Yaron Ezrahi, Rubber Bullets: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997).

In April 1998, two TV commemorations of Israel’s fiftieth were aired simultaneously in Israel and North America. Live from Los Angeles, CBS presented a star-studded salute (from Steven Spielberg to Arnold Schwarzenegger) with a satellite connection to Jerusalem. Viewers at home, joining the Hollywood audience in black tie, were treated to an undifferentiated pastiche of American Jewish kitsch (Fiddler on the Roof favorites), film footage of state building, stand-up comedy and somber historical monologues dramatizing the words of national leaders. This was a multicultural North America celebrating Israel, from Stevie Wonder and the gospel choir to video portraits of a diverse community of white Americans paying tribute to the state. Israel, CBS assured viewers, is about all of “us”: “I guess no matter where you grow up,” host Michael Douglas incanted, “that rocky sliver of land touches you.” That “Arabs,” let alone “Palestinians,” went virtually unmentioned, should not surprise. CBS’ story of a people seeking freedom, escape from persecution and a place of their own was not complicated by counter-histories.

Simultaneously, Israel’s government-run television station continued its controversial documentary of state history, in 22 widely viewed episodes. Tkuma (Rebirth), Israeli commentators agree, tells a “post-Zionist” story of the state, “challenging the founding myths and raising long-repressed questions about the nation’s birth and conflict with the Arabs.” [1] Many Parliament members and conservative analysts have found its content sacrilege in the extreme. Ariel Sharon: “[The documentary) undermines any moral basis for the establishment of the state of Israel.” Communications Minister (Likud) Limor Livnat: “[It) systematically distorts the great Zionist deed.” The program’s very mandate, she argues, is anathema to the historic purpose of national media: “[T)he Israeli public broadcasting channel is not supposed to show the propagandistic position of the Palestinians while pushing aside all our myths.” At a time when public commemoration of Israel’s fiftieth has been met by little national enthusiasm (and perpetual mismanagement by the Ministry of Tourism), Tkuma has brought its revisionist historiography into the nation’s living rooms. Episodes have documented the history of the PLO, state-sponsored underdevelopment in the “Israeli Arab sector,” and, perhaps most controversially, the massacre at Dayr Yasin, its history complicated by new accounts of the number of its victims.

Despite the numerous political blind spots within this Israeli retelling, and those that haunt leftist historiography more broadly, [2] the media’s willingness to open state history to critical scrutiny stands in sharp contrast to CBS’ gala affair. Buried beneath its schmaltz and nostalgia is an enduring North American tradition of policing critique of Israel, in fora from the daily press to the academy, often bolstered with the reductive label of “anti-Semitism,” leveled equally against Jewish critics. Even after the 1993 Oslo accords and concomitant shifts in Israeli state discourses, there has been little space in North American public cultures for anything but the most patriotic histories of Israeli state building. In the CBS studios, “making the desert bloom” still functions as a compelling and necessary narrative of state building.

Perhaps most telling is Tkuma’s “newness”: “For the first time in its history,” wrote dovish Israeli political analyst Gideon Levy, “Israeli television presented the story of the country’s occupation from the standpoint of its victims.” [3] As Meron Benvenisti suggests, the Jewish Israeli public has been shielded from these alternative stories by a complicated political consensus:

Paradoxically, it is the post-Zionist left who is afraid to directly confront the moral dilemmas of 1948, specifically the banishments and the destruction of the Palestinian landscape. Since 1967, they have focused on the injustices of the occupation because they want to distinguish clearly between the pre- and post-1967 war periods…. There is a bizarre tacit agreement between those who are concerned with protecting the image of Zionism as a just, humane movement and those who call for recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, but who hope to thereby liberate themselves from the dilemmas of 1948. [4]

Revisionist historiography of the academic left shares this ambivalent relationship to pre-1967 history. Anita Shapira’s Land and Power is a telling example, in which a narrative of Second Aliyah ethics eclipses concurrent histories of settler-colonial interest and power. [5] Benvenisti’s account has its own blind spots, namely, the ways in which the left’s focus on 1967 neglects histories of state-authorized racism against Mizrahi Jews which correspond to a very different periodization. Histories of inequity are further occluded by the largely polar conception of power Jew versus Arab, in which Mizrahi repression is virtually invisible.

Rubber Bullets and Militaristic Cultures

The political limits of the Israeli left have been expressed again in Rubber Bullets by acclaimed Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi. Despite its persistent and irreverent critique of Israeli cultures of nationalism, Rubber Bullets fails to interrogate the Rabin-led Labor administration and its histories of aggression and territorialism. Instead, it reinscribes the post-assassination mythology of Rabin as peacemaker that has become a popular companion narrative to contemporary critiques of the Netanyahu administration in both Israel and North America.

Departing from traditional state-centered analyses of political science, Rubber Bullets offers a cultural critique of contemporary Israeli society, culminating in the late years of the Rabin-Peres administration. The lens of Ezrahi’s investigation is wide, moving with analytic dexterity among a broad range of Israeli artifacts and histories: cultures and rituals of militarism, popular ideologies of Israeli masculinity, conceptions of private space, television programming, literary genres, intifada histories. At the center of this text is an argument about the nation’s “master narrative” of collectivism — a narrative, he argues, that collaborated with a history of national militarism in thwarting a culture of individualism. Ezrahi contends that Israel can only be transformed into a truly “democratic” polity by building “an Israeli culture of the self”. Indeed, this is the political itinerary he finds most urgent. “Ultimately a resilient Israeli democratic culture would have to be nourished by emancipated Israeli individuals capable of creating, or living in, personal narrative spaces resistant to the imperial power of the epic narratives of religion, ideology and history”.

The strengths of this text should not be overlooked. In the context of much Israeli scholarship on the state and its institutions, many of his assertions are bold. Ezrahi insists, for example, on linking Israeli cultures of militarism to a history of state-mandated collectivism (in which the fallen soldier is publicly mourned as a national symbol rather than personal loss) and to a broad repertoire of state sanctioned Jewish religious practices. The same can be said of his analysis of Israeli masculinity and its relationship to state discourses and institutions, and, importantly, Ezrahi’s willingness to put Zionist narratives of Jewish redemption in dialogue with “the counter-narratives of conquest, colonialism, and domination”. His analysis of collectivism is valuable precisely because of its breadth, attending to a widely differentiated set of national practices and mythologies, including the texts of eulogies, memoirs and army conscription notices.

Ezrahi argues that Israel’s culture of collectivism and its attendant violence is in the process of change. He marks the beginnings of this cultural shift with Israel’s response to the intifada, or more precisely with the army’s 1988 decision to deploy rubber bullets for use against the uprising’s unarmed Palestinian combatants. While he concedes that the use of rubber bullets resulted in tens of intifada deaths, and, as some Israeli activists argued at the time, enabled the army to pursue force in the guise of moderation, he argues that their deployment marked a critical turning point: “[T]he rubber bullet introduced by the Israeli army during the intifada symbolized the recognition that Israel’s commitment to democratic values and its investment in its internationally recognized status as a democracy set limits to the legitimate use of force in the cause of the Jewish state”.

While the ability to submit military cultures and technology to semiotic analysis is not in question, readers of Middle East Report will undoubtedly take issue with Ezrahi’s assessment of intifada army policy, and his largely parenthetical concession to the history of rubber-bullet fatalities. His celebration of the democratic potential of “individualism,” and discussion of national obstruction in the past, yields just as many questions, and threatens to reinscribe the nationalist master narratives he wants to contest. “Together, religious, nationalist, and socialist Zionisms have combined the power of various modern Jewish epic narratives to depreciate the story of individual life.” Whose individual life? The text pays insufficient attention to the heterogeneity of the Israeli nation (split along lines of religion, ethnicity, class, country of origin, gender and sexuality) and their different historical experiences as (or denied ability to be) citizen-subjects, in both juridical and symbolic terms. Certainly Ezrahi would not disagree that histories of state deprecation are different, although related. The experience of “the individual” Mizrahi woman is not simply equivalent to that of the Galilee Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. The violence of an ideology of national collectivism lies precisely in its myth of an undifferentiated Israel, in which the nation is represented as homogeneous. By returning to the singular, unmarked “individual” as a site of democratic transformation, Ezrahi reproduces the very blindness that have made mythologies and practices of collectivism so damaging.

Perhaps most troubling is the text’s conclusion. Even as Ezrahi marks the intifada deployment of rubber bullets as a national watershed, as a moment of both symbolic and material reassessment of army policies against Palestinian resistance, he hails Rabin as the consummate protagonist of this national turn towards restraint and “peace.” While he notes the failures of post-assassination mythologizing — namely its disregard for Rabin’s militaristic history and infamous intifada record — Ezrahi’s account stresses the dovish reforms of the Labor tenure, celebrating its commitment to both limited force and limited territorial ambitions. “With Rabin’s victory in the 1992 elections, Peace Now’s long-standing desire to curb the use of military force against the Palestinians and exchange land for peace became official Israeli policy”. Similarly, “The attempt to reinstall a version of the Green Line following the intifada meant an increased willingness to enforce a distinction between ’Homeland‘ and ’occupation‘.”. That a book so committed to refuting Israeli political myths should conclude here, extolling Oslo and praising Rabin as peacemaker, distressingly marks the epistemological limits of Israeli leftist revisionist scholarship. Absent from this story of territorial concession is the history of military closure, first imposed by the Labor administration in the spring of 1993, and the virtual division of East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Nor does it account for the ways in which the autonomy plan, as brokered by the Labor party, violently obstructed the territorial contiguity of the West Bank and Gaza, looking little like the end to occupation Ezrahi celebrates. Also effaced from the narrative is an account of the government’s mass deportation of 415 Palestinians in December 1992 — a political act Likud deemed unthinkable for fear of broad opposition from Labor and left-activists. Nor does Ezrahi discuss internal Palestinian, regional and international political shifts during the Labor tenure that enabled the peace process to emerge: PLO concessions, changes in Arab world economic interests and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a reviewer in the New York Times noted, Ezrahi “ascrib[es] Israel’s willingness to make peace with the Palestinians largely to the changing consciousness of Israelis. [6]

Histories of the Present

Rubber Bullets was very popularly received in the US, prominently displayed in academic bookstores, favorably reviewed in the New York Times, discussed at length on National Public Radio and, most notably, selected for the Jewish Book Award of 1996. Its “post-modern” sensibilities, and the scope of its critique (however limited) would likely have prevented analogous popular acclaim in Israel, save among select academic audiences, had the text first been published in Hebrew. In North America, the popularity of Ezrahi’s account is due both to his strengths as a scholar, and to a new willingness to think critically about Israeli histories of aggression within liberal academic circles. Leftist criticism of Israeli policy is now uniquely possible in the face of an administration that is so easy to hate. Yet it is here that the specter of CBS returns. For, as in Ezrahi’s account, critiques are often marked by decisive political limits, often resounding with a nostalgic celebration of Labor’s peace process heroes. Like Ezrahi, progressive North America has largely failed to evaluate critically the history of Labor rule and its shared responsibility, as Oslo’s architects, for the current breakdown of a peace process structured on multiple terms of inequity. Perhaps Israel’s new attention to reevaluating national pasts might make critical evaluation of the present more possible, in Israel and North America, on and off TV.


[1] New York Times, April 10, 1998.
[2] See Rebecca Stein, “The Limits of the Revisionist Imagination,” Middle East Report 197 (January-March 1996), p. 48. On Tkuma’s shortcomings, see Rachel Jones, “Tkuma: Neither Resurrection nor Renewal,” News from Within 13/4 (April 1998), pp. 26-27.
[3] Gideon Levy “Insecure about the Rightness of Our Cause,” Ha’aretz, March 15, 1998.
[4] Ha’aretz, January 9, 1998.
[5] Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). For an exemplary work of Israeli historiography that refuses this mythologizing frame on the second aliyah, see Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Question of Palestine, 1882-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
[6] Richard Bernstein, “The Semiotics of Rubber Bullets in Israeli Society,” New York Times, February 26, 1997.

How to cite this article:

Rebecca L. Stein "From Schmaltz to Sacrilege," Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This