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Guardian Column: Jewish ‘Collective Memory’ Deformed Israeli Society

TEL AVIV – The Guardian published an article attacking Israel and Judaism’s “collective memory,” claiming that the Jewish state “offers a florid illustration of how disastrously collective memory can deform a society.”

The article, authored by David Rieff, poses the question: What if collective historical memory leads to war rather than peace?

The author then cites Israel as an example of a nation that manipulates history to suit its national aims.

Israel offers a florid illustration of how disastrously collective memory can deform a society. The settler movement routinely appeals to a version of biblical history that is as great a distortion of that history as the Islamist fantasy about the supposed continuities between the medieval kingdom of Jerusalem and the modern state of Israel. At the entrance to the settler outpost of Givat Assaf on the West Bank, a placard reads: “We have come back home.” In an interview, Benny Gal, one of the settlement’s leaders, insisted: “On this exact spot, 3,800 years ago, the land of Israel was promised to the Hebrew people.” Shani Simkovitz, the head of the settlement movement’s Gush Etzion Foundation, echoed Gal’s claim: “More than 3,000 years ago, our fathers gave us a land, which is not Rome, it is not New York, but this: the Jewish land.”

Rieff bandies about terms like “mystical” and “mythologizing” but fails to back his conclusions with any concrete evidence. In fact, he seems to do just the opposite, absurdly using Israel’s archaeological discoveries as a testimony to the country’s distortion of history.

Even when it is secular, mainstream Zionist collective memory is often as mystical and as much of a manipulation of history as these views. Consider the simultaneous mythologising and politicisation of archaeology in Israel that has now reached the point where scholarship and state-building have come to seem like two sides of the same coin. Writing in 1981, the Israeli intellectual Amos Elon observed that Israeli archaeologists were “not merely digging for knowledge and objects, but for the reassurance of roots, which they find in the ancient Israelite remains scattered throughout the country.”

Pro-Israel journalist and commentator Melanie Phillips slammed Rieff’s arguments, tweeting, “Judaism founded on memory, Israel on history & truth. David Rieff in Guardian makes core attack on Judaism & Israel.”

Simon Plosker, a writer for the media watchdog group HonestReporting.com, refutes Rieff’s premise and conclusion outright, noting that Israeli society has flourished because of its collective memory – what he terms “the bedrock of the Jewish people” – and not in spite of it.

On the contrary, it is Judaism’s extensive collective historical memory that has enabled the Jewish people to survive over thousands of years. Collective memory has not deformed society but enabled the modern state of Israel to thrive and survive precisely due to the strong national identity of its people.

One does not have to believe in the Bible or the literal word of God, or even to be a supporter of Jewish settlements, to acknowledge the historical and religious connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. The physical evidence of a Jewish presence in the land can be found by digging through the layers of earth, where structures with ancient Hebrew letters or coins from bygone eras of Jewish rule can be found.

Plosker adds that if “politicization of archeology” exists, it is only because demonizers and delegitimizers of Israel question its right to exist.

“Ancient artifacts confirm the legitimacy of the Jewish collective memory in the region,” he writes.

“In fact, it is not Jewish collective historical memory that has caused wars and conflicts, but the denial of that history by Israel’s enemies that has led to bloodshed in the region.”

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