The historical development 
of Zionist ideology in Israel

The Idea of Israel:

A History of Power and Knowledge

How have the dictates of Zionism shaped academic and cultural institutions and therefore the production of knowledge within Israel? That is the question explored in Ilan Pappé’s important new book, The Idea of Israel. According to Pappé, criticism of Zionism by Israeli Jews has always been particularly subversive: “When the idea of Israel was challenged from within, it meant that the ideal of Zionism was deciphered as an ideology, and thus became a far more tangible and feasible target for critical evaluation.” 

He pays special attention to the “new historians” and what he refers to as the “post-Zionist moment” of the 1990s. The new historians were a group of academics and artists that directly challenged many of the myths surrounding the 1948 war along with Israel’s carefully crafted image as a modern democratic state. Pappé was himself one of the most radical and subversive members of the new historians. 

In writing a history of dissent within Israel, he is reflecting on, and coming to terms with, a history that he played a key role in shaping. He argues that without adopting an explicitly anti-Zionist stance, the failure of left-wing social justice movements within Israel is inevitable because the propagation of racist ideology is a necessary component in justifying Israel’s policies. 

Pappé devotes the first several chapters to detailing the creation of “classic Zionism”: Israel’s dominant ideological narrative from 1948 through the 1970s. In mainstream Israeli historiography, Palestine as the rightful home of the Jewish people was the unquestioned ideological framework through which historians organized facts and determined which methodological techniques would be used (and which ones would be ignored). Mainstream Israeli historians crafted an uncritical historical narrative of Israel’s founding while ignoring its consequences for the Palestinians. Thus, the inherent goodness of the Zionist project was taken as a given, and the historian’s job was simply to reconstruct its narrative. 

According to Pappé, the classic Zionist narrative was one of 

a national movement, humanist, liberal, socialist, which brought modernization and progress to primitive Palestine, caused the desert to bloom, rebuilt ruined cities of the Land, and introduced modern agriculture and industry for the benefit of everyone, Jews and Arabs alike. In this version, Zionism was resisted due to a combination of Islamic fanaticism, pro-Arab British colonialism, and the local political culture of violence. Against all odds, the Zionists also miraculously established a state in the face of a hostile Arab world. . . .[Zionism] was a moral and just movement of redemption, which unfortunately found other people on its homeland, but nonetheless offered them a share in the better future, which they foolishly rejected.

The propagation of this narrative extended beyond academia and into Israeli literature, theater, and film. Pappé pays special attention to Israeli cinema due to its power to evoke strong emotions and shape the collective unconscious of Israel’s citizens. “Cinema” Pappé writes, “was treated as a means for national propaganda; in fact,the officials appointed by the state to supervise and encourage local cinematic production stipulated that their offices would assist ‘educational and constructive films which would reflect the Israeli mentality.’” 

In these films, Zionists are the natural protagonists of the story. They are presented as fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters with whom the audience can easily identify. The Arabs, in contrast, have no decipherable motive, only a blind hatred of Jews that defies logical explanation. If they are shown at all, they are one-dimensional characters, existing simply to propel the Jewish protagonist into action and highlight his or her heroism and bravery. 

Although dissident voices existed in these early years, they were successfully marginalized and ignored within Israeli society. This state of affairs, however, began to change in the 1970s. The events of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 opened up cracks in the ideological consensus, but they did so for different reasons. 

The early victories of the Egyptian army in the 1973 war shocked the Israeli people and penetrated their sense of invincibility. 

In the years following the war, many of the contradictions that lay dormant in Israeli society began to surface. The political fallout eventually resulted in the historic defeat of the Labour Party by Menachim Begin and the Likud Party in 1977.

Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was a war of aggression aimed at destroying the PLO’s base of operations in Lebanon. 

Pappé explains, “The massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangists, with the full knowledge of the occupying Israeli army, caused hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews to demonstrate, for the first time in the state’s history, against an ongoing army operation.” The questioning of the Lebanon war led historians to reexamine the justification for previous wars. 

It was within this context that a group of scholars, collectively referred to as the “new historians,” began challenging the classic Zionist narrative. Armed with newly released documents not available to previous historians, the new historians mounted a withering attack against the tenants of Zionism. Many of these scholars, in particular Benny Morris and Pappé himself, paid special attention to Israel’s narrative of the 1948 war. They documented Israel’s ethnic cleansing operation (Plan Dalet), the systematic use of terror to facilitate Palestinian flight, and the policy of murdering any Palestinians attempting to return home once the war was over. 

 Other historians such as Tom Segev attacked the most sacred of cows—Israel’s Holocaust memory. Segev uncovered government documents proving that Israel attempted to collaborate with the Nazis in expelling European Jews, provided they be sent to Palestine (the Nazis rebuffed these overtures). Taken together, the work of the new historians directly challenged the Zionist consensus and corroborated the Palestinian narrative of 1948.

Along with the pioneering work of the new historians, the signing of the Oslo Accords raised the (ultimately illusory) possibility of a lasting peace for the first time in Israel’s history. These events opened up space for the post-Zionist moment of 1990s. Much like the new historians that came before them, these scholars went beyond questioning particular policies of the state and instead delved deeper to challenge the very idea of Israel as the home of the Jewish people.

Keeping in line with the “post-” movements taking place in academia, many post-Zionists paid special attention to the role of power in shaping cultural narratives, relying heavily on various postmodernist theories. These scholars explored how Israel’s position of power privileges Zionist voices and perspectives while marginalizing the story of Arab Jews and Palestinians. According to Pappé, post-Zionists saw 

[m]arginalization and oppression. . . as the outcome of an ideological bias, both an economical and financial, against Mizrachim [Jews of Middle-Eastern and North African descent] and Arabs alike, yielding a cheap labour force made of Mizrachim, women and Palestinians. What for classical Zionist scholars was an inspiring ideal of nation-building was for the dissenters an oppressive ideology that was ruthlessly used to crush any opposition to the dominant, domineering Eastern European culture.

A key limitation of the post-Zionists, and likely a reason for the movement’s short duration and limited impact, was a mistake inherent in postmodernism—that ideas shape reality. They assumed that opening up space for alternative narratives through their academic work would in and of itself lead to the correction of past and current injustices. According to Pappé, “For most of them. . . activism did not go beyond writing articles or books.” 

In addition, their embrace of relativism and their theoretical orientation around narrative meant that they gave a voice to the Palestinian narrative but without adopting an explicitly anti-Zionist stance. To do so would have required them to abandon their relativism, take the side of the oppressed Palestinians, and buttress that position with facts, a methodology that most post-Zionists rejected. Indeed, despite being labeled as traitors by many of their colleagues, most of these critics still considered themselves Zionists. 

The outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2001was a watershed moment in Israeli society. After the collapse of the peace process, the Zionist consensus reasserted its hegemony over every sector of Israeli society and brought an abrupt end to the post-Zionist moment. “This newfound unity,” writes Pappé, 

was greatly facilitated by the fact that Israel’s mainstream media uncritically accepted and widely disseminated the government’s propagandist version of why violence erupted. In that version, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were not only the initiators of the Second Intifada; they were also fully to blame for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit. . . . From the viewpoint of Jewish society and its political elite, Israel had done all it could do to achieve peace but was met with extremism and intransigence, forcing the government to shift from peace to war.

This new consensus was “an even harsher and less compromising version of Zionism” which Pappé calls neo-Zionism. The work of the new historians and post-Zionists necessitated a more rigid ideology if mainstream Zionism was to successfully reassert itself. Unlike previous historians, neo-Zionists could not claim ignorance of Israel’s actions in 1948. The work of the new historians and post-Zionists brought to light irrefutable evidence of war crimes committed against the Palestinians during the 1948 war. Unable to ignore these embarrassing facts, neo-Zionist historians gave a very matter-of-fact recounting of Israel’s atrocities but framed them as necessary and therefore justified actions in the noble project of creating the Jewish state. 

Unlike the post-Zionist moment, which never moved beyond the narrow confines of academia, neo-Zionist ideology found a social and political base among disparate right-wing groups including secular nationalists, ultra-orthodox parties, and settlers in the West Bank. As a result, there has been a sharp rightward shift in the political and social spheres of Israeli society. In recent years the Knesset has attempted to pass a number of laws (with varying degrees of success) aimed at criminalizing dissent. 

There has also been an alarming rise in openly racist and nationalistic attitudes among Jews in Israel. A 2012 poll of Israeli Jews, for example, found that a majority of Israeli Jews not only agreed that Israel was an apartheid state, but also endorsed its existence as such. Thus, as the possibility of peace vanished, the opening for cultural pluralism vanished along with it.

At the same time, Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, who question Israel’s actions face a severe backlash, frequently being labeled as traitors. Juxtaposing the career trajectories of Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé is useful for understanding how Israeli society has responded to those who stray too far from the Zionist fold. Morris has gone from one of Israel’s most subversive historians to the darling of neo-Zionism. He argues that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was justified on the grounds that it was necessary in order to create a Jewish state. His criticism is that Israel’s founders did not finish the job. Peace, according to Morris, will only be achieved once the transfer of the indigenous Arab population is complete. 

In contrast, Pappé has steadfastly remained in the anti-Zionist camp. His unrelenting criticism of Israel and open advocacy for a one-state solution has made him a pariah within Israel. Unlike Morris who currently enjoys  status within Israel as one of its preeminent historians, Pappé ultimately chose to leave Israel in 2008 after receiving death threats, being condemned by Knesset, and even having an Israeli newspaper publish a picture with his face at the center of a target. 

For a brief moment in the 1980s and 90s, historical events opened up space for a degree of pluralism in academia and popular culture. These critics forced mainstream scholars to at least acknowledge the crimes of Israel. However, Pappé notes that their influence should not be overstated. Ideological narratives are not adopted because they are “true,” but rather because they are useful in justifying the existing social order. 

Pappé writes, “[D]espite the appeal and prominence enjoyed by the post-Zionist discourse for a time, the social order had not changed, which could explain why the society so quickly reverted to its long-held beliefs.” In short, post-Zionism undermined institutions of power within Israel, but without deeper structural changes within society the ultimate failure of post-Zionism was a foregone conclusion. 

The Idea of Israel is a complex and ambitious book, providing a useful history of Zionist ideology in Israel. However, it is certainly an academic work and therefore assumes a significant amount of background knowledge on the reader’s part. Anyone not particularly well read on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict should first read Pappé’s earlier books, such as The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and A History of Modern Palestine. Nevertheless, The Idea of Israel is an excellent and timely work that should be read by anyone interested in the history of Zionist ideology.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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