Just a Thought: Israel. Religion. Nation. State. Nation-State. Exile. Diaspora.

Originally posted on Tuesday, February 7, 2012

For a class I am taking this semester with Professor Helga Tawil-Souri, the renown academic, writer and filmmaker on Middle East Media and Cultural Politics, we were asked to read and respond to the following works:

Arthur Hertzberg, ed. (1959). The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader (excerpts) from Moses Hess, Theodor Herzl, Asher Zvi Ginsberg, Jacob Klatzkin, Martin Buber & Chaim Weizmann, S. Yizhar (1949). Khirbet Khizeh (excerpt) Avraham Shapira (1970). The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War (excerpts) Yoav Peled and Gershon Shafir (2004). Being Israeli; ch. 1, Baruch Kimmerling (2001). The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military; pp.1-14 & 16-55, Liel Liebovitz (2005) Aliyah: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel

All I want is your understanding
As in the small at of affection
‘Why is this my life?’
Is almost everybody’s question
And I’ve tried, everything but suicide
But it’s crossed my mind
I preferred peace
Wouldn’t have to have one worldly possession
But essentially I’m an animal
So just what do I do, with all the aggression?
Well, I’ve tried, everything but suicide
But it’s crossed my mind

Just a Thought by Gnarls Barkely

Like sitting in a panoramic museum, the materials this week shed light on the complexities, events, circumstances and ideologies that shaped the Zionist movement. Far from being the homogenous, unified and unaltered success story the movement is often presented as; the materials and texts explored this week offered a spectrum of perspectives ranging from vehement nationalist rhetoric (Herzl, Weizmann) to nostalgic, emotional and sometimes despondent accounts (Leibovitz, Yizhar, Shapira). The complexity of the spectrum is not limited to the breadth of the scope in and of itself; it is also in the layers that exist at any given point of the range; especially at either poles.

Reading the Zionist Idea is at many points like a perverse rags-to-riches success story of a start up company narrated by the multitude of stakeholders involved in making it happen. Like a startup, you see the formation of teams and cliques, overlapping ideologies and colliding ones, but like every business startup success story, may the most charismatic and the proactive of all, win. In this company, Moses (Moshe) Hess sat on the board of directors as something of a mentor, inspiring the emotional appeal, the passion and zeal driving the idea forward, pushing all the right buttons of religion, race, physique and suffering, speaking in direct response to the oppressive context of anti-sematic Germany he himself experienced.

“The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race – they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews, less than their peculiar noses” (Hess 127)

With dramatic aphorisms and emotional appeal, Hess masterfully delivers a cri de cœur which would, in equal doses serve to inspire and enrage – just enough to prompt action and belief in the solution he puts forth: the establishment of a socialist commonwealth Jewish state as the ONLY way out to salvage the integrity of the Jewish identity in the modern world.

Like any good mentor, Hess motivates by highlighting the virtues the “team” possesses – effectively; its competitive advantage. Interpreted by the onlooker as tenets of Jewish supremacy, Hess preaches what he presents as uniquely Jewish attributes that makes them winners in the face of the challenges they have historically faced (Egypt, Babylonia), are facing (European anti-Semitism) are to face in the creation of the state. “The Jewish type has conserved its purity through the centuries” (Hess 121) “The Jewish race is one of the primary races of mankind and it has retained its integrity despite the influence of changing climatic environments” (Hess 121) Although Hess makes such claims of superiority and supremacy through blood, religion and race with no real facts or “science” – in light of the circumstances in which he preaches (European anti-Semitism), there is less room for pragmatism, fact-checking and considerable appeal to the heart. Hess fights anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jews as a race, the view that sees them as subordinate with the same kind of argument – by subordinating, in turn, the enemy. “Indo-Germanic race improves its quality by mingling with the Jewish race” “As long as no other people possessed such a religion combining national universal and historical elements, the Jews alone were the people of God” (Hess 129) No matter the problematic nature of those claims – the utilization of the same language they are fighting, Hess appeals to the hearts and avenges, if only in theory at that point, the ongoing subordination of Jews in Europe. Thus, it works. It is precisely this rhetoric that is criticizes decades later by S. Yizhar in Khirbet Khizeh by juxtaposing it with the events that it would inspire; in that case the extermination of Palestinians from their homes and villages.With such courtesy and with a restraint born of true culture, and this would be a sign of a wind of change, of decent upbringing, and, perhaps, even of the Jewish soul, the great Jewish soul.”

In this startup, Google of Zionism, if Hess was the mentor, Herzl was the CEO. So highly did Herzl think of Hess that according to some, he “would not have written Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) if he had known Rome and Jerusalem beforehand.” With the emotional justification to his otherwise secular outlook, it was Herzl, as Zachary Lockman vividly elucidates in A Brief History of Zionism that elevated to new heights the entrepreneurial approach with which Zionism was pursued. Initially, Herzl believed that assimilation was inevitable and desirable but overcome with the emotional experience covering the Dreyfus affair; his Zionist aspirations were born through recognizing the opportunity presented by the conditions of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. His pragmatism and entrepreneurial take was made clear in his pamphlet The Jewish State, the business plan and feasibility study on what would later be called Israel. “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized legally secured home in Palestine”

Herzl paints a picture of his aspirations for that venture and the YZO not unlike one you would see in between the covers of countless autobiographies by businessmen like Jack Welch and others as he spoke about the reception of his ideas calling him “madman” “adventurer”. An interesting contradiction that emerges in the manifesto is found in his description of the idea: “If this attempt to resolve the Jewish question is to be described by a single word, let it be labeled not a “fantasy” but at most a “construction” This is interesting especially in its wording considering that he presents the basic idea and goal of the book, the manifesto as “the restoration of the Jewish state” restoration – renovation, construction is more analogous with “fabrication” “manufacture” “creation” . (Herzl 204) “The decisive factor is our propelling force. And what is that force? The plight of the Jews” (Herzl 205) He made it blasphemous to deny the existence of a common Jewish plight in spite of all successful assimilation attempts and almost presented himself as a case study and attestation to that. What is equally interesting about Herzl’s crusade is that had very pronounced activism attributes. Similar to the Serbian revolts organized by Otpor against the Slobodan Milošević regime “He’s Gone” “It is the hallmark of Utopias to present facets of the future as facts in present reality” (Herzl 206).

Following the death of Steve Jobs, there was a surge of obsessive attempts at “figuring out” the “secret” behind his success and that of his enterprise: Apple. If one is to strip The Jewish State and Herzl for that matter of its dogma and look for cues exemplifying its effectiveness, the manifesto is brimming with strategic pragmatism that gave Zionism and Herzl the edge the ideology of Hess and others before had preached. Upon initial observation, some of those successful tactics that have the manifesto and the man behind it credibility are:

  1. Herzl’s respectable professional experience giving him legitimacy to be heard
  2. His knack for diplomacy and extroverted tendency; he did not preach and practice at home, he traveled far and wide and sought endorsement far and wide – this became especially clear through negotiations with Sultan Abdulhamid II / Wilhelm etc)
  3. His media access & publications recognizing the importance of using them towards shaping public opinion through Die Welt and The Jewish State.
  4. Establishing an institution, a home base for the cause: The Zionist Congress in Basel
  5. Leveraging the language of emotion & guilt “Plight of the Jews”
  6. Stating the future as facts of reality “next year in Jerusalem” making the project aspirational
  7. Economic rationality and providing solutions and an economic / financial rationale for the proposal
  8. Examining not one, but several proposals and options equally (which may have been his Achilles heel): Palestine, Argentina and entertaining of Uganda
  9. Maintaining a largely secular tone so that not to marginalize the proponents of assimilation nor the socialists “I consider the Jewish question neither a social not a religious one” By doing so, he effectively assuaged the threat of Jewish state to already assimilated Jews as though to say ‘we will welcome you if and when you are ready’
  10. Identified a common enemy / threat “The distinctive nationality of the Jews neither can will nor must perish. It cannot because external enemies consolidate it.” (Herzl 211)

At the end of it all, one is drawn to wonder: what if, for experimental purposes, a Palestinian Manifesto were to be reproduced replacing all uses of the word “Jewish” or “Jews” in the text with “Palestinian” or “Arabs” calling for the same rights and using the same rationale? Would it be accepted, tolerated or entertained? Would it be printed? Distributed and reproduced? Hailed as a heroic book? Imagine this:

“The world needs a Palestinian State; therefore it will arise…The plan would seem mad enough if a single individual were to undertake it but if many Palestinians simultaneously agree on it, it is entirely reasonable, and its achievement presents no difficulties worth mentioning. The idea depends only on the number of its adherents. PErhaps our ambitious young men, to whom every road of advancement is now closed, and for whom the Palestinian State throws open a bright prospect of freedom, happiness and honor – perhaps they will see to it that this idea is spread”

(Herzl (modified) 207) Gnarls Barkley was right, its just a thought.

Enter Ginzberg , or Ahad Ha’am (one of them) as he was known or liked to be known; the Chief Operating Officer – in the Apple scenario, he would be the Tim Cook. Avoiding much of the limelight and more hermetic in his demeanor, Ginzberg like Cook, maintained his position as “one of the people” focusing on the internal affairs of the enterprise. Rejecting many of Herzl’s ideas, Ginzberg who for the most part did not believe in political Zionism celebrated the spirit and the culture of Jews and saw that as the lynchpin for this new endeavor. Sharing his CEOs (Herzl’s) aspirations for a Jewish state, Ginzberg or Ha’am, fundamentally disagreed with the methodology by which the project was pursued, causing him to diverge from the political pragmatism of Herzl and his followers very early on following the first Zionist congress and adopted a more spiritual path for himself which differed at its core with the so-called secular outlook Herzl was promoting. “To gather our scattered ones from the four corners of the earth…is impossible. Only religion with its belief in a miraculous redemption can promise such a consummation” (Ha’am 264) Reflecting a truly different outlook on the Zionist project from the onset, unlike Herzl, Ha’am advocated the idea of the Jewish Settlement without the immediate need for a Jewish State – he believed that would come later in the future. The focus now has to be on industry and education and the pillar he advocates: National Culture. “it does not need an independent state, but only the creation in its native land of conditions favorable to its development: a good-sized settlement of Jews working without hindrance in every branch of civilization” (Ha’am 265) Like a COO, he remains for the most part, in the shadows working on the less glamorous fields of education, religion and culture with a middle ground take which tends, whether in the corporate setting or the political setting, less appealing to a mainstream audience.

Seesawing back and forth across the Zionist spectrum, Klatzkin, like a technician from the IT department or an engineer, strips the Zionist project of its color, rejecting certainly Ginzberg’s ideas of spirituality and cultural necessity but even those who entertained a fine balance before him, Klatzkin’s idea was marked by a stark austerity refusing all talk of Jewish “chosenness” and focusing instead on the place. A Nation according to Klatzkin is: “land and language” nothing more nothing less, he described “Spiritual uniqueness” (Ginzberg) “destiny” (Hess) and Mission (Herzl) as “a mark of diseased abnormality of an un-nation” (Klatzkin 316) and instead maintained that “To be part of the nation one need not believe in the Jewish religion or the Jewish spiritual outlook” (Klatzkin 317)

Buber, who engages with the Zionist project as its Marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility executive, is at odds with the lack of imagination put forth by his CEO, Herzl and looks instead to exploit the potention of Zionism for “social and spiritual enrichment”. Think of the possibilities, he cries in the boardroom. “Our only salvation is to become Israel again to become a whole, the unique whole of a people and a religious community; a renewed people, a renewed religion and the renewed unity of both” (Buber 462) As a public face for the Zionist project, Buber appears to carry high the mantle of co-existence for this new project of a Jewish state and ensures in the public relations communiqué to Mahatma Gandhi in An Open Letter to Mahatma Gandhi “we do not want to dominate them: we want to serve with them”. If you ask Zachary Lockman, who as an acadmic would receive corporate mouthpieces with skepticism, this was a clever PR stunt to het the buy in of world thinkers and leaders. Nevertheless, as we have seen with the Fortune 500 companies, brand is everything.

With the teachings of Herzl engrained in his mind, and the world powers on his side (Balfour), Weizmann ascends the throne as the Managing Director of the newly liscenced startup with big dreams: The State of Israel. Armed with the two cents of all thinkers before him, a mélange of thoughts and philosophies, Weizmann is able to pick and choose from a basket of approaches – adopting at once grass roots colonization (Ginzberg’s brainchild) and diplomacy (Herzl). His fist order of business, though, is to erect an obelisk for everyone to see, leaving no room for ambiguity on his priorities: the undying commitment to the “promised” state as his sole purpose. “God has promised Eretz Israel to the Jews. This is our charter. But we are men of our own time, with limited horizons, heavily laden with responsibility toward the generations to come” (Weizmann 587)

Beyond the hardcovers of The Zionist Idea and its many contributors, works like Khirbet Khizeh and to another degree The Seventh Day which speaks of soldier’s experiences in the 1967 war emerge to the onlooker as a criticism and to some, attacks on the entire project. Like any enterprise or rising star, there are bound to be distressed “insiders” who emerge as opposing voices or at the very least, critical ones. What some described “the man who had laid bare the original sin of the State of Israel” Yizhar’s description of the Palestinians from fictional خربة خزعة Khirbet Khizeh village by the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1948 war, cannot at the first instance emerge as anything but an anti-Zionist work that puts to trial the legitimacy of the startup state’s actions. From the vivid descriptions of the “cleansing” operations (Lockman) to the haunted faces of the old men and women being loaded onto IDF trucks, Yizhar’s work appears at first glance as that of a man attempting to placate the contradictions he sees between the rights of Jews to a homeland and justice for the poor Palestinian villagers. However, considering the fact that the story is told from the viewpoint of the soldiers, it is hard to take it at face value. Reading the excerpt, I can’t help but be reminded of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir in which Folman is an IDF soldier describing his nightmares from his experiences in the Lebanon War. While Khirbet Khizeh and The Seventh Day is an example of the absence of consensus and a reflection on the humanness of soldiers serving for the IDF – it is hard to sympathize with the oppressor in any given situation (The IDF soldiers or Bashir) if they are carrying out an act of oppression, no matter how guilty they feel or how horrific their experiences.

Taking Yizhar’s use of the narrative tool, Leibovitz puts it to work for a different purpose: not to question, but to embrace and elucidate the connection between self and a place. Replacing the nameless faces and the terror of war with hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations, Leibovitz’s Aliya offers up a very different interpretation of the Zionist project and the manifestos revolving around it, it is that of the non-negotiable, hopeful, dream-like and almost nostalgic persuasion through the eyes of Marlin, Betty, Ginsberg and the Kalkers, each in their own circumstance sharing a common dream, history and struggle or in the words of Herzl “Plight of the Jews”. With faceless Arab silhouettes in the backdrop, a pastel-colored canvas emerges as in many ways, a manifestation of that which Herzl foresaw in his A Jewish State: the after-the-fact appeal of the Jewish state to those who at first glance thought it either mad or utopian – the now established, well supported state had meaning attached to it and that meaning, though manufactured, augmented and promoted, now resonated, according to Leibovitz’s protagonists, at the core of Jewish existence.

Shoving aside the nostalgia, emotion and guilt presented by Yizhar, Leibovitz and Shapira, The Invention & Decline of Israeliness by Kimmerling attempts an academic negotiation of Israeli identity and what he calls “Israeliness”. Not only does Kimmerling leave the novels of Leibovitz and Yizhar on the shelf collecting dust, he places The Zionist Idea in something of a witness stand as he questions the very foundations of the Zionism project. Like the Enron investigation of 2001, the Zionism success story is put to trial for what Kimmerling sees it as: a success story gone rogue. By examining the “cultural codes that defined what it meant to be Israeli” Kimmerling takes a multicultural lens to the Israeli question and argues that the secularism on which Zionism was born, has since 1967 been losing ground due to immigration dividing up Israeli society into

“7 subcultures: National religious, traditionalist “Orientals,” Orthodox religious, Ashkenazi secular upper-middle class, Arabs, Russian immigrants, and Ethiopians”


This division, according to Kimmerling leaves the start up state at risk of a war between the secular and the religious groups – a war which he believes cannot be prevented by “Jewishness” and nationalism. However, looking back at the Zionist Idea, is this something new? Hasn’t there always, by virtue of imposed ideals of the state to enforce a common language and an enforced homogeneity not always been at the crossroads of cultural tensions? Isn’t this the distinction or warning that Ha’am drew attention to between what he calls ” The Western Jew” and “The Eastern Jew” Hibbat Zion and draws distinctions between their motivations? (Ha’am 265) Hasn’t the hierarchical question always existed between the cultural groups in Israel and have been often trumped by a nationalist project that aimed to create a monotone of a culture of state-imposed “Jewishness”? Isn’t this hierarchy what Lockman alluded to when describing how the critical mass that the Zionist project aspired to was specifically that of the Ashkenazi (European) persuasion as a priority? Lockman is not alone in his observation on Ashkenazi hegemony in Israel – Peled & Shafir draw similar conclusions through their notes on LSM dominance, a Eurocentric colonial project that excludes Mizrahi jews, Palestinians Arabs and women from its benefits. Within the circle of academic investigation, Peled & Shafir’s work joins the technical trial of Zionism from a specialized lens focused, beyond identity and culture as was the case with Kimmerling’s project, and onto the technicalities of the same: the materialization of identity in the form / shape of “citizenship”. “Understanding citizenship not only as a bundle of formal rights but as the entire mode of incorporation of individuals and groups into society” (Peled & Shafir 11) Questioning the meanings and motivations of “citizenship” Peled & Shafir attempt to answer the question through rights and incorporation throughout the historical context of the Zionist project. “The balance of citizenship discourses, rights and corresponding institutions and incorporation regimes reflects the way in which global changes…enhance the ability of those domestic institutional actors, better positioned to take advantage of them to renegotiate their standing vis-a-vis the state and other groups.” (Peled & Shafir 15) Perhaps the most brutal of trials the Zionist project undergoes in the cluster, Peled & Shafir, like Lockman present us with the contradictions of the project’s “political goals and commitments”: colonialism, ethno-nationalism and democracy.

Google and Facebook today, stand in modern times as shining stars, true rags to riches stories of startup triumphing against all odds. Simultaneously, they are supported by the powers that be (the government and financial institutions) making them powerful beyond their founders’ and employees imagination. With that power comes a certain narcosis – one that allows a certain belief in invincibility while on the inside, the structure may just as well be degenerating without detection (Kimmerling). The narcosis of invincibility also leads to the justification of violations (privacy infringement, data abuse, censorship etc) Be it pressure from the outside, or erosion from the inside (Peled & Shafir), there is always a point at which any success story may fall from grace if it does not get its act together; Enron learned this the hard way. I leave the startup analogy at that as I am reminded of the words of Ruth Dayan, the widow of 1948 IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan:

“We built this country inch by inch, and we lost so many lives. We built public and social institutions, schools, factories. What’s going on today is awful. They’re ruining this country. I am a proud Israeli. I’ve lived through every war, endured every moment of suffering, but I never stopped believing in peace. I lost friends and family members. I’m a peacemaker, but the current Israeli government does not know how to make peace. We move from war to war, and this will never stop. I think Zionism has run its course.”


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