Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Triumph of “Narrative” over “History.”

Last week I attended a conference on Zionism at Brandeis University. It was an excellent conference populated by highly capable people all of whom had something to say and are worth listening to. There were lectures on the history of Zionism and its various expressions.  The essence of Zionism is a rather simple idea. It was a national movement designed for the care and feeding of Jews who had a history of displacement and discrimination. Zionism was about finding a home and reconstituting the Jewish people as a nation along with the promotion and development of Jewish culture, history, arts and literature. Zionism was a program designed to foster a transition from a dispersed and discriminated religious group to a coherent nation.

This basic idea and many of its ramifications received attention during the conference. But there was a dearth of papers and discussion about the changes in Zionism over the years. Some have argued that Zionism is over; the state of Israel was created and Zionism has successfully served its purpose. Moreover, there was little discussion about the degradation of the term Zionism. Jews and the Zionists have had the contradictory misfortune of benefiting by the movement toward nationhood and nationalism in the last century – a period of time when nationalism was on the ascendancy – along with the deconstruction of nationhood. Contemporary theorists such as Hobsbawm have argued that groups of people have invented history and invented traditions in order to serve their own purposes which are sometimes inconsistent with true nationhood. Of course, Benedict Anderson and his captivating phrase “imagined communities” has been at the center of the claim that traditions are invented. Zionists have been particularly subject to recent efforts to deconstruct historical traditions. Zionism began as a noble effort to find a homeland for a historic people but its enemies successfully degraded the term associating it with at one time or another with “racism” or “apartheid” or “colonialism.”

Two words that appear quite often in discussions of Zionism and issues related to national histories are “myth” and “narrative.” I’ve noticed an increase in use of these terms over time. Both of them imply a subjectivity and I think their increased use is due to academic and intellectual fears of talking about historical facts or truth. The postmodern sensibility that vaporizes “truth” and characterizes knowledge as having lost its moorings needs a new language to talk about historical events and their explanations. This new language includes “narratives” which have a subjectivity and truth coded into them. In other words, a member of one ethnic group or nation does not have a history they have a narrative. And narratives are rooted in individuals and subject to their individual distortions. Hence, one narrative becomes as good as the next if it is tied to an individual and a perception of reality, and there is no historical or evidence-based grounding for the claims of the narrative. The same is true for the word “myth.” The culture does not have events or occurrences in its history that are meaningful, the culture has “myths.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be understood as filtered through these lenses. The current intractable nature of the conflict is the result of the clash of “narratives.” And narratives are subjective and rooted in the beliefs of one group or collection of individuals. Because narratives are personal and assumed to be the “reality” of the individual or group they must be taken seriously. So a Palestinian can tell his or her story and it must be treated as truthful, real, and respectfully. The same is true for an Israeli Jew. His story must be treated as truthful, real, and respectfully. The two realities are incommensurate and share very little in common, they have almost no sense of overlapping historical evidence or truth, the two narratives are almost incapable of sharing facts or interpretations, but both must be considered “real!” The two sides cannot even narrate one another. The Israeli “war of independence” is a Palestinian “disaster.” This paradox goes directly to the heart of the conflict. The conflict is a consequence of contemporary sensibilities about truth and reality, and a form of political correctness, as much as it is about historical events.

So Zionism, which was so central to the redefinition of Jewish nationhood, is now an opaque and harsh term according to many that has degraded in significance. In the future I think there needs to be more discussion of how this happened and why. Finally, the argument that Zionism has successfully established the state of Israel is a defensible one, but now there needs to be room for some sort of new Zionism:  A Zionism that continues the tradition of developing Jewish nationhood but adapts to current political and geographic conditions. This sort of Zionism might include more attention to democracy, conflict resolution, and better ways to coexist in the neighborhood.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on February 20, 2013, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Israel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Triumph of “Narrative” over “History.”.

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