War over Peace: One Hundred Years of Israel's Militaristic Nationalism

War over Peace: One Hundred Years of Israel's Militaristic Nationalism

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Violence and war have raged between Zionists and Palestinians for over a century, ever since Zionists, trying to establish a nation-state in Palestine, were forced to confront the fact that the country was already populated. Covering every conflict in Israel’s history, War over Peace reveals that Israeli nationalism was born ethnic and militaristic and has embraced these characteristics to this day.
In his sweeping and original synthesis, Uri Ben-Eliezer shows that this militaristic nationalism systematically drives Israel to find military solutions for its national problems, based on the idea that the homeland is sacred and the territory is indivisible. When Israelis opposed to this ideology brought about change during a period that led to the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, cultural and political forces, reinforced by religious and messianic elements, prevented the implementation of the agreements, which brought violence back in the form of new wars. War over Peace is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the role of ethnic nationalism and militarism in Israel as well as throughout the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520304345
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 525,495
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Uri Ben-Eliezer is a political sociologist and Professor and Chair in the Department of Sociology, University of Haifa. His publications include The Making of Israeli Militarism and Old Conflict, New War: Israel’s Politics toward the Palestinians.

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Militaristic Nationalism and War

Zionism was the product of an era when the concept of the nation gained precedence. Across Europe, masses of people who often shared common ethnic characteristics began to see the nation as a focus of belonging and identification. This sentiment fueled a desire for liberation from tyrannical rule or foreign occupation and for independence, in order to allow citizens to become the masters of their own fate. According to the objective criteria sometimes used to examine the phenomenon of nationalism, the Jews were not universally recognized as a nation. After all, they were dispersed in geographical terms and did not own any distinct territory. They did not share a common language, religion no longer served as a common denominator for the many who had become atheists, and their culture varied from place to place. Even in terms of physiognomy — and contrary to familiar stereotypes — they were more similar to their non-Jewish neighbors than to Jews from other parts of the world. Accordingly, it is hardly surprising that the Zionist demand to be recognized as a nation was not readily accepted and encountered fierce opposition, including among the Jews themselves.

The Zionists attempted to overcome these obstacles. They embarked on a program of immigration to Palestine, referring to the country by its ancient name, the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel), and interpreted this immigration as a return to their ancestral homeland following an exile of almost two thousand years. In this old/new place, they refashioned themselves from the outset as a community defined by its distinctness from the local Arab population. They built a new society and saw nationalism as a criterion for identification that took precedence over any religious or class-based distinctions. They also developed what Ernst Renan had already proposed in the late nineteenth century as a vital component of nationalism: national identity. As part of this project, they transformed the largely fossilized Hebrew of the Bible into a modern spoken language and created a new and original Hebrew culture. They began to secure legal ownership of areas in Palestine through acquisition and settlement and established a political system to manage their own affairs. In addition, during and after the First World War, the Zionist movement attempted to secure international and legal approval for its ambitions in Palestine, achieving considerable success in this respect with the Balfour Declaration. This achievement instilled hope in Zionists that they would ultimately be successful in realizing their nationalist aspirations and establishing their own state.

Zionism was dominated by modern elements, and in this respect its emergence on the stage of history toward the end of the nineteenth century is consistent with the claims of scholars such as John Breuilly (1993) and Eric Hobsbawm (2006) regarding the general phenomenon of nationalism. It is doubtful whether the Zionist movement could have emerged had not many Jews separated from their traditional communities and "come out of the ghetto," to use the phrase coined by the historian and sociologist Yacob Katz (1973), thereby embarking on a significant process of secularization. Like other national movements, Zionism could not have developed without the Enlightenment, which preceded it, and which raised awareness of humans' ability to control their destiny — rather than, in the Jewish context, waiting for the Messiah to bring redemption, as the rabbis advised. Universalist ideals of individual liberty and national sovereignty, inspired by the French Revolution, naturally also influenced these processes. Indeed, as David Vital (1975) and S.N. Eisenstadt (2002: 163–65) noted, the Zionists did not confine themselves to national liberation but also sought to achieve a social revolution. In the early stage, this desire was manifested mainly in the aspiration to normalize the occupational structure of the Jews and to "make them a productive people." Certainly, the Zionists were modern in their aspiration for a state — that is, a political and bureaucratic system of domination capable of representing the nation and of solving its various problems.

However, the phenomenon of Zionism cannot be explained solely by reference to modernity. Some scholars of nationalism reject the idea that a nation, however modern it may be, can be divorced from its ancient past. These scholars, known as "ethno-symbolists," argue that, with isolated exceptions, the potency of the nationalist phenomenon lies in its sources, tradition, and long-standing emotional and irrational components. These in turn have their origins in the emergence of ethnic groups during the early Middle Ages and, in some instances, even in ancient times. These periods were already marked by the emergence of distinct cultural affinities, myths of origin and a shared lineage, and often a common religion, as well as traditions and ceremonies, a distinct language, and a sense of solidarity and collective identity. In some cases, the blend also included a sense that the ethnic group was superior and chosen.

Ethno-symbolists categorically reject the claim by certain modernists that a nation is no more than an invented political community, created ex nihilo as a substitute for debilitated religion and disempowered monarchies, and intended as a new means for serving the need for domination and control. This approach regards nationalism as a "false consciousness" exploited by cunning rulers in order to secure legitimacy for their rule and to recruit the naive public to their goals. Anthony Smith (2010: 61–62), one of the leading ethno-symbolic scholars, suggested that this interpretation by the modernists fails to recognize the emotional depth of loyalty to the nation, maintained over centuries, on the basis of history and tradition and manifested in tangible terms in the present.

We will see how this disagreement concerning the origins of nationalism is connected with the understanding of wars. For the present we may note that, as a generalization, the ethno-symbolic approach emphasized the cultural dimension of nationalism, while the modernist approach tended to focus on the political dimension of the phenomenon — despite the fact that both approaches claimed to address both of these dimensions. The cultural dimension of Zionism was particularly prominent during the formative years of the movement. The Jewish people had a distinct history; and toward the end of the nineteenth century, Zionist thinkers, writers, and historians, as well as the political leaders of the movement, interpreted this history in a specific manner and, to a certain extent, even invented it — the term used by Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) — in way that served their national goals. However, it is doubtful whether this process of invention could have been successful or feasible had it not been based on a historical and cultural foundation. Those Jews who chose Zionism certainly did so not only for rational or instrumentalist reasons but also under the influence of a romanticist approach, which highlighted both the unique characteristics of each nation as created over centuries or millennia and the bond between humans and the territory they perceive as their homeland. By way of example, we need only recall that since before the Christian era, Jews have read the Passover Haggada every year. This text tells the story of the exodus of an entire people from slavery to freedom and their return from Egypt to their homeland. And twice a year, Jews end their prayers with the declaration "Next year in Jerusalem."

Naturally, the establishment of a Zionist national movement was also justified by reference to the conditions facing the Jews in Europe. Zionism was perceived as a solution for the existential problems faced by a people who for centuries, wherever they settled, had been subject to discrimination, persecution, harassment, and profound poverty. The emancipation Jews had enjoyed more recently in some areas may have made them equal before the law, but this did not spare them from anti-Semitism in their daily lives. It comes as no surprise that Dr. Yehuda Leib Pinsker, one of the leading Zionist thinkers of the nineteenth century, wrote that emancipation would not solve the "Jewish problem." The Jews, he argued, were in need of "auto-emancipation" — that is to say, a collective solution. They had to take their fate into their own hands, rather than expecting others to solve the problems for them. Pinsker wrote his essay "Auto-Emancipation" following a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms in 1882. Were it not for these pogroms and many like them that scarred the lives of Jews across eastern Europe, in particular, it is questionable whether the ideas presented by Theodor Herzl in his book The Jewish State, published in 1896, would have received such an enthusiastic reception (Eylon, 2006: 106). This enthusiasm led to the establishment of a pan-European Zionist movement that soon became a global organization. As Herzl wrote in 1897, after managing to hold the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the movement's goal was astonishing clear: "At Basel I founded the Jewish state." He added, "If I were to say this out loud today I would be met with universal laughter. But in five years perhaps, certainly in fifty, the whole world will know it" (Herzl, 1997: 482).

Despite the gravitational pull of the new movement, most of the Jews at the time did not see Zionism as offering a solution to their problems. Some had assimilated in their countries of residence. Others emigrated to the United States during the period when this country was receptive to immigration (some 1.3 million European Jews arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Many remained faithful to their religious beliefs and continued to trust in God's providence. Others still formed the "Bund," a socialist nationalist movement that was vastly stronger and larger than the Zionist movement, and which rejected the idea that the solution to "the problem" lay in emigration to Palestine or in the revival of the language of the Bible. Nevertheless, the national conclusion that the Land of Israel was the Jewish homeland and constituted the most appropriate and just territorial solution for the Jewish problem became increasingly widespread.

Paradoxically, this conviction spread dramatically following the untimely death of the movement's founder. Herzl recognized that the Jewish longing for Zion was rooted in Jews' history. However, he despaired of realizing his objective of securing international support for the idea of a Jewish state in the ancestral land. Accordingly, he decided in 1903 to present the movement with a proposal to establish a Jewish state in Uganda, as a response to the material and existential crisis facing the Jews of eastern Europe. Perhaps his perception of nationality as a modern and civic phenomenon led him to downplay the importance of ancient history in securing the movement's goal. However, his "Uganda Plan" horrified many members of the movement. The opponents agreed with the comment made by the renowned author and thinker Asher Ginsberg, better known by his Hebrew nom de plume, Ahad Ha'am, that while Herzl's proposal might provide a state for the Jews, this would not be a Jewish state. Like many of his intellectual contemporaries, Ahad Ha'am attached great importance to the cultural and folkish dimension of nationalism, refusing to reduce Zionism to a mere political instrument for solving material or physical distress (Goldstein, 1992). This was a fascinating and principled debate between two opposing perceptions of nationalism, and one that even threatened to divide the movement. The Uganda Plan was eventually rejected by the Seventh Zionist Congress at the beginning of August 1905. Even at this early stage, it was already becoming apparent that, while Zionism embodied a nationalism that had emerged under the conditions of modernity, its stronger foundation was ethnicity and a belief in a common ancient past, combined with particularistic cultural principles, rather than the universal principles that were perceived as the legacy of the French Revolution (Shimoni, 1995; Ben-Israel, 2004: 99–150).

During the same period (from 1904), young Jews from Russia began to put the ethno-nationalist ideal into practice by emigrating to what they saw as their homeland: a stretch of desert under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. These immigrants formed what became known as the Second Aliyah, and they provide the starting point for this book. Their arrival in Palestine symbolized the emergence of practical Zionism, and accordingly it also marked the beginning of the conflict between the Zionists and the Arabs, or Palestinians. After all, contrary to the assertion in the late nineteenth century by Israel Zangwill, the well-known English-Jewish writer, that Israel is "a land without a people for a people without a land," Palestinians had lived in the country for many centuries, regarded it as their homeland, and were also gradually developing a collective consciousness of their essence as a nation. As a result, from the time of the Second Aliyah down to the present day, the country has faced perpetual conflict and numerous wars.

In this book, I consider the nature of this "century of conflict and war" from a perspective that focuses on the way Zionists and Israelis saw and see the conflict. My main argument is that their particular perspective can be seen as one of the reasons (among others) that have brought war to the region and prevented a resolution of the conflict.

It is already possible to identify different periods in the study of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict. In the 1980s and 1990s, a critical approach developed among Israeli researchers and, in particular, among those who came to be known as the "New Historians" (Shlaim, 2004) or "radical sociologists" (Ram, 1995, 2018). Until this period, Israeli scholars had tended to adopt a basic assumption of the existence of two separate societies. Naturally, the reality of separation that was created in 1948, and which continued through 1967, facilitated the adoption of this dual approach. It also permitted researchers to ignore the fact that throughout the British Mandate period (and earlier, of course), Jews and Palestinians maintained relations on varying levels. The change that occurred in the 1980s in the study of the Israeli-Arab conflict was due in part to criticism of this dual approach.

This criticism was manifested, for example, in the work of Juval Portugali (1993), who argued that even in the past, and certainly following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel in 1967, it was impossible to understand both societies in isolation, since they maintained implicate relations, whereby each society mirrored and influenced the other. For example, just as Palestinian national identity emerged as a response to the spread of Zionism, so the Israeli labor market was influenced by the cheap Arab labor of the hundred thousand Palestinians workers who entered Israel every day from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1980s. The implicate-relations perspective appeared in some works written by Israeli scholars (e.g., Bernstein, 2000; Grinberg, 2003), and even more so among American Middle-Eastern scholars. Zachary Lockman (1996), for example, employed the basic assumption of relational history in his study of Israeli and Arab railroad laborers who worked together in Haifa during the Mandate period. This formed part of Lockman's broader study of the working class in Palestine and the mutual influences between Jews and Arabs in this class. Another example is Mark LeVine (2005), who argued that it is impossible to understand the "modern" project of the construction of Tel Aviv as a Jewish city without understanding Jaffa, and vice versa.

Exploring Israeli and Palestinian society as a single reality can indeed be productive, and certainly so in fields where there were some relationships, such as in the labor market, working-class cooperation, neighborly relations in mixed towns, or even in the context of a joint struggle for peace. However, this perspective cannot, of course, negate separate research into either one of these societies, or even into a single aspect of one society. Every researcher is free to choose his or her field of study and to set its boundaries, provided the precise framework of the research is clearly presented to the reader. In this regard, I do not claim to provide in this book a comprehensive explanation for the conflict between Israel, the Arab countries, and the Palestinians. The book does not deal thoroughly with the occupation, which has already passed its first half century, nor does it offer a comprehensive and complete picture of Israel's wars. My essential objective is to explore, first, the way the Zionist Jews in Palestine, and later the Israelis, viewed their relations Zionist Jews in Palestine, and later the Israelis, viewed their relations with the surrounding peoples; second, the way they translated such a view into practicalities; and third, the impact it has had on issues of peace and war.


Excerpted from "War over Peace"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Uri Ben-Eliezer.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1 • Militaristic Nationalism and War
2 • The Birth of Militaristic Nationalism in Pre-state Israel
3 • The Establishment of a Dominant Nation-State:
The 1948 War of
4 • A Nation-in-Arms: The Sinai War of 1956
5 • Militaristic Nationalism and Occupation:
The Six-Day War of 1967
6 • The Price: The Yom Kippur War of 1973
7 • The Decline of the Nation-in-Arms:
The 1982 Lebanon War
8 • The Emergence of Liberal Nationalism:
From the First
Intifada to the 1993 Oslo Accords
9 • The Return of Militaristic Nationalism:
The 2000–2005 Al-Aqsa
10 • Religious and Militaristic Nationalism:
Israel’s New Wars 219



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