‘A Hebrew from Samaria, Not a Jew from Yavneh’: Adya Gur Horon (1907–1972) and the Articulation of Hebrew Nationalism

SEN Journal: Online Exclusives is pleased to present a new series that features recently defended Ph.D. dissertations in the fields of ethnicity, race, identity, nationalism, and the interactions between them. This series aims to highlight new exciting research emerging out of these fields, encourage dialogue among scholars, and provide insights on the practical realities of life after a Ph.D.

‘A Hebrew from Samaria, Not a Jew from Yavneh’: Adya Gur Horon (1907–1972) and the Articulation of Hebrew Nationalism

Romans Vaters

(Faculty of Humanities, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures [Middle Eastern Studies], University of Manchester, UK, 2015)

Adviser: Moshe Behar


Romans Vaters holds a BA in Modern Middle East and Islamic Studies from Tel Aviv University, an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the Jagiellonian University, and now a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Manchester.




Dissertation abstract

This study analyses the intellectual output of Adya Gur Horon (Adolphe Gourevitch, 1907–1972), a Ukrainian-born, Russian-speaking, French-educated ideologue of modern Hebrew nationalism, and one of the founding fathers of the anti-Zionist ideology known as ‘Canaanism’, whose heyday was mid 20th-century Israel. The dissertation’s starting point is that if the ‘Canaanites’ (otherwise the Young Hebrews) declared themselves to be above all a national movement independent of, and opposed to, Zionism, they should be analysed as such. In treating ‘Canaanite’ support for the existence of an indigenous Hebrew nation in Palestine/Israel as equally legitimate as the Zionist defence of the Jews’ national character (both ultimately constituting ‘imagined communities’), this work comes to the conclusion that the movement should indeed be classified as a fully-fledged alternative to Zionism; not a radical variation of the latter, but rather a rival national ideology.

My chief assertion is that the key to a proper understanding of ‘Canaanism’ is Horon’s unique vision of the ancient Hebrew past, which constitutes the ‘Canaanite’ foundational myth that stands in sharp contradiction to its Zionist counterpart. Furthermore, I demonstrate that Zionism and ‘Canaanism’ are incompatible not only because they differ over history, but also because some of the basic socio-political notions they employ, such as national identity or nation-formation, are discordant. A methodology such as this has never before been applied to the ‘Canaanite’ ideology, since most of those who have studied the movement treat ‘Canaanism’ either as an artistic avant-garde or as a fringe variation of Zionism.

This study demonstrates that, despite being sidelined by most researchers of ‘Canaanism’, Adya Horon is beyond doubt the leading figure of the ‘Canaanite’ movement. I believe that only by giving due weight to the divergence in national historiographies between ‘Canaanism’ and Zionism can we grasp the former’s independence from the latter, both intellectually and politically, without negating ‘Canaanism’s’ complex relationship with Zionism and the sometimes significant overlaps between the two. The dissertation makes systematic use of many newly discovered materials, including Horon’s writings from the early 1930s to the early 1970s (some of them extremely rare), as well as his private archive. My study thus sits at the intersection of three fields of academic enquiry: nationalism studies; language-based area studies; and historiographical discourse analysis.


Inspiration to undertake this research

What attracted me to Hebrew nationalism and the ‘Young Hebrews’ in particular was that they were very ‘unusual suspects’ in what is regarded as anti-Zionism. While it is easy to imagine how various left-wing ideologies can bring some Israelis to reject quite forcefully their own state’s founding ideology, in the case of the ‘Young Hebrews’ we are dealing with right-wing nationalists, reared intellectually in the Jabotinskian Revisionism, then transcending it to reject Zionism on the basis of an alternative national vision. This is extremely fascinating since ‘Canaanism’ is certainly not another instance of Jewish anti-Zionism, but an autochthonous nationalism fighting what it regards as an imported, faulty and encumbered imitation of nationalism (meaning Zionism and Pan-Arabism). Their criticism of Zionism’s internal inconsistencies and weaknesses is highly illuminating to everyone interested in Middle Eastern political and intellectual history, and that of course does not entail subscription to any of ‘Canaanism’s tenets.

The second motive is more personal and relates to my own background as a person who spent most of his life in Israel without being born in the country and thus without sharing really in Israeli native patriotism. I believe that the most adequate understanding of ‘Canaanism’ is that the movement represented a form of Israeli patriotism that rejected Zionism flatly. Actually, this rejection is precisely what made it a patriotic Israeli movement. Thus, researching ‘Canaanism’ (and related phenomena) enlightened me on the fact that there are numerous ways of defining Israeliness and Israeli identity, not all of which need to conform to the ideological limits set up by the dominant Israeli state-ideology, and that ‘being an Israeli’ can indeed be framed in a multitude of positions, negotiated and renegotiated. For someone like me, who has spent most of my life in Israel, though not born there and therefore not really able to share in its state-ideology, this was a truly liberating insight. This helped me to phrase an answer to the question which I had had to deal with even since I moved to Israel at the age of eight: what does it mean for me to be an Israeli?


An in-depth look into one aspect of the dissertation

My dissertation examines an aspect of the relationship between historical writings and nationalist ideology in the Israeli context. It spans such apparently distant topics as pre-biblical paganism, mid-20th century Zionist politics, Arab nationalisms (in plural), Herderian philosophy of time, Gramscian sociology of intellectuals and some political and cultural teleologies. While doing research on the methodological core of my dissertation I discovered, to my amusement, that the historiographic ideas we would today describe as post-modern and innovatively deconstructivist were suggested as early as in the 18th century by the German scholar Johannes Chladenius. It is true, as the saying goes, that everything new is well-forgotten old.

Significantly, I was astonished to learn how deeply ingrained an ideology can become in scholarship, to the point of invisibility. In my dissertation, I analysed the ‘Young Hebrews’ movement in Israel, which advocated a Hebrew indigenous nationalism, independent of Jewish residues and, concomitantly, of Zionism. My analytical innovation was to apply nationalism research tools to this movement. Despite the apparent ‘obviousness’ of such an analytical step, I learned that it has never been explored by Israeli scholars. The reason for this, I gather, is that such a perspective would entail the assumption that the Hebrew national identity is as legitimate as the Jewish one. By implication, this might lead one to acknowledge that it is the indigenous Hebrews who have the primary right for national self-determination in Israel and not the newly-arrived Jews; in consequence, Israel might thus become a Hebrew republic, instead of its self-declared status of a state of the Jews, for the Jews, by the Jews.

Therefore, the mere attempt to look at the ‘Young Hebrews’ from the perspective of nationalism studies would be enough to deeply undermine the fundamentals of Zionism. Being committed to neither ideology, I ‘permitted’ myself to do this.


Perspective on the fields of nationalism, ethnicity, and race

I believe that nationalism’s global relevance is particularly beneficial by helping to counterbalance academic anglo-centrism, which in my opinion has become overly dominant in certain spheres of the humanities. I prefer to treat nationalism studies as an analytic method rather than a scholarly field that stands by itself. After all, there is no ‘pure nationalism’ in the sense that there is ‘pure mathematics’ or ‘pure physics’. Every study of nationalism necessarily arises from an empirical background, even when it is highly theorised.


Reflections on the job market

I am perhaps ill-positioned to give testimony here, as I am not acquainted well enough with the realities of the academic job market in the UK, having spent only three and a half years in a single university. Insofar as my relatively narrow perspective permits me to judge, it seems to me that the well-developed career support and advice sector for graduates and postgraduates in British universities (or, at least, in my own alma mater) is a way to avoid the crucial though ‘unmentionable’ fact that academic education no longer guarantees one to have a long-term and stable career in his or her chosen field. During my postgraduate studies, I have attended several workshops and meetings devoted to coping with ‘life outside’, where too many truisms were stated and too few concrete and original ideas were suggested. I am aware, of course, that this not the fault of the University of Manchester (or of any other university, for that matter), but of the global economic reality. But it is distressing to observe that the academia is playing along, pushing too many highly-qualified people to the position of a ‘precariat’ (at least temporarily) by the proliferation of various ‘temporary’, ‘fixed-term’ and other ‘early-career’ positions. I do not believe that there is something particular here that pertains to students of nationalism; rather, this is true for most humanities and social sciences scholars.


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About Junpeng Li 11 Articles
Junpeng Li is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Columbia University in NYC, USA. His areas of research are contentious politics and ethnic politics, with a geographical focus on China.

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