Anita Shapira’s Israel: A History

Reviewed by SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

Between 1954 and 1956, a wave of 70,000 Moroccan immigrants arrived in Israel.
Even before immigrating, writes Anita Shapira in her new book Israel: A History, they were forced to “sign an agreement to settle where they were sent.” Upon their arrival, the government sent them to poverty-stricken development towns.
One government official mocked them, these “Jews from North Africa, they were like putty in our hands… we didn’t ask them what they wanted and it worked.” Two years later, when Jewish immigrants began arriving from Poland, they were ensured “appropriate absorption conditions.”

This dual approach was typical of Israeli society in its early decades. It was a society that discriminated against immigrants who were not considered culturally connected to the elites, and embraced immigrants who were. Yet, in Israel: A History, one will find little critical analysis of this process, but only a traditional narrative of how “the society that took in the immigrants did not intend to humiliate or harm them.”

Yemenite immigrants to Israel in a camp (Wikimedia commons)

Yemenite immigrants to Israel in a camp (Wikimedia commons)

Shapira, a professor at Tel Aviv University, sets out to provide a full history of the country. “Most histories of Israel focus on the Arab-Jewish conflict,” she notes in her opening pages. However, she wants to provide a broader history, focusing on “internal Jewish politics, immigrant and national building, the economy and social landscape.”

This is surely a much-needed primer for an English-language audience that is often unaware of the intricacies of the country’s social past, knowing only about the battles and intifadas that seem to make up its history. From the start, this new history doesn’t deviate from a traditional retelling of the Zionist story. Theodor Herzl publishes his pamphlet, Der Judenstaat, in 1896, and the Zionist movement begins. Some people favor a cultural center in Palestine, while others are willing to accept a scheme to send the Jews to Kenya. In Ottoman Palestine, the European Jewish immigrants find an “old Yishuv” composed of religious Jews and Sephardim, whom they ignore, and immediately set out to cultivate the land. These Europeans were the “young, single men and women who came to Palestine on their own, motivated by nationalist idealism.”

They view the cities, where the majority of Jews actually live in Palestine, as “the root of all evil” and set about creating new, strong, agriculture-loving Jews. Shapira is clear that these people were not colonizers: “From the outset Jewish society in Palestine did not fit this [colonial] pattern. The new Jewish Yishuv was not established so that the motherland could send it sons and daughters to settle in a country it ruled and exploit the colony’s resources.”

Eventually Palestine is conquered by the British, who promise the Jews a national homeland but quickly retreat from their promises and obligations. The Jews meet with hostility from the Arab population: “Cooperation in business and even shared leisure activities that existed to some extent during the Ottoman period became increasingly rare.” The author relates how other political groups grew up under the Zionist umbrella, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement.
“Jabotinsky sided with private capital,” she writes. “In opposition to the workers, who claimed that they exclusively were the nation’s pioneers – which is how much of the Zionist public perceived them – Jabotinsky presented the petite bourgeoisie as another claimant to the crown of implementers.”

Her condensed narrative focuses on the kibbutz elites and their colleagues in the state bureaucracy, such as planning magnate Aryeh Sharon, and she seeks to protect Israel’s history from claims that it had many faults in its early years. Thus the decision not to allow Palestinian refugees to return after 1948 was “not considered out of the ordinary… in the context of the time.” She also claims that “out of all the states created after 1945, Israel is one of the few that has maintained a democratic regime.”

But major controversies of the formative years of Zionism, such as the suppression directed at Menachem Begin’s Irgunists during the “season” – the period of civil strife in the 1940s between the Irgun and the Hagana – or the bombings and assassinations the Jewish underground carried out, are simply not mentioned. Although later in the book Shapira describes Meir Kahane’s Kach party as “racist,” Ben-Gurion’s decision to put all of the country’s Arabs under a military administration, complete with curfews and denial of basic civil rights, is considered a decision based on “security reasons.”

In addition, the author makes excuses for the government’s discrimination against Sephardi Jews, arguing that “it would not have been possible to transfer many different populations so culturally diverse in such a short time,” and refers to the Mizrahi immigrants’ “sense of being insulted and discriminated against” – as if they were exaggerating their plight.

Additionally an incipient stereotyping runs through Shapira’s work, which paints Israel as a utopian society of European Jews that is forced to cope with an onslaught of uncouth people who dared to immigrate from Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, and later Russia and Ethiopia. Describing the Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, she claims that “they were compelled to get used to physical work which in their countries of origin was considered demeaning.” The state faced difficulty “settling thousands of immigrants with neither experience in nor inclination toward agriculture.” Ethiopians are described as having to “transition from the small village in the mountains of Ethiopia to the industrialized, achievement-oriented Israeli society.”

Ethiopians in Jerusalem (Seth Frantzman)

Ethiopians in Jerusalem (Seth Frantzman)

Really? Was “achievement-oriented” culture unfamiliar to Ethiopians? And why is it that Moroccan and Iraqi Jews are described as having no “inclination toward agriculture” and an inability to do “physical work”? Russians, meanwhile, are described as having a “right-leaning tendency [which]… grew out of the mentality of people who had been citizens of a great power” and sought to “create a political framework that could protect their interests.” Shapira’s accessible survey of Israeli history provides a thought-provoking text for those unfamiliar with the Jewish state. However, a new history of the country needs to take in the full spectrum of diverse groups in society and their different cultures.

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