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Middle East Near You

The idea of Israel: a history of power and knowledge

Book Author(s) :
Ilan Pappe
Published Date :
February 2014
Publisher :
Verso Books
Paperback :
ISBN-10: 1844678563 pages
Review by :
Ramona Wadi

Ilan Pappé makes a succinct statement in the introduction to his latest book: “Indeed, Israel is one of a few states considered by many to be at best morally suspect or at worst illegitimate. What is challenged, with varying degrees of conviction and determination, is not the state itself but rather the idea of the state.” This describes accurately the extended challenge that new historians, in their questioning of classical Zionism and Zionist hegemony, have had to deal with.

Departing from the obvious but often neglected fact that Israel is the product of European colonialism and Western imperialism, the idea of Israel as an entire exercise in manipulation is conveyed powerfully in this book, which charts the attempts at deconstructing the Zionist narrative and their repercussions, had the endeavours not been so drastically curtailed.

Recognising the dependence of the state upon narrative structure and myth, a group of Israeli “new historians” embarked upon a challenge to the Zionist hegemonic narrative that not only imposed fabrications upon the colonised land of Palestine, but also relied heavily upon state institutions, notably academia, to create and perpetuate false narratives. The intention was to create foundations for Zionism’s mythical claims which would help to promulgate a moral image of Israel, compatible with the regurgitated hypocrisy of the settler-colonial state as “the only democracy in the Middle East”.

Pappé illustrates the integral role which academia played in establishing Zionist historiography, formulated in the early years following the 1948 Nakba upon orders from Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. In the absence of structured methodology, Zionist historians were required to amalgamate ideology and fact in order to construct a common narrative that, even remotely, attempted to substantiate claims to land with invented history. Given the importance of academic narrative in order to sustain the Zionist-imposed collective memory, an exposure of the flaws within historiography, had it been allowed to proceed unhindered, would have provided a formidable rethinking of the colonial violence upon which the state of Israel is founded. It should be remembered that this eliminated the existence of the Palestinian population and resistance (through what Pappé has called ethnic cleansing) in order to accommodate the idea upon which Israel was constructed.

Seen within the backdrop of history, academia and collective memory, Pappé identifies several aspects that have been challenged by Israel’s new historians, including Zionist narrative and discourse; Palestinian resistance prior to the Nakba and in later decades; theoretical discussions of power and its influences; and Israel’s strategy of marketing the Holocaust. The mainstream perception of Israel is generally compatible with Israel’s fabrication of history. Hence the initiative to indulge in research utilising archive material that was previously inaccessible initiated new discussion. The immediate impact was perceived as a threat to Zionist settler-colonialism, challenging the loyalty manufactured by the state as a requirement to disrupt any process of objectivity.

The challenge to Zionist-fabricated history was particularly pronounced in the rethinking of resistance and the Nakba. Zionist historians evoked narrations of independence in order to enforce oblivion upon the Palestinian narrative, focusing on tactics and strategy to ensure a superior concept of liberation. As Pappé illustrates, Nakba denial was crucial to maintaining the myth of the barren land supporting the founding of the settler-colonial state; emphasising the presence and existence of Palestinians would distort the imagined Zionist collective memory. The author states that “Zionism as a colonialist project developed an ideology that justified the continued and thus far never-ending dispossession of the indigenous population.” Hence, the mythical narrative supporting the state’s existence required a continuous reinvention and sustaining of dominance both by ensuring the unequal demographic changes, as well as maintaining the fabricated non-existence, or insignificant impediment, of Palestinians.

The shift towards inclusion of the Palestinian narrative by new historians occurred mainly upon recognition of state violence against the indigenous population. However, various academics involved in the early rethinking of Zionist narrative refrained from outright criticism of Israel itself. Some restricted their evaluations to the post-1967 era, thus avoiding discussion of the settler-colonial origins of the Zionist state. Mentioned particularly is Akiva Orr, who is said to have been the first “to suggest that the struggle for peace in Israel and Palestine must be anti-colonialist.” While the concept of peace and the existence of Israel are contradictory, the reflection sheds light upon the necessity of emphasising Palestinian resistance against settler-colonialism in the path towards liberation.

Given the importance of academia to the settler-colonial state, the post-Zionist challenge to the entire idea of Israel was countered by reinforcing the traditional Zionist historiography. Efforts to inscribe Palestinian history were countered by reinforcing Jewish suffering, notably within the context of the Holocaust. The concept of perpetual mourning, reinforced by Zionism, became utilised increasingly as an institutional tool, despite the recorded historical contradictions that proved Ben-Gurion’s political manoeuvring in order to establish the Jewish state.

Articulating Palestinian visibility was enforced through criticism of Israel’s militarised society; documentaries that attempted to convey aspects of Palestinian suffering; and the translations of a selection of Palestinian literature into Hebrew. However, the impact failed to sustain itself on a greater magnitude within society. State censorship countered these innovative expressions, particularly with reassertions of earlier Zionist-fabricated collective memory, as well as further restrictive legislation that made Palestinian remembrance of the Nakba a criminal offence, as seen in later laws targeting Palestinians. Yet, the varied interpretations endorsed by historians involved in the post-Zionist movement, notably the insistence upon a post-1967 focus, narrowed the wider challenge than might have had a political impact.

The rise of neo-Zionist historians, in particular, was of service to Israel. Besides restricting dissemination of post-Zionist history, the neo-Zionists accepted and utilised the archives detailing paramilitary atrocities against the Palestinian population, weaving the discoveries into a narrative that justified violence, rather than acknowledging the oppression of the indigenous population. Since the questioning of Zionist historiography was perceived as constituting an ideological threat, the origins of later state-terror were incorporated into the narrative and disseminated through the increasingly militarised society, notably in the education system, thus consolidating the indoctrination process and suffocating the rewriting of Israel’s history from within.

A notable feature of the book is the drawing upon historical sources that are disregarded routinely in discourse pertaining to the foundation of the settler-colonial state, namely the exploitation of World War Two history by Zionist leaders as a defining feature of the manifestation of Israel. Despite its complexity, The Idea of Israel is woven seamlessly and can be read through various perspectives that can either be amalgamated or separated in order to derive other interpretations within the subject of post-Zionism.

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