The Israeli Right's Refusal to Accept Other Versions of Zionism

Israel’s right is not confident enough to accept the truth of the country's history, and instead propagates stories that no historian on earth would support.

There is an old saying that when an orator hits a weak point, he generally tries to shout. Noise is always an attempt to cover up the weakness of one's position. Israel’s right-wing has lately been stepping up its attempts to cover up the fact that it has no vision for Israel's future - that all it has in store for its citizens is further isolation and misery.

One way of doing so is Ronen Shuval’s recent op-ed arguing that the Nakba is basically nothing but Arab propaganda. Shuval simply distorts the history of the 1948 war by claiming, for example, that most Arabs living in Palestine in 1948 had moved here to profit from the Yishuv’s economic activity; he continues the myth that Arab leaders had called for Palestinians to move away to allow for an Arab military victory.

Nakba Day - AP

Shlomo Avineri severely criticized Shuval’s faulty claims. Avineri, one of Israel’s leading historians of Zionism and political scientists, points out that Zionism doesn’t need propaganda efforts to distort the facts. The same has been argued by Tel Aviv University Law Professor Meni Mauthner: Zionism can accommodate the truth about history, and can integrate the story of the Nakba.

Shuval, the chair of an organization called Im Tirtzu, has made a name for himself by trying to shut down liberal voices in Israel’s higher education. Lately the organization’s target has been to try to convince donors to stop funding Israeli universities if they continue to employ left-leaning professors.

As Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University, has pointed out, the various right-wing organizations who claim to "monitor" Israeli academics, reiterate the argument that there are professors who support boycotting Israeli universities, turning this into a huge issue, even though less than ten out of five thousand professors have voiced such opinions. Shuval’s tactics show that right-wing ideology is incapable of living with critical discussion, and even worse, it needs to distort the truth about history and the present.

Israel’s right is not confident enough to accept the truth, and instead propagates stories that no historian on earth would support. It also can't bear the idea of citizens taking part in critical discussion, as can be seen in another recent event: professors Yedidia Stern and Susie Navot were recently informed by the ministry of education that their membership in the professional committee on citizenship studies at Israel’s schools was being terminated. The official reason was that their tenure of two years had expired.

Yedidia Stern told Haaretz that he doesn’t believe this is the reason, and that tenure in these professional committees generally lasts much longer. He said that the ministry of education had pressured him and his colleagues to change the content of the "citizenship studies" program. The goal: to dedicate half of this program to teaching history of Israel and Zionism.

The innocent observer of this event might think that Yedidia Stern is an Israel-hater or a proponent of what the right calls ‘Post Zionism’ (I never quite understand what they mean by that). The fact is that Stern is an observant Jew whose work has focused on the question of how Israel can be both a Jewish and a democratic state. So the question is why his presence is so threatening.

Stern, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and vice-president of the Israel Democracy Institute points out that replacing half the curriculum undermines the standing and importance of citizenship studies. Their goal, after all, is to educate future citizens able to handle the complexities of democracy. After all, democracy is based on the assumption that there are diverging viewpoints and interests, and democratic institutions are supposed to enable dialogue, discussion and competition between these perspectives and interests.

But the new program to be instituted at Israeli high schools is supposed to do the exact opposite: it is to make sure that only one viewpoint and only one narrative on Israel and the Middle East are taught. The goal is, obviously, to strengthen a line of conformists who buy what they are told rather than citizens who have acquired the tools for critical thought that allow them to truly make up their minds.

This change was pushed by Zvi Tsameret, chair of the pedagogical committee of the education ministry, who was instated by education minister Gideon Sa'ar. Haaretz reported that the head of the education ministry, Shimshon Shoshani, said that Tsameret’s views do not necessarily correspond to his own or to those held by the ministers.

Sa'ar continuously presents himself as a believer of liberal democracy, despite his right-wing views. If this is indeed the case, Mr. Sa'ar has an opportunity to show his true colors as there are no two ways to view it: replacing half of the "citizenship studies" program with Zionist history is a step well in tune with the Nakba law and other attempts by the Knesset to shut down viewpoints other than the right-wing version of Zionism.

If Sa'ar will accept the change instituted by Tsameret, this will be another indication that the current government is incapable of seeing Israel as a true democracy. It will show that they really think of Israel as an ethnocracy that has no pluralism and as a country that attempts to stifle dissent rather than encouraging critical debate. In doing so, they try to impose a totalitarian point of view – and they will quickly get into trouble by even trying to teach the history of Zionism.

I wonder how they will explain to students that Zionist luminaries like Herzl believed that religion should play no role in the Jews’ homeland, and that Ahad Ha’am warned of the dangers of misusing political power. I guess they will have to tell the students that Herzl and Ahad Ha’am were in fact the first post-Zionists.