The Returns of Zionism

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(327)

Gabriel Piterberg, Verso, £16.99

This is an important and truly groundbreaking book. It belongs to a line of Israeli anti/post-Zionist scholarship that has emerged over the past 20 years. The Returns of Zionism takes a fresh look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and goes much further in destroying the romantic myths of Zionism. The book is also framed around the fact that Zionist texts systematically exclude the indigenous people of Palestine.

Its freshness lies in concentrating not on the endlessly debated events that have marked the Zionist occupation of Palestine, but rather in critically analysing the texts, both scholarly and literary, of the Zionist project, many of which have never previously been translated from Hebrew. Piterberg's aim is to locate the foundational myth of Zionism squarely within late 19th century colonial settler ideology. He shows how this myth of the "negation of exile" had far more in common with racist imperialism than with Judaism.

Indeed, Piterberg rescues a tradition of Jewishness embodied in the work of Hannah Arendt and the obscure French anarchist and sometime Zionist Bernard Lazare. They rejected the sterile dichotomy between assimilation and Zionist separatism by championing the concept of the "conscious pariah". European Jews, through their long history of exclusion and oppression, had developed a tradition of critical estrangement from their society. This helps to explain the prevalence of Jews at the cutting edge of social sciences and the arts, eg Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler.

Piterberg thus sets up this alternative Jewish outlook as one of "universal humanism" - the experience of relentless oppression and exclusion gave Jews a unique insight into the suffering of other oppressed groups within society. Again this explains the disproportionate number of Jews who have been involved in the socialist and communist movements.

The importance of reasserting this alternative Jewish identity cannot be overstated. It has been all but buried by the experience of the Holocaust followed by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Today, with the raising of the level of consciousness of Israel's crimes (past and present) in the context of the global anti-war movement, there is an urgent need to break the link between Jewish identity and Zionism. Piterberg does this magnificently.

The level of racist and even anti-Semitic bile that he exposes in Zionist texts is truly shocking, even to one who has no illusions in Zionism. Piterberg systematically demolishes every aspect of the Zionist myth, from the often told story of Theodor Herzl's supposed conversion to Zionism during the Dreyfus trial, to the "socialist" character of the kibbutz, to David Ben-Gurion's use of the Bible to justify Zionist occupation.

Piterberg's awe-inspiring erudition and highly sophisticated approach are admirable for avoiding the pitfalls of obscurantism, and academic pretentiousness. And his writing is full of wit throughout. My main criticism would be that the book comes to a juddering halt. After such a stimulating and wide ranging analysis, a summation bringing all the themes together is sadly lacking.