Nations like to imagine themselves as unique, but one belief they have in common is that it is noble to die in their name. Death and redemption are the themes of almost every form of patriotism. In the case of Israel, however, the connection between nationalism and death is especially visceral. For the Jewish state is a nation that emerged from the ashes of a project of extermination, and that sees itself as the best defense against the renewal of violent persecution. Zionism, the state’s ruling ideology, is a triumphal creed shadowed by death.
The Israeli historian Idith Zertal argues that the nexus of death and nationalism is essential to understanding Israeli society today. In her powerful new book, Death and the Nation (which will be published in an English translation this summer by Cambridge University Press under the title Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood), she demonstrates how the catastrophes of Jewish history have been transformed into nationalist fables of heroism, victory and redemption. In debunking the official nationalist historiography, Zertal’s book follows in the footsteps of works such as Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s The Masada Myth and Yael Zerubavel’sRecovered Roots, both of which explored how ancient Jewish history was distorted to serve the needs of the Zionist movement. What sets Zertal’s book apart is her focus on death. She believes that an obsession with death and martyrdom has vitally shaped the way Israelis understand themselves and their state. One of her recurring themes is “ancient graves produce fresh graves.”
At the center of this culture of death is the remembrance of martyrs–Jews who, in Zionist ideology, had to die so that the state might be born. The central chapter in the construction of Israeli martyrology was, of course, the Holocaust, but it began well before, according to Zertal, who traces it to the cult surrounding Joseph Trumpeldor, the first hero of the Jews who settled in Palestine.”Never mind dying,” Trumpeldor is reported to have said shortly before his death in 1920. “It is good to die for our country.” Born in a small town in the northern Caucasus, Trumpeldor was strongly influenced in his youth by a nearby farming commune established by followers of Leo Tolstoy, a model that soon merged in his mind with the Zionist ideal of settling Palestine. In 1912 he made his way to Palestine, hoping to establish agricultural communes. The kibbutznik, however, ended up achieving distinction not as a farmer but as a soldier. Drafted into the Russian army in 1902, he lost an arm in the Russo-Japanese War. He went on to serve as the deputy commander of a Jewish brigade established by the British in World War I, participating in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.
When he returned to Palestine four years later, he was called by the Jewish community leadership to northern Galilee to help organize the defense of small frontier-zone outposts against attacks by Arab militias allied with the newly established, British-backed regime of Faysal in Damascus. These outposts had been created by Jewish settlers as a way of establishing the northern border of Palestine, an issue of contention between France and Britain. In 1920, a year after his return to Palestine, Trumpeldor was mortally wounded while defending the outposts at Tel Hai, a commemorative “holy place.” Along with five of his comrades, he was buried near Tel Hai. In 1934 a memorial was erected at his gravesite, and it soon became, for Zionist youth movements, a place of pilgrimage nearly as important as Masada, where, according to the Zionist interpretation of Flavius Josephus, Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans in AD 73.