Tony Judt: Israel's Fictions on the Ground





[Tony Judt is the director of the Remarque Institute at New York University and the author of “Postwar” and “Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.”]

I am old enough to remember when Israeli kibbutzim looked like settlements (“a small village or collection of houses” or “the act of peopling or colonizing a new country,” Oxford English Dictionary).

In the early 1960s, I spent time on Kibbutz Hakuk, a small community founded by the Palmah unit of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish militia. Begun in 1945, Hakuk was just 18 years old when I first saw it, and was still raw at the edges. The few dozen families living there had built themselves a dining hall, farm sheds, homes and a “baby house” where the children were cared for during the workday. But where the residential buildings ended there were nothing but rock-covered hillsides and half-cleared fields.

The community’s members still dressed in blue work shirts, khaki shorts and triangular hats, consciously cultivating a pioneering image and ethos already at odds with the hectic urban atmosphere of Tel Aviv. Ours, they seemed to say to bright-eyed visitors and volunteers, is the real Israel; come and help us clear the boulders and grow bananas — and tell your friends in Europe and America to do likewise.

Hakuk is still there. But today it relies on a plastics factory and the tourists who flock to the nearby Sea of Galilee. The original farm, built around a fort, has been turned into a tourist attraction. To speak of this kibbutz as a settlement would be bizarre.

However, Israel needs “settlements.” They are intrinsic to the image it has long sought to convey to overseas admirers and fund-raisers: a struggling little country securing its rightful place in a hostile environment by the hard moral work of land clearance, irrigation, agrarian self-sufficiency, industrious productivity, legitimate self-defense and the building of Jewish communities. But this neo-collectivist frontier narrative rings false in modern, high-tech Israel. And so the settler myth has been transposed somewhere else — to the Palestinian lands seized in war in 1967 and occupied illegally ever since.

It is thus not by chance that the international press is encouraged to speak and write of Jewish “settlers” and “settlements” in the West Bank. But this image is profoundly misleading. The largest of these controversial communities in geographic terms is Maale Adumim. It has a population in excess of 35,000, demographically comparable to Montclair, N.J., or Winchester, England. What is most striking, however, about Maale Adumim is its territorial extent. This “settlement” comprises more than 30 square miles — making it one and a half times the size of Manhattan and nearly half as big as the borough and city of Manchester, England. Some “settlement.”...


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