The Myths of Israel


“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.)

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?”