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Zionism: “New Historians” and Post-Zionists

There is some debate as to when the term was coined, but “post-Zionism,” but scholar Meyrav Wurmser wrote in 1999 that “Israel is today in the midst of a cultural civil war in which one side would like to see their country continue to exist as a Jewish state and the other believes that Zionism, the founding idea of the state, has reached its end. For the latter group, the time has come for Israel to enter its post-Zionist stage; for this reason, it describes itself as “post-Zionist.”

According to political scientist Shlomo Avineri, post-Zionism “is a radical criticism not just of Israel’s policy; at its base is total denial of the Zionist project and of the very legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation-state.”

The post-Zionists, mostly Israeli academics and intellectuals, are successors to researchers who were referred to as “New Historians.” These Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and Avi Shlaim, used Israeli government documents that became available starting in the 1980s to critically reexamine the history of Israel and Zionism. They typically argue that the Jewish state was created at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs, that Palestinians did not flee during the 1948 War but were forcibly expelled and that Israel bears the principal responsibility for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Most historians reject most or all of their contentions. For example, while Morris is correct in documenting the expulsion of a small number of Palestinians in 1948, a great deal of evidence exists to show that most Palestinians were encouraged by their leaders to flee or left to avoid being caught in a war zone.

According to Pappé, the “New Historians” focused on the events of 1948. In the 1990s, post-Zionists began to critically examine “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.”

Avineri notes that post-Zionists contend that Zionism is a colonial phenomenon rather than a national movement in conflict with another national movement over their claim to the same territory. “At the same time,” he says, “those who are careful not to accept the Zionist narrative sometimes accept the Palestinian narrative without question. To them it is clear that there is a Palestinian people, that what happened in 1948 is exactly what the Arabs say happened, and that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is, on the one hand, a Zionist ‘narrative,’ and on the other, ‘facts’ that are precisely identical to the Palestinian narrative.” Avineri calls this “absolute folly.”

The post-Zionists also have a different perspective on the current conflict with the Palestinians. They do not believe the problem is the “occupation” that began in 1967; they argue Israel’s original sin dates to 1948. As Wurmser explains:

At its essence, post-Zionism holds that the State of Israel is an immoral phenomenon because it was established on the basis of the destruction of another people—the Palestinians. It presents the problem as transcending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967; hence, its solution does not lie in a simple Israeli withdrawal from those territories. To the contrary, post-Zionists now tend to disparage left-wing Zionist groups for what they refer to as the “Peace Now Syndrome,” a cherishing of the period before 1967 as flawless while attributing all of Israel's wrongdoing to the 1967 occupation. Post-Zionists are much more radical: from their perspective, the problem has to do with the very existence of Israel. They deem Zionism a colonialist, racist, and evil phenomenon that stole another people’s land by force and continues to oppress them.

Post-Zionists have also adopted some of the ideas of post-modernism, such as the importance of the use of language. “He who controls the terms controls the debate,” Avineri notes. “Therefore they insist on referring in Hebrew to pre-1948 Eretz Israel as ‘Palestine;’ Jews who come to live here, whom Zionist discourse calls ‘olim’ (from the Hebrew root ‘to ascend’), are ‘immigrants,’ and so on.”

Avineri says that “post-Zionists are simply anti-Zionists” who believe “that there is no Jewish people, that Zionism is an ally of imperialism and that the Palestinian Arabs are victims of Zionist aggression….They do not see Zionism and the State of Israel as a reality that has come to pass, but rather as something that is not legitimate from the outset and that must be eliminated down to its very foundations.”

Wurmser observes that the intention of post-Zionists “is wholly negative; not to improve Zionism but to destroy it. Post-Zionist writers openly aspire not to create a new Israeli historiography free of all ideological biases, but rather seek to inject an anti-Israel bias into them.”

Post-Zionists themselves do not dispute this. Pappé describes himself as an anti-Zionist and admits his work is not objective.

Today, post-Zionism has largely been discredited and some of its leading proponents, such as Shlaim and Pappé left Israel to teach abroad. Still, their ideas have gained followers, especially among Israel’s detractors outside the country. Within Israel, they have seeped into many of Israel's intellectual, cultural, and social institutions.

While post-Zionists have sometimes discovered facts, such as Morris’s research on Palestinian refugees, they also invent their own interpretations for those already known. In some cases, these are misinterpretations and in others, outright lies. One example was a thesis written by a graduate student named Teddi Katz, which claimed the Israel Defense Forces committed a massacre in the Arab village of Tantura in 1948. When his claims came under scrutiny, his mentor Pappé defended them. Ultimately, Katz was found to have falsified some of the testimony in his paper and that no massacre had occurred.

Sources: Shlomo Avineri, “Post-Zionism Doesn't Exist,” Haaretz, (July 6, 2007);
Dalia Shehori, “Post-Zionism Is Dead or in a Deep Freeze,” Haaretz, (April 20, 2004);
Meyrav Wurmser, “Can Israel Survive Post-Zionism?” Middle East Quarterly, Volume 6: Number 1, (January 1, 1999);
Meyrav Wurmser, “Made-Up Massacre” Weekly Standard, (October 28, 2016);
Benny Morris, “The Liar as Hero,” New Republic, (March 17, 2011);
“Zionism and Israel,” Encyclopedic Dictionary;
“New Historians,” Wikipedia;
“Post-Zionism,” Wikipedia.