(This is the second and concluding part of Laurence Silberstein's article.

Critics of Postzionism

So long as the work of postzionist scholars was contained within the walls of the academy, it provoked little response from the non-academic community. However, when, beginning in 1994, their writings attracted the attention of journalists and others outside the academy and news of their highly controversial positions began to appear in the press and reach the general public, what had previously been a matter of contention among scholars became a topic of heated public debate.

According to Israel Landers, a new wave of Israeli scholars, believing that "the State of Israel was born in sin," depicted Zionism as "a violent and oppressive movement." In his view, these scholars, allowing their ideology to intrude on their academic research, have excluded themselves from the ranks of those who can be considered as Zionists. Instead, picking up on the term used by Uri Ram, Landers refers to them as postzionists. However, whereas Ram used the term in a positive sense to indicate an urgent need for far-reaching changes in Israeli society, Landers used it as a term of derision. To Landers and others who continue to identify with Zionist discourse, postzionist is a term of approbation applied to those who believe that "Israel should be a normal democratic society without a specifically Jewish mission". Through their writings, he insisted, they have placed themselves outside the pale of legitimate Israeli public as well as scholarly discourse (Landers 1994, 8). In his usage, the label postzionist identified them as scholars who cast aspersions on the motives and intentions of the Zionist settlers and the founders of the state. A vision of Israel as a multicultural, pluralistic state in the American sense, a democratic state for all its citizens, is seen as conflicting with the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, in which the national symbols, national institutions, and national values are the product of and serve to reinforce Zionist discourse. Postzionists, in the view of many of their Zionist critics, aid and abet the enemies of Israel by contributing to the erosion of national values and the destruction of Israel's distinctive national identity.

Of course, postzionists reject the way in which their critics characterize them. In their view, they are loyal and concerned citizens of a state that they were no longer willing to define in terms of the dominant Zionist discourse. Whether they perceived Zionism as a form of colonialist-based nationalism, or whether they viewed it as once legitimate but now obsolete, postzionists share a common sense that to continue to frame Israel and the scholarship about it through Zionist discourse is both inappropriate, exclusionary and dangerous.

Questioning the Heart of Zionist Discourse

And so the lines of battle over the future of Israeli national identity were drawn, with scholars and intellectuals lined up on both sides. However, as Zionist critics were soon to learn, the historical revisionists and critical sociologists were only the tip of an iceberg. For as social scientist Baruch Kimmerling recognized, the so-called "postzionist" critique did not stop at challenging historical narratives and social representations. What postzionist scholars are calling into question, Kimmerling (1995) argued, is the very discourse employed by Israeli scholars to produce the dominant representations of historical events and social reality. Insofar as it employed such terms as "War of Liberation," "national homeland," "national redemption," and "ingathering of the exiles," conventional Israeli scholarship was infused with Zionist discourse. And the historical accounts that are produced through this scholarship only serve to confirm and legitimize the Zionist perspectives on the past and the present. One effect of this discourse has been a complete exclusion of the Palestinian perspective, thereby producing an ideologically laden, one-sided interpretation of the Israeli past. If what Kimmerling and others considered to be a violation of scholarly ethics was to be rectified, it was not sufficient simply to adopt new methods or revise inadequate scholarship. The heart of the problem was not simply issues of method or evidence, but the very discourse through which scholars framed the issues, posed the problems and selected the data.

Although Kimmerling and several of his social scientific colleagues were sensitive to the role of discourse in the production of scholarly knowledge, another group of Israeli scholars and intellectuals cast their net wider, expanding the critique to include the various and multiple ways in which Zionist discourse produced what had come to be taken by most Jewish Israelis as common sense. Often taking as their starting point the dominant common-sensical representations of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, these academicians and intellectuals undertook to formulate a new critical discourse and create new discursive spaces that would make possible a reframing of the representation of Israeli life and politics (Silberstein, ch.6). Well-versed in such theoretical discourses as feminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism, they were particularly sensitive to the ways in which, all around them, well-meaning Jewish Israelis engaged in practices that empowered the Jewish Israeli, while disempowering and oppressing Palestinians, inside and outside the state. To redress this situation, they believed, requires a critical discourse that is capable of revealing and representing the power relations that informed the capillaries of Israeli quotidian life. The task of such a discourse is not only to render visible the diverse and recurring practices that inscribed unjust power relations into the fabric of Israeli society and culture, but to reveal the positioning mechanisms that produced a situation in which most Jewish Israelis viewed these practices as both normal and just.

Postmodern Postzionist Knowledge

While agreeing with much new historicism and critical sociology, this group of postzionist intellectuals are convinced that new historical and sociological writings, though necessary, are insufficient. To distinguish this group of Israeli intellectuals from the "new historians" and "critical sociologists," I have (notwithstanding the problems it entails) chosen to refer to them as "postmodern postzionists." A distinctive component of this postmodern form of postzionist critique is its focus on the discourse and practices by means of which meaning is constituted and knowledge produced and disseminated.

A major site for the production and dissemination of this postmodern postzionist critique has been the Hebrew journal Theory and Criticism. Repeatedly, contributors to this journal sought to demonstrate the ways in which seemingly innocent cultural practices, including art, museum exhibitions, and literary production, infiltrated specific kinds of power relations. Their critique extended to the disempowering effects of everyday language, the nomenclature used to designate the Palestinian population living within the borders of Israel ("Israeli Arabs") and the spaces that they inhabited (the "Arab village").

Recognizing the inadequacy of approaching Zionism as an ideology, they regarded it, in Foucault's terms, as a "regime of truth," a set of codes, practices, institutionalized arrangements and discursive processes that produce what comes to be taken for granted as knowledge, while, at the same time, providing the vehicles that render it true. Through its regime of truth, Zionism attempted, and for the most part succeeded, in governing the ways in which Israeli Jews talk about and reason about the realities of Israeli life. This regime of truth, like all regimes of truth, includes social and economic forms and processes, educational practices and institutions, a military, the media, the legal system, geographical sites, memorials, and an official state calendar. These, in turn, contributed to a situation where Israeli Jews (and Jews outside of Israel) regard Zionist discourse and practices as "natural" or "commonsensical."

However, what Israeli Jews regard as positive and creative outcomes of Zionist discourse, others, particularly Palestinian citizens of the state, regard as repressive. As in any society, the dominant ways in which national history, land, literature, society and identity are represented and discussed have the effect of marginalizing or excluding certain groups. In the case of Israel, such groups, as postzionists have sought to demonstrate, include Palestinians, religious Jews, Mizrahi Jews and Jews living outside the homeland. While many, perhaps most Israelis, experience the discourse, practices and identity norms as positive and empowering, these "others" experience it as restrictive and/or oppressive.

Dominant Discursive Concepts

An important dimension of the postmodern critique of zionism is to demonstrate that concepts such as homeland, exile, redemption, aliyah and ingathering of the exiles, which Zionists take as accurate reflections of reality, are instead the products of discursive processes. Far from simply describing or reflecting "what is," these concepts and others that comprise the dominant Israeli discourse, actually participate in the construction of these "objective" conditions. While these and other such terms from Zionist discourse apply to actual physical spaces, they provide the grids and categories that produce the meanings attributed to such spaces.

These meanings entail, require, legitimate and support particular kinds of hierarchies and power relations. Focusing their critique on the discursive and representational practices through which the dominant representations and interpretations of Israeli history, society and culture are constructed and defended, postmodern postzionists render problematic many assumptions that even new historians and critical sociologists left unquestioned or, like most Israelis, took for granted.

Is Postzionism Passé?

Many would argue that while the developments I have briefly traced looked promising until the end of the 1990s, the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel, the continuing intifada, and the intensification of violence combine to render the postzionist critique passé. Even one of the leading proponents of postzionism, Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, has pronounced it all but dead. An article published in Ha'aretz last September indicated a growing skepticism, even among sympathizers, concerning the future of postzionist discourse.

Nonetheless, there are many reasons to believe, as I do, that having instantiated itself among a critical core of faculty at each of the Israeli universities, postzionist discourse that, less than 10 years ago, was perceived as radical, is being increasingly (albeit slowly) accepted as accurately representing changing realities.

Thus, even though recalled by the Sharon government early on, new secondary school texts were produced by the previous Israeli government that incorporate what many would characterize as postzionist ideas. And an expanding critical core of younger scholars, particularly at Ben Gurion University in the Negev (BGU), but also at Tel Aviv University and institutes in Jerusalem, are producing work that takes for granted many of the historical claims that only a decade ago were regarded as unspeakable. And even Anton Shammas's call for a repeal of the Law of Return, which for years resonated only with small marginal groups of Israeli Jews, is now being advocated by a small but growing number of scholars who hold positions within the Israeli university system, and is being echoed and disseminated in respectable academic journals and books.

A new social scientific journal produced in English at BGU provides yet another indication that the discourse is continuing to change, however slowly. Bearing the controversial name Hagar, the journal is described by its editor, geographer Oren Yiftachel, as aiming to promote "critical scholarship with constant examination of systems, regimes and rules, and with a persistent challenge to the rationale, values and consequences of 'the order of things,'" (a reference to the English title of one of Foucault's works). In his view, the name Hagar, Abraham's concubine, Mother of Yishmael (Ishmael), regarded as the matriarch of the Arab nation, reflects some of the key critical perspectives of the journal: "marginality, mobility and changing power relations."

In the words of the editor; "Hagar evokes boundary, the border region, the movement and the peripherality which is often overlooked in mainstream social science" (Yiftachel 2000, 3). The story of Hagar also invokes; "the inevitably close - if often uneasy - relations between Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Hebrews. Hagar," he continues, "denotes the deep historical roots of these communities in the ancient land, and casts our minds to the variegated ways in which land and memory are simultaneously contested and shared by these groups".

New Politics of Truth

Foucault sees the intellectual's responsibility to redress unjust power relations in the practice of theorizing that engages in a struggle against certain forms of power - a struggle, "aimed at revealing and undermining power where it is most visible and invidious" (Foucault 1996, 75-76). Using theory, the intellectual ascertains the possibilities for constituting a new politics of truth. However, the objective is not to change "people's consciousness - or what's in their heads - but of altering the political, economic, institutional regime for the production of truth" (Foucault 1980, 133).

A major goal of intellectual critique is to render visible power relations that are obscured, concealed or neglected; power relations that have been rendered invisible by the dominant discourses and regimes of truth. Without an alternative discourse, however, any transformation would remain within the same discourse, the same mode of thought, only adjusting the thought to the reality of things and, "would only be a superficial transformation" (Foucault 2000, 457). By helping to see power relations and their enabling conditions, the intellectual makes it possible for people to engage in what Foucault describes as "a struggle that concerns their own interests, whose objectives they clearly understand and whose methods only they can determine" (Foucault 1996, 81).

If we view postzionism as a form of what Foucault considers to be intellectual critique, we may designate as postzionists those who are engaged in a critique of the discourses, practices and institutions that have produced Zionism and have been and are being produced by it. On one level, the postzionist critique challenges Zionism's position as the dominant discourse through which the daily realities of Israeli life, society, and culture are to be spoken of, defined and inscribed with meaning. In so doing, postzionists reveal that the foundations upon which the prevailing Zionist definitions of Israeli national identity, national territory, national history, and national law rest are contingent rather than natural, necessary or essential.

At the same time, their critique makes it clear that things can be otherwise, that alternative ways of understanding Israel identity, territory, history and law are available, and that what keeps the dominant forms of knowledge in place are regimes of truth and relations of power rather than national destiny or national mission.

This also helps to clarify the ferocity and intensity of the responses evoked by postzionist critics. In a sense, the critics are right. The cumulative effect of the postzionist critique does indeed threaten what Zionists have taken to be sacred truths, sacred practices, sacred narratives and sacred memories. And the struggle is over what Israel will become in the future. Children educated by textbooks that present an alternative narrative, that frame that narrative in a different way, may think differently about the state and its history, although, as a teacher, I am somewhat skeptical of just how much of an impact textbooks really make.

In Foucault's terms, the key to the conflict surrounding postzionism is the issue of knowledge and power. In criticizing dominant forms of knowledge in Israel, postzionists are also threatening power relations that make possible such forms of knowledge, and institutional arrangements that have kept them in place. If what the postzionists maintain is true, and if the way is opened to alternative forms of knowledge, then what will eventually have to change is not simply what is known, but practices as well. And this knowledge and these practices include an ensemble that supports and is supported by that knowledge - what Foucault calls an "apparatus"- that can include such diverse things as "practices, regulatory decisions, laws, architectural forms, administrative measures, scholarly statements, moral and philanthropic propositions" (1980, 196).

New Discursive Spaces

While this article has focused on intellectual critique within Israel, and the intellectual function of such critiques in uncovering previously obscured relations of power, the value of such a critique to the eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depends upon whether or not a similar critique emerges among Palestinians. Just as Israeli intellectual critics have undertaken to critically assess the historical narratives inherited from the past, to render visible power relations within Israeli society, the same task must also be undertaken by Palestinian scholars. Foucault's critique of power relations and the intellectual tools he provides to bring their mechanisms to light are by no means limited to Israel.

For Foucault, power and power relations characterize all societies: all cultures produce knowledge that is interlaced with relations of power. Accordingly, until a similar kind of critique is applied to prevailing Palestinian discourses that demonize Israel and prevailing forms of Palestinian knowledge that occlude the complexity of the historical relations between the two peoples, the possibility of dialogue that traverses ever shifting boundaries is unlikely. Similarly, until the power relations within Palestinian society that conceal the marginalization or exclusion of alternative voices among the Palestinian people are rendered visible, the potential of Israeli postzionist discourse will be stifled.

On September 11, 1993, the headline in the English-language Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post read: "Taboos shattered in peace process." Only a short time before, the world had become aware that since May, 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been conducting secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway. Uri Savir, a seasoned Israeli diplomat and Abu Ala (Ahmad Qurei), a high ranking PLO official, had led the two teams of negotiators whose efforts resulted in a Declaration of Principles. The signing of this document on September 13, 1993 at the White House brought a cessation in the armed hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian people. In the words of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House ceremony, a new era was dawning on the Middle East.

A New Mapping of the Middle East

As Savir reports, the momentous event was made possible by the willingness of the two sides to draw "a new road map" (Savir 1998,15). In other words, serious peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians required a new mapping of the Middle East. According to Savir, central to this new mapping was separating the events of the past from the realities of the present and the hopes and promise of the future. To move forward, both sides agreed, references to the past had to be suspended,

In an early meeting, Savir and Abu Ala agreed that if their efforts were to prove successful, it would be necessary to change the prevailing discourse in the Middle East:

'"You know," I warned Abu Ala, "as far as most Israelis are concerned, you're just a gang of terrorists."

"And [Abu Ala replied] as far as most Palestinians are concerned, you are a nation of cruel oppressors, robbing us of our lands," (Savir 1998, 21).'

Though I doubt that either of these men ever read Foucault, they instinctively sensed what Foucault had argued throughout his career: for significant social and cultural transformation to occur, a change in the discourse through which events are framed and assigned meaning must first occur. As the events at Camp David and Taba clearly showed, any negotiations are doomed to failure when the Israeli perceptions of the Palestinians is framed within Zionist discourse and the Palestinian attitudes toward the Israelis are framed within the demonizing discourses inherited from the past.

As intellectuals on both sides increasingly understand, the fate of the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, are inexorably intertwined. For the new discursive spaces to open up in Israel to be truly effective, a parallel phenomenon must occur among the Palestinians. Until Palestinian intellectuals recognize the need for a form of critique that parallels postzionism, little actual progress will be made in bringing about the change of discourse that is a necessary condition to a genuine peace. The possibilities of opening such critical spaces among Palestinian and other Arab intellectuals seems extremely limited at present. Unless the process of transforming discourses within Israel are paralleled by a similar phenomenon among the Palestinians, the disputes and conflicts will be mired in the very forms of discourse that makes their resolution virtually impossible.


Foucault, Michel. 2000. Power. Ed. James D. Faubion. Tr. Richard Hurley and others. Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984, III.
_______. 1996. "Intellectuals and Power." Foucault Live. Collected Interviews, 1961-1984. Ed. Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotexte.
_______. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings, 1972-77. Ed. Colin Gordon. Pantheon Books.
Hall, Stuart. 1990. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Identity, Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutheford. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 222-237.
Kimmerling, Baruch. 1995. "Academic History Caught in the Cross-Fire: The Case of Israeli-Jewish Historiography." History and Memory 7.1.
Kimmerling, Baruch, and Migdal, Joel. 1993. Palestinians: The Making of a People. New York: The Free Press.
Landers, Yisrael. 18 March 1994. "The Sin that We Committed in Establishing the State" (Hebrew). Davar HaShavua: 8-9.
Morris, Benny. 1988a. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Pappe, Ilan. 1995. The New History of Zionism: The Academic and Public Confrontation. Kivvunim: A Journal of Zionism and Judaism 8.45: 39-48.
Ram, Uri. 1995. The Changing Agenda of Israeli Sociology: Theory, Ideology, and Identity. New York: SUNY Press.
Savir, Uri. 1998. The Process: 1,100 Days That Changed the Middle-East. New York: Random House.
Shafir, Gerson. 1996 Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Silberstein, Laurence J. 1999. The Postzionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture. New York: Routledge.
Sturken, Marita. 1997. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkeley & Los Angeles: U of California P.
Yiftachel, Oren. 2000. "Launching Hagar: Marginality, Beer-Sheva, Critique." Hagar: International Social Science Review 1.1: 1-5.