Insecure Nationalists

One can tell the story of Zionism in a manner that pays heed to its complexity and includes the Palestinian tragedy, though do so in a way that does not undermine its justice

In May 1948, at the height of combat during the War of Independence, author S. Yizhar wrote the short story "The Prisoner." A year later, he wrote "The Story of Hirbet Hizah." These two classic works depicted the problematic behavior of Israeli soldiers during the War of Independence. When both of these stories were published in September 1949, dozens of critical reviews came in their wake, "a large majority of them complimentary, but a few that were negative," according to historian Anita Shapira. These two works were taught in the Israeli school system for years. In 1959, S. Yizhar received the Israel Prize.

In November 1948, as the battles were in full swing, author Nathan Alterman penned a newspaper column titled "Al zot," ("About this" ), one of the most poignant pieces he wrote, which denounced the killing of an elderly Arab couple during the war. On the day the column appeared, David Ben-Gurion wrote to Alterman: "I hereby ask for your permission to reprint this 'column'... and to distribute it to every military man in Israel."

In 1978, "The Story of Hirbet Hizah" was made into a television film, directed by Ram Levi, and was set to be screened by state-run Channel 1. The education minister at the time, Zevulun Hammer, was opposed. After public outcry, the movie was eventually aired, but not as a stand-alone feature. The film was introduced in conjunction with a talk show entitled Hasha'ah hashlishit ("The Third Hour" ).

A group of Israeli and Palestinian teachers co-wrote a textbook entitled, "Learning the Historical Narrative of the Other." It chronicles the story of the Land of Israel during the period from the Balfour Declaration until the 1990s. On the right-hand side of the pages, one finds the Israeli narrative. On the far left appears the Palestinian interpretation. The book has been taught to 12th-grade Jewish students in a trial run. In a subsequent study, there was no reported drop in the students' belief in the justness of the Zionist cause.

Last week, the Knesset approved a bill known as "the Nakba law." The legislation, which was sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu, allows the state to withhold funds to any organization that moves to "recognize Independence Day or the day of the state's establishment as a day of mourning." The law also allows the state to cut funding to any group that "denies Israel existence as a Jewish and democratic state," engages in "incitement to racism, violence and terrorism" and expresses "support for armed struggle or terrorist acts against the state of Israel."

The law takes an aberrant approach when viewed within the prism of the Jewish majority's treatment of the Arab minority. It is also an unwise law given the one-dimensional nature with which it wishes to present the conflict. The law is yet another milestone in the campaign of assault on anyone who wishes to give expression to the Palestinian position, which states, for example, that the founding of the state entailed the destruction of Arab society in this country. That assault has gained momentum in recent years. Yet it was when S. Yizhar wrote "The Prisoner" and "The Story of Hirbet Hizah," and when Ben-Gurion wished to disseminate "Al zot" to "every military man in Israel" that the younger generation in this country was most ready to sacrifice for the state. It was during the years in which S. Yizhar was taught in schools that Israeli youngsters led this country to unprecedented feats on the battlefield, including the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

Presenting a sterile version of reality is not only misleading, but also counterproductive. Every reader knows that a shallow, superficial book is forgotten in minutes, but a complex book concentrates the mind and impacts the reader for years.

One can tell the story of Zionism in a manner that pays heed to its complexity and includes the Palestinian tragedy, though do so in a way that does not undermine its justice. It is the complicated, multi-dimensional story that is capable of evoking a more profound, viable belief in the cause.


The writer teaches at Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Law.