Excerpts from “The Invention of the Jewish People”
National mythology determined that the Jews—banished, deported or fugitive emigrants—were driven into a long and dolorous exile, causing them to wander over lands and seas to the far corners of the earth until the advent of Zionism prompted them to turn around and return en masse to their orphaned homeland. This homeland had never belonged to the Arab conquerors, hence the claim of the people without a land to the land without a people.
This national statement, which was simplified into a useful and popular slogan for the Zionist movement, was entirely the product of an imaginary history grown around the idea of the exile. Although most of the professional historians knew there had never been a forcible uprooting of the Jewish people, they permitted the Christian myth that had been taken up by Jewish tradition to be paraded freely in the public and educational venues of the national memory, making no attempt to rebut it. They even encouraged it indirectly, knowing that only this myth would provide moral legitimacy to the settlement of the “exiled nation” in a country inhabited by others.
History deals with books, not with things, a “patriotic” scholar might argue, having spent his or her entire life interpreting religious, governmental and ideological texts produced in the past by a paper-thin elite. This is true where the traditional study of the past is concerned. But the advent of anthropological history began, slowly but surely, to corrode the simplistic Zionist metahistories.
The construction of a new body of knowledge always bears a direct connection with the national ideology in which it operates. Historical insights that diverge from the narrative laid down at the inception of the nation can be accepted only when consternation about their implications is abated. This can happen when the current collective identity begins to be taken for granted and ceases to be something that anxiously and nostalgically clings to a mythical past, when identity becomes the basis for living and not its purpose—that is when historiographic change can take place. For now, it is difficult to predict whether the Israeli politics of identity will permit, in the early twenty-first century, the emergence of fresh paradigms for the investigation of the origins and history of Jewish faith communities.
No Jew who lives today in a liberal Western democracy would tolerate the discrimination and exclusion experienced by the Palestino-Israelis, who live in a state that proclaims it is not theirs. But Zionist supporters among the Jews around the world, like most Israelis, are quite unconcerned, or do not wish to know, that the “Jewish state,” because of its undemocratic laws, could never have been part of the European Union or one of Americas fifty states. This flawed reality does not stop them from expressing solidarity with Israel, and even regarding it as their reserve home. Not that this solidarity impels them to abandon their national homelands and emigrate to Israel. And why should they, seeing that they are not subjected to daily discrimination and alienation of the kind that Palestino-Israelis experience daily in their native country?
To understand current Zionist politics, replace the word “aliyah” with “diaspora.” Today Israel’s strength no longer depends on demographic increase, but rather on retaining the loyalty of overseas Jewish organizations and communities. It would be a serious setback for Israel if all the pro-Zionist lobbies were to immigrate en masse to the Holy Land. It is much more useful for them to remain close to the centers of power and communications in the Western world—and indeed they prefer to remain in the rich, liberal, comfortable “diaspora.”
But if it is senseless to expect the Jewish Israelis to dismantle their own state, the least that can be demanded of them is to stop reserving it for themselves as a polity that segregates, excludes, and discriminates against a large number of its citizens, whom it views as undesirable aliens.
The Jewish supra-identity must be thoroughly transformed and must adapt to the lively cultural reality it dominates. It will have to undergo a process of Israelization, open to all citizens. It is too late to make Israel into a uniform, homogeneous nation-state. Therefore, in addition to an Israelization that welcomes the “other,” it must develop a policy of democratic multiculturalism—similar to that of the United Kingdom or the Netherlands—that grants the Palestino-Israelis not only complete equality but also a genuine and firm autonomy. Their culture and institutions must be preserved and nurtured at the same time as they are brought into the centers of power of the hegemonic Israeli culture. Palestino-Israeli children should have access, if they wish it, to the heart of Israeli social and productive centers. And Jewish-Israeli children must be made aware that they are living in a state in which there are many “others.”
And now the last, perhaps the hardest, question of them all: To what extent is Jewish Israeli society willing to discard the deeply embedded image of the “chosen people,” and to cease isolating itself in the name of a fanciful history or dubious biology and excluding the “other” from its midst?
In the final account, if it was possible to have changed the historical imaginary so profoundly, why not put forth a similarly lavish effort of the imagination to create a different tomorrow? If the nation’s history was mainly a dream, why not begin to dream its future afresh, before it becomes a nightmare?