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Francophone Jewish WritersImagining Israel$

Lucille Cairns

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781382622

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781382622.001.0001

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Historical Foundations of Israeli Nationhood

Historical Foundations of Israeli Nationhood

(p.13) Chapter One Historical Foundations of Israeli Nationhood
Francophone Jewish Writers

Lucille Cairns

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers texts that inscribe key historical foundations of Israeli nationhood. It looks at significant literary representations of some key constituents in the historical foundations of Israeli nationhood, and includes discussion on Messianism, the early Zionist pioneers, and memories of the Shoah.

Keywords:   French and Francophone Studies, Jewish Studies, Literary Theory, Literary Criticism, European Literature, French Literature, Jewish Literature, Israel

This chapter considers literary representations of some key constituents in the historical foundations of Israeli nationhood. Due to its historical precedence, the first is Messianism, and its persistence in twenty-first-century Israel (1.1). Second is the status of the early Zionist pioneers who, in the heroizing national narrative, had fertilized the desert in Palestine, cleared the marshes, developed the economy, withstood the antisemitism of the British mandate and (after founding the nation via the declaration of the state of Israel made by David Ben Gurion on 14 May 1948), created a new, radically egalitarian social model in the institution of the kibbutzim (1.2). The third and most sustained focus is on the multifaceted relationship of Israeli citizens with (memories of) the Shoah (1.3). Some of the writers considered below reflect a belief that the Shoah was the chief factor enabling the foundation of Israel, and thus that it even had a redemptive value (1.3.1). Set against this in the writings of others is the desire of the ex-Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine before 1948) and of sabras (Israeli Jews born in Israel) to occlude the Shoah as shame-inducing (1.3.2). Other writers still present the Shoah as a source of current anti-Israeli sentiments in France (1.3.3); as instrumentalized for Zionist (1.3.4) and/or wider Israeli political ends (1.3.5); and as terrifying template for the possible future destruction of Israel (1.3.6).

Some semantic clarifications are needed before addressing the above. Nationhood is a material reality, but it is also a form of myth. The word ‘myth’ is polysemic, and it is not used here to designate fiction or falsehood. Rather, I use it to signify a mental construct, both affective and cognitive, based on a sense of common history and narrative that has united and inspired a sense of transcendence in a given group of people. In our context, that group of people is a nation. Nationhood (p.14) denotes a sense of belonging to a nation, which in turn can be construed as a sense of nationality. Benedict Anderson’s approach to the word ‘nationality’ is apposite: ‘nationality, or, as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind’ (4). I conceive of nationhood precisely as cultural artefact, and of the nation as a nation in Anderson’s terms: ‘an imagined political community’ (6). Before leaving Anderson, it is worth recalling his remarks on the nation and Israel in particular: ‘The significance of the emergence of Zionism and the birth of Israel is that the former marks the re-imagining of an ancient religious community as a nation, down there among the other nations – while the latter charts an alchemic change from wandering devotee to local patriot’ (149). Zionism is treated in Chapter 2 of the present study. Suffice it to say here that ‘the birth of Israel’ indeed involved a move from the religious to the patriotic. But that move was neither total nor definitive, as the first section of this chapter demonstrates.

1.1. Messianism

Like ‘myth’, ‘Messianism’ is a slippery term; in the context of the present study, it will be used to mean a personal or collective attitude which bestows on the geographical entity formerly known as Palestine and now known as Israel a divine and liberating role in the accomplishment of an exceptional mission. Messianism was one of the foundational reasons for the birth of Israel, as is reflected in the primary texts this chapter will go on to consider, and for a number – according to some accounts, a growing number – of Israelis it remains a crucial factor in their conception of Israeli nationhood. One example of such accounts is that of the historian Diana Pinto, which forms a fitting incipit to analysis of the primary texts:

Aujourd’hui le Talmud et la Torah définissent le style de vie d’une proportion toujours croissante de la société israélienne, au grand dam du projet sioniste des pères fondateurs. Eux souhaitaient créer un État normal comme tous les autres dans l’esprit du nation building qui suivit la Première Guerre mondiale. Leurs descendants doivent maintenant batailler contre une vision nationale fondée sur le messianisme biblique et territorial. (2012, 23–24)

[Nowadays the Talmud and the Torah define the lifestyle of an ever-growing section of Israeli society, to the detriment of the founding (p.15) fathers’ Zionist project. They wanted to create a normal state like any other in the spirit of nation building that followed the First World War. Their descendants must now fight against a national vision founded on territorial and biblical Messianism]

Pinto further insists on the enduring importance of Messianism for understanding contemporary Israel’s drive towards progress, be it spiritual or material:

Le grand passé biblique et talmudique n’est pas révolu – il ne cesse de renaître toujours plus fort sous nos yeux – mais désormais il conditionne le futur, et ce faisant il transforme le contenu du terme « progrès » et le tire dans deux directions opposées mais, et c’est là la force d’Israël, parfaitement complémentaires. D’un côté ce terme est désormais cantonné au domaine de la technologie, de la médecine et des avancées scientifiques aux connotations neutres. De l’autre, il est investi d’une signification nationale métahistorique et, pour certains, même messianique. (2012, 14)

[The great Talmudic and biblical past isn’t over – it’s constantly being reborn ever stronger before our eyes – but now it conditions the future, and in so doing transforms the content of the term ‘progress’, drawing it in two opposed but, and this is Israel’s strength, perfectly complementary directions. On the one hand, this term is now confined to the field of technology, of medicine and of scientific, advances with neutral connotations; on the other, it is invested with a metahistorical national meaning that is, for some, even Messianic]

As we will see, Pinto’s stress on the inveterate influence of Messianism in the contemporary period resonates particularly with Bouganim (2010), Warschawski (2002) and Raczymow (2010).

The earliest of the primary texts featuring Messianism is journalist and novelist Joseph Kessel’s Terre d’amour et de feu (1965). In this emotive narrative of his various visits to Palestine/Israel, Messianism is historically framed as a form of madness ultimately vindicated as rational by, precisely, historical processes. The Zionists’ refusal of the 1903 British offer of Uganda as a Jewish homeland and acceptance of nothing other than what was then an arid and materially uninviting Palestine turned out, asserts Kessel, to have been the right move: ‘Les événements donnèrent raison aux fous’ (9) [‘Events proved the mad men right’]. This Messianism-madness coupling, with ultimate negation of the madness component, also features in Ami Bouganim’s Le cri de l’arbre (1983), a novel which focuses on reluctant immigration from Morocco to Israel in the early 1960s. Its epigraph from the Talmud refers to the eponymous tree’s cry: ‘Le cri de l’arbre qu’on abat s’étend (p.16) aux quatre coins de l’univers’ [‘The cry of the tree that is felled reaches the four corners of the universe’]. When towards the end of the novel Yéhiel descends into what from all normative perspectives is insanity but is actually prophetic truth, he identifies with this felled tree. Before the descent he makes an impassioned appeal to the secular Ashkenazi authorities who have no time for the central role of Messianism in these North African Jews’ lives, nor for the religious motivation of their immigration to Israel:

La Tora est notre charte de vie, et c’est pour insuffler un sens nouveau à l’alliance qui y est consignée que nous sommes là. […] La présence des Juifs sur cette terre représente un enjeu qui concerne toutes les nations, or vous en corrompez la signification et la portée en reniant la dimension religieuse de notre retour. (199)

[The Torah is our life charter, and it is in order to breathe new meaning into the alliance which is recorded in it that we are here. […] The presence of Jews on this land is an issue that concerns all nations, but you corrupt its meaning and its import by denying the religious dimension of our return]

The response of the functionary is mockingly dismissive, and denies yet reveals the power differentials between the Ashkenazi elite and the North African underdog in early 1960s Israel, which will be explored in greater detail in Chapter 3:

– Un Messie, un Messie-philosophe s’est annoncé pour les Marocains, s’exclame le fonctionnaire, à la bonne heure, mazal tov! Nous avons tous, les Orientaux comme les Occidentaux, connu les mêmes misères et traversé les mêmes difficultés. Le gouvernement fait par ailleurs tout ce qu’il peut pour venir en aide aux couches déshéritées de la société israélienne. (199)

[‘A Messiah, a philosopher-Messiah has announced himself for the Moroccans’, exclaims the functionary. ‘That’s great, congratulations! All of us, Easterners and Westerners, have experienced the same poverty and gone through the same difficulties. In addition, the government is doing all it can to help the most deprived levels of Israeli society’]

A previous rhetorical question posed by Yéhiel has already exposed the tension between the secular Zionism of the government elite and the Messianism of the North African immigrants:

Quels sont ces discours et ces déclarations dont on nous abreuve, et que nous avons été rédimés par le sionisme qui, à notre messianisme, n’est (p.17) qu’insipides palabres, et que nous faisons la fine bouche quand nous est présentée la liberté – de quelle liberté parlent-ils donc? de celle dont nous jouissions au Maroc ou de celle que nous endurons en Israël? – sur un plateau d’argent, et que nos plaintes et nos revendications ne sont qu’ingrates jérémiades inspirées par je ne sais quelle mentalité viciée? (187)

[What are all these speeches and declarations they shower upon us? That we’ve been redeemed by Zionism which, for our Messianism, is nothing but vapid, never-ending talk; that we turn up our noses when presented with freedom – so what sort of freedom are they talking about? The sort we enjoyed in Morocco or the sort we endure in Israel? – on a silver platter; that our complaints and demands are nothing but ungrateful whining inspired by who knows what kind of tainted mentality?]

In Entre vents et marées (1998), which again focuses on Moroccan Jews whose immigration to Israel is highly conflicted, Bouganim draws out that same tension, beginning with the pre-immigration period just after an earthquake in Morocco:

Surtout ils sentaient, de toute leur sensibilité messianique, que l’heure du salut avait réellement sonné et qu’il serait pour le moins dommage de mourir dans un vulgaire tremblement de terre ou un ridicule raz de marée alors qu’ils pouvaient mourir, les armes à la main, au service de Dieu. Pourtant, personne ne parlait de partir en Israël, de crainte d’être accusé de menées sionistes; en revanche tous évoquaient la possibilité de s’installer au Canada, pour ne pas attirer le mauvais oeil sur leur véritable destination, et la plupart de ceux qui disparaissaient sans avertir et sans laisser de traces se retrouvaient quand même en Israël. (86–87)

[Above all they felt, with all their Messianic sensibility, that the hour of salvation had really struck and that it would be a shame, to say the least, to die in a vulgar earthquake or a ridiculous tidal wave when they could die, bearing arms, in the service of God. However, nobody mentioned leaving for Israel, for fear of being accused of Zionist manoeuvres; on the other hand, everyone brought up the possibility of settling in Canada, in order to avoid the evil eye being cast on their actual destination, and the majority of those who vanished without warning and leaving no trace nonetheless ended up in Israel]

The fear of being accused of Zionist manoeuvres clearly indexes the anti-Zionism of many religious Jews who opposed the creation of a Jewish state before the coming of the Messiah. Clashing with that belief was aspiration to a better life in Israel, away from their inferior status of dhimmitude in postcolonial, Muslim-dominated North Africa. In a (p.18) more recent novel, L’arbre à vœux (2010), Bouganim satirizes the whole ideological configuration of Messianism. The satire operates in the sanctification (86) and mediatization (91) of Ari, a humble man who makes the mistake of giving idiosyncratic public speeches about the Messiah (88–89). The tragicomic result of Ari’s unwilling propulsion to fame is his assassination by a crazed religious fanatic. This seems to be an ironic allusion to the 1995 assassination of Israel’s then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose views, this time on peace for Israel via concessions to the Palestinians, had been rather too idiosyncratic for his assassin Yigal Amir – a real-life religious fanatic. Indeed, in my 2011 interview with him, Bouganim trenchantly condemned Messianism as a highly destructive feature of contemporary Israel. In that interview, Bouganim made the following comments: Israel represents a Messianic adventure that is going wrong; all the energy invested in the creation and protection of Israel, including among the secular, were and still are Messianic; those who set the tone in Israel are without fail Messianists; in these conditions, Israel is doomed to failure.

Relative to Bouganim’s purview on Messianism, that of Michel Warschawski in Sur la frontière (2002) is a parallax. Warschawski views Messianism and Zionism as having been historically convergent, endorsing an argument in Seffi Rachlevsky’s Messiah’s Donkey (1998) that ‘le sionisme a été l’« âne du messie », le bras séculier et inconscient par lequel se réalise la volonté divine et la rédemption du peuple juif’ (249) [‘Zionism was the “Messiah’s donkey”, the secular and unconscious arm through which divine will and the redemption of the Jewish people are realized’]. Warschawski (249) endorses Rachlevsky’s conclusion that:

Le résultat des élections de 19961 a signifié pour le judaïsme religieux le signe de la victoire. Sa voie est la voie gagnante, et la certitude messianique s’est encore affermie. À l’avancée vers la rédemption par la conquête de territoires et la venue d’un certain messie,2 s’ajoute une nouvelle avancée: celle du retour à la foi du peuple d’Israël. (Rachlevsky, 319)

[For religious Judaism, the result of the 1996 elections was a sign of victory. Its path was the winning path, and Messianic certainty was further strengthened. A new advance was added to that towards redemption through the conquest of territories and the coming of a certain messiah: the return to faith of Israel’s people]

But Warschawski later distinguishes Messianism from Zionism in the new millennium:

(p.19) d’un côté, un Israël dont les références restent l’épopée sioniste des années 20 à 70 et le rêve d’une reconstitution de l’union sacrée autour des valeurs d’un colonialisme à visage humain et, de l’autre, la fuite en avant vers une Judée archaïque, messianique, nationaliste et intégriste. (263–64)

[on the one hand, an Israel whose references remain the Zionist epic of the 1920s to 1970s and the dream of reconstituting the sacred union around values of colonialism with a human face and, on the other, a headlong rush towards a fundamentalist, nationalist, Messianic and archaic Judaea]

For both Bouganim and Warschawski, however, Messianism is never a purely religious phenomenon, but always thoroughly saturated by the political – and indeed, since the late 1970s it has become a potent fillip to the right wing in Israeli politics.

The complex relationship between Messianism and Zionism is also hinted at in Line Meller-Saïd’s Cela ne sera pas un rêve (2009). This novel’s third-person narrative focalizes upon Léa, a Polish Jew born in 1898 who emigrates to Palestine in 1924. Her aliyah is inspired by news from a member of her community who has already reached Palestine, after which she thinks obsessively about leaving for the Promised Land. Even if the word messianisme is not used explicitly, its basis is certainly what drives her and, it is implied, has affected all other Jews through millennia:

Eretz Israël, la terre mythique, la Terre promise! Et l’Éternel dit à Moïse: Monte sur cette montagne et regarde le pays que je donne aux enfants d’Israël. Quel juif a échappé à cette image véhiculée par les prières au cours de milliers d’années? Et quand cette image se nourrit du désir profond de donner au peuple juif une terre où il ne sera plus pourchassé, massacré, une terre où il vivra en paix selon ses propres lois, quelle idéologie laïque pourrait récuser cette aspiration? (29)

[Eretz Israël, the mythical land, the Promised Land! And the Eternal said to Moses: ‘Climb this mountain and look at the country I give to the children of Israel’. Is there any Jew who hasn’t come across this image borne by prayers over thousands of years? And when this image is fed by the deep desire to give the Jewish people a land where it will no longer be hunted, slaughtered, a land where it will live in peace according to its own laws, what secular ideology could object to that aspiration?]

Similarly to Warschawski, Meller-Saïd here conjoins Messianism and Zionism via the rhetorical question of the free indirect speech focalized on Léa. The yoking of the two ideological configurations also subtends (p.20) her religious parents-in-law’s decision to emigrate to Palestine (54). Indeed, greater fuel is added to the fire of their beliefs by a particular, ancient slant:

Tout quitter n’est pas facile à cet âge mais une pensée profonde confortait leur projet: morts et enterrés en Terre Promise, ils feraient partie, selon une antique croyance, de ceux que le Messie ressusciterait avant les autres à la fin des temps (54)

[Leaving everything behind isn’t easy at that age but a profound thought backed up their plan: dead and buried in the Promised Land, they would, according to an age-old belief, be among those whom the Messiah would raise from the dead before others at the end of time]

Meller-Saïd’s novel has an innocent, arguably naïve tone, but it sincerely attempts to render a historical reality (and indeed is preceded by a laudatory preface from the distinguished French Jewish historian Benjamin Stora): that of pre-Shoah Polish Jews living in an increasingly antisemitic country and holding a sincere belief in the transcendent, sacred qualities of making aliyah to the biblical Promised Land.

Innocence and naivety are entirely absent from Henri Raczymow’s rendering of Messianism in Eretz (2010). This first-person account of the author’s visit to Israel in 2009 is shrewd, rueful, and elegiac in tone. The elegiac tonality derives from the haunting memory of Raczymow’s dead brother, who had emigrated to Israel many years before. Eretz makes only two explicit references to Messianism, but both are potent. The first is connected to the euphoria first experienced after Israel’s unpredictable victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 and lasting until the far less victorious war of 1973: ‘En Israël, l’euphorie, messianique ou non, dura jusqu’à la guerre du Kippour, en 1973’ (34) [‘In Israel, the euphoria, Messianic or not, lasted until the Yom Kippur war, in 1973’].3 Raczymow’s second reference to Messianism erects a critical barrier between himself and the ideology when it is used to justify annexation of land:

Ceux qui, « messianiques », occupaient les territoires comme les zélotes avaient occupé, jadis, la forteresse de Massada sur la mer Morte et avaient préféré se suicider, hommes, femmes, enfants et bétails, plutôt que de négocier avec les Romains. Ceux qui empêchaient la paix d’advenir; ceux qui empêchaient l’avènement de cet État résolument laïc que tu appelais de tes vœux. (100)

[Those ‘Messianic’ types who occupied the territories as the Zealots had formerly occupied the Massada fortress on the Dead Sea and had preferred – men, women, children and cattle – to commit suicide rather (p.21) than negotiate with the Romans. Those who prevented peace from coming about; those who prevented the coming of that resolutely secular state you so fervently wished for]

Both Bouganim and Raczymow frame the confluence of Messianic beliefs (of which the Six-Day War’s annexation of land was regarded as a partial biblical realization) and the Israeli right’s adamant position on what have come to be known as the Occupied Territories as the most potent of obstacles to the peace process. Similarly, journalist and essayist Martine Gozlan identifies the cathexis of Messianism as the root cause of a cataclysmic event that, intentionally or not, ended what seemed like a breakthrough in the peace process in the 1990s – the assassination of Rabin in 1995 (allegorized, as we have seen above, in Bouganim’s L’arbre à vœux):

Trois semaines avant la guerre, le fils du Rav Kook, Zvi Yehuda Kook, clamait: « Où sont Jérusalem, Sichem, Hébron? » Et, vingt jours plus tard, l’étoile de David flottait sur ces villes! La victoire de 1967 a donc été interprétée comme un signe de Dieu. Soudain, on pouvait créer des colonies et être plus pionnier que les pionniers, plus religieux que les religieux. Les messianistes pouvaient à leur tour devenir des modèles, et faire des adeptes. En face, Itzhak Rabin n’offrait pas une identité, mais il ouvrait un chemin; c’était le guerrier, le pain et le vin des sabras, la jeunesse israélienne nourrie des idéaux des pionniers. Et c’est pour cette raison qu’on l’a tué. On l’a assassiné non parce qu’il faisait la paix mais parce qu’il était populaire. Son meutrier, Yigal Amir, a compris que Rabin était l’unique symbole capable de barrer la route au messianisme. (174–75)

[Three weeks before the war, Rav Kook’s son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, was shouting ‘Where are Jerusalem, Sichem, Hebron?’ And twenty days later, the Star of David was floating over those towns! The 1967 victory was therefore interpreted as a sign from God. Suddenly, you could create settlements and be more pioneering than the pioneers, more religious than the religious. The Messianists in their turn could become models, and gain followers. On the other side, Yitzhak Rabin wasn’t offering an identity, but he was opening up a path: the warrior, the bread and wine of the sabras, Israeli youth nourished by the pioneers’ ideals. And it was for this reason that he was killed. He was assassinated not because he was making peace but because he was popular. His murderer, Yigal Amir, realized that Rabin was the only symbol standing in the way of Messianism]

Also of interest here is that Gozlan opposes the religious Messianists with the secular Zionist pioneers, whereas some of the primary texts (p.22) discussed above have intermittently made parallels between the two. In Gozlan’s vision, Rabin was the idealistic product of those pioneers. It is to the role of the latter in the historical foundations of Israeli nationhood that we will now turn.

1.2. Early Zionist pioneers

In the Zionist narrative, the heroic status of the early pioneers of the Yishuv derives from their formidable material, economic and politico-military feats. The material and economic feats consisted in their transformation, through back-breaking physical labour, of land legally purchased from Arabs, from a state of either arid desert or infertile marshes into highly productive agricultural units. The politico-military feats consisted in their combating either moderately (as with the Haganah, a paramilitary organization that restricted itself to Jewish self-defence) or more violently (as with the Irgun, which split from the Haganah in order to go on the offensive) the antisemitism of the British mandate that governed Palestine 1922–1948. Immediately after the Second World War, the British Mandate heavily impeded the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was in contradiction of Britain’s own Balfour Declaration of 1917, which had stated, ‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. British impediment contrasted sharply with French support (extending to the secret supply of weapons) for the more extreme self-defence branch of the Yishuv, the Irgun, whose tactics were condemned by many as terrorist. Gozlan refers to this support in the French press (47), in the French capital, which she inscribes as a metonym for educated and cultured France (50), and in both ex-French Resistance and French diplomatic circles (50). To support her claim she cites Shmuel Katz, the Irgun’s emissary to Paris in 1948, who details with extreme precision this French provision of arms to the Irgun (50).

These are some of the main historical facts about the early Zionist pioneers, but how are they portrayed by French Jewish writers? Their heroic status emerges vividly in a number of the primary texts, although its mediation can be critical, wry and even ironic (in the case of Jacques, Peskine, Raczymow and Rosenthal). As Robert Wistrich and David Ohana remarked in 1995,

(p.23) [h]istorical ‘Revisionism’ is in fashion in Israel as in most of the western world as established views of the past are criticized, reassessed or openly debunked. The heroic view of the Israeli War of Independence as a struggle of the few against the many or of a uniquely peace-loving Zionist movement facing intransigently hostile Arab enemies has been challenged by a new generation of Israeli historians […] During the past decade it has become a commonplace of much Israeli historiography to question and undermine these and other ‘myths’ at the core of Israeli self-perception which had created structures of thinking and propaganda that long shaped Israeli policy. Along with the war of 1948 (and virtually all of Israel’s subsequent wars), the heroes of Zionism and Israel have also come in for a battering. (vii)

Historical revisionism is relatively rare in our literary corpus, with an entirely critical, wry or ironic take on the heroic status of the early Zionist pioneers being restricted to four of 11 texts. These four will be considered at the end of this section, as exceptions to the rule, though they will be preceded by texts which start to question that status. In Une année si ordinaire (2004), Esther Orner directly condemns historical revisionism, which in her account equates to sheer mendacity about the pioneers:

J’ai téléphoné à l’autre Maya, ma cousine à Bruxelles. Elle est allée écouter des conférences sur « Les nouveaux historiens ». Ilan Greilsamer a raconté que lors d’une conférence à Haïfa, quelqu’un s’est levé pour dire que l’assèchement des marais était un mythe sioniste. Un vieil homme qui avait vécu cette époque glorieuse, probablement enfant ou adolescent, a protesté. Rien n’y a fait. Une sorte de révisionnisme. Non pas une sorte. Du révisionnisme tout court. (83–84)

[I phoned the other Maya, my cousin in Brussels. She’s been to listen to lectures on ‘The new historians’. Ilan Greilsamer said that at a lecture in Haifa, somebody got up to say that the draining of the marshes was a Zionist myth. An old man who had lived through that glorious period, probably as a child or adolescent, protested. It didn’t make any difference. A sort of revisionism. Not a sort. Revisionism period]

Indeed, the dominant approach in our primary texts is one of valorization, at times tipping into mythification. The latter typifies much of Joseph Kessel’s Terre d’amour et de feu (1965), the following serving as an apt illustration:

Ceux qui, à travers tous les obstacles, au prix de cent épreuves, gagnèrent la Palestine, étaient véritablement le sel de la terre. Les mains presque nues, dans la fièvre, la pénurie, et un milieu hostile, ils ont défriché, (p.24) asséché, planté, fondé villes, villages et ces extraordinaires colonies collectives: les Kibboutz. Ils ont fécondé l’avenir. Ils ont rendu possible ce qui ne l’était pas.

J’ai eu la chance de connaître, sous les tentes, dans les baraquements misérables, parmi les champs stériles, sur les chantiers paludéens, les hommes et les femmes de ces années héroïques. (9–10)

[Those who, despite all obstacles, after a hundred ordeals, reached Palestine, truly were the salt of the earth. Practically bare-handed, suffering from fever and shortages, and in a hostile environment, they cleared, drained, planted land, founded towns, villages and those extraordinary collective communities – the kibbutzim. They made the future fertile. They made the impossible possible.

Under tents, in shabby huts, surrounded by sterile fields, on malaria-ridden building sites, I had the good fortune to meet the men and women of those heroic years]

The material and economic achievements of the early Zionist pioneers on the land are here evoked in exalted, almost epic terms. The register used to evoke the politico-military feats adds triumphalist terms:

A la veille de la deuxième guerre mondiale, ils étaient environ un demi-million. Il se trouva parmi eux assez de volontaires pour former, au sein de l’armée anglaise, une brigade juive. Elle se battit admirablement.

Mais elle fut aussi le noyau de la Haganah, de la Palmach, les bataillons clandestins qui allaient assurer la naissance et la vie d’une nouvelle nation. […]

[…] Le colosse britannique fut harcelé, harassé par une poignée d’hommes. L’Angleterre déposa son mandat, le mit à la disposition des Nations Unies. Là, une majorité très nette vota l’indépendance d’Israël. (10–11)

[On the eve of the Second World War, they numbered about half a million. Among them were sufficient volunteers to form a Jewish brigade within the English army. It fought admirably.

But this brigade was also the core of the Haganah, of the Palmach, the secret battalions that were to ensure the birth and the life of a new nation […]

[…] The British giant was harassed, exhausted by a handful of men. England set down its mandate, leaving it at the disposal of the United Nations. There, a very clear majority voted for Israel’s independence]

Kessel’s emphasis on the disparity between the Yishuv’s tiny numbers pitted against the mammoth imperial power of Britain underscores their implied courage, valour and unfathomable strength, first in support (p.25) of Britain during the Second World War, then against Britain when it sought to suppress the Jewish movement for independent statehood in the immediate post-war period. In evoking the War of Independence (also known as the First Arab–Israeli War) that followed Ben Gurion’s declaration of the state of Israel, Kessel reprises the trope of disparity and ratchets up his rhetoric in a final sentence where litotes achieves lapidary impact:

  • Le 14 mai 1948, cet État voyait le jour. […]
  • Le lendemain matin, six nations arabes attaquaient Israël. […]
  • Seul un miracle pouvait éviter l’anéantissement.
  • Le miracle eut lieu. (11)
  • [On 14 May 1948, this state was born. […]
  • The following morning, six Arab nations attacked Israel. […]
  • Only a miracle could prevent annihilation.
  • The miracle happened]

Kessel’s eulogy is not limited to the more dramatic peripeteia of the Yishuv/the Israelis pitted against the British/the Arabs. He also insists on the great benefits to the Arabs in pre-Second World War Palestine of the early pioneers’ impressive infrastructural work:

Les Arabes s’aperçurent que, contrairement à ce que les seigneurs avaient affirmé, l’immigration juive était profitable au peuple. Des terres qui semblaient sans avenir possible – sables, marécages – se couvraient de cultures et d’arbres. […] Enfin, le développement des routes, l’installation de l’électricité, l’oeuvre sanitaire – toutes choses auxquelles les Arabes ne contribuaient en rien, ils en bénéficiaient à l’égal de ceux qui les avaient créées. (26–27)

[The Arabs realized that, contrary to what the lords had asserted, Jewish immigration was beneficial to the people. Land that had seemed to have no possible future – dunes, marshes – was being covered with crops and trees. […] In short, the Arabs benefited from the development of roads, the installation of electricity, health facilities – all things to which they contributed nothing – just as much as those who had created them]

Kessel’s tenor oscillates between the hard-headedly material and the quasi-mystical. An example is his presentation of a ‘model’ example of the Zionist pioneers’ virtuoso successes:

C’est l’Emek, vallée de Jezréel.

Voici trois ou quatre ans, cette terre appartenait encore à un riche Syrien de Beyrouth. Elle n’était alors qu’un inculte marécage. Mais les sionistes (p.26) savaient, d’après la Bible, que ce sol fut entre tous fécond, qu’il avait été le grenier et le jardin de la Palestine. Ils l’achetèrent. Et maintenant ceux qui passent dans cette région ne la reconnaissent plus. Ce ne sont que champs ensemencés, routes solides et plantées d’arbres, villages et colonies. Maintenant l’Emek est devenu la plus glorieuse réussite du sionisme, son espoir le plus vivace, sa fierté la plus légitime. (57)

[This is Emek, Jezreel Valley.

Three or four years ago, this land still belonged to a rich Syrian from Beirut. At that point it was just an uncultivated marsh. But the Zionists knew, from the Bible, that this soil among all was fertile, that it had been the granary and the garden of Palestine. They bought it. And now those who pass through this region don’t recognize it. It is full of sown fields, solid roads planted with trees, villages and communities. Now Emek has become Zionism’s most glorious success, its most enduring hope, its most legitimate source of pride]

Pre-empting resistance from non-religiously/non-mystically inclined readers, Kessel cannily observes a more secular but no less glorifying approach to explaining the unfathomable successes of the pioneers:

Pour ceux qui n’acceptaient pas la simple explication du miracle, il en fallait une autre.

Et c’était la condition intellectuelle, morale et spirituelle de chacun des adversaires en présence.

Les Juifs, s’ils se trouvaient dans un état d’infériorité écrasante par le rapport du nombre des soldats et des armes, l’emportaient de beaucoup par la technique.

Ils avaient plus de spécialistes militaires qu’il n’en fallait, vétérans de toutes les grandes armées alliées de la deuxième guerre mondiale. Ils avaient des pilotes, des tankeurs, des parachutistes, des commandos américains, canadiens, anglais, australiens, sud-africains, russes, finnois. Ils avaient des savants. Une industrie […]. (173)

[For those who didn’t accept the simple explanation by miracle, another was needed.

And it was the spiritual, moral and intellectual state of each of the enemies facing each other.

If the situation of the Jews was overwhelmingly inferior in terms of numbers of soldiers and weapons, they very much had the upper hand in terms of technique.

They had more military specialists than you could wish for, veterans from all the great allied armies of the Second World War. They had pilots, tank crew, parachutists, American, Canadian, English, Australian, (p.27) South African, Russian and Finnish commandos. They had scientists. An industry […]]

His trump card, however, is a final explanation based neither on Messianism nor intellectual meritocracy:

Les hommes de ce peuple ne luttaient pas pour des conquêtes ou des avantages économiques ou des convoitises politiques. Ils défendaient leur vie profonde et toute nue. Et ils disaient:

Nous possédons la plus sûre des armes secrètes. Elle tient en deux mots: « Où aller? » (174)

[The men of this people were not fighting for conquests or economic advantages or political greed. They were defending their very life at a deep, naked level. And they said:

‘We possess the surest of secret weapons. It consists in five words: “Where else can we go?”’]

The aporia of the last line is affectively potent, presenting the heroism of the pioneers on a poignantly human footing: that of beleaguered desperation. For in the light of 2,000 years of persecution, pogroms and, most recently, the Shoah, there seemed to be no place in the world for Jews other than a renascent Israel.

Kessel’s dithyramb to the early Zionist pioneers is certainly rivalled by Line Meller-Saïd in Cela ne sera pas un rêve (2009). An early example of stress on their heroic courage and self-sacrifice comes in the narration of Léa’s decision to go to Palestine to help create a Jewish nation. This is despite her father’s dire warnings of its multiple dangers after his own reconnaissance trip (and despite, too, his threat to disinherit her):

– Israël est un désert plein de brigands, de moustiques et de maladies. Ce n’est pas un endroit pour fonder une famille et encore moins pour élever des enfants. Je ne te laisserai pas aller là-bas. Et inutile d’insister, je ne reviendrai pas sur ma résolution.


Elle affronte la colère de son père:

– Je ne peux plus reculer. J’ai déde partir et je partirai. (33)

[‘Israel is a desert full of bandits, mosquitoes and illnesses. It’s no place to start a family and still less to bring up children. I won’t let you go there. And there’s no point pushing the matter, I won’t go back on my decision’.


She faces her father’s anger.

‘I can’t turn back. I’ve decided to leave and I’ll leave’]

(p.28) When staging Léa’s final, hard-fought arrival in Palestine, the narrative emphasizes both the thrusting modernity and the strong cultural capital of Jewish pioneers in Tel Aviv:

Tel-Aviv […] la ville nouvelle, spacieuse, dominant les bords de mer, où s’élèvent quelques immeubles cossus, aux styles novateurs, bâtis par des architectes venus faire leurs preuves dans ce pays tout neuf: leur penchant pour la modernité cadrait avec l’esprit pionnier de l’époque. (41)

[Tel Aviv […] the new, spacious city overlooking the seashores, where opulent, innovative buildings rise, built by architects who had come to prove themselves in this entirely new country: their taste for modernity matched the pioneering spirit of the era]

The impression of relative luxury that flows from this, evident in Tel Aviv’s architectural sophistication, is strategically balanced by accent on the hardship willingly endured by the vast majority of the pioneer settlers:

La vie est difficile pour tous et le travail rare. Les budgets sont restreints, il n’y a pas assez d’argent pour payer les salaires. Il faut prendre ce qu’on vous attribue. Une embauche dans sa spécialité? Ce sera pour plus tard! […]

Abraham, malgré sa frêle constitution, casse des cailloux pour empierrer des chemins et les rendre carrossables. Deux, trois journées de travail par semaine, très peu, trop peu pour couvrir les besoins de la famille. (46)

[Life is hard for everyone and work is hard to come by. Budgets are limited, there isn’t enough money to pay salaries. You have to take what you are given. A job in your own field? That’ll be for later on! […]

Despite his frail constitution, Abraham breaks pebbles to gravel the tracks and make them suitable for vehicles. Two or three days’ work per week, not much, not enough to cover his family’s needs]

As well as economic privation and hard manual labour, what is also foregrounded is the danger bravely faced by the pioneer settlers in the face of deadly Arab riots and attacks. All of these ordeals are willingly embraced by Léa, for whom simply being in Palestine is a source of enduring happiness:

les conditions de sécurité restent précaires: en marge des émeutes meurtrières arabes qui endeuillent périodiquement diverses régions, sont toujours à craindre des attaques sporadiques de fanatiques encouragés par leurs dirigeants farouchement opposés à la renaissance nationale juive.

(p.29) […] Elle accepte volontiers toutes les contraintes actuelles en échange de ce sentiment de bonheur permanent qui perdure en elle malgré les conditions difficiles de son existence. (46–47)

[Moreover, security conditions remain precarious: alongside the murderous Arab riots that periodically plunge various regions into mourning, there is always the fear of sporadic attacks from fanatics egged on by their leaders, who are fiercely opposed to the national Jewish rebirth.

[…] She willingly accepts all the current constraints in exchange for this feeling of permanent happiness that persists in her despite the difficult conditions of her existence]

The characterization of Léa borders on a muted form of hagiography. In rhetorical terms, she functions as a metonym for the early Zionist pioneers in general, for whom the survival of their nascent nation is the supreme value.

Looping back in time to one of the earliest of our primary texts, that value, so prominent in both Terre d’amour et de feu and Cela ne sera pas un rêve, also features in Marc Hillel’s Tu vivras dans ton sang (1971). However, Hillel’s novel is less grandiloquent than Kessel’s or Meller-Saïd’s in its construction of pioneer heroism. The following extract depicts the strength and courage exacted from those fighting for their aspirational Jewish state and constantly risking death in the process. The first-person narrator in the extract is, in fact, already a survivor – of Vichy France, and of the death faced every day as a former member (along with his comrade Zéroubavel) of the French Resistance. Now he is a Jew resisting attacks on Israel by Arab countries following the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 (after which Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq had immediately invaded Israel):

Durant plusieurs jours, avec quelques heures de repos seulement, nous fûmes soumis à un dur entraînement de commandos, dans une forêt de palmiers, située à l’orée d’une vaste étendue de sable: le Néguev. […] La guerre, qui se développait sur tous les fronts à la fois, avait besoin de ceux à qui elle était familière; et nous étions, Zéroubavel et moi, de ceux-là, une minorité parmi les nouvelles recrues. (244–45)

[For several days, with only a few hours’ rest, we were subjected to a tough training course for commandos, in a palm forest situated on the edge of a vast stretch of sand: the Negev. […] The war, which was developing on all fronts simultaneously, needed those who had experience of it; and we, Zéroubavel and I, were amongst those, a minority among the new recruits]

(p.30) Hillel’s account of the War of Independence also diverges from the exalted bombast of Kessel or the patriotic positivism of Meller-Saïd in noting the more banal and thus more human, more affectively legible disposition of Avigdor, an army major. Avigdor expresses doubts about ‘heroic’ self-sacrifice, even if he ultimately privileges the survival of the larger collectivity and the ideal of a sovereign Jewish nation:

Plus déroutant encore était le comportement du commandant. Avigdor traitait de stratégie militaire comme s’il se fût agi de l’élevage de ses poulets sur les bords du Jourdain. Avec lui, la guerre prenait un visage humain, presque sentimental:

– Pour la première fois depuis deux mille ans, soupira-t-il, entre deux gorgées de café tiède, des Juifs vont donner à d’autres Juifs l’ordre d’aller se faire tuer. Je sais, et heureusement pour nous, que je ne suis pas le seul dans mon cas. Malgré tout, la conscience en prend un sérieux coup. Hélas, si nous voulons survivre, il n’y a pas d’autre moyen! Alors, tant pis pour nos vieux préceptes pacifistes! Tout de même, camarades, ce n’est pas de gaieté de cœur que nous allons faire ce que le pays attend de nous. (259)

[More disconcerting still was the behaviour of the major. Avigdor dealt with military strategy as if he were raising chickens on the banks of the Jordan. With him, war took on a human, almost sentimental face:

‘For the first time in two thousand years’, he sighed, between two gulps of lukewarm coffee, ‘Jews are going to give orders to other Jews to go and be killed. I know, and it’s fortunate for us, that I’m not the only one in this situation. Despite everything, it’s a hard blow to the conscience. Alas, if we want to survive, there’s no other way! So, too bad for our old pacifist principles! All the same, comrades, we’re not exactly going to be happy doing what the country expects of us’]

The heroism trope is presented still less vaingloriously in Bouganim’s Le cri de l’arbre (1983). Here it is implicitly denigrated as a self-serving sacred cow of the Ashkenazi elite, who exploit it to denounce what they perceive as the indolence of recent North African immigrants to Israel in the early 1960s:

Quels sacrifices avez-vous consentis, quels efforts avec-vous investis, quels dangers avez-vous affrontés? Où étiez-vous quand bravant la malaria et les pillards arabes, les premiers pionniers assainissaient le marais, déblayaient la pierraille, fertilisaient le désert? Nous vous avons sortis de vos taudis pour vous transplanter sur une terre conquise par le sang, les larmes et la sueur de plusieurs générations d’hommes et de femmes épris de liberté. Où étiez-vous alors? (198)

(p.31) [What sacrifices did you consent to, what efforts did you put in, what dangers did you confront? Where were you when, braving malaria and Arab pillaging, the first pioneers were draining the marshes, clearing the loose stones, fertilizing the desert? We brought you out of your hovels to transplant you to a land conquered by the blood, sweat and tears of several generations of men and women in love with freedom. Where were you then?]

The critical edge of Bouganim’s Le cri de l’arbre is also found in Jean-Luc Allouche’s Les jours innocents (1984), but in less trenchant and more wistful form. The critique is preceded by lyrical, incantatory evocation of the wonder felt by the third-person narrator (based on Allouche himself) during the first part of his stay in Israel as a young French Sephardic Jew. Idealization is most apparent in the prose cameo of the country’s founding pioneers, presented in the Promethean metaphor as superhuman beings of literally mythical power:

Il ne pouvait ignorer, cependant, quelle grandeur, quel sursaut prométhéen avaient animé les fondateurs de la nation convalescente, érigée à bout de bras, contre le monde, contre l’Histoire; quelle folie salubre les avait saisis et poussés à briser la fatalité de l’asservissement, à revendiquer leur statut de sujets libres, à se vouloir maîtres d’eux-mêmes, à rendre à leur peuple rompu son antique fierté. (78)

[However, he could not ignore the grandeur, the Promethean leap that had driven the founders of the convalescent nation, which they’d raised up high with their outstretched arms, against the world, against History; what healthy folly had gripped them and driven them to break the inevitability of enslavement, to demand their status as free subjects, to try to be their own masters, to restore to their broken people its ancient pride]

However, Les jours innocents also comes to express a melancholic disillusionment with the pioneers’ ideals. Such ambivalence features more concisely in Valérie Zenatti’s Quand j’étais soldate (2002). Set in 1988, this autobiographical novel about a young woman’s military service in Israel stages a heated dialectic between fellow female soldiers, prompted by Daniéla’s allusion to unjust treatment of Palestinians:

– Arrête! Ça n’a rien à voir! Nous avons une histoire particulière, les Juifs ont été persécutés partout pendant des siècles, et les pionniers sionistes se sont sacrifiés pour que l’on puisse vivre ici en paix …

– Justement si, « ça a à voir », a coupé Daniéla. Tant que nous aurons cette image romantique et irréprochable de nous-mêmes, nous continuerons à opprimer un peuple sans même nous en apercevoir.

(p.32) […]

Je n’ai pas dit un mot. Je n’avais pas de mort proche à exhumer. Je pensais aussi que Daniéla n’avait pas tout à fait tort, mais qu’il fallait dire les choses autrement, expliquer, sans faire autant de mal, sans provoquer ces crises de larmes, sans tout remettre en question. (124–25)

[‘Stop! That’s got nothing to do with it! We have a specific history, Jews were persecuted everywhere for centuries, and the Zionist pioneers sacrificed themselves so that we could live here in peace …’

‘Actually, it does have “something to do with it”’, Daniéla interrupted. ‘As long as we have this romantic and perfect image of ourselves, we’ll carry on oppressing a people without even realizing it’.


I didn’t say a word. I had nobody to dig up who’d been close to me and had died. I also thought that Daniéla wasn’t entirely wrong, but that she should have said things differently, should have explained, without causing so much hurt, without provoking fits of tears, without calling everything into question]

Through dialogical exchange, the novel presents a thesis – the self-sacrificing heroism of the early Zionist pioneers – followed by an antithesis – that in late twentieth-century Israel such a purview is self-aggrandizing romanticism, and, moreover, politically blinding. The synthesis resides in the first-person narrator’s acceptance of the critique, set against a call for greater sensitivity to the intense affective import for ordinary Israelis of conventional Israeli historiography and collective memory (however constructed, mediated and partly questionable that collective memory might be).

We have traced a development from texts that confine themselves to exalting the heroism of the early Zionist pioneers to those that question such exaltation, albeit with varying degrees of scepticism. The approach of the final four texts to be considered in this section recalls Wistrich and Ohana’s allusion (1995, vii) to the debunking of myths. An early exemplar is Paula Jacques’s Un baiser froid comme la lune (1983), a picaresque, satirical and humorous novel with pronounced autobiographical basis. The following extract shows pure persiflage:

Zoltan Gadol eut un sursaut. Il ramena ses jambes au sol. Il dévisagea sévèrement le solliciteur. Il entama le panégyrique d’une patrie, non plus élective, mais légitime. Et historique. Tobias approuva sans réserve. Il exprima son admiration pour les pionniers sionistes, et un regret, sincère ô Architecte de l’Impossible, de n’avoir pas participé à l’épopée; la conquête de la Terre sainte était le fait d’âmes d’élite. Lui, pauvre hère, (p.33) devait se contenter d’en louer la prouesse à distance. A un clin d’oeil en direction de sa fille, elle comprit qu’il estimait le prix de l’héroïsme: exorbitant. Le borgne vanta longuement la beauté et la prospérité du pays arraché aux marécages. Tobias le félicita d’avoir contribué à son peuplement. (203–04)

[Zoltan Gadol jumped. He lowered his legs back to the ground. He stared severely at the supplicant. He began the eulogy of a country that was no longer elective, but legitimate. And historic. Tobias agreed unreservedly. He expressed his admiration for the Zionist pioneers, and a regret, a sincere regret, O Architect of the Impossible, for not having taken part in the epic; the conquest of the Holy land was for elite souls. He, miserable wretch, had to make do with praising it at a distance. From a wink in his daughter’s direction, she realized that he was assessing the price of heroism: exorbitant. The one-eyed fellow vaunted at length the beauty and prosperity of the country torn from the marshes. Tobias congratulated him on having contributed to its population]

The main protagonist Tobias is a comically hapless and impressionable immigrant to Israel and the action is taking place in 1958. Initially, he admires the monumental achievements of the pioneers, as is clear in his humorously humble simile: ‘Les pionniers d’Israël, ces architectes du rêve avéré, l’intimidaient à l’égal d’un analphabète admis à un cours d’université’ (213) [‘The pioneers of Israel, those architects of the dream come true, intimidated him as if he were an illiterate admitted to a university course’]. Despite the humour, what follows closely is not entirely mocking of a typical kibbutz, which sustains the ethos and praxis of the earlier pioneers, and whose members combine intellectual, artistic and manual prowess:

Aviv Midbar abritait une forte concentration d’intelligences et de vertus. Certains possédaient des diplômes de médecin, d’ingénieur, de juriste. Ils occupaient en ville des fonctions gouvernementales, tel le ministre des Transports, siégeaient dans des chaires scientifiques ou initiaient les enfants au kibboutz aux sciences humaines, à la musique, à la peinture comme Yossele Yossipovitch, critique d’art dans un journal de Tel-Aviv. Leurs tâches accomplies, ils prenaient leur part des travaux de la ferme où leur savoir excellait. (213–14)

[Aviv Midbar was home to a strong concentration of intelligence and virtues. Some were qualified doctors, engineers, lawyers. In town they occupied governmental posts, such as Minister of Transport, held academic chairs or introduced the kibbutz children to the human sciences, to music, to painting, like Yossele Yossipovitch, an art critic for a Tel Aviv (p.34) newspaper. Once their tasks were done, they took part in the farm work, where their knowledge was excellent]

Gradually, however, an almost inhuman quality creeps into this perceived perfection. Narration focalized upon Tobias’s contemplation of the Israelis’ valiant husbandry of the land obliquely suggests a form of tampering with nature by comparison with the Arab’s (in)action on the land:

En regardant du côté opposé, là où la luxuriance marquait une frontière, l’oeil était frappé d’une différence, de nature à expliquer l’antagonisme des habitants de la plaine. Du côté arabe, la terre reposait en son harmonie intacte et austère, les maisons faisaient souche avec la rocaille. Du côté juif, la moindre parcelle verdoyait, les arbres défiaient le ciel, le plus petit monticule se hérissait d’édifices criards, pressés, poussés à la hâte. Le domaine des pionniers, pris à la gorge, proliférait comme l’action suisse en bourse, la campagne palestinienne retenait ses offrandes indolentes. (242)

[Looking at the other side, where luxuriance marked a frontier, the eye was struck by a difference that could explain the antagonism between the inhabitants of the plain. On the Arab side, the land lay in its austere intact harmony, the houses on a line with the rocky ground. On the Jewish side, even the smallest plot was green, the trees defied the sky, the smallest hillock bristled with garish, busy buildings that had grown in a rush. The domain of the pioneers, over which they had a stranglehold, proliferated like Swiss shares on the stock market, the Palestinian countryside kept back its lazy offerings]

In contrast to a non-interventionist harmony with nature respected by the Arabs, this passage mischievously implies in the Israeli approach a hungry appetite for dominance (here of nature) that reaches almost Nietzschean proportions. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche defines the eponymous will as ‘an insatiable desire to manifest power’ (110); for more, and more seriously, on the possible influences of Nietzsche on Zionism, see Chapter 2. Many other surreptitious digs are made at the ten-year-old Israeli nation and its still pioneering spirit, but the sharpest occurs in narration of the abrupt ending to Tobias’s brief and unsuccessful dwelling in the Promised Land. He is rightly accused of petty crimes, but there is burlesque in the Israeli authorities’ verdict that the greatest of his crimes were his desertion of the still-beleaguered Land and his perceived insult to the Herculean efforts of its pioneers and founders:

(p.35) Grivèlerie à l’hôtel Zion, vol de papiers et usurpation du cercueil d’un citoyen français, dette envers l’Office d’immigration, fuite clandestine et, pis que tout: destruction de la Téoudat Zéhout. Aux crimes envers la Loi, il faut ajouter le délit d’opinion. Le ressortissant – le langage vous a de ces cruautés – a déserté la patrie en péril. Il s’est rendu coupable de couardise, de mépris pour la petite sueur des pionniers et la grande mission des fondateurs. (286)

[Non-payment of a restaurant bill at the Zion Hotel, theft of papers and usurpation of a French citizen’s coffin, debt to the Immigration Office, secret escape and, worse than anything, destruction of the teudat zehut.4 To crimes against the Law should be added expression of opinion contrary to that of the ruling body. The citizen – language can be so cruel – deserted the endangered country. He was guilty of cowardice, of contempt for the humble sweat of the pioneers and for the great mission of the founders]

Brigitte Peskine’s Buena Familia (2000) is not as wittily coruscating as Jacques’s Un baiser froid comme la lune in its assessment of the pioneers and of the new state of Israel, but it is far from the starry-eyed vision of Kessel, Hillel and Miller-Saïd. Of particular interest are its Turkish-Jewish narrator’s imputation of gender imbalances and Zionist propaganda:

J’expliquai à Simone que l’État tout neuf que les Juifs venaient d’arracher à la culpabilité internationale n’avait pas besoin de vieilles femmes mais d’hommes jeunes et courageux. Simone était habituée à être servie, à bien manger, à dormir dans un lit confortable. Elle n’avait pas idée de la dureté de la vie, de la misère des camps où l’on parquait les nouveaux immigrants, de la rusticité des Sabras, dont les parents avaient labouré la terre de leurs mains presque nues … Il fallait être aveuglé par la propagande pour ignorer que les conditions de vie étaient tout à fait primitives, la nourriture immangeable, la chaleur torride, sans parler des moustiques, du manque d’hygiène et de l’écueil de la langue, surtout pour les femmes! Les garçons avaient appris l’hébreu à l’école, eux … (227–28)

[I explained to Simone that the brand new state the Jews had managed to pull from the teeth of international guilt needed not old women but brave young men. Simone was used to being served, to eating well, to sleeping in a comfortable bed. She had no notion of the hardness of life, the poverty of the camps where new immigrants were penned in, the rustic simplicity of the sabras, whose parents had ploughed the earth almost bare-handed … You’d have to be blinded by propaganda not to know that the living conditions were entirely primitive, the food inedible, the heat scorching, (p.36) not to mention the mosquitoes, the lack of hygiene and the language pitfall, particularly for women! The boys had learnt Hebrew at school …]

Equally clear in Peskine’s novel are the bitter divisions in early Israeli society, between the Yishuv pioneers and the Shoah survivors who arrived after the creation of the state of Israel, and between the Ashkenazim and the rest of the Israeli population:

Nul n’ignorait l’antagonisme rampant entre les nouveaux arrivants et les pionniers qui avaient construit le pays. Les seconds reprochaient aux premiers de n’avoir pas émigré avant l’Holocauste. Les premiers se demandaient si les leaders juifs, en Palestine, avaient vraiment tout essayé pour les sauver.

– L’État d’Israël a été créé par des Ashkenazes pour des Ashkenazes, conclus-je. (227)

[Nobody was unaware of the creeping antagonism between the new arrivals and the pioneers who had built the country. The latter criticized the former for not having emigrated before the Holocaust. The former wondered if the Jewish leaders in Palestine had really tried everything to save them.

‘The state of Israel was created by Ashkenazim for Ashkenazim’, I concluded]

The arrogance ascribed to the Ashkenazim by Peskine is also a charge implicitly levelled by Olivia Rosenthal in her ludic but politically challenging novel Les Fantaisies spéculatives de J. H. le sémite (2005).5 In this novel, the narrator’s mother is forthright: ‘La Palestine n’est pas un pays, dit-elle, c’est une terre déserte que les Juifs ont fertilisée et que pour cette raison ils ont le droit de posséder’ (72) [‘“Palestine isn’t a country”, she said. “It’s a desert land that Jews fertilized and that they therefore have the right to possess”’]. The view of this French Ashkenazi woman partially mirrors the final line cited above from Peskine’s first-person narrator; both assert that it was Ashkenazi Jews who literally, materially created Israel in its modern avatar, and both – explicitly in Peskine’s case, implicitly in Rosenthal’s – assert that this heroic feat has been taken to signify their right to exclusive ownership of it.

The final text that participates in, if not a debunking, then a contestation of the pioneer heroism myth is Eretz (2010). Henri Raczymow’s fleeting evocation of the early pioneers, filtered through address to his dead brother who had emigrated from France to Israel, at first appears fairly neutral, arguably even positive in its evocation of a ruggedness and free spirit:

(p.37) Le pays lui-même a tant changé. Il n’est plus le pays pionnier, rude, un peu anarchique, que tu as connu, où il fallait se battre, souviens-t’en, pour accéder aux autocars Egged, ce pays que tu as passionnément aimé (46)

[The country itself has changed so much. It’s no longer the tough, rather anarchic, pioneer country that you knew, where people had to fight, remember, to get on Egged coaches, that country you loved passionately].

However, one memory of his brother’s tales is succeeded by a comparison that implies a Stalinesque brainwashing at work in the kibbutzim (see Chapter 2):

Tu nous racontais ces expéditions du shabbat à la plage, distante de quelques kilomètres. Vous grimpiez à trente sur une charrette tirée par un tracteur poussif, vous chantiez des chants de pionniers, vous traversiez d’autres kibboutzim, on eût dit un film soviétique à la louange de l’homme nouveau, du travail collectif, de la vie au grand air, que sais-je … (49)

[You told us about those Shabbat expeditions to the beach, a few kilometres away. Thirty of you would climb onto a cart drawn by a wheezing tractor, you’d sing pioneer songs, you’d go through other kibbutzim, it could have been a Soviet film in praise of the new man, of collective work, of life in the open air, I don’t know …]

The last four clauses here dovetail with Jacques’s more amusing but no less critical portrait of an indoctrinated community whose strength has faintly Nietzschean connotations (1983, 242; again, for more on the possible influences of Nietzsche on the early Zionists, see Chapter 2). While Raczymow’s parallel is with Soviet totalitarianism, totalitarianism was of course also a defining feature of the Soviet regime’s supposed opposite, the Nazi regime. It is to the most notorious product of the Nazi regime, the Shoah, and the role of the Shoah in the historical foundations of Israeli nationhood, that the rest of this chapter is devoted.

1.3. The Shoah

As historian Levana Frenk noted in 2011, whereas studies conducted from 1965 to 1975 showed that the majority of Israelis accorded more importance to the creation of the state of Israel and the War of Independence than to the Shoah,

[u]ne étude récente, menée par Yaïr Auron sur l’évolution des identités dans la société israélienne, montre qu’aujourd’hui la Shoah a pris la (p.38) première place. Elle est devenue l’événement fondateur et constitutif de l’identité juive, et le ciment unificateur de la société juive israélienne (30)

[a recent study conducted by Yaïr Auron on the evolution of identities in Israeli society, shows that now the Shoah has taken first place. It has become the foundational and constitutive event for Jewish identity, and the unifying cement of Israeli Jewish society]6

While the Shoah is central to contemporary Israeli identity, French literary mediations of the relationship between the Shoah and Israelis are far from uniform: quite the contrary, they present a number of paradoxes. In this, they mirror divisions within Israel itself on that relationship. Focusing on the 1950s, Yechiam Weitz observes that ‘The memory of the Holocaust and its victims was accompanied by unending political strife. These debates were always harsh, bitter, full of tension and emotional. Occasionally, they were violent and even deadly’ (130). As we will see below, the primary texts suggest that such strife certainly persisted well beyond the 1950s.

1.3.1. The Shoah and redemptive value

Idith Zertal is one of the New Historians of Israel (other notable names include Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaïm) who engage in ‘revisionist’ historiography about Zionism, the state of Israel and particularly the 1948 War of Independence. In the following excerpt, Zertal describes (but clearly does not approve of, as the rest of her book makes plain) the ascription of redemptive value to the Shoah relative to the foundation of the state of Israel:

le nouvel État né des ruines du peuple juif et dépeint comme l’antithèse de son histoire, tout en étant perçu comme le vengeur du sang de millions de Juifs assassinés (« Nous, le peuple juif souverain d’Israël, sommes les rédempteurs du sang de millions de Juifs », avait déclaré Ben Gourion), reconstruisait la Shoah dans le processus téléologique de rédemption d’Israël […] (152)

[Moreover, the new state born from the ruins of the Jewish people and depicted as the antithesis of its history, while at the same time being perceived as avenging the blood of millions of murdered Jews – ‘We, the sovereign Jewish people of Israel, are the redeemers of the blood of millions of Jews’, Ben Gurion had declared – reconstructed the Shoah in the teleological process of Israel’s redemption]

Towards the end of her study – a sustained indictment of what she perceives as the exploitation of Shoah memory to legitimate Israeli (p.39) oppression of the Palestinians7 – Zertal develops a swingeing analysis of the redemption thesis (which, interestingly, she allies to negative Messianism):

C’est la proximité historique entre la Shoah et la constitution de l’État d’Israël, et le rôle décisif de celle-ci dans l’obtention et la formation de celui-là, qui avait engendré ce type de messianisme catastrophiste et, avec lui, un nouveau – ou bien antique et renouvelé – mythe de destruction et de rédemption, d’impuissance et de toute-puissance, détaché de l’historique et du politique. (233)

[It is the historical closeness between the Shoah and the constitution of the state of Israel, and the decisive role of the former in obtaining and forming the latter, which had caused this type of utterly pessimistic Messianism and, with it, a new – or else ancient and renewed – myth of destruction and redemption, of impotence and of omnipotence, detached from the historical and the political]

The main grounds for Zertal’s censure are that the thesis is ahistorical (234). A number of the primary texts also problematize the redemption thesis, but not necessarily for the same reasons as Zertal.

The first of the primary texts to allude to the redemption thesis is Allouche’s Les jours innocents (1984), where it is presented ambiguously:

Il ne pouvait méconnaître, non plus, l’ombre portée de la catastrophe qui avait emporté dans la tourmente d’Europe ces millions d’âmes dont l’absence diffuse endeuillait jusqu’à l’air respiré. Ce pays n’était-il pas leur rédemption? (80)

[He could not be unaware, either, of the shadow of the catastrophe which had swept away in the European storm those millions of souls whose diffuse absence plunged everything into mourning, down to the very air people breathed. Was this country not their redemption?]

It is not at all clear that the rhetorical question here is posed by the homodiegetic narrator; indeed, it is more likely to reflect what he infers is the majority Israeli view. And it is equally unclear at this point in the narrative that Allouche’s early enchantment with Israel is later subject to deep disillusion, the view of the Shoah expressed here being no obvious exception to that disillusion. Ambiguity on the question is also woven into Eliette Abécassis’s L’Or et la cendre (1997), but by other means: two different characters taking clearly opposed stances. Espousal of the redemption thesis is represented by Mina, a deeply religious Jew. Though what she actually says is that ‘Auschwitz est le purgatoire, est (p.40) l’Etat d’Israël est la rédemption du peuple juif, un avant-goût des temps messianiques’ (79) [‘Auschwitz is the purgatory, and the state of Israel is the redemption of the Jewish people, a foretaste of Messianic times’], this has been preceded by an assertion that the two phenomena are inseparable (79). That inseparability reappears later on: ‘Mina disait qu’Israël était la Rédemption après l’exil et la souffrance (218) [‘Mina said that Israel was the Redemption after the exile and the suffering’]. Yet it is important to note that Mina is a French, not an Israeli Jew, as well as a Shoah survivor, and that a counterpoint to her religious belief in the redemptive value of Israel as a product of the Shoah is provided in a secular Israeli character, Ron Bronstein (though he is also the son of a Shoah survivor who went on to commit suicide 46 years after the end of the Second World War). Bronstein opines, ‘on ne peut pas dire qu’Israël soit la Rédemption après la souffrance, parce qu’il n’y a pas de sens à la souffrance, contrairement à ce que prétendent certains théologiens juifs’ (81) [‘you can’t say that Israel is the Redemption after the suffering, because suffering has no meaning, contrary to what certain Jewish theologians claim’].

In view of this reference to Jewish theologians propounding the redemption thesis, it is interesting that in Sur la frontière Warschawski (2002) points to the converse: the objections of religious Israeli Jews who believe that the Zionist establishment exploited the memory of the Shoah in order to accelerate the creation of the state of Israel (218). Finally, in Eretz (2010) Raczymow also rejects the redemption thesis, for he cannot see the slightest meaning, be it political, theological or metaphysical, in the Shoah (and here he partially converges with Abécassis’s character Bronstein, who rejects the idea that the Shoah has any theological meaning). However, Raczymow tempers this cognitive rejection with the affect of empathy:

je pense toujours que la Shoah est un événement dépourvu du moindre sens, ni politique, ni théologique, ni métaphysique, et qui ne relève d’aucune rédemption possible. Reste que, si l’on se place du seul point de vue juif (ce à quoi, faut-il le dire, nul n’est tenu), chaque soldat israélien tué au combat pour la défense de son pays est tout aussi héroïque que Mordechai Anielewicz admiré pour être tombé face aux nazis les armes à la main et non asphyxié dans la chambre à gaz comme un animal d’abattoir. C’est ici, en Israël, et seulement ici que l’expression « Plus jamais ça » revêt un sens. (68)

[I still think that the Shoah is an event lacking in the slightest meaning, be it metaphysical, theological, or political, and which has nothing to (p.41) do with any possible redemption. The fact remains that, if you look at things purely from a Jewish standpoint (which nobody is obliged to do, it should be said), every Israeli soldier killed while fighting in defence of his country is just as heroic as Mordechai Anielewicz, who was admired for falling weapon in hand faced with the Nazis and not being suffocated in a gas chamber like an animal in a slaughterhouse. It’s here in Israel, and only here, that the expression ‘Never again’ takes on a meaning]

Immanent in the Israeli slogan ‘Plus jamais ça’ is oblique shame at the manner in which millions of Jews died and an adamant determination that Jews should never again become victims. As such, it provides a natural segue to our next section.

1.3.2. The Shoah and shame

Philosopher Elisabeth de Fontenay posits this shame as a worldwide Jewish phenomenon, but appears to put its terminus ad quem in the 1960s:

Vous ne pouvez pas vous représenter à quel point, jusqu’aux années 1960, en Israël, en Europe, aux Etats-Unis, la plupart des Juifs ont eu honte de ce qui était arrivé à eux-mêmes et aux leurs (50)

[You can’t imagine how much, right up to the 1960s, in Israel, in Europe, in the United States, most Jews were ashamed of what had happened to themselves and to their families]

Historian Diana Pinto states that Shoah survivors had been ‘peu écoutés dans l’Israël naissant car ils n’avaient pas fait le bon choix sioniste de partir « à temps »’ (2012, 193) [‘rarely listened to in the nascent Israel because they hadn’t made the good Zionist choice to leave “in time”’], indicating the ex-Yishuv’s scorn for Shoah survivors as a source of shame to be muffled. Broadly coalescing with Fontenay in targeting 1960s Israel, in Sur la frontière Michel Warschawski (who emigrated from France to Israel at the age of 16) focuses, like Pinto, on this scorn felt by non-diasporic Jews. A traumatic memory relays how an individual sabra displays a shame-inducing contempt felt widely in Israel for those Shoah victims who had not been ‘strong’ enough to survive the death camps:

Celle qui deviendra plus tard ma compagne, une Sabra elle aussi, avait l’habitude de traiter de « savonnette » quiconque n’était pas assez fort à son goût. Cette expression israélienne est une allusion blasphématoire à l’utilisation faite par les nazis de la graisse des Juifs massacrés à Treblinka et à Auschwitz. « Blasphématoire » est le mot qui m’était venu à l’esprit en l’entendant la première fois. Je me souviens d’en avoir ressenti (p.42) un tremblement dans tout le corps, comme si on avait traité ma mère de prostituée, ou comme si quelqu’un avait uriné devant le tabernacle à la synagogue. C’était absolument incroyable et pourtant terriblement banal dans cet Israël des années 60 où la faiblesse était considérée comme une tare. (213)

[The woman who would later become my partner, also a sabra, had the habit of calling whoever wasn’t strong enough for her taste a ‘soapbar’.8 This Israeli expression is a blasphemous allusion to the use the Nazis made of the fat of Jews slaughtered at Treblinka and Auschwitz. ‘Blasphemous’ is the word which came to mind when I heard it for the first time. I remember having felt a trembling in my whole body, as if someone had called my mother a prostitute, or as if someone had urinated in front of the tabernacle in synagogue. It was absolutely incredible and yet terribly common in that Israel of the 1960s where weakness was considered a defect]

The intensely negative affect here is patent in the reference to bodily trembling, which recalls Brian Massumi’s reference to ‘the irreducibly bodily and autonomic nature of affect’ (28) already noted in the Introduction. Warschawski’s body here reacts involuntarily to a literally shocking admixture of outrage and humiliation. It is striking that the first signifier that comes to Warschawski’s mind to qualify the injurious expression is ‘blasphématoire’, which even for a non-religious Jew would suggest a devastating infringement of due respect, in this case for Jews murdered in the death camps. Warschawski offers a possible explanation of such infringement whereby, in a move of ethical checkmate, he shifts the source of shame from the Shoah victims to the Yishuv that made little attempt to prevent their extermination or even to mitigate its devastating extent:

un sentiment de culpabilité et d’échec: l’existence d’une communauté juive en Palestine, moderne, armée et partiellement souveraine, n’a pu empêcher le judéocide et trop peu, bien trop peu, a été entrepris pour – si ce n’est arrêter le massacre – du moins sauver le maximum de Juifs. Dans l’inconscient d’Israël, surtout dans les années qui suivent la création de l’État, le sentiment de culpabilité est bel et bien là. (216–17)

[a feeling of guilt and failure: the existence of a Jewish community in Palestine, modern, armed and partially sovereign, had been unable to prevent the Judaeocide and too little, far too little, was undertaken to – if not stop the slaughter – at least save as many Jews as possible. There was certainly a feeling of guilt in Israel’s unconscious, especially in the years following the creation of the state]

(p.43) That usually unavowed sense of ex-Yishuv guilt in the first few years of the young state’s existence is soberly acknowledged by Yaïr in Yaël Hassan’s Souviens-toi Leah! (2004), a novel partly inspired by the non-fictional experience of the author’s grandparents, who were themselves killed in the Shoah. Yaïr is an ex-Yishuv member, having emigrated to Palestine as a teenager in 1932 and immediately assimilated to a new mode of life:

Ne m’as-tu pas demandé toi-même ce que nous faisions nous, ici, pendant que nos frères d’Europe se faisaient massacrer? Tu as raison. Nous n’avons rien fait … Ou si peu. […] Et sais-tu quelles furent alors les mesures prises par les dirigeants du Yishouv? Ils organisèrent des manifestations, des veillées mortuaires, des prières publiques dans les synagogues. Il y eut une journée de jeûne, des cours dans les écoles consacrés au massacre des Juifs, des drapeaux noirs au balcon. Voilà, pour répondre à ta question, Leah, ce que nous avons fait pour aider nos frères. (114)

[Did you yourself not ask me what we were doing, here, while our European brothers were being slaughtered? You’re right. We did nothing … Or so little. […] And do you know what measures the leaders of the Yishuv took? They organized demonstrations, wakes, public prayers in synagogues. There was a day of fasting, school classes devoted to the slaughter of the Jews, black flags on the balcony. That, to answer your question, Leah, is what we did to help our brothers]

However, Hassan’s novel emphasizes less a sense of ex-Yishuv contempt for Shoah survivors than of deep insensitivity to them – or, to put it more charitably, of resistance to cognitive dissonance. The latter derives from the mismatch between awareness of the diasporic Jew’s suffering and despair and the reasoned will to make a clean break from them, for the greater good of building a new, entirely positive and robust Israeli nation. The first-person narrator Leah, herself a Shoah survivor, conveys both sides of the binary (65). Her ruminations begin by registering the aversion of former Yishuv members to hearing about the traumas of the Shoah survivors. These Yishuv members had made very considerable material sacrifices to take in and offer a new life to the Jewish refugees; in return, they required a mnemonic moratorium on past sufferings and a willingness to contribute to the construction of a strong, future-oriented Jewish state informed by the new collectivist values of the kibbutz. Accordingly, Leah’s need to put into language her traumatizing experiences, to speak and to be heard, is collectively censored. The psychic claustrophobia produced by this prohibition of memory, and of (p.44) speech expressing that memory, is vividly expressed in the affectively charged metaphor of being walled in:

Alors que j’avais tant espéré pouvoir parler, que j’avais besoin de pouvoir hurler mon histoire à qui voudrait bien l’entendre, on m’imposa le silence, on m’y emmura (65–66)

[Whereas I’d so much hoped to be able to talk, needed to be able to yell my story at whoever would listen to it, silence was imposed on me, I was walled up in it]

The damage caused by imposed silence is also forcefully conveyed in Meller-Saïd’s Cela ne sera pas un rêve. Reacting to her young daughter’s abhorrence for the verbal outpourings of a Shoah survivor, Léa affirms the deontic duty of ex-Yishuv members such as herself and sabras like her daughter not to occlude the survivor’s suffering, and indeed their deontic duty actively to listen (81–82).

So far, this chapter has identified a number of patterns within the primary texts’ inscription of the Shoah. But the merits of aggregated representation should not eclipse those of attention to singular phenomena, where the latter are significant. The last four sections of this chapter focus on such singular phenomena, found in one or, at most, two primary texts each. In three of the four cases, this is preceded by consideration of non-literary perspectives, from a literary scholar (Bruno Chaouat), two philosophers (Elisabeth de Fontenay and Jacques Derrida), a historian (Zertal), an essayist and journalist (Martine Gozlan) and a psychoanalyst (Daniel Sibony).

1.3.3. The Shoah as source of current anti-Israeli sentiment in France

Bruno Chaouat implies that the Shoah, or more precisely its perverted memory, is one source of current anti-Israeli sentiments in France:

il est devenu de plus en plus incontestable que la délégitimation de l’État d’Israël, telle qu’elle se formule aujourd’hui à un degré de sophistication théorique sans précédent, se nourrit de trente ou quarante ans de perversion de la mémoire de la Shoah, perversion qu’Alvin Rosenfeld, dans un jugement d’un pessimisme radical, n’hésite pas à appeler « la fin de la Shoah ». (2011, 204)

[it has become increasingly incontestable that the delegitimation of the state of Israel, as it is now formulated with an unprecedented degree of theoretical sophistication, has fed for thirty or forty years on corruption of the memory of the Shoah, a corruption that Alvin Rosenfeld, in a radically pessimistic judgement, doesn’t hesitate to call ‘the end of the Shoah’]

(p.45) While Chaouat’s remark does not refer overtly to France, most of the cultural references of the powerful article in which it is located are French. The primary text within our corpus that similarly alleges perversion of the memory of the Shoah in France specifically is Mon cœur de père (2012). In this autobiographical narrative, Marco Koskas makes the following observation about twenty-first-century France:

Sur Facebook, ce matin, je lis que les nouveaux manuels d’histoire décrivent Israël sous le jour le plus noir: colonialisme, occupation, etc. Après les médias, c’est au tour de l’école de fausser la réalité de ce pays magnifique. Pourquoi tous ces mensonges? Pourquoi ce déni? Sans doute pour se délester du poids de la Shoah, qui a rendu l’antisémitisme illégal et intellectuellement intolérable. Aujourd’hui c’est cette illégalité qui est en train de devenir intolérable à la société, et non la Shoah elle-même. Il me semble, du moins … (198–99)

[I read on Facebook this morning that the new history textbooks describe Israel in the most negative terms: colonialism, occupation, etc. After the media, it’s the schools’ turn to distort the reality of this magnificent country. Why all these lies? Why this denial? No doubt to offload the weight of the Shoah, which made antisemitism illegal and intellectually intolerable. Now it’s this illegality that is becoming intolerable to society, and not the Shoah itself. That’s how it seems to me, at least …]

For Koskas, then, current anti-Israeli sentiments in France spring from France’s wish to be rid of its historical guilt about connivance in the Shoah. If a formerly victimized people (Jews) can be cast as oppressors (Israelis), the people who formerly victimized them (the French under Vichy) can wipe the conscience-slate clean. While ‘Il me semble, du moins’ may suggest that this is a tentative hypothesis, it is one that Koskas also advances in an unpublished article entitled ‘Peut-on encore être un écrivain juif en France?’:9

Du même coup, les interdits qu’a créés la Shoah s’avèrent trop contraignants, comme s’ils avaient empêché un certain antisémitisme cérébral de s’exprimer librement depuis la Libération; comme si enfin, il était urgent de se défausser de sa culpabilité coloniale sur l’état d’Israël, aux prises lui aussi avec d’acerbes nationalismes arabes. Peu à peu le sionisme est ainsi devenu, non pas la seule utopie du XIXeme qui ait produit de la démocratie et des richesses, mais un gros mot.

[By the same token, the taboos created by the Shoah prove too restrictive, as if they had prevented a certain type of cerebral antisemitism from (p.46) expressing itself freely since the Liberation; as if, finally, it were vital to dump your colonial guilt on the state of Israel, also grappling with bitter Arab nationalisms. So, instead of the only utopia of the nineteenth century to have produced democracy and wealth, Zionism has gradually become a rude word]

Koskas’s mention of Zionism leads us to the next singular but significant motif in Jewish-French literary representations of the Shoah and its relation to Israel.

1.3.4. Instrumentalization of the Shoah for Zionist ends

Elisabeth de Fontenay is forthright in claiming an Israeli instrumentalization of the Shoah that, while not specifically identified as Zionist, seems to cohere with contemporary Zionist-inspired policies:

je dirai seulement qu’il y a une certaine instrumentalisation par Israël qui n’a pas voulu se charger de l’Extermination avant le procès Eichmann, et qui s’en sert maintenant trop souvent pour justifier les débordements des limites de son droit (89–90)

[All I will say is that there is a certain instrumentalization by Israel which didn’t want to burden itself with the Extermination before the Eichmann trial, and which now too often uses it to justify going beyond the limits of its right]

A similar critique by Jacques Derrida is cited by de Fontenay’s interlocutor Stéphane Bou:

Il est possible et nécessaire, sans le moindre antisémitisme, de dénoncer cette instrumentalisation, par exemple ce calcul proprement stratégique (politique ou autre) qui consisterait à se servir de l’holocauste, à l’utiliser à telle ou telle fin. On peut juger cette fin contestable, ou détestable la stratégie qu’elle commande, sans dénier le moins du monde la réalité de cette monstruosité passée, à savoir l’holocauste dont certains voudraient ainsi s’emparer et se servir. (Fontenay, 184)

[It is possible and necessary, without being in the slightest bit antisemitic, to denounce this instrumentalization, for example that purely strategic calculation (political or otherwise) that would consist in making use of the Holocaust, in utilizing it for such-and-such an end. We can deem this end contestable, or the strategy it governs appalling, without in any way denying the reality of that past monstrosity, namely the Holocaust which some would like to appropriate and exploit]10

(p.47) De Fontenay’s elaboration of her initial declaration brings into play the Palestinian question:

Maintenant, force est de constater que l’instrumentalisation de la Shoah fonctionne en deux sens contraires. D’un côté, il y a ceux qui ont eu intérêt après 1961 à radicaliser la menace arabe pour légitimer une politique d’expansion. D’un autre côté, il y a ceux qui tiennent à accentuer la réalité d’un lien de cause à effet entre la Shoah et Israël pour mieux rappeler que les Palestiniens n’y sont pour rien. (193)

[We now have to note that the instrumentalization of the Shoah works in two opposite ways. On the one hand, there are those in whose interests it was after 1961 to radicalize the Arab threat in order to legitimize an expansionist policy. On the other, there are those who insist on stressing the reality of a causal link between the Shoah and Israel, to strengthen their reminder that the Palestinians have nothing to do with it]

The Palestinian question is also raised by Zertal, who implies that Shoah victims are exploited by Israel in order to justify its bellicosity:

Régulièrement, et en fonction des circonstances, les victimes de la Shoah sont rappelées à la vie et assument un rôle central dans le débat politique israélien, en particulier dans le contexte du conflit israélo-arabe, et plus spécifiquement lors des crises graves, voire des guerres. De fait, depuis 1948 et jusqu’à la crise actuelle, qui a commencé en octobre 2000, il n’y a pas eu de guerre ou de conflit qui n’aient été perçus, définis et conceptualisés par la société israélienne dans des termes liés au génocide. (9)

[Regularly, as particular circumstances require, Shoah victims are called back to life and assume a central role in Israeli political debate, particularly in the context of the Israeli–Arab conflict, and more specifically at times of serious crises, or even of wars. Indeed, since 1948 and right up to the current crisis, which began in October 2000, there hasn’t been a war or conflict that hasn’t been perceived, defined and conceptualized by Israeli society in terms linked to the genocide]

It should be noted that Zertal’s thesis on the instrumentalization of the Shoah has been subjected to ferocious critique by the philosopher Elhanan Yakira. Commenting on precisely the passage cited above, Yakira satirically ventriloquizes Zertal:

Comme Israël est coupable de toutes ces guerres – auxquelles l’ont poussé, ainsi qu’à l’occupation des terres arabes, un mythe de la force et une angoisse existentielle irrationnelle –, la Shoah, ou son instrumentalisation, est à l’origine de tout ce mal (270)

(p.48) [As Israel is guilty of all these wars – into which, along with the occupation of Arab lands, it has been driven by a myth of strength and by an irrational existential anguish – the Shoah, or its instrumentalization, is the root of all this evil]

Yakira finds many faults in Zertal’s approach, including what he regards as a weak methodology that focuses selectively on discourse rather than on history (280) – although it is clear from the subtitle of Zertal’s book, La Nation et la mort: la Shoah dans le discours et la politique d’Israël, that the Shoah in discourse (as well as in politics) is precisely her main object of enquiry. For our purposes, Yakira’s key charge is that Zertal engages in a false dialectic which, ironically, involves the very malfeasance with which she charges Israel – viz. that of instrumentalization of the Shoah – for her own political ends:

au nom de la Shoah, du scandale de son instrumentalisation, de l’ignominie que constitue la mobilisation au service de l’armée, du militarisme, de la « nation et de la mort », au nom de l’indignation morale devant le manque de respect dû la Shoah, sa commercialisation, etc. – la Shoah est en fait mobilisée au service d’une critique généralisée d’Israël; non pas contre telle ou telle politique du pays, mais contre l’israélianité en tant que telle ou contre les prétendus fondements (n’avons-nous pas parlé de « communauté victimaire »?) de son identité collective. (270)

[in the name of the Shoah, of the scandal of its instrumentalization, of the ignominy constituted by mobilization in the service of army, militarism, ‘nation and death’, in the name of the moral indignation felt when faced with lack of due respect for the Shoah, its commercialization, etc. – the Shoah is in fact mobilized in the service of a generalized criticism of Israel; not against any particular policy of the country, but against Israeliness as such or against the so-called foundations of its collective identity – have we not talked about ‘victim community’?]

I will not attempt to arbitrate here between Zertal and Yakira. However, I do agree with Yakira that Zertal engages in a generalized criticism of Israel rather than its particular governmental policies at any one time. Witness the following, which, while filtered through reference to an Israeli commentator, presents a damning portrait of Israel that Zertal endorses:

Dans l’esprit d’Elkana, il y avait un lien direct entre les « leçons » de la Shoah, telles qu’elles étaient systématiquement instillées dans la conscience nationale et l’univers mental d’Israël à travers la commémoration, l’éducation et l’endoctrinement, et les actes de violences (p.49) « irréguliers » commis par les soldats et les colons israéliens contre les civils palestiniens. (131)

[To Elkana’s mind, there was a direct link between the ‘lessons’ of the Shoah, as they have been systematically instilled in Israel’s national consciousness and mental universe through commemoration, education and indoctrination, and the acts of ‘illegal’ violence committed by Israeli soldiers and settlers against Palestinians civilians]

Two primary texts intersect with Zertal’s polemic. In fact, in the last sentence of the following, Warschawski’s Sur la frontière relays a view that goes even further in condemning Zionist instrumentalization of the Shoah:

Le monde religieux, qui se sentait dépositaire de la mémoire du judaïsme européen massacré, accusait l’establishment sioniste d’avoir considéré le génocide comme un facteur d’accélération du processus de création de l’État d’Israël. Certains étaient même convaincus que, pour les sionistes, le judéocide était un phénomène positif qui contribuait à l’épuration du peuple juif, facilitant ainsi la régénération future des rescapés en Palestine. (218)

[The religious world, which felt itself to be the guardian of the memory of slaughtered European Judaism, accused the Zionist establishment of having considered the genocide an accelerating factor in the process of the creation of the state of Israel. Some were even convinced that, for the Zionists, the Judaeocide was a positive phenomenon which contributed to the purification of the Jewish people, thereby facilitating the future regeneration of the survivors in Palestine]

The shock of that last sentence is slightly mitigated by the suggestion in ‘Certains étaient même convaincus’ that this view is both minoritarian and perhaps implausible. However, Warschawski’s conscious decision to include it may lead the reader legitimately to infer his will that this view be considered. Raczymow, for his part, recalls in Eretz (2010) his brother Alain’s claim – with which he seems to concur – that Zionists have cynically recuperated the six million Jews slaughtered in the Final Solution in order to justify both the creation of Israel and its subsequent behaviour:

quand tu tins courageusement ces propos à ton commandant, tu n’étais déjà plus sioniste. Tu ne partageais déjà plus les valeurs de ce pays, fondées précisément sur la récupération des « six millions ». Toutes les expositions, tous les musées en Israël qui relataient la Shoah terminaient leur parcours didactique par le « renouveau », la « renaissance », une manière de rédemption de la Catastrophe par la création de l’État juif. (p.50) Tel était le sens du « plus jamais ça ». Le « plus jamais ça » n’était pas un souhait, pas davantage un mot d’ordre moral, c’était le fondement même de l’État, sa raison d’être, son programme ici et maintenant et à jamais. Israël se justifiait ipso facto par la Shoah. (113)

[when you bravely said these things to your army major, you had already stopped being a Zionist. You no longer shared the values of this country, values founded precisely on the recuperation of the ‘six million’. All the exhibitions, all the museums in Israel that told the story of the Shoah ended their didactic path with ‘renewal’, ‘rebirth’, a sort of redemption of the Catastrophe through the creation of the Jewish state. Such was the meaning of the ‘never again’. The ‘never again’ was not a wish, no more than it was an expression relating to morality, it was the very foundation of the state, its reason for being, its programme here and now and forever. Israel justified itself ipso facto through the Shoah]

It is significant that Raczymow’s recollection of this claim is preceded by praise for Alain’s challenge to an army major’s rebuke (‘tu tins courageusement ces propos à ton commandant’) of his refusal to participate in unjustified violence against Palestinians. The raising of the Palestinian question adumbrates the widened political purview of our next section.

1.3.5. Instrumentalization of the Shoah for political ends

Within the secondary literature, Gozlan takes a nuanced stance, asserting not so much that the Shoah is instrumentalized for Israeli political ends generally, but rather that the Shoah’s traumatic psychic legacy conditions all political choices in Israel:

Nous sommes l’un et l’autre: le déporté et le combattant, le squelette en haillons et le soldat vigoureux, l’extermination et la souveraineté. Cette dualité, qui ressurgit à chaque crise, conditionne tous les réflexes individuels et collectifs, tous les choix politiques. Pour ne pas être un déporté promis au brasier, il faut être un combattant. Pour ne pas être un squelette dans la fosse, il faut être un soldat resplendissant. Pour ne pas être exterminé, il faut être souverain. (208–09)

[We are both: the deportee and the combatant, the skeleton in rags and the sturdy soldier, extermination and sovereignty. This duality, which resurfaces with each crisis, conditions all individual and collective reflexes, all political choices. In order not to be a deportee doomed to the inferno, you have to be a combatant. In order not to be a skeleton in the (p.51) pit, you have to be a radiant soldier. In order not to be exterminated, you have to be sovereign]

While Gozlan is an essayist and journalist, her prose here has a strong literary imprint in its use of striking imagery, impactful ternary structures and forceful binary oppositions. These devices vividly convey a figurative schizophrenia structuring Israeli national identity as it relates to the Shoah. Sibony, for his part, reproaches the Israeli ‘establishment « de gauche »’ [‘“left-wing” establishment’] for filling its discourse with ‘le lien sacro-saint entre Israël et la Shoah, laissant entendre qu’Israël en est le produit’ (211) [‘the sacrosanct link between Israel and the Shoah, implying that Israel is its product’]. Here Sibony rejects the left-wing establishment’s exploitation of the Shoah in its claim that without the latter, Israel would quite simply not exist (a claim which could, some would object, be viewed as a form of existential blackmail to obviate any questioning of Israel’s current legitimacy).

Gozlan’s and Sibony’s assertions are broadly supported in our primary text for this section, Eretz (2010), wherein Raczymow not only recognizes Israeli politicians’ instrumentalization of the Shoah, but sees it as entirely understandable:

La Shoah est politiquement instrumentalisée? Mais je suis tout prêt à le reconnaître! Le moyen de faire autrement, du reste? Pour être sincère, je dois aussi admettre que cela ne me choque pas. Ici, en Israël, je fais corps avec tout ce qu’implique l’existence de ce pays et sa pérennité. (60)

[The Shoah is politically instrumentalized? Well of course it is! And how could it not be? To be honest, I must also admit that this doesn’t shock me. Here, in Israel, I stand solidly behind everything that the existence of this country and its permanent existence involves]

However, in contrast with his own position of understanding and even sympathy (‘Le moyen de faire autrement, du reste?’), Raczymow relates his brother Alain’s heated opposition to this instrumentalization within a national institution determined by political imperatives, the Israeli army:

le commandant a levé la tête, t’a résumé l’histoire de l’État d’Israël, du peuple juif, en te demandant de temps en temps si ce qu’il évoquait trouvait le moindre écho en toi. Le point d’orgue fut: Tu sais, soldat, que le peuple juif a eu six millions de morts? Quand l’entretien – le monologue – s’est achevé, il t’a demandé si tu avais quelque chose à ajouter. Tu as pris alors ton élan et tu as récusé les gens qui s’appropriaient abusivement (p.52) les six millions. Ils appartenaient au peuple juif tout entier, et pas spécialement à l’Armée de Défense d’Israël. (112–13)

[the major raised his head, summarized for you the history of the state of Israel, of the Jewish people, asking you from time to time if what he was recalling elicited the slightest response in you. The climax was: ‘Do you know, soldier, that the Jewish people has six million dead?’ When the interview – the monologue – ended, he asked if you had anything to add. At that point, you took a run up and objected to people who wrongly appropriated the six million. They belonged to the entire Jewish people, and not especially to Israel’s Defence Army]

Alain’s spirited response to this authority figure is a pointed accusation that the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) instrumentalizes the Shoah for its own very precise political ends: in this case, the attempted moral blackmail of Alain when he refuses to continue the military operation of ‘cleansing’ a Palestinian village in the Occupied Territories (110).

Reference to the army evokes its cognate term war, providing a direct pathway into the final section of this chapter, where the primary text for attention is set during the Gulf War.

1.3.6. The Shoah as template for possible future destruction of Israeli

Valérie Zenatti’s novel Ultimatum (En retard pour la guerre) (2006)11 is set in 1991, when in the extra-diegetic real world, Iraq attacked two Israeli cities with Scud missiles, Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, and Haifa, its main seaport, prompting fears that Israel could be drawn into the Gulf War. According to reports from Tel Aviv, the air was filled with the wail of sirens, and minutes later up to eight missiles streaked in and exploded in balls of flame. Residents scrambled for protective clothing and gas masks, issued to most of the population before the conflict began. Zenatti’s novelistic restitution of this period conveys the fearful affect triggered by the attacks, with panic levels rocketing. In the novel, part of that panic stems from the memorial link made by the terrified Israeli citizens between the gas produced in this attack and the gas chambers of the Shoah. This link is at first made in a rather heavy-handed oblique manner through italicization of the nouns ‘gaz’ and ‘chambres’, with Tamar playing bitterly on the double meaning of ‘chambres’ (‘bedroom’ and ‘chamber’) ‘On va s’enfermer parce qu’on a peur du gaz! On va s’enfermer dans nos chambres pour empêcher le gaz de nous tuer!’ (72) [‘We’re going to lock ourselves in because we’re scared of the gas! We’re going to lock ourselves in our chambers to stop the gas killing us!’]. Immediately afterwards, the link becomes explicit:

(p.53) Nous voyons les mêmes images. Celles qui collaient à mes yeux pendant des années, quand je scrutais l’espace sombre et poussiéreux sous mon lit avant de m’endormir, le cœur affolé car sûre d’y découvrir un SS rempli d’une joie froide à l’idée de me tuer. (72–73)

[We see the same images. Those that were glued to my eyes for years, when I used to examine the dark and dusty space under my bed before falling asleep, my heart beating crazily because I was sure I’d discover an SS officer full of cold delight at the idea of killing me].

The first-person narrator attempts to resist the incipient madness that would result if the link were pursued:

je refuse de suivre Tamar sur le chemin qui mène aux forêts de bouleaux de Pologne et d’Ukraine. Je vois la folie nous y guetter, incandescente encore du sang des morts, tapie sous les fougères. Si nous cédons à la terreur que nous inspirent les deux mots associés, Gil nous trouvera tout à l’heure en train de courir dans l’appartement, échevelées et moites, le regard fiévreux, ou bien nous balançant en psalmodiant les mots terribles sur tous les tons, avec dans la voix tantôt un étonnement enfantin, tantôt les accents butés de celui qui dit non à la réalité, débordantes de détresse, miaulant comme des femmes blessées, voix démentes, voix chevrotantes de sorcières: Les chambres … le gaz … les chambres … le gaz … . Les chambres … le … (73)

[I refuse to follow Tamar along the path that leads to the birch forests of Poland and Ukraine. I see madness lying in wait for us there, still white-hot from the blood of the dead, lurking under the ferns. If we give way to the terror with which the two associated words fill us, Gil will soon find us running around in the apartment, frenzied and clammy, our gaze feverish, or rocking back and forth chanting the terrible words in every different tone, sometimes with a childlike astonishment in our voices, sometimes with the stubborn stresses of somebody who denies reality, overflowing with distress, mewing like injured women, crazy voices, the quavering voices of witches: ‘The chambers … the gas … the chambers … the gas … . The chambers … the …’]

Yet the affective overload of Shoah memories is such that efforts to suppress the fearful link are not entirely successful, as is seen in the broken syntax and obsessive lexical repetition in the last sentence above. Freudian slips by other characters reinforce the insidious power of those memories:

il a pu lui téléphoner pendant qu’ils étaient dans la chambre à gaz. Comment, Victor? J’ai dit « la chambre à gaz »? Ce n’est pas possible, tu (p.54) te trompes. Tu as entendu ça, ma chérie? Oh mon Dieu, mon Dieu, j’ai vraiment dit ça? Quelle horreur! Je n’ai pas dormi de la nuit. (102)

[he was able to phone her while they were in the gas chamber. What’s that, Victor? I said ‘the gas chamber’? It’s not possible, you’re mistaken. Did you hear that, my darling? Oh my God, my God, did I really say that? How awful! I didn’t sleep a wink that night]

Finally, however, a more combative psychological reaction is registered in the response of, ironically enough, a Shoah survivor:

Hitler ne m’a pas eue, alors personne ne m’aura! Je n’ai pas de chambre hermétique et le masque à gaz est resté dans sa boîte. On va quand même pas m’embêter avec des histoires de gaz deux fois dans le même siècle! (121)

[Hitler didn’t get me, so nobody’s going to get me! I don’t have a sealed room and the gas mask has stayed in its box. Really, people can forget bothering me with all that fuss about gas twice in the same century!]

1.4. Endnote

The diversity of attitudes towards the Shoah and their differing links to contemporary Israeli society in Ultimatum (En retard pour la guerre) are mirrored in the other elements considered in the various sections of this chapter. Each element has a highly significant place in the historical foundations of Israeli nationhood, but each is discrete. Taken collectively, their diversity and lack of conceptual hierarchy obstruct attempts at synthesis. Yet a number of general observations may be made. Although the seven primary texts treating Messianism usually subject it to heavy critique, it has historical anteriority to all other foundations to Israeli nationhood. Further, it is depicted as being on the ascendant in the contemporary period, in a complex confluence with right-wing nationalism and the ideology of Greater Israel that underpins the retention of the Occupied Territories. The heroic status of the early Zionist pioneers, treated by 11 primary texts, is also subject to critique, but by a far smaller proportion – four of 11: Jacques (1983) Peskine (2000), Raczymow (2010) and Rosenthal (2005) – and is encoded as an enduring myth that on the whole serves to stimulate pride in national history. Finally, while it is the antithesis of pride-inducing, the Shoah is seen largely to vindicate the very creation of the state of Israel as the only safe haven in the world for Jews after that Judaeocide. Not surprisingly, Francophone Jewish writers are highly exercised by possible abuses (p.55) of Shoah memories, which, like Messianism, feature in 11 of the 44 primary texts considered in this study. So much for the singular status of these various foundations of Israeli nationhood. But in our primary texts at least, they emerge as transversal. Indeed, in the texts taken as a whole, these historical foundations appear as resolutely rhizomatic. While the Shoah, or rather the supreme value of national survival which was the salutary moral derived from it by Israelis, is the youngest of the roots, and perhaps subject to the most problematization as such (as should be evident from sections 1.3.1–1.3.6), it also appears to be the most deeply embedded in the soil of Israeli ipseities.


(1) The 1996 elections resulted in a surprise victory for the right-wing Benyamin Netanyahu.

(2) This ‘certain messie’ is identified by Warschawski, as ‘Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, dernier rabbi des Lubavitch, perçu par ses disciples comme le messie’ (249) [‘Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the last rabbi of the Lubavitchers, regarded by his disciples as the messiah’].

(4) The teudat zehut is the Israeli identity card.

(5) For a more detailed study of this novel, see Cairns (2014).

(6) The most recent study – or rather studies – were conducted by Yaïr Auron in 1990 and 2008, and are detailed in Auron (see particularly p. 66).

(7) It is important to note that Zertal and other New Historians’ accounts of the Shoah have been questioned by other historians (the present chapter deals later on with a different form of critique of Zertal, from the philosopher Elhanan Yakira). Thus, for instance, Efraim Karsh contends: ‘The “new historians” have been at the forefront of the campaign to dilute the uniqueness of the Holocaust and downplay its significance, whether by charging Israel of exploiting this tragic event for political capital, or by depicting the Palestinians as the Holocaust’s “real victims”, or by putting Israeli and Nazi actions and behavioural patterns on a par’ (xxxviii).

(8) It is hard (indeed impossible, for me at least) to translate adequately into English the French word savonnette; while it literally means a small bar of soap, it designates something better translated as ‘wimp’ or ‘weakling’.

(9) This article was provided to me by the author.

(10) The original quotation of Derrida comes from Derrida and Roudinesco (189).

(11) This novel was subsequently made into a successful film, directed by Alain Tasma and released in 2009.