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Reviewed by:
  • Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel, 1925-2005
  • Myron J. Aronoff (bio)
Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel, 1925-2005, by Nadav G. Shelef. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2010. 283 pages. $24.95.

Nadav Shelef has written an important book that makes a significant contribution to the study of nationalism in general and Israeli nationalism in particular (which this reviewer has studied for four decades). He convincingly demonstrates how "Changes in the basic understandings of the nation are the unguided by-products of attempts to solve mundane, local, political problems" (p. vii). By this he means inter-party and intra-party competition and alliance. When the tactical ideological positions are successful and become institutionalized, the "tactical" changes tend to become taken for granted as the (often unacknowledged) changed position. Shelef employs an original evolutionary conceptual framework in this meticulous reanalysis of the literature as well as impressive original archival research.

Three major Zionist movements — Labor, Religious, and Revisionist — are examined for changes in their positions on the appropriate borders of the "Homeland," the collective mission of their movements and the state, the status of Arabs and Diaspora Jews in Israeli national identity, and ongoing transformations of Israeli nationalism. The concluding chapter relates nationalism to the question of change.

Most readers will find particularly fascinating how all three movements have significantly contracted their visions of the appropriate boundaries of the Homeland. His explanations of how, when, and why these changes became the new reality for the respective movements are instructive in understanding the prospects for the current negotiations taking place between Israel and the Palestinians.

The choice of the cases is most appropriate. Labor (in various incarnations) was the dominant party in a dominant party system for nearly five decades beginning in the 1930s (prior to independence in 1948) and ending in 1977. The Likud (the latest incarnation of the Revisionists), while failing to establish dominance (due to changes [End Page 149] in the party system) when it replaced Labor as the key party in government, remains a major political force. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the party leader. Religious Zionism has historically been a major coalition partner of both of the aforementioned major parties and represents a significant constituency in Israel. His choice to focus on movements, rather than individuals or the national collectivity, is appropriate for testing the efficacy of different explanations for changing ideological positions. However, this is complicated by the multiple splits and mergers undergone by the political parties that emerged from these movements.

Shelef examines and tests two alternative explanations of change — rational adaptation and elite imposition — demonstrating that in a significant majority of the cases the evolutionary dynamic most convincingly accounted for the new positions. Of ten historical cases examined, eight were best explained by the evolutionary dynamic, only one by rational adaptation, and one by elite domination (the fascinating take over of the National Religious Party by the leadership of the Young Guard in the 1970s). Interestingly, two of the ongoing transformations taking place in Religious Zionism also appear to be best explained by elite imposition while the apparent ongoing transition on the appropriate borders of the state by Revisionist Zionism (i.e., the Likud) is best explained by the evolutionary dynamic. Clearly, these explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Shelef suggests how the evolutionary approach might explain past and current transformations of Palestinian and Turkish nationalism. He also ventures suggestive insights in how the approach might guide democratic states to cope with the rise of fundamentalist movements. Shelef cautions that "the multidimensionality of identity politics also suggests that even if democratic engagement leads to change in one ideological dimension, it is unlikely to do so in all of them ... the 'democratic cure' may have potentially severe side effects" (p. 207).

This book is sufficiently original to be profitably read by experts in the field. Yet, it is so clearly written and lacking in technical jargon that it would be appropriate reading for upper level undergraduate and graduate students. I would assign it to courses I teach on the politics of collective identity as well as courses dealing more directly with Israeli politics. I highly...


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pp. 149-150
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