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Israel Studies 2.1 (1997) 228-237

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How Israeli Culture Was Constructed:
Memory, History and the Israeli Past

Alex Weingrod

State Cults: Celebrating Independence and Commemorating the Fallen in Israel, 1948-1956, Maoz Azaryahu, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press (Sede Boker Campus,)
The Masada Myth, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI,)
Recovered Roots, Yael Zerubavel , University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL,)

IS THERE A MORE POPULAR pair of terms in social science these days than "memory" and "history"? Probably not; they appear endlessly in the titles of books and articles written in elds such as history, sociology, anthropology, literary criticism, and among specialists in culture. History presumably refers to what is undeniably known about the past, whereas "collective memory" and "personal memory" emphasizes how the past is shaped or constructed in dierent ways by groups and individuals. This view undoubtedly appeals to our lingering post-modern sensibility: it leads us to see that there is no single truth, but rather varied interpretations that ultimately spring from power and interest. It represents the nal triumph of the "inverted commas."

Israel's short history has lately become a ercely contested scholarly eld. Historians and historically-minded sociologists argue about such topics as whether the pre-state Labor elites were visionary socialists or mainly interested in power; if during the s mass immigration from Middle Eastern countries the veteran Ashkenazi population assisted or exploited the ood of immigrants then pouring into Israel; and, not the least, whether the Jewish State's actions regarding its Arab minority and the Arab states in general was dictated by obvious defense needs or a kind of aggressive [End Page 228] nationalism. These are not minor issues, and the spirited debates have often disturbed cherished beliefs about the past.

Although related, these issues are dierent from those that emerge in the studies reviewed here: the problem is not the correct interpretation of what actually happened (did the Palestinians ee from Israel in, or were they thrown out?), but rather how events in the past are re-cast, re-interpreted, and then used in the present. The term "collective memory" commonly refers to aspects of tradition or culture—past events that in mysterious ways become sacred, legends and myths that are shaped about them, and the public rituals and commemorations that periodically draw people together to celebrate them. The past is therefore a vast resource that can be manipulated and exploited. The important point is that, according to this formulation, the present shapes the past: the interests and needs of the present—or, more bluntly, politics and ambition—mold and make use of the past in order to inuence the present. To be sure, the past may also limit and structure events taking place in the present, but studies of "memory and history" typically consider how new traditions are created and the past mobilized in the service of the present. In the specic case of Israeli culture, these topics are best illustrated by the thorny problem of how, if at all, to relate new secular national traditions to long-established Jewish religious thought and ritual. This theme runs through the three excellent studies that are reviewed here, as the authors show how "inventing traditions" (to use the historians Hobsbawm and Ranger's term) requires adopting older beliefs to a new agenda.

Maoz Azaryahu's State Cults: Celebrating Independence and Commemorating the Fallen in Israel, 1948 - 1956 (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, Sede Boker Campus,) is a detailed analysis in Hebrew of how two major new Israeli commemorations—Yom Atzmauth, Independence Day, and Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day—were literally created. Based primarily upon newspaper articles and archival research that documents meetings of the relevant government committees, Azaryahu shows how the state designed new rituals and sacred places in commemorations that were basically secular. As he tells the story, even before the War ended Israelis were already organizing local celebrations of their newly established independence. However, when the rst government was formed, committees were organized (mainly in the Prime Minister's Oce) and...


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