Israel is a land built on myths. It is, of course, not unique in this. Indeed in this way Israel is very much like its patron, the United States. In order to build and maintain a mythical status a nation must create a picture of itself from its very inception and pass that picture down generation upon generation. For the U.S. it is the idea that the nation is a beacon of both democracy and capitalism unto the world and what it does in terms of foreign policy, and even when at war, is always done altruistically. For Israel, the myth is that the nation is democratic and the last bastion of safety for the world’s Jews. Everything it does, even when that amounts to imperial expansion, is done defensively.
In order to maintain these myths one must control history. The story line must be taught in the schools and supported by the nation’s multiple media sources. One must raise up a population that is so well inculcated with its mythic worldview that if something occurs which contradicts it, it can be readily dismissed as an exception to the rule. In the case of the United States, two hundred years of indoctrination and a long term status as a great power has allowed its myths to survive, in the minds of its own people, the horrors of Viet Nam, Iraq and now Afghanistan. Israel is a much younger nation with only three or so generations of indoctrination under its psychological belt, so to speak. And, while it may be a regional superpower, its reputation in the Middle East is built on fear. With the rest of the world that reputation is associated with equally unstable and temporary attitudes, like Holocaust guilt. In essence, apart from the convinced Zionists, Israel’s sustaining national myths are still fragile.
A number of years ago Israel applied its law that required the government archives to be opened for public review and research following a thirty year waiting period for political affairs and fifty years for military affairs. This brought many of the government documents referring to seminal years of 1947 and 1948 into the open. The result was a serious, evidence based, revision of the founding legends of Israel. In other words, the state lost momentary control of its own history. The result undermined the nation’s mythic self-image amongst observers outside of Israel and caused significant unease within the country. So powerful was the reaction of the elites against this revised interpretation of the past that the “new historians” who brought it forth are now either teaching abroad or have, as in the case of Benny Morris, recanted.
In the interim things have only gotten worse for the Zionist defenders of the idealized Israel. Multiple invasions of Lebanon and the essentially defenseless Palestinian cities and towns, the slaughter of the innocent, the reduction of Gaza to an open air prison, the on-going confiscation of land and property in the Occupied Territories, rampant settler violence, and the repeated election of racist governments have resulted in a worldwide civil society effort to isolate Israel and induce it to reform itself in the same manner as South Africa. Except in the United States, Israel’s claim to act only in self-defense is not seen as credible and the accusation that all who disagree are anti-Semites not taken seriously. Yet outside disenchantment, as dangerous as it might be in the long run, is not nearly as threatening as the erosion of one’s domestic population’s adherence to their national myths. That adherence must be maintained at all cost otherwise the nation will metamorphose into something that no longer supports its present elites. The fate of the “new historians” has demonstrated just how determined the Israeli establishment is to prevent that sort of erosion.
That being the case, Israel’s present Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has extended for an additional twenty years the period during which government archives can remain closed.
The Haaretz article announcing this decision says that the Prime Minister acted because of “pressure from the intelligence agencies,” but Netanyahu probably did not need much convincing. The period of time for which documents will now remain classified include such events as the 1954 Lavon Affair, the 1956 Sinai invasion, and the 1967 war which saw the heinous attack on the USS Liberty and the seizure of the Golan Heights. The State Archivist, Yehoshua Freundlich told Haaretz that “some of the material was selected classified because ‘it has implications over [Israel’s] adherence to international law.’” This is probably an understatement. To add insult to injury, Haaretz reports that there is a good possibility that the government’s decision to classify much of Israel’s past as top secret will mean that “archives that had already been made public would again be hidden away.”
If you study the new historians’ revisionist history of Israel you are struck by the Machiavellian behavior of men like David Ben Gurion who made a profession of being “economical with the truth.” So devious were many of Israel early establishment figures that their political competitors, such as the neo-fascist Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the terrorist Menachem Begin, appear almost refreshing in their frightful honesty. Today we have the worst of all worlds in Israel–leaders who are both terrorists and shockingly devious. Now by their own admission, today’s Zionist leaders must hide away their nation’s sins lest the entire world turn away from Israel, and perhaps even their own citizens begin to fear that their national myths cannot stand honest and objective examination.
Lawrence Davidson is Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West Chester, PA. He is author of two recent books: Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003) and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001). He also has written over twenty published articles on US perceptions of and policies toward the Middle East.