Israel’s Past at 70: The Twofold Attack on the Zionist Historical Narrative

Eyal Naveh. Israel Studies. Volume 23, Issue 3. Fall 2018.

Seventy years have passed since Israel achieved its independence following about another 70 years since the initiation of the Zionist movement. During these 150 years, the emerging and evolving Hebrew society constructed a national historical narrative. The narrative told and invested meaning in the life experience of the Jewish people over time, leading to the creation of the Zionist movement and ultimately to the establishment and endurance of the state of Israel as the sovereign nation state for the Jewish people. I characterize the essence of this narrative and argue that after 70 years of Israel’s existence such a narrative faces a twofold challenge from diametrically opposing directions: civic post-Zionism on one hand and religious redemptive-Zionism on the other. Though these challenges do not completely eradicate the meaning of the Zionist historical narrative—still used as catchphrase by politicians, journalists, social activists, educators, spokespersons, diplomats, and other Israelis—the cumulative effect of this twofold attack has severely eroded its significance and harmed its inspiring and motivating dimension. Thus, the Zionist historical narrative appeared to most Israelis as worn and overused—incapable of providing passion and bereft of its sublime value.

The Zionist Narrative—Return from Exile to Sovereignty

History is shown in the declaration of Israel’s independence as multifaceted. Viewed as the point of departure and founding origin of the Jewish people in ancient time, it is also perceived as a tragic setting for rootless, persecuted Jews in the recent past. This awful situation provides historical right and legitimation to the present existence of Israel; however, it also entails teleological lessons for the Zionist project by its progression toward future culmination and even redemption. History thus is viewed as a point of departure, tragic arena, source of present right, and fulcrum for future lessons and judgments.

Within such a multidimensional historical consciousness the Zionist narrative was constructed as a tragic-heroic story of “returning from exile to sovereignty” wherein the Jewish collective performs and functions in history as victorious victim. The tension between the suffering object of history in exile and the triumphant subject and agent of history in a sovereign state, made such a narrative both moral and powerful. Within the paradigm of “returning from exile to sovereignty”, the State of Israel constituted both the beginning of the process of national salvation and a formative educational tool that would ensure that process’s continuation. Israel appeared both as the onset of modern Jewish national revival, as well as a historical expression of a primordial process of Jewish redemption.

Such a paradigm based its historical outlook on the following incompatible grounds. On one hand, the Zionist historical narrative viewed Zionism as a revolutionary act and even as a breakthrough of Jewish history. It cultivated an archetypal “new Jew” who revolts against the fate that traditional Judaism imposed upon him, thereby transforming himself into an active agent of history and part of modern progress. Consequently, it interprets the sovereignty of the State of Israel as an indication of establishing normal relations between the Jews and the rest of the world. We can define this attitude as “Revolution toward universal Normalcy”.

On the other hand, the narrative emphasized the Jewish historical everlasting relationship with the old-new homeland known as the Land of Israel. It regarded Jewish tribulation in history as an inevitable stage that lent moral validity to Zionist actions against any anti-Jewish menacing forces of evil. It even looked at the course of Jewish history as an unfolding revealing process, tantamount to the vision of redemption. I term this attitude as “Evolution toward particular Anomaly”.

Such contradictory attitudes toward history perceived the return from exile to sovereignty and the creation of the state of Israel as a phenomenal shortcut to the future, which also entailed certain dimensions of renaissance of the past. This leap of time aimed to construct historical sequence by integrating primordial events, like the Biblical Kingdom of David, the Maccabean revolt against the Greek-Syrians, or the heroism of Masada, with modern heroic events such as the story of Tel Hai, the struggle against the British, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the ongoing fight of Israel against the hostile Arab and Muslim world.

These messages of the Zionist narrative were disseminated to the public by various agents of collective memory such as holiday ceremonies, politicians’ speeches, religious rituals, media and artistic performances, historical museums and monuments, and the official school history curriculum. Even prior to their encounter with the school history curriculum, young Israelis were exposed to patriotic time and space throughout the Hebrew calendar and the topography of country. A narrative of the Jews as a suffering collective who were persecuted but ultimately overpowered evil enemies, ancient and modern alike, appeared in almost every holiday. This patriotic time was integrated into a patriotic space of the land, which served as location for journeys and visits, archeological discoveries, and historical reconstructions.

The power of the Zionist historical narrative lay in the idea that history could be controlled, molded, and changed by the formation of an active, task-oriented Israeli reality—the opposite of passive, diasporic existence. Yet, by the same logic this narrative encouraged the perception that “return from exile to sovereignty” was the beginning of an eschatological plan. Through the dream of redemption, this mainly revolutionary, progressive, and secular narrative could also appeal to traditional and religious Jews.

The Post Zionist Challenge

In the late 1980s and early 1990s it became clear that certain intellectuals, artists, and journalists started to challenge and even debunk the Zionist historical narrative. Such a critical phenomenon is labeled “post Zionism”—a common term that incorporates various critical perspectives on the Zionist world view. In the view of the philosopher Yosef Dan:

Post-Zionism means Israeli nationalism based on territorial minimalism, without any specific social or moral aspirations, without any significant religious dimension, without the adoption of a traditional culture, without eschatological foundations, without a deep-rooted Hebrew language that draws upon its origins.

Such a definition views post-Zionism as an attitude aiming to belittle the Zionist aspirations, reducing its uniqueness, lessening its desires, and diminishing its exceptionalism. Subsequently, such an approach endorses disenchantment and demystification of the Zionist historical narrative, thus promoting critical thinking toward the Israeli past. Some claim that such an orientation will finally liberate Israel from its captivity in a mythical, illusionary historical narrative by cultivating critical tools to deal with a complicated past, challenging present, and insecure future. Others worry that it will likely diminish the Zionist motivation and appeal by overstressing critical reflection, thus promoting skepticism, perpetual doubt, existential weakness, and even nihilism toward the Zionist project.

Some critics perceive post-Zionism as anti-Zionism, a modern reincarnation of the same outlook that led certain Jewish circles to treat Zionism from its inception as a kind of narrow, tribal, anti-Jewish, and anti-humanist nationalism. Others trace the roots of post-Zionism to voices at the periphery of Zionist thought. Yet, post-Zionism is for the most part a later phenomenon, associated with Western post-modern trends. Most of the new historians, critical sociologists, researchers of literature and philosophy, jurists, playwrights, artists, and publicists described as post-Zionist, belong to a clearly defined age group that roughly correlates with the age of the State of Israel. Many studied at Western universities and were influenced by post-modern thought and the trends of deconstructionism, multiculturalism, post-colonialism, and Enlightenment’s criticism.

While it is easy to see the traces of post-modernism in post-Zionist criticism, equally visible is the influence of modernist values as respect for the individual, freedom, equality, human rights, democracy, and humanism. The post-Zionist view criticizes not only Zionist historiography and “classical” Israeli sociological schools of thought, but also those symbols and myths planted in the young memory of Israeli society. These symbols and ideals have become jarring to post-Zionist critics, since they were abused to justify the oppression of the “other” in society or the repression of another national movement.

Some scholars argue that post-Zionist criticism is inherent in the process of memory privatization that Israeli society has been undergoing in the last decades, and they see it as a cultural expression of the concurrent processes of economic privatization and social disintegration, reflecting the end of Israeli society’s ethos of collective solidarity. Others believe that it is driven by the allure of subversion, the atmosphere of complaint that has blown it out of proportion. Some welcome the weakening of the public voice in Israeli society and see post-Zionism as a phase of cultural pluralization that reflects the opening of the arena of identity to a variety of new, formerly marginalized or repressed groups. It represents an effort to “remember” identities that Zionism was interested in obliterating from memory, such as Oriental Jews, ultra-Orthodox, feminists, gay-lesbians, diasporic Jews, Palestinians, as well as any “small” or “personal” other identity.

Major historical topics were subjected to post-Zionist criticism; central among them were Zionist nationalism, the events of 1948, the Holocaust, and the melting-pot policy. These topics are not only the cornerstones of a new historiography, but also the raw material for an endeavor to construct an alternative Israeli national memory that focuses first of all on criticism of the basic premises of the Zionist narrative. As for Jewish nationalism, most post-Zionist historians, accepting the views of Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, perceived any national movements as constructed and imagined communities rather than ontological entities. Zionism is thus conceived as a project designed primarily to invent a tradition that will provide common historical references for a diverse group of people who differ from each other in culture, class, citizenship, and way of life. For the post-Zionist critics, the Zionist historical narrative, which defined Jews as a nation, in fact built an image of the “Jewish people” that never existed before. In the wake of this criticism some post-Zionists utterly reject nationalism, articulated the notion that the Zionist movement represents a form of Western colonialism, and rejected the Zionist negative stance against the diaspora. Thus, they hope to foster a democratic, multicultural, civil alternative that will influence all knowledge and cultural systems, thereby helping to change the Israeli self-perception and identity.

Dealing with the events of 1948 post-Zionist “new History” reflects a transition from an emphasis on the heroic struggle of the Jews for independence, to an emphasis on the disaster this struggle inflicted on the Palestinians, and from a heroic description of the besieged righteous Jews to a description of powerful and even immoral victorious Jews. Post-Zionism criticized the lack of Zionist aid to the victims of the Holocaust when the catastrophe occurred. They further challenge the appropriation of the Holocaust memory by the state of Israel. Critical post-Zionist sociologists condemned the melting pot policy of the Zionist leaders as coercive and even racist. Post-Zionist authors, artists, performers, and filmmakers showed the ugly side of Israeli militarism, Israeli occupation, Israeli chauvinism, and Israeli political corruption.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, with the aid of various cultural agents closely linked to the communication media, post-Zionism breached the walls of the academic ivory tower and became a cultural phenomenon that is striving to place a new imprint on the Israeli collective memory. Post-Zionist criticism finds many pulpits, such as the Ha’aretz daily newspaper, electronic media, exhibits at art museums, productions that have broken out of experimental theater and invaded repertory theater, documentary and feature films, and many dozens of conferences, lectures, and seminars held all over the country and even abroad.

Given this great academic, intellectual, artistic, and linguistic wealth of post-Zionist messages, the lack of social movements and political bodies committed to the post-Zionist agenda is conspicuous. Although many social groups and associations are defined mainly by their foes as post-Zionist, they have neither any wide public impact, nor public legitimacy. Organizations such as the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, the New Israel Fund, the Civil Rights Movement, the Adva Institute, Zochrot, and Breaking the Silence, are stigmatized as anti-Zionist and Anti-Israeli.

In the Knesset, only the Arab parties and perhaps a few members of the Meretz faction pay any attention at all to post-Zionist messages. To politicians and other representatives of the right, center, and most of the left, post-Zionism is loathsome. They present it as an attitude that advocates dismantling the Zionist ethos thereby undermining the foundations of the Jewish state in order to replace it with a state for all its citizens.

The Attack of Redemptive Zionism on the Zionist Narrative

In the last generation the Zionist historical narrative is under attack from a different direction. National-religious, traditional, and spiritual-mystical groups gain power in Israeli society and challenge the realistic, worldly, and human dimension of the Zionist narrative. They interpret the return of the Jews to the land of Israel as an outcome of a divine plan and according to the redemptive vision of the Jewish faith. They view the Zionist movement and the creation of the state not only as a Godlike miracle but as the initiation of the redemptive time, a manifestation of first steps toward a complete messianic advent. Thus, Zionism is viewed as a necessary stage in the overall blueprint of the process of redemption. Under such a narrative, the Hebrew revival, which seems to be the result of human determination and resolution, is not a distinct human phenomenon, but rather a manifestation deriving from God’s covenant to his chosen people that is written in the Holy Scriptures. Redemptive Zionism challenges the national modern Zionist experiment by subjugating all human events to divine disposition, leading to the fulfilment of the Jewish Messianic faith.

Under such a religious meta-narrative, the Zionist project, which basically culminated with the establishment of a sovereign state, was only a premillennial phenomenon. Zionism was instrumental because it paved the way and laid the ground for the ultimate purpose of establishing a holy Jewish commonwealth on the Promised Land under divine authority. Therefore, secular Zionism basically subsided over the years, giving the leadership to redemptive-oriented national religious movements, which view themselves suitable to carry this message, thus becoming the new Zionist avant-garde.

These new religious Zionists, while moving from the margin to the center, are able to carry out their narrative to many other segments of the Israeli society due to major developments that took place in Israel over its seventy years of existence. Initially, there is an inherent tribal and ethnic component in the Jewish religion. Therefore, despite its modern foundation, the Zionist movement appropriated essential parts of Jewish Biblical texts and tradition in order to strengthen its legitimacy.

The Biblical stories about a specific community of faith, defined as the Jewish people, provided a cultural basis for creating an old-new Hebrew nation. The pseudo-national component of Judaism appeared already in the Bible with the move of the sons of Jacob to Egypt and the formation of a specific collective—the 12 tribes. This collective merged into a Chosen People throughout the Exodus, the wandering in the desert, and the colonization of the Promised Land. Primordial nationalism seemed at the center of the stories of the Kingdom of Israel and Judea, during the first temple. The Zionist narrative values these religious stories and myths with historical and archeological finding in the period of the second temple. Thus, on the one hand, the Zionist movement and the state of Israel “historicized” the Bible and “secularized” many of its stories, while on the other hand it incorporated Jewish traditional and even religious meaning to its modern experience.

Such an attitude precludes any real separation between religion and state. Religious Judaism is publicly presented in the country and permeates the historical narrative everywhere. It is exclusive in Orthodox institutions, hegemonic in every state institution, and dominates the public sphere. This phenomenon coalesced with the tradition of many Jews who came to the country after its establishment who never experienced separation between religion and state. The victory in the Six-Day War increased the status of religious-redemptive Zionism. The conquering of lands that were perceived traditionally as the cradle of the nation intensified among many Jews millennial feelings and Messianic enthusiasm that affected their historical consciousness. The modern, rational, Western origins of the Zionist national narrative diminished and the religious-redemptive narrative expanded and gained influence even among non-religious and secular circles. No doubt that the success of the settlements, the demographic growth of the religious population, the existential threat that nurtured a mythical Messianic legitimacy, and the political dominance of right wing government challenged the classical Zionist historical narrative.

The belief that human history derived from a divine plan and the course of the people of Israel derived from God’s historical purpose toward redemption, explain Jewish history as a chosen people and account for the culmination of this history into complete redemption at the end of time. The reincarnation of a sanctified Jewish past thus blurred the human modern Israeli past. The mundane, ordinary, human history is challenged by a sublime, sacred course of events, “liberating” the people of Israel from secular fallacy by subjecting them to a divine historical plan. Such a narrative views human tragedy as God’s punishment and human achievement as a celestial miracle, of God’s reward for human repentance. Human beings are thus perceived as pawns of a supreme force that activates them according to its plan. Thus, Zionist historical achievements of “back from Exile to Sovereignty” are not an outcome of human choices and decisions, but a result of human devotion to God, that is the real initiator and mover of Jewish and world history.

The twofold attack on the Zionist narrative is very clear in Israel as it reaches its 70th anniversary. Yet unlike the post-Zionist challenge that had no political agencies and remained basically an attitude among intellectuals, artists, and media persons, the challenge of redemptive-Zionism is part of a growing political social and educational process. It permeated the Ministry of Education, the IDF, and many other social and political organizations. This new narrative stresses the permanent hostility between the State of Israel and the rest of the world, viewing the creation of the state only as an intermediate stage on the way to future redemption, a stage that still intensifies the total otherness and animosity between the Jewish state of Israel and the rest of mankind. According to such a narrative these differences will remain forever or at least until the final stage of divine redemption.