Michael Shalev, Labor and the Political Economy in Israel (Oxford, 1992).

Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (Oxford, 1992).

Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation and the Countdown to the Suez War (Clarendon Press, 1993).

In early March 1995, the minutes of Knesset cabinet meetings from May 1948 through April 1949 were opened for public inspection, ten years ahead of schedule. They document David Ben Gurion’s reluctant acceptance of the UN partition plan and his intention to defy its temporary borders through territorial expansion. This early declassification has a political resonance, suggesting a new willingness to subject Israeli history to critical inspection. Yet, for reasons of “security,” significant portions of the documents — addressing Israel’s 1948 expulsion of over 50,000 from Ramle and Lod — remain classified. [1] Like the act of the declassification itself, revisionist scholarship has a clear political genealogy. The brutalities of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, coupled with Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, gave rise to a new mode of scholarship committed to reevaluating national myths. These new histories demonstrated unprecedented interest in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians of both Israel and the Occupied Territories and the legacy of Zionist state violence. But Israeli revisionism is heterogeneous, and much of it treads ambivalently on the borders of Zionist ideology, such that even radical critiques of state building often return to conventional apologies for state formation, couched in the myths of an original socialist vision. [2]

Israeli sociologist Michael Shalev critiques these myths of socialist origin. Labor and the Political Economy in Israel offers a comprehensive history of the Histadrut (the General Organization of Workers in the Land of Israel) and the political dominance of the Israeli Labor Party through 1977. Shalev argues that the Zionist labor movement was predicated not on class solidarity but on the institutionalized separation of Jews from Arabs, especially the Arab working class. In the absence of class solidarity, Mapai, the Labor Party’s precursor, was compelled to seek allies outside the working class. Shalev analyzes the labor movement’s struggle to realize a “historic compromise” with corporate interests, and the seeming paradox of such an alliance in the context of social democracy. He concludes that the fall of the Labor Party in 1977 might be attributed to the loss of state autonomy produced by the state’s growing alliance with big business in the preceding decade.

Of particular interest is Shalev’s discussion of the Histadrut’s policy of national exclusivism (chapter 2) which contests the myth of a Labor Zionist workers’ alliance. Refusing to insulate the Second Aliyah from a history of racist state ideologies, Shalev explicitly names the labor movement as “the standard bearer of Jewish exclusivity.” (34) Following the work of Gershon Shafir, Shalev traces the history of Labor’s commitment to the “Hebrew conquest of labor” — a policy driven, Shafir argues, by the desire to develop an autonomous Jewish infrastructure insulated from the threat of cheap Arab labor. Shalev suggests that 1920s Histadrut policy aimed to “preempt spontaneous cooperation between Jewish and Arab trade unionists and prevent Arab labor from organizing.’ (43) The Histadrut did eventually open its doors to Palestinian citizens following state formation, yet continued to refuse membership to Palestinians from the territories despite their rising numbers in Israel’s blue-collar labor pool.

Despite Shalev’s radical departure from customary readings of the Zionist Labor movement, the gaps in his history are glaring, exemplifying a particular failing of Israeli revisionist scholarship. Shalev rejects the assessment of labor market separatism as “essentially economic,” arguing that “it is precisely the entanglement [sic] of ‘economic’ and ‘primordial’ cleavages which explains the pattern of collective action by Jewish workers.” (67, 317) Shalev’s ambiguous invocation of the “primordial” marks a place of absence, standing in for a discussion which lies outside the purview of the text. For even as Shalev rejects a purely economist account, he refuses to thematize race in his discussion of national exclusivism, ignoring possible relationships between Histadrut policies toward Palestinians and those toward Oriental Jews. He all but neglects the Zionist history of exploitation of the Jewish Mizrahi population, who were denied the material and symbolic resources afforded Ashkenazi citizens. That the Yishuv policies of Hebrew labor relied on a cheap Mizrahi workforce to replace Palestinian labor is relegated to several lines in this text. Nor does Shalev do more than briefly mentions Labor’s history of nearly exclusive Ashkenazi leadership. To fully account for the racism of the Israeli state, revisionist scholarship should examine Zionist exclusionist ideologies at their interstices, exploring the relationships between the heterogeneous violence perpetrated against Muslim, Christian and Jewish Arabs alike.

Anita Shapira’s Land and Power charts the shifting Zionist ethos of militarism, from Zionism’s emergence in the ghettos of Eastern Europe to the establishment of the state. Shapira offers a study of political culture, engaging the literature, mythologies and folk tradition of Jewish settlers as a means of explaining a changing national consciousness. Of particular interest is her discussion of the educational program of the Zionist youth movements, and their struggle to synthesize the ethos of the revolutionary socialist (armed with plowshare) with that of the nationalist fighter (armed with pistol). Shapira boldly asserts that such movements shared, in some regards, a discourse and ideology with the Etzel (Irgun) and Lehi movements of the militant Zionist right.

The subtitle articulates Shapira’s argument clearly. [3] This resort to force refers to the transition from what Shapira calls a defensive ethos (from 1881 to 1936) to an offensive ethos. In demarcating her history thus, Shapira returns to the heart of traditional historiography in its refusal to interrogate the state-building years, particularly the period of the Second Aliyah. This argument is possible because Shapira’s text lacks rigorous attention to political economy. She neglects, for example, any critical assessment of the Zionist closed market policy, which Shalev and Shafir understand as a means of mitigating the political and economic threat of Palestinian Arab laborers. Rather, Shapira argues (in florid prose) that early socialist Zionists reluctantly assumed the role of conquerors: “They were not swept up by the wave of messianic enthusiasm, nor did their hearts beat faster to the roar of the cannon…. Their decision to enlist [in the Jewish Legion] despite these misgivings derived from an awareness that the paths taken by history were unfathomable and that on occasion evil ultimately led to good in the dialectic turn of events.” Shapira is right to differentiate the settlers of this period from those of the militant right who emerged after the 1936 Arab revolt and the Peel Commission report. Yet her notion of force is uncritically narrow, excluding land expropriation as a tenet of violent conquest. The text’s conclusion exemplifies the text’s argumentative failures, as Shapira discusses the “traumatic” discrepancy between the exploitative “realities” of settlement in Palestine and the convictions of Second Aliyah immigrants, armed with “good will and purity of faith and their myriad attempts to elude a confrontation.” (367)

Israel’s Border Wars continues Benny Morris’ earlier work with a detailed, empirical analysis of Arab infiltration into Israel between the years 1949 and 1956 and Israeli “retaliation” (thus named by the state) against Arab border communities. Morris devotes considerable attention to the 1953 Israeli massacre at Qibya and the 1955 raid on the Egyptian military camp in Gaza (which marked a turning point in Egyptian policy toward the Jewish state). Morris’s central argument is clear and forceful: The 1956 war resulted from Israeli provocations on the borders. With Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan at the helm, the Israel Defense Forces launched the Sinai campaign as an expansionist war. It was, Morris writes, not only a “preemptive war,” which followed a history of Israeli refusals to negotiate with neighboring states but an “act of revenge” for damage inflicted in 1948. (428) Morris powerfully explodes the national myth of Ben Gurion’s Israel as embattled victim of Egyptian and Soviet militarism.

Readers of Morris’ Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, whose publication inaugurated his career as a revisionist historian, have commented on its troubling neglect of Arab sources and/or oral histories. This absence recurs in Israel’s Border Wars, coupled with a disturbing explanation. Following discussions of the difficulties of research in the Arab world, where few government archives are open to scholars, Morris writes: “Nevertheless, I believe that the wealth of Western…documentation on and from the Arab capitals provides a good basis for drawing a reasonably convincing picture of Arab thinking, decision making, policies and actions during these years.” (vi) While the difficulties of research are indisputable, Morris avoids addressing the politics of his source material and the power differentials with which they are inscribed.

One such gap in Morris’ scholarship is his treatment of Palestinians: They are denied the status of actors in Morris’ narrative, their horrors ventriloquized through the testimony of foreign observers. They are the invisible targets of state “retaliation,” a policy which took the lives of between 2,700 and 5,000 “Arab infiltrators” between 1949 and 1956. (416) This invisibility is bolstered by a recurring euphemism: The vast majority of such “infiltrators” were, Morris underscores, civilians crossing the border to retrieve crops and belongings, “a direct consequence of the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians…who understandably coveted lost houses [and] lands.” (411) Yet Morris repeatedly names these border crossings as acts of “economic infiltration.” This metaphor criminalizes the refugee condition and mitigates the injustices of state violence against a (largely) civilian population. By ignoring the politics of citation and vocabulary, revisionist scholarship radically curtails its ability to rethink Zionism’s history of racist discourse.


[1] News from Within (March 1995).
[2] For a concise history of Israeli revisionism and the politics of its emergence, see Zachary Lockman, “Original Sin,” in Zachary Lockman and Joel Beinin, eds., Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation (Boston: South End Press, 1989).
[3] Shapira’s defense of an original Zionist myth is even more prominent in the original Hebrew version, in which her defense resides in the title (rather than subtitle) itself. Translated literally, the title reads: The Sword of the Dove.

How to cite this article:

Rebecca L. Stein "The Limits of Revisionist Imagination," Middle East Report 198 (Spring 1996).

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