Post-Zionism Is Dead or in a Deep Freeze

Dalia Shehori
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Dalia Shehori

The term "post-Zionism," argues Dr. Uri Ram, a senior lecturer in the University of Haifa Behavioral Science department, was first coined "and entered public discourse with dizzying speed" after the 1993 publication of a book that he edited, "Israeli Society: Critical Perspectives." The book was a collection of articles, including one by him that used the term post-Zionism in its text and subheadings.

Ram adds that he wrote the "editor's note" to the book on September 13, 1993, the day the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn. "And since there's a connection between the concept `post-Zionism' and its acceptance in public discourse, and the Oslo Accords, which provide hope for an end to the conflict, I think that September 13, 1993, is the symbolic and fitting date of birth, when the term burst into the public consciousness."

He says it is possible people used the term before then, "but it wasn't absorbed and didn't catch on as an intellectual stream until 1993." He will soon publish an article entitled "Post-Zionism at 10: Gone or Assimilated?" And next month, he will lecture on "Post-Zionism at 10: Preliminary Assessment," at a departmental seminar for the sociology and anthropology departments of Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Ilan Pappe, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa and the head of the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Studies there, agrees with the date and notes that at the time, he wrote a review of the book in Haaretz (January 28, 1994) which was titled, "Post-Zionist sociology." According to him, until that time, there was only talk of "the new historians" who focused on critical research into the events of 1948, but the book edited by Ram widened the net and showed that for some time academia and social science departments had been engaging in critical reviews not only of 1948, but also of other eras from the beginning of Zionism until the establishment of the state, and not just of political and military history, but also social and economic history.

"Since 1993, the Israeli universities have changed unrecognizably," says Pappe. "They became a wrestling arena. First, they were the domains of a single elitist group. Post-Zionism placed before them a counter-force with its own hegemony."

Prof. Moshe Lisk of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a recipient of the Israel Prize in Sociology in 1992, who is among the opponents of post-Zionism and its parallel in sociology - critical sociology - says the beginning of post-Zionism came two years earlier, with the appearance of the first issue of the journal "Theory and Criticism," which, he says, became the post-Zionists' bible.

Historian and journalist Dr. Tom Segev, one of the new historians, considers Uri Avnery the one who coined the term post-Zionism, years ago when he was the editor of Ha'olam Hazeh and encouraged new historical disclosures and the questioning of accepted historical truths. "Only a short-sighted sociologist can say that post-Zionism is 10 years old," says Segev. "Perhaps I might comment on this tendency to view history at the place where we started from. That's not the way. There were always people before us, and it didn't start with Uri Ram nor was the beginning ten years ago."

So perhaps post-Zionism is ten years old or perhaps it was around before and ten years ago it just came out of the closet. In any case, this is a small anniversary, an opportunity to ascertain whether post-Zionism exists and how it fares, and if it's gone, is this just temporary?

Perhaps it's the nature of post-Zionism that it says different things to different people. The article will focus on those who think that post-Zionism died or is in a deep freeze. The next will focus on those who believe it is alive and kicking.

Back to the womb

In his book, "The New Zionists," Segev describes post-Zionism as a modern variation of what was known in the early days of the state as "Zionism in quotation marks." He writes that essentially the term is used as an insult: it stigmatizes anything from willingness to compromise in the Israeli-Arab conflict to questioning the historical myths nurtured by Zionism. Therefore, right-wingers use it to prove that they are bigger patriots than left-wingers. The term, post-Zionism, Segev continues, is also used to assess the situation: it is the next stage after Zionism fulfilled itself or completed its role with visible success. Segev stresses it is not easy to agree on who is a post-Zionist, because it is not easy to agree on who is a Zionist, and that impedes the discussion.

Three years after the publication of that book Segev says, "post-Zionism is dead, because of the Palestinians," i.e., because of the second intifada, which has already been going on for three and a half years. But he softens the diagnosis somewhat: "At the moment, post-Zionism is in the best-case scenario in the fridge. It's not a living thing. It's not the golden age of post-Zionism." He says that "the intifada forced us to go back into ourselves, into Zionism and ideology. Palestinian terrorism is pushing us back into the Zionist womb. All of the openness I saw at the time of the Oslo Accords is, for now, not proving itself, in my opinion because of the terrorism. The matter that was at the heart of the post-Zionist environment was the debate over how to create a Jewish and democratic state. No one is interested in that anymore. We feel as if we must fight for our lives again, because of the Arabs."

The terrorism led to the brutalizing of Israel Defense Forces operations, but also to the "brutalizing of thinking," says Segev, and "that's its primary danger, everywhere in the world: that it affects people's ability and willingness to think in a rational way." Segev notes that terrorism's effect is so powerful "specifically because we went through the post-Zionism stage, in the sense that we moved to such an individualist period." The collective ideology lost some of its importance - no one now says `it is good to die for our country' - the individual's importance has increased, "and that's almost the essence of the post-Zionist condition" and therefore people "are taking the terrorism so hard. Everyone knows that terrorism is not destroying the state. But it is hurting me. I'm personally offended by the terrorism, because I sit in a cafe and they strike at me. We are not a collective that has died for its country. We want to go to a cafe and not have the table explode underneath us."

Segev believes that the post-Zionist condition will return and even burst forth inevitably "when we somehow arrange our relations with the Palestinians. At the moment there is nothing to aim for to resolve the conflict. I don't know how to solve it and post-Zionism doesn't require a solution. But I think that there are better ways of managing the conflict than the current one. It seems to me that the post-Zionist condition is possible also when there is no final peace and even when there is a certain level of terrorism, it is possible to live with it."

Frozen sperm

Dr. Ilan Pappe, a post-Zionist and diehard leftist, who describes himself as anti-Zionist, believes that since the outbreak of the second intifada, post-Zionism has been virtual. Not active. "They froze its sperm. Maybe one day, in a convenient lab setting, it will be possible to implant them using artificial insemination." But for the moment, society has dropped post-Zionism. "Look hard for us in another three, four or five years," he says, "when the disgrace, shame and barbarism that are today an inseparable part of Israeli policy go so far that even people in Israel, and certainly many people outside it, will say, `Enough is enough.' But we haven't reached that point yet."

Pappe says that indeed it is impossible to separate academic studies from ideological positions and this quality of post-Zionism - taken from post-Modernism - has made Israeli academia much more relevant. Previously, "who was interested in what academics wrote about Israeli society?" Even his work, he says, is not objective, but he hopes it is fair. "I also don't understand how an Israeli or Palestinian writing about the conflict can be objective."

And then, when the second intifada began, "many of the people whom I defined as critical and courageous turned out to be chickens. Some of them even admitted that they were recanting, some just lowered their profile and nowadays it is very hard to find in Israeli academic institutions what we found there in the 1990s. Anyone with some kind of critical urge is very cautious today. Lecturers, even those with tenure, and even full professors, are today afraid to voice criticism."

Pappe says this was a very great disappointment for him. It took him 25 years to understand that "academia in general follows politics. In no place is it a spearhead or does it take the initiative. What created post-Zionism? The Oslo Accords," which were made by politicians, not academics. "It turns out that academics think much more about their personal career than about their debt to society," he says.

Post-Zionism will return, he says, when the left in Israel becomes politically stronger. "Then we will again hear post-Zionism songs from the ivory towers of academia." But that won't happen before things get worse. For example: a war in the north or the total deterioration of Israel's ties with the Arab world, or terror of a kind we have not yet experienced - as a result of the continuation of the current policies on Palestinians - in addition to severe outside pressure on Israel, after there is further deterioration of its international standing and it begins to be a pariah state.