Israel's Critical Intellectuals on the Defensive

Is Post-Zionism passé? So it seems, as since the beginning of the second Intifada, Israel's critical intellectuals are forced onto the defensive, a situation political right-wingers profit from. By Joseph Croitoru

Is Post-Zionism passé? So it seems, as since the beginning of the second Intifada, Israel's critical intellectuals are forced onto the defensive, a situation political right-wingers profit from. Joseph Croitoru reports

photo: AP
As the powers of the critical left wane, anti-Palestinian resentment is on the rise

​​At the beginning of the 90's, there was a sense in Israel that a new era was dawning with the emergence of the then promising peace process. Today, the intellectual scene in the country is stagnating, and those once shining hopes now seem to belong to a very distant past.

Israel's academic establishment at the time witnessed the arrival of a new generation of historians and sociologists, who began to dismantle the myths surrounding the country's founding and the dogmas of Zionism with a scholarship based on a new political orientation.

At first, they were referred to rather neutrally as "new historians", yet, soon enough, this new school of thought became subsumed under the concept of "Post-Zionism", which in no way was meant to be a compliment, and, in many right-wing Israeli circles, is still regarded as a term of contempt.

The flag bearers of this new school of thought, historians such as Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe, and the sociologist Uri Ram, were branded by their opponents as traitors, because they had dared to critically examine Israeli history and, in particular, the relationship of Zionists to the Palestinians.

Bringing to light massacres of Palestinians

Benny Morris' studies on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem didn't only reveal the methodical nature of Israel's policy of expulsion in 1948, but also brought to light the resultant massacres of Palestinian civilians, which until then had been kept concealed.

The times have certainly changed. In recent years, Morris has steadily distanced himself from his previous critical position and has moved to the political right. Recently, he even said in an interview that the deliberate expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 had been, from a historical point of view, the correct decision. The Post-Zionist school has lost in Morris one of its important comrades-in-arms.

The Post-Zionists have increasingly found themselves on a defensive footing as a result of Israel's swing to the right over the past few years. More evidence of this comes in the form of a recently published English language anthology subtitled "Alternatives to Israel's Fundamentalist Policies", featuring contributions by the school's most important proponents.

They see the right spectrum of Israeli politics as having long since shifted to the center – and themselves pushed to the outer realms.

This has now reached such proportions that the Israeli left-wing liberal newspaper Haaretz felt bound to pose the question as to whether Post-Zionism, so highly esteemed outside of Israel, still has any relevance whatsoever to the intellectual life of the country.

Israeli critical thinking blown up by Palestinian bombs?

The historian Tom Segev, internationally known through his studies on Israeli history and current affairs, takes the view that Post-Zionism as an intellectual trend has, at the very least, been put on ice, if it hasn't already succumbed to a quiet death. He puts the blame firmly on the shoulders of the Palestinians.

He sees the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which has now been going on for more than three years, as having destroyed any hope of an equitable co-existence for Jews and Arabs. On the other hand, the historian Ilan Pappe is of the opinion that Post-Zionism's protagonists are themselves responsible for the present decline of the movement.

Most of those university lecturers who had expressed committed left-wing views during the previous Labor Party government have, over the last few years, vanished from the public eye out of fear for their positions – in other words, out of pure opportunism.

Ilan Pappe, who incidentally doesn't only consider himself to be a Post-Zionist, but also an anti-Zionist, is nonetheless convinced that sooner or later Post-Zionism will see a revival, because the people of Israel will one day become fed up with the political barbarism of the current regime.

Civil rights and democratic principles under threat

He views the Neo-Zionists, the opponents of Post-Zionism, as posing a new danger. In contrast to traditional Zionists, these people are far more ready to further strengthen the Jewish character of the state – at the expense of universal civil rights, multiculturalism, and democratic principles.

The Neo-Zionists are naturally pleased with the internal factional disputes within the Post-Zionist camp. The same goes for the Tel Aviv sociologist Moshe Lissak, who doesn't mince his words when he accuses the Post-Zionists of now being just as dogmatic as their erstwhile opponents, the Zionists from the time of the country's founding.

Meanwhile, Lissak is fostering a new generation of right-leaning students, who will no longer put up with the established Post-Zionism at Israeli universities and are prepared for a fight. According to Lissak, Post-Zionism, which began as critical scholarship, has since degenerated into an ideology.

This reproach, which is by no means new, serves as a sign that Post-Zionism still remains a vital force – even if the Israeli right would prefer to see it finally dead and buried.

Joseph Croitoru, © 2004

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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