Eric Zakim follows the literary and intellectual career of the powerful Zionist slogan "to build and be built" from its beginnings, when it first served as an expression of settlement aspiration in the reactions to the Kishinev pogroms of 1903, until the end of pre-state national expansion in Palestine in 1938.
2006 | 264 pages | Cloth $55.00
Literature | Religion
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Table of Contents
Introduction. To Build and Be Built
Chapter 1. Belated Romanticism
Chapter 2. The Poetics of Malaria
Chapter 3. The Hebrew Poet as Producer
Chapter 4. The Landscape of a Zionist Orient
Chapter 5. The Natural History of Tel Aviv
Conclusion. The Land Bites Back
To Build and Be Built
We came to the land to build and be built by/in it.
—A Zionist folk song
This book presents the history of a slogan, "to build and be built," but not simply as a static catalog of its appearances in Zionist culture. Instead, through a critical examination of the slogan's conceptual reformulations over time, this study seeks to understand the complex aesthetic and ideological underpinnings of one of the great revolutionary projects of modern culture, namely, the Zionist transformation of Palestine from an inimical environment into a quintessentially Jewish space. In other words, in looking at Zionist culture, and especially Hebrew writing, during the first four decades of the twentieth century, this study attempts to show how writing and art not merely described and reflected Jewish reconstruction in Palestine, but constituted the very politics that advanced Zionist colonization in the Levant in the first place.
By tying aesthetics to Zionist settlement action, this book aims to present a new and different history of modernism in Hebrew and in Palestine, one that radically inverts a normative understanding of the aesthetics of European modernism which seem to support social disengagement and political disillusionment, a rejection against the political promises of nineteenth-century rationalism and social realism. In the context of Zionism, a different lesson about modernism emerges, where the aesthetics of reaction against realism and against a romantic poetry of object description work to reenliven a vision of nature—that of Palestine—ready and appropriate for Jewish national return.
The project of national renewal and rebuilding required more than a simple physical struggle, and in parallel efforts, the modern Jewish colonization of Palestine sought to exhume Jewish national identity from a dormancy of two millennia while it concomitantly reinvented and "redeemed"—in Zionist terms—the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel) from a neglect lasting exactly the same amount of time, that is, since the great dispersion of the Jews in the first century. These two reclamation projects, one psychological and ideological, the other physical and scientific, were viewed within Zionist circles in tandem. The slogan "to build and be built" worked to traverse the distance between these projects and unify the world of national political action and the aesthetics of body and soil. The mutual identification of Jew and land expressed in "to build and be built" thus correlated with repeated efforts throughout the history of pre-state Zionism to theorize each term—the Jew and the land—so that the two would fit seamlessly together. As various writers and ideologues during this period would postulate, borrowing from a neat and convenient etymological correspondence in Hebrew, one could not think about man (adam) without also thinking about the corresponding term, soil (adamah).
However easy it might have been within these parameters to envision man and soil enfolded within the entwined fates of adam and adamah, the political and aesthetic conceptualization of the terms of that correspondence—the terms of "to build and be built"—was not automatically self-evident. Debates abounded over where and how to begin this project of reclaiming the physical and spiritual nation; over the scope of man's relation to nature and nature's importance to the modern Jew; and even whether Palestine should be the necessary object of Jewish territorial aspiration. In fact, a definitive consensus on Jewish territoriality itself remained elusive throughout much of the early history of Zionism, and interpretations of the slogan's terms passed back and forth—oftentimes in tempestuous argument—from a purely conceptual realm where metaphor and allegory controlled meaning, to a practical footing where the most physical instantiation of work on the soil of Palestine posited significance into the notion of a renewed Jewish identity. While the goal of reinventing modern Jewish identity in a national homeland unified the Zionist movement from almost the beginning, the precise terms of the identification between the "new Jew," as the movement called him, and the envisioned environment of Jewish renewal shifted and were repeatedly refigured as political urgency necessitated.
In this context of shifting meaning and political exigency, the verbal formulation of the slogan marks its inherent inadequacy as a fixed articulation of political aspiration. "To build and be built" ironically and significantly leaves vague the very terms that were to be negotiated and elaborated, namely, the subject and object of national action. In the history of the national movement, which began with scant knowledge of Palestine itself and little understanding of how national identity could be constructed around the ideas of place and nature, the invention of the object of Eretz Israel as a hospitable place that could be acquired for the national home necessitated as much the invention of a national citizen who would then inhabit it. Indeed, the very definition of these terms stood at the center of Zionist debate for much of the pre-state period. Within the development of modern Zionist political ideology beginning in the 1880s, and especially after the turn of the twentieth century when Jewish colonial projects in Palestine took on greater meaning as national projects of settlement, the elaboration of the slogan constituted the very currents of political and ideological discussion about a new national Jewish identity and an appropriate national landscape.
Those elaborations—the reformulations of the relationship between adam and adamah, or between Jew and soil—would be repeatedly assigned to literature, which framed political culture's self-understanding through an aesthetic confrontation between this new Jewish subject and the object of nature in Eretz Israel. Partly, the reason behind literature's leading role in the development of these ideas is historical. The origin of a deterritorialized Zionism in eastern Europe during the nineteenth century self-consciously constructed itself on the basis of a culture of writing that worked to invent national expression as it simultaneously formed the national subject. But beyond the historical necessity of writing as national invention, literature offered the type of reflexive discursive opportunity that would accommodate the problems of a deterritorialized nation searching for environmental appropriateness and belonging. In this, it was not merely literature's role to offer the imagined fantasies of national coalescence and unity. Rather, the political problem of expressing the mutual identification of Jew and land for a nation with no ties to nature or to a specific national space became precisely a literary and aesthetic problem of how to bring the contemplation of an imagined nation, Eretz Israel, into a consideration of the land of Israel itself. Thus, the transition from a conceptualized land in the abstract—conceived among diaspora intellectuals and poets in places like Odessa at the beginning of the twentieth century—to something utterly instrumental and familiar—what the land, and especially nature, would become in Tel Aviv by the late 1930s—corresponded to an effort to articulate politically the nature of the modern Jew, transformed from a self-alienated creature to a self-proximate historical agent, one ratified as such by the way in which the fit of the building to the built would itself be constructed.
The Zionist struggle to define an identity within a landscape that reflected the appropriateness of Jewish presence was by nature a modernist enterprise, and not simply because the aesthetic attempts to reach that type of environmental immediacy emerged from late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Europe and then traveled to the Middle East. Rather, the entire project itself of de-alienation, of bringing the Jew into a landscape that would reflect the self immediately and immanently (that is, without the mediation of external discursive and political controls) brought this struggle into the realm of various modernist efforts to articulate the self as a willful agent acting in the world. The slogan "to build and be built" thus required an ever more complex aesthetic construction in order to bridge the dialectical tensions inherent within its formulations, and in that demonstrates just how much questions of modernity suffused the entire Zionist project from the beginning.
At bottom, then, this book is a study of how literature attempted to bridge the normative gap between interior contemplation and action in the world surrounding the physical body, a problem for which modernism provided a particularly useful set of aesthetic tools. But unlike in the urban centers of Europe where the aesthetic struggle between idealism and realism in modernism took on particularly decadent and even effete terms, in the Jewish colonies of Palestine, aesthetic debate transcended intellectual and artistic abstraction and engaged a concept of nature that had political consequences. In this, my aim in this book is to show that ideas had very real results in the landscape, and that aesthetics played a constitutive role in the creation of political and environmental history, especially in Jewish Palestine during the decades leading up to the Second World War.
A History Through "Land"
The history of Zionist efforts to elaborate the dialectical relation between Jew and land in no small measure defines the entire history of the movement between 1881 and 1938, entwining throughout this pre-state period a political history of Zionism within a history of intellectual debate over identity and settlement. In fact, by attending to the way the scientific and physical "land issue"—as the British would later describe it—keeps inserting and asserting itself in Zionism, we can understand the extent to which intellectual debate over the relations between identity and place suffuses all Zionist efforts at both political coalescence and actual settlement practice. Thus, when the early nationalist movements of the Çovevei Zion and Bilu began to stir in Russia following the 1881 pogroms in Bessarabia, it was Leo Pinsker's pamphlet Autoemancipation that embodied both the goals of this first modern wave of immigration to Palestine (what is known in Zionist historiography as the First Aliyah, the first of five waves [aliyot] leading up to 1948) and its conceptual and practical limitations, that is, what would lead to its ultimate failure on the ground.
Pinsker's Autoemancipation introduced in 1881 a dialectical formulation into the revival of the modern nation by describing the relation between Jew and territory as bound by terms of mutual identification. But Pinsker's push for "normalcy" and true emancipation for the Jewish nation remains elusively abstract on the question of land and does not posit an essential national bond with Palestine. National territory (Eretz Israel as disembodied place) serves as the ultimate goal of a reflexive plan of action—the autoemancipation of the Jew—but identity itself is not defined in specifically spatial terms. The effects of this inability to conceptualize the nation within a particular place had far-reaching implications for the success of settlement. Within the earliest Jewish colonies in Palestine and in the growing forces of cultural Zionism in eastern Europe, which argued for cultural and spiritual cohesion prior to any effort at actual territorial settlement, the coalescence of the nation did not depend on identification with the object of the land. More important than geographic object, Pinsker conceived of a territorialized nation in terms of action and self-transformation. Already in the First Aliyah labor formed an essential ingredient of national rejuvenation if only because of the reflexive meaning that work held for a population bent on transforming itself. But without a parallel sense of a self-contained identity in a specific place, work in Palestine was conceived of outwardly and directed toward capitalist production for export under a system of economic development that mimicked imperial notions of colonial exploitation, focusing on agriculture which looked to markets beyond Palestine. Self-transformation and physical improvement that would produce a healthier nation were not cathected onto the land itself. In this context, viniculture, which encouraged a continued connection to European markets and defined success externally according to sales abroad, became the primary commodity of this early colonial effort, especially in the settlements sponsored by the French branch of the Rothschild family, who underwrote most of the major Jewish colonies in Palestine until the end of the nineteenth century.
By the turn of the century, however, the era of Rothschild domination was coming to a close, hastened both by the inability to develop a sustainable agriculture in the colonies and by the continued insistence on an economic model tied to capital markets. The dichotomy between national transformation and colonial agriculture for export could not sustain itself for long within a capitalist logic. In other words, wine from Palestine never reaped the profits that the Rothschilds had hoped for. In this, the economic woes of the colonies paralleled a continuing ideological debate in Russia over the relationship between nation and place, or, in classic Zionist terms, between diaspora and homeland. Emerging from the confines of the intellectual community of Odessa, Shimon Dubnov and Açad Ha'am (Asher Ginzberg), old friends and ideological foes, debated opposing views of territory in the life of the nation, and would come to define the parameters of a Jewish relationship to place and soil. Dubnov's concept of national autonomism supported a continuing diaspora that would nurture Jewish national culture wherever it put down roots within a host nation. On the other hand, Açad Ha'am, already one of Zionism's great ideologues, argued against diasporic existence but in an alternate cultural Zionism Açad Ha'am still refused to allow for the primacy of territory as the defining characteristic of national rebuilding. Cultural and spiritual Zionism, which always saw Palestine as the ultimate goal of national revival, nevertheless maintained the need for deterritorialized national development and psychological autonomy before territorial settlement.
Within the Zionist movement, the hegemony of cultural Zionism was tempered only with the advent of Theodor Herzl to the cause in 1897 and the establishment of a political Zionism that looked exclusively toward territory as a maximalist solution for the nation. In direct opposition to Açad Ha'am's notion that a cultural-spiritual center must develop first in the abstract before migrating to the impoverished landscape of Eretz Israel, Herzl fantasized cultural rejuvenation following on the heels of a political mandate in Palestine and the technology-driven environmental improvement of the country. In Herzl's utopian novel Altneuland, identity and the natural renaissance of Palestine follow from a political solution to Jewish alienation. National renaissance was indeed tied to an image of land and nature, but the political realm would drive a reinvention of both Jewish identity and the Palestinian landscape.
In these ways, none of the dominant branches within Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century explicitly recognized the dialectical structure of land and identity. However, with the removal of Rothschild family support in the colonies, an independent, practical strain within settlement activity quickly developed under the auspices of the newly formed Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Colonial Trust, which began to envision Jewish presence in Palestine in different terms, ones less centrally controlled and more tied to the very soil of Palestine. Under the mission to purchase land for Jewish settlement, both organizations began to transform ideas of land use and a conception of nature, moving from purely capital-driven incentives as defining land use to national ideological goals of self-renewal. The reasons for this transformation were less ideological than practical. Suddenly bereft of major financial investment and the capital necessary to build an agricultural economy based on export, Jewish land purchasers had to rethink the very reasons for purchasing land, asking basic questions of the major activity of the national movement: Who would occupy purchased tracts of land? How would crops be grown and marketed? What would be the relation between owners and workers on national land?
It was not until the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 that practical settlement received a sufficiently large boost to dominate the Zionist political scene because of a newfound importance placed on building and settlement in Palestine as refuge from the oppressions of Europe. Through the influx of immigrant Jewish workers beginning in 1903 and then especially in the wake of the failed 1905 revolution in Russia came a group of settlers armed with a labor ideology that explicitly disdained profit, individual land ownership, and the use of Arab labor on Jewish soil and thus was ready to reconceptualize the very notion of building as it stood within the national lexicon. Immigration still depended on eastern Europe, but these were the waning days of Açad Ha'am's and Odessa's dominance over the cultural future of the nation, even though the lasting triumph of Açad Ha'am lay in making culture the ground on which the debates and politics of national revival would always take shape. After Kishinev, Açad Ha'am himself quit Odessa, and with him went a sense of cultural Zionism independent of what was happening on the ground in Palestine. After Kishinev, Zionism as a whole worked to recast the individual within nature, where the physical world and the identity of the national citizen became mutually dependent.
After 1905 and the end of Herzl's flirtations with Great Britain over an idea to settle Jews in East Africa (the Uganda Plan), all the major entities in the Zionist movement now looked exclusively to Palestine as the site of the future nation. But the legacy of the small band of Second Aliyah immigrants lay in how the Marxist ideologue Ber Borochov and the socialist polemicist Aharon David Gordon developed a concept of a physical Palestine within a dialectic of mutual identification between a reconstructed Jewish subject and the soil. Gordon, whose homespun philosophy of nature and labor would prove to have far more staying power than Borochov's Marxist brand of scientific socialism, arrived in Palestine in 1904 awash in Tolstoyan rapture for the land and the collective idea of a national peasantry of workers tilling national soil. Unlike Açad Ha'am's less practical spiritualism, Gordon's romanticism did not obfuscate the materialism of the encounter with the soil, and despite his emphasis on psychological renewal, the entreaty "to build and be built" in his labor philosophy took on a specifically material foundation in work, which came to guide the ethos of the Second Aliyah. Gordon's formulations of individual transformation within the labor of environmental manipulation and improvement emerged as the dominant idea within pre-war concepts of labor working to transform the national landscape.
Until the end of the First World War, any complete hegemony for Gordon's ideas of a labor utopia and Borochov's binational socialist economy were effectively stymied by both the physical limitations of a primitive infrastructure in the country and a continued debate over whether the course of settlement would follow First Aliyah models of intensive farming within a capitalist economy (using Arab workers) or Second Aliyah calls for extensive land use by a collective Jewish proletariat without regard for profit (the idea of kibush ha'avodah, the conquest of labor). At stake were not just models of land development but the very place of Jewish labor within a national economy and the relation of Jewish identity to the soil.
By war's end, however, a labor-dominated constructivism held sway throughout Jewish Palestine, and settlement began to take on an exclusively extensive character. The diplomatic achievements of Çayim Weizmann, Herzl's successor in the political realm, in securing the Balfour Declaration announcing British sympathy with Jewish national aspirations in Palestine, and the British Mandate itself, which wrested political control from the now moribund Ottomans, paved the way for labor ascendancy both because labor had already developed an extensive institutional infrastructure in the country and because political maximalism of the sort Weizmann was pursuing required extensive agricultural and settlement development on the ground. Thus the political triumph of collective settlement had been determined by its agricultural dependence on extensive farming, which necessitated the acquisition of large tracts of land, and an ideological commitment to an exclusive ethnic culture and economy. In the postwar period—at least until the economic downturn of the mid-1920s—territory was conceived as a political resource, in the sense of what it could yield for national infrastructure, and "to build and be built" assumed a specifically rationalist predication as the movement began to conceive of the land in national governmental terms.
The early 1920s, in fact, marked the height of a reflexive labor ideology that saw action in the land as constitutive of both the self and the nation as a whole. Among the inventions of the post-Bolshevik Third Aliyah entering the country after the war, the Gdud Ha-avodah, the Labor Brigade, emblematized a constructivism that viewed working the land as part of advancing the reflexive reinvention of the working self. In this way, the 1920s mark, too, the greatest efforts to close the gap in a dialectic that held in tension the terms of mutual identification between Jew and land, especially as they were articulated in the work parties of the Gdud. Because of its emphasis on infrastructure improvement (building roads, clearing swamps, establishing settlements), the Gdud saw the collective action of work as a decentralized operation of local labor projects, that is, of physical work as the creation of both the land and the nation through the individual. Against this, the labor leadership of Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion, themselves Second Aliyah immigrants, strove to unify worker and nation within the totalized structure of a political party that would organize labor centrally within a political entity. To this end, in 1919 Katznelson and Ben-Gurion founded Açdut ha-avodah (the United Labor Movement of Palestine). Then in 1920 with the establishment of the Histadrut (the General Confederation of Jewish Labor in Palestine), both political structures meant to solidify a constructivist principle of worker identity on the land within the centralized control of a united labor movement. In this way, Katznelson and Ben-Gurion sought to maintain the essential identification of worker and soil, but placed the control of that dialectic within the structures of an overarching party and labor union.
As the dominant principle of political and social cohesion, constructivism waned by the late 1920s when the internal battles between the Gdud and the Histadrut led to the breakup of the Gdud, an outcome aided by the onset of economic recession in 1925. But at the very heart of the political struggles between the Histadrut and the Gdud lay the question of where to locate an articulation of "to build and be built." Collectivism had taken firm root in the 1920s, especially with the formation of the first kibbutzim, large collective farms. But within the labor movement, the role of individual expression and identity in relation to the object of work and the control of the party still remained problematic. While workers began to infiltrate all parts of the country—including a new and growing urban culture—national identity, at least in the official and authorized versions, remained fixed in a contemplation of work on the soil.
By 1929, however, the myopia of the labor movement which ignored external developments in the region—in particular, its refusal to acknowledge Arab displacement as a result of Jewish land accumulation and a cultural effort at self-definition that focused exclusively inward—disintegrated following the Wailing Wall riots in August of that year. While religious access to the holy sites of Jerusalem had been the explicit incitement for violence between Jews and Arabs, investigations by the British cited the displacement of Arabs from lands purchased by Jewish agencies and farmed exclusively with Jewish labor as the primary point of contention in the country. The crisis had been brewing for some years, and itself was only the last in a series of violent outbreaks over Jewish land purchases and Arab dispossession since 1920.
The consequences of the riots on Zionist culture and politics were significant. If before 1929 nativism in the land was never seriously questioned in the Jewish realm because of a naive perception of unfettered access to an ethnically empty space in Palestine (the ideological effect of Israel Zangwill's phrase "a land without a people for a people without a land"), after 1929 nativism emerged as the cultural and political question because of a newfound competition in the land, a competition over whose right—Arab or Jewish—claimed greater validity on the soil. In this context, territory became a contested ground, in the sense of what it is at its primordial origin, and the Jew correspondingly came to be presented as "native" and "appropriate" to what the land could hold. As the British demanded that Jewish immigration be capped according to the "absorptive capacity" of the land, the mandate authority reinforced a notion that the landscape and nature's capacity to sustain the population on it would drive settlement. In reaction, Zionist culture reconceived of settlement in terms of ancient nativism, and used the Jew's biblical origin in the land to define the technological goals of extensive agriculture in order to support colonial expansion.
In light of British concern over absorptive capacity in the land, the Jewish Agency did turn toward scientific economic and naturalist arguments supporting extensive settlement and agricultural practices as a way to bolster claims for Jewish presence in the country and the maintenance of immigration rights. Çayim Arlosoroff, the young head of the political wing of the Jewish Agency, presented a strong scientific case for the Zionist movement. But this new rationalism would be predicated culturally and scientifically on the ancient origin of the Jews in the country. In the battle over authenticity in the Orient—an Orient of specifically British fantasy (which preferred to see in it a sentimental and quaint agriculture: the timelessness of the Arab fellah tilling his native soil using ancient techniques)—Zionist culture reformulated its own relationship to the soil, which was technological and modern but precisely so because it was embedded in historical and mythical authenticity.
The irony of the movement toward authenticity and the search for antiquity was its dependence on a growing urban culture in Jewish Palestine, especially in Tel Aviv, itself a fanciful translation of Herzl's Altneuland, "old new land." Tel Aviv had been founded in 1909 as a coastal suburb of Jaffa but had developed as a significant urban center on its own by the 1920s. Arlosoroff himself noticed the growing presence of urban Zionist culture by the end of the 1920s, a result of the Fourth Aliyah, which brought into the country a significant number of bourgeois immigrants from Poland. Arlosoroff had warned about the political effects of ignoring this new urban class and maintaining the political fantasy of a rural society focused on the fields. But the romance of the field would always dominate both art and politics, even if the urban scene came more and more to drive Jewish society. Ultimately, especially after 1932 and the advent of the Fifth Aliyah from Germany—bourgeois refugees from the rising tide of European fascism—urbanism became central to a Jewish concept of nature and dominated the cultural terms of settlement.
The path leading to a final pre-state formulation of nature, land, and national identity was tragically strewn with the dead: the Arab and Jewish victims of violence in 1920, 1921, and 1929, and then Arlosoroff himself, murdered by a right-wing Jewish assassin in 1933 while walking along the beach in Tel Aviv. Violence, in fact, drove much of the Zionist reaction to questions of the land, and the architectural transformation of Tel Aviv in the 1930s reflected a physical and intellectual process of separation, ironically, from the land itself, which was now understood as a violent space subsequent to the encounter with the Arab population. In effect, the withdrawal from nature in the 1930s was made in the name of building nature, buoyed especially after 1936 by the urge to withdraw further into the city in response to the Arab Revolt. In this context, "to build and be built" comes to rest in the pre-state period within the built landscape, that is, it finally describes the metropolis and not the primordial landscape. By 1938, in the midst of the Arab Revolt, the efforts at building an architectural unity in Tel Aviv, one that would encompass and ironically "build" nature within it, resonated only too easily with the development of separate ethnic economies and the withdrawal finally from the field as the site of nature. The city now would present itself as unmediated nature and projected from the metropolis into the field itself, where the architectural model of fortified settlement in the çomah u-migdal (wall and tower) settlements would mimic urban styles and close off the Zionist farmer from unencumbered access to nature. After 1948, the state would create its own permutations of these histories, but the arrival at a constructed nature—the final inversion of the slogan "to build and be built"—marked the end of a certain formative process and set the parameters for later state development and policy.
The Problems of Zionist History and Hebrew Criticism
In considering the dialectical elaborations of "to build and be built" over time a problem immediately rises for this history. The ways we have come to understand the history of settlement and Zionist identity have been premised upon a separation between Zionist politics and Hebrew culture such that the former is perceived to act independently in the task of nation building, while the latter is perceived to be acted upon as a mechanism that merely reflects the reconstruction of the Jew. Thus, the terms of "to build and be built," originally conceived as reciprocal predicates, have usually been separated in the narration of Zionism. Because of this, the historiography of Zionism, when it takes literature into account at all, has focused principally on the thematic content of literature, without recognizing the crucial ideological dimension of its form. Conversely, literary studies have focused on the conventions of literary form and, when approaching literature's relation to the world beyond writing, have treated imaginary works as adjuncts to the political process without taking cognizance of the way literature in fact constituted the same political project it nominally reflected.
In history's take on Hebrew literature, the act of writing becomes a political and national event, but measured as such exclusively in how it might reinforce through its represented content the assumptions that a positivist study of politics would determine. The poverty of such a historical methodology is evident even in Anita Shapira's otherwise excellent political history Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force 1881-1948. While outlining the major political and cultural threads of a Zionist outlook toward the use of violence and conflict with the Arab, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, Shapira accepts as important to her historical narrative only those literary texts that explicitly thematize conflict and what she calls a "defensive ethos." But limiting her perspective on culture to a thematic reflection of conflict, Shapira, for instance, cannot account for the relative dearth of references to Arabs in the poetry of the 1920s, explaining their absence within a tautology which claims that missing thematic treatment demonstrates adherence to an ethos that simply would not confront Arab conflict aggressively:
Perusal of the poetry published [in the 1920s] reveals the extent to which the issue of the Arab in Palestine was suppressed; it also illustrates the predominance of the defensive ethos, with all its concomitant assumptions. In the 1920s, Abraham [sic] Shlonsky's first poems appeared in print. Shlonsky had come with the Third Aliyah and was a member of the Labor Brigade. . . . Arabs rarely appear in his poems and when they do, they play a minor role, as mythological figures or as fixtures in the Palestinian landscape. His thoughts do not concern their presence but, rather, are centered on his private world, his personal experiences. . . . He feels neither hatred nor love for Arabs, almost as though the reality of Arab neighbors did not exist. Yet that can be explained by the personalistic nature of Shlonsky's poetry, which focuses primarily on the realm of private individual experience and does not endeavor to deal with matters of public life.Shapira's conceptual division between private and public life—borrowed obviously from standard accounts of European modernism—already determines history's consideration of literature, which only takes on meaning as thematic reflection of historical narrative. Thus, Shlonsky's poems are dismissed as private and divorced from public life, relevant only as reflective proof of the ethos Shapira describes, while Yitzhak Lamdan's "Masadah"—indeed an important epic poem of the mid-1920s—better invokes in its content the type of critical political attitude toward the Arab that Shapira is looking for. But nowhere does poetry become constitutive of the history Shapira is describing.
Shapira does allow for the complexity of ideological expression, which may in fact depend quite significantly on aesthetic analysis in order to understand political thought within a discursive framework: "The tendency to speak in two voices, reflecting the presence of an overt, and a subliminal, layer in relating to the Arab question, was integral to the defensive ethos. The relationship between those two layers is a problem that continues to confound the historian, due to the lack of direct documentary evidence." Unfortunately, Shapira's methods occlude any type of investigation that would begin to approach the question she herself raises, and her inquiry cannot proceed beyond an articulation of this problem. Historians such as Shapira tend to resist a critical analysis of politics and prefer to remain insistent on a narrow disciplinary understanding of evidentiary documentation, even when, as Shapira admits, the logic of positivist history itself leads historians to exhume and articulate a particularly discursive question.
Revisionist Israeli history—Israeli new historiography and the like—has been even more resistant than "old" historiography in allowing for discursive analyses of historical phenomena. The methodological conservatism of postzionist Israeli history stems from its structuralist devotion to excavating what it understands as the "truth" of Israeli history. Against that truth stand the obfuscations of national mythology, which is viewed as a simple artifice hiding what really happened in Israel's past. Remarkably, in light of this obsession with truth claims, postzionist history seems completely uninterested in analyzing the mechanisms of this national-cultural artifice. Instead, as Benny Morris keeps repeating, the stage for Israeli new historiography was set by a decidedly positivist event in the progress of academic inquiry, one that clearly places postzionist methods in line with Shapira's own working assumptions about history, namely, the opening up of previously closed state and military archives in the mid-1980s.
Even when historical studies engage discourse analysis, the object of investigation usually centers on the unrevealed intentions of Israeli state actors, in a simplistic application of a Foucaultian understanding of power that completely ignores the subtle influences of Gramscian concepts of cultural hegemony or even the vulgar paradigms of ideology critique. Zeev Sternhell, for instance, unequivocally asserts that the Yishuv's principal concerns regarding settlement always remained focused on ethnic competition and subjugation, in a way that divests even the need for ideology analysis in order to understand the true intentions of Zionist action on the ground in Palestine. In this, Sternhell collapses any division between explicit and implicit expression as Shapira might understand the terms. Instead, Sternhell argues for an even more positivist understanding of historical intention in a method bent on unearthing the truth of political and personal intention within Zionist history. In Sternhell's way of reading intention, history requires no discursive analysis because intention can be easily culled from historical documentation. Thus, Sternhell's analyses read like conspiracy theory where ethnic national competition and suppression were the lightly veiled conscious goals of all Zionist iterations from the very beginning, despite explicit ideological assertions and constructions by Zionism that would have it focus on universal and regional solutions to quite different problems of modernity. As Sternhell demonstrates, postzionist history, for which, to be fair, Sternhell serves as a particularly radical ideological example, has its own difficulties in extending analysis beyond a narrow set of conceptual and methodological assumptions that would subsume all discourse within totalizing historical claims. For postzionism and Israeli new historicism, culture primarily reflects—or, more nefariously, obfuscates—political intention and plays no role in the constitution of that politics.
For the most part, Hebrew literary criticism concurs with history's scission by similarly relegating to Hebrew arts and letters the status of a reflection of historical processes, thus advancing for itself an autonomous vision, that is, one in which Hebrew arts and letters follow their own immanent process of development. In other words, while a poem such as Çayim Naçman Bialik's "In the City of Slaughter" may denotatively respond to the 1903 violence in Kishinev, what remains most significant about the poem is perceived to be its development of a new Hebrew poetic sensibility. Even those works of criticism that do place literature within a significant historical context still only read that history as a closed literary field. In this way, Alan Mintz's nuanced reading of Bialik's "In the City of Slaughter" nicely describes the poem as a response to Kishinev, but only within a study of poetic and literary response to disaster within the textual tradition. In this type of reading, the relation of poetry to national ideology is only reflective, and the major formal advances of Bialik's poem extend merely to the realm of poetics. Politics enters into a consideration of Bialik's poem only insofar as we understand it as a call for the organization of Jewish self-defense in Russia.
Of course, much of this situation emanates from the dominance of formalism in Hebrew criticism, especially in Israel. For instance, Yosef Haefrati's classic and remarkable study of landscape in Hebrew poetry, Ha-mar'ot veha-lashon (The Presented World), advances this same paradigm by ceding different conceptions of the Hebrew subject to literary historical causes, thereby permitting landscape to develop autonomously in language. In Haefrati's view, the way landscape appears in Hebrew poetry can only be accounted for as a consequence of the demands of Hebrew poetics itself. Haefrati does flirt with a new sort of historical strategy, one that sees significance in how the encounter with what normatively lies beyond the realm of the imagination—that is, the landscape itself changes over time in the formal depictions of the real as an imagined space. But Haefrati never, however indirectly, confronts political or historical ideas in his account of landscape forms in Hebrew poetics, that is, beyond the hermetic confines of literature as a separate cultural and discursive field.
This present study begins in a consideration of the consequences of this incapacity of history and criticism—despite their many achievements—to present things in a way that does justice to what the original slogan "to build and be built" actually tried to express. "To build and be built" presents the mutual relation between Jew and land as something other than an identity thesis, where the terms of this reflective formula would present themselves as self-evidently true. Conversely, the two normative forms of Hebrew criticism and Zionist historiography—literary and political—advance precisely an identity thesis that the original formula always found suspect. However, the power of the slogan lies in the way its dialectics must be constantly reinterpreted and newly understood, how the terms of reflection between "to build" and "be built" never achieve a simple stasis wherein meaning can be easily fixed or assigned. Rather, literature and politics themselves must dialectically engage each other within the slogan in order for any history of these people and this place to take on meaning. The slogan thus describes a dynamic process whereby politics and settlement are consistently molded and inflected through an aesthetic understanding of nature and land, an aesthetic understanding dependent on writing and art for its articulation and elaboration. Against this, history in its usual forms falls prey, despite its objections to the contrary, to a process of mythologization that an original Zionism sought to avoid, just as criticism remains trained on a hermeneutical hermeticism that Zionism always sought to dissolve.
New Methodological Horizons
Ironically, one of the most innovative studies to outline the dialectics of Zionist culture and politics emerged from the staunchly formalist Tel Aviv School of Poetics. In Language in the Time of Revolution, Benjamin Harshav writes: "In general terms, we may describe a cultural situation as a result of the interaction of two kinds of entities: social, cultural, and ideological trends and individual junctions. A junction is a cluster of and a selection from intersecting tendencies that constitute an autonomous existential unit, such as a text or a person. A text, however, is not simply a given intersection of relations, ideas, or poetic principles, but an individualized body of language, marked by partial coherence, and reader-dependent." Here, Harshav begins to outline a discursive reading of how history and criticism might come together. But in general, Harshav, while positing a complex of influences in the "junctions" of cultural production, still reads history as a large structure, as participating broadly in the systems that make up culture and society. Harshav might succeed in bringing political and social ideas into a consideration of language and culture, but the relationship between them is always limited because it remains entirely the product of verbal discourse; politics and culture are not mutually constitutive. Changes over time and the elaboration of political ideas do not, for Harshav, represent challenges to the basic semiotic structure of the cultural realm, which synchronically encompasses history and politics within the revolution of expression. Language becomes the focus of his study because of the iterative possibilities opened up in a new ideological medium. In this, both history and literature remain secondary to the totalizing revolution in discourse that determines their particular forms.
Following from Harshav's expansion of the formalist field, postzionist studies of culture offer a certain methodological approach distinct from prior efforts to contain Hebrew literature within studies of poetics. But the difficulty of postzionism in Israel studies as a methodological solution has been its Janus-faced nature, which repeats the division between history and cultural studies. The promise of Israeli new historiography involved the opening up of Zionist history as a field of inquiry, a loosening of nationalist tenets on studies of the past, and a newfound freedom to reach conclusions that may not coexist comfortably with a belief in the ultimate infallibility of Zionist action. But postzionist history and criticism, focused as they both are on archaeology projects of exhuming documentary sources, work to reify the very binary assumptions they seek to undermine. And here criticism has followed closely behind history: the truth claims of the state are simply replaced by the truth claims of a new interpretive strategy where the veracity of various accusations of conscious and unconscious oppression by the Israeli nation can never be resolved. Even those studies of Zionist history and culture that claim sensitivity to a nuanced reading of discourse still blindly and simplistically depend on a facile application of Foucault's understanding of the ubiquitous deployment of state power through discourse and ideology. Ironically, the problem with postzionist criticism lies then in the new infallibility it posits onto Israeli discursive apparatuses, which work with amazing efficiency in dictating mass opinion and maintaining rather narrow controls on the authorized horizons of aesthetic expression.
In the end, neither of the dominant modes of Israeli cultural criticism—ideology critique, which seeks to reveal the unconscious intentions of historical actors, or the excavation of lost voices in the Hebrew wilderness of marginality—offers a methodology that adequately reflects the dialectics of "to build and be built," that is, the interpenetration and interdependence of aesthetics and history. Rather, studies like Hannan Hever's histories of literary and ideological trends and Yael Zerubavel's investigations of the complex mechanisms of public culture in Israel offer the beginnings of a method that looks past the disciplinary confines of literature and history, and starts to show the complex interdependencies of these seemingly separate discursive fields. What marks both Hever's and Zerubavel's work is their refusal to understand cultural production within any sort of narrow disciplinary sphere. Instead, both look beyond the normative boundaries of the field to show how meaning becomes developed and elaborated within both political history and cultural texts.
While cultural studies might point toward a fruitful methodological path of investigation, the transcendental effects of any historical approach must take into account the tendency to reproduce, yet again, the analytical and intellectual divisions spawned by "to build and be built." In other words, any investigation of this history must remain aware of its own collusion in that history and the contribution it is making to the ideas expressed in it. No one stands outside of the historical effort to understand and formulate the relation of this reflexive dialectical relationship. To the contrary, any analytical conclusions that try to determine meaning for Zionist history and culture must be viewed merely as its latest articulations.
Faced with this critical suspicion, a chronicle of "to build and be built" would have to proceed immanently through such assertions. By a radically immanent procedure, I am referring to a way of conducting criticism that refuses any final reconciliation between critical assertion and the object of knowledge, except as a triumph of reification. In this, my own intervention in the field looks primarily toward formal innovation and transformation within the text as the site of political and social contestation. As national discourse set out to make Palestine into an essentially Jewish place, the struggle to find a critical position between what Theodor Adorno would call subjective immanence (the interiority of self-expression) and objective transcendence (the distance of exterior critique) continuously reasserts itself as the question of Hebrew aesthetics. Adorno saw ideological blindness in both stances and resisted a critical position that proclaimed allegiance to either dialectical thesis. My own methods attempt to follow Adorno's calls for a dialectical stance toward culture, one that shows conflict and struggle instead of the blank, empty promises of an ideological certitude of meaning.
Immanent criticism thus describes a critical position resistant to the claims of historical certitude that rely on analytical distance and resistant as well to an expressionist faith in the integrity of the human subject to project a unique vision of the world. According to Adorno:
A successful work, according to immanent criticism, is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure. . . . [I]mmanent criticism holds in evidence the fact that the mind has always been under a spell. . . . Immanent criticism . . . can neither be vain enough to believe that it can liberate the mind directly by immersing itself in it, nor naive enough to believe that unflinching immersion in the object will inevitably lead to truth. . . . The very opposition between knowledge which penetrates from without and that which bores from within becomes suspect to th[is] dialectical method, which sees in it precisely that reification which the dialectic is obliged to accuse.Within an immanent criticism, the sections of this book trace the progressive reformulations of "to build and be built" as a series of negotiations with the same problem that the historiography of those efforts begins to reveal. Starting with the reaction to the pogrom at Kishinev in 1903 and ending with the halt in expansion of pre-state Zionist settlement in 1938 (a result of the onset of European fascist aggression), this study examines how literature participated in the political and ideological life of the nation as a constituent element of the progress of ideas. By literature, I mean primarily poetry since it formed the central genre of the nationalist canon. From 1903 until 1938, with the ascendance of a reflexive drive to define Jewish status in the land and the Jew as part of nature, literature worked to describe "to build and be built" within an aesthetic that would recast Jewish life in a new form.
In Chapter 1, "Belated Romanticism," I begin this study by examining early Zionist culture's own reassessment of the relation between Jew and territory as it had been figured initially by Leo Pinsker. This analysis focuses on the way in which, after Kishinev and the ensuing national crisis, the trope of building both the self and national territory started to name Palestine as a necessary component within this dialectical identity. Between 1903 and 1905, within the context of the exhaustion of paternalistic models of colonization advanced in Palestine by the Rothschilds, and the post-Kishinev need for territorial refuge and national "building," Zionist culture looked again to the relation between Jewish identity and territory, arriving at a new predication of that reciprocal relation, one that moves from an abstract idea of place as secondary to a spiritual national renaissance to the concrete building projects of settlement as an answer to the exigencies of external historical urgency. As I argue, Bialik's literary output in the years immediately following Kishinev did not simply respond to historical crisis, but in its form and mode of aesthetic depiction created a new historical paradigm insofar as it effected a reformulation of territory and Jewish identity. As such, Bialik both confirms and at the same time points to the inadequacies of subsequent interpretations of the Odessa circle, which have given priority either to the political response of Açad Ha'am and his colleagues, or to the literary innovation of Bialik's major poems of these years without adequately examining the necessary relation between them.
The second chapter, "The Poetics of Malaria," analyzes pragmatic responses to settlement and follows the figure of malaria as a trope for the problems faced by the dialectical mirroring of Jew and soil when confronted with an inhospitable landscape unyielding to the romantic projections of the new Second Aliyah immigrants. The invasion of place into the very recesses of the mind of the Jewish settler occurred through the prism of malaria, an ambiguous sign for both a closeness to the land and an enmity based in that encounter. In Jewish Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century, malaria introduces itself not solely as a problem of the technocrats but no less significantly as the very kernel of the dialectical tension separating Jew and land, around which the relation between farmer and soil would be articulated. In this chapter, I focus principally on the work of Yosef Çayim Brenner, who, in his writing between the 1909 essay "For the Hundredth Time (From the Convulsions of One Soul)," published soon after his arrival in Palestine, and the publication of his journal Ha-adamah in 1919, develops a new model of Jewish consciousness. In this, Brenner's rejection of the solipsism of romanticism pushes toward the rationalism of naturalist depictions of mutual identification between Jew and land, where the land becomes the object of a mutually hygienic improvement.
Brenner's political and literary writing heralded a labor constructivism by the time of his death in the riots of 1921. But the foundation of "to build and be built" would not remain stable for very long, despite Labor Zionism's political ascendance. At a time when Zionism had not only defined its own understanding of labor, advancing from Borochov to Katznelson, and when Zionism as a whole had advanced from petit bourgeois models of colonization to firmly collectivist ones, these very successes demanded the reassessment of a culture of labor. This is the context in which I situate the early poetry of Avraham Shlonsky and the appearance of a poetic avant-garde in the 1920s. Shlonsky, I suggest in the third chapter, "The Hebrew Poet as Producer," shepherds Zionist thought from the technocratic and political instrumentalism of laborites like Katznelson and Ben-Gurion, for whom labor was implicitly the predication of the relation between Jew and land (insofar as territory would be viewed by them as a natural resource and the Jew as the manager of those resources), and orients it toward a valorization of nature, where territory would not be prized for its productive value but for the way it reflects an organicism within Jewish identity. The Jew of Shlonsky's imagination no longer corresponds with the agent of rationalized farming techniques but rather is a natural man irrationally tied to the soil and the fecund processes of nature. In Shlonsky's work between 1925 and 1929, I trace the progressive refiguration of a dialectical unity between land and Jew as it advances toward a specifically ecstatic and intensely irrational predication whereby the mutual identification of the one by the other depends upon the linguistic act of phatically naming this new political and environmental entity. The self and soil then cannot simply be the materialist outcomes of labor, but the product of a sentimental constructivist act of creation through language and writing, which Shlonsky defines as work in the public sphere.
The efforts of this modernist avant-garde to create a mode of expression that would be productive in itself and untied to previously defined historical discourses proved strangely prophetic of 1929, when Zionists and Palestinian Arabs would be called upon to articulate their prior claims—their nativism—within the country. The masculinist nativism of the modernist avant-garde exemplified by Shlonsky, however, could not offer a significant response to the competitive political realities in the country after 1929. In the wake of the 1929 riots, in response to the various commissions inquiring into the causes of violence, and in the context of the debates between 1929 and 1933 over the absorptive capacity of the land, a different sort of aesthetic outlined a new nativist relation to Palestine. During a period of uncertainty in which even the landscape would no longer be viewed as a reflection of Zionist subjectivity because it was contested, the publication of collections of poetry by women, most notably Esther Raab and Raçel Bluwstein, signaled an intensified effort to draw upon an alternate way of defining the relation between Jew and territory. At a moment when, in political life, figures like Çayim Arlosoroff would find themselves forced to debate Zionism's prerogatives on grounds utterly unfamiliar to them (grounds that pitted a Jewish economy versus a Palestinian Arab one in terms of historical priority and appropriate agricultural land use), these women poets had already begun to advance toward an identification of territory with mythohistorical origin, and of the Jew as the primordial inhabitant of Palestine. Thus, in the fourth chapter, "The Landscape of a Zionist Orient," I examine the poetic efforts of Raab and Bluwstein in particular, focusing on the gendered response to hegemonic poetry and politics and the figure of the primordial woman as a potent political symbol for a new formulation of Jewish presence and identity in the land. In Raab's and Bluwstein's invocations of sensuous belonging to the earth, I suggest one discovers Zionism advancing toward a mythological predication of the relation between Jew and land. In the poetry of Raab and Bluwstein, nature is finally reconciled with origin, and the Jew is reconciled with the East in an Orientalist reconceptualization of the Jew's place in the landscape.
In reading Raab and Bluwstein in this way, I am suggesting an alternative to a dominant way of reading Hebrew women's poetry of the 1920s. I do not deny the oppositional stance of Raab's and Bluwstein's poetics and the way their poetry emerges from within the gaps of male poetry's blindness. However, the gendered differences in writing poetry should not obfuscate the political utility and resonance of a poetry that both explicitly and implicitly coincided with Zionist political and historical aims. This argument is not to say that issues of gender, race, and class were not constitutive elements in a dominant male Zionist poetics. Rather, a writing of opposition—here, to a male-dominated literary canon—does not necessarily translate into a challenge to hegemonic politics. Indeed, in this chapter, I suggest that even minor and marginal writing—in fact, even writing of dissent—might collude with a politics that includes its own suppression.
By 1933 and the deaths of both Arlosoroff and Bluwstein (and the advent of an odd thirty-year silence in Raab), the logic of Zionist Orientalism was already exhausted. Competition of origin in the land was superseded by an ideology of economic separation from the Arab, which reached apotheosis during the Palestinian-Arab national revolt in 1936, thereby rendering territory inaccessible. The national security response to that crisis on the land in the form of fortified settlements, the çomah u-migdal (wall and tower) constructions, simply echo and extend a project of architectural transformation of the landscape that began in 1932 in Tel Aviv. In the 1930s, Tel Aviv began to form the center of a new formulation of nature, one predicated on a physical sense of transformation and building. In this context, territory became the built landscape and "building" took on a new, static meaning as a noun. Thus, in Chapter 5, "The Natural History of Tel Aviv," architecture and film lead toward a performance theory of nature, which is then taken up in mid-decade by the young poet Natan Alterman, whose melding of built and natural landscapes synthesized nature directly into the urban space. The Jew, in this formulation of "to build and be built," becomes the builder and nature becomes, in Georg Lukács's and Adorno's phrase, "second nature," a highly mediated space, where Adorno's conception of "natural history" describes a place engulfed within the dialectical tensions of nature and history, or, as I argue, between artifice and myth.
This study reaches a conclusion by suggesting that Alterman's achievements in synthesizing a vision of nature encompassed by Zionist identity and action led to the conceptual possibility of statist control over nature and the landscape. After 1948, mediation between national identity and territory became a state-sponsored activity. The life of second nature within Israel nourished decidedly governmental goals for the further expansion and conceptualization of territorial settlement, especially in the Negev Desert. In this, the continued existence of a dialectical history of nature and history, of the formulation of "to build and be built," leads to a contemplation of recent events and the ongoing territorial conflicts with the Palestinian Arabs.
A book of this kind, however, with definite historical parameters and interests, can make no direct claim about the current violence in Israel. But the study of a cultural aesthetic that effected both a reflexive search for a new identity in nature and a politics of construction in and of the land certainly adds to an understanding of present antagonisms and the depth of the ideological conceptions that have driven the crisis of this land further into the abyss. This book makes claims about the conflict through culture, not in how literature might have promoted or expressed oppression as a theme, or even in how Hebrew literature might have depicted conflict and the Arab. In fact, this study makes quite the opposite claim, namely, that studying those types of thematic content always distracts from the proper view of how Zionist culture came to define a politics of belonging to the land. The slogan "to build and be built," in its reflexivity, finally, refuses to allow anything but a hermetic reading of itself and of action in the name of the nation, and it is within that aesthetic position, which assumes grand political aspiration, that this study might contribute to a lasting understanding of Jewish identity and possession in Palestine.