A “post-mortem” on Israeli challenges to Zionism

For many people in the United States, Ilan Pappe’s 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine was a major revelation. It changed the discourse from the Israeli occupation of 1967 to the occupation of 1948, when Zionist paramilitaries conquered 78 percent of historic Palestine.

The Zionist narrative — heroic post-Holocaust Jewish people establishing a safe refuge for Jews all over the world while Palestinian Arabs voluntarily left their homes, expecting to return on the heels of victorious Arab armies — was so dominant that few Americans questioned it. Generations grew up with this and many other foundational myths that obscured the reality of Israel’s birth and the nature of the state which Zionism created.

For Palestinians who recognized the colonialism inherent in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and who experienced the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1947-48, these myths never needed to be demolished. Nevertheless, they suffered under those myths and could even be identified as terrorists for opposing them.

Early Israeli textbooks depicted 1948 as virtually a divine miracle, though as Pappe points out in his latest book, The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (Verso), this foundational myth has an “internal paradox” because “if the Palestinians fled without fighting, then what was so heroic about 1948?”

The Idea of Israel traces how segments of Israeli society and academia eventually came to grips with their country’s history. This is a process beginning with early anti-Zionists on the Marxist left, through the emergence of a new generation of demythologizing Israeli historians, to a period Pappe describes as post-Zionist, ending in what he says is the present-day neo-Zionist reality.

Mood, not movement

Post-Zionism, which involved a widening critique of Zionism from many academic perspectives, including the disciplines of sociology, literary and art criticism, philosophy and political science, did not last long, roughly from 1993 to 2001, according to Pappe, who describes it as a “mood,” rather than a movement.

“Classical Zionism was the ideology to which successive governments in Israel, both left and right, subscribed until 1993,” he writes. “Thereafter for a short period, at least until [Israeli prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 and possibly until 1999, there was an attempt at a more liberal, possibly even a post-Zionist, approach. Ever since, and until today, a neo-Zionist policy has taken its place.”


Pappe describes his book as a “post-mortem” on post-Zionism. He ends it with a critique of its successor, neo-Zionism, which acknowledges the Nakba but attempts to justify it as necessary for the creation of a Jewish state.

For readers unfamiliar with these trends in Jewish Israeli society and academic life, The Idea of Israel is an extremely useful survey. It’s also an examination of how officially sanctioned histories are usually written to serve an ideology and prop up the powerful. Even when the truth is told, it’s surrounded by a litany of justifications meant to undermine an appraisal of root causes.

Pappe credits the early anti-Zionists of the leftist organization Matzpen in the 1960s with being among the first to call for abolishing the Zionist character of the Israeli state and creating instead a “national federal-socialist state.” Allied with the Palestinian guerrilla organization the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Matzpen consisted mostly of Jews from the rural kibbutz movement and urban Palestinians.

The French Marxist Maxime Rodinson influenced many on the Israeli left with his critique of Israel as a typical Western-style settler-colonial state. The Israeli sociologists Baruch Kimmerling and Gershon Shafir elaborated on Rodinson’s analysis with Kimmerling describing Zionism as a merger of British colonialism and Jewish nationalism and Shafir noting the affinities between the kibbutz movement and white colonial plantations in South America and the Caribbean.


Following this period, the “new” Israeli historians, of which Pappe was a prominent member, published their examinations of declassified government documents regarding Israel’s birth. So revelatory were those documents that the Israeli government has since reclassified many of them, particularly those released in 1998 detailing the expulsions and atrocities committed by Zionist paramilitaries.

For Pappe, the Palestinians’ “voluntary flight” was the most important of the myths demolished by the new historians. But he also notes many others, nearly all of which were first exposed within Israel by the journalist Simha Flapan in his 1987 book The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, which still bears reading today.

The short-lived post-Zionist moment in Israel was one of hope, Pappe maintains. During that period, ideas that previously had been taboo in Israeli society suddenly became open for discussion.

Post-Zionism seemingly probed every aspect of Israeli society and history. Even “the entire idea of Israel was questioned,” he writes.

An ever-broadening critique of Zionism in Israeli academia included examinations of Zionist collaboration with Nazi Germany prior to the Second World War, the misuse of Holocaust memory, and the mistreatment of Mizrahi or Arab Jews, including the shocking discovery of the kidnapping of Jewish Yemeni infants for adoption by European or Ashkenazi Jews.

Divorced from struggle

Why did the post-Zionist moment end? Pappe attributes it to several factors, including the failure of the Oslo accords and in particular, the Camp David summit of 2000, the outbreak of the second intifada and the Israeli government’s propaganda efforts to blame the Palestinians for these events.

But how deep could the post-Zionist critique have been if its adherents crumbled in the face of these events and a calculated government propaganda campaign? Pappe suggests that the failure may reside in the very nature of an academia divorced from mass struggle: “Post-Zionism may have been a bonbon tasted by Israel’s chattering classes, most of whom shunned activism of any kind and disappeared from the ranks of advocates and supporters with the first potential risk to their own career, and perhaps also their own life,” he writes.

What replaced it is neo-Zionism, which is notable mostly for the fact that it no longer attempts to hide the atrocities of the past but rather justifies them as necessary.

Pappe identifies, in particular, the neo-Zionist historians Benny Morris and Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, and the liberal Zionist journalist Ari Shavit, for failing to bring any moral outrage to the facts of Israeli history, as the new historians mostly did. Instead, these and other neo-Zionists embrace war crimes as necessary to the creation of a Jewish state.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.




Am in the middle of this book and consider it to be one of the most important, informative and complex reads. It is way ahead of the day to day discussions on Israel.