The Myths of Israel

As the Jewish state turns 50, a group of 'new historians' is recasting its formative years

"Together in pride. Together in hope." The official state slogan of Israel's 50th anniversary will aptly apply this Sunday as New Yorkers take to the streets to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. Parade organizers are always careful to present an unquestioning show of unity around the Jewish state. But in Israel the slogan is regarded as a cruel joke. ''It's four words long [in Hebrew],'' says Israeli historian Tom Segev, ''but half of them are wrong. We're not together.'' At the height of the hoopla in Israel last week, thousands of right-wing Israeli nationalists gathered in the East Jerusalem hills at Har Homa to lay a symbolic cornerstone for the controversial Jewish housing project slated for the site. As the right defiantly claimed yet another piece of territory, a dovish counterdemonstration assembled nearby, cordoned off by a phalanx of police. ''Har Homa is not Zionism!'' they chanted. ''Har Homa is the end of peace!''

The competing demonstrations not only crystallized one of the many divisions tearing the nation into what Segev calls ''a mosaic of little ghettos.'' The left's slogans went to the very heart of an increasingly heated internal conflict: What is Zionism 50 years after the achievement of the movement's chief aim? What has it wrought? What are its limits? What is its function now?

Such questions have come roiling to the surface over the last dozen years as a generation of Israeli writers has begun to replace the mythology typical of nation building with more circumspect, thorough, and honest scholarly accounts of Israel's formative years. With the opening a little more than a decade ago of the archives from Israel's founding, these academics and journalists have produced a counternarrative challenging many long-cherished and unquestioned stories of the past. ''People call us 'new' or 'revisionist' historians,'' says Segev, ''but really we are the first Israeli historians, the first to look at the archives. Before, we didn't have a history. We had mythology, ideology, indoctrination.''

A spate of books--by Segev, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Itamar Rabinovich, Avi Shlaim, Zeev Sternhell, to name only a few--has begun to supplant the moldy tales. In their place, the new books document how Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes, their villages destroyed, and their land appropriated; how Jewish immigrants from North African and Arab countries faced unyielding state discrimination; how a golden age of socialism and egalitarianism never existed; how Israel neglected opportunities to negotiate with its Arab neighbors; and even, in Segev's best-selling controversial book The Seventh Million, how early Zionist leaders manipulated world reaction to the Holocaust to fuel their nationalist aims while doing little to rescue European Jewry.

The work is especially devastating, says Segev, precisely because it comes out of official Israeli documents. ''You don't need Arab propaganda to say there were war crimes by Israelis in 1948,'' he explains. ''You can read it in the Israeli military reports.''

While this work has started to filter into Israeli popular consciousness--the recent state-sponsored documentary TV series Tkuma (''Rebirth'') depended heavily on the work of the new historians--it is only beginning to be felt among American Jews, whose official version of Israel still drips with milk and honey. The first Israeli book to be labeled ''new historicism,'' Segev's seminal 1949: The First Israelis, has just been reissued here in an English-translation trade paperback. And a new analysis of the ideology driving Israel's founding fathers--Zeev Sternhell's The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State--has just been published in English by Princeton University Press.

To be sure, Tkuma, which challenged the all-glorious Zionist narrative by including the long-silenced critical voices of Israeli Arabs, Jewish immigrants from Arab and North African countries, and dispossessed Palestinians, provoked plenty of outrage in Israel. Ultra-hawkish cabinet minister Ariel Sharon went so far as to call for the banning of the series from schools, charging that it ''distorts the history of rebirth and undermines any moral basis for the establishment of the State of Israel and its continued existence.'' Still, the series aired on the official state TV channel, and much of the new historiography it reflects has started to make its way into high school textbooks.

But here, such discussion remains stifled. A similar stock-taking by a series of Israeli speakers scheduled for the Smithsonian this anniversary year was withdrawn after an outcry from the Jewish American right. And most of the excessive U.S. press coverage of Israel's jubilee has been unabashedly triumphalist. Meanwhile, Sternhell's book--vigorously debated in Israel--was huffily dismissed in a New York Times book review by the American Zionist historian Arthur Hertzberg. Segev's current lecture tour of the States repeatedly pits him in debate against a conservative Israeli scholar, as if presenting him alone would tarnish the host's credibility. (A notable exception was his appearance last week in New York with the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi. See sidebar.) And when Hillary Clinton uttered support for a Palestinian state (which a majority of Israelis favors), she was barraged with caustic denunciations.

Meanwhile, this weekend's Israel Day Parade up Fifth Avenue will once again relegate those favoring Palestinian statehood to a counterdemonstration on the sidelines while local politicians fall all over one another to pander to the right wing. (Many of them paid homage in trips to Israel last week. Peter Vallone went so far as to make a statement in support of the Jewish enclave in Hebron, arguably the most extremist group of right-wing settlers in the occupied West Bank.)

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