The Myths of Zionism

The Myths of Zionism

by John Rose

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Overview

Ancient, medieval and modern, this book is a critical account of the historical, political and cultural roots of Zionism.

Scrutinising the roots of the myths of Zionism and mobilising recent scholarship, John Rose shows how many of these stories, as with other mythologies, have no basis in fact. However, because Zionism is a living political force and these myths have been used to justify very real and political ends - namely, the expulsion and continuing persecution of the Palestinians. John Rose separates fact from fiction presenting a detailed analysis of their origins and development. This includes a challenge to Zionism's biblical claims using very recent and very startling Israeli archaeological conclusions.

This book shows clearly how Zionism makes many false claims on Jewish religion and history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783714087
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 09/20/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 522 KB

About the Author

John Rose teaches Sociology at Southwark College and London Metropolitan University.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

'The Bible is our Mandate'

When David Ben-Gurion warned the British authorities, via Lord Peel and the Royal Commission in 1936, that 'the Bible is our Mandate' (Ben-Gurion 1970: 107), the twentieth century's most famous Zionist politician, who would become Israel's first prime minister, was giving modern expression to an absolutely fundamental biblical myth, which lies at the core of Zionism. According to this Old Testament story, an ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, usually referred to as 'Ancient Israel', and sometimes called the United Monarchy of David and Solomon, is said to have existed from about 1000 to 922 BCE. The United Monarchy was allegedly the most powerful and prosperous state in the eastern Mediterranean at this time, exercising sovereignty from the Euphrates in Syria to the brook of Egypt (Wadi el-Arish) in northern Sinai.

These borders coincide with those of the promise God is said to have made to the Patriarch Abraham and recorded in Genesis, the opening chapter of the Bible.

The Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, 'And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.' (Genesis 17.8)

This is the basis for the notorious visionary geographical concept of Zionism, Eretz Israel, the land of Israel, the bedrock of Zionist ideology, a potent mixture of ancient Judaism and modern nationalism, which hails the promise to Abraham and claims the United Monarchy as its political expression and modern legitimating model for itself.

It is at this point that the reader needs to be alerted to a rather startling characteristic about Ben-Gurion, something he shared with many other Zionist leaders. Ben-Gurion did not particularly believe in this Bible story, or for that matter any other. What mattered, according to him, was that many Jews did believe it. That was enough. It did not matter whether the belief was true or not. Making sense of this strange belief system, symptomatic in general of the peculiarities inherent in Zionist ideology, will form the basis of the first half of this chapter. We will then consider something even more surprising: Zionists are great archaeologists. It is a national obsession and for over 100 years they have been excavating in Palestine in search of 'Ancient Israel'. On many occasions, false and over-excited announcements of its discovery have been proclaimed, only to collapse in the face of intense scientific scrutiny. Then, in the 1990s, the realisation began to dawn that it just might not be there ...

Some of Israel's more far-sighted archaeologists then realised that what scientists sometimes call a 'paradigm shift' was necessary. In other words, the taken-for-granted framework for understanding how to make sense of archaeological discovery was itself the problem. To put it bluntly, the Old Testament stories, far from providing guidelines for archaeological discovery, were proving to be obstacles.

The chapter concludes by looking at how archaeologists are coming to terms with what amounts to an intellectual revolution in thinking about ancient Palestine, and how they have found themselves inadvertently challenging the Zionist myth at the core of modern Israeli identity.

BEN-GURION: ZIONIST PIONEER ...

David Ben-Gurion, born in Plonsk, in Poland, in 1886, was part of a generation of young Jews in the Tsarist Russian Empire shocked by the scale and excesses of the pogroms, the anti-Semitic riots and murderous attacks on Jewish communities. (This period, including the young Ben-Gurion's political activism in Poland, is explored in detail in Chapter 6.) Some of these young Jews became Zionists and a few, including Ben-Gurion, went to live in Palestine. There were already a few established Zionist agricultural settlements in Palestine, which at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire (discussed in Chapter 5). On arrival in Palestine in 1906 Ben-Gurion went in search of the agricultural settlements which he was already describing as 'Hebrew republics' (Teveth 1987: 40). At the time there were about 55,000 Jews in Palestine out of a total of 700,000 inhabitants. Only a small minority of the Jews were working on the settlements. Ben-Gurion was soon to discover that, although these settlements were built on land which had been purchased from absentee Arab landlords, an understandably resentful peasantry which had been subsequently evicted often returned to make armed incursions. As early as 1909 we find Ben-Gurion, gun in hand, ready to defend an agricultural settlement in the Galilee (Teveth 1987: 64).

Ben-Gurion made his mark on Zionist politics in Palestine almost immediately. He was at the founding conference of the Poale Zion (the Palestine Social Democratic Hebrew Workers Party; its politics are discussed in Chapter 6), and in 1906 and he was elected to its central committee (Teveth 1987: 45). Poale Zion would go on to become the decisive force in Zionist politics for most of the twentieth century, and Ben-Gurion was to become its most charismatic and successful leader.

... AND MYTH-MAKER

In this chapter we are concerned with trying to understand Ben-Gurion's belief system. It provides an unparalleled insight into Zionist myth-making. Ben-Gurion explains it himself very well:

It is not important whether the story is a true record of an event or not. What is of importance is that this is what the Jews believed as far back as the period of the First Temple. (Pearlman 1965: 227)

A writer called Yizhar, who much later became part of Ben-Gurion's inner circle, has recently tried to defend the Zionist leader from the accusation that, by mixing fact with belief-in-a-fact, he was deliberately manipulating the truth in favour of consciously shaping myths to suit the political expediency of the Zionist enterprise. In short, Yizhar tries to square the circle between myth and truth:

Myth is no less a truth than history, but it is an additional truth, a different truth, a truth that resides alongside the truth; a non objective human truth, but a truth that makes its way to the historical truth. (Wistrich and Ohana 1995: 61)

This appears to be clever, perhaps even profound, writing, but it is deeply flawed. It is true that by persuading people to act, and if necessary to act violently, in response to myth, historical fact can be created. But this does not validate the myth by somehow injecting truth into it after the event. This, however, was Ben-Gurion's game. Intense belief in the myth made it a truth, or at least as good as a truth. This is demagogy and, in the early 1960s, it led to Ben-Gurion falling out with some of Israel's most prominent secular and religious intellectuals. The catalyst was the so-called Lavon Affair.

What concerns us here is not the Lavon Affair itself, but the unexpected way it not only put Ben-Gurion's integrity in question but also exposed the fragility of the ideological character of the Israeli State. The scandal rocked Israel

with tempestuous discord that sapped the young state's foundations, exposed Ben Gurion and Lavon to private and public travail ... and reduced the political arena to utter chaos. (Gilbert 1998: 296–7)

Ben-Gurion then faced a long showdown with many of Israel's more liberal intellectuals.

BEN-GURION AND THE MESSIAH

One of Ben-Gurion's most sensational uses of myth-making, one that would eventually so antagonise his critics, was his play on the messianic theme. At first sight this may seem preposterous. After all, Ben-Gurion denied the centrality of religion as an integrating force in modern Jewish nationalism (Keren 1983: 65) and was a great believer in science and rationality. However, with Ben-Gurion, nothing was that straightforward.

He has been described as a 'crude monist', rather than an atheist. This seems to mean that he believed in the enhanced spiritual powers of the human mind, 'The belief in the ability of the human mind stems from its identification with the universe it explores' (Keren 1983: 28), and allowed him a backdoor re-entry to religion when it suited him as well as the flexibility to reinterpret religion to fit in with modern political needs and their ideological justification.

In any event, his 'monism' allowed him his own 'messianic' aspirations, apparently available to human genius, with which he seems to have believed he was endowed. 'God or Nature', he wrote, 'endows the genius with sublime talents, not out of love for him, but from a desire to bestow upon the world sublime creations ... He brings into existence an intermediary ...' (Teveth 1987: 10). He saw himself as this intermediary and often employed the term 'Hazon Meshihi', 'Messianic Vision' (Wistrich and Ohana 1995: 62) in relation to the modern Jewish national movement in Palestine. He argued that there were three components to modern Jewish nationalism: the people's link to the homeland, the Hebrew language and, above all, the messianic link to redemption (Keren 1983: 65).

What was the meaning of Ben-Gurion's 'messianic vision' and its link to redemption? According to both Judaism and Christianity, God will send His representative, an intermediary, the Messiah, to earth in order to transform human society and redeem it of its sins. Redemption means 'renewal' or rebirth and is rooted in a vision of Holy Goodness for all humanity. In Judaism the Messiah has yet to arrive; in Christianity, Jesus Christ, the 'Son of God', was the Messiah and 'He' will return.

One of Ben-Gurion's harshest critics, the writer Avraham Avi-hai, has argued that Ben-Gurion stripped the concept of Messiah of its personification, a concept common to Judaism and Christianity. Ben-Gurion instead substitutes Zionism as a Messianic movement for the Messiah-as-Person. Hence the redemption of mankind is to be preceded by the redemption of the Jewish people, restored to their own land (Keren 1983: 65).

Ben-Gurion talked about the establishment of a model society which will become 'a light unto nations' (lifting the theme from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah), 'Through it will come universal redemption, the reign of righteousness and human brotherhood and the elimination of wickedness' (Keren 1983: 65). Ben-Gurion's statement here reads as though he is actually quoting Isaiah, but in fact what he is doing is using biblical language himself to justify the creation of the state of Israel, a device commonly employed by Zionists who describe themselves as non-believers.

Ben-Gurion often interlaced remarks like this with references to the Jews performing the noble task of settling the 'ancient homeland' as a necessary condition of universal redemption for all on account of the fact that they were, or at least could become, the 'chosen people' (according to the Bible, the Jews are God's 'chosen people'). One cannot but admire the sheer gall of the man. Ben-Gurion had usurped Christianity as well as Judaism. The Jewish people resettled in the ancient land, after 2,000 years, will be a sort of national collective Christ, providing a light unto all other nations of the world.

Yet a satirical edge quickly vanishes when it is realised how easily Ben-Gurion could slide his political messianism into place in support of Israel's political and military adventures. The messianic people could pursue aggressive and nationalist expansionist aims in Palestine and beyond, legitimately, because they alone were entitled to respond to an Old Testament script.

Thus he remembered Moses during the Suez Crisis of 1956, the blatantly imperialist military adventure when Israel joined Britain and France in trying to topple Egypt's leader, Colonel Nasser, who had nationalised the Suez Canal. According to Ben-Gurion, the thousands of Israeli soldiers involved in the battle of the Sinai desert between Egypt and Israel were likely to have been inspired by memories of how their Jewish ancestors had been led to Mount Sinai by Moses who had received the Ten Commandments from God:

this was no mere battle. The halo of Sinai and all the deep and mystical experiences associated with that name for thousands of years glowed over our soldiers' heads as if their parents were present at the Mount Sinai event. (Keren 1983: 69)

Biblical quotations peppered all of Ben-Gurion's speeches. Prophetic statements were incorporated into the political language, and his biblical heroes, even when they disagreed with God, pointed ominously to his contemporary attitudes. On one occasion Ben-Gurion praised Jeroboam II, a king of biblical Israel, who 'did evil in the eyes of the Lord', but who nevertheless enlarged his kingdom by capturing Damascus (Wistrich and Ohana 1995: 69).

BLASPHEMY! THE JEWISH RELIGION HELD 'MISTRESS OF SECULAR GOVERNMENT'

Two very accomplished Jewish religious philosophers, Martin Buber and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who called themselves Zionists, were nevertheless appalled at the way they saw Ben-Gurion manipulating the Jewish religion for narrow political ends.

Ben-Gurion had hijacked the spiritual concept of Zion, Buber argued, which should have no place in nationalist power politics:

Zion implies a memory, a demand, a mission. Zion is the foundation stone, the bedrock and basis of the Messianic edifice of humanity ...

Zion in its modern form was 'Quasi-Zionism' not 'True Zionism' ...

Quasi-Zionism is nothing more than one of the vulgar forms of nationalism in our day, one which recognizes no authority other than an imaginary national interest. (Keren 1983: 77)

Buber here is arguing that Ben-Gurion's nation-state had displaced the authority of God. At one point Buber explicitly accused Ben-Gurion of blasphemy. He argued that Ben-Gurion's secularisation 'keeps men from hearing the voice of the living God' (Keren 1983: 78).

Ben-Gurion could not dismiss Buber as a religious obscurantist. First, Buber was highly respected by believers and non-believers alike; second, Buber was keenly aware of the dilemmas facing Jewish politics in modern Palestine. By insisting that a Jewish State of the type that Ben-Gurion was defending was unacceptable to the teachings of a true Judaism, Buber was also making a statement about his humanistic brand of Judaic ethics. This was a humanist ethics incompatible with the oppression of another people. As Edward Said, Palestine's most prominent intellectual, has noted, this meant that Buber had to take a stand on what kind of modern political state should emerge in Palestine. Buber and several other Jewish humanists argued for a bi-national state (Said 2000: 314), where the Arab and Jewish communities would share power within a single constitution. For Buber it had the particular merit of unambiguously separating state politics from religion. This actually made Buber a more modern political thinker than Ben-Gurion, who deliberately cultivated the ambiguous mixing of Judaism and state politics.

Buber was a more modern political thinker and he certainly had a much more universalist vision. This became clear when the two men fell out over the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi and member of the SS, deeply implicated in the Holocaust and captured in Argentina by Israeli agents in 1960, and tried in Israel in 1961. Buber had wanted Eichmann tried at an international tribunal because his crimes were crimes against the human race as a whole. Ben-Gurion insisted that the trial should be held in Israel as a way, as Hannah Arendt observed (1963), of bolstering the legitimacy of the Jewish State.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, another religious philosopher and scientist, was also incensed by Ben-Gurion's use of political messianism. He was particularly outraged by Ben-Gurion's biblical justification of what Leibowitz described as 'an over-zealous reprisal' (Keren 1983: 82) when an Israeli army unit, led by Ariel Sharon, killed 50 Palestinian Arab civilians at the village of Kibya. Leibowitz was not afraid to use strong language. He denounced justifications of acts of statehood on grounds of religious ethics as 'a prostitution of the Jewish religion in the interest of national cannibalism and lust for power' (Keren 1983: 83). He accused Ben-Gurion of keeping religion 'a mistress of the secular government', and defined the State of Israel under Ben-Gurion as 'a secular brat known in public as religious' (Keren 1983: 84).

Leibowitz specifically challenged Ben-Gurion on the 'sacredness' of the land, the religious idea of the 'sacred' being used in a way 'for which it was not destined, with all the danger implied by this distorted use' (Keren 1983: 83).

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Myths of Zionism"
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Copyright © 2004 John Rose.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements Introduction 1. ‘The Bible is our Mandate’ 2. ‘The Distinguishing Characteristic of the Jews has been their Exile’ 3. ‘…Eighteen Centuries of Jewish Suffering’ 4. ‘Us’ Jews ‘Them’ Arabs: A Message from a Cairo synagogue, a thousand years ago 5. ‘A land without people ... 6. …for a people without land’ 7. Plucky Little Israel or Great Power Protégé?: Britain & the Zionist colony in Palestine 8. ‘The Nazi Holocaust proved the urgency for a Jewish State’ 9. Plucky Little Israel or Great Power Protégé?: How Israel Became a Strategic Asset for the United States 10. ‘Us Jews Them Arabs’: The Lost Jewish Arab symbiosis - in search of the ‘spark of hope in the past’ Conclusion ‘Out of the Ashes’ Bibliography Index

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