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Israel Studies 7.2 (2002) 145-174

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Kfar Etzion:
The Community of Memory and the Myth of Return

David Ohana


THE ESTABLISHMENT, DEFENSE AND FALL of the four settlements of Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc) in 1948 was one of the major episodes of the State of Israel-in-the-making and played a significant role in the formation of the collective memory of the Israelis. In the period between the War of Independence and the Six-Day War, the Community of Memory of the sons of Kfar Etzion nurtured the myth of Gush Etzion of which, according to one of the women concerned, "the prevailing tone was one of remembering the past and hoping for its restoration." 1 Poet Haim Guri used the loaded term the "myth of return" to reflect on the saga of Kfar Etzion. 2

In more than fifty years of Israel's existence, the politics of memory has probably not known any achievement more impressive than that of a small group of skullcap-wearers, the sons of Kfar Etzion. The orphans and widows of the 240 fighters who fell at Kfar Etzion had an extraordinarily developed consciousness of memory and sense of national mission. They consistently practiced a politics of memory for nineteen years, in the period from 1948 to 1967. For the majority of Israelis, the commemorative activities of the sons of Gush Etzion created a common Israeli past that became a central element enjoying wide consensus in the general national consciousness. 3

The myth of the fall of Kfar Etzion in 1948 exemplifies the view of Ernest Renan that "defeat and mourning have greater importance for the national memory than victories because they produce a feeling of indebtedness and give rise to co-operation." 4 Until 1967, the realms of memory connected with Gush Etzion were secular and "Israeli" in character, connected to the war of independence. The return of the sons to their parents' settlements after the Six-Day War gave added meaning to the two components of the memory of Gush Etzion: time and place. The time—1967—became a "rectification" of 1948, while the place—Kfar Etzion—became a symbol of the Israeli-Jewish right of return. The Kfar Etzion Community of Memory, [End Page 145] in a conscious, political fashion, exploited 1948 for the benefit of 1967 and the State of Israel for the benefit of the Land of Israel. The uses of memory made Kfar Etzion into a microcosm of the land of Israel, Jewish history, and the Zionist revolution. The exile from this "small place" and the return to it exemplified in the most concrete manner the exile from and return to the "large" place and time. 5

In this article, I shall first demonstrate how the narrative of the settlement of Kfar Etzion was deflected from the "secular time" of the War of Independence and the State of Israel to the "Messianic time" of Gush Emunim ("the birth of the Messiah in our region") 6 and the biblical place, the birthplace of the nation, and I shall examine the political factors that favored this change of ethos. Second, I shall also examine the inter-generational relationship and the commemorative practices that linked the past catastrophe with the future resurrection. Third, I shall follow the stages in the development of the politics of memory of the sons of Kfar Etzion by studying episodes in their parents' settlement and defense of the place, the construction of the Community of Memory previous to 1967, the sanctification of the space of the "lone tree" and the nurturing of the "myth of return," the drawing of political analogies with the Akedah [the sacrifice of Isaac], the Maccabees, Masada, the Holocaust, and Tel-Hai as a form of political myth-making or a way of fusing historical time and mythical time. 7 Finally, I shall end with an examination of various aspects of the Kfar Etzion politics of memory.

The Community of Memory adopted forms and abandoned them in accordance with changing interests and circumstances, and with a free...


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