Prof. Liora R. Halperin
Professor of International Studies and History
Distinguished Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies
University of Washington
The Oldest Guard: Forging the Zionist Settler Past (Stanford University Press, 2021)
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The Oldest Guard is a history of local memory in and around the private agricultural colonies (moshavot) established by Ashkenazi Jewish settlers in late nineteenth-century Ottoman Palestine. Though they grew into the backbone of the wine and citrus industries of mandate Palestine and Israel in the twentieth century, absorbed tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants, and became known retrospectively as the “first wave” (First Aliyah) of Zionist settlement, the local history and collective memory of these private landowners and colonies has been eclipsed by the rise of Labor Zionism, the kibbutz, and collectivist conceptions of Zionism.
But the earliest colonies maintained an avid interest not only in their own economic development but in their very status of “first.” Viewing their local commemorations and representations of Zionist “First Ones” as acts of producing a usable past rather than sources for an authentic reconstruction, and in light of memory practices in other settler societies, The Oldest Guard argues for re-situating a class of capitalist, moderate, and politically disorganized rural agriculturalists at the heart of a story of twentieth-century Zionism. Through ceremonies, commemorations, and stories of private landowners, early guardsman, and frontier heroism, the late nineteenth-century colonies promoted a model of a Zionism that combined religiosity, private enterprise, and a supposed sense of having preceded and transcended the nascent Zionist-Palestinian conflict through hierarchical economic relations rather than labor separation. This nexus of values, often lacking a strong political apparatus of its own, claiming moderation and distance from “politics”-- but with deep political consequences--appealed not only to descendants of founders but to an emerging array of forces on the political center and right that would seek and increasingly claim a voice in Zionist politics over the course of the 20th century.