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

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Gershon Shafir (1988, 1996), applying a comparative approach, produced a detailed analysis of the effects of Zionist settlement practices on the indigenous Palestinian population that conflicted with prevailing Israeli interpretations. According to Shafir, regardless of what the settlers may have thought they were doing, regardless of what most Israeli scholars took to be the Zionist settlers' well-meaning motives and intentions, the effects of these practices on the native Palestinian population paralleled the effects of colonialist settler practices in other countries. Whereas Zionist settlers and their Israeli descendants had perceived themselves to be moral, principled people seeking only the liberation of their own nation without any desire to harm the indigenous population, and notwithstanding the fact that Israeli scholars had repeatedly rejected all efforts to compare Zionist settlement practices to that of colonialist settlers, Shafir concluded that such a claim could not be substantiated.

Yet another example of the new direction in Israeli scholars is a book by Hebrew University sociologist Baruch Kimmerling and his colleague Joel Migdal entitled Palestinians: The Making of A People. Insisting that it was simply not legitimate to write the history of Israel without incorporating the Palestinian perspective, they undertook to provide a framework for that perspective. Their goal was to produce a non-biased history of the emergence of the Palestinian nation that took for granted the national aspirations of that nation-- aspirations that until Yizhak Rabin confirmed their legitimacy on the White House lawn in 1993 had been rejected out of hand by every Israeli Prime Minister since the emergence of the state

A final example of the different scholarship being produced by this generation is the work of sociologist Uri Ram, one of the first, and still one of the few, to embrace the term post-Zionism. In two books, one in Hebrew and one in English, Ram described the ways in which a small but significant number of Israeli social scientists had shown that the prevalent representation of Israeli society as inclusive and egalitarian was, at best, problematic.

According to the scholars cited by Ram and included in his Hebrew anthology Israeli Society: Critical Perspectives, groups such as women, Jews of Middle Eastern origin (Mizrahim), and Palestinians (who are still frequently called Israeli Arabs) had been systematically silenced, marginalized, or excluded from positions of power in the Zionist state.

In his 1995 book, The Changing Agenda of Israeli Sociology, published in 1995, Rain articulated a perspective that was to become characteristic of the position labeled Postzionist. Whereas, in Rain's words, "Zionist sociology promoted the idea of an identity among unequals and the exclusion of the others, post-Zionist sociology will be guided by the ideal of a society characterized by equality among non-identicals and the inclusion of the others."

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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.