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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism and the Making of the Jewish State
Zeev Sternhell (Translated by David Maisel)

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998)
419pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 25.00; ISBN 0-691-01694-1.



Discussions in Israel over such thorny subjects as national identity and Jewish nationalism provoke heated debate. Zeev Sternhell's The Founding Myths of Israel will contribute to that debate and set the cat among the pigeons. The author's thesis, in short, is that the founders of the modern Israeli state claimed that they wanted to establish a just, egalitarian state for the Jewish people in Palestine. However, the author contends, such ideas were mere rhetoric. Early Israeli leaders - such as the avowedly socialist Mapai, or Labour, leader David Ben-Gurion - consistently put aside their socialist ideals of justice and equality in the pursuit of establishing a territorial state for the Jewish people.

Sternhell persuasively argues that Israel's founding fathers understood well the inherent incompatibility between territorial nationalism and the universalistic ideologies of socialism and liberalism. Because theirs was a state-building enterprise, Ben-Gurion and his peers quickly grasped the need to acquire as much territory as possible during the early days of the state. They also comprehended that the fledgling Jewish state needed to create a sense of national identity that marked it out from other states, both in the region and in the world as a whole.

The author suggests that Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens, its policies toward the Palestinians, its failure to establish a 'bill of rights' for its citizens, and its blurring of the line between religion and state can all be traced to early leadership decisions to accord primacy to national objectives, rather than to universal values.

The root issue behind many of Israel's current negotiations with the Palestinians - the June 1967 war - is viewed by the author not as a 'miscalculation' on the part of Israel's leaders, but as part and parcel of the Zionist enterprise of territorial expansion. Sternhell concludes that the Labour Party's decision to occupy the West Bank, Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip was primarily motivated by territorial nationalist concerns.

Provocative at times, this book will be of interest to those who study the subject of national and ethnic conflict in the modern Middle East. While the author's main conclusions are not particularly startling and are fairly intuitive, he has done a service by persuasively and patiently weaving his views into a very readable work.

Lawrence Tal


Lawrence Tal



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