The Challenge of Post-Zionism
The Challenge of Post-Zionism: Alternatives to Israeli Fundamentalist Politics (London: Zed Books, 2003)
Israel after fifty years is a society at several crossroads.
—Ilan Pappé (2003: 60)
1. On the 20th of November of this year I attended a screening of the film "Forget Baghdad" (directed Samir, 2002) at a cinema in Double Bay, Sydney, as part of the 2003 Festival of Jewish Cinema. The film traces the life stories of four former communist Iraqi Jews now living in Israel. They were forced to leave Iraq in the early 1950s, a consequence of the anti-semitism generated by the 1948 Israeli/Arab war. There is Shimon Ballas, Jewish professor of Arabic in Tel Aviv who participates in the pro-Palestinian civil rights movement, Sami Michael, a bestselling writer from Haifa, Moshe Houri, a wealthy kiosk owner and building contractor who still votes communist, and, a tragic figure, Samir Naqquash, who still writes his books in Arabic and complains that Israel has 'destroyed him'. A prizewinning author, no editor wants to publish his books anymore in Israel, and his works are proscribed in the Arabic World. These men are Mizrahim, 'Oriental Jews', permanently homeless, in-between Israel and the Arab World.
2. Samir, the son of a Shi'ite Muslim Iraqi Communist, brought up in Switzerland, flies to Israel, 'enemy territory' he jokes dryly, to interview these distinguished gentlemen. What followed was an enthralling, wistful arabesque of oral histories of the Baghdad of their communist youth, interspersed with footage of Israeli 'Boureka' comedies and the lavish Egyptian musical comedies enjoyed by recent Mizrahim immigrants to Israel in the 1950s, and observations on the incremental Arabising of Israeli culture and cuisine. A historicizing commentary is provided by Iraqi-Israeli Ella Shohat, now based in New York, who discusses the strong pressure felt by her parent's generation to assimilate to the official Ashkenazi Hebraic national identity of the early Zionist state.
3. Samir is a gentle and sympathetic interviewer, who knows the contradictory longings of diasporic existence, and soon enough he evokes from his subjects what Ella Shohat has memorably described as 'taboo memories and diasporic visions' (Shohat 2003: 131-56). Sami Michael discusses being haunted by the Arabic language, which gains revenge in his dreams after the protracted discipline of speaking and writing in Hebrew. He regularly makes furtive visits to an Arabic language bookseller in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Another interviewee speaks of missing the open spaces of cosmopolitan Baghdad because Israel, is a 'narrow, ideological country', constricting and cramped. Ella Shohat, an expert on representations of Arabs and Mizrahim Jews in Israeli cinema, speaks of her divided identity, growing up in the Israel of the 1950s, as a child ashamed and hostile towards her 'Arab' parents by day; then settling down at night, like many in the Mizrahim neighborhoods of Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, to eat Arabic food and watch Egyptian or Israeli Orientalist 'Boureka' comedies in the evening. Others speak of their amazement, soon after arriving in Israel, at being able to openly purchase communist newspapers in bookstands.
4. I was riveted by the film's evocation of Israel's Mizrahim culture and its nostalgia for a multi-religious Levantine world. Pleasing was the calm lucidity of the vivacious Ella Shohat, who has done much to highlight the plight of Mizrahim Jews in Israel as part of an ongoing postcolonial critique of Eurocentrism's amour propre. Yet it was just as I was settling into the film's hybrid world that the audience began to leave the cinema in significant numbers, at first a trickle, then in groups of threes and fours that continued for half an hour. At first I thought these people were bored with the desultory reminiscences of old communists, but I soon realized, ominously, that there was more to it. I suspect that most of those who left so gracelessly are what Tony Judt has described as 'armchair Zionists'. Judt reminds us that Lenin used to describe Bolshevism's foreign admirers, those who resolutely heard and saw no ill in their promised land, as 'useful idiots'. Armchair Zionists are their modern successors, prating blithely about a democratic oasis in the Arab wilderness while ignoring the reality of Israel's ruling junta, statist reactionaries with scant respect for morality or human life, and a public life 'increasingly dominated by zealots and demagogues'. (See Tony Judt's reply in The New York Review of Books: 'An Alternative Future: An Exchange', a discussion of Tony Judt's piece of October 23, 2003 in The New York Review of Books 'Israel: The Alternative', where Judt offers a Post-Zionist critique of Israel as an anachronistic ethnocentric state. He argues that Zionism is a failed project that has antagonized the Arab World and endangered the Jewish people, whose only remedy is to become a democratic binational state.)
5. Perhaps these armchair fantasists were dismayed by the film's frank criticism of Zionist Israel by people who still weep for Babylon by the shores of Zion, those outside belonging whose forced exile from their Arab homelands undercuts the Zionist myth of Jewish immigration as a voluntarist 'right of return'. Israel is meant to be the redemptive teleology of Jewish victimhood, not the cause of Jewish victimization, a unified nation rather than a fragmenting multicultural entity. Galling for some must have been Ella Shohat, an exile from a country who did not want to hear what she had to say, eliciting murmurs of assent from other Mizrahim Jews in the audience, when, on an Israeli talkback program, she persisted in the face of a blustering interviewer and maintained the omnipresence of racism in Israel. Zionism has always constituted itself as the negation of diaspora. According to Ephraim Nimni's chapter in The Challenge of Post-Zionism: Alternatives to Israeli Fundamentalist Politics (2003), emigrants from Israel are still described in negative terms as yordim, those who descend, the antonym of the Hebrew olim - those who ascend (Nimni 2003b: 143).
6. Perhaps Samir's inquisitive journey to Israel faintly invoked Joseph Conrad's travelling novel Heart of Darkness, which attempted to remind the metropolitan supporters of colonialism that they were not furthering a civilizing project but the instruments of brutal colonial exploitation and the gradual dehumanisation of the colonizing subject (for a discussion of Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a critical response to the delirious imperial triumphalism of Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations in 1897, which gathered representatives of all the peoples and territories subjugated by the British to pay tribute to her 60 years on the throne, see Lindqvist 1996: 12-14). Maybe Shohat, the travelling Samir, and the diasporically constituted Iraqi Jews fulfill what Bonnie Honig has described as the venerable democratic function of the foreigner or stranger, who illuminate and disturb a polity and civil society that has become corrupt and divided (Honig 2001). Perhaps those who left were simply resorting to the historical methods of Zionist colonialism, the evasion and non-recognition of the reality of another people and the problems they present for one's settler-colonial plans.
7. Yet those who remained to see the film's end, the majority of the audience, clapped appreciatively at its end, affirming their right to independent evaluation. Did they enjoy the film's humane sensitivity to the multiplicity and incompletion of diasporic existence? Did the film offer a utopian glimpse of a post-Zionist future of dialogue, mutual transformation, and the recovery of shared histories between a Levantine Israel and its neighbours? Was this remaining audience part of that dissident, alternative public that seeks historically narratives excluded by Western governments and their media acolytes? Perhaps the film's political import was its cosmopolitan imagining of history and community and its focus on the resilience of social commitments and solidarities that transcend ideological and national boundaries. The German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, who felt that history should be a 'mosaic', gradually illuminating the sometimes eccentric and fiercely sociable characteristics of freethinkers and dissenters, might also have applauded.
8. The Challenge of Post-Zionism: Alternatives to Israeli Fundamentalist Politics (2003) is an important volume of essays introducing a wider audience to a heated debate in Israel about the emergence of post-Zionism as a political agenda, intellectual ethos, and cultural transformation in contemporary Israel. Ephraim Nimni, the book's editor, suggests in his introduction that post-Zionism is 'about a crucial reassessment of the status and character of the Israeli polity' (Nimni 2003a: 1). The reader will be able to judge post-Zionism in its 'novelty, vagueness, promise, and contradiction' (Nimni 2003a: 15). The volume is polyphonic and contested and in this review I will try and evoke its competing voices and thematic strands.
9. Ephraim Nimni's introduction argues that the term post-Zionism can be partially attributed to a younger generation of Israeli academics, sociologists and 'new' historians who felt that 'their commitment to academic research and argument was more important than sustaining Zionist truisms at all costs' (Nimni 2003a: 5). These intellectuals represent a noticeable move away from a 'conceptual paradigm designed to sustain intellectually the Zionist enterprise'. They include historians who have risen to prominence in the 1980s such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Zeev Sternhell, Baruch Kimmerling, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappé and others. Morris, skeptical of the Zionist myth that Palestinians left their homes voluntarily or under the orders of Arab regimes in 1948, has provided formidable evidence for the nakba (catastrophe) of the Palestinians, their deliberate displacement and destitution by Israeli forces so as to engineer a majority Jewish state. Sternhell has demolished the egalitarian myths of socialist or Labour Zionism, while Tom Segev has suggested that the pre 1948 Jewish Yishuv in Israel tended to prioritise the Zionist project over the welfare of European Jews attacked by the Nazis (Nimni 2003a: 7).
10. Yet, as Nimni notes, post-Zionism as academic historical revisionism does not necessarily represent a formidable critique of Zionist nationalism and current statist imperatives in Israel. Many post-Zionists, argue Nimni, combine courage and pusillanimity, they are 'analytical lions and prescriptive lambs' (Nimni 2003a: 7). Nimni refers to Edward's Said's appendix to the volume, an account of a public meeting that took place in Paris between three Palestinian intellectuals (including himself) and three Israeli new historians, including Benny Morris and Zeev Sternhell. Said registers his disappointment that even for groundbreaking historians like Morris and Sternhell, Zionism was seen as a necessity for the Jews, that even if it was in essence a movement for conquest and expulsion of the Palestinians, these were 'necessary' conquests and expulsions (Said 2003: 200). Nimni's point, agreeing with Said, is that many academic revisionists still live within and support the aims of official Zionism, if not its legitimizing historical narratives.
11. Nimni muses that the origins of post-Zionist discourse should therefore refer not only to a major transitional period in Israeli social sciences, but, more promisingly, in contemporary Israeli society (Nimni 2003a: 5). For Nimni, the term post-Zionism will, in time, become less ambiguous and more normatively descriptive, anchoring its argument in a more general 'emancipatory project' advocating multiculturalism and the rights of minorities in Israel (Nimni 2003a: 12). Nimni nevertheless warns that post-Zionism will fail if it attempts to produce a merely civic image of the Israeli nation lacking in the specifically Israeli cultural experiences that give Israel its 'vitality'. Rather post-Zionism is best served by building a multi-national Israeli state with constitutionally enshrined rights for each community (Nimni 2003a: 13).
12. Nimni's chapter 'Post-Zionism and Jewish diasporas' re-affirms post-Zionism as a predictive and prescriptive analysis seeking to encourage the multicultural pluralisation and ethnic particularization of Israeli, as opposed to Jewish, identity. Nimni suggests that the emergence of a distinct Israeli ethnicity, and the failure of hegemonic Zionist narratives and ideology, such as Israel's ability to ensure the security of the Jewish people, will dislocate diaspora Jewish communities from automatic support and identification with Israel. Nimni hopes that this will allow Jewish communities to concentrate their efforts on building vibrant diaspora Jewish institutions and ensure their decisive contribution to the institutionalization of multiculturalism in their home societies (Nimni 2003b: 118). For Nimni 'strong Jewish institutions and a strong Jewish education supported by a multicultural state' are of much greater import for the survival and continuity of Judaism than an increasingly ostracized Israel (Nimni 2003b: 145). Nimni suggests that the post-Zionist debate uncovers the 'clear and unavoidable bifurcation between diaspora Jews and Israelis', a 'parting of the ways' that is now 'inevitable' (Nimni 2003b: 144-146).
13. Uri Ram's chapter 'From Nation-State to Nation-----State: Nation, History and Identity Struggles in Jewish Israel' also argues for post-Zionism as descriptive of a transitional phase in Israel's historiography and collective imagining. Whereas Israeli intellectuals once wrote 'History' that constructed the nation, the new wave of 'post-historicist' memory deconstructs the unifying function of collective memory: 'one can detect in the last fifteen years or so (in Israel) … the decline of a homogenous national narrative, and the emergence of alternative or complementary narratives' (Ram 2003: 21-25). Post-Zionism embodies the spirit of a large sector of the Israeli population who are 'committed to civil rights' rather than ethnic nationalism, such as the contemporary military 'refuseniks' refusing to serve in the settlements, who are receiving growing public support. For Ram, it is only 'in the short run' that the second Palestinian intifada is re-empowering right-wing neo-Zionism, as these growing movements for civil disobedience are harbingers of a 'new resurgence of the post-Zionist spirit in Israel' (Ram 2003: 29). Ram argues that the 'crisis of representation' of the traditional Zionist ethos means that there are now two mutually antagonistic alternatives: ethno-religious neo Zionism and a 'global, post-Zionist, liberal ethos', with the post-Zionist alternative to eventually prevail. Israel will continue as a nation-state, but the connection between nation and state will lengthen and stretch as civic modalities critique and undermine statist imperatives (Ram 2003: 36).
14. Hanna Herzog's chapter 'Post-Zionist Discourse: A Feminist Perspective' argues that post-Zionism is analogous to Postmodernism, a radical critique, albeit one that does not seek to end the previous paradigm: 'just as post-modernism is a quest for broad corrections within modernity, so post-Zionism is a search for a better society within Israel' (Herzog 2003: 153). While Zionist discourse subordinates gender loyalties to national loyalties, post-Zionist discourse makes claims for alternative politics and agendas. Herzog nominates feminist criticism of the army and of militarism as 'one of the more striking manifestations of the post-Zionist reality' (Herzog 2003: 160). Herzog suggests that since the 1980s there has been a growing use of the discourse of motherhood as a strategy for political participation. Examples include Mothers Against Silence, Mothers for Withdrawal from Lebanon, and the less traditionally defined anti-Zionist group 'Women in Black', offering 'new ways to define women and politics' (Herzog 2003: 159-160). Herzog also mentions the group New Profile, a movement with a 'feminist post-Zionist awareness' comprising women, men, and young people working together to 'transform Israeli society from a militaristic to a civil one' no longer subordinated to the state-national perception. In demanding 'inclusive citizenship', such feminist voices find themselves 'at the heart of post-Zionist endeavors' (Herzog 2003: 164).
15. Ilan Pappé's chapter 'The Struggle for Survival of Traditional Zionism' is less confident about the transformative potential of post-Zionist discourse. His chapter describes a clash between three ideological streams within Zionism: (1) traditional Zionism, to which both Labour and Likud belong and which underlies the policies, planning, and educational system of all Israeli governments since the creation of the state; (2) neo-Zionism, a religiously inspired, ethnocentric discourse hostile to any settlement with the Palestinians and bent on sovereignty over the whole of historical Palestine; and, (3) Post-Zionism, a term which describes a cultural view from within Israel which strongly criticizes Zionist policy and conduct up to 1948 and envisages a 'non-Jewish state' in Israel as the best solution for the country's internal and external predicaments (Pappé 2003: 44-45).
16. Pappé's contribution can be fruitfully juxtaposed to the essays already discussed. He argues that traditional Zionism has responded to the post-Zionist critique of hegemonic Zionist narratives by arguing that if historical injustices did occur in the past, Zionism was nevertheless moral, a just movement of redemption, which unfortunately found other people in its homeland, but nonetheless offered them a share in a better future, which they foolishly rejected. Against this 'idyllic picture' Pappé argues that while territorial expansionism and religious fanaticism on the right, and self-doubt and self-hatred on the extreme left have, since 1967, threatened the traditional Zionist virtues of humanism, liberalism, and democracy this is a 'reversible development' (Pappé 2003: 46).
17. One can certainly recognise echoes of an optimistic redemptive Zionism in Herzog's emphasis on the 'corrective' tendencies of Israeli feminist movements, or the notion that a liberal feminist emphasis on 'inclusive' citizenship for women and other minorities within Israel is at the 'heart' of a post-Zionist agenda, rather than, say, justice towards displaced and oppressed Palestinians within and without Israel. Neither Herzog's analysis, nor Nimni's sanguine comments on the 'vitality' of Israeli culture and its immanent tendencies towards multicultural inclusion, adequately address Israel's brutal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which denies Palestinian people citizenship, basic human rights, and their right under international law to return to their former homes within Israel. Their essays do not grapple with the problem that in a settler-colonial state, such as Australia for instance, a superficial movement towards domestic multiculturalism can proceed alongside the continuing colonization and destitution of an indigenous population.
18. Pappé's analysis of the ongoing debate between different Zionist ideological streams in terms of its implications for the future, 'not only for the state of Israel, but more importantly of the Palestine question' is a refreshing change of emphasis from the Israel-centric contributions we have discussed (Pappé 2003: 43). More circumspect about the regenerative power of Zionism, Pappé argues that at the height of the so-called Peace Process, the Oslo agreement of 1993, the present traditional Zionist view was translated into practical terms, that is 'pre-1967 Israel is not negotiable; hence the future of the refugees or a discussion of Israel's role in the making of the problem were excluded from the negotiating table … not to mention a categorical refusal to include Palestinians in Israel in any Israel-Palestinian dialogue on the future' (Pappé 2003: 50). Oslo appealed to the political centre precisely because it would liquidate core Palestinian demands such as the right of return for '48 refugees, while under peace settlements formulated by both Labour and Likud, 'most of the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza remain intact and under Israeli sovereignty … Both (plans) offer the Palestinians far from normal statehood' (Pappé 2003: 51).
19. Pappé remarks on the recent Eitan-Beilin document that sets the parameters for any future unity government in Israel - while Beilin is supposedly on the left of the Labour party and Eitan on the right of Likud - both 'found it quite easy to agree that a diktat should be presented to the Palestinians regarding the lines of a permanent settlement of the Palestine problem' (Pappé 2003: 51). In other words, the requirements of Israel's settler-colonialism and military planning take priority over democratic deliberation and consultation. The Israeli linguist and left wing activist Tanya Reinhardt recently described Israel's colonial and statist imperatives succinctly in Israel/Palestine - How to End the War of 1948 (2002): 'Although the majority of Israelis are tired of wars and of the occupation, Israel's political and military leadership is driven by the greed for land, water resources, and power. From that perspective, the war of 1948 was just the first step in a more ambitious and more far-reaching strategy' (Reinhart 2002: 10-11).
20. Pappé's prognosis is equally bleak in regard to the political centre of Israeli politics, which is 'blind' to the correlation between ethnic identity on the one hand, and economic poverty and social deprivation on the other. Politicians and academics in the traditional Zionist camp refuse to accept the fragmented nature of Israeli society, nor are they seriously worried by it. Their main concern is to enhance Israel's nuclear capability and high-tech prosperity as the guarantors of Israel's future survival. A post-Zionist reading of the past, suggests Pappé, sees a 'just solution to the refugee problem' as a far better guarantee of security (Pappé 2003: 58). Meanwhile, the failure of traditional Zionism to address rising inequality in Israel or to provide security for its people has generated a proto-fascist ideological stream of neo-Zionists who 'propose a Jewish religious and nationalist cement that would prevent further fragmentation and disintegration' (Pappé 2003: 54). Neo-Zionists counter the contradictory claims of traditional Zionism that Israel is an 'ethnic democracy'. Ironically, like post-Zionists, neo-Zionists do not accept that Zionism can retain its ethnocentric tenets while concluding peace with the Palestinians and 'turning Israel into a democratic, liberal entity' (Pappé 2003: 58). Pappé argues that in the near future a stark choice will have to be made between a racist colonial Israel that offers 'no compromise with the Palestinians, no equal rights for Israeli Arabs (and possible their transfer) and no social justice for Israel's deprived' and a post-Zionist civil society of all its citizens 'connecting the wrongs of the past to positive possibilities in the future, including a comprehensive peace in Palestine' (Pappé 2003: 60).
21. Pappé's far more urgent analysis is redolent of Hannah Arendt's suggestion in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that imperialist greed and racist colonialism can degrade nominally democratic societies to the point where they crystallize totalitarian tendencies towards despised internal others and populations they wish to subjugate. He concedes that the post-Zionist alternative to Zionism's colonial imperative, which 'transcends parties and temporary constellations', is 'marginal and fragile', and that there is more 'confusion than determination in the post-Zionist camp' (Pappé 2003: 60-61). If post-Zionism is a 'transitional phase out of Zionism' as other contributors have suggested, then, he asks, it is a passage 'into what'? The destination remains obscure without consultation over what Palestinian aspirations are with regards to 'universalism, humanism and democracy. Can a civic and democratic state serve both people? Can the present political structure be transformed into one state?' (Pappé 2003: 61)
22. Pappé's post-liberal analysis of Israel as a settler-colony realizes that the question of justice for the indigenous Palestinians, as in other settler-colonies, is complicated, cannot be imposed, and requires ongoing dialogue with people who may never wish to accede to the sovereignty of any form of settler-nation. Nira Yuval-Davis's 'Conclusion: Some Thoughts on Post-Zionism and the Constructions of the Zionist Project' is also sensitive to the sometimes complementary relationship between post-Zionist ameliorative discourse and the perpetuation of Israel as a settler-colonial state. Given that Israel's colonialism is maintained not only by violence but the 'softening illusion of a 'nation-state' and 'democratic citizenship', Yuval-Davis warns against the 'complacency' that sometimes appears when analyzing Israel as a 'post-Zionist, liberal, multiculturalist society and/or even as an ethnic democracy' (Yuval-Davis 2003: 193).
23. Analysing Israel as a modernizing nation-state, argues Yuval-Davis, threatens to ignore the reality of ever more dire conflict between an 'ethno-settler project and a resisting indigenous population'. This is an analytical distinction which is 'crucial' in explaining that as a settler society with specific characteristics and a constitutive sense of entitlement, most Israelis are prevented, 'both emotionally and analytically', from understanding some epistemological and ontological aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict' (Yuval-Davis 2003: 193). Yuval-Davis, Pappé and Said's contributions represent a movement towards analytical clarity and outward pressure on Western governments that redefines 'agents of progress, stability and human welfare in the region'. They recognise that while there may have been an ambition for humanist behaviour or a democratic construction, 'other considerations and ideological perceptions', such as statism, settler-colonial greed, and racism, 'took over and dominated the Zionist and Israeli project in Palestine' (Pappé 2003: 62). Pappé suggests that it is the resilience of Israeli settler colonial attitudes that helps to explain the 'intricate web of fears, ambitions and interests which sway the Jewish majority in Israel today' (Pappé 2003: 62).
24. An important, dialogical contribution to current debates, The Challenge of Post-Zionism indicates that post-Zionism discourse is currently divided between a 'softening' liberalism emotionally invested in the modernizing potential of the multicultural nation, and a more urgent comparative focus on a Western inspired and supported settler-colonial rapacity that has brought the region and the world to the brink of devastation. Perhaps we should ponder the post-Zionist spirit of 'Forget Baghdad', interested and yet cautious about contemporary multicultural Israel, attentive to those voices pessimistic and despairing of its ideological project, and desperate to reach out to the Levantine culture they left behind.
Ned Curthoys graduated from the English Department of the University of Sydney in 2002. His dissertation was on the influence of classical rhetoric on literary and political theory. He currently teaches in the School of Humanities at the University of Technology, Sydney. An excerpt from The Challenge of Post-Zionism is published in this issue. Email: email@example.com
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