The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge, by Pappé

VOL. 46


No. 1
P. 73
Recent Books
The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge, by Pappé

In his latest book, Ilan Pappé wrestles with the question: “Was the Israeli academy an ideological tool in the hands of Zionism or a bastion of free thoughts and speech?” (p. 2). Tracing the role played by Israeli academics as well as writers, public intellectuals, and filmmakers in creating, imagining, advancing, or challenging “the Idea of Israel,” Pappé provides a thorough survey of the Israeli field of historiography along with its educational and cultural extensions.


The first three chapters focus on the pillars of Zionist thought and the representations of the 1948 war in both academic and artistic texts. Chapters 4 and 5 explore the first generation of Israeli critics of Zionism from the 1960s and 1970s, while chapter 6 deals with the second wave of Israeli objectors and the emergence of post-Zionism in the 1990s. Chapter 7 centers on the manipulation of Holocaust memory within Israel and is followed by a chapter about Arab Jews and the Ashkenazi establishment. The final two chapters offer a postmortem of post-Zionism and outline the rise of what Pappé calls neo-Zionism in Israeli knowledge production. 


Unlike Pappé’s earlier books (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine being the most renowned), The Idea of Israel does not advance a new historical argument or engage with new archival documents. Rather, the book reads more like a textbook, in bringing together many examples, names, and anecdotes to form a coherent picture of the evolution of the main Israeli schools of thought and the leading cultural trends from 1948 to the present, namely Zionism, post-Zionism, and neo-Zionism. In this sense the book is likely to appeal primarily to readers who are less familiar with the ins and outs of Israeli academia and culture, but even those who are familiar are likely to find Pappé’s elegantly narrated account useful and stimulating.


With each phase of ideological development, a different (if related) configuration of imagination gives birth to new images through which the idea of Israel is articulated: from early Zionist portrayals of Zion as an empty land, through post-Zionist exposures of Israeli war crimes, to neo-Zionist justification of such crimes as politically necessary. Pappé spends much of the book highlighting the plurality of Israeli dissent, from the late 1960s until the year 2000, when he marks the death of the Israeli Left and the gloomy rise of neo-Zionism.


One of the most interesting chapters in this regard is dedicated to the important activities and writings of Matzpen, the anti-Zionist Jewish communist movement, and its offshoots. Matzpen was established in 1962, and by 1970 its members had splintered into three different anti-Zionist groups: the Workers’ Union, the Revolutionary Communist Alliance (RAC), and later the Red Front. However, members of these radical groups—like Maxim Ghilan, Akiva Orr, Oded Pilavsky, Moshe Machover, and Udi Adiv—either left Israel or were exiled after being accused of collaborations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other Palestinian groups.


As such, the critique of Zionism from within the Israeli academy and cultural circles did not last long. Emerging in the early 1970s and growing substantially in the early 1990s with the birth of Israel’s New Historians, this internal critique began to fade by the year 2000 and came to a complete standstill in 2002 with the outbreak of the second intifada. If “the 1990’s were a decade in which the entire idea of Israel was questioned” (p. 127), the next decade marked the birth of a “new consensual interpretation of Zionism” (p. 257). And by 2010, Pappé notes, there is hardly any trace of post-Zionism. Instead, Israel begins to pass apartheid-like legislation, of the kind it had not known in the past (p. 271). The first of such legislation was the Nakba Law of 2009. While it initially proposed the arrest of anyone who commemorated Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, lawmakers changed the law due to international pressure. Under the revised law, governmental funding would be permanently denied to any organization, school, or group commemorating the Nakba. Other laws that (indirectly or less so) targeted Israel’s Palestinian citizens followed: in 2011 the Israeli government amended the Citizenship Law of 1952, enabling it to revoke the citizenship of anyone suspected of terror or spying. The same year, the government passed a law allowing Jewish Israelis to ban Palestinian citizens from living in their communities on the basis of Palestinians’ “social suitability,” that is to say ethnicity (p. 273).


But why was the success of post-Zionism so short-lived? How could such a hopeful era and new vision be so rapidly abolished? One explanation provided by Pappé is that unlike the fundamental break between early Zionism and post-Zionism, the break between post-Zionism and neo-Zionism was, from “a purely factual standpoint,” hardly recognized (p. 277). In other words, the change from post-Zionism to neo-Zionism did not require a new understanding of reality in terms of historical narratives or facts. All that was required (and social and political pressure played a key role here), was a change in interpretation: what post-Zionists saw as abuse of human rights, war crimes, and manipulation of history, neo-Zionists viewed as normal and even justified actions. 


Pappé is critical of his Israeli colleagues, like Benny Morris and Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, who became, in his words, neo-Zionists, but he is not cynical. He depicts the conditions leading some of his colleagues in this unfavorable direction: the Oslo peace negotiations failed and with that failure much of the optimism that characterized the Israeli Left in the 1990s faded; the outbreak of the second intifada led to the spread of fear and mistrust throughout Israel, enabling the government and other right-wing forces to silence and threaten dissenting voices and unite Israeli Jews behind a “reinvigorated Zionist consensus” (p. 276).


The sudden flip-flop of so many post-Zionists, however, remains baffling:Whatmade themturn their back on their own ideas? What was it about the second intifada that brought about such a drastic right-wing turn among Israelis? Pappé’s final chapters grapple with these questions but they remain open and could benefit from further critical examination. All in all, while admittedly critical and pessimistic, the book provides an excellent overview of the Israeli field of knowledge production and its relationship to the making of (the idea of ) Israel.