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Frontier Myths and Their Applications in America and Israel: A Transnational Perspective
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Israel Studies 5.1 (2000) 301-329

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Distinctions and Perspectives

Introduction

The frontier and planning are both likely topics for a "transnational history" that compares Israel with the United States and explores interactions between the two societies. The comparison of frontiers, in particular, is a modest but growing topic in the historiography of both countries. Claims that the frontier experience in America and in Israel is unique implies at least assumptions of difference. With Turner, the distinctiveness of America was initially asserted in reference to Europe. Successor students of the American frontier have been interested in comparisons with European colonization in South Africa, Australia, and Latin America. This discussion can be extended to the settlement of Palestine by European Jews.

Planning has also been the topic of a comparative discourse since mid-nineteenth century, when practitioners and students of American planning began to investigate how Europeans were coping with the development of urban/industrial societies. The genesis and diffusion of this transatlantic inquiry initially involved France, England, and the United States and then spread to include Germany. De Tocqueville was one of the initiators of this kind of analysis. It will be remembered that he was sent to America by a French scientific society to investigate prison reform, including issues of physical design. By mid-century, Americans, Englishmen and Frenchmen were actively engaged in studying each other to learn what might be valuable for understanding themselves and what could be applied to their own societies. They were particularly interested in observing how counterparts were coping with the physical and social pathologies they associated with the expanding industrial city. The first generation, from the 1830s through the 1850s, was particularly fascinated with issues related to epidemics and congestion. From mid-century through World War I, participants in this transatlantic discourse came to include a large number of housing and legal experts, philanthropists, and reformers concerned with understanding and correcting urban ills. At times this emerging discourse was limited to data collection and comparative analysis. But it also went beyond. Participants introduced historical perspectives to explain the behavior of different societies in the face of what they perceived to be common problems. With regard to understanding the United States, the experience of settling America's frontiers came to be viewed as a formative influence in shaping the nature of American society. This early transatlantic discourse might also be considered a forerunner of the kind of transnational history offered here.

The notion of a transnational history involving the United States and Israel may appear far-fetched. The differences in size of population, extent of land, period and conditions of founding and development, significance in world affairs, and other factors may suggest that there is little basis for comparison in Israel that may be relevant for Americans interested in enhancing an understanding of themselves. On the other hand, Israelis are constantly invited, and even obliged, to compare themselves with Americans and to consider what might be learned from the American experience.

The process of seeking outside models was, in fact, inherent in Zionism, the movement that sought to reestablish a Jewish national home in Palestine, since its creation at the end of the nineteenth century. Zionists, whether or not they actually settled in Palestine, projected on the country that which they admired in the societies of the home continent. Political, social, cultural, architectural, and aesthetic models rooted in the experience of both Western and Eastern Europe consciously shaped the organization of Jewish Palestine. Zionists came to "discover" America only after World War II and the Holocaust, when they turned their focus from a Europe that had bitterly disappointed them to the promise of the United States as the new model of a productive, benign, and enlightened society. Even before the war, American experts in social development attempted to export to the growing Jewish community in Palestine concepts and practices rooted in the special circumstances of the American frontier. More recently, Israelis themselves engaged in this exercise.

Inspection and evaluation have not been unidirectional. There are instances, although less frequent or intensive, where Americans have both criticized and admired Israel's frontier heritage and have employed their perceptions in affirming the strengths and...



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