Gabriel Piterberg, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorHovsepian, Nubar
Date22 June 2009

Gabriel Piterberg, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel. London: Verso, 2008, 287 pages. Paper $29.95.

MANY BOOKS HAVE BEEN WRITTEN on Zionism but few, if any, can match the breadth, scope, intellectual and theoretical richness of Piterberg's The Returns of Zionism. Zionism is understood as a European (Central-Eastern) national movement whose settlers sought to construct a national patrimony by colonizing Palestine. In this connection Piterberg deconstructs the ideological, literary and scholarly texts produced by the proponents of this movement and concludes that "these texts express typical settler consciousness and imagination" (xii). The entire Zionist enterprise is anchored in a three-dimensional foundational myth: the negation of exile, the return to the land of Israel, and the return to history. Piterberg argues that the "myth is inexorably national and settler-colonial," (xiii) which can and should be compared to other settler-colonial experiences.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a critical analysis of the colonization of Palestine from the late 19th century to the present. But Piterberg also explores the founding of the "Jerusalem School" for Jewish studies anchored at the Hebrew University. He notes, "these Jerusalem scholars managed to integrate the history of exile into a territorial narrative by dehistoricizing and essentializing it, thereby supplying the historiographic foundation of a modern nation as self-contained, impregnable whole floating in a empty, homogeneous (i.e., modem) time" (134). In this context, the Jerusalem scholars and leaders like Ben-Gurion invoke the Bible (Old Testament)--particularly the book of Joshua--to demonstrate the unique and uninterrupted people hood of the Jewish people in the "holy land." But the Bible, Piterberg maintains cannot be read as historical proof for anything, particularly given the critical work produced by many historians and archeologists (these ideas are developed in chapters 6 and 7). In effect, he argues that the Bible cannot serve as a deed to the land.

Piterberg takes Herzl to task through an engaging comparison with his contemporary, Bernard Lazare. Both responded to the Dreyfus affair with alarm at the rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Piterberg compares two texts written within nine days of each other on the rise of a "new ghetto." Both men rejected the politics of assimilation, and after a brief association they ultimately diverged in their...

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