Zionism’s Many “Returns”

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Jimmy Johnson

The Returns of Zionism:
Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel
By Gabriel Piterberg
Verso, 2008, 298 pages, $29.95, paper.

ZIONIST HISTORIANS — LIKE their counterparts in Australia, South Africa, the United States and other settler societies — hold the dispossession of the Palestinian people to be extraneous to their general history, rather than the integral part that it is. Studying Israel’s foundational myths and historiography through the lens of comparative settler colonialism allows Gabriel Piterberg to keep the Palestinian half of the relational history ever present.

Piterberg provides, in the introduction to his terrific The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel, an important formulation for his investigation: “Since the themes of this study are things like a foundational myth, literary imagination or historical consciousness, that is, constructed abstractions, it is intellectually untenable to argue that current or past scholarly writing on these themes stands outside of them (i.e. is ‘secondary’ whereas the abstractions are somehow ‘primary’); that would also result in collusion with the reification of hegemony.” (xiii)

Returns is so compelling a work in large part because of the disciplined critical eye Piterberg keeps, and his refusal to cooperate with hegemonic or oppressive myths that compose the social and historiographical constructs of Zionism.

In settler states, he writes, “the interaction with the dispossessed is the history of who the settlers collectively are.” (57) Chapters 2-7 of Returns examine the Zionist historiography that ignores the relational history by which Israel and Israelis are inextricably intertwined with that of Palestine and Palestinians.

Zionism and its Opponents

Piterberg explores in the first chapter differences within late-19th century European Jewish nationalist and emancipatory thought, through contrasting the works and efforts of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl and anarchist Dreyfusard Bernard Lazare in their respective publications of works titled “The New Ghetto” in November, 1894. Herzl and Lazare found differing ways to work with and against the lower-rung “otherness” status of European Jews.

Piterberg describes the colonial outlook in Herzl and identifies the philosophy produced — one that permeates both Zionist history and the Zionist historiography — as that of the Sovereign Settler, a particularist nationalism more in tune with that of European Protestant nations than the exilic history of the dominant Jewish narratives. Lazare’s politics of universalism versus Herzl’s particularism are the start of Piterberg’s definition of Lazare as a Conscious Pariah (more on which below).

Lazare — after a spin around the block with territorial Zionism — rejected the existing Zionist movement, writing to Herzl: “You are bourgeois in your thought, bourgeois in your feelings, bourgeois in your ideas and bourgeois in your conception of society.” (10) Subtlety was apparently not needed in the conversation.

Lazare shared the Zionist critique of Jewish assimilation in European states. Even granting the doubtful proposition that Europeans would see fit to fully accept  “ex-Jews,” this kind of assimilation would have been tantamount to collaboration with anti-Semitism and the elimination of European Jewry. But he also rejected the Zionists’ idea that Jewish emancipation came with their removal from Europe and forming a separate territorial nation state.

Instead Lazare — like the Bundists — “fought for the Jewish cause as a national revolutionary movement that was simultaneously particular and universal.” (11)

This setting is one of many throughout the text that is useful for contemporary analysis not only of Israel and Zionism, but minority communities — Jewish or otherwise — in other lands.

For example, structural anti-Semitism is now all but absent in the United States yet anti-Semitic bigotry remains common. Over approximately the past four decades essentially all U.S. Ashkenazim (Jews of European ancestry) — and significant parts of the Sephardi (Iberian) and Mizrachi (“Eastern,” predominantly Arab Jewish) communities — have lived free of significant concerns about anti-Semitic policies, rules, and structures of society.

Yet the “otherness” of American Jews remains. U.S. Jews have gained “whiteness,” a kind of assimilation, but not full peer status, as the commonplace usage of “Jew” as a verb (to persuade one to lower the price of something) and the occasional instance of anti-Semitic violence (though almost never coming from persons in or positions of power) demonstrate.

Lazare’s answer to this problem was the same as Hannah Arendt’s. Piterberg finds, by the time Arendt had finished her manuscript for Rahel Varnhagen — a text he examines with great insight in laying out his thesis — that she “had become a rebellious pariah: politically conscious and active she vehemently rejected assimilation in and of itself as a condition for emancipation, and she insisted that, because her humanity, dignity and citizenship were threatened as a Jew, she would fight to thwart the threat as a Jew, not just as a universal individual.” (24)

This defines the “particular and universal” emancipation that Lazare, Arendt (and Piterberg) seek both as Jews, but also as agents of social change. Piterberg quotes Arendt to this effect, “As soon as the pariah enters the arena of politics, and translates his status into political terms, he becomes perforce a rebel.” (18) This is Piterberg’s Conscious Pariah.

Pariah vs. Sovereign Settler

Piterberg contrasts the Conscious Pariah with Herzl’s Sovereign Settler, a rigidly particularist outlook neglecting a universal ethic. Herzl saw emancipation as assimilation, but not the assimilation of Jews into European societies and nations. Like all Zionists he rejected this. His solution instead was for Jews to assimilate into the European community of nations as a territorial nation-state of the European Jews. Piterberg notes the irony here as “an inversion of the famous line of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi …: ‘My heart is in the East while I’m at the far end of the West’.” (248)

The Sovereign Settler’s line is dominant in Israeli discourse today. Part of its success has been in the formation of a coherent — if largely fictitious — national narrative. The fundamental element in this is the shelilat ha-galut, negation of exile, by which the modern Israeli state traces its genealogy directly from the ancient monarchies of kings David and Solomon. The period of galut (exile) in between the Roman Empire crushing the Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 136 AD and the establishment of the first Zionist colony in Palestine in 1882 is rendered as a historical pause, and any historical importance given to activities during this time relates to preparations for the Return to the Land of Israel and thus, the Jewish return to history.

[Editor’s note: The fictional quality of the Jewish “national narrative” is the subject of Shlomo Sand’s study The Invention of the Jewish People, previously reviewed in Against the Current (#146, May-June 2010).]

Piterberg examines the importance of the constructed narrative of Jewish history in Zionism and Israel as a settler state, but in doing so leaves out an important dynamic element in Israeli society: the non-European Jews. Though he mentions it briefly in passing, the dominance of the Zionist Ashkenazi narrative has with considerable success negated not only the exilic histories of those European Jews that became Zionists (as well as those who perished in the Nazi genocide or migrated elsewhere), but also the varied and rich histories of those Israeli Jews who largely did not migrate to Israel as Zionists, the Mizrachim (Arab Jews), Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) and others.

Here Zionism’s hegemony extends to negating the histories not just of Palestinians in Palestine, but even of non-Zionist Palestinian Jews residing there prior to the arrival of the Zionists, not to mention the Egyptian Jews of Alexandria, the Temanim of Yemen and others. But in a survey as broad as Returns this seems like quibbling. Even if unexamined in the text, Piterberg offers framework for the re-historicizing of anti- and non-Zionist Jews.

He challenges historian Anita Shapira’s Zionist critique of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in which Shapira finds faults supposedly caused by Arendt’s exilic mentality. Piterberg notes that Shapira marks “the contrast between ‘here’ [Israel] and ‘there’ [everywhere else]. … Hannah Arendt, one of the most outstanding intellectuals of the world destroyed by the Nazis, who fled to Paris literally from under the noses of the Gestapo, and from Paris … to New York in the wake of the Nazi invasion of France, is from ‘there.’ She was incapable, in Shapira’s absurd judgment, of sensing the Jewish experience because she was from ‘there,’ as if ‘there’ was not where the Holocaust had occurred, and as if the world that had collapsed ‘there’ was not Arendt’s.” (149)

The Zionist/Antisemitic/Masculinist Dialectic

Part of the shelilat ha-galut is the wholesale rejection of the validity of Jewish experience in the so-called diaspora. Piterberg comments on how this overlaps with anti-Semitic ideas. It brings about an interesting question that pops up every now and again, especially in the more recent histories written about early Zionism: Is Zionism anti-Semitic or perhaps, what about Zionism is anti-Semitic?

Piterberg quotes Carl Schorske in showing how well Zionism jibed with European anti-Semitism during the genesis of modern versions of both: “Several features of Herzl’s attitude as he approached his moment of conversion [to Zionism in the mid-1890s] betray his deep kinship with [anti-Semitic public figures] Shönerer and Lueger: his rejection of rational politics, and his commitment to a noble, aristocratic leadership style with a strong taste for the grand gesture. Another tie linking him to his enemies, even though he drew different conclusions from it, was his distaste for the Jews.” (31)

In discussing this connection Piterberg finds that “Zionism’s various ‘returns,’ to Palestine, to the Old Testament, to history, to normality, did not and indeed could not immanently spring from an organic Jewish history, whether in its linear or dialectical rendering. Rather, the ‘returns’ can, and should, be located at the intersection of Protestantism, colonialism and anti-Semitism.” (257)

This brings us back to the point about Herzl’s desire to create a Jewish European, territorial nation-state. More than anything else, Herzl’s vision can be encaspulated as the desire to be a Prussian Junker. And Zionism as it actually developed, despite all the debates about socialism and Marxism that developed in the dominant parties through its first 80 years, reflects this. Zionism has built a colonial, European state.

Returns gets a lot of strength from the ambitious depth and breadth of Piterberg’s survey. He looks at Zionist literature, history, historiography, political writings and personal letters and diaries from key figures both known, like Herzl and Ben Gurion, and lesser known like Chaim Arlosoroff (who, to me, was little more the name of someone who was assassinated long ago and, more importantly, provided the name of a street I used to take to the beach in Tel Aviv). He challenges the historicity of Zionist accounts of biblical Judea and Israel using recent archaeological texts and biblical scholarship.

Piterberg explores the intersection of Zionism, masculinity and anti-Semitism to thought-provoking effect, finding that “Herzl sought to acquire, at least in a literary way, the Mensur, the scar incurred in a duel and a masculine sign inscribed on the body, one that would erase the scar of circumcision.” (More quibbling: the duel is the Mensur; the scar is a Renommierschmiss). The scar, however, was not to be borne by Herzl himself but rather, as Piterberg quotes Daniel Boyarin, “carried on the body of Palestine and the body of Palestinians.” (35, 36)

The Poison of Separation

Perhaps most important is Piterberg’s challenging the gdar ha-hafrada that liberal Zionists especially try to build around Zionism to separate Israeli and Palestinian history. Piterberg does not use the term gdar ha-hafrada — literally: the separation barrier, the Hebrew term for Israel’s barrier built around and throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem — but Israel’s physical barrier only forms part of the construct of national separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Liberal Zionists consider the dispossession and dislocation of the Palestinian people (importantly though, not the dispossession of Palestine itself) as “an extrinsic aberration or corruption of something essentially good.” (56) Looking at Zionism through G. M. Fredrickson’s 1981 comparative study of white supremacy in the United States and South Africa, Piterberg notes: “The history of white supremacy throughout Fredickson’s oeurve is not a trajectory within the larger American or South African histories; in a very consequential way the history of white supremacy is the history of these settler societies.” (57)

He follows this with Patrick Wolfe’s study of settler colonialism, quoting Wolfe to great effect: “Settler colonies were (are) premised on the elimination of the native societies. … The colonizers come to stay — invasion is a structure not an event.” (61)

In other words, Palestinian dispossession is to a very important degree, Israeli history. This is reflected in the homa umigdal (wall and tower) architecture of Zionist settlements built during the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt as much as in the political structures built that create Jewish privilege in Israel today.

While there will doubtlessly be a number of quibbles any particular reader could make about so ambitious and critical a text, the one notable flaw is that it is constantly overwritten. This is not through over-explanation per se, but due to unwieldy sentences that can obscure Piterberg’s ideas. He frequently uses 100 words where 75 would do just fine.

While the book itself is often illuminating, the text makes for a difficult read and one likely impenetrable for those without a keen interest in the subject matter. (Then again I might just be projecting my own frustration at having a difficult time with a challenging and highly enlightening text.)

This review analyzes just a portion of the book, leaving out Piterberg’s inquiry into David Ben Gurion’s use of the Bible, the construction of the Zionist historiography and much more. Most unfortunately perhaps, I’ve left out the current trajectory of the Conscious Pariah that Piterberg traces (and certainly with this work, joins).

Suffice to say, a critical engagement of The Returns of Zionism — sure to be a key reference for studies of Zionist thought as well a model for future enquiries into broader studies of nationalism and colonialism — is time well spent not only for academics, but for organizers and activists seeking a critical and constructive engagement with identity politics.

For my own part, the first thing I did after finishing the book was to take apart most of the Jewish section of my own library, leaving only the religious and a few other texts. The rest I put back into the other sections, Europe, North Africa, North America and elsewhere — but still in our own little section within these realms. As best I can tell, that’s part of the point of Piterberg’s excellent work.

ATC 152, May-June 2011