Grappling with Post-Zionism

Paul J. White, University of Sydney

Ephraim Nimni (ed.) The Challenge of Post-Zionism, London, Zed Books, 2003 (209 pp). ISBN 1-85649-894-8 (paperback) RRP $38.95.

Roane Carey & Jonathan Shanin (eds.) The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent The New Press, 2002 (208 pp). ISBN 1-56584-789-X (hard cover) RRP $42.00.

Only the most courageous scholars ever dare label their worldview post-something. From post-structuralism to post-colonialism and post-nationalism, the ubiquitous ‘post’ prefix is fraught with peril. Clearly it is at least a partial negation of whatever it claims to supersede. However, it is not always as easy to clearly delineate exactly what alternative the ‘reformed’ version offers.

This is clearly demonstrated by the obvious difficulty that the contributors to Nimni’s collection have in agreeing on a definition of ‘post-Zionism’. According to Avishai Erlich (p. 64), the term denotes a liberal ‘ideological offshoot of capitalist globalization’ that is equally opposed to mainstream conservative Zionism, to rightist religious Zionism and to socialist Zionism. For Nimni, it signifies the proposition ‘that Israel should develop a type of civic identity and an institutional framework oriented to the universal values of liberal democracy’ (p. 2). All its advocates seem agreed that Israel needs to embrace a wholly secular identity. It is worth stressing, however, that the process of thinking through the post-Zionist project is still very much in flux. For some of its Israeli opponents, the term equates with ‘anti-Zionism’. This is ironic, since for the more militant exponents of Palestinian nationalism, post-Zionism might evoke suspicion of an attempt to repackage mainstream Zionism.

The two books under review form a neat duo. Nimni’s (2003) edited collection attempts to contribute to a theoretical basis for the ‘post-Zionist’ approach, while the collection edited by Carey and Shanin (2002) provides rich documentary evidence for many of the claims in Nimni’s book.

What is post-Zionism post-?

Modern Political Zionism began in Europe, as a movement designed to deliver the Jews from what was perceived to be an eternal, ineradicable dynamic by sectors of the Gentile world to dilute Jewish culture—if not exterminate the Jews altogether. Moses Hess (1812–1875), arguably the father of Political Zionism, wrote: ‘We Jews shall always remain strangers among the nations …’. He continued:

If it were true that Jewish emancipation in exile is incompatible with Jewish nationality, then it is the duty of the Jews to sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter … One must be a Jew first and a human being second (cited in Menuhin 1975, pp. 25–26).

At the centre of this worldview is a profound pessimism: anti-semitism is eternal, because it is impossible to eradicate. The man who galvanised Political Zionism as a mass political movement, Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), reflected this outlook in all of his writings. In his classic Zionist text Der Judenstaat (1896), for instance, he writes:

The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilised—for instance France—until the Jewish question finds solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of Anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America (Herzl [1896] 1976, p. 6).

According to this analysis, therefore, it was at best foolish—if not utterly counter-productive—to actively resist anti-semitism. Herzl’s reaction to the infamous Dreyfus case, in which a French Jew was framed up by the French judiciary, illustrates this. He wrote in his diary:

In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now begin to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism (cited in Brenner, 1983, p. 1).

According to classical Zionism, the Jews were simply so different that assimilation in Gentile society was a useless illusion. Given that the Jews were supposedly not wanted in any Gentile society—and that anti-Semitism was allegedly ineradicable—there was no option but to seek ‘sovereignty … over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves’ (Herzl [1896] 1976, p. 9).

There are problems in systematising post-Zionism—as those attempting to construct it freely acknowledge.

Nimni, Carey, Shanin and other contemporary commentators on the trends in Zionist thought demonstrate how far at least some Jewish thinkers have moved from this pessimistic outlook. Nevertheless, there are real problems in systematising the new outlook—as those attempting to construct it freely acknowledge. The term post-Zionism is still used too loosely, covering a vast swathe of opinions. On the right of Jewish politics these include those such as Michael Ben-Yair (in Carey and Shanin pp. 13–15), who assert that Israel’s foundation was a highly moral action. The spectrum of post-Zionist thinkers continues all the way to the left, to also embrace outspoken anti-Zionists such as Ilan Pappé (in Nimni, pp. 42–62) and Nimni himself (pp. 117–152), who reject Zionism root and branch. Nira Yuval-Davis even goes as far as denouncing Zionism as ‘Janus-faced’, for attempting to pose simultaneously as a national liberation movement and a colonial settler movement.

For Uri Ram (in Nimni, p. 35–36), ‘post-Zionism’ seems a perfect example of how outdated overarching (supposedly ‘essentialist’) concepts of identity (‘primordial, fixed, homogenous identity’) and ‘objective memory’ have become. Ram champions critical ‘narratives that allude to other identities’ that ‘deconstruct the national meta-narrative’. ‘Post-Zionism’ has therefore emerged as ‘a globalist, post-Zionist ethos’, to challenge the ‘ethno-religious, neo-Zionist ethos’. Hanna Herzog (in Nimni, pp. 153–67) agrees that mainstream Zionism faces contestation from alternative voices within Israeli civil society. For her, however, the profusion of feminist voices is most significant, since these voices contain the potential of ‘civil-ising Israeli society’ (in Nimni, p. 164) and breaking it from its state/national centredness.

All this has been percolating among Jewish intellectuals for some time. The genesis of Post-Zionist trends of thought has already been discussed elsewhere by scholars such as Zeev Sternhell, evoking the influence of the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) on Israelis. Sternhell argues that what he terms the ‘normalisation of the Jewish condition’ (that is, the end of palpable global persecution of the Jews) allowed Israel to ‘became engaged in a liberalisation which inexorably shattered the old one-dimensional Zionism’. This has permitted the emergence of:

The new Israeli, Jewish but secular, still in the minority but very present, oriented to the values of the 200 year-old French revolution, has begun over the last years to forge an independent identity which has nothing to do with the religion of his forefathers and ‘divine promise’ (1998).

Sternhall concludes, on a note of great optimism: a ‘second Zionist revolution … is already under way’.

Rejecting any notion of universal Jewish politics, Nimni argues passionately that diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews have developed contradictory interests and (as a consequence) opposed outlooks. In this reading, Israeli Jews, by and large, have actually developed into a distinct ethnic nationalist identity, through a process he terms ‘ethnogenesis’. Diaspora Jews, in contrast, are in a more ambivalent situation. On the one hand, the palpable lessening of anti-semitism has increasingly accommodated them to assimilation in their respective Western liberal democratic states. On the other hand, fear of a loss of ‘Jewish continuity’ (p. 125) has impelled them to continue supporting Israel.

The key to resolving this contradictory dynamic, Nimni argues, is for the Israelis and the diaspora Jews to cease being fatalistically wedded to each other. Such a rupture would benefit both—as well as finally delivering justice to the Palestinians. All this should be possible in the near future, he and others argue, due to Israel’s supposed transformation into a multicultural society. Yuval-Davis contests the ‘complacency’ of this assessment (in Nimni, p. 190) however, warning that it only fosters illusions that allow Israelis to avoid acknowledging the colonial-settler roots of their state. She does not dismiss the existence of trends in this direction, nevertheless, stressing that such a vision ‘establishes political and moral clarity, which can be used as a first stepping-stone in the long haul towards any resolution of the conflict and any process of reconciliation that would involve some measure of dignity and justice’ (in Nimni, p. 194).

Secularism and the future of post-Zionism

Secularism is the common theme of all the alchemists of post-Zionism: if only Israel would complete its secularising trend, they seem to be saying, a solution to the Israel/Palestine conundrum might be found. These thinkers appear not to have even considered that Israel’s increasingly open secularisation might be part of the problem. That is, it is arguably a part of the explanation why Israeli governments have been permitted by Israeli voters to treat Palestinian civilians increasingly harshly. Could it be that the ‘political and moral clarity’ that the post-Zionists seek cannot be found without their acknowledging a religious, spiritual vision? Was it not the Jewish religion that provided that moral and ethical compass that historically enabled the Jews to stand up to oppressors from the Pharaoh to the Russian Czars?

The treatment of Palestinian civilians by Israel arguably forms part of a global trend that is now acknowledged by scholars. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm concedes, in the 20th century:

more human beings had been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before in history … it was without doubt the most murderous century of which we have record, both by the scale, frequency and length of the warfare which filled it, barely ceasing for a moment in the 1920s, but also by the unparalleled scale of the human catastrophes it produced, from the greatest famines in history, to systematic genocide (1994, p. 5).

Nimni argues passionately that diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews have conflicting interests.

Is it purely coincidental that the indisputable secularisation of virtually every country over the past century has been accompanied by a barely disguised public desensitisation to a rising tide of genocide and war? How can our post-Zionist secularists be certain that wholesale secularisation in Israel—as opposed to a return to the traditional values of Jewish humanism that once served the Jews so well—will not result in a deepening of the deplorable trends that they wish to reverse? In other words, are the post-Zionists not prescribing precisely the opposite of what is required?

The success or otherwise of the post-Zionist project has yet to be decided by history. Its victory over mainstream or ultraright (‘Neo-Zionist’) Zionist trends is by no means guaranteed. Such success depends upon a number of factors, including the ability of Palestinians to resist the descent into desperate—but ultimately self-defeating—violence targeting Israeli civilians. Crucial to avoiding such senseless violence will be whether Palestinians can be convinced that Israel genuinely desires a just peace with them. The so-called ‘Road Map for Peace in the Middle East’ does not so far appear to provide a clear framework for achieving justice on all sides.

Neither the Palestinian prime minister-designate Ahmed Qurie nor Chairman Yasser Arafat will ever be able to restrain violence by armed Palestinian groups while Palestinians are treated unjustly by Tel Aviv. Super-nationalist Palestinian groups such as the al-Aqsa Brigades and HAMAS have vowed to continue their armed opposition to what they call ‘Israeli occupation’, so long as Israeli authorities continue to authorise armed attacks on Palestinians and permit the construction of settlements in the Occupied Territories. Some of the Palestinian super-nationalist groups have accepted ceasefire agreements in the past—but only for as long as it appears that real progress is being made in negotiations for some sort of Palestinian autonomy.

Successive Israeli governments have so far shown themselves incapable of making the most out of previous peace initiatives. This created conditions for the re-emergence of Palestinian armed groups, culminating in the re-launch of the Palestinian Intifada—and a worsening situation that was utilised by extremist elements on both sides. The ‘Road Map’ has yet to succeed in putting an end to violence from either side. It remains to be seen whether the Post-Zionist project will have a serious and positive impact on this impasse.


Brenner, L. 1983, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, Croom Helm, London.

Herzl, T. 1976 (1896), ‘Theodor Herzl: The Jewish State’, in The Arab-Israel Reader. A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, third updated and revised edition, eds W. Laqueur & B. Rubin, Penguin, Harmondsworth, pp. 6–11.

Hobsbawm, E. 1994, The Age of Extremes, Pantheon Books, New York.

Menuhin, M. 1975, The Decadence of Judaism in Our Time, Exposition Press, New York.

Sternhell, Z. 1998, ‘Zionism’s secular revolution’, Le monde diplomatique, May [Online], Available: [2003, September 9].

Dr. Paul J. White is Research Officer at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, specialising in Middle East Politics and Religion. His book Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernisers: The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey was published by Zed Books in 2000. He is currently examining the effects of racism on Lebanese youth in Australia.