In Search of Israel

The History of an Idea

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Michael Brenner
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For people well versed (and there are many of us) in the history of Euro-Zionism, the establishment of Israel, and subsequent events, Brenner’s book offers something of a review (chapters 1 to 5). For those of us specifically immersed in the study of religion and nationalism as it figures into the analysis of Zionism and Israel, In Search of Israel offers some introductory points of reference (chapters 4 and 5, in particular). The most interesting chapter is the sixth and last because it moves beyond rehearsing the history of European political Zionism, and a cursory engagement with the complex relations between religion and nationalism, to a compelling account of Israeli diasporas as well as the changing dynamics and interruptions of Zionist narratives about safety, existential threats, and normalization. Generally, Brenner follows a familiar liberal Zionist frame whereby political Zionism was on the right track until the 1967 War, the consolidation of the settlement movement, and the intensification of ethnoreligious, exclusionary, ideological threads. 

Therefore, the book amounts to a familiar (all too familiar, perhaps) account of the uniqueness of Israel and its internal struggles between supposedly original universalist and secular impulses and more religious and ethnocentric drivers embodied in the 1967 occupation and the messianic settlement movement. Very little attention is dedicated to the consistency between political secular and religious forms of Zionism. Even less is directed toward the violence of the Nakba or the continuous catastrophe that the establishment of Israel has meant for Palestinians or how the violence of the European settler/colonialist movement is not a perversion of the Zionist ideological frame, but rather highly consistent with its logic, whether the Revisionist or Labor varieties. For example, while Brenner’s discussion of Vladimir Jabotinsky (chapter 3) alludes to the complexity of the colonialist encounter and to a political realist approach to the indigenous Arab population, it could benefit from a more rigorous engagement with the persistent influences of racist, blood-centric, and orientalist paradigms. The latter also informed Labor Zionism’s apparent blindness to the fact that its slogan—“a land without people for a people without a land”—was myopic and embedded within a Eurocentric discourse. An interesting path would have been to ask, together with other critical scholars, how the discourses of colonialism, orientalism, and racism might connect to Euro-Zionists’ orientalizing of Arab Jews and the ease with which dispossessing the land of its inhabitants unfolded for both the Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion varieties of Zionism. “Plan D,” or the ethnic cleansing of 1948, is not mentioned because zooming in on it would challenge the liberal Zionist convention within which Brenner operates—within which the beginning of Israel was good, secular, and universalist.

Indeed, In Search of Israel reads with the clarity of a textbook—an Israeli textbook, to be precise. As I was reading through the history of Zionism and Brenner’s most charitable accounts of their thoughts and actions, I was transported back to nights of memorizing, in advance of my Israeli matriculation exam on Zionism, information and names of Jewish lords and Zionist leaders as well as their internal intrigues. This exam was framed erroneously and ideologically as Jewish history. It conveyed many of the same silences as Brenner’s book. Even with some occasional footnotes, the narratives of Palestinians, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, women, and anti-occupation critical diaspora Jews are pushed to the margins. For instance, I am thinking of Brenner’s discussion of Theodore Herzl’s diminishment of the culture of Palestinian Jews (71) and Brenner’s euphemistic reference to the indigenous population not “welcoming” the “Jewish immigrants” to Palestine (81). I am also thinking of Brenner’s impressionistic account of the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, celebrating the fact that they are entitled to more rights under a benevolent Israel than under other Arab countries in the region (172-74); his brief mention of the Israeli Black Panthers in the 1950s as representing a moment of “social unrest” against “collective ideals” (183); the impersonal language he employs to describe the demolition of the Maghrebi Quarter in Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of the War of 1967 (199); and the dismissive account of the New Historians (247 ff). Brenner devotes much more explicit expository space to the discredited work of Shlomo Sand (248-49) while mentioning the profound intervention, on the question of Zionism and Israel, of a scholar like Judith Butler only in passing (243-44). If the book were to say something new, it would have needed to centralize the stories of Palestinians, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, and other marginalized voices and to substantially draw upon their epistemologies from the margins. It would have needed to depart from (or at least interrupt) Zionist narrative conventions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Atalia Omer is Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lilian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His many books include A Short History of the Jews (Princeton).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.