- The Postzionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture
Laurence J. Silberstein, who teaches in the department of religion and is the director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University, has written an important and suggestive book on postzionism and the debates that have raged in contemporary Israel concerning the country’s history, collective memory, and legitimacy. Broadly speaking, [End Page 173] the crux of the matter is what to make of the Zionist experience and recent Israeli history. On one side are professional historians, artists, and intellectuals who greatly admire the Zionist legacy of Israel and view it as having crucial contemporary significance. On the other side are equally gifted Israelis who are much more critical of the Zionist discourse, which they accuse of obfuscating the past and blocking the promise of further advance. As in so many historical disputes—think of slavery, think of Vietnam—the life experiences of their generation and the point in history from which they view the overall story affected the perspectives of the parties to the controversy. In particular the rise of Israel in 1948 out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the seemingly miraculous victory in June 1967 transformed the landscapes of historical memory but did so in contrasting ways for historians and intellectuals taking the first or the second moment as their point of departure.
For the generation of Israeli intellectuals and artists who came of age after the Second World War, the establishment of the state of Israel against the backdrop of the Shoah and the collapse of Jewish life in Europe came to symbolize the rebirth of the Jewish people after its near destruction. In this light Zionism as a guiding worldview was a redemptive faith that made the near miracle of Israel possible. Defenders of Zionism like the writers Shabtai Teveth, Aaron Megged, and, recently, Yoram Hazony view it as a worldview that set off an unprecedented and far-reaching revolution in the diaspora. The best young Jews of Herzl’s generation and beyond rejected the political passivity of the rabbis and the assimilationist aspirations of the Jewish bourgeoisie and risked their lives, their property, and their sacred honor to forge a new, vital, Jewish identity in Palestine. The generation of the early Zionists and its children settled the land, revived Hebrew as a national language, founded the basic institutions of the Yishuv, struggled against the Arabs and the British to establish the state of Israel. Soon after, they fought off five Arab armies that tried to destroy the new state at its inception, and gathered in the exiles and refugees from the Shoah, the Middle East, and the rest of the world. In the process—for all their human frailties—the pioneers created a democratic polity, a dynamic culture and society, and a modern economy. Theirs was nearly an impossible task achieved against apparently insurmountable odds. Their legacy as well as their faith in Zionism, which is still relevant, needs to be honored, defended and protected against corrosive criticism by uninformed, naïve, or disloyal intellectuals whose carping is not only off the mark but is undermining Israel’s resolve at a still dangerous period in the country’s history.
For some Israelis whose point of departure is the Six Day War in June 1967, the heroic past of the pioneers and even the memory of the Shoah became eclipsed by a conception of an Israel transformed. The extraordinary victory and the seizure of the Sinai, the Golan, and especially the West Bank and Gaza created opportunities for an inner transformation of the country from a Jewish into an Israeli state, where Israeli Jews and Arabs could share in a common political, cultural, if not religious identity. From an [End Page 174] embattled ethnocracy, at war with its neighbors, suspicious of its Arab minority, politically the country would become a true civic or liberal democracy, while culturally it would become better integrated into the Arab Middle-East where it truly belonged. Such aspirations for an inner...