The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State

By Zeev Sternhell; David Maisel | Go to book overview

Preface

THIS BOOK, which appeared in Hebrew in June 1995 and iFrench at the beginning of 1996, immediately provoked a lengthy and continuous debate. Some of the reactions deserve a study in themselves, but since the debate is still proceeding, as vigorously as ever, I feel it fitting to postpone this task until later. For the moment, I will simply point out that the intensity and scope of these exchanges show the degree to which this work goes to the heart of the controversy over the nature of “Israeliness.” I feel that, very often, major questions concerning the nature of Jewish nationalism and the character of Zionist socialism (including its origins and its place in the development of Israeli identity) have been formulated incorrectly, and in many cases important issues have been evaded. It is precisely these issues that this book attempts to reformulate and analyze.

This work began with a critical reflection on Israeli society in the past and the present. Throughout my academic career, my professional field of research lay in Europe, mainly in France and Italy, and where Israel was concerned, I had to rely either on my own impressions, intuitions, and personal experiences or on the work of others. In either case, I was on unsteady ground and my perspective was necessarily limited. In one place the facts were missing, and in another their interpretation was insufficient. My curiosity failed to be satisfied, especially as quite early I began to have serious doubts about a number of accepted ideas sanctioned by Israeli historiography and social science, which are still very much part of the Weltanschauung of the Israeli cultural elite.

That is why one day at the end of the 1980s I decided to find out for myself. I wished to proceed in the only way that is really proper for a professional historian: to search the archives, to reread the texts, and to test social and political realities against the ideologies designed to guide policies. The study of Jewish society in Palestine (1904–48) is comparable to the study of any other society, and the methods of investigation should be the same whether one is writing the history of the twentieth century or of more distant periods. To analyze social and political realities, one has to give priority to the raw material of the period and not to the eyewitnesses' memories of it. Those who take part in unfolding events often have an unfortunate tendency to wax sentimental about their far-off youth and to embellish the realities of those years. Memory is not only a filter; it also has a regrettable way of reflecting the needs of the present.

Another unfortunate aspect of traditional Israeli historiography is the damage caused by the prevailing separation in universities of Jewish history

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