To Understand Israel, Look at Its Veneration of the Dead

One of the greatest paradoxes of Israeli national identity is that it draws strength from the lives that are lost in its name. This process has grown particularly twisted among radical settlers, who use death to generate meaning

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Illustration: Michal Bonano.
Illustration: Michal Bonano.
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

We have all had the experience of looking at an old photo, whose subject gazes at the camera with the smile and confidence of someone who knows that life will embrace him with kindness and generosity. We look at the smiling face and we know what he doesn’t: that in a few days or weeks he will be dead, crushed by an unpredictable accident, or a war machine. We look at the smiling face and feel an unusual compassion, because of both the tragic end that awaits him and his cheerful ignorance of that fate. We know that he doesn’t know that his smile and his hope are in vain.

It is with such sense of tragic compassion that I watched “The Oslo Diaries,” a 2018 documentary film by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan. The film recounts the discussions that led to the Oslo Accords of 1993. It documents the suspicions with which the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators approached each other, and the profoundly humane ways in which relationships formed among them as they all tried to end the bloody century-old conflict.

I was gripped by the scenes of naïvete, in which Yossi Beilin, Ron Pundak, Yair Hirschfeld, Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei), even Yasser Arafat, believed for a brief moment that the hatred and suspicion could be replaced by hope. I watched their joy knowing what they didn’t know yet: namely, that their hope for peace would soon be crushed by the murder of a prime minister at the hands of a believer in Jewish supremacy.

For a moment, hope seemed poised to change fate. But in the end it didn’t. Why were hope and courage defeated? The movie gives a clear answer: Once the secret Oslo talks were revealed and the nitty-gritty of the accords began being implemented, extremists on both sides started carrying out terror attacks in order to derail the process. A murder on one side elicited another murder on the other side. With the mounting pile of dead, pressure grew not to “betray” the victims.

It was thus a very specific dynamic that derailed this possibility of peace: It was the call of the dead, who demand from us, the living, to avenge them and to perpetuate their memory. To understand why this conflict cannot come to an end, we must understand the role of the dead and the sacredness of the dead in this historical drama. The experience of Hebron, of all places, is the most representative of the role that the sacredness of death can play.

Hebron is home to the tomb of Abraham, who is revered by Jews and Muslims alike. In 1929, against the background of incipient Palestinian nationalism and disputed control over the holy places, the Arab population of Hebron erupted into riots. Over the course of a week, there were clashes between Arabs and Jews throughout the country, at the end of which 133 Jews and 110 Arabs had been killed.

In their book “Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007,” Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar point out that David Ben-Gurion used the deaths to rally the Jewish community, saying this, 19 years before Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “Our spilled blood cries out not for pity and succor, but rather to increase our strength and our work in the land.” As the authors write: “The Zionist movement knew all too well how to transform historical disasters into heroic myths, cultivating them into tales of valor and sacrifice in order to forge through them national unity, social solidarity, and political action.”

After the creation of the state, the memory of the Hebron massacres receded in national consciousness, suggesting that collective memory chooses and handpicks the dead it remembers. There were, after all, new victims and heroes to mourn, people who had died during the War of Independence. But, after the Six-Day War of June 1967, Israel occupied Hebron along with the rest of the West Bank, establishing a military government to rule the area. The capture of Hebron inflamed the imagination of messianists and that served to resurrect the dead.

“After 40 years of historical slumber,” write Zertal and Eldar, “the old story of the massacre in Hebron reawakened and became the most important political catalyst in the hands of the Jewish settlers in the territories that Israel occupied in 1967.” Despite the fact that military and political leaders were cautious in trying not to inflame Arab sensibilities, messianists overcame their pragmatism and caution, and Hebron became a hotbed of fervent believers – a community with a godly mission to fulfill. But what exactly is it that keeps and sustains the hard emotional work of being an extremist? What allows people to hold fast to unforgiving nationalism and extremism? One event in the history of the city has much to reveal on this question. The story of Sarah Nachshon shows how the dead can transform the life of the living.

‘Symbolic layers’

Sarah Nachshon was part of a small group of people who, after the 1967 war, decided to live as close as possible to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The Tomb houses a mosque, and Jewish prayer had recently been restored there as well, but the military authorities were reluctant to establish a Jewish settlement in Hebron, for fear of inflaming Arab sensibilities. But Nachshon decided to defy the prohibitions laid down by the defense minister, Moshe Dayan, and she and her husband held a circumcision ceremony for their newborn son at the tomb – an act which would undoubtedly offend the local Palestinian population.

Nachshon’s story is told by Chana Weisberg and appears on a website belonging to Chabad, which is obviously sympathetic to her cause. The story is told from her standpoint, and thus my interpretation derives only from what the site says.

Writes Weisberg: “After the Six-Day War in 1967, Nachshon and her husband, the Hasidic artist Baruch Nachshon, joined a group of idealistic activists determined to reestablish the ancient Jewish community inside newly liberated Hebron. The Lubavitcher Rebbe [who resided in New York] encouraged them and endowed them with many blessings for their efforts. These activists understood the supreme importance of establishing a Jewish presence in the oldest of... Israel’s four holy cities, where a Jewish community had existed for hundreds of years until the massacre of 67 Jews by local Arabs in 1929. They also understood that maintaining a Jewish community in Hebron would be the only way to guarantee continued Jewish access to the Cave of Machpelah, the burial site of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs and the second-holiest site in Judaism which until 1967 had been barred to Jews by the Muslim authorities for over 700 years."

The year after the war, Sarah and Baruch and their four young children joined their fellow activists in moving into an Arab-owned hotel in Hebron. Sarah Nachshon later recalled how, “’An army official came to meet with our group, and told us that we were a big pain in his neck.’” At the same time, he informed them that, concerned for their safety, the government had decided that a group of seven families and 15 yeshiva students would be permitted to move into an army compound adjacent to the town.

A specific dynamic derailed the possibility of peace: It was the call of the dead, who demand from us, the living, to avenge them and to perpetuate their memory.

“‘They assumed that we would not be able to tolerate the terrible conditions for long – living in one room with all of our children, only one kitchen for all of us to share, and with the only bathrooms outside,’” Weisberg quotes Nachshon as saying. “’The army saw us with our little children and thought that within a few weeks we would give up and leave. They thought that our dream to live in Hebron would die right then and there.’”

But the families did not move out. In fact, over the next three years, they were joined by 30 additional families.

Sarah Nachshon proceeded to have three more children, and she took the dangerous step (vis-a-vis the law) of having the boys circumcised within the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the first time that act had been carried out at the site in more than 700 years.

Weisberg’s article goes on to recount how, in 1975, Sarah Nachshon gave birth to another boy, whom she named Avraham Yedidya. Six months later, he suffered crib death.

“The terrible morning that Nachshon found her baby lifeless in his crib, her husband was out of town, and there was no way to reach him. As she made the preparations for the burial all on her own, while she wept and prayed, she tried to remind herself that everything G-d does is for a purpose, even if it is hidden from us. Suddenly, she understood that her lost son was meant to play a sad but vital role in the rebuilding of the City of the Patriarchs. ‘I decided,’ she recalls, ‘that we would bury him in Hebron. Our Avraham Yedidya would be the first Jew buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron since the burials of the 67 Jews massacred in 1929.’"

Anticipating that settlers might try to carry out a burial in the cemetery, and fearing the reaction it could elicit from local Palestinians, the IDF had set up roadblocks. When they stopped Avraham’s funeral procession as it made its way from Kiryat Arba, Sarah Nachshon stepped from her car to confront them. Holding her baby, who was wrapped in a sheet, she addressed them: “‘Are you looking for me? Are you looking for my baby? My name is Sarah Nachshon. Here is my baby, in my arms. If you won’t let us drive to the cemetery, we will walk...’”

Weisberg continues: “The soldiers, unable to turn back this young mother grieving for her lost child, radioed... their superiors, ‘If you want to stop this woman, come down here and stop her yourself!’ One of the soldiers got out of his command car, and as he wept he begged Sarah Nachshon, ‘Please, Mrs. Nachshon, it is too far to walk! Please permit me to drive you to the Jewish cemetery.’”

According to Weisberg, more than three decades later, Sarah Nachshon still shed tears when she recalled to the hundreds of people who joined her that summer night as she buried her son. “I told them, “It has been a hard day, but there is something I must tell you. I, Sarah, am holding my dead baby, Avraham, in my arms. And just as Avraham our Father came to Hebron to bury his Sarah, so too I, Sarah, have come here to bury my Abraham. At this moment, I know why G-d gave me this irreplaceable gift for only six months. To reopen the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron.”

This episode played a significant role in the creation of what is today one of the most extreme Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and thus deserves to be analyzed.

The event has many symbolic layers. First, we should note the importance of conducting a brit mila (circumcision) in this historic burial place, suggesting that the living derive power, meaning and mission from the sacredness provided by the burial site of the forefathers. Second: Why is Hebron itself sacred? Hebron is defined as a sacred place by virtue of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Sarah the matriarch herself is presumably buried. In other words, it is the dead that confer sacredness to geography.

It is a curious fact of our religious and cultural life that dead people continue to live among us. Among some religious groups (such as Buddhists), the dead are ancestors revered within the home. These ancestors watch and protect the living. In other cultures – monotheistic ones in particular – the dead confer sacredness to architectural sites, time, objects and land. Christians cultivated the cult of martyrs in a very elaborate way, as Jesus himself is a martyr. Jews, like Christians, were persecuted and Jews also had their own martyrs under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Hannah and her seven sons, as described in II Maccabees 6).

Lacking a geographical or architectural center, Jews were more likely to sacralize the dead through memory rather than physical objects (in the form of relics). But burial places, which served as sites of pilgrimage in cultures all around the Mediterranean, provided geographical spatial and earth-bound holiness to the dead.

To understand why this conflict cannot come to an end, we must understand the role of the dead and the sacredness of the dead in this historical drama.

The third historic layer is this: Sarah Nachshon, like the settlement movement in general, vividly remembered the Hebron massacre of 1929 and revived its memory, thus making those who died in national struggles continuously present. As Zertal and Eldar explain, the Hebron massacres were made very salient in the settlers’ consciousness, far more than among the Israeli general collective and were, so-to-speak, formative of a subnational consciousness. Why? Because the dead are often mobilized to justify political goals and give the living a sense of mission.

Once a political and theological cause is established, the dead become a vehicle for engendering meaning. In Nachshon’s eyes, her baby died in order to reopen the Jewish cemetery of Hebron. His death is made purposeful, and once the purpose is established it becomes sacred. Death grants sacredness to human action. For example, the dead “call on” the living to defend the land, which becomes sacred by virtue of the dead who are buried there.

Four: The deceased baby that makes the army “surrender” to a group of messianic Jews becomes a new addition to the list of dead. Sarah’s child, Avraham, after his death, further deepens the sacredness of the place where he is buried. As soon as there is a Jewish cemetery, it becomes impossible for Jews to leave, because the soil of Jewish burial becomes sacred. Drawing a direct line between the biblical symbolism and the contemporary national struggle, Sarah offers her baby in a sacrificial way.

We have, then, three instances of sacred deaths superposed one upon another in this story. The matriarch Sarah, the Jewish victims of 1929 and Sarah Nachshon’s baby – all three are mobilized to invoke the sacredness of the land, of the nation and of religion, all at once. The army also participates in this collective drama through the symbolism of the holiness of the dead and of the land in which they are buried. Sarah’s name and her son’s name resonated with the names of the patriarchs. These names summoned up memories of national and religious sacrifice, and martyrology. Once the baby died, it is as if he had died for something – in this case, on behalf of the people and the nation. If a baby dies for the nation, then the nation (i.e., the military) cannot refuse it burial. The word “extremist” is thus a misnomer: What characterizes an extremist is not that one is at the end of a continuum, but rather that he or she has the capacity to turn things into inviolable sacred entities and to be willing to die to defend such sacredness.

Baruch Goldstein, like many martyrs of many religions, is a vivid example of this dynamic. Not by chance did he live in Hebron-Kiryat Arba.

Baruch Goldstein, in a 1992 photo. His defense of Jewish life and the messiah took the form of mass murder and self-sacrificial death. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Goldstein’s rampage

Goldstein, 37, an American-born physician, embodied a significant part of the settler movement and played an important role in derailing the Oslo process. As a new immigrant, Goldstein lived in Hebron, where, on February 25, 1994, he committed an act that may seem, at least today, more American than Israeli, even though it struck at the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: He shot into a crowd of Palestinians gathered in prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, as Muslims call the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is divided into separate prayer spaces for Jews and Muslims. Goldstein waited for them to lower their faces to the floor and shot indiscriminately at the prostrated bodies. The rampage took the lives of 29 people (in addition to Goldstein, who was beaten to death by surviving worshippers), and wounded 125. Despite claims circulating at the time that Goldstein was insane, nothing indicates he was.

In any event, Goldstein’s funeral was attended by more than 1,000 people. He was eulogized by prominent rabbis and leaders of the settlement movement. The chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, said of Goldstein: “[He] was full of love for fellow human beings. He dedicated himself to helping others.” Rabbi Lior also said that he was “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust,” thus suggesting that Goldstein’s death was an act of martyrdom. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that as they waited for the arrival of the coffin, people in the crowd were heard to comment: “What a hero!” “A righteous person!” “He did it on behalf of all of us.”

When he was young, Goldstein had been a member of the Jewish Defense League and a sympathizer of the Kach party in Israel. In 1990, when the founder of both the JDL and of Kach, Rabbi Meir Kahane, was murdered in New York by an Arab, Goldstein vowed to take revenge. Instead, the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, which for him must have been tantamount to Israel erasing the call of the dead. But what probably triggered the massacre was that in February 1994, a record number of Palestinian terrorist attacks occurred in Israel and the territories: Ilan Sudri, Shai Shuker, Naftali Sahar, Noam Cohen, Yuval Golan – all were all killed in separate attacks.

'Our spilled blood cries out not for pity and succor, but rather to increase our strength and our work in the land.'

David Ben-Gurion

I would venture the hypothesis that the terror attack that finally impelled Goldstein to act was the murder of Zipora Sasson, on February 19. Sasson, a 34-year-old resident of the Ariel settlement, had two daughters and was five months pregnant. With her, not only was a Jewish mother killed but a Jewish fetus as well, which for an observant Jew, was likely to have symbolized the very concept of Jewish life.

For his part, historian Benjamin Kedar, analyzing some of Goldstein’s writings, came to the conclusion that his intention in perpetrating the mass killing was to speed up the arrival of the messiah. Ironically, Goldstein’s defense of Jewish life and the messiah took the form of mass murder and self-sacrificial death.

The Palestinians reacted forcefully to the massacre. There was rioting across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, claiming the lives of 26 Palestinians and nine Israelis. The rioting spread to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinians on the Temple Mount threw rocks at policemen and on worshippers at the Western Wall below. Anger and calls for vengeance simmered in the Arab world. In April 1994, the Hamas Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigades responded to the call of their own dead, and committed two suicide bombings, in explicit retaliation for Goldstein’s mass murder. Palestinians began to conduct terror attacks in the very heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. One terror attack seemed to demand another attack in response. One extremist act invited another of the same because the dead “called forth” the dead, in both camps.

It is precisely because of that logic that the settlers’ camp, under the leadership of then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, called for the derailment of the Oslo process, casting Rabin as a traitor. Posters appeared depicting Rabin in the uniform of the Nazi SS. To the settlers, he had to pay for those who had been killed and those who had yet to die. Rabin’s murder would see the final blow to the peace process.

In the end, as “The Oslo Diaries” makes clear, there was something both mysterious and inexorable in the inability of the sides to overcome the conflict. There is indeed something somewhat mysterious in the fact the conflict cannot come to an end. I believe that the solution to the mystery lies in the call of dead. The living can’t let go of their dead because the dead are sacred.

For the common good

In “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1915), Emile Durkheim’s most influential idea was that a need for social belonging is essentially the root of religion, since religious feelings (i.e., awe, submission to a greater power, a sense of sacred and profane) originate in the admiration and fear that the individual feels in the presence of the power of the collective. For Durkheim, a nation is like a God: Both are ideas that become sacred by virtue of the fact that they represent the group. For Durkheim, the holiness that comes to attach to objects, or concepts like the nation, gives them a tremendous power over people. They compel them to act in certain ways.

Durkheim did not mention specifically the role of the dead, but they play a crucial function in sacralizing the group and the land in which they are buried. Groups are constituted and perpetuated through their capacity to compel people to die for them. This is a religious phenomenon, but it is one that also constitutes a basis of nationalism. Nationalism and religion thus share deep affinities. One mechanism linking nationalism and religiosity is what scholars Carolyn Marvin and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet call self-sacrificial death – dying for the body collective.

According to Soltysik Monnet, even if many modern nation-states define themselves as quintessentially secular and legal entities, they often need and inspire self-sacrifice for the common good or the group. The willingness to die is defined as military valor and patriotic heroism, and these are extolled by religious groups or by nations because they are essential to the endurance of the group. In the same vein, Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle claim, in their book “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation,” that, without self-sacrifice, a nation will not be able to defend itself, nor will it want to do so. In their view, a nation that cannot inspire its members to lay down their lives for it will inevitably fragment into clashing groups. As they further and strikingly argue, one of the most enigmatic paradoxes of national identity is that it is strengthened by the lives that are lost in its name.

Indeed, this is probably why most nations conceptualize and narrate their origins in terms of foundational wars. (In Israel it is the War of Independence, in Germany, the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, in the United States, the Americans’ war of independence from the British). Wars stand squarely at the center of the birth of nations because they articulate sharply a sense of “groupness” – one group against another – and because they in fact constitute moments of self-sacrifice that compel the living to continue the task of the dead.

In Israel, too, heroism and death are inextricably intertwined and have come to define the national identity.

Nations structure their memories around the dead and constitute self-sacrificial deaths to be sacred. For example, as Marvin and Ingle put it, the American Civil War “helped create a sense of common national identity” by the “founding of a national military cemetery system. Up until the Civil War, the bodies of slain American soldiers had not been retrieved systematically from battlefields nor been the objects of special reverence. It was in 1862 that, for the first time, the U.S. government decided to set aside, by Act of Congress, special cemeteries to bury the bodies of those who gave their lives in defense of the Republic, and an entire network of sacred national sites was thereby created.” These cemeteries became a symbolic means to rally the Union. In Israel, as in other nations, the founding event is the war of independence told both as victory and as sacrifice; the war of independence, and other wars, entailed dead people who must be remembered and whose sacrifice must be honored.

In Israel, too, heroism and death are inextricably intertwined and have come to define the national identity. As Idith Zertal demonstrated so well in her 2005 book “Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood,” the Shoah was a constitutive event of Israeli national consciousness. Israel as a collective had then two categories of dead to revere: those who died in the Shoah and those who died during the establishment of the state, each justifying, anticipating and mirroring the other. This is why the cult of the dead became so intrinsic to Israeli identity. Let me give two examples.

The first is the myth of Joseph Trumpeldor, who is regarded as a hero by both the Zionist right and left. Nothing about the circumstances of his death was out of the ordinary for a military man: He was ambushed by a group of Arabs who were besieging the Jewish settlement of Tel Hai, in 1920. What turned Trumpeldor, who was one of eight Jews killed in the battle, into a hero were his dying words (whose veracity seems to have been confirmed): “Tov lamut be’ad artzeinu” – “It is good to die for our country.”

With these words, he willingly embraced his own death, that is, his self-sacrifice on behalf of the group (the nation). The Revisionist Zionist movement named its youth movement (a precursor to Likud) Betar, an acronym for “Trumpeldor Covenant,” while the left-wing movements remember Trumpeldor as a defender of the kibbutzim and have established memorials in his name. The Joseph Trumpeldor Work and Defense Battalion (Gdud Ha’avoda) was founded after his death and established several kibbutzim. The nearby town of Kiryat Shmona (“City of Eight”) is named for Trumpeldor and the seven others who died defending Tel Hai. It was possible for the same person to be the hero of two opposing Zionist factions because for both, self-sacrifice was a fundamental principle underlying the nation and Israeli identity.

The second, no-less powerful myth of self-sacrifice is that of Masada, remarkably well analyzed by both anthropologist Yael Zerubavel and sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Although for centuries, the Masada tale – in which the Jews taking refuge on the mount took their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans – was ignored as an obscure episode in the ancient Jewish past, and had disappeared from the Jews’ collective memory, it was revived by Zionism. While Jewish law strictly prohibits suicide, in the case of Masada killing oneself became acceptable because it became understood as embodying a national theme – as a death that anticipated and prepared the future deaths for the future nation. For the Zionist pioneers in pre-state Palestine, Masada represented a highly symbolic event that, in the words of Zerubavel, “captured the essence of the authentic national spirit and helped define their own historical mission as the direct followers of the ancient Hebrews.” Masada became the quintessential symbol of self-sacrificial death.

Zerubavel conducted interviews three decades ago with young people in Israel, and concluded that the historical narrative of Masada still enjoys wide popularity. The students and adults she interviewed repeatedly described the Masada people as having fought “to the bitter end,” “until the last breath,” or “until the last drop of blood,” or as having “died on the altar of our homeland” when alluding to Masada’s symbolic message. As she puts it, the Masada narrative is mostly about the glorification of people who died with their weapons in hand, and it is this theme that ultimately serves as the core of its ideological message and of Israeli identity.

That is because national unity is always constituted on the basis of collective “victimage,” or collective sacrifice. In the same way nations view their history in terms of foundational moments of collective sacrifice, loyalty and devotion to the nation are based on a sense of the ongoing invocation of and identification with the sacrifices that enabled the foundation of nation. Marvin and Ingle further argue that only willing self-sacrifice can create a sense of national renewal.

Let me offer the following hypothesis: The settlement movement creates a sense of national renewal by making self-sacrifice central to its identity. Undoubtedly, sacrifice to the land, to the people, to God are key components of the Jewish religion and even of Zionism, but the settlement movement makes explicit what was latent in Zionism, combines conflicting strands of Zionism in a single unit, and brings into perfect harmony nationalist and messianic goals. It is the dead who progressively integrated the occupied territories into the consciousness of ordinary Israelis. What binds them is their honoring of the dead.

Extremists are not people who are simply situated on a continuum. They are able to sacralize objects, people and actions, to put things above human law, to make them so obviously above human needs that the sacred things in turn need to be defended against human beings. It is not because someone is an extremist that he sacralizes the dead and the land, but rather the opposite: When the dead and the land are sacralized, it creates and generates armies of extremists.

A country that has gone through 15 military conflicts since its founding – in Israel’s case, 15 military conflicts in less than 70 years – is bound to feel a special debt to its dead and to have a special capacity to constantly renew that debt. The settlers, I argue, know better than all other groups how to make the dead work for them, in making sacred both them and the land in which they are buried. Settlers are by definition willing to die for the nation because they live with the threat of constant reprisals by Palestinians for occupation of their land. As settlers, they are situated at the interface between nationalism and messianism, where both enable them to sacralize the land and the dead.

Just to give a small example among many of this pervasive view: At a conference in Jerusalem in memory of the settler and politician (and extremist) Hanan Porat, the education minister and then-chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett, declared that “we must give our lives” for the cause of annexing the West Bank to Israel. Bennett also criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over plans to evacuate the illegal outpost of Amona by the end of that year. These two claims suggest the link I have discussed throughout between the dead, who call for our self-sacrifice, and holding onto the land, which is imbued with a metaphysical essence by virtue of the fact it holds the dead.

This particular way of conceiving of nationalism – centered around both land and the dead – is extraordinarily reminiscent of Maurice Barrés’ variety of ethno-religious nationalism. Barrés was the leading voice of the anti-Dreyfusards in fin-de-siècle France, and was close to Charles Maurras, a monarchist with strong anti-Semitic credentials. In 1902 Barrés was the voice of right-wing French nationalism, and delivered an address on “La Terre et les Morts,” in which he claimed that a nation is founded on those very two things. In Barrés’s striking words, “To create a nation, you need a cemetery and the teaching of history.”

The idea of having a debt to the dead is one of the most profound motifs of religion and nationalism. The cult of the dead and of the idea that we are the heirs to ancestors whose task is unfinished – and which we are obligated to complete – is a key to understanding the imaginary world of ethno-nationalism. Israel’s messianic extreme right renews its patriotism through the politics of the purity of blood and the commemoration of the dead. This, I suggest, is the hidden and powerful affiliation in Israel between nationalism and fundamentalism, the reason why so many cannot let go of such a deep and enduring conflict with Palestinians: because so many feel a bond of allegiance and loyalty to the dead.

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