Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israel National Tradition is a fascinating study of the (re-)construction of Jewish national myth and consciousness by the Zionist movement. Highlighting themes of collective sacrifice, iconic heroism, and national unity, she explores how Israeli national identity has been built in part through the narrative reconstruction and reinterpretation of both ancient and modern military defeats.
Focusing on the last stand of the Zealots at Masada around 73 CE and the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt against Roman rule between 132-135 CE, Zerubavel explains how the narratives of these events were reinterpreted from traditional readings to serve themes of national heroism. Rather than being understood as the somber outcome of a disastrous revolt, the collective suicide of the Zealots on Masada was seen as a heroic stand of the Jewish people against foreign oppressors and the fall of the fortress as the event that brought on the Exile. Here Masada serves as an analogy for the modern State of Israel, a final stand from which no one dare retreat and for which all its citizens must be willing to sacrifice. In an even more dramatic reinterpretation, Bar Kokhba is no longer seen as a man filled with hubris and self-righteousness whose poorly conceived revolt ensured the expulsion of the Jews from ancient Israel, but a national hero whose bravery and wisdom should serve as an example for contemporary defenders of the state.
These ancient acts of heroism and sacrifice were then explicitly matched to the experiences of Jews returning to Israel in the early 1900s. The Battle of Tel Hai in 1920 was made famous by the fall of Yosef Trumpeldor who uttered before his death, “ein davar, kedai lamut be’ad ba’aretz (never mind, it is worth dying for the country).” Although the attack by Arab militia was not in itself exceptional in a year of severely heightened tension in the territory, the event was taken as a symbolic rupture with the Exile and identified with the sacrifices made by Jews for their land at Masada and during the Bar Kokhba revolt. With this event was “reborn” a patriotic legacy of heroic death seen in early Zionist circles as profoundly different from what they perceived to be the passive and disarmed character of the “old” Jews of the Exile.
In constructing their model of the “new Hebrew” on the pattern of the Jews of antiquity, Zerubavel asserts that the Zionist movement produced a master commemorative narrative that saw the Jewish people in three periods: Antiquity, Exile, and National Revival with Exile (of some 2000 years) serving as a historical detour that denies the continuity of national life. Although this parsing of history is not unique to the Zionist movement (diaspora Judaism has long maintained a sharp distinction between life in exile and in the homeland), Zerubavel successfully links the modern development of the Jewish national consciousness with the development of modern nationalism in general. As in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, she emphasizes the critical role of “empty time”, an ahistorical space in which the history and mythology of the original residents of the territory are drawn in a continuous narrative with the country’s modern political framework. Although this sense of continuity is more understandable in the Israeli context than in most constructed national groups, Zerubavel demonstrates that the narratives used to build this consciousness are no less affected by “remembering and forgetting,” the blurring of histories to suit functional political ends.
Contrary to other reviews I have come across, I do not read Zerubavel’s work as a critical indictment of the Zionist narrative. By framing the book solidly in the “Imagined Communities” mold, her research is best understood as highlighting the normality of Israeli nationalism. In seeking national legitimacy in a shared past reinforced by and commemorated through both spatial and temporal loci, physical artifacts like the ruins of Masada and traditional festivals like Lag b’Omer take on national as well as scientific and religious meaning.
Like any national narrative, she moreover finds that the initially hegemonic constructions of Masada, Bar Kokhba, and Tel Hai as central elements of Israeli identity have come under increasing criticism and factional reinterpretation as the national culture has become more heterogeneous and less dominated by the secular socialist left. While these developments challenge accepted interpretations, it also opens a space to criticize dominant themes accompanying these readings such as honoring the act of dying for one’s country. The persistent siege mentality associated with the “Masada complex” indeed can have dangerous implications for engagement with the outside world, just as morally elevating dying for one’s country can promote costly physical sacrifice and political risk-taking. The most important lesson for Zerubavel is then not that the construction of a nationalist narrative is inherently illegitimate but that failing to recognize its constructed nature may prevent its critical reexamination.
The key substantive critique that may be leveled against Recovered Roots is that its scope of investigation into the content of ethnohistorical claims of Zionism to Israel is entirely secular and distinctly pre-1967. The difficulty that Zerubavel identifies with sustaining the constructed and at least partially contrived narratives of Masada and the Bar Kokhba revolt may stem from the fact that these narratives were intended as replacements for traditional religious narratives of territorial entitlement and promises of collective national redemption. Her assertion that pilgrimages to Masada came to replace those of ancient Israelites to the Temple Mount indeed “underscores the cultural shift from the traditional theological framework to a secular national one” (125). While these two sites may compete as sacred national sites, it is notable that while the Masada narrative has been critically revisited, the narrative of the Temple Mount has remained largely unchallenged.
In fact, while many secular national narratives have faltered in the face of social, political, and national change, claims to traditionally salient religious sites like the Temple Mount in particular have remained surprisingly strong. It may even be argued that while contrived secular narratives have become increasingly problematic, Israelis have become more comfortable with (or at least acclimatized to) claims that rest on religious narratives. Although these claims were nearly silenced following independence, they were reawakened with the capture of ancient Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967. These territorial claims were concretely expressed by social movements like Gush Emunim and the Movement for the Land of Israel that sought to make the territorial incorporation of the biblical heartland a national and religious mission. Political legitimacy grew in parallel as successive governments authorized and supported settlement activity. While the settlement movement is now viewed as problematic by many in Israel, there is little doubt that its successes in placing near-irrevocable facts on the ground were enabled by the general public’s deference to ethnohistorical narratives of territorial entitlement. These claims have much deeper roots and are perceived to have much greater authenticity than those analyzed by Zerubavel.
If one is to examine the great debates of Israeli identity today, it is not over the meaning and symbolism of Masada or the Bar Kokhba revolt and it is certainly not over the legacy of Yosef Trumpeldor. Rather it is over the ethnohistorical right of Israelis to live in the disputed territories versus the implications for human rights of taking this land from the resident Palestinians. Sites like the Temple Mount and the Tomb of the Patriarchs have taken significantly greater precedence in domestic national discourse than Masada or Tel Hai. While this is likely because these sites are the subject of direct political contention, they have also become more central to Israeli national identity.
Secular groups and political leaders have hammered home again and again the moral implications of the ongoing occupation, they have conspicuously avoided engagement with the claims of the national religious camp. For their part, national religious groups have been unwilling to engage with human rights questions so long as issues of national territorial entitlement and identity remain contentious and unsettled. The implication of Zerubavel’s work is that these latter issues in particular can never be satisfactorily settled. Yet if these narratives now play a critical role in the performance of Israeli identity, they, like the narratives of Tel Hai, Masada, and Bar Kokhba, cannot be ignored or marginalized. If there is to be any hope of resolving the ongoing conflict, the path for political engagement must not go around these difficult issues, but right through them.