Nadav Shelef, Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity and Religion in Israel, 1925–2005 (Cornell, 2010).

In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose Likud Party advocated permanent Jewish control of the entire “Land of Israel,” orchestrated the withdrawal of Israeli military bases and Jewish settlements from Gaza. Four years later, another Israeli prime minister and Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared that he could accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in at least some part of the West Bank, again in apparent contradiction of his own party’s long-standing doctrine. Nadav Shelef, who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sees both of these episodes as illustrative of his central thesis: Nationalisms evolve. When he uses the term “evolve,” he means it quite literally — and in this book he elaborates a model that he contends can explain how and why the ideologies of various Zionist political parties in Palestine and then Israel have changed (often quite significantly) over time.

That conceptions of what the nation is, who belongs to it and what territory it should ideally encompass can and do change will not come as a surprise to anyone. In this sense, Shelef is not really saying anything new. Yet he is clearly on to something important: Nationalisms are never unitary or monolithic, and rival political leaders and groups advocate for — and endlessly struggle over — conflicting definitions of identity, the question of who properly belongs to the nation and who should be excluded, rival narratives of the past and visions of the future, and much else. The strength of Evolving Nationalism lies in its perceptive, concise and clearly written accounts of how key aspects of the ideologies of key Zionist political formations have shifted over time, including their conceptions of the specific territory that the Jewish state should claim. Yet the “survival of the fittest” mechanism that Shelef insists best explains these ideological transformations, the reductionism his model embodies and his explanatory privileging of Zionist/Israeli “domestic politics” end up leaving out too much historical context, and too many other dynamics and factors, that need to be part of the story he wants to tell.

In good political science fashion, Shelef sets forth three potential mechanisms that might account for changing conceptions of nationalism or, presumably, any other ideological transformation. The two he finds less useful are “rational adaptation,” in which some exogenous shock (such as war or economic crisis) compels political leaders and others to recognize that conditions have changed and modify their ideology accordingly, and “elite imposition,” in which elites consciously manipulate national symbols and identities, and reformulate ideology, to serve their own ends. The mechanism Shelef favors is what he calls the “evolutionary dynamic,” whereby the Darwinian concept of natural selection is used to explain ideological transformation: Conflicting ideological stances put forward by rival political leaders or forces, for example, regarding the nation’s proper identity, mission or boundaries, compete with one another, and eventually one stance proves more successful at enabling its proponents to secure supporters, forge useful alliances or achieve power. It thereby displaces its competitors and becomes established, though competition never ceases and an ideological formulation that is successful in one period may later be challenged and displaced.

Shelef’s approach yields some perspicacious insights into Zionist and Israeli politics. But his model’s shortcomings can already be seen in the case with which he begins: the Labor Zionists’ abandonment of their initial conception of the Land of Israel (and the future Jewish state). Labor Zionists initially believed Israel should encompass not only all of what became Mandate Palestine but also extensive territory to the east of the Jordan River and large stretches of southern Lebanon; eventually, they became willing to accept a Jewish state covering only part of Mandate Palestine. Shelef draws on statements by David Ben Gurion and other Labor Zionist leaders, and maps produced by their movement, to illustrate these contentious shifts, which he explains in terms of the evolutionary dynamic: Ben Gurion’s Mapai party gave up on the idea of securing territory beyond the boundaries of Mandate Palestine and accepted partition (and eventually the 1949 armistice lines) because these ideological stances outcompeted their maximalist rivals by best enabling Mapai to establish its leadership of the Zionist movement and win broad support among Jews worldwide.

Because Shelef’s model focuses almost exclusively on competition within and among Zionist parties, Evolving Nationalism can relate only part of the story. Neither British colonialism nor Palestinian resistance play any significant role in his account; yet Ben Gurion and his colleagues were well aware that, in the face of growing Palestinian opposition, the Zionist project in Palestine was critically dependent on British support and protection. The Zionist movement therefore had little choice but to accept the British decision in 1921–1922 to constitute Transjordan as a separate political entity and restrict the “Jewish national home” to Palestine. Labor Zionists’ willingness to accept a Jewish state in less than all of Palestine, pending more propitious circumstances, also requires a more nuanced explanation than Shelef ’s model allows for. Moreover, he resolutely ignores the ways in which historical and sociological factors constrained the strategic and tactical choices, and ideological shifts, made by Zionist leaders and factions. So, for example, Evolving Nationalism never engages with Gershon Shafir’s argument that Labor Zionist settlers’ encounter with the social realities of late Ottoman Palestine helped shape the Zionist project’s trajectory and ultimately conduced to acceptance of partition. Nor does he attend to the ways in which post-1967 shifts in Israeli society may have affected political preferences among Mizrahi Jews, among others.

Shelef also traces the process by which the Likud eventually abandoned its assertion that the East Bank (today’s Jordan) was an integral part of the Land of Israel and, more recently, its adamant rejection of a Palestinian state. On these issues as on many others, Shelef has several interesting things to say, but he is often so fixated on proving the explanatory superiority of the evolutionary dynamic that he misses the forest for the trees. For example, he argues that the Likud’s newfound readiness to cite the “demographic threat” (of losing Israel’s Jewish majority) as justification for giving up part ofthe Land of Israel cannot be explained in terms of rational adaptation — as a response to the second intifada, for instance, or a recognition of the demographic consequences of annexing the West Bank and Gaza — because that mechanism should have led the Likud to advocate withdrawal from the West Bank, whose Palestinian population is much larger than that of Gaza. Similarly, the premises and scope of his model do not allow him to address the argument that Sharon engineered the withdrawal from Gaza precisely in order to cement permanent Israeli control of the West Bank, which has always been much more important to Zionists of all stripes; nor does he deem it pertinent to explore what Netanyahu and his colleagues actually mean when they speak of a Palestinian state or how that conception relates to long-standing Zionist visions of the land and the status and fate of its non-Jewish indigenous inhabitants.

Evolving Nationalism is worth reading for the clear and intelligent analyses it offers of discursive shifts in competing variants of Zionist ideology. But in the end Shelef’s analytical approach proves unable to make adequate sense of how ideological adjustments that serve tactical and strategic ends relate to a broader and deeper Zionist discourse that has actually displayed a great deal of continuity over the past century or so. This discourse, shared by quite disparate sociopolitical forces in Israel, still underpins an ongoing project of Israeli Jewish dominance and Palestinian subordination and dispossession.

How to cite this article:

Zachary Lockman "Evolutionary Constant," Middle East Report 258 ( ).
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