Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
post-zionism Arrow vol 2 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 2 number 3, 2003


The Challenge of Post-Zionism

Ephraim Nimni
University of New South Wales


1. Post-Zionism is a term of hope, but also of abuse in contemporary Israeli politics, and it looms large in debates about the aims, character and future of the Israeli state. The debate about the importance or triviality of post- Zionism is iconoclastic, comprehensive, bitter, subversive of cherished beliefs, collective memories and emotions, and not lacking in vilification and ad hominem attacks. For example, under a spurious allegation of unprofessional behaviour, there was an attempt to dismiss one of our contributors, Professor Ilan Pappe, from Haifa University, one of the best-known advocates of post-Zionism. (For the background to the case see: John Pilger’s column in The New Statesman, 3 June 2002, pp. 11-12). As Neri Livneh argued in an interesting series of articles on Post Zionism in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (Post Zionism only rings once, Ha’aretz September 22, 2001) "…the fact is that Pappe and others (post-Zionists) have the effect of unsettling ideological rivals, both in and out of academia, and making them take a hostile attitude not only toward different opinions, but also toward those who espouse them". (Livneh 2001) It has recently spilled over to the Jewish diaspora and to pro-Israel lobbying organisations outside Israel, some of whom have, in response, launched unprecedentedly strong criticisms of Israeli dissidents and supporters of post-Zionism. (Socrates 2001) Ms Limor Livnat, the Education Minister in the Sharon government, decided to ban from schools a ninth-grade history textbook, A World of Changes, because she considers it ‘post-Zionist’ and insufficiently patriotic. All school copies of the book were shredded. Livnat argues that from her position in the Education ministry she intends to embark on a crusade to return post-Zionist thought ‘to its rightful place’. (Goldenberg 2001; Livnat 2001)

2. Considering that self-declared ‘post-Zionists’ are a small (and some say dwindling) minority in Israel, it is astonishing that this debate has created such an acrimonious controversy. The continuing heat of this controversy is a clear indication that the debate is not about a trivial matter of policy, and not even about a significant change in ideological direction, but about a crucial reassessment of the status and character of the Israeli polity. While the term post-Zionism is itself far from consensual or clear among its users and detractors, and while this vagueness generates an interpretive ambiguity that sometimes borders on confusion, the debate around post-Zionism paradoxically tackles, with unusual clarity and vigour, the tensions and difficulties in the question whether Israel should be a Jewish or a democratic state, and the actual and potential contradictions in pursuing these two goals at once. In doing so, the debate undermines and denounces what it calls soziologia meguyeset, sociology (and by extension, political science) drafted into providing intellectual and academic support to the official narrative of the Zionist movement. While the Zionist movement has some unusual characteristics in the well rehearsed pattern of development of nationalist movements, namely dedicated organic intellectuals that act as a transmission belt of its hegemonic ideology (Gramsci, 1976), it has also shown a most remarkable ability to cover its own weaknesses by recourse to hasbarah, a sophisticated mechanism of lobbying and public relations capable of mobilising significant sections of the Jewish intelligentsia in the service of the nationalist cause at home and abroad.

3. Post-Zionists do not simply assert that Israelis are a specific and sui generis type of Jewish community; most secular Zionists do not dispute that. Neither do they merely claim that Israel operates with a different set of political norms from the ones practised by diaspora Jews. That, too, seems to be obvious. The controversial claim at the heart of post-Zionist arguments is that Israel should develop a type of civic identity and an institutional framework oriented to the universal values of liberal democracy. No ethnicity must be ontologically or institutionally privileged over any other. This is the claim that Zionists reject, arguing, on the contrary, that Israel is a Jewish (ethnic) State that came into being to resolve the national abnormality of the Jewish people, and that it will lose its existential goal and raison d’être if it abandons this mission. Post-Zionists respond to this argument by challenging their opponents to show how this goal can be made compatible with liberal democracy, and contend that, sooner rather than later, Israel must choose whether to be democratic or to be Jewish, as, they claim, it cannot be both. In reply, Zionists concede that Jews will have a privileged position in a Jewish state, but argue that this state can nevertheless be democratic and fair to its ethnic minorities.

4. Secular Zionists further argue that the Jewish state does and must make concessions to the national rights of its Arab minority. The standard Zionist objection to post-Zionism is therefore that all nation-states have an ethnic component to their national identity and that the Zionist movement’s goal is to ‘normalize’ the Jewish people so that they too have a state in which to invest their ethnic identity. The rejoinder of post-Zionists to this objection is that while most nineteenth-century democratic nation-states had a distinguishable ethnic element in their national identity and that, moreover, the circumstances that led to the creation of Zionism in nineteenth century Europe dramatically illustrate the incapacity of territorially dispersed minorities to partake in the ethos and identity of these nation-states, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, with the emergence of multiculturalism and the politics of recognition (Taylor 1994), the demand and clamour is to rectify this glaring and conspicuous injustice.

5. In this regard, post- Zionists contend that most liberal democracies have moved considerably towards more ‘civic’ and ‘post-national’ forms of state identity, and that, notwithstanding the debacle of former Yugoslavia, multi-ethnic states are the norm rather than the exception (Couture Nielsen and Seymour 1996; Connolly 1996; Kuzio 2001). Jews and Israelis should know from their own history that attempts to create nation-states from multi-ethnic societies are usually conflict-ridden or worse. In these circumstances, and because of the impossibility of reconciling the existence of an ethnic state in a multicultural society with liberal democracy, post-Zionists argue that the choice for Israel is between a neo-Zionist, messianic ethnocracy and a post-Zionist liberal democracy (Yiftachel 1998). It can also be plausibly argued that post- Zionism finds its intellectual roots in the devaluation of the role that ethnic and national identities play in the reform of the state in Western liberal democracies ( Kymlicka and C. Straehle 1999; Tempelman 1999; Nimni 1999). But even if this is the case, the post-Zionist debate addresses issues of identity and policy that are endogenous to the Israeli state, such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and Israel’s relation to the Jewish diaspora. (Gordis 1995) Without breaking with Zionist premises, Gordis castigates Zionism’s inability to come to terms with the affirmative character of Jewish Diaspora relationships by understanding the unwillingness of Western Diaspora Jews to emigrate to Israel as shlilat hamedinah (negation of the {Jewish} state). Gordis claims that this feeds directly from the Zionist shlilat hagolah, the Zionist negation of the legitimacy of Jewish Diaspora life (see p. 208).

6. As argued earlier, the debate sometimes appears vague and confusing to the uninitiated reader. Definitions of post-Zionism are hard to find, and when they appear they are often not consensual. Supporters and detractors attribute to it different and sometimes conflicting meanings. Chaim Waxman (1997) identifies three contrasting contributions to the term. The first is the anti-colonial argument sustained by old radical ‘anti-Zionist’ groups in Israel. The second results from a generational change in Israeli universities, as the generation of the ‘founding fathers’ retires and a new more ‘eclectic’ generation takes over. The third contribution results from an ‘a-Zionist’ interrogation of fundamental questions of Jewish nationalism, Judaism and ethnicity – questions that, according to Waxman, accompanied the Zionist enterprise from its origins. From a different perspective and opposing point of view, detractors use ‘post-Zionism’ simply as a term of abuse that encompasses any critique of Zionism that is not to their liking. (Tamir 2002) None of the above is, however, fully satisfactory, for none can account for the wider use of the term beyond the limited audiences identified in Waxman’s categories. The widespread use of the term indicates that the phenomenon goes beyond these limited audiences. From a different perspective, Kevin Avruch (1998) differentiates between a descriptive and normative use of ‘post- Zionism’, but this again raises fundamental epistemological questions as to the relation between descriptive and normative categories.

7. As argued earlier, one influential ingredient in the development of the post-Zionist paradigm is the devaluation of the role that nationhood and ethnicity play in the analysis of the nation-state in Western liberal democracies. This influence does not, however, come from the debate on multiculturalism and the politics of recognition initiated by Charles Taylor, but from a more economic-oriented and macro-social approach related to the process of globalisation. While the politics of recognition (Taylor 1994) aims at recognising cultural and ethnic diversity as a key ingredient in the transformation of nation-states into multi-nation states, the ‘postnational’ argument (Soysal 1994) devalues and underplays ethnic diversity into more ‘civic’ forms of state identity, and pushes towards more civic, non-ethnic forms of citizenship. The argument here is that the cohesive identity of the nation-state is being subverted and diluted by massive transformations that result from that broad process fashionably called ‘globalisation’.

8. In this equation, the emergence of post-Zionism results from the impact of globalisation on the parochial Israeli scene. It is one important manifestation of the transformation of Zionism from an ethnically homogeneous nation-state project into a more heterogeneous, post-modern civic and liberal democratic project. If globalising changes subvert the relationship between territory, community and membership, then a ‘liberal’ post- Zionist tendency emerges to give voice and expression to these momentous changes. The collectivist–voluntarist ethos of Israeli society is transformed by the values of post-modern capitalism into a more individualistically oriented, hedonist consumer society. According to this view, this process acts as an important catalyst for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a recent work, Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled have put forward the argument that globalisation and economic liberalisation have gradually transformed Israel from a warlike welfare society to one oriented towards peace and private profit (Shafir and Peled 2002). The slogans ‘peace and privatisation’, ‘peace and profits’ and ‘peace and prosperity’ express the idea that globalisation and peace are causally connected. (Ram 2000) In light of the events that resulted in the Al Aqsa intifada, and the policies of the Bush Administration in the US, this explanation seems implausible. However, the suggestion that post-Zionism becomes the ideological expression of cosmopolitan elites, while ‘neo-Zionism’ becomes the reaction of those left behind by the changes impelled by neo-liberal policies, has merit and requires further discussion.

9. Perhaps a more hopeful line of enquiry is to reflect on the origin of post-Zionism as part of a major transitional period in Israeli social sciences, and tentatively, in the wider Israeli society. In the last decade or so, there was a considerable shift in paradigms influencing Israeli academia, and this shift provided the intellectual backdrop for the development of post-Zionism. (Ram 1995) One of the most important consequences of this rupture or epistemological break (Balibar 1978) was a noticeable move away from a conceptual paradigm designed to sustain intellectually the Zionist enterprise. A new generation of researchers and scholars felt that their commitment to academic research and argument was more important than sustaining Zionist truisms at all costs; they took a more distant and openly critical view of the established ‘truths’ of Zionism and a more detached and balanced view of its intellectual role, even if, as individuals, they were unwilling to break with Zionism in toto. Perhaps one of the finest products of this shift of paradigms, and one that accounts in its main arguments for this significant break with the older style of Israeli social analysis, is Baruch Kimmerling’s recent discussion of the demise of the hegemony of secular Zionism and its profound impact in contemporary Israeli politics. (Kimmerling 2001) As Kimmerling argues in what will no doubt become a seminal work on Israeli society at the threshold of the twenty-first century, collective memory is considered in Israel to be objective history.

10. In such a reified atmosphere of continuous and pervasive devotional imagining of history, historical arguments are not only the subject of interrogation and debate within ivory towers. They crucially and inevitably become powerful ideological and political weapons to be used as markers of the collective not only in domestic debates, but more crucially in external struggles such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the conquest of the hearts and minds of Diaspora Jews. They are also consensus builders for loyal citizens. (Silberstein 1999) If hasbarah is a crucial element in the Zionist endeavour, appealing and consensual historical arguments sanctioned by the high priests of Israeli academia must be deployed to legitimise the enterprise. When in the last decade and half, a group of historians, sociologists, and political scientists attempted to challenge crucial tenets of this incontestable history-as- memory, it became clear to the guardians of the status quo that the argument was not only about a new interpretation of history. The argument was, in their view, moving towards a new subversive genealogy of Israel as a colonial-settler state and thereby undermining its legitimacy and raison d’être. These so-called ‘new historians’, as they were pejoratively branded by their opponents, attempted from a diversity of perspectives, in a string of publications in some the most prestigious publishing houses in the English reading world, to challenge and question some of the grounding myths of the official Israeli history-as-memory. (See Flapan 1987; Morris 1987, 1999; Pappé 1992, 1999; Shalev 1992; Sternhell 1998; Shlaim 2000, 2001; For a critical view see Karsh 1997)

11. While prominent ‘new historians’ such as Benny Morris and Zeev Sternhell do not challenge the ideological premises of Zionism, nor the inevitability of the Zionist settlement given the European Jewish condition in the first part of the twentieth century, their well-documented criticism of the official Israeli history-as-memory certainly weakens the premises of Zionist historiography in favour of a more balanced and detached interpretation of the Zionist settlement in Palestine. It is in particular the partial and hesitant Israeli discovery of the ‘nakba’ through the works of the ‘new historians’, and the inevitable parallels with visions of Jewish displacement that the Israeli discovery of the nakba evokes, that the umbilical cord that nourishes post-Zionist arguments for civic equality between Jews and Arabs comes into being. While the ‘new historians’ are not exactly forerunners of post-Zionism – because other factors such as the emergence of multiculturalism and the contemporary challenge to the idea of the nation-state are weighty ingredients in the post-Zionist problematic – there is no doubt that the redefinition of Israeli–Palestinian history advanced by the ‘new historians’ has significant and immediate impact in the reconceptualisation of contemporary and future Israeli– Palestinian relations.

12. In much the same way, the intifada in its different stages is not only a challenge to Zionist ideology and the supremacy of an ethnic state, but also more generally to Western conceptions of the nation-state (Boyarin 1992), and, in particular, the unreasonable linkage between state, sovereignty, territory and nation. Here the inability of the Israeli state to come to terms with the Palestinian question is one further example, although a more violent, extreme and salient one, of the general difficulty of the nation-state to come to terms with multi-ethnic populations. In this way, post-Zionism turns the Zionist problematic of Jewish displacement on its head by questioning the point of departure of Zionism: that security for persecuted minorities can be provided only by nation-states in which these minorities become majorities. The challenge of post-Zionism subverts this foundational Zionist axiom. The Jewish nation-state is no longer an adequate solution for the security of displaced Jews. At the outset of the twenty-first century, Jews qua Jews are more physically endangered in Israel than in any other part of the world. The issue becomes a macabre irony the conversation between the noted liberal political philosopher Professor Yael Tamir and Thomas Friedman, a syndicated journalist of the New York Times. According to Friedman:

Israel's former absorption minister, Yuli Tamir, told me this story: After a recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which three Israelis were killed, a friend called to ask her whether her teenage daughter was safe because the suicide bomb had gone off next to a youth group office her daughter frequented. ''I told my friend: 'Thank God, she's safe. She's in Auschwitz,' '' Yuli said. Yuli's daughter was in Poland at the time visiting the Nazi death camp with her youth group, but the irony of her words of relief was not lost on her. (Friedman 2002)

13. International observers, justifiably impatient with the continuous and unending Israeli–Palestinian tragedy, find post-Zionism wanting in terms of the prescriptive recommendations that result from its analysis. While confusing post-Zionists with ‘new historians’, Perry Anderson claims that the emergence of post-Zionist scholarship and of the small sector of post- Zionist public opinion is the most welcome development in recent years, and he recognizes the outstanding intellectual achievements of Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Gershon Shafir, Baruch Kimmerling, Tom Segev and others. However, Anderson claims that the fearless research and uncompromising judgement that have been typical marks of their investigations of the past stop suddenly short of the present. He further argues that post- Zionism carries a mixture of courage and pusillanimity, and claims that most post-Zionists are analytical lions and prescriptive lambs. (Anderson 2001)

14. At a personal, ad hominem level, the accusation is reminiscent of old armchair new leftism, for, unlike most of their counterparts in the English-speaking world, these individuals are assiduous contributors to the mass media and public debate in Israel and are regularly vituperated and reviled for this. Besides, as the cases of Pappé and others show, it takes somewhat more courage to articulate and defend these arguments in Israeli universities and Israeli political and legal battles than at the University of California, Los Angeles. The general conceptual point is not, however, entirely wrong, and it shows a visible weakness in the post-Zionist paradigm. The argument is more convincingly discussed by Edward Said in his account of an encounter with ‘new historians’. (Said 1998)

15. In his description of a public meeting between himself and two other Palestinian intellectuals, Elie Sambar and Nur Masalha, and Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and Zeev Sternhell in Paris in 1998, he finds Pappé brilliant and iconoclastic, and shows considerable admiration for the findings of both Sternhell and Morris. He criticises his fellow Palestinians and Arabs for not paying sufficient attention to the way in which Morris (1987) provides meticulous and formidable evidence for the nakba and the destitution of Palestinians, and shows great admiration for Sternhell’s scholarly and equally meticulous demolition of the constitutive myths of socialist Zionism (Sternhell 1998), calling for the translation of these books into Arabic. Following on from the new historians’ demolition of the Zionist grand narrative about settlement in Palestine, Said argues that it is necessary for Palestinians to engage in a similar critical exploration of their own myths and national ideas, and urges fellow Arabs and Palestinians to do so. But Said expresses considerable surprise and consternation that, in view of their important findings, Morris and Sternhell both seem reluctant to draw conclusions from their own evidence and condemn the Zionist settlement of Palestine.

16. While, according to Said, Sternhell admits that a Jewish state could not have come into being without getting rid of Palestinians and has expressed that it was wrong to expel Palestinians, Said is puzzled by Sternhell’s claim that there was no other choice. In the case of Benny Morris, Said argues that, notwithstanding the evidence he so meticulously and painstakingly collected, Morris is still reluctant to draw the inevitable conclusions about Zionism that emerge from his own evidence. Said claims that a ‘profound contradiction bordering on schizophrenia’ informs the work of Sternhell and Morris. He then concludes that a change of perception can occur only in an atmosphere where intellectuals are freer to reflect and ponder on the unsettling realities of present-day Israel. The great virtue of the new historians and, by implication, of post-Zionism, is the discovery of the conceptual limits of the Zionist paradigm in ways that are not apparent to most Israelis and many Palestinians, and Said calls for a relentless, continuous Palestinian dialogue with post-Zionists and new historians. (Said 1998)

17. It is necessary to admit that the tensions and inconsistencies identified by Said and Anderson are present in the writings of most (but not all) post- Zionists. Post-Zionist inconsistencies must, as Said argues, be addressed in the confidence of honest Israeli–Palestinian dialogue and, equally, in Israeli reflection on the immorality of actions that resulted from the Zionist settlement in Palestine. But this reflection must be accompanied by an understanding of the complexity of the situation that led to the Zionist settlement in Palestine. It is also important to see how these questionable and disastrous actions were in part forced upon Palestinian Jews and some Jewish holocaust survivors by the cruel and cold logic of the model of the European nation-state. The Zionist argument that there was no place for Jews but in a Jewish state in Palestine may have been conceptually born out of the seductive influence of European nationalism and colonialism, but its concrete mass application resulted directly from the refusal of Western democracies to accept more Jews while there was still time. (Boyarin 1992) Without such refusal, the Zionist dream would have remained for ever in the realm of utopia. It is in this bi-directional, dialogical and reflective path that what Said calls the ‘schizophrenia’ of the post-Zionist transition can be progressively ameliorated.

18. However, it is in the very novelty of the post-Zionist paradigm that one can find an explanation for Said’s riddle. The model is still tentative and partly confused, even as it is iconoclastic and path-breaking. It is trapped in the defence of some Zionist principles while rejecting others, caught in what Gramsci (1976) calls ‘the throes of a dying social order and the birth pangs of a new one’. In the transitional situation, many forms of contradictory and discontinuous thought emerge. This dislocation and transition is not only ideological, but intellectual and demographic. Consider that Israel will be in the next decade the largest concentration of Jews in the world and in the next generation Israel will have the absolute majority of world Jews without the need for any further Jewish immigration. Paradoxically however, the non-Jewish component in the Israeli population is increasing, as significant number of migrants from the former Soviet Union is non-Jewish in accordance to the Israeli legal definition of who is a Jew. There are also a significant number of foreign workers. According to the Rappaport Centre for the Study of Assimilation at Bar Ilan University 28 % of Israelis are non Jewish in accordance with the Israeli legal definition. Old models no longer provide persuasive explanations of contemporary Israeli riddles and dilemmas (Weinberg 2002). Baruch Kimmerling shows this momentous transition in his account of the collapse of the old Ashkenazi, ‘socialist’, established, secular hegemony (encapsulated in the Hebrew acronym ‘ahuselim’, a term close to the US acronym WASP). (Kimmerling 2001b) Kimmerling (2001a) has also convincingly demonstrated, in his path-breaking book on Israeli society, that Israel has become a plural and multicultural society, contrary to the monoculturalism envisaged in the early Zionist dream.

19. In a recent fascinating study, Yehouda Shenhav discusses the official Zionist attempt to utilise the demands for restitution of Jewish refugees from the Arab world (Mizrahim) as a counter-claim to the Palestinian demand for compensation. These attempts, however, repeatedly backfired, precisely because Zionist discourse demands a common national Jewish identity, which limits the claim of a separate Arab-Jewish identity that could have given substance to the demands for an equal status with Palestinian refugees. Zionism perceived the Mizrahi ethnic discourse as an ‘intra-Jewish’ element, carefully circumscribed by the ‘pan-Jewish’ doctrine of Zionism. It continuously insisted on the acculturation of Arab Jews, but in the process the Mizrahim introduced an alienated, separate Arab-Jewish dimension into the Israeli collective, one that in recent years has made a more assertive definition of itself within Israeli society (Shenhav 2002). Likewise, the large community of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union seeks to participate in the Israeli political and social arena not as individuals, but as a distinct group that maintains a separate identity through the medium of the Russian language. (Al-Haj 2002)

20. These facts are not in themselves subversive of the Zionist identity of the state, for, as occurred in European liberal democracies, the plural, multicultural character of the society can remain submerged under the official nationalist ideology of one state under the tutelage of the official ethnicity. However, in much the same way as multiculturalism and the politics of difference – the ideologies that ascribe normative value to cultural diversity and demand the recognition of ethnic minorities in the public domain – undermine the certainties of the old European nationalisms that required cultural homogeneity for the nation-state, so the Israeli state is undergoing a similar process of uncovering the plural and multicultural cracks papered over by the doctrine of a monocultural nationalism (Zionism), which advocated as its main discursive motif the idea of a single Jewish nation returning to the land of its ancestors. In sharp contrast, Kimmerling argues that one of the most dramatic changes to have occurred in Israel is the evaporation of the image of a single unified society and the significant decline of a unique Israeli identity. He further identifies seven cultures and counter-cultures, which includes Israeli Arabs, while he acknowledges that none of these groups is homogeneous. This is complemented by a continuous subdivision of collective memory and nationalism into many conflicting versions. (Kimmerling 2001a: 1-2)

21. From the mounting evidence presented in a significant number of publications from a variety of perspectives, it is clear that significant changes are taking place in Israel, and that these changes cannot be accounted for by the traditional analytical tools and ideological frameworks that accompanied the development of Zionism. At the same time, diverse voices from sometimes conflicting perspectives and situations are attempting to account for these weighty changes with analytical and conceptual frameworks that are not compatible with the traditional Zionist model. The weight and diversity of evidence presented point toward paradigmatic and epistemological changes. However, as in the circumstances discussed by Said, the alternative models are not yet clear and the analysis in some cases remains paradoxical and indecisive. Scholars who have provided penetrating discussion and compelling evidence of these major paradigmatic changes remain unconvinced by, and, in many cases, hostile to, the idea of post-Zionism. Kimmerling, perhaps more than anyone else, has produced a brilliant tour de force in his account of the momentous changes taking place in Israel. Against his will, Kimmerling is often identified by supporters and detractors with the post-Zionist argument. He remains, however, a critic of the term:

Many contemporary observers have been so impressed by these rapid changes in the relative power of various groups within the Israeli state, and its transformation from a monocultural system to plurality, that they have proclaimed the start of a ‘post-Zionist era.’ This term is problematic and unhelpful, however, because such fashionable ‘endism’ is overloaded with strong negative or positive sentiments (depending on ideological bias) and lacks explanatory power. (Kimmerling 2001a: 7)

22. Yehouda Shenhav argued recently that ‘we have to stop using this category of post-Zionism because people invoke it confusingly’. (Quoted in Livneh 2001) Yet he is not only perceived as a ‘post-Zionist’ by detractors, but has convincingly shown the limitations, ambiguities and patronising attitude of Zionism towards Arab Jews in Israel.

23. Neri Livneh further quotes a debate that took place in the ‘Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow’ (Keshet Hademokratit Hamizrahit), an organisation that aims to show to the wider Israeli public the harm done to Arab Jews and Palestinians. The strongest opponent of post-Zionism argued that the organisation was ‘conducting a trenchant dialogue with Israeli society and trying to tell the history of Israeli society from the viewpoint of the Mizrahim, and not only as was customary in the past, from the point of view of male Ashkenazim. In my view, though, we are not post-Zionists because we are absolutely not people who want to dismantle the state’. (Livneh 2001)

24. It seems to me that it is precisely for the reasons indicated above that it is necessary to continue to use the term post-Zionism, while incorporating it into a democratic hegemonic project that will slowly infuse it with unambiguous meaning. In the transitional period that results from the shift in values taking place in Israel, the term post-Zionism is an ‘empty signifier’, a concept not characterised by density of meaning, but by an emptiness of content that allows supporters and detractors to articulate it easily into conflicting discourses (Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Stavrakakis 1999; Laclau 1996). In other words, ‘post-Zionism’ is an abstraction arising from a disparate set of antagonisms, and it has not yet anchored in any clear hegemonic project. It has been propelled to notoriety by discomfort with existing terminology (for example, the Zionist narrative cannot explain the proliferation of ethnicities in Israel), and by its abusive deployment by defenders of the old order as a term of invective, creating a purely negative chain of signification: post-Zionism (bad) is everything that is not Zionism (good). As Professor David Newman (2001: 14) explains:

There is a concerted campaign to completely discredit anyone who thinks differently about Israeli society – especially if these ideas touch upon contemporary Israel as a multicultural, civil society or the legitimacy of a Palestinian state – in short, anything which can be labeled as being ‘post- Zionist’ despite the fact that this term is nothing more than a bad piece of packaging for anyone who wants to think differently.

25. Some critics of the old order who are unable or unwilling to partake in a wider counter-hegemonic movement also use the term in a negative way. These people use the term to signify the specificity of their demands and to signal an indifference to wider issues (for example, ‘we wish only to advance the position of Mizrahim and not to address the Palestinian question; this is why we are not post-Zionists’). In the hegemonic tussle that ensues from the transitional period, the task is to provide the term with the explanatory power it currently lacks by articulating a set of clear alternatives to the Zionist paradigm, and attempting to mobilise the various constituencies disaffected by the old order. Consequently, the best way to dispel the confused usage of the term is to engage in a vigorous debate over the issues that such confusion continuously suggests are problematic (democracy, Palestinian Israelis, Arab Jews, multiculturalism, and the role of ethnicity in public life), and to try in this way to create chains of signification that will supplant the term’s negative use while anchoring the argument in a more general emancipatory project. (Saul Newman 2001: 173–4)

26. In the present Israeli circumstances, it is perhaps the debate on multiculturalism that is the most promising. Until recently, the topic has been hardly touched upon in Israel, but the visibility of the problem goes well beyond the issue of Palestinian Israeli citizens. It also relates to the visibility of Mizrahim and Russian immigrants, all of whom are demanding some kind of collective recognition that is ultimately incompatible with the boundaries of Zionism. But the idea of civic nationhood also has its dangers and paradoxes (Kuzio 2002), often returning ethnicity by the back door as a disguised state criterion. A serious and comprehensive debate on multiculturalism and democratic community rights (Gagnon and Tully 2001; Nimni 1999) will protect post-Zionism from the seductive and self-defeating danger of defining the identity of the state in purely unitary national–civic or secular terms. No unitary nation-state identity can be purely secular or ‘non-ethnic’. If post-Zionism insists on advocating civic–secular nationalism, it will leave the door open to the two accusations identified by William Connolly (1999: 91): its identity will be empty because the civic image of the nation will be drained from the ‘thick’, palpably ‘Israeli’ cultural experiences that give it vitality, and it will be hypocritical because it will secretly draw sustenance from Israeli (ethnic) culture, or from what Kimmerling defines as the discredited ‘ahusel’ culture. The goal should be to build instead a multi-nation state with constitutionally enshrined collective rights for each constituent community.

27. However, the debate has hardly begun, and this book does not claim to provide a model for anchoring post-Zionist discourse. The aim here is more modest: it is to describe to the English-reading public the challenge that post-Zionist debate presents, from different and often contradictory perspectives, to the old Zionist order. The goal is to show the raw argument at source and the disagreement it generates from the perspective of Israeli radical and democratic politics. Some of the contributors are supporters of post-Zionism, some are critical, and some are ambivalent. Uri Ram argues that while almost the entire population of Jewish descent in Israel is Zionist, the boundaries of Zionism have been significantly transgressed between the 1970s and the 1990s by neo-Zionism and post-Zionism. Neo-Zionism is an exclusionary, messianic and fundamentalist movement that regards the land of Israel and the sacredness of the territory as its essential source of identity. From a diametrically opposite perspective, post-Zionism emerged among the middle classes of the coastal plains and it is more individualistically oriented, less concerned about historical myths and more committed to civil rights than to ethnic nationalism. Ram argues that both trends, neo-Zionism and post-Zionism, co-existed in an embryonic form in classical Zionism. The novelty is the accentuation of one dimension to the detriment of the other.

28. Ilan Pappé describes the clash between the three main ideological streams within Zionism. The leading stream, traditional Zionism, to which both Labour and Likud belong, is presented as the chief rationale behind government policy since the inception of the state. Neo-Zionism is an extreme interpretation of Zionism and is an uneasy alliance between orthodox rabbis and ultra-nationalist settlers, with the support of the spiritual leaders of the Mizrahi Jews. Post-Zionism is a Jewish phenomenon which, according to Pappé, is a transitional phase out of Zionism – but it is not clear into what, because it is necessary to define that future in a joint debate with Palestinians. Thus far, the neo-Zionists have the upper hand, but this can be changed by a bolder definition of objectives by those in the democratic camp, by the willingness of the Palestinian side to engage in open and sincere debate about a solution on a civic and democratic basis, and by the willingness of the US and its European allies to put pressure on the Israeli government.

29. Avishai Ehrlich contends that the Zionist project is still evolving, and that post-Zionism, as a liberal critique of Zionism, can be understood in parallel with socialist and orthodox religious critiques of Zionism. Post- Zionism appears at the end of the cold war in tandem with theories of globalisation, thus becoming the local Israeli version of globalisation. One of the consequences for the Middle East of the end of the cold war was the Oslo process. Here post-Zionists falsely believed that the Israeli– Palestinian conflict would be resolved mainly as a result of Israel’s greater integration into world markets. Contrary to this, Ehrlich argues that, as a result of the failure of the Oslo process, Israel will become more particularistic and oriented towards ‘political Judaism’ ( Jewish ‘fundamentalism’) to the detriment of secular Zionism.

30. As’ad Ghanem argues that the general positions held by both components of the Israeli population, the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority, are significantly different from the common civic identity expected in the post-Zionist context. Jews hold traditional Zionist values and Palestinians hold anti-Zionist positions, even if the two groups formally agree that they are citizens of the same state. This formal aspect of their existence has, in itself, no meaning for the development of a shared ‘Israeli’ identity, of the kind that exists in democratic countries. After discussing the findings of a survey carried out among Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel, Ghanem concludes that the distance between the two positions remains large, and it will require significant changes on the part of the ethnocentric majority to accommodate the Palestinian minority on an equal footing.

31. Ephraim Nimni looks at post-Zionism from the perspective of the Jewish diaspora, and argues that the post-Zionist debate in Israel will have a beneficial effect on the ethos, identity, and lifestyle of Jewish communities in the diaspora. Instead of devoting precious energies and resources to supporting the Israeli government in its conflict with the Palestinian people – a faraway conflict not connected to their immediate circumstances – Jewish communities should instead concentrate their efforts on building vibrant diaspora Jewish institutions and making a decisive contribution to the institutionalisation of multiculturalism, an essential condition for Jewish diasporic survival and continuity.

32. Hanna Herzog understands post-Zionism not as a break with Zionism nor as a form of anti-Zionism, but as a search for a more equitable society in Israel, much in the same way as post-modernity strives to correct and improve modernity. She further argues that it is important to differentiate between post-Zionism as a social condition and post-Zionism as a political demand. As a social condition, post-Zionism gave rise to a debate over the definition of social boundaries and the significance of the collective and the state. Post-Zionism as a political tool adopted two central ideas from the post-modernist discourse: the end of the grand narrative and the subversive logic of the genealogical argument. In confronting the dominant Zionist discourse, various viewpoints of the women’s problematic are making themselves heard. While the post-Zionist discourse does speak of a change in the place of the individual in relation to the collective, it is only feminist post-Zionist discourse that translates this abstract demand into a concrete language.

33. Following the theme of the challenge of gender and ethnicity to the dominant Zionist discourse, Henriette Dahan-Kalev presents a moving and heartfelt autobiographical account of the frustrations, pains and tribulations of a Mizrahi girl growing up in a society scornful of her background. This society saw her non-European background as a handicap and tried to acculturate her into dominant Ashkenazi values through its sexist idea of good looks. She concludes that her story is one primarily of oppression: of patriarchal, European, colonial, Western, Zionist oppression. Like many non-religious Mizrahim, she feels doubly alienated by the impossibility of a return to her roots, and by the steamroller that squashed everything in her outside the distorting Ashkenazi, Zionist, Israeli, European hegemony.

34. The reader will now be in a position to judge post-Zionism in its novelty, vagueness, promise, and contradiction. The issues raised by the challenge of post-Zionism will not fade away easily, and the key questions it raises for contemporary Israel will make sure it remains crucial to the future of the Israeli polity. Even if, at the time of writing, the violent repression of Palestinian society has reached levels of intensity not known in recent years, the issues raised by post-Zionism are not entirely absent from public debate. Dialogue with Palestinians will have to resume, preferably sooner rather than later, and opinion polls show that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians and Israelis think so. At that point the issues that such dialogue will inevitably address will reinvigorate the challenge of post- Zionism. In war or peace, the last word on post-Zionism has not been said.

Ephraim Nimni is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales, Australia and contributing editor of The Challenge of Post-Zionism: Alternatives to Israeli Fundamentalist Politics (London: Zed Books, 2003), which is reviewed in this issue by Ned Curthoys. His introduction to this volume is published with the kind permission of Zed Books. Email:


Anderson, P. (2001) ‘Scurrying towards Bethlehem’, in New Left Review, second series, no. 10, July–August, pp. 22–5.

Al-Haj, M. (2002) ‘Ethnic mobilization in an ethno-national state: the case of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union in Israel’, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, March, pp. 238–57.

Avruch K. (1998) ‘Political Judaism and the Post-Zionist Era’, in Judaism, vol. 47, no. 2, Spring, pp. 146–59.

Balibar, E. (1978) ‘From Bachelard to Althusser: The Concept of "Epistemological Break",’ in Economy and Society, vol. 7, no. 3, August, pp. 207–37.

Boyarin, J. (1992) Storm from Paradise, The Politics of Jewish Memory, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Couture, J. K. Nielsen, K. S. Seymour, S eds. (1996), "Introduction", Rethinking Nationalism, University of Calgary Press, 1996;

Connolly, W. E. (1996), ‘Pluralism, Multiculturalism and the Nation-State: Rethinking the Connections’, Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 53–73.

________ (1999) Why I am not a Secularist, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press,

Flapan, S. (1987) The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, New York, Pantheon

Friedman, T. L. (2002) ‘Reeling, But Ready’, New York Times, section 4, p. 15, 28 April.

Gagnon, A. and James Tully, J. eds. (2001) Multinational Democracies, with a foreword by Charles Taylor, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Goldenberg S. (2001), ‘Classwar’, Education Guardian, 31 July.

Gordis, D. M. (1995), ‘Toward a post-Zionist Model of Jewish Life’, in Raphael Patai and Emanuel Goldsmith (eds) (1995) Events and Movements in Modern Judaism, New York, Paragon House, pp. 197–218.

Gramsci, A. (1976), Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, Lawrence and Wishart, London.

Karsh. E. (1997) Fabricating Israeli History: The ‘New Historians’, London, Frank Cass.

Kimmerling, B. (2001) The Invention and Decline of Israeliness, Berkeley, University of California Press.

________ (2001b) Ketz shilton ha-Ahuselim (translated as ‘The End of Ashkenazi Hegemony’), Tel Aviv, Keter, [Hebrew].

Kuzio, T. (2001), ‘Nationalising states or Nation-Building? A Critical Review of the Theoretical Literature and Empirical Evidence’, in Nations and Nationalism, vol. 7 (20), April, pp. 135–54.

________ (2002) ‘The Myth of the Civic State: A Critical Survey of Hans Kohn’s Framework for Understanding Nationalism’, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 20–29 January.

Kymlicka W. and C. Straehle, C. (1999), ‘Cosmopolitanism, Nation-States and Minority Nationalism: A Critical Review of Recent Literature’, in the European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 1, April, pp. 65–88.

Laclau, E. (1996) ‘Why do empty signifiers matter to politics?’, in Emancipation(s), London, Verso.

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, London, Verso.

Livnat, N. (2001), ‘A World of Falsehood’, in Jerusalem Post, 19 March, p. 8.

Livneh, N. (2001),‘Post-Zionism only rings once’, Ha’aretz, 22 September.

Morris, B. (1987) The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Morris, B. (1999) Righteous Victims: a History of the Zionist–Arab Conflict, 1881–1999, New York, Knopf.

Newman, S. (2001) From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power, Lanham, Md., Lexington.

Newman, D. (2001) ‘Zionist McCarthyism’, Jerusalem Post, 14 March, p. 8.

Nimni, E. (1999), ‘Nationalist Multiculturalism in late Imperial Austria as a Critique of Contemporary Liberalism: the case of Bauer and Renner’, in the Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 4, no. 3, October, pp. 289–314.

Pappé, I. (1992) The Making of the Arab–Israeli Conflict, 1947–51, New York, St. Martin’s Press.

________ (1999) The Israel/Palestine Question, London and New York, Routledge.

Patai R. and Emanuel Goldsmith E. (eds) (1995), Events and Movements in Modern Judaism, New York, Paragon House.

Ram, U. (2000), ‘The Promised Land of Business Opportunities: Liberal Post-Zionism in the Glocal Age’, in Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled eds. The New Israel: Peace Making and Liberalization, Boulder, Colo., Westview.

________ (1995) The Changing Agenda of Israeli Sociology, New York, State University of New York Press.

Rogan E. and Avi Shlaim, A. (2001) The War for Palestine, Rewriting the History of 1948, with an afterword by Edward Said, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Said, E. (1998) ‘New History, Old Ideas’, in Al-Ahram weekly, 21–27 May.

Shafir, G. and Peled, Y. (2002) Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Shalev, M. (1992) Labour and The Political Economy In Israel, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Shenhav, Y. (2002) ‘Ethnicity and National Memory: The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJA) in the Context of the Palestinian National Struggle’, in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 27–56.

Shlaim, A. (2000) The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, New York, W.W. Norton.

Silberstein. L. J. (1999) The Postzionism Debates, London, Routledge.

Socrates, S. (2001), ‘Israel’s Academic Extremists’ in Middle East Quarterly, Fall.

Soysal, Y. (1994) Limits of citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Stavrakakis, Y. (1999) Lacan and the Political, London, Routledge.

Sternhell, Z. (1998) The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Tamir Y. (2002), ‘Divide the Land or Divide Democracy’, Ha’aretz, 14 May.

________ (1993), Liberal Nationalism, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, C (1994), ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in C. Taylor and Amy Guttman (eds), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton University Press.

Tempelman S. (1999), ‘Constructions of Cultural Identity: Multiculturalism and Exclusion’, in Political Studies, vol. 47, no. 1, March, pp. 17–31

Waxman C. (1997) ‘Critical Sociology and the end of Ideology in Israel’, in Israel Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 194–210.

Weinberg, D. (2002) ‘A Jewish State?’, Jerusalem Post, 23 June.

Yiftachel, O. (1998) ‘Nation-Building and the Division of Space: Ashkenazi Domination in the Israeli "Ethnocracy",’ in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 33–58.

© borderlands ejournal 2003 and Zed Books 2003


To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810