks and missile launchers. Any effort to understand which way the winds are blowing in a civilization is necessarily impressionistic and subject to all the weaknesses that such impressionism entails. Nevertheless, I think that when one begins to look at Israel's few hundred "men of the spirit" and at what they permit themselves to say and write about the cause of the Jewish state, the picture that emerges is clear. The hope of the early Zionists that the return of the Jews to their land would produce a civilization compatible with their persistence as an independent nation, has, it seems, proved to have been in vain.
For well over a century, Jewish intellectuals—and especially those German-Jewish academics who constituted the mainstream of Jewish philosophy in the last century—have had serious doubts concerning the legitimacy and desirability of harnessing the interests of the Jewish people to the worldly power of a political state. Only the Holocaust, the most extreme demonstration of the evil of Jewish powerlessness imaginable, succeeded in turning the objections of the intellectuals to the Jewish state into an embarrassment, for the most part driving their opposition underground. Yet Jewish intellectuals, even in Israel, never became fully reconciled to the empowerment of the Jewish people entailed in the creation of a Jewish state. For example, Martin Buber, then living in Jerusalem, argued in 1958 that the belief in the efficacy of power embraced by so many Jews in his generation had been learned from Hitler. And with time, this manner of discussing the Jewish national power—which had been a staple of Jewish anti-Zionist rhetoric prior to the Holocaust—began to regain its previous legitimacy. Thus, Israel's most influential philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz of the Hebrew University, had no difficulty calling the Israeli armed forces "Judeo-Nazis," and declared that Israel would soon be engaging in the "mass expulsion and slaughter of the Arab population" and "setting up concentration camps." Similarly, Jacob Talmon of the Hebrew University, Israel's most respected historian, asserted that "there is no longer any aim or achievement that can justify ... twentieth-century battle," arguing that Israeli leaders who justified warfare on the grounds of national interest or historical rights were a throwback to the "Devil's accomplices in the last two generations ... [who] warped the soul of millions and all but exterminated the Jewish people."
By the 1970s, Israel's universities and newspapers had become home to a new generation of intellectuals—the students of Leibowitz and Talmon—for whom the enormities of World War II were not even a memory. This generation of intellectuals inherited a distaste for the Zionist quest for Jewish national power from their teachers. But unlike their teachers, they lived in a world in which Zionism had been branded an illegitimate political movement by the General Assembly of the United Nations and in which the stigma against devastating academic treatment of Zionism was rapidly eroding. These "new" Israeli academics found themselves able to find academic positions and funding, whether in Israel or abroad, to write books that were for the most part "scientific" elaborations of the same accusations against the Jewish state that earlier scholars had generally dared to express only as "opinions."
For years, discussions of post-Zionism within Israel have tended to give undue prominence to a group of researchers known as "the new historians"—a pattern that has recently spread to the United States, where extensive attention has been paid to two "new histories" of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Righteous Victims: A History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1881-1999 by Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University (1999) and The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World by Israeli-born Avi Shlaim of Oxford (2000). On the whole, these and similar works that began appearing as early as twenty years ago are "new" not because of the recently declassified archival sources they utilize but due to their orientation, which emphasizes the morally questionable nature of Jewish actions to a degree previously found only among anti-Zionist (generally non-Jewish) historians. Shlaim's Iron Wall, for example, presents merciless portraits of a long line of Zionist leaders previously considered heroes by the Israeli mainstream: Thus David Ben-Gurion becomes a "power-hungry" Israeli "strongman" who led an Israel "more intransigent than the Arab states"; Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan is described as "aggressive and ruthless," more "power-hungry" even than Ben-Gurion, dragging the IDF into one "unprovoked act of aggression" after another; and Golda Meir is said to have been systematically "intransigent" and to have "ruled ... her country with an iron rod." At one point, Shlaim even asserts that the entire state of Israel has been gripped by "collective psychosis."
Readers of a book of this kind naturally emerge feeling that Israel's policies were far less admirable than they may previously have believed. Yet, the kind of history Shlaim presents is essentially a long series of disconnected—if unappealing—events, which leave the impression that had Israel been led by more moderate individuals, it might actually have developed a foreign policy marked by decency and fairness. The same cannot be said, however, for the far more sophisticated and intelligent work of Benny Morris, whose aim is no less than to present a new historiographic framework for understanding all of Israeli history. In Righteous Victims, Morris contends that Zionism was from the outset "a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement" that was infected by "the European colonist's mental obliteration of the `natives,'" which reduced the Arabs to "objects to be utilized when necessary." As such, the entire Zionist enterprise tended toward the dispossession of the Arabs—an effort that was from the outset "tainted by a measure of moral dubiousness." And once one is writing history on the basis of such premises, the rest of the picture falls easily into place: The physical expulsion, or transfer, of at least large segments of the Arab population in Palestine is said to have become a matter of "virtual consensus" among Zionist leaders—a consensus that "without doubt contributed" to Jewish actions in Palestine during the War of Independence. The result was, as Morris has written, that the Jewish forces "committed far more atrocities in 1948 than did Arab forces," and what they did can be described as "a variety of ethnic cleansing."
While these and similar books dealing with Zionist policy toward the Arabs have received much attention, the truth is that this entire genre of what may be called "original sin" books is relatively pedestrian in comparison with other trends in the universities that have received significantly less publicity. At least as damaging has been an entire tradition of research demonstrating that the policies of the Zionist founders toward the Jews—whom they were ostensibly saving—suffered from a "taint of moral dubiousness" as well. This tradition was pioneered by Tel Aviv University sociologist Yonathan Shapiro (d. 1997), according to whom the state of Israel is only a "formal democracy," which has since its founding functioned as an essentially authoritarian regime—an insight being applied by his students in a range of studies that argue, for example, that the IDF was used by the Labor government as a tool in preventing the social advancement of Sephardi Jews. The prominent Hebrew University political scientist Ze'ev Sternhell similarly argues in The Founding Myths of Israel (1986) that the Labor Zionist leaders systematically betrayed the humanist ideals to which it paid lip service, in order to create a militarist and chauvinist state whose Jewish national character remains "highly problematic" to this day. And Yehuda Shenhav, head of the sociology department at Tel Aviv University, has joined the ongoing academic efforts to bring out the dark side of Israeli operations to bring Jews from Arab countries to Israel during the 1950s; according to Shenhav, the Israeli government conspired to force Iraqi Jews to leave their possessions in Baghdad, possibly for fear that if they were not impoverished, they might use their wealth to oppose its policies or return to Iraq.
Equally damning is the new set of history books describing the perfidies committed by Labor Zionism in its dealings with the Holocaust and its survivors. Of these, the most successful has been The Seventh Million by journalist-historian Tom Segev (1991), which won extensive attention for its claim that Zionist leaders had "deep contempt" and "disgust" for their relatives in the Diaspora and that this, combined with an ideological fixation on establishing a Jewish state, contributed to their failure to pursue options for saving European Jewry during the Holocaust. Even more virulent is the historian Idith Zertal, who teaches social thought and Holocaust studies at Hebrew University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia, whose book The Gold of the Jews (1996) compares the absorption of Holocaust refugees into Jewish Palestine to rape, arguing that in using the survivors to build their Jewish state, the Zionists turned them into "appropriated objects" who were then "defiled" and "violated" twice: first by the Nazis, and then again by the Jews.
Each of these books can be said to be microhistorical, seeking to depict the crimes and errors of the Zionist movement or the state of Israel only with regard to a particular historical period or a given issue. To be sure, each of these books constitutes an additional brick in the wall of the new history of the Jewish state—a history in which one gets the impression that the actions of the Zionists were always execrable. But there are other, more efficient ways to destroy the history of a nation. To see how, one need only consider the macrohistorical work of Israel's leading academic historiographers, who seek a revision of Jewish history in its entirety.
The broad strokes of argument made by the new historiographers is as follows: The idea of a unitary Jewish people or nationality, with a common identity and a common history of past persecution in the lands of the dispersion, is a myth. Jews in the Diaspora were not a nationality at all but rather a large number of unconnected religious communities, each with its own past, problems, and experiences, without any grand common denominator. In fact, the concept of a Jewish people or nationality with which we are familiar was at least partially invented in the late nineteenth century by Zionist politicians. As the prominent Hebrew University sociologist Baruch Kimmerling explains, the Zionist leaders created this "partially reconstructed and partially invented past" with the intention of establishing "a direct linkage between the `Jewish past' ... and the contemporary situation of Zionist colonization." In other words, the story of a unitary and tormented Jewish people returning to its ancestral home was manufactured to provide legitimacy for an otherwise sordid movement to disinherit and exploit Palestine's indigenous inhabitants. The supposed national history of the Jewish people was thus nothing more than "a weapon ... in the struggle of Zionism against other streams in Judaism, and in the struggle against the Arabs."
It goes without saying that if the Zionists were able to use the weapon of Jewish national history to such great effect, then someone has to take this weapon away from them. And this is precisely what Baruch Kimmerling and his colleagues have set about doing. Thus, the history of Zionism is retold by Kimmerling as though it were any other nineteenth-century colonialist enterprise: A small number of European whites come to Palestine to construct a settlement whose prospects for success—like those of all other colonial enterprises—rest on the twin assumptions of dispossession of the native people and their continued suppression by means of a draconian military regime built along racialist lines. And these characteristics, as we are told, remain the basis of today's Jewish state.
Academics hostile to the "invented national narrative" are teaching at all of Israel's leading universities. But none of them has laid out the new historiographic "agenda" as explicitly as the historian Moshe Zimmermann of the Hebrew University. Zimmermann argues that the entire premise of Jewish history as a unity describing the history of a single Jewish nationality was laid down by Zionist historians responding to the needs of a particular group of "consumers" in their own day. But with the changes taking place in Israeli society—which, he says, is now coming to accept the "slaughter" of various "holy cows" of Zionism—the premise underlying the old narrative of the Jewish people, as we have known it, has also now "expired":
For if the ground has been swept away, not only from under the feet of Zionism but also from under the entire interpretation that orthodox Zionism gave to Jewish history, then all of Jewish history is in need of a new interpretation.
Fortunately, Zimmermann has a "new" version of Jewish history to propose: one in which the unity that had been artificially imposed by the "problematic" idea of a Jewish "nationality" will no longer be assumed.
Methodologically, the point of departure is no longer ... the a priori distinctness of Jewish history, but rather that of "universal history" ... From the moment that the premise of Jewish or Israeli distinctness is no longer axiomatic ... all of history looks different.
Indeed, it does. For once the discipline of Jewish history as we know it—in which the Jewish people is a unitary and distinct actor—is dissolved into the new "universal history," each Jewish community is divorced from the overall framework of the traditional Jewish historic narrative and becomes the product of a local, non-Jewish milieu. In such a fragmented history, the concepts and values and aspirations of the Jews as a distinct people naturally dissipate, being replaced by greater empathy for the communities in which the Jews lived. Zimmermann assembles lists of historical conclusions that he believes may arise from studying "universal history" in place of the traditional "Jewish history," including:
1. Not every accusation leveled against the Jews of the Middle Ages was without justification.
2. "Assimilation" ... kept Judaism alive no less than it has undermined it.
3. Zionism "imported" anti-Semitism into the Middle East.
4. Zionism used the refugees from the Holocaust as a lever to advance aims of its own.
5. Zionism is not the optimal solution ... to what is known as "the Jewish problem."
Moreover, says Zimmermann, given the experience of the national-states of Europe, which are now on the road to "post-sovereignty," the perspective of "universal history" will permit a "reconsideration of the Israeli fixation regarding sovereignty" and of the "blatantly ethnocentric" concept of the Jewish state.
Thus far I have focused on Israeli academics whose research deals directly with Jewish and Israeli history. But while historians and political sociologists have naturally been on the cutting edge of the "new" research trends, they have received crucial support from professors in other fields—especially philosophy—whose public pronouncements and writings have contributed much to the post-Zionist atmosphere in the media and often reveal a great deal about what is taking place in university classrooms as well.
In certain cases, influential academics helped these trends along by openly challenging Zionism or the concept of a Jewish state. These include scholars such as Menahem Brinker of the Hebrew University, one of Israel's leading scholars of Hebrew literature, who told the press not long ago that "Zionism is not a metaphysical thing. It's a rather totalitarian one which has outlived its usefulness and will ebb away in time"; and Amos Elon, one of Israel's best-known journalist-historians (and author of a biography of Herzl), who has decried what he calls the "tragic tendency of large parts of Israeli society to reinterpret its tradition in the harsh terms of an integralist or religious state ideology still known under the old name `Zionism.'" Others manage to devote their academic work to taking such positions, a case in point being Yosef Agasy of the Tel Aviv University philosophy department, whose recent book Who Is an Israeli? (1991) explains that the present Israeli state resembles Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, in that its interests are those of a nonexistent "phantom nation" (in Israel's case, the Jewish people), which is used as a pretext to justify an "anti-democratic" regime and policies of subversion abroad. Also in this category is the Tel Aviv University philosophy department's Adi Ophir, who has for the last ten years been editor of a highbrow journal called Theory and Criticism, published by the Van Leer Institute with the financial support of the Education Ministry, whose aim is the cultivation of the "new history" and other similar trends within Israeli academia. Ophir's own writings include a recent article in which he describes Israel as "the garbage heap of Europe," a "site of experiments ... in ethnic cleansing," "a regime that produces and distributes evil systematically." He then identifies the cause of all this—Israel's identity as a Jewish state:
They keep on telling us about the return of the Jews to history as a political and military power ... and about the Jewish military strength that enables us to defend Jews wherever they may be ... [But] Jewish sovereignty ... has turned out to be the biggest danger to Jewish cultural and moral existence ... They tell us that the only question left open, the only real question, is how to get "peace." ... They fail to realize that the real question lies in the very idea of national sovereignty.... We envision a state that will not be a [Jewish] nation-state.
While there are plenty of academics of this type, the real danger to the Jewish state does not come from its self-professed opponents, who are still a clear minority. Rather, it lies in that large section of Israeli academia that does not necessarily see itself as "post-Zionist" but that has with time moved inexorably away from what was once the mainstream Labor-Zionist consensus regarding even the most basic aspects of maintaining a Jewish state. No one better represents the influence of post-Zionist ideas on mainstream thinkers than Eliezer Schweid of Hebrew University's department of Jewish philosophy. Schweid was for many years the great hope of ideological Labor Zionism, and today he is one of Israel's only remaining Zionist thinkers. It is therefore all the more painful to recognize that even Schweid's Zionism has begun to gravitate toward what he himself describes as a "universal Zionism"—a principle that seeks to resolve the most embarrassing dilemmas of Zionist particularism by giving them up. Thus, he proposes altering the Israeli flag and national anthem in keeping with a "universal Zionism" that is equally representative of both Jews and non-Jews:
The only way to solve the problem is to add to the Zionist flag [i.e., the present Israeli flag] a symbol that will represent the participation of the Arab minority, and to compose an anthem ... that will express the Zionist purpose on a universal level: Loyalty to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem, and to the state of Israel as symbols which express the hope of redemption, brotherhood, and peace for all who are called by the name Israel and among all peoples. Such an anthem could unite all the citizens of the state, even though each one of them would use it to express his own national or religious identity, and the substance of his own special connection to the land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the state of Israel.
Now, one does not have to be too much of a philosopher to recognize that "universal Zionism" is identical in content to the generic, universalist patriotism that has always been advocated by anti-Zionist intellectuals. Moreover, it seems obvious that a proposal such as Schweid's can contribute nothing to the problem of shoring up the collapsing idea of the Jewish state. Indeed, particularistic Jewish legislation such as the Law of Return, which Schweid wants to retain, would not last six months after the addition of a crescent moon to the Israeli flag. Whether one calls this "Universal Zionism" or post-Zionism, the fact is that such proposals can do no more than to wreak confusion among those who still believe in the Jewish state, while demonstrating that there is hardly a corner of Israeli academia that is not in retreat before the inevitable.
And for years now, other leading academics have been bombarding the Israeli public with their own political and cultural proposals, to much the same effect. Thus, Avishai Margalit and Moshe Halbertal, both of the Hebrew University philosophy department, have argued that the state of Israel is morally obligated to offer Arabs "special rights" for the protection of their culture and to maintain an Arab majority in those parts of the country where Arabs are concentrated; Israel must be "neutral," on the other hand, toward the Jews, since they constitute the "dominant culture," which can "take care of itself." A related proposal by Hebrew University anthropologist Danny Rabinovitch would have the government publicly confess to "the original sin of Israel" by establishing an official day of mourning to "mark the suffering of the Palestinians during the rise of Israel." And Tel Aviv University historian Yehuda Elkana has opposed Holocaust-awareness programs, which focus attention on collective victimization in the past in a manner that is reminiscent of fascist regimes. His own belief is that Israeli leaders must make every effort to "uproot the rule of historical remembrance from our "lives." Along the same lines, Yaron Ezrahi, a noted professor of political science at the Hebrew University, has written a book called Rubber Bullets (1997), in which he objects to raising children on myths of national heroism, which he considers "poisonous milk on which fathers often nurse their sons." In place of these, he hopes for the development of a more "moderate, humanly accommodating vision of communal existence," such as the one he found in a Dutch tourist booklet, which looked forward with resignation to a time when Holland will "disappear from history."
One hopes for relief from Yael Tamir of the Tel Aviv University philosophy department (appointed absorption minister in the Barak government in 1999), who showed much courage in publishing her book Liberal Nationalism (1993), in which she defends nationalist particularism against the prevailing antinationalist ideas. And yet even here, where a self-professed Zionist intellectual dares to defend nationalism in principle, she ends up stripping it down so far that what remains is the hope of a world "in which traditional nation-states wither away, surrendering their power to make strategic, economic, and ecological decisions to regional organizations, and their power to structure cultural policies to local national communities." In short, Tamir, too, proposes a political ideal that gives the impression of denying the ultimate legitimacy of a sovereign Jewish state.
This then, is the achievement of post-Zionism in Israeli academia. A systematic struggle is being conducted by Israeli scholars against the idea of the Jewish state, its historic narrative, institution, and symbols. Of course, there are elements of truth in some of the claims being advanced by Israeli academics against what was once the Labor Zionist consensus on these subjects. But so overwhelming is the assault that it is unclear whether any aspect of this former consensus can remain standing; and such is the state of confusion and conceptual decay among those who still feel loyal to the old ideal of the Jewish state that they themselves are often found advancing ideas that are at the heart of the post-Zionist agenda.
Against this onslaught, the response has been limited. The resistance to the new ideas has included some of Israel's foremost academics, including the political philosopher Shlomo Avineri, the historians Anita Shapira, Shabtai Teveth, Mordechai Bar-On, and Yosef Gorny, the sociologist Moshe Lissak, and a handful of others. Former education minister Amnon Rubinstein's writings on the new historians are also significant. But this rearguard is heavily outgunned, in part because of the sheer volume of post-Zionist academic output—a single issue of Theory and Criticism in 1999 amassed no fewer than fifty original academic articles seeking to establish the "new" view of Israeli history. Moreover, one cannot help but notice that nearly all of the leading scholars who have made serious contributions to the efforts to fend off the post-Zionist tide are in their sixties and seventies, while their opponents are for the most part significantly younger. What this might mean for the future of Israel's universities and for the future of intellectual life in the Jewish state, one can only begin to imagine.
The term anshei ruah ("men of the spirit") is a common Hebrew expression used to refer to intellectuals and artists in general. But at the same time, these words also carry the clear connotation that such culture makers are in fact the "spiritual leaders" of their readers. And in fact, Israel's most prominent intellectuals—especially authors of fiction such as Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev—are often treated as though they are the country's spiritual leaders. Not only are their works taught in the public school system and in the universities as the highest expression of a resurrected Hebrew civilization (and therefore as the pinnacle of Zionist achievement), but they are also usually the best-selling books in the country as well, each one a cultural "event" with which educated Israelis are expected to be conversant. Between books, such authors are the object of incessant attention in the media, which are insatiably interested in their views on literature and culture, morals and religion, social policy and foreign policy—in short, on everything. And to add to all this, they frequently teach literature at Israel's universities as well. For this reason, the influence of post-Zionist ideas on Israeli writers is a subject of especial importance for understanding which way the winds are blowing across Israel's cultural landscape.
Tracing the effect of post-Zionist ideas in literature, however, is substantially more complicated than doing so in academia, where there are always a decent number of professors willing to be explicit about the "meaning" of their research. Writers of fiction are notoriously uninterested in offering explicit explanations of the "message" of their works, and without such assistance, it is all too easy to fall into the trap offering overly simplistic interpretations of symbols and scenes and characters whose role may not necessarily be clear-cut. In well-written novels, characters do not necessarily represent unequivocal ideological positions, and even when they do, they may or may not be expressing the views of the author when they speak; moreover, the ideas of a given character may also develop over the course of the book. An additional problem is the fact that many of Israel's leading authors (including those who refer to themselves as Zionists) are great devotees of satire—a technique that allows them to level barbs of the most devastating variety against everything others hold sacred, while being in a position to deflect criticism "lacking in humor."
Yet even with all this said, Israel's leading novelists deal with Zionism and the Jewish state incessantly in their works. And even if they do not like to comment on their own books, they do appear frequently in the media to express their views on Israeli political culture. As a consequence, Israel's authors are often individuals whose views exert a definite pressure on Israeli society to move in a given direction: toward a state that has discarded many of the ideals once embraced by its founders.
There is probably no more obvious example than Meir Shalev, the son of Yitzhak Shalev, a one-time Labor Zionist (he later joined Menachem Begin's Irgun) who was in the years after the Holocaust one of Israel's better-known poets. The younger Shalev was catapulted to literary stardom in 1988 with the publication of A Russian Romance, one of the most successful works of fiction ever published in Israel (it sold over 100,000 copies in Israel and also became a best-seller in Germany and Austria). It may also be the most merciless parody ever written on the subject of the Labor Zionists who were at the forefront of the struggle for a Jewish state. Because the book largely escaped any taint of "post-Zionism" and because it is so typical of the way Zionism is treated in current Israeli literature, it is worth dwelling on it to get a sense of just what is being parodied and in what manner.
Shalev's novel tells the story of three men and a woman, young Zionist firebrands from Russia who pour their entire lives into the establishment of an impoverished commune in the Galilee, which they eventually succeed in building into a thriving agricultural cooperative. One of the settlement's founding fathers, we are told, never ceases to love a Russian whore back in the old country, but he nevertheless marries the commune's female cook after losing in a lottery to determine who will be saddled with her. Another of the founders, the descendant of "the only Jew in Russia to rape Cossacks," spends the entire book building a monstrous hoard of weaponry and ammunition, but he is in the end blown up along with his cache; his comrades cry little at the loss of their friend, but they do grieve "for so many good weapons gone forever." Another one of the "founders" is a mule that the others discuss as if it were a human being and which they eulogize, upon its death, as "one of the monumental figures of the Movement." But the Zionist pioneers' devotion to guns and mules only underscores their utter contempt for human life. Throughout the book, wars are vaguely mentioned, but no one bothers to refer to names or dates. People in the community die, but no one cares. A couple is murdered by Arabs, and all the founders can do is praise themselves for it, boasting with pleasure that there has been no family in the village that has not sacrificed to bullets, malaria, suicides. "May our determination be redoubled by our grief," they tell one another. "We have chosen life and we shall surely live."
Unlike the real-life Zionist pioneers, however, Shalev's Zionists live a life bereft of any political or historical motives that could give meaning to their sacrifices. His characters know virtually nothing of the ideals that filled the actual Jewish settlers' lives, letters, and memoirs: They have nothing to say about redeeming their people from persecution or restoring their dignity through national independence. Much of the story takes place during the Holocaust, but it hardly earns a mention. At one point, one of the founders makes reference to it in the village newsletter: "In the Diaspora, too, the Jewish people spills its blood," he writes, "yet their Jewish blood is pointless in death as in life." Then everyone goes back to talking about improving their citrus-growing techniques. When Efraim, the son of one of the farmers, becomes anguished over what is happening in Europe and determines to enlist to fight the Nazis, his father responds with contempt: "A boy your age can make his contribution right here. You're not going off to any war."
Efraim runs away from home and serves with a British commando unit in Tunisia, where he performs deeds of remarkable heroism before being horribly disfigured in a battle. Shalev's characters nowhere make the connection between Efraim's cause and their own lives, and when he returns to the village after an absence of two years, the Jews of the village show him no trace of gratitude or compassion. All they feel is revulsion, which Shalev paints in vivid detail:
Efraim was home. Wearing the soft yellow desert boots and winged-dagger insignia of a commando, and his ribbons, decorations, and sergeant's stripes ... Efraim stepped out of the car and smiled at the villagers gathered there. ... Mouths opened wide, retching with horror and consternation. Men came running from the green fields, from the leafing orchards, from the cowsheds and the chicken coops to stand before Efraim and howl.... [The teacher] emerged from the schoolhouse and loped heavily towards his former pupil. ... Shutting his eyes, he bellowed like a slaughtered ox.... The crowd pressed together in fear, a whole village stood shrieking.
In a few sentences, all of Labor Zionism is revealed in its shallowness, hypocrisy, and callous villainy. For the Zionist founders, every sacrifice, no matter how extreme, is worthwhile in the name of their movement. But a decorated Jewish soldier, tragically wounded in the fight to save the lives of Europe's Jews, is for them nothing but a horror.
Nor does his treatment at the hands of the Zionists improve. After Efraim's homecoming, the Jewish farmers only shun him and despise him. In stark contrast, it is the British officers stationed in Palestine—preserved in Israeli memory as a hard-hearted oppressor—who display the only nobility and humanity in the book. It is they who love Efraim dearly for what he has done, including "the lame Major Stoves, two lean, quiet Scottish commando officers who gave Efraim an embrace, and an Indian quartermaster whose heart thumped loudly at the sight of the medals on my uncle's chest." It is they, and not the Zionist idealists, who try to help the wounded Jewish soldier rebuild his life, building him a small structure in which he can live and coming to drink beer with him. Similarly, it is the men of his unit who chip in to buy him a pedigreed bull so that he can earn a livelihood. Shalev spells out the meaning for any reader who might have missed it: "The British know how to honor their heroes."
In the end, Efraim is forced to flee the village because of the Zionists' revulsion for him, and now the pettiness, vindictiveness, and sexual vandalism that had characterized the Zionist settlers' meaningless existence is turned to a purpose: The rest of the novel chronicles the campaign of vengeance by means of which Efraim's family successfully destroys the lives of the Zionist settlement's founding fathers. Efraim's grandfather strikes back at his former friends by leaving the fruit in his orchards to drop from the trees and rot. And one of Efraim's nephews sleeps with "every last one" of the founders' married daughters and granddaughters in turn, calling out their relationships to the founders ("I'm screwing Liberson's granddaughter!" "I'm screwing Ya'akovi's wife!") from the top of the water tower as his campaign progresses. Another nephew transforms his grandfather's farm into a cemetery for members of the founders' generation ("the traitors") who left Palestine for America and made vast fortunes there. The dead capitalists are returned to the village in coffins, having paid tremendous sums before dying to be buried in a graveyard for halutzim—the vaunted Hebrew term for "pioneers." Those Jews who attained success in America are in this way awarded the same posthumous glory as those who devoted their lives to backbreaking labor in the wastes of Palestine. And the Zionist founders are thus robbed of the only thing that ever mattered to them: the sanctimonious myth of their own moral superiority.
Toward the end of the book, as he is surveying the wreckage of his life's work, the settlement's old schoolteacher Ya'akov Pinness undergoes a conversion experience ("at the age of ninety-five, Pinness looked up to discover that ... fresh breezes blew over the earth") and defects to the side of the destroyers. Suddenly, we find him taking up his pen and writing in the village newsletter that the effort for which they had sacrificed their entire lives had been mistaken. "We were wrong," he wrote, "Wrong educationally. Wrong politically. Wrong in how we thought about the future. We are like the blind beasts that perish, up to their necks in mire." In the pages that follow, Pinness elaborates, explaining to anyone who will listen that the Jews had been fools for having sought redemption in a reunion with the soil of ancient Israel, which they had vainly imagined to be somehow related to them, somehow their own:
"This vulgar earth must have split its sides laughing at the sight of us pioneers kissing and watering it with our tears of thanksgiving," [said Pinness.] ... He now understood how easily the earth shook off whatever trivial images men cloaked it in. "Why, it's nothing but a tissue of poor fictions anyway, the earth!" he exclaimed. "A thin crust beneath which is nothing but pure selfishness."
Shalev's book is a satire, of course. And it is so successful because Shalev's caricature really does build in part on weaknesses of the old Labor Zionism that deserve to be brought out. (His critique of the movement's crass materialism, for example, is a crucial point that is unfamiliar to most Israeli readers.) But what makes Shalev's novel a classic of contemporary post-Zionist literature is not the fact that it pokes fun at what was once sacrosanct. Rather, it is the manner in which virtually every aspect of Zionism is made to appear invidious, its every ideal repugnant and its every adherent loathsome—while those cast in a favorable light are inevitably those who revolted against the Zionists (Efraim, Ya'akov Pinness) or else those who historically opposed them (the British). In fact, so successful is A Russian Romance that it is impossible to detect anything in the Jewish return to Palestine that might have once been worthy of our identification or admiration. Shalev is not involved here in the kind of satire that destroys a rickety wall or two so we can build another. He is razing the house.
Needless to say, Israeli literature did not begin this way. Early Jewish nationalist authors and poets such as S. Y. Agnon, Haim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernikovsky, Nathan Alterman, and Uri Tzvi Greenberg produced a literature imbued with a love for the Jewish people and for the resurrection of this people in its land, and were felt to be the moving spirit uplifting the settlers of Jewish Palestine and instilling in them the strength for great deeds. The next generation of writers, including Aharon Meged, Moshe Shamir, and the poet Haim Guri, were individuals who came of age during the struggle for Jewish independence. Although their novels, short stories, and plays more realistically reflected the actual Jewish state being constructed in Israel, their works similarly conveyed a belief in the importance and justice of the Zionist cause. Typical of these was Moshe Shamir's runaway best-seller He Walked in the Fields (1947). Shamir's novel told the story of Uri, a young leader in the Jewish underground organization Palmah, who is torn between the duties of command and his pregnant girlfriend. In the end, Uri dies in a training accident, throwing himself on a live grenade to save his friends. The tragedy was given even greater poignancy by the fact that Shamir's own real-life brother was killed during the War of Independence, not long after the novel was published, and Israelis continued to flock to hear the story retold in major stage and screen productions well into the 1960s. (In the film version, Uri was played by Asi Dayan, the son of former chief of staff Moshe Dayan.)
But the days of this kind of Zionist literature were numbered, and in the years following the establishment of the state, certain Israeli writers had already begun to use their writings to question the meaning and justice of the war that had resulted from the Jewish struggle for independence. Most important among them was S. Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky), probably Israel's most influential author, of whom the leading novelist Amos Oz has justly observed, "There is some Yizhar in every writer who has come after him." In 1949, only months after the guns had fallen silent, Yizhar stunned the newborn state by publishing a series of short stories savaging the Jewish use of military power during the war. Among these was "The Prisoner," in which he told the story of a group of Israeli soldiers who capture an innocent Arab shepherd, steal his livestock, and take immense pleasure beating and torturing him, before packing him off to be imprisoned. Even the story's Jewish protagonist, although troubled by the injustice, also fails to release the prisoner when the opportunity presents itself.
In another story, "Hirbet Hiza," Yizhar likewise portrays the Jewish soldiers in the war as arbitrarily cruel. Not only are the soldiers assigned to expel Arab civilians from their village, but Yizhar goes out of his way to emphasize that these young Jews were morally repugnant even before getting the order: They swap stories about the donkeys they have been shooting for fun. They beg to get the machine gun so they can try to gun down the unarmed Arabs fleeing the village. When one Arab tries to leave the village with a camel bearing his possessions, they tell him if he does not leave the camel, they will kill him. "They're like animals," the Jewish soldiers keep telling one another. Here, too, the protagonist feels pangs of remorse, and when another soldier tries to cheer him by mentioning the homeless Jewish immigrants who may yet live there, he seethes with anger:
Why hadn't I thought of that? ... We'll house and absorb immigrants. ... We'll open a grocery, build a school, maybe even a synagogue.... Fields will be plowed and sown and reaped, and great deeds will be done. ... Who'll even remember that there was once some Hirbet Hiza here, which we drove out and inherited. We came, we shot, we burned, we detonated, we exiled. What the hell are we doing here?
In these stories, too, the Jewish soldier is presented stripped of any context that may explain or mitigate his behavior, so that the wrongs he commits seem to be absolute: The reader has no reason to believe that the soldiers have acted in anger or in anguish or out of understandable miscalculation, so that what is depicted can be interpreted only as evil in its pure form. And for this reason, Yizhar's stories leave the reader little choice but to question whether the war could possibly have been worth the costs involved. And in fact, it is this that his soldiers are chronically asking themselves. Thus, in "Before Zero Hour," one of Yizhar's soldiers suspects that the young Jews going off to battle are merely being swindled and that the war in which they are fighting is no more than nonsense. ("How foolish war is ... Shots are being fired all the time ... Then, suddenly, a funeral ... And someone may recite one of those nice verses you say before dying, instead of yelling: `You asses! You're being cheated! Don't go! What fatherland? You'll be killed.'") Similarly, in his novel Days of Ziklag (1958), the narrator is so far from understanding what the war is about that he sees himself as the biblical Isaac being sacrificed on the altar of his father's ideological lunacy: "I hate our father Abraham," he writes. "What right does he have to sacrifice Isaac? Let him sacrifice himself. I hate the God that sent him ... To slaughter sons as a proof of love! ... Scoundrels, what do the sons have to die for?"
Obviously, such a degree of alienation from the perspective of the Jewish efforts to establish the state were bound to cause Yizhar trouble with some in the Zionist literary establishment, and in fact it did. But his writings were received with enthusiasm by at least one literature professor at the Hebrew University, Shimon Halkin, who was then working to teach his students—in the words of one Israeli literary historian—the difference between "tendentious-Zionist-preaching literature" and "skeptical, non-ideational literature." Yizhar's works were obviously of the latter type, and these became a model not only for student writers at the university but also for a literary journal founded by recent university graduates called Achshav ("Now"), which worked to lionize Yizhar and to deprecate more traditional Labor Zionist writers such as Nathan Alterman, and the culture of mainstream Labor Zionism in general. It was these circles close to Halkin and Achshav that produced most of the leading Israeli writers familiar to us today, including most of the recipients of the coveted Israel Prize in Literature in the last two decades: The novelists Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and Aharon Appelfeld, the poets Yehuda Amichai, Nathan Zach, and Dalia Rabikovitch, and the playwright Nissim Aloni. And it is these authors, too, who have worked so hard to demonstrate the truth of Amos Oz's observation that there is some Yizhar "in every writer who has come after him."
Consider Oz himself, for instance. Oz is an exceptionally gifted novelist, who is perhaps the undisputed spokesman for Israel's literature, if not for all of Israeli culture. Yet Oz's works are characterized by a grim ambivalence toward the Jewish state, its symbols and historical triumphs. For example, Oz has long harbored a kind of aversion toward Jerusalem, the preeminent symbol of Jewish redemption, both national and religious, which he views as a "city of lunacy," "a city surrounded by forces desiring my death." This sentiment is powerfully expressed in his novel My Michael (1968), which presents the Jewish capital as a city of brooding insanity and illness that his famous protagonist, Hanna Gonen, longs to see destroyed ("Perhaps she [i.e., Jerusalem] had been conquered in the meantime ... Perhaps she had finally crumbled to dust. As she deserved"). And indeed, the book ends with Hanna sending the imaginary Arab terrorists at her command to attack the city. In Black Box (1987), Oz's neo-hippie protagonist refers to the struggle for the Jewish state as "these wars and all the bullshit" and, in a crucial act of downsizing, redefines Zionism to be "wanting everyone to be okay. And for everyone to do just a little for the country, even something really tiny." In Fima (1991), Oz focuses his attention on a middle-aged man who spends his time fantasizing about founding a new Israeli political movement. As it turns out, Fima too has difficulties adjusting to the reality of a Jewish state, so he likes to compare the Jews of Israel to the Cossacks. He also likes to compare the idea that the Jews are a nation to fascism: "The time has come to stop feeling like a nation ... Let's cut that crap.... These are semi-fascist motifs.... We really aren't a nation anyway." And when Fima sees Jews walk around Jerusalem with guns in their belts, he wonders when it was that the Jews became "scum": "Was the sickness implicit in the Zionist idea from the outset? Is there no way for the Jews to get back onto the stage of history except by becoming scum? ... And weren't we already scum before we got back onto the stage of history?"
Themes such as these in Oz's fiction are backed up by his frequent media appearances, which likewise send a message of carefully controlled disdain for Jewish nationalism. As a student in the early 1960s, for example, Oz says that he poured his efforts into the search for an Israeli literature that would permit an "escape from the claws of Zionism" and "create a spiritual distance of thousands of miles from the land of Israel." And his description of his present views is not so far from this: Today he is Israel's most eloquent advocate of the idea that rather than taking pride in the Jewish flag or the Jewish state, one should consider these aims of Herzl's Zionism to be a "curse":
I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations ... without any one emerging as a nation-state: No flag, no emblem, no passports, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood.... To take pride in these tools of statehood? ... Not I .... Nationalism itself is, in my eyes, the curse of mankind.
|Note on the Text and Sources||xiii|
|Introduction: The Jewish State Doesn't Live Here Anymore||xv|
|Chapter 1||The Culture Makers Renounce the Idea of the Jewish State||3|
|Chapter 2||The Political Struggle for a Post-Jewish State||39|
|Chapter 3||An Introduction to the History of the Jewish State||77|
|Chapter 4||Theodor Herzl's "Jewish State" Versus Rousseu's Social Contract||81|
|Chapter 5||Herzl As Statesman: The Creation of a Jewish State of Mind||117|
|Chapter 6||The Desperados||157|
|Chapter 7||Martin Buber and the Rejection of the Jewish State||181|
|Chapter 8||The German Intellectuals and the Founding of the Hebrew University||195|
|Chapter 9||The Intellectuals' Assault and Ben-Gurion's Response, 1929-1939||209|
|Chapter 10||The Professors' Struggle Against the Jewish State, 1939-1948||235|
|Chapter 11||Ben-Gurion's Jewish State and Buber's Dissent, 1948-1961||267|
|Chapter 12||The Incubator: The Hebrew University, 1948-1961||285|
|Chapter 13||The Triumph of the Intellectuals||307|
|Epilogue: The Specter of David Ben-Gurion||323|
|Appendix||Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel||341|
Posted January 7, 2003
This book's first hundred pages are a breath of life to anyone who cares about the future of the Jewish state.Hazony gives a brilliant analysis of the post-Zionist mindset which dominates secular intellectual discourse in Israel.He shows how this self - destructive form of thinking has penetrated into many different areas of life in Israel, and how it is the politically correct view of the Israeli cultural establishment. The second part of the book , his historical search for the origins of Zionism seems to me less important.I would have preferred his continuing his analysis of the present reality and his having gone more exhaustively into the work of those, such as the closed - mind gang of Israel's leading paper Haaretz , who dominate intellectual discourse in the Jewish state.He could too have gone more into the role of Israeli creative people including the novelwriting gang of four ( Yehoshua,Oz,Grossman,Shalev) in teaching that Israel is wrong whatever it does. This is a work which begins to do an essential job, drops it off, and does another. Still it is a must read for anyone who cares about the future of the Jewish state.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 16, 2006