Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Living in a Zionist Bubble

"We lived in a bubble. We didn't know what exists outside the kibbutz."

So commented one of the group of Melbourne Jews, recalling their kibbutz 'experience' back in the 70s, on  the ABC's Compass program, Whatever Happened to... The Kibbutzim (28/7). It set the tone for the entire program.

Not one of our former kibbutzniks - all long since returned to their comfortable Australian middle class existence - at any stage ventured any kind of comment or reflection that went beyond Zionism's ideological bubble. On the contrary, they were having the time of their lives, convinced they were 'creating a new society' and 'making the desert bloom' - until, that is, the Egyptian and Syrian armies rudely intervened in October 1973, "shattering our dreams."

At one point, we heard the testimony of a South African Jew who said he'd become involved in anti-apartheid protests there but left for Israel because he couldn't bear to be part of a racist South Africa. Presumably, Israel's expulsion of the bulk of the Arab Palestinians in 1948 and the Zionist groupthink of the kibbutz combined to ensure that he was not disturbed by a sense of deja vu.

Nor did Compass presenter, Geraldine Doogue's simple-minded narration help, with the kibbutz characterised simply as "a radical social experiment" with no mention of its discriminatory, Jews-only nature, or its central role in the Zionist colonisation and takeover of Palestine. There was, need I say, no mention whatever of dispossessed Palestinians. At one point Doogue referred to "disputed land," but said nothing of the parties to this so-called 'dispute'. Absent any political context, she could have been talking about hippie communes in Nimbin.

In short, viewing Whatever Happened to... The Kibbutzim merely confirmed my original suspicion that it was going to be yet another example of the ABC uncritically dishing out Zionist propaganda. See my 28/7/13 post Zionist Propaganda Alert

By way of a corrective, here is some useful data on the genealogy of the kibbutz from Gabriel Piterberg's fine study, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics & Scholarship in Israel (2008). (Given the length of Piterberg's account, I've had to leave out much that is of considerable interest, so please consider the following excerpts merely an appetizer and an incentive to purchase this invaluable, eye-opening book):

"Common knowledge has it that the kibbutz originated from an astonishing socialist experimentation with an ideology the settlers (pioneers, or chalutzim) had acquired in Europe. Even someone as astutely prophetic as and sober as Arendt thought that the kibbutzim were marvellous. That this rendering accords the settlers not only a central role but also hyper-agency is hardly surprising, for these settlers were members of the Second and Third Aliyas, that is, the ruling political elite of the Yishuv (from the 1920s onward), the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) and Jewish Agency (from the 1930s on) and the state of Israel (1948-1977). However, there is solid scholarship that seriously questions this story and offers a threefold correction: it tempers the settlers' hyper-agency by underscoring the pivotal role played by German Jewish settlement experts; it shows that the decisive factors were the conditions and desire of colonization; and that, even in terms of ideational flow from Europe to Palestine, what we have is ideas of colonization and race rather than socialism.

"In the mid 1980s two geographers of the Hebrew University, Shalom Reichman and Shlomo Hasson, published a revealing article on the formative influence of the pre-First World War colonization project of the German Reich in the Posen (Poznan in Polish) province of the east Prussian marches, upon the early phase of the Zionist colonization effort in Palestine. A sizeable chunk of the east Prussian marches, the Ostmark, had been appropriated when Poland was partitioned in the late eighteenth century. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, three of the Ostmark provinces - Eastern and Western Prussia, and Silesia - had a German majority; only the fourth, Posen, had a Polish majority of roughly 60%. Posen was identified by the Germans as a centre of Polish nationalism. The purpose of the state project - the wider background of which was the crisis of German agriculture and the attendant Landflucht (land flight) - was to effect a demographic transformation in Posen first and foremost, and in the Ostmark more generally, by dispossessing the Polish majority of its hold on the land and settling Germans in their stead...

"The German project... had a formative impact upon the Zionist project in four related ways: the impact of the German project resulted in the decisive rejection of the French model that had been introduced by the Rothschild experts; it accorded primacy to national colonization over economic profitability; it accorded primacy to (an equivalent of) the state and its bureaucracy over the market and private capitalists; and it implanted in the WZO what [Gershon] Shafir perceptively calls the pure settlement frame of mind. The agents of this formative impact were two German Jewish settlement experts, Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) and perhaps the single most important individual for the Zionist settlement in Palestine, Arthur Ruppin (1876-1943)...

"Ruppin's role in the colonization of Palestine was so pivotal that he is known in Zionist Israeli lore as 'the father of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel'. In addition to settlement... he was also responsible for the historical alliance within Zionism between the nationalist bourgeoisie and the labour movement, and for the agreement with the Nazis on the transfer of German Jews and their capital to Mandate Palestine... [His] Weltanschauung was social Darwinism and its formation occurred in the 1890s and 1900s, within a budding interdisciplinary paradigm that became known as Eugenics or Racial Hygiene (Rassen-hygiene). One of Ruppin's mentors was a central promulgator of the new paradigm in Germany, the blond, blue-eyed biologist Ernst Haeckel, whom Ruppin described in his diary as 'the marvellous German type'. Haeckel's mission was to disseminate 'Darwinism as a Weltanschauung'. From Ruppin's early work in the early 1900s, it is clear that he adhered to a rigid biological determinism of race, whereby 'we are connected to our predecessors not through the spiritual tradition but through the continuity of the primordial substance that exists in our body.' His reflections on the superhuman (Ubermensch) resulted in his conclusion that such a man should develop only among his physical type, from which view the shift to the idea of racial purity needed just a nudge. What made Ruppin concern himself for the rest of his life with the correction and betterment of 'the Jewish race' was the anti-Semitic rejection by his beloved German nation and homeland...

"Evidence for the extent to which the German colonization project in Posen and East Prussia in general informed Ruppin consists both of explicit statements by him that this was the case, and structural similarities between the Prussian and Zionist colonization projects. On several occasions Ruppin stated his indebtedness to the German venture... Two principles evinced the pure settlement vision that underpinned Ruppin's colonizing approach; these in turn were congruous with the spatial concept of the German Colonization Commission. 'One', Reichman and Hasson elaborate, 'was to avoid penetration into areas densely inhabited by another national group, and the other was to form contiguous blocks of settlements'...

"Shafir confirms the argument that the kibbutz was first and foremost a colonizing tool for the formation of a settler project, and that it was based to a considerable degree on social and ethnic exclusion. He observes: '[T]he national character of the kibbutz was its foundation and raison d'etre and determined its composition, and in part its structure. The kibbutz became the most homogenous body of Israeli society: it included almost exclusively East European Jews, since it was unwilling to embrace Middle Eastern and North African Jews, and was constructed on the exclusion of Palestinian Arabs'." (pp 78-87)

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