New Historians, new understandings of the past, and recent critiques of Zionist discourse

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Post-Zionism is understood differently by people depending on their position and perspective. Moreover, there is not simply one form of post-Zionism or post-Zionist discourse, but several. Like all terms ending in "ism," post-Zionism is what philosophers call an "essentially contested concept." The meaning of the term changes according to who uses it and why.  

As I wrote in my book on post-Zionist debates, post-Zionism is a term applied to a current set of critical positions that problematize Zionist discourse and the historical narratives and social and cultural representations that it produced. Like the term Zionism, post-Zionism encompasses a variety of positions. The growing use of the term post-Zionism is indicative of an increasing sense among many Israelis that the maps of meaning provided by Zionism are simply no longer adequate.

israeli flagThe debates over what is called post-Zionism in Israel often obfuscate and confuse more than they clarify. Those who regard themselves as defenders of Zionism use the term post-Zionism somewhat flagrantly to accuse and to taint, while among those who are commonly referred to as post-Zionists, there are many who eschew the term, some who embrace it, and others, like Benny Morris [an Israeli historian], who proclaim their Zionist affiliation. Critics subsume under the rubric of post-Zionist writers of diverse views who operate within different theoretical frameworks and who hold differing opinions about what corrective actions are desirable

Cultural Critique & National Identity

The struggles over post-Zionism are struggles for the control of cultural space, that is, the space within which the meanings of Israeli collective identity are constructed, produced, and circulated. At the same time, the controversies surrounding post-Zionism represent a conflict over national memory, and accordingly, national identity. Accordingly, these controversies are less about the past than about "how the past affects the present" (Sturken 1997; 2).

For Israelis, as for all national groups, the narratives of their nation's past provide a framework through which they interpret the events of the present. In calling into question prevailing Israeli historical narratives, the new historians, together with a group known as critical sociologists, render problematic the very foundations on which Israeli group identity has been based….

Collective identities, like individual identities, are comprised of multiple factors and are always in the process of being formed and reconfigured. Nevertheless, key to all collective identities, as Stuart Hall has reminded us, is the way in which a group or a nation relates to the narratives of its past. Its relationship to these narratives is an integral component of a nation's sense of who they are, of their understanding of the values and ideals that they see as distinguishing them from other nations. The same may be said of a nation's dominant image of its own social and cultural spheres. Ingesting images of their society from representations produced by social scientists, members of national groups come to look at themselves as being certain kinds of people.

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Laurence J. Silberstein

Laurence J. Silberstein is the Philip and Muriel Berman Professor of Jewish Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he directs the Berman Center for Jewish Studies.