'The Old New Land' and the Doomed Utopia of Israel

By Alex Wallace


“In the name of God, leave Palestine alone!”

  • Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, Mayor of Jerusalem in an 1899 letter to Zadok Kahn, Chief Rabbi of France


"I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it's the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism. [Chaim] Herzog was speaking at the site of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but he spoke only about the Jews. How could he not mention that others – many others – had suffered there? Sick people, when they are in pain, cannot speak about anyone but themselves. And when such monstrous things have happened to your people, you feel nothing can be compared to it. You get a moral ‘power of attorney,’ a permit to do anything you want – because nothing can compare to what has happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel."

  • Uri Avnery, Israeli peace activist


I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return

  • W. H. Auden, September 1st, 1939



Even in our age, where it seems like all has been illuminated, we still have our enduring set of unsolved problems. These are P versus NP and the Riemann Hypothesis and the Navier-Stokes Equations and the Theory of Everything. They bewilder us and frustrate us and make us want to throw our belongings about our rooms as solutions to them elude us.


The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is another such problem, albeit one involving things far messier than mere numbers. This is a problem of human passions and ancient history and religious doctrine. This is a problem involving human beings, and those, as history would show us, are things that are not easily solved.


My interest in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict started when I read Zion’s Fiction: a Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature, edited by Emanuel Lottem and Sheldon Teitelbaum in the summer of 2019. It was a chance find in the ‘new’ section of my neighborhood library. The stories in that collection are all quite good and are all worth reading, but what has stuck with me the most is not any story but rather the introduction. The introduction traced the history of Jewish speculative literature, culminating with the development thereof in the State of Israel. The most bold assertion of theirs is that it is natural that Israel has such a tradition, as it is, so they argue, the most science fictional country on Earth, because one of its greatest inspirations was a utopian science fiction novel published in 1902.


That novel is The Old New Land by Theodor Herzl, the great Zionist leader and thinker that began the impetus that culminated in the Jewish state of his dreams declaring its independence in 1948. From his vantage point of 1902, Herzl describes a Jewish state in Palestine (a word that didn’t then have the connotation it does today) in the then-future 1920s that is a land of plenty and peace for all its citizens, Jew or gentile. It is utopian science fiction reminiscent of the work of H. G. Wells, with its concern with social issues, and is, in my opinion, neglected by readers in terms of being such.


The argument put forth by Lottem and Teitelbaum does then appear to make sense. If a national movement that succeeded in making a desert bloom was inspired, in part, by a science fiction novel, then logically it would follow that the end result is something profoundly science fictional. It led me to read much on Israel, and as you must with reading about Israel, I also read much about Palestine, for the two are inseparable. As I read more and more about that war-ravaged land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, it led me to ponder Lottem and Teitelbaum’s argument.


If Israel is a profoundly science fictional country, what about the Palestinians?


This piece is in many ways a response to the argument made in that introduction, taking into account the history of the region and the policies of the Israeli government. Herein, I shall examine the world of The Old New Land and compare it to how the State of Israel and the Palestinian Territories actually turned out, and to examine the notion of Israel being a science fictional phenomenon.


(A couple of notes on vocabulary - when referring to the movement that sought to establish a Jewish national homeland in what was then the Ottoman Vilayet of Palestine or the British Mandate of Palestine, I shall use ‘Zionist’ when describing events and circumstances before 1948, the foundation of the State of Israel. After that, I shall use ‘Israeli’ to describe the actions of that government; this is not to imply that all Israelis support every policy of said government. When discussing such dissenters I shall make it clear in the text.


Similarly, there is a temporal distinction in how I shall refer to the Arabs who have lived in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Before 1948, ‘Palestinian’ was a general, non-sectarian term for the residents of the Vilayet and the Mandate. I shall use ‘Palestinian Arab’ when discussing events before the founding of the State of Israel. However, after 1948, Jews in the region overwhelmingly adopted the name ‘Israeli’ and rejected ‘Palestinian;’ note how the Jewish newspaper The Palestine Post became The Jerusalem Post in 1950. After 1948, I shall use ‘Palestinian’ to refer to the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the refugees living in other countries. I use ‘Arab citizens of Israel’ or similar when discussing those Arabs who live within the boundaries of said state; note that how such citizens identify is a point of contention).


We shall start with Herzl’s novel. Its title refers to how the Zionist movement sought to do a new thing in an ancient land. This new thing was the socialist society that many of the early Zionists wanted; they brought into existence the communal kibbutzim. Contrary to popular belief, the Zionists of the early twentieth century were not mostly acting out of religious conviction. They believed that Europe was not safe for the Jews (and it is to be noted that Zionism of the day was a distinctly European movement), and conceived of such in ethnic terms. Nightmares like the Kishinev Pogrom were on their minds as they planned their return to their ancestral homeland. Many of them were atheists who thought Judaism as a religion was hopelessly outdated and was keeping their people backward. Many of them were stridently anti-capitalist. Their view of a Jewish state was distinctly utopian.


The Old New Land was originally written in German, and was translated into many other languages. When it was translated into Hebrew by Nahum Sokolow, he rendered its title in metaphorical terms, contrasting an ancient archaeological mound filled with artifacts of the Israelites of the Tanakh with the new life promised by a bubbling spring.


In Hebrew, that name is ‘Tel Aviv.’


In several of the books I’ve read on the subject, The Old New Land is tarried as dull and plodding. This is understandable; the character development is almost non-existent and the plot is very clearly a ramble through this utopian Palestine to show off various things that Herzl advocated. In that regard, it is very science fictional (aren’t we alternate historians all guilty of that at one point or another?). In any case, I found it to be more readable in English translation than many have said; occasionally the prose can be elegant (I read this version, for those who may want to dispute that).


But it is science fictional in more ways than mere rambling, literally and figuratively. Two of its main characters, after meeting in Vienna, spend much time alone on an island in the Pacific for twenty years, stopping in Palestine on the way to their voluntary exile. They return via boat to Palestine at the end of their exile and see all the marvels that Herzl wishes to impress upon you. One of the first things they see when returning to Palestine is an electric railway suspended above the streets.


This Palestine is a majority-Jewish state that is nevertheless tolerant of all ethnicities and religions; there is an Arab character who has little point more than to proclaim how tolerant this ‘New Society’ (Herzl’s term) is. It is a world where newspapers are run by their subscribers and take no advertising money. People live lives of meaningful labor and appreciation of the arts.


But if one reads the book with knowledge of how the region would really turn out in the twentieth century, the ‘New Society’ comes off as cruelly ironic. Those who have done their reading know that inter-communal relations within Israel are far from rosy; the more astute will notice that Herzl mentions Sidon and Tyre as being part of this Palestine; in our world they are in Lebanon, a country that Israel has fought two savage wars of peace, and has withdrawn from that country twice in ignominy. Perhaps even more biting is that the named characters visit Quneitra, portrayed as part of this Jewish state, whereas in reality it is in the contested Golan Heights.


Perhaps the most bitter irony in the entire book is that Herzl’s Palestine has no military.


The Old New Land is a book that betrays many assumptions that Herzl had as he led the Zionist movement. There was this assumption that the Zionists could waltz into the land and everything would be fine and dandy, woefully ignorant of the fact that the large Arab population of the land would simply take a colonization lying down.


It is here that we should remember that ‘utopia,’ when translated from Greek, can be rendered as a ‘non-place,’ a place that does not exist.


So we must then ask: “Was the world of The Old New Land, one where Jews and Arabs lived in harmony without any major violence, even possible?”


No. It was not.


The way that the Zionist movement thought of itself, the Land of Israel, and the Arabs simply did not permit it. They wanted a homeland for the Jews, and primarily for the Jews. There were some thinkers that advocated living in peace and tolerance, and one odd fellow who proposed intermixing with the Arabs, as they were a fellow Semitic people, and that the fellahin of Palestine were the descendants of the Jews of the Tanakh. But there were many others of a harder bent that openly advocated the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from the land. This went all the way up to Herzl himself; he said in his diaries that:


“we shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country […] The removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”


Others were even more forceful against the Arabs. There was a movement, called Revisionist Zionism, spearheaded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky that advocated a hard line against the Arabs. For example:


“Yet if homeless Jewry demands Palestine for itself it is "immoral" because it does not suit the native population. Such morality may be accepted among cannibals, but not in a civilised world. The soil does not belong to those who possess land in excess but to those who do not possess any. It is an act of simple justice to alienate part of their land from those nations who are numbered among the great landowners of the world, in order to provide a place of refuge for a homeless, wandering people. And if such a big landowning nation resists which is perfectly natural – it must be made to comply by compulsion. Justice that is enforced does not cease to be justice. This is the only Arab policy that we shall find possible.”

It should be noted that Revisionist Zionism later evolved into a number of Israeli right-wing parties, including Likud. It is interesting to note that Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was Jabotinsky’s secretary for a time.


Saree Makdisi, in his book Palestine Inside Out, argues that the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not about religion or ethnicity at its core, but rather about land. There are “two indigenous peoples” (as Yossi Klein Halevi would call them) with long histories in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, with intense and rational desire to make their homes there. They both have holy sites there, down some of them being on the same mountain in Jerusalem.


The Zionists did not plan what they did out of pure malice. Indeed, there was a strong yet deeply selective empathy at play in their plans. The Zionist movement came out of a Europe that had seen pogrom after pogrom for a millennium. It was a time when Russians devastated the Jewish part of Kishinev and conscripted Jewish boys into the navy, France declared a Jewish soldier to be disloyal without evidence, and Germany hosted a movement that was so anti-Semitic that they invented that very word to describe themselves. It was a continent that seemed to be proclaiming that it had no love, no use, and no need for its Jews, and so much of the Jewish intelligentsia started to look elsewhere.


Can you blame them for wanting a new home?


The Arabs of Palestine were not and are not inherently antisemitic. They did, however, see the land upon which they worked bought up from absentee landlords in Damascus or Beirut by foreigners, who then expelled them from the lands that they had worked for their livelihood for generations. Later, they would see their brethren slaughtered at Deir Yassin, an atrocity that would be replayed a hundredfold during what Palestinians call al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe. They were marched out of their homes at gunpoint and settled in refugee camps beholden to Arab governments that saw them as little more than bargaining tools. They saw a vibrant culture and society that had flourished under Ottoman rule be decimated within the span of two generations.


Can you blame them for demanding a right of return to their old home?


Palestinian irregulars of the Holy War Army, approaching al-Qastal village near Jerusalem to take it back from Palmach.

Even in the beginning, as the Zionists started building their settlements, a clash was inevitable. Many in the Zionist movement opposed the use of Arab labor; they did not want to become ‘colons,’ and many of them likewise believed that European Jews had become too used to the creature comforts of urban living, and that they ought to harden themselves by manual labor. This created a society segregated harshly between Arab and Jew. They each wanted this land, had ties to this land, and would fight for this land.


And so the unstoppable Zionist force rammed into the immovable Arab object.


The Zionists had a very important major advantage over the Arabs in Palestine, and that was organization, one that would culminate in the founding of the state of Israel (it is interesting to note that Rashid Khalidi, a noted Palestinian intellectual, has arged in his book The Iron Cage: a History of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood that a lack of organization is perhaps the Palestinian cause’s greatest weakness). The Zionists had a goal that fitted a movement that was in part inspired by a science fiction novel. It is a goal that has been the goal of many great science fiction and fantasy writers.


They were worldbuilders.


They approached their task with the determination that many writers of speculative fiction do. They wanted it to satisfy the goals of a creative enterprise, to be logically consistent and intellectual sound. They differed from writers (like many on this forum) only in that they had every intention of bringing into actual reality.


They aimed to create a Jewish homeland, secure in its character as such. In doing so, they were worldbuilding in the service of a narrative, not a fictional one but a national one. Chaim Weizmann proclaimed that his goal was “to make Palestine as Jewish as England as English.” Like Herzl before them, many leaders of the movement openly advocated an expulsion of the Arabs that already lived there. They wanted to make their utopia, their ‘non-place,’ into a very real place. But unlike science fiction writers, they had to face the fact that when you try to worldbuild in real life, the world can object quite strenuously.


They had lobbyists in London to see that through, Chaim Weizmann foremost among them. They built their militias, foremost among them the Haganah, to defend their gains. They bought up land, and had contacts with Jews in other countries to ensure a steady flow of cash. They bought weapons. They built kibbutzim and moshavim in an attempt to make a desert bloom.


But the Zionist movement had never quite fully reckoned with the fact that the Palestinian bride was beautiful, but she was married to another man. They oversaw the emigration of Jews from Europe to Palestine. In 1922, eleven percent of the population of the Mandate were Jews. In 1945, they were thirty-one percent. Their goal seemed to be in sight.


But after the great conflagration of the Second World War, which decimated the Jews of Europe, there was a new urgency in their efforts. The Jews needed a homeland, and they needed it immediately, so they claimed. Worse, the British kept on denying ships filled with European Jews to enter Palestine, sometimes sending them back, most infamously in the case of the SS Exodus; this led to a terrorist campaign against the Mandate that bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. By 1948, the Zionists and their supporters, gentile and Jew, were no longer content with waiting.


Although it had begun during the Ottoman period and continued through the Mandate, the Zionist worldbuilding project did not begin to reach the heights that its forebears envisioned until the war that begun in 1947. This is the war that birthed the State of Israel at a museum in Tel Aviv, where David Ben-Gurion, who would become the first Prime Minister of the new republic, proclaimed independence beneath a portrait of Theodor Herzl. This is the war that was turned into a heroic epic in Otto Preminger’s 1960 film Exodus. That day is remembered as Israel’s independence day, a day of glory and pride, the end of millennia of injustice and oppression.


The Palestinians see things differently.


What is to Israeli Jews the War of Independence is to the Arabs of that land known as al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe.


That short war is portrayed in Israel as heroic Haganah soldiers fighting off the combined armies of all of Israel’s neighbors. It is true in the sense that there was an Arab coalition to fight the Israelis, but that conventional war is only one part of the story, and perhaps in the long term the less impactful of the two. The other was the military effort by the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces (formed from the Haganah and from other Jewish partisan groups) to expel Arabs from lands they had lived in for centuries to ensure that the newly formed Jewish state had a Jewish majority.


The exact nature of such expulsions is hotly contested in the literature on the subject. Ilan Pappé wrote a harrowing book entitled The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (a book, I will note in the interests of fairness, came not without significant controversy), which argues that David Ben-Gurion was advised by a body he calls the ‘Consultancy’ to plan the expulsion of the Arabs. Benny Morris, a right-leaning historian, argues that the expulsions came mostly from local commanders. That is the modern debate; the older debate is whether the Palestinians were expelled at all, or if they left ‘voluntarily.’

In regards to how voluntary their flight was, consider:


If your homes were being razed by an invading army, you would run.

If your neighborhood was being shelled by artillery from high ground, you would run.

If your water supply was deliberately contaminated with typhoid, you would run.


The newly formed Israeli government wasted no time in remaking that land into something as close to the traditional Zionist vision as they possibly could. Many Arab towns had their names hebraicized and settled with Jews; in some cases, the homes of evicted Palestinians were given to Holocaust survivors. These new towns were, like many settlements before them, were made to ensure that this new society would be as Jewish as England is English.


The importance of land is emblematized by the use of the Jewish National Fund to develop much of this territory; the Fund would only sell or lease its land to Jews, explicitly barring Arabs from land they had once lived on.


But that is not the most striking alteration of the land that early Israel undertook. Today, Israel is known for its lush and beautiful forests. Many of those forests, however, were not there in the time of the Bible; they were planted after the 1948 war, and not just anywhere. Many forests in Israel were planted on the sites of Arab villages that had been destroyed by the Israelis during the war to deliberately obscure the fact that anyone else had lived in that land. To add insult to injury, many of these forests were planted with European trees.


Panorama of Tel Aviv, photo taken by 'RaphaelQS' and shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0r licence

One could argue that the entire raison d’etre of the State of Israel is to further on that worldbuilding project; there is a single line of utopian logic that connects Rosh Pinna, Degania, Tel Aviv, Gush Etzion, Kiryat Arba, and Har Homa. When it conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the short and fiery war of 1967, Israel began to take its world-building to a whole new level, not merely within its own borders but within the occupied territories. Much of this settlement was based off of a plan drafted by Yigal Allon, the Minister of Labor in the government of Levi Eshkol, the triumphant prime minister who led the country through that war.


Large portions of Israeli society in one way or another supported the worldbuilding effort, oftentimes in ways strongly at odds with the original Zionist movement. Perhaps most obvious of these are the religious Zionists, whose movement was spearheaded by the likes of rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and later his son Zvi Yehuda Kook, also a rabbi, who spread their teachings through the yeshiva named Mercaz HaRav. One act of that school of thought is revelatory: in 1968 a group of religious Zionists under the leadership of Moshe Levinger, a rabbi who had studied at Mercaz HaRav, booked a hotel in Hebron in the West Bank and then refused to leave after their stays were over, claiming that Hebron was rightfully a Jewish city. Eventually, the IDF intervened, removed the group from the hotel, claimed land outside the Hebron city center under the pretense of defense purposes, and then let the group build the new settlement of Kiryat Arba on that land.


There’s a saying in certain literary discussion circles that one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia. As the embers of the war that birthed the state of Israel faded, that state was each to different people. For Jews in that land, it was utopia; historical films about the war sometimes show jubilation by Jewish residents of the waning Mandate as they listen to the radio announcing the results of the United Nations vote that approved partition. Many saw it as a bulwark against a second Shoah, and many of its survivors made new homes there. It was run by the social democratic trade union party Mapai with a very strong commitment to Jewish social welfare. Kirk Douglas, the American Jewish actor, said that when he visited Israel that it was “wonderful, finally, to be in the majority.”


But if this new state was utopia for its Jewish citizens, it was a dystopia for its Arab citizens. For one, many in the new country didn’t even want there to be Arab citizens. The Arabs that remained within the State of Israel were immediately placed under military administration, aided strongly by the Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency. They were seen as a perpetual fifth column even as they made new lives. As the years went by, there came new plans against them. Successive Israeli government saw an imperative to create a Jewish majority in the Galilee, a northern region of the country with an Arab majority even to this day. In that region is the town sometimes called the ‘Arab Capital of Israel:’ Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus Christ, a town that was spared the fate of many Arab towns in the region because the newly formed Israeli government knew that if that town were to be razed, the Western interests that provided so much support to the country would be furious (similar happened with Bethlehem).


The attempted Judaization of the Galilee came to a head on March 30th, 1976, after the Israeli government announced that it was expropriating land between the Arab towns of Sakhnin and Arraba to expand the Jewish town of Carmiel. It was part of a common Israeli strategy to break up clusters of Arab population with Jewish populations between them to prevent the creation of Arab blocs that could challenge the Israeli state. The response to the expropriation was fury; the Arab population of the Galilee erupted in protest, including a general strike. The events of that day are commemorated by Palestinians worldwide as Land Day.


Land Day Poster from 1985

The Israeli government, by virtue of its conception of its place in the world, has a ruthlessly realistic view of how political power is wielded vis-a-vis its implementation of its vision and of enforcing that vision; I’ve already discussed the forests and the land expropriations. The Israeli government will always respond with great fury at any Palestinian gathering at the site of a razed village. In many cases they built Jewish towns on Arab ruins; a major mental health center, known for its treatment of tourists with ‘Jerusalem Syndrome,’ stands where the bloodletting of Deir Yassin took place. This is all the more so in the West Bank, where the Israeli government is so Machiavellian they follow the advice of The Prince:


“But when states are acquired in a country differing in language, customs, or laws, there are difficulties, and good fortune and great energy are needed to hold them, and one of the greatest and most real helps would be that he who has acquired them should go and reside there. This would make his position more secure and durable, as it has made that of the Turk in Greece, who, notwithstanding all the other measures taken by him for holding that state, if he had not settled there, would not have been able to keep it. Because, if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them. Besides this, the country is not pillaged by your officials; the subjects are satisfied by prompt recourse to the prince; thus, wishing to be good, they have more cause to love him, and wishing to be otherwise, to fear him. He who would attack that state from the outside must have the utmost caution; as long as the prince resides there it can only be wrested from him with the greatest difficulty."

  • From the third chapter of The Prince, as translated by W. K. Marriott, entitled ‘On Mixed Principalities’

It certainly seems like the Israelis took aspects of Machiavelli’s advice to heart in the occupied territories after 1967; after the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, it still seems that a withdrawal from the West Bank is not in the cards. The settlements are the site of a great contradiction between the worldbuilding project and internationally recognized boundaries; they are not technically within the State of Israel, but they are subjected to Israeli law and can vote in Israeli elections. In this regard, they are Schrodinger’s territory, built to extend the vision of a land that is as “Jewish as England is English” throughout the Biblical Land of Israel. This isn’t the only reason; they help deal with demand for housing when rent in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities are through the roof, and they are often made to double as military bases (Saree Makdisi alleges that settlements are often built around Arab towns in such a manner to serve as potential sites for artillery emplacements to bombard those towns). This dystopia is further enforced by a byzantine road access law, the construction of a border wall, the invocation of Ottoman-era land law to confiscate farms divided by aforementioned border wall in what are called the ‘seam zones,’ random detainments, and the application of Israeli military law as the main law for the Arab residents of the West Bank.


The Iraeli worldbuilding project since 1948 has been enforced by ballot and by bullet. That being said, it has never been total; the Galilee, the Triangle (a cluster of villages on the other side of the Green Line from the northern West Bank), and much of the Negev are still majority Arab, and there have been Arab members of every Knesset since the founding of the state. In 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for Adel Ka’adan, an Arab citizen of Israel, to be denied the right to build a house in the Jewish-only town of Katzir (however, it appears that he never actually got to build said house). There are Arabs in Israeli government, Israeli diplomacy, and the IDF (Muslim and Christian Arabs are not drafted into the IDF like Jews are; however, they can volunteer to serve. In addition to Jews, Druze and Circassians are also drafted).


To outsiders, Israel can most certainly appear to be something out of the dreams of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It is a country that ‘made a desert bloom,’ as many of the early Zionist leaders said. It constructed entirely new towns, like Tel Aviv or Petah Tikva, some of which grew to be bustling cities, as homes for refugees fleeing persecution and extermination. It is a country that has given us companies like Waze. It has its ‘Silicon Wadi’ along the Mediterranean coast, and among some circles it is the ‘start-up nation.’ In the ongoing (as of writing) pandemic its vaccination program is the envy of the world.

But flipping that perspective, the history of the country sounds like something out of the nightmares of a science fiction writer. In the late 19th century in Palestine, you had an Arab population that had grown up among the ruins of a civilization that had been expelled from that land by the Romans. Its ruins were scattered about the land, most notably on the Temple Mount. Remnants of that civilization lived on in their homeland, some studying their mysticism at places like Safed.


And then the descendants of that ancient ‘precursor race’ returned to their ancestral land bearing advanced technology and strange new ways of living. They set about terraforming in the name of their grand vision. They built new cities. They fought a war to remake the land, and imposed a dystopia worthy of Orwell on the people who had been there for a millennium.


The history of modern Israel is a lesson in the cost of utopia; as such, it is worth comparing to other attempted utopias. Take any Communist state, the self-professed vanguards of a coming worker’s utopia with goals that few would deny were lofty. Such a movement conjured Magnitogorsk out of nowhere and blasted a man from a launch platform in Baikonur to outer space. Such a movement built the Three Gorges Dam and dragged many agrarian countries kicking and screaming into the industrial age.


But places like Ukraine and Tibet and Uyghurstan and the Baltics know what has been done in the pursuit of utopia. It was churches dynamited and entire ethnic groups deported far from their homes. It was the draining of an entire sea. It was famine and war and pestilence and death.


The Arabs of that sliver of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean likewise know the cost of utopia. The Zionist worldbuilding project from its inception in the nineteenth century onward was doomed from the beginning because it treated reality like fiction. You can build a new world in reality, but reality can and will strenuously object. Reality will never accept a new world built on it without a great deal of violence and resistance. This is why Herzl’s utopian dream was doomed from the start. The visions of what that sliver of land should be are too starkly at odds.


Science fiction as a genre is ultimately about how human beings respond to social and technological change. As Lottem and Teitelbaum note, the creation of the State of Israel was a massive social change for the world’s Jews; as many historians have shown, it was likewise for the Arabs. It is no wonder, then, that the history of that land in the past century and a half would look like science fiction.


If I had to compare that history to any science fiction novel, it would be Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The plot of that novel concerns aliens from a star near Earth fleeing their war-ravaged homeworld invading Earth to make it a new home. That novel shows the dangers of trying to make a real place something that it is not.


John Paul II allegedly said that “the realistic solution would be a divine intervention from heaven; the miraculous solution would be a voluntary agreement between Israelis and Palestinians." Decades later, it still feels apt. The only way that peace will ever come to that sliver of land will be when people on both sides of the Green Line decide to put the guns down, and do so simultaneously; the inglorious end of Yitzhak Rabin shows what happens when the sentiment is not mutual. The people of that land must embrace a vision of its future where Hebron can also be al-Khalil, and where Jerusalem can also be al-Quds. It is only then that they will be able to create a land, a ‘topos,’ that can be real , and must be realistic.

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