Read The Idea of Israel Online

Authors: Ilan Pappe

The Idea of Israel

First published by Verso 2014
© Ilan Pappe 2014

All rights reserved

The moral rights of the author have been asserted

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US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Verso is the imprint of New Left Books

ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-856-3
eISBN: 978-1-78168-247-0 (US)
eISBN: 978-1-78168-545-7 (UK)

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress




Title Page


Introduction: Debating the Idea of Israel

Part I: The Scholarly and Fictional Idea of Israel

1 The ‘Objective’ History of the Land and the People

2 The Alien Who Became a Terrorist: The Palestinian in Zionist Thought

3 The War of 1948 in Word and Image

Part II: Israel’s Post-Zionist Moment

4 The Trailblazers

5 Recognising the Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 War Revisited

6 The Emergence of Post-Zionist Academia, 1990–2000

7 Touching the Raw Nerves of Society: Holocaust Memory in Israel

8 The Idea of Israel and the Arab Jews

9 The Post-Zionist Cultural Moment

10 On the Post-Zionist Stage and Screen

11 The Triumph of Neo-Zionism

12 The Neo-Zionist New Historians

Epilogue: Brand Israel 2013


Further Reading


Debating the Idea of Israel

A sober and objective consideration of the facts indicates that Zionism, relative to other ideologies, has succeeded in realising most of its objectives. It has done so perhaps more than any other contemporary movement, particularly in light of its unique initial odds, which caused it to be the weakest political movement of all. For all these reasons, it can serve as an example of the success of modernism.
– Yosef Gorny, ‘Thoughts on Zionism as a Utopian Ideology’
The mutual impact of modern scientific observation and ancient literature as well as archaeology turns the study of the geography of Palestine into the geography of the homeland of the Hebrew people and the study of the culture of the land into the study of Hebrew culture.
– Yossef Barslevsky,
‘Did You Know the Land?’:
The Galilee and the Northern Valleys

n a hot night in July 1994, hundreds of people packed a university hall in Tel Aviv to listen to a debate about knowledge and power in Israel. The numbers surprised the organisers. They had planned a small, purely intellectual debate and knowingly
chose to hold it during the semi-final game of the World Cup, which was being held in the United States. The hope was that attendance would be limited to the few geeks willing to give up a football night for the sake of a scholarly treat. Nonetheless, students crowded into the undersized hall, and so, on short notice, the event had to be moved to a larger venue. According to one account, seven hundred people attended the debate, which featured one ‘old’ and one ‘new’ historian of Israel, as well as one ‘established’ and one ‘revisionist’ sociologist. I was the new historian.

The debate itself was anything but the dialogue advertised and ended up as four lectures, punctuated by a certain amount of ill-tempered scuffling. But the public seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the fans cheering the semi-finalists on the other side of the planet.

The question posed was significant: Was the Israeli academy an ideological tool in the hands of Zionism or a bastion of free thought and speech? The vast majority of the audience attended because they leaned towards the former conclusion, doubting the independence of Israeli academics. If approval can be judged by applause, the audience sided by and large with my colleague Shlomo Svirsky and myself, representatives of the new history and sociology of Israel, and were less impressed by Anita Shapira and the late Moshe Lissak of the old guard. Most, however, would not walk the extra mile that such a position demanded of them.
But some did and, like me, eventually left the country in despair, unable to alter the status quo.
And yet that event contributed to the excitement of a historic moment when Israelis doubted the moral validity of the idea of Israel and were allowed, for a short while, to question it, both inside and outside the ivory towers of the universities.

The most memorable remark that evening came from Moshe Lissak, the doyen of traditional Israeli sociology and a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize. Of the story of Israel, he said, ‘I accept that there are two narratives, but ours has been proven scientifically to be the right one.’ That remark, and my fond memories of that event and of the period as a whole – unique in the history of power and knowledge – inspired me to write this present book. It is a book on Israel
as an idea, and it evolved from that short-lived and abortive attempt to challenge it from within.

Every book on Israel attempts to dissect a complex and ambiguous reality. Yet however one chooses to describe, analyse and present Israel, the result will always be both subjective and limited. Nevertheless, the subjectivity and relativity of any representation do not invalidate moral and ethical discussion about that representation. In fact, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, the moral and ethical dimensions of such a debate are no less important than questions of substance, facts and evidence. As in the debate in Tel Aviv, versions of reality in Israel are numerous and contradictory, and rarely do they share any consensual ground.

But it must be stressed that they are not just versions of an intellectual debate. They relate directly to issues of life and death, and therefore any attempt to conduct such a conversation in a neutral, objective, purely scientific way is doomed to fail. Israel, or rather the idea of Israel, symbolises for an ever-growing number of people oppression, dispossession, colonisation and ethnic cleansing, while, on the other hand, an ever-diminishing number of people string the same ideas and events into a story of redemption, heroism and historical justice. Along the continuum between these two extremes lie innumerable gradations of strongly held opinion.

In this book, I will argue that these opposing versions are not about Israel as such, but rather about the idea of Israel. Obviously, Israel itself is not merely an idea. It is first and foremost a state – a living organism that has existed for more than sixty years. Denying its existence is impossible and unrealistic. However, evaluating it ethically, morally, and politically is not only possible but also, at present, urgent as never before.

Indeed, Israel is one of a few states considered by many to be at best morally suspect or at worst illegitimate. What is challenged, with varying degrees of conviction and determination, is not the state itself but rather the idea of the state. Some may say they challenge the
of the state; meanwhile, some Israeli Jews may tell you they fight for the survival of the
of the state. The optimal term through which to examine the two sides of the argument, however, is ‘idea’.

The images and narratives formulated by Zionist leaders and activists in the past, and Israeli Jewish intellectuals and academics in the present, present Israel as the inevitable, successful implementation of the European history of ideas. Ideas are the transformative agents that in any narrative of Western enlightenment lifted Western societies, and in turn the rest of the world, out of medieval darkness and into the Renaissance, and helped restore civilisation following the Second World War. According to Francis Fukuyama, this history of ideas would almost have reached its culmination had not political Islam, national movements in the former Soviet bloc, and Marxist leaders in South America ‘sabotaged’ the train of progress and modernisation.

Israel was one such transformative idea. To challenge it as such is to challenge the entire narrative of the West as the driving global force of human progress and enlightenment. In the eyes of Yosef Gorny, quoted above, Zionism is one of the few modernisation projects that was successfully implemented, if not the only one, despite the array of counterforces that rejected enlightenment and tried to arrest human progress. This is why he chose to call it not an idea, as would most Zionist scholars, but ‘a utopian ideology’ that had been translated into a fact. In short, he saw it as an idea successfully fulfilled.

But this is not a book that inquires why the idea of Israel is so negatively perceived by so many people, or why Israeli Jews and their supporters are so adamant about the moral validity of their view and so ready to brand any critique as a display of anti-Semitism. Here I am concerned with those Israelis who share the critical view and harbour doubts about the idea of their state. Doubting the idea of Israel constitutes a serious predicament for an Israeli Jew, as it goes beyond criticism of a given policy of this or that government. It means one is troubled by the very essence of the idea.

Doubting Israeli Jews have displayed their concern mainly through academic work, but also through movies, poems, novels, and the plastic arts. Theirs was an intellectual doubt, which, although expressed by the chattering classes, reflected more hidden and less visible concerns arising from within other walks of life. This
intellectual doubt, coupled with increasing international concern, indicates that the idea of Israel is still tentative – a suitable source for moral conversation and political debate.

Ideas can be marketed and commodified. The idea of Israel is no different. The official State of Israel has been doing this since 1948 and has recently produced a booklet to help Israeli tourists abroad sell the mainstream version of the idea. For a time, Israeli travellers were given the booklet on their way out through Ben Gurion Airport; nowadays it can be found on the Internet.

In order to be marketed, the idea must be packaged as a narrative, a story that begins with the birth of the state and its raison d’être. The nation is born as an ideal that becomes a reality that must then be maintained and protected. A successful marketing campaign deepens the idea’s validity: while the state can rely on its military, economic and political power, the idea requires scholarly consolidation. Even more for international than for domestic consumption, this validation cannot be won through sheer financial force or moral blackmail; it has to be proven to be just and right. This is the Israeli wish: this is how official Israel, through its intellectual and academic élite, views the issue of the state’s legitimisation.

The audience need convincing, even in the case of a state like Israel, which possesses the second most technologised army in the world and enjoys a comfortable $500 billion balance in foreign reserves. The requirement to market and validate stems both from the challenges from without and the potential doubts from within. And the challenges are not merely intellectual or philosophical; they have the power to fuel action against the state and generate solidarity with the state’s ‘enemies’. The recent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) is an instance of moral doubts being translated into action against the very idea of the state itself.

Since Israel represents itself officially as the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ and offers at least the constitutional and formal appearance of being such a regime, the state needs a variety of means to sell the idea as both morally and logically valid. Domestically, it has the power to orientate its educational system towards that goal – although, as we shall see, in the 1990s its grip on that system was
temporarily weakened. By contrast, the media and the academia are free agents, at least theoretically, and so cannot be similarly controlled. The former is necessary to the domestic cultivation of the idea, while the latter is useful for international cultivation. With these means in hand, two possible scenarios can develop: either the free agents do not succumb to the state’s interpretation of the idea and therefore cannot play the role assigned to them, or they do abide by the state’s narrative, either out of true conviction or out of the false conviction that they have reached the same interpretation by way of objective analysis.

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