As a tribute to the influence on Zionist thought of the 19th century English novelist George Eliot, Israel honoured her legacy by naming streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after her. Eliot — real name Mary Anne Evans — completed her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876. It’s not only seen as a masterpiece of Victorian literature, but also as an influential work that shaped early Zionist thought.
Eliot popularised Zionist thought long before Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State and the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
Eliot is one of several writers featured by the famed Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani in his book On Zionist Literature. It was translated into English for the first-time last year after its publication in Arabic in 1967. The book contains a new preface by Anni Kanafani and an introduction by Steven Salaita. Introducing readers to Kanafani, the American scholar stresses the value of the enormous task undertaken in On Zionist Literature.
According to Salaita, “Zionism’s crude political goals could not achieve dominion of the Western imagination without the dexterity of literature and other creative media.” Zionist leaders “mined the past in order to create a viable pretext for settling the Levant.” Although by and large they turned to the Bible for source material, Salaita credits Kanafani for showing that much of the “labour of invention” had occurred through novels and cultural artefacts which were conscripted to the service of Zionism.
Kanafani seeks to uncover the history and genealogy of the narrative and ideological framework that not only enabled the rise of Zionism, but also helped justify the immense violence and displacement caused by the settler-colonial project when establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Delving into the writing of the likes of Eliot, Benjamin Disraeli and others, Kanafani explores the development of the Zionist narrative, analysing how it served to rationalise away the suffering inflicted on the indigenous Palestinian population in the pursuit of Jewish settlement and statehood.
On Zionist Literature has been shortlisted for this year’s Palestine Book Awards, please click here to read the full review on the PBA site.