Vol. 14, Iss. 1
Archaeology and Zionism
Samuel A. Miano
The strength of any national movement is dependent on how well a nation can construct a narrative. As with many similar national movements, the Zionist movement in constructing its narrative has relied heavily on history. More specifically, the movement has relied on shaping and presenting a unique history that supports the narrative and effectively legitimizes the efforts of the movement. There are many subtle themes and nuances that add substance to the Zionist narrative, but it is most important to recognize a few core concepts in order to understand the narrative as a whole.
First, it is important to acknowledge the context in which Zionism was born. The rampant anti-semitism found both in Western and particularly Eastern Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created an environment that lead to strong sentiments of unity throughout the victimized Jewish community. In hindsight, given such an environment the highly nationalist reaction which soon became an organized Zionist movement seems to have been almost inevitable. Additionally, because persecution was one of the strongest forces that solidified Jewish national sentiments it appears only natural that the main goal of the national movement would be to solve the issue of persecution and to strengthen the nation as a whole. These motivations play a central role in the formation of the Zionist narrative.
The narrative can be understood as being based on a timeline of collective Jewish history laid out in three parts or periods and attributing sentimental statuses to each of the periods. In her book Recovered Roots, Yael Zerubavel labels the first period "Antiquity" the second "Exile" and the third "National Revival". In the Zionist narrative Antiquity describes the period in time when the ancient nation of Israel flourished, when kings David and Solomon ruled and when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was still intact. The period of Exile is associated with a poor time in Jewish history when the Jewish people were dispersed and divided leaving the Jewish nation to become nothing more than an unfamiliar notion. Finally, National Revival describes a time during which the people of the Jewish nation will cease to be dispersed and exist as a glorious nation once again united in the land of the original Israelite kingdom. The kind of three part narrative described by Zerubavel serves as a reliable medium through which the Zionist movement can shape collective national sentiment. Primarily, the narrative serves the purpose of generating and strengthen the support of pro-national opinion throughout the Jewish community. Additionally, contrasting the period of Exile against the period of Antiquity highlights the issues that Exile poses on the Jewish nation. Moreover, by equating the period of National Revival with the glory of Antiquity the collective Jewish body is taught to desire the nation's return to greatness and strive for unification and return to Palestine.
In order to validate the narrative, the Zionist movement has relied heavily on focusing on particular historical events and archeological sites. The value of historical accounts, stories, and sites should not go overlooked. Such elements serve an array of functions spanning from providing tangible evidence to support ancient ties to the land, to modeling ideal nationalistic behavior, or marking the transition periods between the three main eras central to the Zionist narrative. In particular, an examination of sites such as Masada and Tel-Hai can expose the extent of the function and importance of historic events and sites in the Zionist narrative.
Regarded as one of the most significant archeological sites in Israel today, Masada is all that remains of the last defensive position of the Jewish rebels during the Jewish revolt of the first century A.D. Although the first professional Israeli excavation of the site only began in the mid part of the twentieth century, Masada has been an attractive destination for Zionist enthusiasts since its discovery one hundred years prior. The allure of Masada lies not only in the beauty of the landscape that surrounds it but more so in the story behind the 2,000 year old ruins. The one and only account by the historian Josephus tells a story of the Sicarii and their last stand against the Roman army. The year was seventy three A.D., three years after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, and with the Jewish revolt proving its self to have failed the Sicarii were the last of the rebels remaining. As the story goes, after the Romans had breached the first wall effectively sealing the fate of the defending Sicarii, their leader decided that it would be better for them to commit suicide than to fall to the Romans. The choice of the Sicarii and the story of Masada has been adapted and selected by Zionist historians to provide a model of ancient Hebrew values as well as the ideals of the modern Zionist movement. Furthermore, as Zerubavel points out Masada provides an event which "[forges] a sense of historical continuity between the modern-day Zionist National Revival and Antiquity, when Jews lived in their own homeland, and to heighten their divergence from Exile." (68). Thus, the historical event is significant on several levels in that it provides both an ideal representation of the past as well as a model for more immediate Zionist values, while also marking a key transitioning point in the history of the Zionist narrative between Antiquity and Exile.
Tel-Hai, like Masada, is also understood to be an important site to the Zionist narrative. Today, Tal-Hai is an enshrined settlement in the northern Galilee area and unlike Masada, its roots extend only as far back as about 1920, the year in which the settlement was attacked by Arab militia. During that time the area was under control of a French mandate which the local Arab population strongly opposed. The Jewish settlers in the region maintained neutrality during confrontations between the French and the Arab militias. However, one day after a series of miscommunications Tel-Hai came under attack from an Arab Militia of about 150 strong. In the course of defending their settlement 8 settlers were killed, including one well known military hero Yosef Trumpeldor. As the story goes, after the battle was over and just before passing on Trumpeldor uttered the phrase "never mind, it is worth dying for the country." a statement that has since become a famous patriotic declaration in Israeli society. As in the case of Masada, the story of Tel-Hai provides an model for ideal patriotism and virtues such as commitment to settling and defending at all costs. Further, Tel-Hai presented the Zionist movement with an admirable hero, Yosef Trumpeldor, and "provided Israeli society with a myth of origin, a point in time that symbolized the rebirth of the nation and the beginning of a new era." (Zerubavel, 43.) Today, Tel-Hai remains a tangible piece of evidence that supports the Zionist narrative, promotes nationalist values, and signifies the Jewish nations entrance into a period of National Revival.
Combined, Masada and Tel-Hai provide invaluable substance to the Zionist narrative and selective history. The cites remain as a reminder of stories and events that both model ideal Zionist values while also signifying important stages in Jewish history. The narrative that sites such as these support remains central to the success of the Zionist movement. In his book The Israel-Palestine Conflict One Hundred Years of War, James Gelvin suggests that "nationalism converts sentiments into politics." (6) If his statement is understood to be true it then can easily be said that, thanks to cites such Masada and Tel-Hai and the narrative they promote, Zionism has proven its self to be an example of the incredible effect of nationalism in action.
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specifically, the movement has relied on shaping and presenting a unique
history that supports the narrative and effectively legitimizes the efforts
of the movement.