Zionism and the Cult of Death
Baruch Kimmerling, Sociology professor,
Hebrew University (credit: Kimmerling)
Yes, this is a provocative and even polemical title and it certainly runs counter to the notion that the purpose of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel was to save Jewish lives and ensure the survival of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust. But Baruch Kimmerling‘s Nation Magazine article, Israel’s Culture of Martyrdom, presents a profoundly illuminating thesis which argues that martyrdom plays a critical role in the Zionist credo. His first paragraph gives you a good sense of his argument:
Nations like to imagine themselves as unique, but one belief they have in common is that it is noble to die in their name. Death and redemption are the themes of almost every form of patriotism. In the case of Israel, however, the connection between nationalism and death is especially visceral. For the Jewish state is a nation that emerged from the ashes of a project of extermination, and that sees itself as the best defense against the renewal of violent persecution. Zionism, the state’s ruling ideology, is a triumphal creed shadowed by death.
One must add that Israel is not alone in observing this “visceral” connection between nationalism and death. One must look no farther than Serbia and the nationalist fantasy inculcated by Slobodan Milosevic into his countrymen which helped feed Serbian genocide against the Kosovars. For Serbians, the defeat and martyrdom of their hero, Prince Lazar in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo to stop the Ottoman advance into Europe marks a pivotal moment in Serbian history. To this day, Lazar’s martyrdom is worshipped and exalted by all Serbians, but especially by ultra-nationalists like Milosevic and his ilk.
One might well argue that the martyrdom ethos has had an equally corrosive effect in Jewish and Zionist tradition. In fact, Kimmerling quotes historian Idit Zertal as saying (in terms of Jewish history): “ancient graves produce fresh graves.” There are so many examples: Masada, the Bar Kochba rebellion, the Holocaust. And then there are the series of martyrdoms that helped produce modern day Israel–the very first one being Trumpeldor’s death at Tel Hai (very similar to Prince Lazar’s death at Kosovo Polje) during which battle he is reported to have said: “”It is good to die for our country” (reminding me of Nathan Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”). Kimmerling again paraphrases Zertal on the significance of Trumpeldor’s martyrdom within the context of modern Zionism:
[His death] marked the beginning of a cult of death among Israeli Jews. The “new Jewish man,” in this ideology, was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die defending his land and people, in stark contrast with Diaspora Jews, who would later be depicted as weaker souls who went “like lambs to the slaughter” in the Holocaust. The voices arguing that it is better to live for one’s country than to die for it were accordingly stifled and silenced. It is deeply ironic that the very same society now claims to be shocked by the “martyrdom culture” in the occupied territories.
There are a number of arguments advanced by unquestioning supporters of Israel which seek to disparage Palestinian claims to humanity and nationhood. These arguments invariably drive me to drink because they are repeated and rehashed ad nauseum as if by repeating them often enough they will somehow magically be proven true. One of these is the argument Kimmerling alludes to–that Palestinians do not value life, either those of Israelis or their own. Otherwise, why would they keep sending suicide bombers to blow themselves up? Kimmerling reminds us that often when we are disgusted by a supposed moral “defect” in an enemy we have no farther to look than ourselves to see similar defects reflected in our own behavior.
Kimmerling discusses the enormously complicated role played by the Holocaust in the establishment of the State. While this event permeates the consciousness of all Jews, Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion were not above manipulating world opinion and the survivors themselves in order to advance his own Zionist agenda. Kimmerling reminds us of this chilling statement by Israel’s first prime minister:
“if I knew it was possible to save all children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, because we are faced not only with the accounting of these children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish people.”
Here is a perfect example of nationalist ideology standing in the way of life and common sense. Lest you think that Ben Gurion’s comments were mere rhetoric, there are numerous examples in which he prevented rescue of Holocaust survivors because they would be sent to nations other than Israel. In another self-serving gesture, Ben Gurion also suggested granting symbolic citizenship to the six million “in effect, turning them into martyrs for the Jewish state.”
In the buildup to the War of Independence, the Jews of mandatory Palestine desperately needed manpower for the future fights against the Arab nations. They began recruiting from the DP camps. But when voluntary recruitment fared poorly, Zionist leaders persuaded the camp leadership to compel able-bodied men and women to enlist in the Haganah “through a variety of means, among them firing employees from their jobs; evicting tenants from their houses; denying food supplies; arrests and beatings; and the threat of ostracism from the community.” Ben Gurion was not above brutalizing the victims once more if it meant they would help ensure the survival of the Jewish state.
Then there is perhaps the most crucial use to which Ben Gurion put the Holocaust in the first decade or so of the State: the Eichmann affair. When most people think about Israel’s kidnapping, trial and execution of Eichmann, the entire series of events seems eminently reasonable and fair: a notorious Nazi killer gets his just desserts. Yet the issues are much more complicated than they appear on the surface.
Despite his ambivalence about the Holocaust and its victims, “Ben-Gurion sought to turn the Holocaust into the central pillar of Israeli identity and to use it as the main basis upon which to legitimize the Zionist project. The Eichmann case [w]ould be used as a tool to equate Israel’s Arab enemies with the Nazis. The trial helped cast Israel as the representative and savior of world Jewry.” Kimmerling calls the case “a show trial” which at first seems an unduly harsh judgment. But not in the context of Ben Gurion’s Machiavellian manipulation of any and all events for the benefit of the Zionist idea: “The trial was [first and foremost] a grand attempt to shape Jewish and Holocaust history and memory by a single man, Ben-Gurion, and it had far less to do with the task of proving Eichmann’s guilt.”
The Israeli prosecution outlined the events of the Holocaust for the trial’s world audience emphasizing that Jewish resistance consisted solely of Zionists. There was no mention of Bundist, Communists or even Betarniks. For Ben Gurion, they did not exist. Never mentioned by the prosecution were the heroic exploits of Marek Edelman, Bundist leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Edelman rejected the calls for mass suicide on the part of the remaining Jewish fighters and instead escaped through the Warsaw sewers to freedom. Afterward, “he rejected the very idea that one could draw “lessons” from the Holocaust, as well as the notion that Zionism provided the “answer” to the Jewish question.”
Kimmerling notes that the Eichmann trial provided a historical template by which Israelis would see the events of the 1967 War (coming only five years later) as an “‘existential threat’ of Holocaust proportions [instead of] a secular war over disputed land.” This in turn rallied world Jewry around the cause of saving Israel at all cost. Certainly, if Israel’s existence is imperiled, then there can be no questioning of Israel’s policies or motives in its conflict with the Arabs. Yet another corrosive effect of the cult of martyrdom.
Kimmerling places recent events in Israeli politics (the struggle leading up to Gaza withdrawal) within this context by analyzing right-wing Israeli abuse of the Holocaust:
Almost every Israeli politician who has tried to make peace with the Arabs has been likened to Neville Chamberlain, or as a “Nazi” whose secret desire is nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish people. Any “concession” to the Arabs signals the destruction of Israel, the end of Zionism and the end of the Jewish people. Another symbol often seen at right-wing demonstrations is the yellow Star of David, the single most emotive symbol of Jewish victimization. If Ariel Sharon is Israel’s prime minister today, it is in large part because of this right-wing campaign of vilification against supporters of a negotiated peace with the Palestinian people. Now, it seems, it is his turn to be demonized as his proposed evacuation from the Gaza Strip settlements comes to be labeled as a process aimed at making the Land of Israel judenrein–i.e., cleansed of Jews.
One of the primary rallying cries for modern Zionism in the wake of the Holocaust has been according to Kimmerling: “Never forget.” But he adds (quoting Zertal) one can “remember too much.” Kimmerling masterfully sums up his argument thus:
The obsessive commemoration of the Holocaust and of Jewish victimhood has blinded much of the Jewish community to Israel’s real position in the world and to the humanity of the Palestinian people. The result makes ever more distant a reasonable political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is the victory of death over life, of the past over the future. To be sure, there are periods in the history of a nation when ultimate sacrifices are necessary. [But] the question in Israel today is whether this heroic period has come to an end or whether the prevailing ideology of the 1948 war will last another hundred years until the entire “Land of Israel” is “liberated.” To choose the former option is to grant priority to the lives of Israel’s citizens, Jewish and Arab. To choose the latter is to remain a community of victims, joined in a mythical communion of Jewish sacrifice in an eternally hostile gentile world. Tragically, most of the organized American Jewish community seems to prefer the mythic option, a course that can only lead to disaster.
Amen to that.
6 thoughts on “Zionism and the Cult of Death – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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It is an interesting article, no doubt.
However, I do not completely buy some of the leaps that he makes. For example, he talks about “The ‘new Jewish man’ in this ideology, [who] was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die defending his land and people” and then says “It is deeply ironic that the very same society now claims to be shocked by the ‘martyrdom culture’ in the occupied territories.” There is a profound difference between the idealogy of Trumpeldor of dying to defend ones land and people and dying to murder another’s people. I think that Western culture and certainly Jewish thought is shocked by the notion of a suicide bomber who will kill himself in order to kill as many civilians of the “enemy” as possible.
Also, he says: “The trial was [first and foremost] a grand attempt to shape Jewish and Holocaust history and memory by a single man, Ben-Gurion, and it had far less to do with the task of proving Eichmann’s guilt.” However, Ben-Gurion is not the one he quotes from the trial-Ben Gurion was not the prosecution. It was the Attorney-General. It was hardly a single-handed attempt by Ben Gurion to do anything.
Lastly, I do not think, as Kimmerling does, that the ideology of Trumpeldor reigns in modern Zionism or modern Israel. The mantra of “it is good to LIVE for one’s country” is most prevalent amongst Zionists today. Most Israelis and Zionists realise that the Zionist movement now faces very different challenges from those of Trumpeldor’s day, or those from before 1948, or even 1967.
I think you & Kimmerling are focussing on 2 diff. aspects of the Trumpeldor/suicide bomber comparison. What Kimmerling is talking about is the similarity bet. both in conceiving of their respective deaths as martyrdom for a national cause. In this way, both are identical in the way they conceive of such a death.
You are talking about the ways in which ea. chooses to die: one in murdering innocent civilians & Trumpeldor on the battlefield. I would agree with you that in this comparison there are marked moral differences.
As for your contention that western & Jewish thought is shocked by the notion of suicide bombers. Yes, this is true. I certainly abhor suicide bombings. But suicide bombers have grown more common as a means of nationalist/political resistance (the Tamils have used it most often) & not just in the Arab world.
Are you arguing that Gideon Hausner was not taking any direction at all fr. Ben Gurion? And if Alberto Gonzales was trying Osama bin Laden in a U.S. court (not very likely given how averse Bush is to using our judicial system to try terrorists) you would say that George Bush was not directing or strongly influencing the trial? No, this trial was Ben Gurion’s baby. He set the tone. Hausner certainly was an agent in the process. But Ben Gurion was the spearhead.
Oh, so you claim the Zionist movement’s mantra is “it is good to live for one’s country?” Does that include those in the settler movement who advocate violence against Israeli troops & the prime minister himself? Does that include those among the Likud & other right wing parties who held up images of Yitzchak Rabin as a Nazi before he was assassinated? You have given precious little proof for your contention that latter day Zionism is life-affirming movement (& keep in mind that I consider myself a progressive Zionist). If this were so (that it was life-affirming), then all major Zionist movements would be working to find an effective negotiated resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Because such a settlement is the only way to save Israeli (& Palestinian) lives in the long run. As long as Zionist groups and political parties (Likud, etc) reject a negotiated settlement on any but their own narrow terms, then an excellent argument can be made that they are willing to sacrifice the lives of Israel’s citizens for their grand vision of a triumphalist State. And this constitutes a “death culture” in my opinion in line with Kimmerling’s arguments.
I don’t know enough about the exact role of the Attorney General to know how independent the job is. However, I certainly know that the current one, Meni Mazuz, has made some rather uncomfortable rulings for the government. I doubt if Ben Gurion told a lawyer exactly how to prosecute someone, though without doubt he had an influence on proceedings, considering their huge importance to the state.
I agree that I have given little evidence that Israelis believe “it is good to live for one’s country”. My belief is based on personal experience of living in Israel for a year and having lots of friends of army age. Anecdotal evidence, I will admit, yet it is the prevailing atmosphere amongst the many, many Israelis with whom I have spoken.
You are right to point out that the Zionist movement embraces a huge breadth of different political views. However, I have 2 problems with your comments. Firstly: I completely reject the notion that the far right-wing should be taken to represent the Zionist movement (I’d have thought that you agree). Therefore, the vast majority of Zionists hold to the above mantra (one cannot account for extremists). Secondly: I think that it is grossly unfair to suggest that the Likud party’s policies are based on anything other than what they see to be the best interests of the State of Israel and the people of Israel. You may disagree with their policies (I disagree with many of them too!), but it is somewhat narrowminded to believe that your politics are the only way, and those who disagree do not have the best interests of Israel at heart. Specifically, to write-off Likud as “reject[ing] a negotiated settlement on any but their own narrow terms” is just not true! Fine, you disagree with the way that they are going about it, but Sharon is willing to negotiate. If you believe otherwise then you certainly disagree with the EU, US, Russia, most of the Arab world, Mahmoud Abbas, etc. who are engaged in the current slow road to stabilisation and negotiations.
The “far right” currently dominates Israeli politics so it is accurate to say that their views represent a major, if not preponderant perspective within contemporary Zionism.
It is simply wrong to contend that the Likud is in favor of a negotiatied settlement with the Palestinians. If you seriously believe this, then you’ll have to provide some solid evidence–& how would you find any because they simply don’t?! Sharon isn’t even willing to negotiate a Gaza withdrawal–remember that this is a UNILATERAL decision on Israel’s part (yes, there is some small measure of discussion now, but that’s mostly after the fact since Sharon has already laid out the withdrawal plan entirely without Palestinian input or contribution); let alone a negotiated settlement of the entire conflcit (& this is what I’m really talking about–not piecemeal negotiations over this or that single issue).
Oh I don’t doubt that Likud views their policies as in the best interest of the State of Israel. But George Bush, Hugo Chavez, Robert Mugabe, Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and even Adolph Hitler believe/d similarly. So what does that prove? Those (Likud) policies still lead indirectly to the needless murder of Israeli & Palestinian civilians. Therefore the “death culture” critique is entirely valid IMO.
Hmmm, let’s see: I “disagree with the EU, US, Russia…” because I contend that neither Sharon nor the Likud want a full-fledged peace agreement with the Palestinians???!! What are you smokin’?? All the nations & individuals you list do believe in a negotiated settlement as you say, but how many in their heart of hearts believe that Sharon wants the same thing?
The Sharon government are not the far right. The right wing are up in arms about the disengagement plan. Furthermore, Ichud Ha’leumi (National Union) and NRP both left the government, which is now a unity government with both of the major parties, Likud and Labour. The far right do not dominate Israeli politics.
What this discussion again comes down to is your fixation on demonising Ariel Sharon, rather than having a mature appraisal of his policies. The disengagement plan shows that he is willing to give up land. It shows that he is willing to make painful sacrifices. His restraint following the suicide bombing last Friday shows that he wants to give Mahmoud Abbas time to establish himself. The Sharm el-Sheikh conference shows that he wants to engage with the new Palestinian leadership. He is very much committed to the current process. If (as we all hope) it continues, it will lead to full negotiations. I do not buy your conspiracy theories about Sharon having some sinister alternative plan. It just isn’t true!
Now we’re starting to get into arcane aspects of Israeli politics. But in your most recent comment you betray an incomplete analysis of the political scene in Israel. There are fine gradations of difference between the right/hard-right parties. Perhaps Sharon isn’t the hardest of the hard right but he’s a man of the right through & through even now that he betrays some readiness to soften some of his harder right positions via the Gaza withdrawal. Adding Labor to his coalition is a temporary convenience for Sharon & Labor as both want a Gaza withdrawal (for diff. reasons). I doubt the coalition will last much beyond this particular event (unless he shows a willingness to expand his efforts at a negotiated settlement w. the Palestinians).
If you can look at the ministers in his immediately previous government & can honestly tell me they were not hard right, then your political eyeglasses are terribly fogged. You wish to see only the best & most decent in Israeli politics (including Sharon’s government), but you’re only seeing what you want to see & not what’s really there right in front of yr. eyes.
I’m completely realistic about Sharon & his policies. The Gaza withdrawal (while a relatively good thing in & of itself) is a tactical ploy designed to divert world & U.S. opinion from putting further & more agonizing pressure on Israel to come to a final, comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. As for my supposed deluded “conspiracy theories,” Sharon’s most trusted advisor said precisely this in a famous interview with Haaretz a few months ago (which I’ve posted about here). For you to ignore this again shows your willful blindness at the nature of Israel’s right wing political world view.
I think we’ve both had our go at this topic, Colin. Let’s move on to other things. But again, you’re always welcome to post here & I welcome the divergent opinions you contribute.