I like controversial books: the reaction is always illustrative. At a leadership seminar in Jerusalem I mentioned the name Sholomo Sand to an observant Jew form New York and he immediately walked out on me, screaming: “Shlomo Sand is an antisemite!”
What would’ve happened if I’d mentioned the C word?
As a scholar of Zionist history at Tel Aviv Uniersity, Sand has been ostracized for daring to deconstruct the nationalist myth of Jewish Peoplehood as taught by the state. His book, The Invention of the Jewish People, is dry and boring – in other words, academic – but he manages to show the important role that anthropologists and arqueologists had during the early days of the country in the construction of a national narrative tied to the land.
Amos Oz makes a similar statement in Jews and Words but provides a path out of the deconstructinve spiral of Sand: at the end of the day – an here he takes a bit of a postmodern bent – our identity doesn’t conform to a bloodline or even to a relationship to the land, but to our love for a series of texts that have been read, commented and reread in different continents throughout the centuries.
The most fascinating book on Israel that I’ve read though is Hollow Space: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, which explores the spatial tactics deployed during the last four decades to turn Gaza and the West Bank into a fragmented and schizophrenic urban ecosystem. Architecture is, according to the author, a tool that is used for domination. He talks about the role of the Jerusalem stone, for example, in creating a sense of continuity between the old city of Jerusalem and the extended metropolis that emerged after Israel conquered it. The obligatory use of the stone in fasçades naturalized this urban sprawl. He also explores the different backstages present at the checkpoints, and explains how the military generals have used postmodern theory to infiltrate compact urban settings like Gaza.
Given all these “critical” readings I was a bit skeptical when I came to Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. It seemed a book designed for the liberal Jewish diaspora, a book that pandered us as Jews, that allowed us to continue with our preconceived myth of a higher morality and the miraculous trope of Zionist history.
I was wrong. The book is brave. Even if the chronological layout reinforces a nationalistic narrative, Shavit does question important myths like Masada and constantly exposes the colonial ideology that traversed the Zionist enterprise. He does this out of love for his home, though, and this empathic stance is what makes the book is so engaging. I was pleasantly surprised.
I’ve just finished the chapter on Lydda. This is one of the most horrific episodes in the history of Zionism that I can think of. I knew nothing of this mass Exodus of Palestinians. I know it will only get worse, but I have to read on.