Alon Tal, The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 377 pp., $40 (hardback).
Alon Tal is not a demographer. But two trajectories in his biography—leaving the United States for Israel as an eighteen-year-old Zionist in the 1970s and becoming an environmental activist and scholar in subsequent decades—have made his encounter with demography almost inevitable. Tal’s The Land Is Full is, first and foremost, a compelling, pioneering review of a field where demography as science is often the starting point but where debate is shot through with political and ideological trajectories, as well as a powerful populist streak.
Tal’s writing demonstrates he is fully aware that the relative size of populations has been and remains a deep-seated element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is also cognizant that this aspect of the struggle between the two national movements tends to be played out as a series of obfuscating ideological rants. His book is thus an important first step in outing this muffled debate and putting it at center stage, where it belongs.
Most Israelis and Palestinians subscribe to a parallel belief in the present as a corridor to a redemptive future when their entire respective populations will (a) be able, (b) fully desire, and (c) actually move to return to the ancient patria, the contested territory the two communities begrudgingly share. The interrupted past, a time in which ‘the people’ were torn off the homeland, goes back two thousand years in one case and seventy in the other. The terms suggested for an idealized repatriation —Shivat Zion (return to Zion) for Jews, al-Awda (the return) for Palestinians—are both heavily laden with symbolism and political significance.
Not surprisingly, the two idioms have become respective core markers of identity, affiliation, and mobilization. The fact that the land itself, roughly eleven thousand square miles between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, is far too small for 14.3 million Jews and 12.4 Palestinians1 does not seem to have an impact on either side’s narratives or the visions they beget. The dual myth, a zero-sum game in which not one but two ‘returning’ peoples seek the same tiny strip of land, consistently trumps all other sensibilities.
This is the context within which The Land Is Full postulates its basic argument. Following a detailed demographic history of Jewish Israel, with an obvious emphasis on immigration and pronatalism (chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7), and an account of birth rate fluctuations on the part of Palestinian citizens of Israel (chapters 8 and 9), Tal concludes that the growth engines on either side—immigration for Jews, high fertility rate for Palestinians—have run their courses. Jewish immigration, which has always responded to calamities elsewhere rather than to a genuine pull toward the Promised Land, is no longer a decisive factor. Still happening, its current rate hardly exceeds the rate of young Israelis leaving for the West.
Meanwhile, fertility rates of Palestinians, having been at nine children per household in the 1950s, declined dramatically, reaching 3.3 per family in 2013. With a steady trickle of outward migration, the Palestinian citizens of Israel too are nearing equilibrium, a steady state of population size.
The two equilibriums on either side allow Tal to come to the environmental crux of his argument. Seeking sustainable development, Tal is an advocate for keeping numbers down, particularly in the Haredi and Bedouin sectors, where fertility is still significantly high. Checking population size, he argues, is crucial if Israel wishes to secure a dignified standard of living for all, without exerting undue pressures on natural resources or the education and welfare systems.
This is where Tal’s environmentalism shines through. Looking at ecological footprints of various population sizes and lifestyles, he shows how a national policy that aims to stabilize the population is not only possible but an imperative. Late as it may come, the equilibrium reached by Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel could be an opportunity. Stabilizing the population will do wonders, he says, for women’s empowerment, education standards, the empowerment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the quality of childcare. It will diminish bias and discrimination, foster reproductive autonomy, end the perverse incentives to have as many children as possible in return for welfare payments, and aid in social diffusion and integration.
The Land Is Full is an important book because it integrates universes not often spoken of in Israel as part of the same conversation: the Jewish need to reproduce after the Holocaust versus the Palestinian urge to do the same following the Nakba; environmental sustainability; and social justice and the welfare state. It is a fundamentally modernist text, forward-looking, constructive, somewhat optimistic. And an excellent read. Tal’s language flows well, is figurative, personal when needed, but concise. Throughout the book the fascinating historical plot of the struggle for population supremacy remains in focus, not only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but also into the twenty-first.
Tel Aviv University
The two respective figures indicate overall numbers for Jews and Palestinians worldwide. They were gleaned from Wikipedia (accessed January 2017).
Orit Rozin, A Home for All Jews: Citizenship, Rights, and National Identity in the New Israeli State (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016), 231 pp., $40 (paperback).
A Home for All Jews adds to Orit Rozin’s impressive series of historical studies that focus on everyday life in the early years of Israeli independence. Through them we have a growing corpus of works in the recently evolved specialty of cultural history, which aims to describe a historical period as it related to everyday life, or to the lives of common people and workaday citizens, rather than the usual focus of history on political events, governments, elites, political leaders, and decision-makers. Rozin has addressed issues including women’s lives, individualism versus collectivism, and austerity in food supply (tzena in Hebrew). In broader terms, Rozin’s scholarship helps us understand the impact of state formation on people’s lives—in Israel’s case, beginning in 1948.
The introduction is a succinct and particularly informative summary of the issues involved in state formation, especially as applied to newer nations that emerged within the last century. While some of the introductory discussion is unique to Israel, especially the massive Jewish immigration and resulting population increase in the first years of the state, other aspects are relevant questions for all new nations, including establishing both a legal basis for the country and a sociocultural identity for the new political entity.
The book then proceeds to consider three social issues, unique to Israel, that illustrate how people struggled in their personal lives to adjust to new nationhood. At the same time, at least half the Jewish population were also attempting the difficult task of adapting to a new geographic and social setting. Then there were the large numbers of Holocaust survivors, quickly followed by Jewish immigrants, often refugees, from Arab countries. (It should be noted that the book focuses almost entirely on Israel’s Jewish society.)
The first issue was an early controversy over minimum marriage age legislation, which the author terms “the right to childhood.” Women’s groups focused public attention on the practice among Yemenite Jews in particular, but also among other Middle Eastern immigrants and the ultra-Orthodox, to marry off their daughters at a very young age, often before puberty, and often to much older men. Rozin extensively documents both the public controversy that appeared in the press and in appeals to the Knesset for appropriate correction to this social practice, and the campaign to amend the inadequate laws inherited from the British Mandate. A wide range of interest groups and social issues are illustrated in the discussion, including the rabbinate and religious population versus secular interests, social practices of Mizrahi versus Ashkenazi Jews, advocates of population growth versus those who wished to limit it, and the right of the state to interfere in personal lives. Cultural disparities among Jews, and between the Jewish and Arab populations, are discussed in detail.
The second issue, the right to travel abroad, is now only a dim memory among older Israelis, but at the time the highly controversial topic received considerable attention because it affected mainly wealthier Israelis. They were the only ones who could even consider traveling abroad on nonofficial business in the early years of the state. The issue refers to regulations governing required ‘exit permits’, limited access to foreign currency, oppressive bureaucratic red tape, forcing citizens to reveal aspects of their private lives (i.e., giving reasons for foreign travel), and policies regarding yeridah (emigration), which obviously could be a consequence of foreign travel. The overarching issues were individual rights and personal freedom in general. Each of the details is explored in-depth, with fascinating examples from letters to the Knesset, human interest stories from newspapers, and discussion of individual rights versus collective imperatives in the early years of statehood.
Finally, the book deals with a broad and lasting issue that the author terms “craving recognition.” It refers to how new immigrants and refugees were treated in their early years of residence in Israel, and how new immigrants (individuals and self-organized groups) learned to advocate for their interests. Israel was basically a democracy and an open society, which was a new experience for most immigrants. They learned, for example, that they could make demands on government officials and expect a response. Israel was also a quasi-socialist society (in its early years), which meant that most resources that immigrants needed (housing, jobs, even food) were centrally controlled and in very short supply in the first years of statehood, so rights needed to be demanded (squeaky wheels did get the grease!).
In broad terms, the issue was known in Israel as relations between vatikim (old-timers) and olim (new immigrants). It was a social divide that coincided with length of time residing in Israel, Mizrahi versus Ashkenazi origin, religious versus secular, economically privileged versus poor, and to some extent young (energetic, restless) versus old (passive, accepting). Over time the dividing lines have become much more permeable, but in the early years these were prominent issues. Rozin’s discussion includes many examples of citizen actions and writings that illustrate and bring alive the flavor of the times.
The translation creates some minor problems for an English reader. The anecdote that begins chapter 1 needs some explanation. It’s not clear from the passage or the footnote that it is a piece of investigative reporting from a newspaper. Also, there are inadequate explanations of Hebrew terms and acronyms for readers who are not familiar with Israel. For example, in the first paragraph of chapter 1 alone, Mapai, Mapam, Histadrut, and Yishuv appear without explanation. This problem recedes as the book proceeds; terms are defined later, or they become clear from context. The entire book is very well documented, with extensive bibliography and footnotes. Unfortunately, items in Hebrew are listed with transliterated but not translated titles. So, an English reader who does not know Hebrew can read the titles but doesn’t have a clue what they mean.
Marek Cejka and Roman Koran, Rabbis of Our Time: Authorities of Judaism in the Religious and Political Ferment of Modern Times (New York: Routledge, 2016), 232 pp., $148 (hardback).
In Theodor Herzl’s programmatic book The Jewish State, the author outlines a secular entity with a separation of religion and state: “Shall we end by having a theocracy? No. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks” ( 1988: 56). Politics, according to this vision, must be freed from religion and ruled by knowledge, which provides freedom. Zionism established itself as a national movement led by Jews who rebelled against the prevailing Orthodox leadership following the modernization of Jewish life that began in the eighteenth century. Yet, as Zionist leaders quickly learned, the separation from religion and religious leaders was all but impossible. As a secular ideology, Zionism challenged religious authority holding the view that Jewish redemption would come about with the advent of the Messiah. As a national ideology, religion was indispensable to Zionism as a marker of boundaries and a mobilizing force. This ambivalence toward religion could hardly be resolved, as secular nationalists would often acknowledge.
Rabbis of Our Time offers a map of contemporary Jewish religious leaders and their relationship to Zionism and the State of Israel. The book contains twenty-five full profiles (three to five pages each) and twenty-eight shorter profiles of rabbis, discussing both their religious significance and their political influence. Not accidentally, the vast majority of the rabbis chosen for profiling are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, an indication of the powerful position of Orthodoxy in the Israeli state and society and the marginalization of non-Orthodox rabbis, despite the significance of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States and the important attempts to create alternative forms of Jewish identity and belonging in Israel. More attention to non-Orthodox alternatives and their position in Israeli society and politics, however, could have been important.
Nevertheless, even within the boundaries of Orthodoxy, this book describes a wide range of rabbinical figures across the different divides. Ethnically, they include Ashkenazim like Rabbis Bunim Alter and Elazar Shach, who towered over various Agudat Israel parties; as well as Sepharadim, especially the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder of the Shas political party. Politically, it includes Zionists (e.g., Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the inspirational leader of the West Bank and Gaza settlers), anti-Zionists (such as Rabbis Amram Blau and Yoel Teitelbaum), and many pragmatic ultra-Orthodox rabbis who maintained an ambivalent relationship with Zionism and the Jewish state. This ambivalence is personified in the profile of Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, better known as the Chazon Ish, who, in a famous meeting with David Ben-Gurion in 1952, described Jewish Orthodoxy and Zionism, respectively, as a laden and an unladen camel (i.e., one with significant content and the other without), a metaphor he employed to underscore ultra-Orthodox demands not to be conscripted into mandatory military service.
Hasidim and ‘Litvaks’ (i.e., anti-Hasidim or Mitnagdim), rabbis who held formal bureaucratic roles and those who refrained from involvement with the state, rabbis who were prolific scholars and others who were political leaders, as well as a number of other typologies, are all included. The overview of rabbis provided in the book is supremely relevant to contemporary political issues and demonstrates unmistakably that Orthodoxy did not and does not speak with one voice. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis generally maintain their distance from political debates, but among the Orthodox, by contrast, there is strong support for Jewish settlement of the West Bank, from spiritual leaders like Rabbi Kook to activists like Rabbi Moshe Levinger, as well as extremists like Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League in the United States and the Kach political party in Israel, which was banned from the Knesset because of accusations of racism. The book also profiles moderate figures like Rabbi Michael Melchior and peace activists such as the late Rabbi Menachem Froman.
Overall, this book provides an overview of numerous contemporary religious figures, references to their writings, and their engagement with contemporary questions of Jewish life and the Jewish state. Jewish Orthodoxy, as the book demonstrates, does not speak in one voice, and its interpretations of religious texts may result in widely differing political conclusions.
Herzl, Theodor. (1946) 1988. The Jewish State. New York: American Zionist Emergency Council.
Galia Golan, Israeli Peacemaking Since 1967: Factors Behind the Breakthroughs and Failures (London: Routledge, 2015), 235 pp., $155 (hardback), $52.95 (paperback).
Galia Golan has made her mark in a variety of fields. Originally American, she made aliyah in 1966 and pursued an academic career, specializing in what was then the Soviet Union. She was also for many years one of the most visible leaders and spokespersons for the Israeli peace movement Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), wrote extensively on the USSR (later Russia) and the Middle East as a professor and chair in political science at the Hebrew University, and has been notably active as well in feminist advocacy and academic work.
This extensively annotated book takes a perspective different from any other book in English, as far as I am aware—namely, examining Israeli peacemaking from 1967 to 2008. While there are innumerable books on the conflict and many on peace initiatives within it, Golan chooses to focus on the factors leading to success and (more often) failure on the Israeli side. In her introduction she makes clear the delimited objects of her inquiry, listed as “Breakthroughs”: Egypt (1975–1979), Jordan (1994), Oslo (1993); “Failures”: Jordan (1967–1968), Syria (1991–1992), Oslo/Camp David (1996–2000); and a “Near Breakthrough”: the Annapolis Process, encompassing Palestine and Syria in 2007–2008 (5–6).
There is little ‘new’ material in the book, in the sense of new research discoveries or unusual interpretations (with one exception, discussed below), although she uses primary sources as well as an impressive wealth of secondary writings. Rather, the strength of the book is in its analysis of the factors on the Israeli side that caused the failures (and successes) Golan explores. Chief among these is ‘mistrust’, which she cites in context as a major factor in all of the failures, also demonstrating in detail how and why the pervasive lack of trust failed to derail the three breakthroughs.
Golan usually adopts a dispassionate tone, explaining rather than condemning what she clearly regards as missed opportunities for Israel to have made peace. In chapter 2, for example, she examines why Israel failed to truly engage King Hussein in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War when, she is fairly sure, the king would have made peace at the price of full, or nearly full, return of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. She believes Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, along with the rest of the military establishment, simply did not trust the king’s expressed desire for peace, which she clearly considers genuine (13–18). She also implicitly criticizes the Israeli refusal to even consider giving up East Jerusalem for peace, quoting leftist and secular leaders, among others, insisting on its retention. I think she underestimates the role of public sentiment that would have insisted on retention even if the leadership had been willing to ‘give up’ East Jerusalem for peace, as she cites a survey showing 90 percent of the population “opposing a return of the Old City of Jerusalem even as part of a peace agreement” (19).
Golan does break somewhat new ground in her thorough analysis of the Olmert/Abu-Mazen negotiations of 2008, one of the longer chapters in the book. Based largely on contemporary newspaper reports, she advances her contention that the two had reached viable agreement on virtually all outstanding issues, and implies as well that an agreement could have withstood the twin potentially fatal factors of Olmert’s loss of office due to financial scandals and Abu-Mazen’s serious political weakness. She also believes that the even less well-known Turkish-brokered meetings with Syria could have produced a viable agreement as well (174–177). Curiously, though, she does not make clear what actual negotiations were held between the two sides, though she cites a draft Syrian-Israeli accord published in Ha’aretz on 16 January 2007 (176), noting, “Olmert … denied any knowledge of this draft accord” (177).1 This is the only part of the book that is somewhat confusing and unclear; Golan’s writing is otherwise clear and succinct, and assumes a reader familiar with the history of the conflict.
The book’s conclusion is somewhat less useful than the individual chapters; as she acknowledges in its opening sentence, “It is difficult to accord causal value to factors” (201). The conclusion does bring together the main factors she relies on throughout the book, of which she believes “the over-riding [cause of failure] would indeed appear to have been intangible ideological (nationalist and/or religious) identity factors on the part of the Israeli leadership, to which domestic (and diaspora) spoilers contributed” (201). “Mistrust” is in many ways a consequence of that, and she also cites the “nature of the ‘process,’” “regional factors,” changes in leadership, and ineffective (or absent) third-party intervention, largely but by no means only by the United States (205–209).
I imagine that readers less sympathetic than I am with Golan’s general view of the peace process may object to her methodology and claim she is putting all the blame on Israel and devoting little scrutiny to its Arab adversaries. Preemptively, I would assert that that charge does not hold water. Golan’s stated purpose is to examine Israeli peacemaking, for which task she is superbly qualified by almost half a century of study and experience, though largely in Track II contexts. She examines the factors that prevented peace from the Israeli side, based (usually implicitly) on her perception of its essential national interests, chief among which are national survival and sovereignty over ‘green-line’ Israel, along with genuine peace with its neighbors. The book is equally valuable to those who may put a higher premium on retention of the West Bank or East Jerusalem than they do on peace, because it dispassionately presents the factors present in Israel’s successful and failed attempts to make peace. The analysis is impressive and contributes to a greater understanding of what failed and what succeeded in the past and will, perhaps, at some point, also be relevant in the future.
University of Maryland
An article in Ha’aretz by Akiva Eldar on that date gives a summary of a seemingly complete draft agreement but states that the understandings were formulated “in a series of secret meetings in Europe between September 2004 and July 2006,” most of which time Ariel Sharon, not Olmert, was prime minister, and well before the Annapolis Conference was announced (see Eldar 2007).
Oren Meyers, Eyal Zandberg, and Motti Neiger, Communicating Awe: Media Memory and Holocaust Commemoration (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 185 pp., $100 (hardback), $95 (paperback).
This book “presents the first scholarly attempt to provide a longitudinal cross-media probe of salient mass-communicated ‘invented tradition’ in mainstream national media’” (14) in Israel, focusing on the annual Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day. The core questions of the book concern the ways the media operate as memory agents, the cultures in which these processes take place, and the interrelationships between the media and other realms of social activity.
To deal with these issues, the book is divided into six parts, the first of which is an introduction that sets the historical and theoretical framework of the analysis. Here, the authors explain the utilitarian nature of collective memories as a version of the past that is selected to be remembered by a community in order to advance its goals and serve its self-perception. In other words, it is a reconstruction of the past that adapts the image of former facts to the beliefs of the present and thus can serve to justify former activities and reinforce present ones.
The authors explain the positioning of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) within the Israeli calendar eleven days after Passover, followed seven days later by Remembrance Day for the Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism (Yom HaZikaron) and then Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’Atzma’ut) celebrated immediately afterward, thus creating an emblematic continuity that shapes the perception of a mythical order that “symbolizes the Zionist notion of progression from chaos to cosmos” (12). They also explain the need by the Zionist movement to distinguish the Holocaust from other historical disasters.
The book outlines the changes in Holocaust commemoration from (1) the first decades of Israel’s existence, when construction of the victim-hero dichotomy had led to the silencing of the vast majority of the Holocaust survivors, via (2) the Eichmann trial in 1961–1962, which represented a turning point in how Israelis understand the Holocaust, (3) the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, which led to increased erosion of the victim-hero dichotomy and concurrently increased the significance of the Holocaust in Israeli life, making it into “the primary myth of Israeli politics and the moral foundation of Israel’s ‘new civil religion,’” until (4) the following decades, during which (a) Holocaust memory became more individualized, (b) Holocaust discourse expanded beyond the borders of the official remembrance days and infiltrated day-to-day Israeli life, making it into a filter through which Israelis interpret both foreign and domestic events, and (c) Holocaust discourse gradually shifted from a discussion of the event itself to an increasing emphasis on the commemoration of the event, creating a self-reflexive approach toward Holocaust commemoration that has also “enabled Israeli satirists to challenge and mock the way in which the Israeli political establishment is exploiting the memory of the Holocaust as a means for mobilizing international support for Israel’s deeds or curbing criticisms levelled against Israel for its misdeeds” (9n).
This introduction is followed by four chapters, which (1) look at the ways eight daily newspapers—each of them representing a distinct sociopolitical group—have covered Holocaust Remembrance Day through the years since its establishment, (2) investigate popular music on radio playlists—both on national and regional radio—during Holocaust Remembrance Day, (3) explore the ways Israel’s leading public and commercial TV channels construct the shift from regular day-today broadcasting to the sacred realm of mediated commemoration, and (4) investigate the interrelations between media professionalism and the construction of the memory of a national trauma. In the conclusion, the authors offer an integrative overview of their study’s main findings and, as an attempt at exploration of the future of Holocaust remembrance, look at how Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated on leading Israeli websites.
Due to limited space, it is not feasible to summarize the results of these studies. Instead we may settle for highlighting some of the topics at the core of the findings: (1) how every political subgroup within Israeli society has tried to shape Holocaust memory for its own political and ideological aims; (2) the dual process of shaping culture through a commemoration process and memory by means of cultural objects; (3) how repetitive patterns of programming and airing already familiar rituals and images offers Israeli Jews, a majority of whom are not themselves survivors, the opportunity to become part of the ritual; and (4) how Holocaust Remembrance Day newscasts construct a prism that positions the State of Israel as the appropriate ‘moral’ to be learned from the Holocaust.
Although the book offers a comprehensive analysis of the Jewish-Israeli remembrance culture and its emergence, the authors do not evaluate it in terms of its implications for the further development of Israeli society. The delicate relationship between remembrance and mourning is not engaged with, and their function for the perpetuation or healing of collective trauma is not considered.
If it is true what the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy said in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, that only those who keep the memory of the Holocaust alive can show the necessary compassion for the suffering in Burundi, Rwanda, the Congo, or Palestine, then there is an urgent need for rethinking the ways commemoration should be shaped, in order to transform despair into hope, competition about victimhood into mutual empathy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into peaceful coexistence between two nations who meet each other at eye level. Unless this is accomplished, the Zionist promise to guarantee Jews a life of safety and peace in their own state will never be fulfilled.
University of Konstanz
Ranen Omer-Sherman, Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature and Film (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015), 352 pp., $84.95 (hardback).
From the opening page of Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature and Film, a young man directs a piercing and pensive gaze toward the readers. Adjacent to the title and with no caption, the intense and penetrating portrait virtually equips us with a set of eyes of ‘the individual’—the prism through which the imagination of the collective of the kibbutz is examined in this book. The man in the portrait is David Maletz (1899–1981), a Third Aliyah pioneer and a founding member of kibbutz Ein Harod. His 1945 novel Ma’agalot (literally, “Circles”; translated as Young Hearts) is considered the first book written by a kibbutz member to describe critically the world of the kibbutz and the stress its communal life caused the individual.
The tension between the individual and the collective is at the heart of Imagining the Kibbutz: Omer-Sherman identifies it as a recurrent theme in the literary and cinematic imagination of the kibbutz from its inception. This tension, he argues, is the source of the skepticism and even the “disillusionment” (7) that characterize the body of kibbutz representations alongside “euphoric dreaming” (7). These two tendencies, according to Omer-Sherman, make the kibbutz literature a “richly conflicted” (16) one: “trepidation and exultation,” to borrow from the title of the first chapter, are constantly present in the “visioning of utopia” by insiders and outsiders alike. Later, Omer-Sherman discusses Maletz’s Young Hearts as a notable example of such an imagination “brimming with a heady mix of ardent idealism and lonely alienation” (2).
Maletz also appears at the end of the book. Praising the new urban kibbutzim for their attempt to build a better communal life while referring to Maletz’s novel, Omer-Sherman concludes, “Therein lies not merely nostalgic consolation … but also a genuine pragmatism and a wellspring of inspiration and hope for the future” (274). And so, the ‘Maletz circle’ frames the book and encapsulates its scope, perspective, and sentiment, or more explicitly, its political motivation: ranging from the early days of the kibbutz to the present, the book is especially attentive to the discontent in the kibbutz experience, with a view toward rehabilitating the kibbutz and revitalizing it as a viable option of communal living. “To be candid,” Omer-Sherman shares, “I wrote Imagining the Kibbutz in part out of a sense of dismay and even of anger at how rapidly the kibbutz’s extraordinary achievements are fading into mythic irrelevance” (7).
Collecting dozens of kibbutz narratives from the era of the founding pioneers to the age of privatization, the book presents a wide, rich, and varied corpus of kibbutz representations, including novels and short stories, memoirs, fiction and documentary films, and video artworks. The five chapters proceed chronologically, with the first four dedicated to literary texts and the last to cinematic representations. Imagining the Kibbutz fills a surprising gap in the scholarship on the kibbutz and its artistic portrayals. Despite the abundance of literary and visual images of the kibbutz produced over the past century, no book-length monograph had yet diachronically considered representations of the kibbutz. Moreover, existing scholarship on certain moments or themes in the imagination of the kibbutz neglects to explore, in the integrative manner of Omer-Sherman, the place of the kibbutz image in the Israeli imagination and cultural discourse.
The kibbutz narratives, he maintains, “encode … the ‘deep structure’ of Israeli literature, namely, the clash between individual desire and the unyielding national imperatives” (15). Observing that “Hebrew fiction is tightly entwined with national and historical developments, and the pivotal role of the kibbutz within this realm merits far greater attention” (24), Omer-Sherman traces the troubled core of the kibbutz’s representations in a series of readings that are sensitive to more typical issues, such as the communal education system, but also to questions of ethnicity, gender, and, significantly, the Palestinian minority in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which are generally divorced from the study of the kibbutz.
Linked to these important features of the book are a few issues worth addressing. First, within the impressive attempt at presenting a comprehensive account of kibbutz literature and films, the thematic discussion offered in the book explodes with texts and details and tends to be, at points, too descriptive and diffuse. Although all chapters center on specific texts, they often associatively move into deliberations over many others. This multiplicity, combined with the expansive endnotes, makes the discussion less focused and at times hard to follow. A separate index of the literary works and films (not as part of the general bibliography and index) would have made it easier to navigate the book.
Second, Omer-Sherman refreshingly includes works by prominent as well as lesser-known writers and filmmakers, reads canonical texts alongside marginal ones, and does not strictly adhere to the conventional periodization and divisions in the historiography of Israeli literature. Unfortunately, however, this open approach to the subject, although commendable, sheds little new light on the kibbutz experience or history. This is because Omer-Sherman, who relies on the abundant historical and sociological research on the kibbutz, presents the individual disaffection embedded in the imagining of the kibbutz as a reflection of fundamental processes in the history of the kibbutz and in Israeli society in general. He sticks to the established and accepted narratives and perceptions of both the microcosm and the context in which it exists without challenging them by critically examining if and how the imagination of the kibbutz is confronted with history and can elicit an alternative understanding of it.
This point is connected to the third issue I wish to raise. Omer-Sherman exhaustively demonstrates how “attractive portrayals abound in the fiction and memories of even those writers most critical of the kibbutz” (4), whereas “the narrative imagination, even when smitten by the project of utopia, cannot resist voicing skepticism and envisioning alternative ways of being” (49). However, he appears to take these tendencies at face value, and overlooks the way(s) these seemingly contrasting drives can be seen as complementary. Criticism not only is “writing honestly about the kibbutz” (7) but also operates dialectically in constructing the kibbutz as an exemplary site.
The basic narrative structure Omer-Sherman emphasizes, in which the individual is in conflict with their social surroundings, confronts the represented life-in-the-kibbutz with the ideals-of-the-kibbutz. In so doing, it reinforces an idealistic perception: indicating what is lacking, the partial, and the wrong as a means of challenging and changing the kibbutz, holds to its imagination as the place identified with certain positive values and reveals what is (still) expected from the kibbutz. The kibbutz, it is worth pointing out, did not refer to itself as a ‘utopia’, a term that seems removed from history. Its public thought and inner discourse were preoccupied, instead, with the notion of fulfillment (hagshama), which signified the realization of kibbutz principles through the everyday actions of the members. The story of the individual struggling with and within the collective is rooted in the lived experience and not in a distant vision, and directs the individual and the collective together toward fulfillment; reflecting on the gaps, it has a moving force.
Not attending to the ‘utopian’ element in criticism, Imagining the Kibbutz focuses on the repeated theme of the individual versus the collective tension yet dismisses the very repetition: the persistence of imagining the kibbutz as a model for Jewish society in Israel. Uncritically replicating the perspective of the texts he reads, Omer-Sherman treats the kibbutz as “utopia” and does not question the continuous association of the kibbutz with, and the insisted ascription to it of, ‘the best human values’: “the kibbutz has proved to be a remarkably enduring institution … Amos Oz’s 1968 declaration that ‘the kibbutz is the least bad place I have ever seen. And most daring effort’ … might yet hold true” (267; emphasis in original). For Omer-Sherman, paying attention to the malfunctions is but a measure to correct—and restore—the kibbutz. As a result, Imagining the Kibbutz refortifies the fixed imagination of the kibbutz and thus, contrary to the stated aims of the author, the kibbutz’s ‘mythic irrelevance’. It would be by problematizing this imagination of the kibbutz that one could reinvent actual social potential and political possibilities for it. Still, thanks to the extensive outlook and the copious collection of texts, Imagining the Kibbutz is a valuable resource and a welcome contribution to the field of kibbutz studies.
State University of New York at Binghamton
Nissim Leon, The Turban and the Flag: Nationalism versus Mizrahi Ultra-Orthodoxy (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Van Leer Institute Press and Ha-kibbutz Ha-me’ukhad Press, 2016), 156 pp., $21 (paperback).
The place of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox society (and its political expression, Shas) was, and still is, the subject of extensive study by scholars from various disciplines. Nissim Leon’s The Turban and the Flag is an important landmark, as it deals with how Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy offers an alternative national model to the three main foci of power in Israeli society: the dominant national ideology (secular-traditional Jews); religious Orthodoxy that identifies with the dominant national ideology, albeit critically and through a desire to direct it (i.e., religious Zionism); and religious Orthodoxy that regards the nation-state as a tool and rejects the dominant nationalist ideology (Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy). In contrast to these models, Leon claims Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy offers an alternative nationalism that he refers to as “counter-nationalism.”
The counter-nationalism Leon describes rests on several main principles. First is preserving the ultra-Orthodox ‘community of learners’. This is based on two contradictory approaches—on the one hand, reservations about Zionism and on the other hand, perceiving Zionism as a miracle that has made possible the establishment of a community of learners. The second principle is the politicization of the Mizrahi rabbinate, first and foremost the position of the Rishon LeZion (the traditional title of the Sephardic/Mizrahi Chief Rabbi). By empowering the institution of the Rishon LeZion, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his followers transformed it into a national rabbinical authority with responsibility to the State of Israel. Third is the principle of placing the Jewish people at the heart of the national idea instead of the territorial connection. Here Leon describes Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s lack of enthusiasm for religious Zionism, his dovish stance toward the peace process, and his distaste for the self-righteous worship of the ethnic boundaries of the collective. The fourth principle is its participation in the consensus of national institutions such as the army, by praying for the welfare of the soldiers in the Israel Defense Foces (IDF).
Leon claims that counter-nationalism is an assertive model of nationalism, similar to religious Zionism in that it seeks to increase its grip on the corridors of power. But in contrast to religious Zionist nationalism, which depends on philosophical and ideological texts, Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy has hardly any guiding texts. Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy “is mainly expressed in practices, in tradition, in popular preaching, and focusing on nuances related to the political climate” (127). Leon does not explicitly say this, but he appears to mean that this practical nationalism would require a trained ethnographer to reveal and explain its subtleties, rather than an analyst of texts whose specialty is literary expression. This is not only a message of methodology but also a social insight: the cultural and political practice of a specific social movement enables it to refrain in due course from laments such as “we didn’t capture their hearts.”
According to Leon, the counter-nationalism model is based on the dual status of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy—between Haredi aloofness and traditional integration, between the written word and the active tradition, and between detachment from Zionism and close ties with Zionists. ‘Friction’ appears to be a key concept in the book. Leon (2009) has already expounded on the idea of friction at the societal level when he described Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy as ‘soft’ Orthodoxy—Orthodoxy with broad margins that link diverse Israeli identities. In this book he shifts his focus from the cultural work of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy centering on the teshuvah (repentance, or return to religious practice) movement and the concept of the innocence of the masses, to the politics of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy. Thus, he adds the social-cultural friction both at the political level, that is to say, state and governmental institutions, and at the bureaucratic level, particularly through rabbinical positions.
In this way Leon attempts and succeeds in convincing the reader that the ideological proximity of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy to Zionism cannot be understood as the ‘natural’ Zionist feelings of Mizrahim as Mizrahim. Leon rejects this essentialist approach. He maintains that the ideological proximity of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy to Zionism is the outcome of the closeness between Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy and Mizrahim who are not ultra-Orthodox. Indeed, this closeness can generate friction in hybrid areas, as Leon explained so well in his book Harediut Raka (soft ultra-Orthodoxy), but also ‘dialogue with a wink’, as described in this book. For example, Leon depicts how editors of siddurim (prayer books) and those who attend synagogues contend with the prayer for the welfare of IDF soldiers. This is a societal reality comprised of diverse groups ranging from Haredim who repudiate Zionism to traditionalists who regard it as an important value. The dialogue and the wink are paradoxically made possible, says Leon, precisely because of the fluid interpretation of the text and the rigor of custom. This intriguing insight is one of many interwoven throughout this book.
In his conclusion, Leon maintains that counter-nationalism reflects “the passage from a hyphenated identity position, subordinate to an ultra-Orthodox worldview—one that demurs from the national modern Jewish enterprise—to an independent stand that constructs its own version of this enterprise between ultra-Orthodox criticism of Zionism and its own complicated affinity with it” (125). Thus, the transition from hyphenated identity to independent status offers its adherents an alternative model of nationalism that can serve as a source of societal empowerment.
Leon’s book is an important contribution to the study of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodoxy. Due to its dual stance it is easy to perceive it (both in research and in public discourse) as a phenomenon that is not authentic, a secondary model as opposed to more pure and coherent models. Leon, a leading scholar of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox society, has previously disputed this perception (e.g., Leon 2006), and it would appear that in this book he has done it again, this time through a political-social prism. Since Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox society is an important social force in Israeli society, this book should be an eye-opener for anyone with an interest in subjects related to the sociology of Israeli society. Finally, the book makes an interesting contribution to the study of nationality, particularly to the encounter between the nationalist project and Orthodox religious movements.