Why I decided to return to Zionism
By Boaz Neumann | 04/11/2010
Dr. Boaz Neumann, a lecturer in German at Tel Aviv University, conducted his own research of the pioneer movement. The results motivated him to abandon his post-Zionist views and to stop incessantly and mercilessly criticizing the Jewish state
photo: Noa Goren
I enlisted in the armored corps in November 1989. Everyone in my high school in northern Tel Aviv and in the Scouts troop of which I had been a member since the fourth grade enlisted in the army. Practically all wanted to serve in a combat unit. I was a tank commander. Our principal arena of operations was in the territories, mainly in Gaza. My company was stationed in Gaza in the Sheikh Raduan neighborhood and the Shati refugee camp. Although I didn't want to serve in the territories and I was opposed to the occupation, I had no intention of disobeying orders. I would have rather remained part of the guard team in our base in the Golan Heights, but manpower constraints brought me to Gaza. I planned to be the company's conscience. Once, on a patrol in Shati, I saw a soldier point his rifle at a little girl's head. He saw that I had seen him. He then pretended to shoot her and laughed. I reported what I had seen to the company commander but he didn't court martial him. During my guard duty and free time, I read books, including The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem by Benny Morris. Shati was a place that needed patrolling, where one had to be careful, a place that one wants to get out of as quickly as possible and go home.
After completing my military service, I registered at Tel Aviv University to study history and political science. My first exposure to the philosophy of Karl Marx turned my world upside down. In the next elections, I voted for Hadash - The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, an alliance of the Israeli Communist Party and other factions, and I joined in demonstrations held in front of the Ministry of Defense. On one occasion, my friends and I shouted: “Minister of Defense, Minister of Defense, how many kids have you killed today?” I carried a picket with the words, “Profile 21"* My security and that of the Palestinians.” The world had turned into a battlefield – the Palestinians were victims and it was the Zionists that had victimized them – and anyone who took a different view was wrong.
In my graduate degree studies, I specialized in the history of Germany in the twentieth century, and this further bolstered my critical positions regarding Israel's offenses and crimes. I sometimes imagined that Israel was the Weimar Republic in its final years, or Nazi Germany in its early ones. During my army service in the territories, I had been the “Nazi,” and the Palestinians the “Jews.” As far as I was concerned, anything that even resembled Zionism, was beyond the pale. To me, the State of Israel was no more than a mechanism of oversight, control and oppression. The flowers did not bloom in Israel.
Inspired by my teachers at the university, I viewed the Oslo agreements as a manipulative ploy on Israel's part in order to continue the occupation by economic means. A senior officer in the Palestinians security forces once came to give a lecture in the university. I asked him if he considered Arafat a traitor to his people for selling them out to the Israelis. I viewed the terror attacks of the mid-1990s as part of the price that Israelis would have to pay during the transition period from conflict to peace. I believed that the worse things were, the better they would be in the end.
Imposing foreign concepts
When I completed my B.A., I deliberated between specializing in German or Zionist history. I chose the former, but did not concede the latter. I began to do independent research focusing on the pioneering experiences in the immigration periods known as the Second and Third Aliya (1904-1914 and 1919-1923 respectively). I had no doubt regarding what I could expect to find in the sources – I was certain I would find the roots of Zionist oppression, occupation and injustice. Over a period of a few years, I delved into letters, personal and collective diaries, the workers' press of the period, poems, prose and more – by Ben-Gurion, A.D. Gordon, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Rachel Yanait and others. At a certain point, I began gradually to realize that my findings were inconsistent with the critical positions that I had been holding regarding the Zionist enterprise. The world of the pioneers was invariably imbued with unadulterated love for the land of Israel. The pioneers viewed Eretz Israel as their mother and father, and themselves as its returning sons and daughters. Eretz Israel was also their lover. The pioneers all experienced what can be called a rebirth on the soil of the land of Israel – they were born again out of its water and earth, its rocks and mountains. The land was an organic part of their body, and their body part of the body of the land.
Following my research, I concluded that it would be a mistake to impose foreign concepts on that love, that desire, as I called it, for example to read romantic-orientalistic, colonialist, to say nothing of proto-fascist meanings into it. This type of reading would be a sin to the “Nietzschean spirit” of Zionist pioneering. The worst thing I could say of the pioneers of Zionism was that by buying the land for cash, they were turning a blind eye to the Arab farmers that were already living on it, who had no idea that the land had changed owners; that they felt superior to the local Arab residents; that they assumed that the local inhabitants would also benefit from their development of the country, although no one had asked them to develop it. Taking a comparative perspective of the early years of the “bad twentieth century,” and certainly in the context of the European revolutions that sought to completely change the world, the Zionist pioneering revolution was certainly not among the worst. A straight line cannot be drawn between the pioneering-Zionist revolution of the early twentieth century and the Palestinian tragedy of 1948, as I had thought in the past. On the way, it must go through the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the British Mandate, the two World Wars, the appearance of Palestinian nationalism and the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (1928) and its infiltration into Eretz Israel, and the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939), the various attempts to partition the land between Jewish and Arabs, from the Peel Commission (1936-1937) to the United Nations (1947) and the Arab opposition to them, the civil war that broke out immediately after the UN Partition Resolution and more.
In my book “Pioneering and Desire in Early Zionism,” which is based on this research, I did not name Zionist pioneering as the mother of all sins. Zionist pioneering was, as I understand it, a revolutionary movement of young men and women who sought to take responsibility for their lives and fundamentally change the world. The chief conclusion I can draw from this revolution is that the pioneers were the first to identify the existence of the land of Israel with existence itself. To be in Eretz Israel was for them not only to be in a concrete, defined place; for them, to live in Eretz Israel was to live. While the Zionist pioneering act was certainly a political, economic, social and psychological revolution and much more, it was first and foremost an existential revolution.
While I was in the middle of my research, the second intifada broke out. March 2002 saw the perpetration of a massive suicide attack on Passover eve at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in which 30 Israelis were killed and 140 injured. I heard about the attack while sitting with my family and all of Kibbutz Shefayim at the Passover Seder table. The kibbutz secretary halted the Seder, reported on what had happened and said that there were apparently numerous casualties. He asked us to take a moment to stand in silence in their memory. I felt uncomfortable with the collective ritual. Inside, I thought to myself, here we are sitting and celebrating the holiday as the Palestinians suffer under the occupation. I never saw suicide bombers as freedom fighters, but I understood their actions based on the historical context of the conflict. I thought that were I in their place, perhaps I too would become a suicide bomber. I concurred with the view expressed by Frantz Fanon according to which violence is the humanism of the oppressed. I stood in memory of the victims of the Park Hotel attack because I didn't have the courage not to.
However, at a certain point, I was unable to continue to ignore the complex questions that plagued me. Why had I chosen to so harshly criticize the Israeli violence, but did not see fit to condemn the Palestinian terror? How could I be so sensitive to the pain of the Palestinians who were harmed by the Israeli occupation and almost completely indifferent to the pain of the Israelis victimized by Palestinian terror? Why was I not critical towards my own critical point of view? Why did I ask countless questions about Israeli nationalism and Zionism, but never entertained a single question about Palestinian nationalism? I had deconstructed every word in the Israeli Declaration of Independence but never bothered to read the Palestinian or Hamas covenants even once. I realized that I had been conservative in my critical thought. I discovered black stains of anti-humanism in my humanistic perceptions.
When I had studied Marx and read his writings – and every critical thought had its source in Marx – there was hardly any discussion of the possible connection between his critical, humanistic thought and the crimes that had their source in his philosophy. My friends and I frequently discussed the crimes of fascism, Nazism, European colonialism and we looked at Zionism in these contexts. But hardly a word was ever said about the crimes of the Soviets. And if they were mentioned, it was in an apologetic tone. After all, there couldn't really be any connection between Marxist criticism and humanism, on the one hand, and the terror and genocide perpetrated by Stalin, on the other, could there? And if there was, then it must have been a deviation, a distortion or indiscriminate corruption of Marxism caused by, say, Stalin's “madness.” And in the worst case, the Soviet violence was the “price” that had to be paid on the way to the redemption of humanity based on the belief that the worse it is now, the better it will be in the future. And ultimately, Stalinism is fundamentally humanist because it is based on the universal ethos of the liberation of humanity, whereas at the foundation of fascism and Nazism is a particularistic ethos of destroying the other. My friends and I convinced one another that we were critical and humanistic, but in truth, half of our field of vision was blacked out, the half in which we were supposed to see ourselves and the historic and philosophical tradition upon which our beliefs were based. We always saw what was “there.” What was “here” was completely blotted out. We thought about humanity, not about people.
A day-to-day revolution
The process that I underwent took many years and I was not always fully aware that it was going on. Reality took gradual bites out of my theories, conceptions, prejudices and perhaps above all – ignorance. It was strange to think about Zionism without those familiar feelings of revulsion. Like the pioneers, I felt that I was returning to the land of Israel, that I was founding my own Zionist movement. I'm not naïve. I am aware of the injustices of Zionism, but it is clear to me that the movement itself is not an injustice.
My return to Zionism impacted closer circles of my life too. My grandfather Moshe had immigrated to Eretz Israel back in 1929. He became the secretary of the council of workers in Rishon Letzion and later, in the 1950s, its mayor too. During the years I was in university, to a large extent, he became the bad guy, the Labor Zionist who together with his colleagues was responsible for all the evils and maladies of Zionism. I had always loved him, and when I returned to Zionism, slivers of admiration were added to that love. My grandfather was a revolutionary. Not a revolutionary of noble theories, but a day-to-day revolutionary. When he immigrated to Eretz Israel, he worked in the orange groves and in construction, and put everything he had into his daughters' education. During the term he served as mayor of Rishon Letzion, the city tripled in size as a result of the large waves of immigration in the 1950s. The man who had been exiled to Siberia, one of whose brothers had been murdered by Cossacks during the Russian Revolution and who had lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust, left us at the age of one hundred, surrounded by a loving family. I once interviewed him on the history of his life. He told me that the prison conditions in Siberia had been so harsh that he had always been certain that he would not live very long. Today, I think that it was Zionism that healed his life.
In my first year in university, I met the woman who would become my wife. About ten years later our oldest daughter Amalya was born, followed a few years later by the twins Hagar and Nimrod. This is my place; it is where my family, friends, kibbutz, Hebrew language, the familiar landscapes and warmth are.
I do not deny that my home is not only mine and that it is in a state of conflict. I do not deny responsibility for my actions (for example, as a soldier) and I am prepared to pay for that responsibility. But I also demand that my neighbors take responsibility for their actions too. I am willing to discuss everything. But there is one thing that is not up for discussion – my very existence and that of my family and my people in our country and homeland. This existence lies beyond any political discussion. And if I am dragged into such an argument, then they ought to know that at the end of the day, just as Albert Camus said, if I have to choose between defending justice and my mother, I choose to defend my mother.
Dr. Boaz Neumann teaches German history in the Department of General History at Tel Aviv University
*Profile 21 is an exemption classification, usually for physical or psychological disabilities, from service in the IDF.