Saturday, October 9, 2010

History, Memory & Identity: A Conversation with Laurence Silberstein

Published October 8, 2010 in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.

Laurence Silberstein is the Philip and Muriel Berman professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His book, The Postzionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture (Routledge, May 1999) was nominated as a finalist in Jewish Philosophy and Thought by the prestigious Koret Jewish Studies Book Awards. In 2008, he edited the collection Postzionism: A Reader (Rutgers). I sat down with him to discuss the evolving relationship between history and identity among Israelis and American Jews.

Laurence Silberstein

VS: I’d like to start by asking you about the emergence of the so-called “New Historians” in Israel in the mid-90s and the role they played in changing how Israelis relate to history. Why is history so important, and why is it so contentious?

LS: Well, I think the importance is that, first of all, Israel is a young country. And so a lot of things are taken very seriously in a way they’re not necessarily taken here. And [Israelis] perceive themselves to be besieged. They have a certain victim mentality, as do the Palestinians. There are two victim narratives competing. In fact, until the late 1980s, the only story that was told regarding the Palestinian flight was that the Palestinians willingly left because they were promised by Arab leaders that they would come back. That was the story that I grew up on, and it was the story Israelis grew up on. So this is really very important to how they perceive themselves, how they perceive their country, and how they perceive the emergence of their country.

In the early 80s, there was a declassification of documents from the period of the founding of the state in 1948. Younger scholars had grown up in a different reality than their seniors. They had grown up and spent a lot of their adult years during a time when Israel was already occupying the West Bank and Gaza. That provoked certain kinds of questions. They lived through [the Yom Kippur War in] 1973; they lived through 82, the invasion of Lebanon. They lived through the Intifada. And they had a different kind of impression of what Israel was all about and the myths that had dominated in the earlier years. And so they began to ask questions that hadn’t been asked by scholars to any significant degree. Benny Morris, who is now a fairly right-wing Zionist, did this amazing research. He went to every Arab village, to every Arab community that had departed. He tried to analyze the factors that contributed to that and came up with a very complicated picture, but part of that picture was that at some times, the Israelis wanted the Arabs to leave and intimidated them into doing so. This was pretty radical.

A friend and colleague of mine, who’s a philosopher at Tel Aviv U, told me a story that he subsequently wrote up and published in a book I edited. He said that his father was involved with Etzel, the right-wing organization that many people have defined as a terrorist organization. And he always denied that anything happened at Deir Yassin, an Arab village where, on April 9, 1948, around 120 fighters from Zionist paramilitary groups killed roughly 600 people. On the day of the September 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre during the Lebanese civil war, when Lebanese Phalangist militia murdered a disputed number (400-3,500, according to various sources) of Palestinian refugees in the two camps while while the area was surrounded by Israeli forces, his father said to him something like, “This reminds me of something that happened many years ago.” He was referring to Deir Yassin. My friend was shocked, because his father had lied to him.

I’ve sometimes given talks in which I’ve compared the Israeli atmosphere at the time to how Americans dealt with what we learned since I was a kid about how African Americans were treated here, about Native Americans and the genocidal practices that we had. I can understand how Israelis felt, because I had no idea that any of that had happened. Now, we’re a country a couple of hundred years old, which is not the case for Israel. We could take it in stride. We could integrate it into our curriculum. But in Israel, everything is politicized. I think it was under Barak that it was put into the curriculum. It was put in a fairly mild way, and then when Likud was back in power, they took it out. As far as I know, it’s not in the curriculum anymore.

VS: Well, it’s still an ongoing debate in Israel as to whether to include the term Nakba (a word literally meaning “catastrophe,” which Palestinians use to refer to the displacement of 750,000 refugees during the war of 1948) in the textbooks.

LS: There’s another scholar by the name of Baruch Kimmerling. He made the argument that the way we tell the story and the narrative that’s used determines who’s an insider and who’s an outsider. For example–and he went beyond Morris did–if you talk about Israeli history in terms ofaliyot (the plural form of aliyah, meaning “ascent,” used to describe Jewish immigration to Israel), you’re using a Zionist term. That creates problems for certain groups of people. Also, the way the historiography of aliyot kind of implied that Mizrachim, Israeli Jews with origins in the Middle East or North Africa, were secondary citizens–they came later, after the state. He felt that to use Zionist concepts in writing Israeli history was to politicize it.

VS: And it extends beyond just what goes in the history books. It’s also, as you’ve mentioned, language–what do you call things, what do you call people, place names, all of those different things…

LS: Absolutely. Museums, archeology. It permeates everything. One of the most devastating critiques is in the work of a scholar at Ben Gurion by the name of Oren Yiftachel. Yiftachel is a political geographer studying the way in which land and boundaries are established within Israel and the occupied territories. He came up with the argument that you cannot really call Israel a democracy because it’s dominated by one ethnic group. About four years ago, he published a book called Ethnocracy (University of Pennsylania, 2006), and one of the things he shows is that through the way in which Zionist concepts get painted in Israel, the land becomes “Judaized.” It’s perceived as “Jewish land” from the Jewish perspective. The land is owned by the state; houses in certain places can’t be sold to Arabs. So I think Yiftachel’s critique was a very telling critique. He doesn’t consider himself a postzionist. He doesn’t think the word means anything, so he dismissed it. I tried to argue that it had a value, but he didn’t think so.

VS: Why is it that, among many of the scholars who are identified with postzionism or whose views seem to be aligned with postzionism, there is such a resistance to using that term? And why have you chosen to use it?

LS: I think some, like Yiftachel, don’t even want to be involved with that controversy. They feel that they’re scholars; they do their work; they reach their conclusions; they have their evidence, and it’s got nothing to do with Zionism or postzionism. So he feels, I think, that the use of the term doesn’t add anything to his scholarship. But I think it’s a decisive term in a debate about Israeli identity, and it’s useful for distinguishing different kinds of perspectives. Over the years, I came to feel that it has a very specific meaning, even though the meanings are pretty loose and they change. I think a postzionist is one who has concluded that as long as Israel is dominated by Zionist discourse, it cannot adequately address the challenges that it faces. Now, some people may be postzionist and not know it, and some people may be called postzionist. Baruch Kimmerling didn’t like the term. He wasn’t as reactive as Yiftachel was. Uri Ram, the sociologist, used it to identify himself and the kind of sociology he advocated. He was one of the few. And it was first applied by cynics, the Zionist critics. And by saying that you’re a postzionist, they essentially wanted to equate that with anti-Zionists.

VS: What is the difference between postzionism and anti-Zionism, or simply non-Zionism?

LS: It depends on the usage. I would say once Zionism prevailed, it was hard to say you’re non-Zionist, because Zionism was there wherever you looked. So there were some who said, “We’re postzionist because once we had the state, we’ve achieved what we wanted and can move beyond it.” Others feel, though, that’s not what it means. What it means is that we have to attend to the ways that Zionism creates unjust practices– land practices, judicial practices–and we have to correct them. There are liberal Zionists who believe that a) Israel is a democracy; b) it will be able to address the kinds of injustices that the critics point to through the legal system, the judicial system. I think a postzionist feels that it’s too late.

VS: And what do you mean by that, that it’s too late?

LS: The Zionist categories have so insinuated themselves into the judicial system and into the political system that you would never be able to achieve a society in which non-Jews–particularly Arabs and Palestinians–would have an equitable place in the society. And the whole way in which, let’s say, the settlers moved into the territories. And it wasn’t just the right-wingers who either turned a blind eye or actually materially helped the settlers. It was both Labor and Likud governments, all the way through. So why was Labor doing it? Well, I think that they still had the same idea of what Zionism was about: it was about taking back the land. And even though they on their own may not have gone into the West Bank and founded some settlements, once there were people doing it, they had very ambivalent feelings about, you know, stopping these people. I can’t for the life of me conceive of any government being able to effectively remove the settlers. A significant number of them who are probably there for economic reasons would leave, but a significant number are there for ideological reasons, and we saw what happened in Gaza with the disengagement: in August 2005, Israel evacuated its 21 settlements containing approximately 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. The emotionally charged disengagement was a target of considerable protest and nonviolent resistance by settlers and their supporters.

VS: Do you feel, then, that a two-state solution is impossible at this stage, or do you think it may still happen?

LS: Well, I think there are some encouraging signs on the Palestinian side. There are these groups that are set up, commercial structures and things like that, and the police force is operating. I think that what they’re trying to do is not too different from what the Israelis tried to do to build the state of Israel. The Jews came in and set up the Jewish Agency, and essentially established a framework for a state. And when the Mandate ended and the British left, they were ready. And I think that’s what’s happening in the West Bank. There’s a core of very savvy leaders who are going ahead on the assumption that they’re responsible for establishing their own institutions. But I honestly don’t know. Am I optimistic? No. And there are Israelis, the very few that remain on the Left, who are not optimistic either. And among a certain group of American Jewish intellectuals, there is a growing sense of disillusionment.

So who knows what can happen in twenty or thirty or forty years, but I think that the Israelis are making a mistake in assuming that time is on their side. The Palestinians, or the Arabs, always believed that time was on their side, because they’d been there for so long. I was hopeful for awhile that the Obama administration was going to be serious, but they haven’t been. Just one of the many ways in which some groups of liberals feel less than thrilled about Obama. He says they have to stop building [the settlements], and then he turns a blind eye to it. His public stance is on par with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (a right-leaning pro-Israel lobbying organization), although he did invite J Street (which describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and lobbies for a two-state solution) to the White House. But he’s not really listening to them.

VS: If these things continue–the expansion of settlements, the demographics changing where the balance is tipping more in favor of an Arab majority in the future, and so on–if there is no two state solution, can Israel remain both a Jewish state and a democracy? Would you say it has ever been both?

LS: I think they’re contradicting. There’s a wonderful discussion in a book that David Grossman wrote called Sleeping on a Wire (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1993), and (Arab-Israeli writer) Anton Shammas is arguing with (Jewish-Israeli writer) A.B. Yehoshua, who considers himself a liberal. And Anton is arguing that as a Palestinian, when he lands in France or someplace else, his passport doesn’t identify him as an Israeli. It identifies him as an Arab, from what I understand. He wants a passport that says “Israeli,” and Yehoshua says, “Yeah, but Israel is a Jewish state in the same way that France is a French state, and nobody complains about France being a French state.” It’s a total misunderstanding. If you want to compare France to a French state, then you have to consider Israel an Israeli state, because the nationality is Israeli, not Jewish.

In my course on Israel, I have my students read two articles on the question, “Is Israel a democracy?” One is by Alan Dowty, who wrote a book called The Jewish State: A Century Later(University of California, 2001). He’s a political scientist in the United States, and he argues that if you look at Israel’s institutions and elections, it’s democratic. The structure is democratic. And then I have them look at one of Yiftachel’s articles. Yiftachel has not as much interest in the structure as in the practices, and the way in which the land becomes Judaized, by which Jewishness is the determining factor in the ways the land gets used, divided, and things like that.

VS: It seems, at least from my experiences, that college campuses can be very contentious hot spots for this issue. I think they’re very polarized.

LS: It’s interesting. For reasons I could never particularly understand, it never happened at Lehigh.There was an article published in the New York Review of Books sometime earlier this year–it could have been in February–by a professor from Columbia by the name of Peter Beinart. Some Jewish philanthropists hired someone to do focus groups of young Jews to get a sense of their attitudes toward Israel. What they discovered is that members of the younger generation of Jews privilege their liberal values over their identification with the state. So to the extent that they see the state violating what they consider to be liberal values, they come down as critics. That’s not surprising to me. There were times in my course on Israel where I commented that this particular book on Israeli identity is considered to be controversial in Israel–this was about four or five years ago–and my students who had read the book couldn’t understand why, whether they were Jewish or not.

There have also been sociological population studies that show that since the late ’80s, early ’90s, there is clearly a growing decline in the sense of identification with Israel among the younger generation. I would like to hope that the success of J Street and the fact that an alternative PAC was established and that even though there’s still strong support in the Jewish community for AIPAC, a lot of helpful criticism has risen to the challenge. So things have definitely changed, and there is a greater possibility of public debate and criticism. There are very few Jews of college age or older, from that generation, who could be cowed into keeping silent. They wouldn’t buy it. I think it’s changing. Things haven’t changed totally; they’re in the process of changing. So [the relationship with] Israel is changing. The role of the Holocaust is probably changing, because it ties together.

VS: How has that changed?

LS: Well, I think that the way that second-generation survivors, American writers, have dealt with the Holocaust has been far more complicated and complex than just the issue of a survivor. You take someone like Art Spiegelman–have you read Maus? (The popular graphic novel portrays the author’s relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, and relates his father’s story.) It’s a totally different way of looking at it. It’s complicated; it actually portrays a survivor in critical terms. And there are other kinds of writings that deal with the complexity of the telling of the story, of representing the Holocaust. I also think that some of the emphasis on the Holocaust in Jewish education has turned some Jewish students off.

I did a course at Lehigh called “Responses to the Holocaust,” in which we’d read post-Holocaust writing. Take somebody like Primo Levi, who raises all kinds of questions about memory, about testimony, about how much can you rely on inmates to tell the story. He was an inmate. And he wrote an essay called “The Gray Zone,” in which he deals with that fine line between participating and being complicit in evil and perpetrating evil and judging, and all these kinds of things. So there are all kinds of issues that have been raised that weren’t raised when it was a black-and-white story. A lot of this may not have drifted down to the general public. Another example would be Hannah Arendt. She wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem (Peter Smith, June 1994), and she was pilloried for writing that Eichmann was a plain guy; he was banal; he wasn’t this overwhelming evil; and that Jewish leadership in the ghettos were complicit with some of what went on. And she was just pilloried, but I hear her name being cited more and more by Jewish intellectuals as a resource for an alternative way of thinking about being Jewish. Judith Butler is one of them, but there are plenty of others.

Jews were asked which of these factors is really an act of Jewish identity. So they would have reading Jewish books, taking courses, going to synagogue, observing holidays, remembering the Holocaust, identifying with Israel. Remembering the Holocaust was up at the top. I don’t know if it still is. What does that mean? Sometimes I’ll ask my students, “Is there anything that all Jews have in common?” And they try all these different things and see that they don’t really work, and then they come up with a common history. And I say, “Well, what do you mean by a common history?” And they’ll say something like, “Well, the Holocaust.” I’ll say, “You experienced the Holocaust?” Well, no. I say, “So what do you mean a common history?” Well, because we remember it. Okay, so what does remembering it mean? And it gets a lot more complicated. While the Holocaust will always be an important factor in Jewish historical consciousness, it can’t be the basis of a vital, vibrant, creative identity. Nor can Israel. And now we’re seeing that. In some ways, there’s a lot of very exciting stuff going on, experiments in different kinds of Jewish identity, especially by younger Jews.

VS: Do you have any thoughts for people who want to transcend the polarization over Israel? Especially for young Jews who feel a strong attachment to Israel and care about Israel, but who want to see more nuance in discussing the issues related to Israel and move beyond this victim mentality. Do you have any thoughts on that?

LS: I’d have them read Spiegelman. I get e-mails every day from J Street; I get e-mails every day from a guy who runs a blog called The Magnes Zionist. He’s a Modern Orthodox Jewish scholar who’s raised his kids in Israel. His kids have served in the Israeli army, and basically he’s arguing for the position of a binational state. Jewish Voice for Peace–go to their website. I think it’s important that there are places that are accessible online that engage in exactly the kind of conversation you’re talking about. If some of these have local chapters to participate in, that’s a possibility.

I don’t find that J Street totally expresses my thinking, but it certainly is a far-reaching difference, and they’ve gained credibility. They’re worrying some of the more conservative groups. And there are just a lot of books out there. There are an enormous number of good books out there that tell a far more balanced version of Israel and the Middle East. It’s not uncommon for me to have Jewish students in a course on Israel who, upon first reading these books, ask, “How come we didn’t hear about this when we were going to Hebrew school?” There are groups like Rabbis for Human Rights; there are Doctors without Borders, who have made strong statements about the Middle East. And there are websites in Israel–a great one is B’tselem, which is Hebrew for “In the Image.” They’re a leading human rights organization, and they put up different maps. This is much more available today, partly as a result of the Web and partly because the climate is changing.