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Israels National Narrative


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The interplay between the Israeli Secular National Narrative and the Traditional Jewish Historical Narrative.

The interplay between the Israeli Secular National Narrative and the Traditional Jewish Historical Narrative.

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  • The Israeli narrative, which has become an amalgam of various Jewish narratives, is dominated by two main, and often contradictory, narratives: The traditional Jewish narrative and the secular Zionist narrative.
  • It is difficult to narrow down Judaism to one narrative. Have you ever heard the joke “if you put two Jews in a room you’ll get 3 opinions”? Thus, while the Persian Jews, the Sephardi Jews and the Ashkenazi Jews may all have their own narratives in practice, the main elements of the master Jewish narrative are the pretty much the same for all the sects. The Jewish narrative emphasizes two, often contradictory trends: growth and adaptability, on the one hand, and loss and victimhood. Depending on the needs of the society at the time, one of these trends will be emphasized at the expense of the other.  It has been said that the vast majority of Jewish holidays fall into one of the following two categories:They tried to kill us, we won, let’s feast (Purim, Hanukkah, ~Passover)They tried to kill us, they succeeded, let’s fast (TishaB’Av, Fast of Esther, 17th of Tamuz, Yom Hashoah…) 
  • The positive portion of the narrative emphasizes the amazing ability of Judaism to survive and even flourish longer than almost any other cultural tradition. The tragedies experienced by Jews throughout this period only serve to emphasize the greatness of such a feat. The narrative highlights:The growth of Rabbinic Judaism, both in exile and in Palestine, resulting in the codification of great bodies of legal works including the Mishna, Gemorah, and the two Talmuds (Palestinian and Babylonian)The uncanny ability of Jews to adapt to new rulers, and protect their relative autonomy throughout most of the early and middle ages. The ability of Jews to rise to prominent positions in society: the Golden Age in Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe. Jews were often doctors, and physicians, often to the rulers themselvesJewish production of some of the greatest thinkers, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, etc.
  • Parallel to this narrative is the narrative of victimhood and loss, which unfortunately has been much more extensive. The positive periods of Judaism serve to remind Jews that even when you hit rock bottom, there is always a silver lining- though it might be almost invisible. This narrative highlights:The fall of the First and second TemplesNumerous failed revolts, including the Maccabean and Bar Kockba RevoltsLoss of a homeland, exile and continuous foreign rule (both in Palestine- Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims, Turks…. And abroad- Spanish, Persians, French, Germans, Italians, Russians, Turks, English etc…)Leading to Anti-Semitism- Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Blood LibelPersecution- forced conversions, pogroms, massacres, ghetoization, the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust andExpulsion from almost every one of these countries at some point in Jewish history.  After the State of Israel was created as a Jewish State, all of Israel’s catastrophes were added to this narrative of woe, including:The 1948 War- in which Israel’s neighbors (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq) attacked the newly created country.1964 War of Attrition with Egypt LOOK UP1973 Yom Kippur War- in which Israel’s neighbors attacked the country on the holiest day of the Jewish year1980-82 War with LebanonThe 1st and 2nd IntifadasTerrorism, Suicide Bombings, and daily rocket attacks from Gaza All of this has convinced Jews that they can rely on almost no one, that even countries that seem to support them may turn on them at any time, and that as a result, Jews need to look out for themselves. This has also fed a sense of paranoia- that most of the world is simply out to get the Jews. Even where Jews have prospered, they have been persecuted (EretzYisrael- almost everyone; Spain- the Inquisition; Europe- the Holocaust; and now even in Israel).  
  • In contrast, the Zionist narrative, tried to avoid the concept of the Jew as the victim by making a clean break saying “that was then, this is now.” Jewish persecution thus serves only to reinforce both the need for a Jewish homeland, and the disaster of Jewish life in the Diaspora. Thus, the traditional Jewish narrative represents the past, while the Zionist narrative would represent the future. As a result, this narrative was inherently more positive, seeking to create a narrative of strength and hope. To create such a narrative from scratch however was not practical, and to use events from the Diaspora to cement the narrative would undercut the clean break they were trying to break. Thus, the early Zionist narrative focused on acts of bravery in EretzYisrael, during and surrounding the 1st and 2nd Temple Periods. Thus the narrative focused on:The establishment of EretzYisrael after the Exodus from Egypt The re-building of the TempleThe revolt of the MaccabeesThe Bar Kockba RevoltAnd the 2nd Temple Period in generalAdditionally, new elements were addedStories about pioneeringThe Battle of Tel HaiAnd to a lesser extent, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
  • The religious narrative was mostly disseminated by Rabbis and religious institutions (such as synagogues and religious schools), while the zionist narrative was mostly disseminated by the government of Israel. Interestingly, the two groups used almost the exact set of dissemination tools, including education, ritual celebration, the creation of museums, and the media- though of course the last two were more limited in the case of the the religious narrative.
  • How they ChangedTo understand how and why the Zionist narrative changed it’s important to understand how Israel changed. When Israel was first created the majority of its inhabitants were secular Jews from Russia. Thus the zeitgeist at that time was desire of secular Jews to forget the misery of the past and pioneer a positive future. As more and more Jews from different countries began to immigrate to Israel, the character and the zeitgeist of the country changed as well. With these Jews, many of them religious, came the traditional Jewish narrative the early Zionists had tried so hard to ignore.  As the character of the “Jewish State” became the matter of public discourse, the Zionist and traditional Jewish narratives battled for control of the Israeli master narrative. The duel character of Israel, as both a secular democratic and religious Jewish state, was heavily debated.  Protracted violent conflict between Israel and both its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians reinforced fears of anti-Semitism and served only to reinforce the traditional Jewish narrative of victimhood. Although many Israelis increasingly identified with the victim narrative, they were unwilling to let go of the secular narrative that brought them so much strength and pride. Additionally, with the rise of Palestinian and Arab narratives the Israeli narrative became more defensive and outwardly focused. Thus, the narrative was more focused on explaining/defending Israel than on the religious and secular tensions.  The result is a narrative that is in many was internally inconsistent. It attempts to argue that the Jews are strong in order to protect themselves from further victimization. This argument is not welcomed by all, as admitting fear undermines the show of strength.  Results:As a result, Israel has become a very macho culture, hiding its fear behind layers and layers of security. Israel’s obsession with security only serves to emphasize their psychological sense of vulnerability. The real problem is that while Israel is certainly justified in defending itself, its paranoia has caused it to be more aggressive than anyone had originally intended. Additionally, the narrative of victimhood has provided an all too useful scapegoat for Israelis to hide behind, allowing them to take more aggressive action than they might not otherwise have taken. In addition to providing a useful justification for their behavior, it has also served to blind many Israelis to the harm they are causing the Palestinians. The narrative of victimhood has gained even more prominence within Israeli society as the Israeli and Palestinian governments compete for international support.  Finally, for Israel’s narrative, the result is an internally inconsistent narrative that attempts to combine the secular Zionist and religious Jewish narratives into one. In an attempt to be “all inclusive” the Israeli narrative has changed its focus from one of historical causes to one that emphasizes diversity and democracy over everything else. Thus, while the narrative itself may be internally inconsistent, it 1) allows for more people to identify with it, and 2) sends an even better message to the world that says “Israel is a diverse country with many different cultures and many different viewpoints, and as a democracy, we try to acknowledge them all.”
  • Transcript

      The Battle
      For Israel’s Narrative
      Daniela Karlin
      History 251
      Summer 2009
      The Narratives
      The Traidtional Jewish Narrative
      The Secular Zionist Narrative
      Diseemination Tools
      Interplay between the Traditional Jewish Narrative, the Secular Zionist Narrative, and the Zeitgeist of Israeli Society
      Adabtability and Growth
      Victimhood and Loss
      The Traditional
      Jewish Narrative
      Growth of Rabbinic Judaism
      Adaptability/ Gaining Relative Autonomy
      Rising to Prominent Positions in Society
    • 5. War of Attrition with Egypt
      1973 Yom Kippur War
      The 1948 War of Independence
      The Spanish Inquisition
      Expulsion of Jews from France
      14th Century
      Destruction of the 2nd Temple
      The Holocaust
      Jews driven from Spain
      11th Century
      The Blood Libel
      The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
      Jews Persecuted in Ethiopia 17th Century
      Suez Crisis
      Destruction, Victimhood and Loss
      Slavery under the Egyptians
      Jews expelled from Germany
      15th Century
      FailedMaccabean Revolt
      1980 War with Lebanon
      The Dryfus Affair
      1967 War
      Expulsion of Jews from England 13th Centuray
      Jews expelled from Lithuania
      15th Century
      Jews denied refuge in most of Europe and the US
      Wave of Pogroms in Russia 1881
      Destruction of the 1st Temple
      Strength and Hope
      Establishment of Eretz Yisrael
      Re-building of the 2nd Temple
      Bar Kockba and Maccabean
      Battle of Tel Hai
      The Secular
      Zionist Narrative
      • Education
      • 8. Hebrew Schools, Jewish Day Schools, Yeshivot, Synagogues
      • 9. Rituals/Celebration of Holidays
      • 10. Narrative is recounted and often “re-lived”
      • 11. Museums
      • 12. Media
      • 13. Synagogue Newsletters, Jewish Journals, TV Programs, Movies, Ministry of Tourism
    • Interplay between:
      The Traditional Jewish Narrative,
      The Secular Zionist Narrative, and
      The Zeitgeist of Israeli Society
    • 14. Questions?