Recovered Roots by Yael Zerubavel is a scholarly attempt at recounting the effects of a collective memory in devising a national emotional setting. A history of revolt ending in disaster recounted as an example of outstanding courage might not make it to a military manual. But the effects such recounting have on the psyche of a nation newly born, and surrounded by historical enemies with predatory instincts is what this book is all about. Drawing its story line in the first chapter from the last stand of the Zealots at Masada around 73 CE and the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt against Roman rule between 132-135 CE, Zerubavel explains how the narratives of these events were reinterpreted from traditional readings. These themes were re-engineered with great success to invoke a sense of national heroism. The collective suicide of the Zealots on Masada was seen as a heroic stand of the Jewish people against foreign oppressors, which might prove to be the recurring and haunting theme of the Jewish nation state in history. To this day the recounting of this epic serves as an entreaty to all Israeli citizens to come forward for the ultimate sacrifice – Retreat never being an option. For the historic perspective, the failings of Bar Kokhba are ignored and he is restored ( to the collective approval of many) to the status of a national hero whose bravery and wisdom should serve as an example for contemporary defenders of the state from the enemies who seem to abound always in the case of the Israeli nationhood.
These ancient acts of heroism and sacrifice were then explicitly matched to the experiences of Jews returning to Israel in the early 1900s. The Battle of Tel Hai in 1920 and the very dramatized death of Yosef Trumpeldor who uttered before his death uttering those immortal words “never mind, it is worth dying for the country” are stuff legends are made of. In the domain of collective memory this regular skirmish with the Arab militia is made out into a significant epoch almost rating alongside the by then legendary incident at Masada and the bar Kokhba revolt. The revival of heroic death for the country served as a contrast to the old jewish norm of passiveness in the face of adversity.
According to Zerubavel, Zionist movement produced a linearly recognizable reference commemorative that jewishness in three various stages idenitifiable as Antiquity, Exile, and National Revival with Exile (of some 2000 years). Though the denial of a national continuity is a n issue it is used to the advantage of the emerging Israeli nation and to fill the populace with a heightened aspiration for heroic sacrifice and even death. Zerubavel distinction in this book is the ease with which he maps this modern development of jewish national consciousness with modern nationalism as a concept.
The book is logically and conveniently divided into four parts and deals with the dynamics of collective memory, the birth of national myths, literature, ritual and invention of tradition, and politics of commemoration in a linear manner. This order is very intuitive if the reader is already agreeable to the argument put forward by Yael Zerubavel in accepting the theory to defend the Israeli nationhood. For any deep observation, the major critical flaw that can be unearthed is that the findings are based on a secular premise and pre-1967 period which are certainly too purist for any academic study of consequence. The argument loses a little credibility because the sustainability of narratives of Masada and bar Kokhba as replacements for traditional, religious or national narratives is questionable. The sense of entitlement arising out of a promise held out in a religious scripture or a wounded national psyche cannot be reached through the recounting of a valorous story out of collective memory especially in case of a Diaspora spread out and
being continuously influenced by the varied world cultures. Her assertion that pilgrimages to Masada came to replace those of ancient Israelites to the Temple Mount indeed “underscores the cultural shift from the traditional theological framework to a secular national one” (125). While these two sites may compete as sacred national sites, it is notable that while the Masada narrative has been critically revisited, the narrative of the Temple Mount has remained largely unchallenged. That remains to this day the supremacy accorded to the religiously backed arguments in favor or against a national position.
The fact remains that secular claims based on commemorative memory and imaginary national narratives have lost steam with passing time but the longest standing issues central to the raging conflicts have been based on religious premise. There is a non-questionability attributed to the religious and more traditional issues like the Temple Mount which grow stronger even in the context of secular and international interventions aimed at resolving them. The lull that ensued in these claims after independence has experienced a disconcerting rebirth with the capture of West bank, the Gaza strip and the ancient Jerusalem. All implementable solutions for these issues have strictly remained in the realms of fiction. These territorial claims expressed by social movements like Gush Emunim and the Movement for the Land of Israel have given the required religious twist which has ensured that they remain on the international conscience as markers for contemporary history. These movements have resulted in the wide spread public support to the settlement activities, the angle that has helped them gain the community wide currency are reasons steeped in the ethno religious narratives of entitlement. These moves are publicly considered legitimate, though international laws are still to ratify these steps in accordance with various treaty agreements. This scenario seems to counter Zerubavel’s arguments that today’s ethno-geographic events might have their roots in the shared common commemorative history. The religious bases for these movements in History seem to have greater credibility.
Any existing debate about a unified Israeli identity is seldom based on the meaning or overbearing symbolism of Masada or any topics so lovingly detailed by Zerubavel. The main issue today has reverted back to the simple argument _ Israelis are religiously entitled to have it, while it is potently wrong on the grounds of impingement of human rights of the Arabs who have made it their home in the preceding centuries. The older displacement being undone by a newer one with the current sufferings of a different ethno-social group is the bone of contention today. This is in fact the dilemma that pervades most religious issues including some like Babri masjid in India which is essentially a multi-cultural and multi-religious fabric. Is it right to undo one wrong by repeating a similar wrong on the opposite group of people when the intervening centuries have accorded at the least a limited sense of geographic and national pride in the occupying sect. Sites like the Temple Mount and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, as mentioned earlier to be firmly grounded in the religious realm have taken significantly greater precedence in discourse than Masada or Tel Hai which have a folk lore importance compared to the huge political impact of sites like the Temple Mount.
One important impact of Zerubavel’s works is that it offers subtly different angles to look at the marginalized opinions of the majority and try and understand the possible motives behind the nationalistic thinking of a highly ruptured polity and society. These theories might offer more in-depth understanding than the psychological generalizations like a national paranoia or a misplaced sense of entitlement.
Yael Zerubavel , “Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition,” (University of Chicago Press, 1997)