Tag Archives: Zionism

Building the “New Jew”

In this excerpt from the third draft chapter of my book, I write about my experience working on kibbutz for five months as part of a ten month programme (like a gap year) in Israel, 1978-79. For the first five months I took a course at the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem (the machon), followed by time on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek. In the chapter, I discuss in quite intellectual terms my dubiousness about the relevance for the late 1970s of labour Zionist pioneering through settlement on a kibbutz. There was, however a more concrete way in which my life and that ideology encountered each other – through my body, especially my working body.

Some of my Habonim group on Bet Ha’emek. I am in the bottom right corner, with the ginger Jewfro

When we moved up to the kibbutz after the machon course ended in early February I soon realized that what mattered was to be assigned as a permanent member of a work team, rather than being assigned each day wherever an extra pair of hands was needed. That took a while, in part because I spent a while in the citrus groves, partly through a connection with my kibbutz family. The work there involved climbing up ladders and into trees to pick the fruit but I have a fear of heights I have never overcome. By the end of February, more often than not I was working in the bananas and mostly enjoying the work and the company. There were some bad days, about one of which when the work was dull and the supervision unpleasant I wrote: “how mad A.D. Gordon (a key labour Zionist thinker) must have been … The chalutzic (pioneering) challenge is boredom. The Yishuv (pre-State Zionist community in Palestine) was built by near-lunatics.” But for the most part I enjoyed the days and was downhearted when the team leader for the bananas told me towards the end of March that there was no room left on the permanent team. Yet, less than two weeks later, while I was paired with him for the arduous job of picking, he let me know I was part of the team, which cheered me up immensely.

I was aware of how my body was growing stronger as I worked, not minding that I would be so exhausted after the day’s labour, which normally ended at lunchtime after a 5:30 am start, that I would need to sleep through the afternoon. When someone in the group remarked on how my upper body had expanded, I was as full of pride as I had ever been when school-teachers praised my academic work. The values had changed, from cleverness and book learning to enthusiasm for hard and sometimes boring physical work, but I relished whatever praise I received about my work ethic. Some of the experience was about learning new skills, such as which of the shoots of new banana plants should be allowed to grow for the new season and which needed to be chopped and poisoned (having six leaves on the 6th of June was a good sign). I was given the opportunity to learn how to drive the tractor, the first time I had operated any vehicle. That was not an altogether successful experience. Once I nearly got into fight when I was failing to reverse the tractor with a trailer full of people in the parking area outside of the dining hall and someone from a youth group living on the kibbutz decided to take over. On my last day of work I was driving part of the team back to the dining room when we heard a group form the avocados shouting in our direction. Thinking they wanted to pass, I pulled in towards the side of the road, only later to be told that they were shouting because I was already clipping some of the avocado trees and that if it were not my last day they would have killed me.

Bet Ha’emek archaeological garden, Dr. Avishai Teicher, 2014 

Driving aside, I took great pleasure in proving that I could hold and carry the biggest bunches of bananas that were picked. One person would use a machete to first cut into the plant to lower the bunch to the point where the other person could take the weight on his shoulder (women were not allowed to perform this task). Then the chopper would cut the stem by which the bunch was attached to the plant and the bearer would carry it to the carriages in which the picked bunches were piled in a specific way. When I graduated to becoming a chopper, carrying a machete on my belt, I felt that I had really made it. Equally rewarding was being invited around for tea by a couple of my older workmates who were members of the kibbutz. During this period, which lasted until early July, someone gave us “an enlivening talk about the origins of the kibbutz movement, to the extent that I felt I was with those young people who became chalutzim.” As I was about to leave I wrote: “I am just about to get into kibbutz, ready to live in Israel, to learn Ivrit (Hebrew), and I am being taken away.

“A Nation Reborn on it’s Ancestral Soil” Jewish National Fund art by Otte Wallisch 1950. https://www.reddit.com/r/PropagandaPosters/comments/7d88aj/a_nation_reborn_on_its_ancestral_soil_jewish/

My body was the site for the realization of a Zionist slogan I already knew “we came to the Land to build and to be built in it.” Despite my predominant belief that agricultural work would not be fulfilling, not a path to my “self-realization,” it became a path to constituting myself as a “new Jew,” an ideal figure of the Zionist movement contrasting the  negative image of the Diaspora Jew. Whereas the diaspora Jew was weak, pale and timid, the new Jew would be muscular, bronzed and brave.[1] Working on the kibbutz, especially as a member of the team in the bananas, was the discipline and self-care through which I asserted both my masculinity and my Jewishness as part of a national collective in Israel. Where labour Zionist ideology had failed to persuade, labour Zionist practice had reached into the sinews of my limbs and fortified the muscles of my body. Where my intellect and soul had resisted the idea of fulfillment in physical effort, my body had relished the sense of corporeal empowerment. I had happily and enthusiastically become a Zionist subject.[2]


[1] See Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapter 11, “The New Jew.”

[2] On the Foucualdian notion of self-constitution as a subject and care of the self, see Jon Simons, Foucault and the Political (London: Routledge, 1995), Chapter 8.

David and Goliath, Part Two

David and Goliath by Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (between 1542 and 1544)

From my perspective now, and while remaining thoughtful of and compassionate towards my eleven year-old self, with his sweet smile inherited from his mother and his curly ginger hair brushed as straight as it would go, I would want to push myself further in my analogy of the 1948 war to David and Goliath which I drew in my 1972 essay. It is not that I could expect of my younger self to know what I know now, that the victory in 1948 was not miraculous or righteous. The paramilitary forces of the Yishuv – the pre-state institutions of the Zionist community in Palestine – did relatively well in the civil war against poorly equipped and organized Palestinian and Arab forces from November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine, until May 1948. This was particularly so in the last few months, when the nascent state captured the main Arab and mixed cities on the coastal plane, Jaffa and Haifa, clearing those and other areas of Palestinian residents. There was a tougher spell, lasting twenty eight days, after British rule officially ended in May 1948 and Arab states advanced, but they were not dramatically better armed, numerous or coordinated compared to the newly-formed Israeli Defence Force, which was able to halt their advance. But they could not prevent the fall of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem – surely the most appropriate site for divine intervention. After the first truce, from 11th June to 8th July 1948, Israeli forces counter-attacked, now reinforced by Czech weapons and more recruits. They were mostly successfully except on the Syrian front, in a ten-day campaign followed by another violated truce. In subsequent Israeli campaigns against Egyptian forces in the south and the Arab Liberation Army in the north more territory was seized, and more Palestinians were expelled or fled, creating about 700,000 refugees as well as internally displaced people. The new State of Israel secured control over 78% of Mandatory Palestine, 22% more than it had been allocated in the UN Partition Plan, in a series of armistice agreements with the Arab states.

I could not know all of that then because Israeli New Historians had not yet written their rather more sober accounts of the war, based on released Israeli and British archives, in the late nineteen eighties. I followed the debate about the New Historians during my decade living in Israel, mostly based in the academic culture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where their work was discussed in the cafetaria and in newspaper columns as much as in academic seminars. I also could not know then what I know now because I was a child, still living in a magical universe of divine intervention that made more sense to me than the results of careful archival work. In my world, the narrative of oppression and heroic redemption rang truer than one of successful institution and state-building.

What I could possibly expect of my eleven year-old self was to pay more attention to the story of David and Goliath. Somewhere in my early Jewish education I learned what is written in the First Book of Samuel 8, though whether or not we read it I cannot recall. The elders of Israel asked the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over them, “to judge us like all other nations. … and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:6, 20). God commands Samuel to “hearken to the voice of the people,” not because they are right, but because “they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. They have forsaken me, and served other gods” (1 Samuel 8:7-8). God also tells Samuel to remind the people of what a king will expect from them, taxation, military conscription, and servitude, but they do not care. Another prize I was awarded by the Emmanuel Raffles cheder in December 1972, some months after I wrote the Israel essay, a four-volume history of the Jewish people,  Our People,can serve as a likely approximation to whatever I was told, because the first two volumes basically paraphrase Biblical history.[1]

The message I recall is that although Saul was selected by God through Samuel to be king, his anointment as king speaks to a deeper failing of faith among the Israelites who should not have wished to be like the other nations. Moreover, Saul was not a great example as a king. I have to look back at volume two of Our People to recall the details of Saul’s shortcomings, but one detail that was close to the surface of my memory is that Saul did not follow through on God’s instruction through Samuel to annihilate the Amalekites. He spared their King Agag and allowed their best cattle to be taken as spoils after defeating them in battle.  For this sin, Saul lost Samuel’s support and divine right to be king, which passed to David, still a shepherd boy. Subsequently, David comes into the royal circle as a lyre player and armor bearer for the melancholic Saul, prior to the story of Goliath.

In addition to knowing more of the back story to David and Goliath, as an eleven year-old I could have paid more attention to the details of the story. The Israelites under Saul and the Philistines were once again at war, but rather than engaging in full battle, the tall, mighty Goliath issued a challenge to individual combat with an Israelite champion to decide which side would vanquish the other. David, still caring for his father’s sheep, arrived at the scene to take provisions to his older brothers. David expressed surprise that no Israelite from among “the armies of the living God” (I Samuel 17:26) has the courage to accept Goliath’s challenge, word of which reaches Saul. Let us leave aside the oddity that Saul does not appear to know who David is when he is brought before him. Let us focus instead on the detail that David does not go out armed only with his slingshot and five stones against the well-armed Goliath for lack of equipment, but rather because when he tries on Saul’s armor and weapons he cannot walk with them. As David tells Goliath, whereas Goliath comes with his weapons, David comes in the name of God, to demonstrate divine might. David is the hero because, unlike Saul, who has not fulfilled the earlier expectation of the elders of Israel to go in front of their armies to fight their battles, he has faith in God. David is thus fit to become king, unlike Saul becomes increasingly jealous of David, even trying to kill him and forcing him to flee. Another element of David’s story which stuck in my mind is that, though he was a great king who built a united kingdom for all the Israelites, he had too much blood on his hands to become the builder of the new temple in Jerusalem.  

As an eleven year-old boy, I might then have been able to see that the story of David and Goliath is more complicated than that of a brave little underdog vanquishing its well-armed and larger enemy. I might have been able, with some prompting, to see that the story is as much about Saul’s unsuitability to be king as it is about David’s faithful, God-fearing bravery.[2] But it would have been too much of a jump for me to consider that the story can be read as an ongoing current of Judaic critique of the sort of power embodied by the modern sovereign nation state, which is what came about in the war of 1948 and is taken to be a fulfilment of the Zionist movement. The Israelites of Saul’s time demonstrated a lack of faith by wanting a king, so they could be like all other nations. State-focused Zionism – which eclipsed cultural Zionism and Zionism willing to have a Jewish homeland in Palestine within a bi-national state – demanded that the Jews to be like all other nations. It regards the power of a state as that which protects Jews from antisemitism both physically and by normalizing Jewish collective life as modern nationhood. Max Weber claims that the state is the “only human Gemeinschaft (community) which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force. However, this monopoly is limited to a certain geographical area, and in fact this limitation to a particular area is one of the things that defines a state.”[3] The emphasis of the modern state is on secular might wielded in demarcated territory. That is Goliath’s power, not the power of religious faith or of a divinity intervening in human affairs. Yes, the Biblical narrative does proceed to legitimate David’s militaristic nation-building (though it is anachronistic to see a modern nation state in his kingdom). But the united kingdom does not last for long. Division (at first between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) rather than unity characterizes most of Israelite life in its-post Exodus homeland. I would like to think that even at my early age, with a teacher asking the right questions, I might have been able to see that David’s faithfulness, his rejection of Saul’s armor, indicates an alternative line of Jewish legitimacy to Zionism and militaristic state-building, casting doubt that the latter is the divine destiny I took it to be.


[1] Jacob Isaacs, Our People: History of the Jews, Volume II (Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Inc.: Brooklyn, NY, 1957), pp. 58-60. Unlike The Golden Thread and A Guide to Jewish Knowledge these volumes do not establish continuity from Biblical times to the modern day and the State of Israel, ending their account around 1000 C.E, after the writing of the Talmud and the end of the era of the Gaonim, when the Talmudic seminaries in Babylon closed. I am not sure I read all of this history at the time, but it does offer a model of rich, viable Diaspora Jewish life that is missing in accounts of Jewish history with a Zionist teleology that takes the Jewish State to be the pinnacle of history.

[2] Interestingly, Azmi Bisharah picks up on Saul’s jealousy of David’s military success as an angle for analysis when using the story as an analogy to analyse the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Azmi Bishara (2008) David, Goliath and Saul: repercussions on Israel of the 2006 war, Contemporary Arab Affairs, 1:2, 211-236, DOI: 10.1080/17550910801951755.

[3] Max Weber in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (Palgrave Books: London, 2015), p. 136.