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

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.

New Historians

Understandably, therefore, when a group of scholars call into question or challenge the narratives of a nation’s past that had previously been taken as true, it is perceived as an attack on the values and ideals that were linked to these narratives and legitimated by them. Similarly, when the dominant representations of a nation’s culture and society are called into question, this questioning is also taken to be a challenge to the nation’s self-definition–along with its collective values and forms of social interaction.

In Israel, this is precisely what happened beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, a small but vocal group of Israeli scholars, historians, and social scientists began to publish a series of books and articles that called into question long-embraced narratives of Israeli’s historical past and widely accepted representations of Israeli society. These scholars, who have come to be known as “new historians” and “critical sociologists,” were, for the most part, members of a generation born after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. They had grown to maturity during a period in which Israel ruled over a resisting population now numbering more than one million Arabs.

While the perspective of the older generation had been shaped by the realities of the Holocaust, the ideology of Labor Zionism, and,. the trauma of the 1948 War [of Independence], the new generation of scholars had known a very different set of realities, shaped by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the controversial 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the Palestinian Intifada that erupted in 1987. Strongly affected by the strength of the emerging Palestinian nationalism, and confronted with the increasingly resistant Palestinian population ruled by Israel since 1967, many Israeli intellectuals and academicians had reached the conclusion that notwithstanding the way in which history had been taught to them, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stood at the center of Israeli history and the formation of Israeli society.

Reading the writings of this younger generation of scholars, one is struck by the sense of shock and also disillusionment that they felt. In the process of working their way through documents that until the early 1980s had been classified as secret, these scholars quickly recognized that the versions of Israeli history and the descriptions of Israeli society currently in vogue among the majority of scholars were contradicted by new evidence.

One historian, Benny Morris, undertook to examine, village by village, the factors that had contributed to the flight, of 3-4 million Palestinian Arabs in 1948. Most Israeli accounts placed the responsibility for the exodus squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians and particularly their leaders. Such a view had become conventional wisdom among Israelis and was taught to generation after generation of students. In The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris set forth a detailed, nuanced, multi-causal account of the exodus in which the factors responsible for the exodus varied according to the place and the conditions. What so outraged many of Morris’s readers was his conclusion that deliberate expulsions by Israeli military forces and outrageous acts of mass violence by unofficial Israeli military units had contributed to the Arab exodus in a significant way.

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.”

Excerpted with permission from the Palestine-Israel Journal.

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