The Myths of Israel

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

In the U.S., those invested in a rightist claim to ''greater Israel'' dominate the discourse--though polls show that their views are hardly mainstream among American Jews--if only because most of those put off by the state's recalcitrance simply disengage from the issue altogether. Israelis, of course, have no such option. Indeed, the new historians suggest that until Jewish Israelis come to terms with their past, they won't be able to carve out a viable future.

What, after all, can the left be saying when it chants that ''Har Homa is not Zionism?'' As Segev points out, ''Har Homa is what Zionism is all about: settling the land with Jews.''

What's more, adds Sternhell, liberal Israelis who oppose the occupation and support a Palestinian state tend to say that today's social and political rifts originated with the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war. On the contrary, Sternhell maintains: ''The inequalities in our society, the fact that we have no constitution or bill of rights, the failure to recognize universal values, human rights, and the possibility that other people may have the same national rights as we have--all this stems out of ideological decisions taken at the very early stages of the Zionist project.'' Zionism, he argues, grew out of an Eastern European ''blood-and-soil'' nationalism, rather than out of a more liberal tradition. What's more, the imperatives of nation building excused the failure to establish fully democratic institutions.

''Zionism,'' says Sternhell, ''considered the title of ownership to the whole land our historical right.'' Thus, after the '67 war, politicians who knew the occupation was untenable ''were ideologically paralyzed. They had no answer to the basic question, Why is it legitimate to settle in the Galilee but not in the Golan, legitimate in Ramla and Lod and Jaffa, but not in Nablus and Hebron? This was the fundamental problem. They were scared that accepting that there were two legitimate claims and not only one would sap the basis of Zionism.''

''History is such a hot topic in Israel,'' Segev sums up, ''because the very existence of the country is based on a certain interpretation of Jewish history, namely, Zionism.''

If the new historians share an unflinching approach to the state's founding myths--and if they're lumped together by their detractors as ''post-Zionists,'' ''Arab lovers,'' ''traitors,'' and even ''Nazis''--their views are hardly uniform. Segev, for instance, rejects Sternhell's assertion that the founding fathers' socialism was empty rhetoric overwhelmed by their nationalism. Segev sees the state's early insistence that immigrants drop their ethnic identities to become ''new men'' not as an organic nationalist project--Sternhell's view--but one emerging out of Soviet ideology. For Sternhell, the towering Zionist leader and Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a bourgeois elitist; for Segev he was a Bolshevik.

What's more, the new historians are subject to critique from scholars on the left as well. Simona Sharoni, for one, author of Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women's Resistance, notes that it seldom even occurs to this group of Ashkenazi men to consider gender inequities or the relative privilege that allows them to do their work at all. Women, she explains, are still not taken seriously in Israel's political discourse because they do not ''earn'' the right to speak by defending the country through military service. (The idea that Israeli women enjoy equality in every sphere is another of those hoary myths.) They do not serve in combat units. On kibbutzim, notes Sternhell, they were typically relegated to child care and kitchen duties. Even the peace movement casts women in the exclusive role of grieving mothers.

Still, it's the new historians who are opening the way for a more expansive critique that will make room for the views of women, Mizrachi Jews, and Palestinian Israelis. And it's such thinkers who are helping to force the public discussion of the country's most pressing questions. They boil down to two main issues, says Sternhell: ''First, what are the borders--that is, was Zionism's project of conquering the land complete at the pre-1967 borders? And second, what kind of state are we going to have? A liberal, open, secular democratic state of all the citizens, or a state where Jews enjoy a special status?''

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