Deconstructing Israeli mythology

July 24, 2017

Ilan Pappe's new book debunks the fictions perpetuated to justify Israel's existence and the continuation of a racist, colonial project, explains Daphna Thier.

PEOPLE OFTEN ask for a good primer on the history and politics of Israel, especially when they're grappling with a Zionist upbringing. Ten Myths About Israel is the best new option for anyone trying to separate historical truth from the myths in which the Zionist movement shrouds its project.

Ilan Pappe has been one of Israel's most internationally acclaimed anti-Zionist historians--or most infamous, depending on which side you're on. His extensive research on the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine has helped shed light on one of the biggest Zionist myths--that Israel's founding was an act of heroism.

At less than 200 pages, Ten Myths About Israel reads like a series of articles, but together, they cover the myths of the past, present and future of the Zionist occupation of Palestine.

Pappe is clear from the beginning--his intention isn't to be "balanced," but to arm activists with the truth. This book isn't just an historical account; it's a call to action.

THE FIRST myths he debunks are the oldest Zionist ideas--that Palestine was a "land without a people for a people without a land." Pappe argues against the equation of Zionism with Judaism, explaining that Zionism is actually a political movement to carry out a settler-colonial project.

A Palestinian child looks on at Israel's apartheid wall in the West Bank
A Palestinian child looks on at Israel's apartheid wall in the West Bank (Justin McIntosh | Wikimedia Commons)

He shows that Palestinians did not leave voluntarily in 1948, and that the Six Day War of 1967 was initiated by Israel for the purpose of colonizing the rest of Palestine.

He then moves on to the present, where he lays bare the truth about Israeli "democracy" with its second-class status for its Arab citizens, the siege of Gaza and the hollow promise of peace that the 1993 Oslo Accords really held.

Finally, he shows that the so-called two-state solution--an Israeli state and a viable Palestinian state existing alongside one another--is a non-starter. A democratic state and the right of return for Palestinians forced from their homes by Israeli colonization would be the only just solution.

Pappe starts out by debunking the notion that Palestinian nationalism was a response to Zionism. In truth, it predates Zionism, as did a "thriving Arab society--mostly Muslim, predominantly rural, but with vibrant urban centers." He bases his argument on the work of several scholars, whose research the Israeli foreign ministry chooses to ignore in its propaganda:

The land of Palestine was not empty when the first Zionist settlers arrived there in 1882. This fact was known to the Zionist leaders even before the first Jewish settlers arrived. A delegation sent to Palestine by the early Zionist organizations reported back to their colleagues: "the bride is beautiful but married to another man."

Yet Pappe tells us that Palestinians weren't resistant to Jewish immigration at first. They only began to resist when the Zionist movement sought to establish a Jewish-only economy that barred the employment of Palestinians alongside Jewish workers.

Pappe traces the origin of Zionist ideology to its foundation in Christian scripture.

The theological and religious upheavals of the reformation from the sixteenth century onwards produced a clear association, especially among Protestants, between the notion of the end of the millennium and the conversion of the Jews and their return to Palestine.

Sixteenth century clergy--and 17th and 18th century politicians and military brass, all the way up to Napoleon Bonaparte and John Adams--believed for religious or strategic purposes that Jews would be better off "returning" to their "homeland." There was also an "obvious link between these formative ideas of Zionism and a more longstanding anti-Semitism."

While this is fascinating history, we should be careful not to equate this with a lack of agency on the part of Zionist Jewish philosophers who theorized this national movement in the 19th century on their own accord. Moses Hess in the 1860s and Theodore Herzl in the 1880s, as well as a whole host of other Jewish writers and thinkers, held their own very anti-Semitic persuasions.

Lenni Brenner documented this history in his book Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, as did Nathan Weinstock in Zionism: False Messiah. Zionists blamed Jews for living "parasitically" off their "host," stipulating that only a return from exile would transform them from the sort of "pathetic," "neurotic" or "unhealthy" people they had become.

Brenner described a history of working-class movements that defended Jews in ways the Zionists never did. Zionists, in fact, collaborated with Nazis and other anti-Semites, with whom they shared a common goal--to encourage, cajole or otherwise engineer an exodus of Jews from Europe to Palestine in order to realize their colonial project.

PAPPE ARDENTLY criticizes the conflation of Zionism with Judaism. Contrary to the idea of Zionism as representative of all Jews, he illustrates how widespread Jewish opposition to Zionism was before 1948. Jews of the upper, middle and wealthy classes were disturbed by Herzl's call for Jewish sovereignty since "they had made immense progress in terms of emancipation and integration."

Meanwhile, the orthodox Jewish community rejected Zionism wholesale for "meddling with God's will."

"The great Hasidic German Rabbi of Dzikover summed up this approach bitterly when he said that Zionism asks him to replace centuries of Jewish wisdom and law for a rag, soil and a song (i.e., a flag, a land, and an anthem)," writes Pappe.

Finally, the socialist Bundists thought that "revolution would be a far better solution to the problems of the Jews in Europe than Zionism," he writes.

Pappe demonstrates how the secular Zionist leadership used the Jewish Bible as a pretext to claim a "scriptural right" to the land--"though they did not believe in God, He had nonetheless promised them Palestine," Pappe writes. Prior to Zionism, he continues:

the Bible was not taught as a singular text that carried any political or even national connotation...leading rabbis treated the political history contained in the Bible, and the idea of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel, as marginal topics in their spiritual world of learning. They were much more concerned, as indeed Judaism in general was, with the holy writing focusing on the relationship between believers, and in particular on their relations with God.

Challenging tradition, Zionists interpreted the bible as a story of a nation born in Palestine as an oppressed people, exiled and liberated through warfare.

PAPPE PROVIDES a clear historical overview of the 1948 and 1967 Israeli wars, describing the expulsion and genocide these campaigns were integral to.

Even before 1948, the Zionists aimed "to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians as possible," Pappe writes. He describes the broad consensus in the 1967 coalition government of all Zionist parties. They were determined to annex the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Most importantly, Pappe makes sharp and encompassing arguments that dismantle the myth of democracy in Israel.

He describes the military regime that controlled the lives of Palestinians in Israel before 1967 and the one that still dominates in the occupied territories today. And within Israel proper, he documents the denial of land and building permits to Palestinians, as well as the discriminatory division of social benefits and employment.

When he's finished, there's no way anyone could describe Israel as a land offering full civil rights to all its inhabitants. The denial of equal citizenship, says Pappe, is part of the ultimate goal of Zionists to maintain a Jewish state in Palestine, which in a country with so many Palestinians requires "non-democratic means."

Finally, taking up the realities of Gaza and the West Bank, Pappe exposes how the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution were always a tool meant to entrench Israeli occupation in all of historical Palestine. "The two-states solution," writes Pappe, "is like a corpse taken out in the morgue every now and then, dressed up nicely, and presented as a living thing."

When looking to the challenges of the future, Pappe makes his final point:

The funeral [of the two-state solution] should energize us all to follow the same distribution of labor as before. As urgently as ever, Palestinians need to solve the issue of representation. And the progressive Jewish forces in the world need to be more intensively recruited to the BDS and solidarity campaigns. In Palestine itself, the time has come to move the discourse of the one-state solution into political action...

Since the dispossession is everywhere, the repossession and reconciliation will have to occur everywhere. If the relationship between Jews and Palestinians is to be reframed on a just and democratic basis, then we can accept neither the old, buried map of the two-states solution nor its logic of partition...Once the two-states solution is buried, one major obstacle to a just peace in Israel and Palestine will have been removed.

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