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Post-Zionist Perspectives on Contemporary Israel





During the late 1980s and early 1990s Israeli social science went through

something of a transformation. Previously, its sociology had been dominated by

a conservative neofunctionalism that attributed a high degree of value consensus

to Israeli society, but had little to say about internal social conflicts or inequalities,

while its history had been strongly informed by nationalist myths about the

formation of the Israeli state, its relations with neighbouring Arab states and the

flight of Palestinian refugees during the 1948–9 ‘war of independence’.

the context of the tentative liberalisation of Israeli society, however, and

spurred on by the developing Arab–Israeli peace processes, much of this started

to change. A raft of ‘New Historians’ questioned whether the Palestinians

had indeed fled, or whether, to the contrary, they had been purposefully transferred

and expelled by Israeli forces.

themselves from long-standing Zionist narratives, as well as to draw insights

from poststructuralist social theory and postcolonial studies, in order to explore

issues of discourse, power and identity in the Israeli–Palestinian arena.

others argued that Israel had never been socialist at all, but had, to the contrary,

from its inception been a quasi-fascist and anti-socialist society.

respects, and whatever its limitations, this new scholarship brought forth

significant challenges to hitherto mainstream understandings of Israeli economy,

history and society.

Now, for the first time, several works have appeared which seek to provide

comprehensive accounts of Israeli society from a post-Zionist (or non-Zionist)

perspective. Both Baruch Kimmerling in

1 Within2 ‘Post-Zionist’ sociologists sought to distance3 Still4 In all of theseThe Invention and Decline of Israeliness

and Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled in

post-Zionist scholarship and articulate new paradigms for the study of Israeli

society, the one from a Weberian and the others from a Gramscian perspective.

Being Israeli attempt to synthesise recent5

Meanwhile, in

The Global Political Economy of Israel, Jonathan Nitzan and

New Political Economy, Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2005

Jan Selby, Department of International Relations and Politics, University of Sussex, Falmer,

Brighton BN1 9SN, UK.

ISSN 1356-3467 print; ISSN 1469-9923 online

DOI: 10.1080

=05=010107-14 # 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd=13563460500031289

Shimshon Bichler develop a startling Veblenian–Marxist account of Israeli

society and its integration into the global economy that dispenses with all of the

prevailing orthodoxies on the subject.

useful lenses for analysing the changing nature of Israel’s political economy

and society, as well as the roots of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the

merits and limitations of the authors’ divergent theoretical perspectives.

Kimmerling’s central thesis is that the monocultural regime established under

the young Israeli state has given way to a segmented and pluralistic polycultural

society, within which there is growing conflict ‘over the meaning of what might

be called Israeliness’.

major cultures or counter-cultures: the previously hegemonic Ashkenazi (that is,

of European origin) secular upper middle class; the largely Ashkenazi national

religious movement; the Mizrahi Jews (of Middle Eastern and North African

origin); the non-Zionist Orthodox Haredim; the Arab minority within Israel; the

Russian-speaking immigrants from the former USSR; and the Ethiopian immigrant

population. These more or less discrete ‘islands’ of Israeli society each

have their own distinctive cultural patterns of consumption, lifestyle, speech

and apparel, their own sets of perceptions and beliefs, and their own separate institutional

bases—whether in schools, in the print and broadcast media or in political


in the conquest and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

occupation, he argues, inspired deep religious sentiments, leading to the rise of

the national religious Gush Enumin movement for the settlement of the Occupied

Territories; the fragmentation of the hitherto largely secular monocultural regime;

and a general ‘turn from a more civic and citizenship-based identity towards a

Jewish ethnocentric primordialism’.

chain reactions’, which, in addition to the slow and incremental empowerment

of population groups and the arrival of new immigrant populations, led to the

emergence of a ‘new polycultural, multivocal, multiracial Israeliness’.

remains from the previous monocultural regime, Kimmerling argues, are just

two powerful ‘metacultural codes’—Jewishness and security.

one hand, Israel remains an essentially Jewish state and society, an ‘ethnocracy’

in which the ‘basically undemocratic nature of the Israeli regime’ is ‘compulsively

and systematically’ denied; on the other, it is a society in which the values,

practices and institutions of a ‘military-cultural complex’ are so dominant that

security is no less than a ‘civil religion’.

6 Taken together, these works serve as7 Israel, Kimmerling holds, is now divided into seven8 For Kimmerling, the roots of this cultural pluralism lie most importantly9 The10 The 1967 war, in short, caused ‘social11 What12 Thus, on the13

While much of this is instructive, especially in its emphasis on the ethnocratic

and militaristic character of Israeli society, there are at least three characteristically

Weberian problems with Kimmerling’s account. First, Kimmerling

completely fails to address the political economy of the formation and transformation

of Israeli society. He sees Zionism as ‘a uniquely nonprofit and noneconomic

settler movement’ driven exclusively by nationalist sentiment, the result being that

he ends up saying nothing either about the world-systemic colonial context within

which the Zionist movement took shape, or about the political economy of

settlement within Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine (which was crucial to

Israeli state formation, as we shall see below).

mention of the class structure of Israeli society and says nothing at all about the

14 He provides only sporadic

Jan Selby


impacts of domestic economic change, growing economic inequality and Israel’s

deepening integration into the global economy on the cultural cleavages which

are his primary focus. Moreover, while he recognises that the Israeli economy

has recently become dominated by a small number of conglomerates, he fails to

square this growing concentration of ownership with his characterisation of

Israeli society as increasingly pluralistic.

that an Ashkenazi elite ‘still maintains primary control of large businesses,

commerce and industry, the media establishment, and the upper echelons of the

armed forces and of higher education’, yet apparently sees no contradiction

between this and his view of Israeli society as consisting of seven autonomous

cultures ‘without an accepted hierarchy between them’.

15 Thus Kimmerling notes, quite correctly,16

A second problem with Kimmerling’s account lies in its inadequate theorisation

of the relations between the Israeli state and Israeli society. Like so many

Weberians beholden to the idea of ‘bringing the state back in’, Kimmerling is preoccupied

with the question of the strength and autonomy of the state relative—and

in opposition—to society.

Kimmerling sees Israel as a ‘strong state’ with a ‘high capacity to recruit internal

human and material resources for collective goals’.

actively engaged in assigning tasks to the population and in excluding certain

groups from the political process, in accordance with its own ‘best interests’

and ‘ends’.

continually diminished in the face of ideological groups that stress its “primordial

Jewish” identity’, and further that ‘Israel is presently facing a situation of

somewhat diminishing “stateness”’.

reality, the supposed ‘autonomy’ of the Israeli state prior to 1967 is a

mirage resulting from the erstwhile social hegemony of Labour Zionism. From

the pre-state days until the 1970s, Yishuv and Israeli society were dominated by

the Ashkenazi-led Labour Zionist movement, which espoused a mixture of

secular, socialist, nationalist and pioneering values, and found institutional

expression in the kibbutzim, the Histadrut labour federation, the paramilitary

Haganah (which formed the basis for the Israeli Defence Forces) and the leftwing

political parties which led every Israeli government until 1977, when

Menachem Begin’s Likud-led coalition came to power. It was this hegemony of

the Labour Zionist movement, rather than any interests of the state itself, which

produced the largely secular conception of Jewish identity which prevailed

before 1967. Equally, the seeming decline in the ‘autonomy’ of the Israeli state

since then is but a product of the withering of Labour Zionist hegemony.

The third and root problem here is that Kimmerling is not critical enough either

of traditional Zionist narratives or of contemporary Israeli society. Kimmerling

has long been a strong critic of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians and

has recently produced powerful indictments of Israel’s latest premiers, Ehud

Barak and Ariel Sharon.

worldview which veers between naivety and conservatism. Thus, on the one

hand, he depicts Israel as a liberal multicultural society in the making, in which

demographic change will ‘incrementally spill over into other spheres and

contribute to the rapid pluralization of the Israeli state’—this optimistic

assessment being one that flies in the face of deepening economic hierarchies

17 Moreover, like his one-time collaborator Joel Migdal,18 He views this strong state as19 And he argues that since 1967 ‘the autonomy of the state has20 Yet this is profoundly misleading for, in21 But he combines this political outrage with a sociological

Post-Zionist Perspectives on Contemporary Israel


and inequalities.

Israel’s Labour-led monocultural regime and to bemoan Israel’s current ‘lack’

of a ‘finalized and consensual geopolitical and social identity’, it being ‘unfortunate’,

he says, that there is ‘no commonly agreed upon replacement for the

national identity’ of the 1950s.

went before him, Kimmerling overstates the consensual unity and completedness

of the young Israeli society; pays insufficient attention to the power relations

that lay behind its formation; and understands ‘Israeliness’—as his title suggests—

in essentialist and implicitly Ashkenazi terms. Moreover, like those neofunctionalist

writers who interpreted Israel in the wake of the 1967 war as facing a ‘crisis of

over-burden’ (with the basic premises that pre-1967 Israel was consensual,

and that the 1967 war marked the key watershed in the evolution of Israeli

society), so too Kimmerling traces the transformation of Israel from the ‘crosspressures’

produced by the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza.

Kimmerling claims to articulate a new approach to the study of Israeli society,

the influence of its nationalist sociologies clearly remains. All in all,

and Decline

of post-Zionism as little more than ‘new wine in old bottles’.

22 Yet, on the other hand, he seems to regret the dissolution of23 Like the neofunctionalist sociologists who24 Thus, whileInventionunfortunately gives ample support to Nitzan and Bichler’s dismissal25

Nitzan and Bichler’s own account of Israeli society, by contrast, is highly

original and not in the least bit conservative. Unlike Kimmerling, whose

comments on transnational processes are limited to wars and immigration,

Nitzan and Bichler stress the extent to which Israel’s domestic political economy

is determined by, and has been integrated into, regional and global inter-capitalist

relations. Moreover, and equally unlike Kimmerling, Nitzan and Bichler view contemporary

Israel as characterised not by pluralism, but by a growing concentration

of power in the hands of a small and nepotistic ruling class. Drawing upon the neo-

Marxist monopoly capital tradition, as well as Thorstein Veblen’s discussion of the

ways in which modern businesses attempt to ‘sabotage’ production in order to

maximise profits, Nitzan and Bichler develop a novel financial (as against productionist)

theory of capital.

‘differential accumulation’, it being the aim of all capitalist enterprises not to maximise

profits in absolute terms but to beat the average rate of capital income within

an economy and thereby increase their overall share of economic and social


small number of very large capitalists’, it thus being the structures and strategies

of the ruling class—or what they call ‘dominant capital’—that determine patterns

of political, economic and social change.

that Israeli society has been dominated ever since its inception by a close-knit and

endogamous ruling class, an ‘octopus-like structure’ with arms that move freely

between government, business and the military.

contend, power has become more and more concentrated, such that from the

early 1970s Israel has become home to a ‘dual political economy’—comprising

an oligopolistic big business sector, dominated by just five major corporate

groups and controlling ‘almost every significant business activity’, and a competitive

small-business sector wholly subordinate to it.

26 The ‘compass of modern capitalism’, they argue, is27 Capitalism, they hold, is ‘not run by most people, but by a relatively28 On this basis, Nitzan and Bichler argue29 Ever since the Yishuv, they30

Nitzan and Bichler argue that, up until these years, the growing power of

Israel’s ‘dominant capital’ was premised on its enjoyment of a disproportionate

Jan Selby


share of the benefits of rapid economic growth (between 1922 and 1973, Yishuv/

Israeli gross national product increased by an astounding factor of 250).

growth started to falter, dominant capital began to explore other avenues for

accumulation. The same was simultaneously happening, Nitzan and Bichler

contend, at a ‘global level’, the upshot—both globally and within Israel—being

the replacement of the previous ‘breadth regime’ of differential accumulation

through economic growth by a ‘depth regime’ of ‘accumulation through crisis’.

31 But, as32

This new regime was premised, they assert, on a high degree of international conflict

in the Middle East, with recurrent conflicts in 1973, 1979–88 and 1990–1 helping

to generate substantial oil price rises and profit windfalls, increased arms sales

and domestic inflation (the latter resulting primarily from increased oil and

arms prices). Nitzan and Bichler hold that during this period a ‘weapondollarpetrodollar

coalition’ predominated within the developed capitalist world and that

these conflict dynamics were so important during the 1970s and 1980s that the

US and Israeli governments tended to promote high oil prices, militarisation and

political instability across the Middle East, exactly the opposite of their publicly

declared aims.

of the Israeli political economy (domestic military procurement rose to an

average of 23 per cent of gross domestic product between the mid 1960s and mid

1980s); a growing dependence on US financial and military assistance; the rise of

right-wing religious nationalism and the concomitant decline of the Labour Party;

and the further consolidation of the power of Israel’s ruling class, which had

neatly shifted to take advantage of increased arms sales and domestic inflation.

33 They argue that the consequences within Israel were the militarisation34

Continuing their account, Nitzan and Bichler submit that, from the late 1980s,

things started to change. The demise of Third World import substitution, the

retreat of state ownership in the West, and the liberalisation and subsequent collapse

of the Eastern bloc all provided fertile soil for a renewed global breadth


waned, to be replaced at the helm of dominant capital by the new information

technology and communication (ITC) industries. Differential accumulation was

now achieved not through crisis but through green-field expansion in emerging

markets, as well as an increase in mergers and acquisitions. Israel in the process

became a high-tech ‘tiger economy’, buoyed by the global return to breadth as

well as by Russian immigration and mafia money. Israel’s major corporate

groups were transnationalised, such that a distinct ‘Israeli dominant capital’ no

longer existed.

the Israeli ruling class’s new strategy of attracting foreign investment and

further integrating Israel into the global economy. For Nitzan and Bichler, the

Arab–Israeli peace processes of the 1990s were essentially this ruling class’s

response to the 1990s high-tech globalisation boom.

35 The profits and relative power of the global oil and armaments sectors36 Peace now became the preferred economic option, crucial to37

Nitzan and Bichler argue further that, since the collapse of the 1990s boom and

bubble, many of these developments have gone into reverse. The differential

profitability of the global ITC sector has waned, creating new opportunities for

accumulation through crisis. And, sure enough, renewed conflict has been the

result both in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and in the Gulf. Oil prices

have soared, and the oil and military sectors have recorded record absolute

profits as well as a much-increased share of global profits. For Nitzan and

Post-Zionist Perspectives on Contemporary Israel


Bichler, it is the global political economy of differential accumulation which is the

major determinant of war and peace in the Middle East, and of transformations in

Israeli society. As they say of the current situation in Israel–Palestine, this ‘will

not be settled in the streets of Nablus or the shacks of the Jenin refugee camps.

The real war lays elsewhere, in the boardrooms of the multinationals where the

vanguard of the arms and oil industries are leading a resurgence against the

forces of the new global capital’.


The Global Political Economy of Israel

well as a surprisingly accessible and playful read. It operates on many levels, simultaneously

providing a novel theory of capital accumulation and inter-capitalist

competition, a fresh take on US imperial adventures in the Middle East and a

history of the Israeli political economy. Its insistences on the centrality of big

business within Israeli society, and on Israel’s integration into global circuits of

capital, are an important antidote to the culturalism and statism that so dominate

discussions of the country; and it is full of challenging theses on subjects as varied

as the roots of inflation and the incidence of corporate mergers, as well as wonderfully

gossipy insights on the machinations of Israel’s elites. Inevitably, though, a

book of this ambition raises almost as many questions as it answers. Two issues

warrant particular discussion here.

First, Nitzan and Bichler overstate the impacts of regional and global intercapitalist

relations on Israel’s political economy. They insist that changes in

Israel’s political economy—whether the expansion of its military sector and

growth of religious nationalism during the 1970s or the onset of the high-tech

boom and peace processes during the 1990s—have been ‘largely dependent on

global conditions’.

the Middle East, its ‘domestic depth regime of militarized stagflation’ being

‘intimately linked to the regional cycle of energy conflicts’.

verdicts on the strength of claimed statistical correlations between the Israeli,

regional and global political economies. However, not only are these correlations

themselves based on a questionable theory of accumulation, but, more importantly,

the causal evidence, including that which they themselves marshall, does

not provide sufficient grounds for these conclusions.

Bichler argue that the Israeli economy has followed closely in step since the

early 1970s with a ‘global’ pattern of alternating ‘breadth’ and ‘depth’ regimes,

it is clear that this putatively global pattern is modelled firmly on the US

economy and diverges significantly from the patterns followed, for instance, by

Germany and Japan.

linked’ into the regional energy conflicts of the 1970s onwards, there is scant evidence

for this: of the ‘energy conflicts’ during this period Israel was only centrally

involved in one (the 1973 war); and, furthermore, most of the major geopolitical

incidents in which Israel was directly involved had negligible impacts on oil prices

(most notably the 1978 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon, the 1978 Camp David

Accords with Egypt, and the Palestinian

receive much attention from Nitzan and Bichler).

Rather than being integrated into a regional dynamic of energy conflicts, the

more conspicuous fact about the Israeli economy is its relative non-integration

into the Middle Eastern regional economy (the Arab Boycott, which lies behind

is a brilliant and disturbing book, as39 They also contend that Israel has long been integrated into40 They reach these41 Thus while Nitzan and42 Equally, while they claim that Israel was ‘intimatelyintifada from 1987 – none of which

Jan Selby


this, being something that Nitzan and Bichler also largely ignore). What seems

clear, even from Nitzan and Bichler’s own account, is that Israel’s political

economy bears the imprint less of general processes of regionalisation and globalisation,

than of the historically specific relationship with the US that developed in

the late 1960s. Moreover, what also seems clear is that geopolitical developments,

like the invasions of Lebanon, were primarily driven not by regional political dictates,

or even by Israel’s close relationship with the US, but by uniquely domestic


into a transnational network of capital, but the political economic relations that

have made Israel what it is today are perhaps best thought of neither as global,

regional or transnational, but as a complex mix of domestic and international


A further and even more fundamental problem with Nitzan and Bichler’s

account is its almost exclusive focus on dominant capital. At its core, Nitzan

and Bichler’s theoretical world seems to be inhabited purely by capitalists:

‘capitalists’, writes Nitzan, ‘exert their power over society as a whole, so one

whose profit amounts to one-hundredth of the total can be said to control 1

percent of the entire capitalist process’.

corporations dominate the scene, while all else is relegated to the background

context within which accumulation struggles take place. Nitzan and Bichler do

recognise that dominant capital is ‘never entirely synonymous’ with the ruling

class, and that Israel has not always been a capitalist society; and they also

admit, for instance, that there are important country-specific labour relations

which can have important repercussions for capital accumulation.

in by their ahistorical theoretical model with its sole focus on dominant capital

and differential accumulation, Nitzan and Bichler end up saying very little

either about the complex relations between the capitalist and non-capitalist interests

of the Israeli ruling class, about what predated the ‘progressive emergence’ of

Israeli capitalism, or even about conflicts and compromises between Israeli elites

and the larger Israeli population.

43 Israel’s leading corporations may recently have become integrated44 The struggles and strategies of major45 But, boxed46 Instead, their analysis moves between a priori

theorisations of the various means of differential accumulation, on the one hand,

and micro-scale snippets of Israel’s ruling class in action, on the other—without

there being an awful lot in between. Their political economy includes not much

by way of political sociology—and the consequence of this is that no great

sense emerges of the structural specificity of Israeli society.

This weakness is especially apparent in Nitzan and Bichler’s comments on the

roots of Israeli statism. Nitzan and Bichler argue that centralised pre-state institutions

emerged in the Yishuv so as to tackle labour shortages and create the

social infrastructure necessary for profit-making, while Zionist ideals, with their

characteristic me´lange of nationalist, socialist and religious rhetoric, were

invoked in order to legitimate and consolidate a capital-friendly social order.


As their revealingly instrumentalist metaphor has it, ‘the Israeli state, while on

the surface subjugating capital to its own ends, was in fact the initial “cacoon”

within which capitalist institutions and organisations were allowed to develop’.


Yet this is misleading, for the problem, so far as Jewish capitalists were concerned,

was not that accumulation was impeded by a labour shortfall—since the local Arab

population constituted a large pool of cheap labour—but that profit maximisation,

Post-Zionist Perspectives on Contemporary Israel


left to its own accord, would have impeded the Zionist project of settling Palestine.

Initially, as Gershon Shafir emphasises in his groundbreaking account of the formative

period of Zionist colonialism, Jewish capitalists largely employed cheap Arab


Arab workers, Jewish workers thus started campaigning for the exclusion of Arabs

from the Jewish labour market. Eventually, this led to an accommodation between

Zionist landowners and workers—what Michael Shalev has called a ‘marriage of

convenience between a settlementmovement with settlers and a workers’movement

withoutwork’—which sawthe creation of a ‘split labourmarket’, the emergence of a

distinct Jewish economic sector and the formation of powerful central institutions

like the Histadrut, which functioned to maintain and oversee this political economic


state, in other words, developed not because they were functional ‘cacoons’ for

capital, but out of the sociologically specific character of the Zionist colonial encounter

with the Palestinians: namely, the lateness of the colonial encounter in Palestine,

the presence there of a mostly settled population and large rival workforce, and the

Zionists’ commitment—in contrast to most of the late colonial projects in Africa

and the Middle East—to physical settlement. If capital accumulation really had

been as fully in charge as Nitzan and Bichler contend, the Israeli state would never

have come into existence.

The pertinence of this in the present context is that the distinctive political

economic and institutional forms that were first negotiated in the early twentieth

century came to structure Israeli society right up to the 1970s, and in certain

respects still do. Shafir and Peled’s

from the pre-state days to the present. The political economy of colonisation,

they argue, resulted not only in the formation of separate Jewish land and labour

markets, as well as a powerful institutional nexus centred on the Histadrut, but also

in a republican—communitarian conception of citizenship that emphasised the

moral value of pioneering, physical labour, agricultural settlement and military


and Bichler’s account would imply), but were part and parcel of the ‘historical

bloc’ constructed by the Labour Settlement Movement. Though never fully

hegemonic, this Ashkenazi-led movement nonetheless managed to incorporate

most Zionist groups and orientations under its sway: in Gramscian terms, it was

a highly successful ‘hegemonic project’.

its exclusions and patterns of differential incorporation: of Mizrahim, who were

economically and culturally segregated as second-class citizens; of women, who

experienced the distinctive gender burdens of living in a colonial frontier

society; of Israeli Palestinians, who were dispossessed of their land, proletarianised

as a poor and undereducated labour force, and granted only third class

civil and political rights; and of Orthodox Jews, who played a vital role in legitimating

the Zionist project and were thus accorded a fair degree of latitude

from Labour Zionist norms (exemption from military service, for instance). As

Shafir and Peled emphasise, these patterns of exclusion and incorporation were

premised not on some monocultural value consensus, but on the hegemony of a

specifically Labour Zionist colonial project, which dominated Israeli society

until the 1970s.

49 Unwilling to lower their wage demands and thus compete directly with50 The distinctive features of pre-state Zionist society and the young IsraeliBeing Israeli traces these structural continuities51 These values were not merely rhetorical or superstructural (as Nitzan52 But it also, they recognise, contained

Jan Selby


Shafir and Peled claim that, since then, however, the Labour Settlement

Movement and its republican ethos have largely dissolved, bifurcated into two

rival conceptions of citizenship and identity. On the one hand, as Kimmerling

also stresses, there has been an expansion in ethnonationalism, with movements

like Gush Enumin inheriting much of the pioneering colonial ethos of Labour

Zionism, but now dressing it up in explicitly religious garb. Yet, on the other

hand, there has been a liberalisation of Israeli society in economic, social and political

terms: a waning of Labour Zionist institutions like the Histadrut, including

through the privatisation of state- and Histadrut-held companies; a waxing, by

contrast, of liberal institutions like the Bank of Israel, the Israeli stock market

and the judiciary; and an increase both in liberal individualism and income

inequalities. This liberalisation, argue Shafir and Peled, has been led by an

Ashkenazi elite which has ‘now outgrown the confines of its colonial phase of


that the authors broadly welcome, they recognise too that economic liberalisation

and the emergence of a Lockean civil society have not proven to be a panacea for

Israeli society.

form of democratic multiculturalism that is simultaneously cognisant of both ‘recognition’

and ‘redistribution’ questions—this carrying for them the promise not

only of addressing tensions and inequalities within Israeli society, but also of

resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

. . . and seeks to venture out into the world’.53 While this is something54 They thus conclude by arguing, in Nancy Fraser’s terms, for a55

There is a great deal to be said for these arguments, and indeed for Shafir and

Peled’s overall theoretical perspective. While Kimmerling, on the one hand,

largely neglects international and global contexts, and Nitzan and Bichler, on

the other, convey little sense of the structural specificity of Israeli society,

Shafir and Peled tread a midway course that analyses Israel as a colonial

frontier society evolving in the face of global processes of liberalisation. While

Kimmerling and Nitzan and Bichler both see elites as ‘designers’ and ‘creators’

of Israeli society, Shafir and Peled emphasise the extent to which political projects

and agency are constrained by broader social forces and contradictions.

while the former say very little about the impact of the colonial encounter

with the Palestinians on the shaping of Israel—operating with what Kimmerling

has elsewhere termed a ‘Jewish bubble’ model of Israeli society—Shafir and

Peled’s account is as much about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as it is about

Israel itself.

ethnonationalist but fails to discuss processes of liberalisation (aside, that is,

from his stress on the emergence of cultural pluralism), Shafir and Peled insist

that Israel has concurrently undergone both of these processes. All of this, and

much else besides, is extremely cogent.

Having said that, Shafir and Peled do seem to overstate the extent of Israel’s

liberalisation and to understate, in particular, the continuing ascendancy of the

military and security establishment within Israeli politics and society. Shafir

and Peled argue, for instance, that, ‘as the forces that shape Israeli society are

becoming more global’, so the prospect that the liberals will prevail ‘seems to

be improving’. They argue further that it will prove ‘very difficult to square’ a

‘liberal economic vision’ with the ‘repressive military practices required for

maintaining the occupation and defending Jewish settlers on the West Bank and

56 Moreover,57 Finally, while Kimmerling views Israeli society as increasingly

Post-Zionist Perspectives on Contemporary Israel



58 Peacemaking, for them, has to a large degree been a product of liberalisation.


showing that Israeli business leaders, within the context of the domestic liberalisation

of the Israeli capital market, were among the key advocates of peace with

the Palestinians: they thus provide persuasive causal evidence that parallels and

substantiates Nitzan and Bichler’s statistical correlations. What they fail to

acknowledge, however, is the shallowness of the Israeli business community’s

commitment to peace. Israel’s major corporate actors have been largely uninterested

in expanding trade or opening up new markets in the Occupied Territories

and Middle East; on the contrary, their primary interest during the early 1990s

lay in ending the secondary Arab Boycott, which penalised third parties doing

business with Israel and was consequently seen as a major obstacle to attracting

foreign capital.

too concerned about its precise content. The upshot of this was that the peace

terms imposed on the Palestinians were largely dictated not by powerful Israeli

economic actors but by the Israeli military, and those terms were thus much

more limited than would otherwise have been the case—amounting, in many

areas, to little more than a cosmetic ‘dressing up’ of the Israeli occupation

under the banner of ‘cooperation’.

in the end provide little sense of the structural power of the military within

Israeli society—evidenced, most obviously, in the military backgrounds of so

many of the country’s political leaders—or of the enormous impact the military

continues to have on Israeli society and Israeli–Palestinian relations. This is a

double shame, since there is no necessary reason why the power of the Israeli

military could not be acknowledged and analysed within a Gramscian

framework. The subject of Israeli militarism should not be overlooked simply

through an aversion to statism.

For this latter claim, Shafir and Peled adduce powerful evidence60 Israeli dominant capital, as a result, wanted peace but was not61 Like Nitzan and Bichler, Shafir and Peled62

Shafir and Peled do admit that ‘the victory’ of Israeli liberalism is ‘by no means

guaranteed’, but even this seems unjustifiably sanguine given the events of the past

four years.

been killed in renewed Israeli–Palestinian violence.

its place at the centre of Israeli society, and the previously disgraced Ariel Sharon

has been rehabilitated as trustworthy guardian of the Israeli national interest. This

has happened side by side with the launch of a new privatisation programme overseen

by Binyamin Netanyahu—with little sign of it being in contradiction with

repression in the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile in the academy, the bestknown

of the New Historians, Benny Morris, seems to have become an advocate

of ethnic cleansing and has given credence to Ehud Barak’s frankly racist view

that the Palestinians, being not of Judeo-Christian culture, do not understand the

concept of truth.

themselves ostracised within their universities and even threatened with dismissal.

The study of Israeli society may have become more heterogeneous and contested,

but a postcolonial liberal Israel seems almost as far away as ever.

63 Since summer 2000, around 3,000 Palestinians and 900 Israelis have64 The military has reassumed65 More critical voices, like that of Ilan Pappe, have found


1. The best known of the functionalist sociologies are S.N. Eisenstadt,


Israeli Society (Basic Books, 1967); S.N.The Transformation of Israeli Society: An Essay in Interpretation (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson,

Jan Selby


1985); and Dan Horowitz & Moshe Lissak,

Trouble in Utopia: The Overburdened Polity of Israel

(State University of New York Press, 1989). The conventional Zionist histories were largely not written

by professional historians, but by politicians, soldiers, hagiographers and so on: see Avi Shlaim, ‘The

Debate about 1948’,

reproduced in Ilan Pappe´ (ed.),

2. Leading works by Israel’s ‘New Historians’ include Benny Morris,

Problem, 1947–49


and the Partition of Palestine

of these; for arguments that he does not go nearly far enough in his ‘revisionism’, see Nur Masalha, ‘A

Critique of Benny Morris’,

International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1995), pp. 287–304,The Israel/Palestine Question (Routledge, 1999), pp. 171–92.The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee(Cambridge University Press, 1987); Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and(Croom Helm, 1987); and Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the ZionistMovement,(Clarendon, 1988).Morris’s arguments are the best known (and most contested)Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (1991), pp. 90–7; and Norman Finkelstein,

Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict

of the New Historians, see Pappe´


(Verso, 1995), ch. 3. For useful overviews of the writingsThe Israel/Palestine Question; and Eugene Rogan & Avi Shlaim (eds),

The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948

3. Lawrence Silberstein,

and Ephraim Nimni (ed.),

(Cambridge University Press, 2001).The Postzionism Debate: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture (Routledge, 1998);The Challenge of Post-Zionism: Alternatives to Israeli Fundamentalist Politics

(Zed, 2003).

4. Zeev Sternhell,

The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State

(Princeton University Press, 1998).

5. Baruch Kimmerling,

California Press, 2001); and Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled,


Zionism’ (p. 7), his work can nonetheless be usefully situated within this context.

6. Jonathan Nitzan & Shimshon Bichler,

7. Kimmerling,







‘Israeli Society and Jewish-Palestinian Reconciliation: “Ethnocracy” and its Territorial Contradictions’,

The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society and the Military (University ofBeing Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple(Cambridge University Press, 2002). While Kimmerling prefers not to use the term ‘post-The Global Political Economy of Israel (Pluto, 2002).Invention and Decline, p. 2.Ibid., pp. 137, 170.Ibid., p. 109.Ibid., p. 111.Ibid., pp. 128, 169, 147.Ibid., p. 173.Ibid., pp. 180, 182, 209, 212. The notion of ‘ethnocracy’ was developed by Oren Yiftachel, especially in

Middle East Journal




17. Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschermeyer & Theda Skocpol (eds),

California Press, 1985).

18. Kimmerling,

account of the Israeli state in



The Making of a People




21. Baruch Kimmerling, ‘The power-oriented settlement: bargaining between Israelis and Palestinians’, in:

M. Ma’oz & A. Sela (eds),

, Vol. 51, No. 4 (1997), pp. 505–19.Ibid., p. 67.Ibid., pp. 76–7.Ibid., pp. l71, 2.Bringing the State Back In (University ofInvention and Decline, p. 3. Migdal develops his theory of state–society relations and hisStrong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations in the Third(Princeton University Press, 1985); and Through the Lens of Israel: Explorations in State and(State University of New York Press, 2001). Kimmerling and Migdal are co-authors of Palestinians:(Free Press, 1993).Ibid., pp. 72, 66, 68, 170.Ibid., p. 87. The idea of ‘stateness’ is derived from J.P. Nettl, ‘The State as a Conceptual Variable’, World, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1968), pp. 559–92.The PLO and Israel: From the Road to the Oslo Agreement and Back?

(St. Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 223–51; Baruch Kimmerling, ‘From Barak to the Road Map’,


Against the Palestinians

22. Kimmerling,


24. Horowitz & Lissak,

25. Nitzan & Bichler,

here, namely, Sammy Smooha,

New Left, Series 2, No. 23 (2003), pp. 134–44; and Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War(Verso, 2003).Invention and Decline, p. 169.Ibid., pp. 3, 89.Trouble in Utopia; and Kimmerling, Invention and Decline, p. 84.Global Political Economy, p. 8. One further debt of Kimmerling’s also deserves mentionIsrael: Pluralism and Conflict (University of California Press, 1978). Smooha

Post-Zionist Perspectives on Contemporary Israel


was the first leading sociologist to analyse Israeli society through a liberal pluralist lens rather than to bemoan

its cultural disintegration, and Smooha’s influence on Kimmerling is clear.

26. Nitzan & Bichler,

framework, see Jonathan Nitzan, ‘Differential Accumulation: Towards a New Political Economy of


Nitzan & Shimshon Bichler, ‘Capital accumulation: breaking the dualism of “economics” and “politics’”,

in: Ronen Palan (ed.),

Nitzan and Bichler draw especially upon Thorstein Veblen,

1904); Thorstein Veblen,


Global Political Economy, pp. 31–7; and for extended discussions of their theoreticalReview of International Political Economy, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1998), pp. 169–216; and JonathanGlobal Political Economy: Contemporary Theories (Routledge, 2000), pp. 67–88.The Theory of Business Enterprise (Scribner,Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of(B.W. Huebsch, 1923); and Michal Kalecki, The Last Phase in the Transformation of Capitalism

(Monthly Review Press, 1972). Whereas classical Marxism theorises capitalism as a mode of production

and views production and labour relations as the primary source and embodiment of unequal power relations,

Nitzan & Bichler argue that ‘modern capital is finance, and

inequalities are primarily rooted in institutional control over the social process, including the power to

sabotage and limit production.

27. Nitzan & Bichler,




Economy: The Dynamics of American Industry Structure

in a Dual Economy

a ‘dual

31. Michael Bruno,

p. 23.

32. Nitzan & Bichler,






38. Shimshon Bichler & Jonathan Nitzan, ‘War Profits, Peace Dividends and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’,

only finance’ (p. 36) and that power andGlobal Political Economy, pp. 74, 36–8.Ibid., pp. 20, 40–1.Ibid., p. 108.Ibid., pp. 104, 117, 118. The ‘dual economy’ notion is developed for instance by Robert Averitt, The Dual(W.W. Norton, 1968); and Joseph Bowring, Competition(Princeton University Press, 1986). Nitzan and Bichler prefer to speak, though, ofpolitical economy’.Crisis, Stabilization, and Economic Reform: Therapy by Consensus (Clarendon, 1993),Global Political Economy, pp. 74, 20.Ibid., pp. 24–7.Ibid., pp. 128, 24.Ibid., p. 266.Ibid., p. 297.Ibid., p. 268.

News From Within

and Bichler are equivocal about whether the 1990s breadth regime has given way to a new depth regime,

or has merely stalled for the time being (pp. 353–7). But in more recent work they argue rather more

firmly that the year 2000 seems to mark the beginning of another transition into depth: Shimshon Bichler

& Jonathan Nitzan, ‘Dominant Capital and the New Wars’,

No. 2 (2004), p. 257. Without such a change in the outlook of dominant capital, they claim, ‘September

11 probably would not have become America’s “new Pearl Harbor’” (

39. Nitzan & Bichler,


41. There are many aspects of Nitzan and Bichler’s theory of differential accumulation that one might want to

question, but let me raise just one key issue. Nitzan and Bichler hold that the main aim of individual corporations

is to beat the average rate of capital income of an economy as a whole (

assumption which underlies their depiction of global capitalism as consisting of competing corporate

coalitions. For instance, in Nitzan and Bichler’s model, the ‘Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition’ consists

of the major oil and arms corporations, whose common interests in instability are motivated by the desire

to beat the average rate of income across the economy as a whole (as well as within dominant capital as a

whole). Yet evidence would surely suggest that the averages which individual corporations are so determined

to beat are not economy-wide, but are to the contrary

RoyalDutch Shell are more interested in maintaining (or if possible expanding) their share of the oil industry

in particular, than in maintaining (or expanding) their share of dominant capital as a whole—for it is this

intra-industrial competition which is surely the central axis of differential accumulation. If this is indeed

the case, then the oil majors would have no common interest in instability, and the very idea of corporate

coalitions would be untenable–and Nitzan and Bichler’s entire theoretical edifice would, in turn, come

tumbling down.


, Vol. 18, No. 4 (2002), pp. 14–18. In The Global Political Economy of Israel, NitzanJournal of World-Systems Research, Vol. 10,ibid., p. 320).Global Political Economy, p. 81.Ibid., pp. 9, 267.ibid., pp. 37–8). It is thisindustry benchmarks. For instance, oil majors likeIbid., pp. 74–5.

Jan Selby


43. On the questions of the origins of the US-Israeli special relationship and the reasons for Israel’s invasions of

Lebanon, see for instance Noam Chomsky’s excellent accounts in

and the Palestinians

relationship, but his analysis is nonetheless instructive.

44. Jonathan Nitzan, ‘Regimes of Differential Accumulation: Mergers, Stagflation and the Logic of


45. Bichler & Nitzan, ‘Dominant Capital and the New Wars’, pp. 15, 23.

46. Nitzan & Bichler,



49. Gershon Shafir,

University Press, 1989). Kimmerling’s early work also analysed the formative period of Zionist colonisation

and its impact on Israeli state and society in

Zionist Politics

counter to Shafir’s materialist analysis. For an excellent comparative summary of these theses, see Uri

Ram, ‘The Colonization Perspective in Israeli Sociology’,

(1993), pp. 327–50, reproduced in Pappe´,

it should be said, were not the first to write of Israel in these terms. The colonisation perspective is a

commonplace of Palestinian accounts—see, for instance, Elia Zureik,

in Internal Colonialism

Rodinson in

introduce such perspectives into mainstream Israeli sociology.

50. Michael Shalev, ‘Jewish organised labour and the Palestinians: a study of state/society relations in Israel’, in:

Baruch Kimmerling (ed.),

New York Press, 1989), p. 95. The notion of the ‘split labour market’ is developed by Edna Bonacich, ‘A

Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split Labour Market’,

(1972), pp. 547–59, and applied to Israel by Shafir,


51. Shafir & Peled,





“Post-Socialist Age”’,

56. Kimmerling,

57. Baruch Kimmerling, ‘Boundaries and frontiers of the Israeli control system’, in: Kimmerling,

State and Society


59. This thesis is explored in Shafir & Peled,

Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel(Pluto, 1983), chs. 2, 5. Chomsky arguably overstates the unity of the US-IsraeliReview of International Political Economy, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2001), pp. 226–74.Global Political Economy, p. 2.Ibid., p. 92.Ibid., p. 17.Land, Labour and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882–1914 (CambridgeZionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimension of(University of California Press, 1983), his Weberian account providing an interestingJournal of Historical Sociology, Vol. 6, No. 3The Israel/Palestine Question, pp. 56–80. Shafir and Kimmerling,The Palestinians in Israel: A Study(Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978)—and was also famously formulated by MaximeIsrael: A Colonial-Settler State? (Monad, 1973). But Shafir and Kimmerling were the first toThe Israeli State and Society: Boundaries and Frontiers (State University ofAmerican Sociological Review, Vol. 37, No. 5Land, Labour and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian, pp. 15–16, 55–60.Being Israeli, p. 17.Ibid., p. 66; and Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence & Wishart, 1977).Ibid., p. 339.Ibid., p. 342.Ibid., p. 343; and Nancy Fraser, ‘From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in aNew Left Review, No. 212 (1995), pp. 68–93.Invention and Decline, pp. 6, 229.The Israeli, p. 270.Ibid., p. 342.Being Israeli, ch. 9, but also in Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled (eds),

The New Israel: Peacemaking and Liberalization

Roots of Peacemaking: The Dynamic of Citizenship in Israel’,


60. Shafir and Peled recognise this (

See also on Israeli business interests Markus Bouillon,

Palestine-Israel Conflict

61. I develop these points more fully in

Palestinian Conflict

The Case of Israeli-Palestinian Water Relations’,

pp. 21–38.

62. On this subject, see in particular Uri Ben-Eliezer,


63. Shafir & Peled,

64. Figures from B’Tselem at http://www.btselem.org/ for the period 29 September 2000 to 30 September 2004.

65. ‘A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it

was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population

omelette without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands’ (Morris in interview with Ari Shavit,

(Westview, 2000); and Yoav Peled & Gershon Shafir, ‘TheInternational Journal of Middle Eastern, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1996), pp. 391–413.Being Israeli, p. 258), but do not sufficiently consider its implications.The Peace Business: Money and Power in the(IB Tauris, 2004), especially pp. 51–9.Water, Power and Politics in the Middle East: The Other Israeli-(IB Tauris, 2003), chs. 4 and 6; and ‘Dressing up Domination as “Cooperation”:Review of International Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2003),The Making of Israeli Militarism (Indiana University Press,Being Israeli, p. 259.. . . You can’t make an

Post-Zionist Perspectives on Contemporary Israel


‘Survival of the Fittest’,

Benny Morris and the Road Back from Liberal Zionism’,

pp. 38–47. The Palestinians, Barak claims, ‘are the products of a culture in which to tell a lie

no dissonance. They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture.

Truth is seen as an irrelevant category’ (in Benny Morris, ‘Camp David and After: An Interview with

Ehud Barak’,

Ha’aretz, 9 January 2004). For discussion, see Joel Beinin, ‘No More Tears:Middle East Report, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2004),. . . createsNew York Review of Books, 13 June 2002).

Jan Selby


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