An Iranian intellectual's trip to Israel in the 1960s revealed the strange appeal of secular republicanism to religious ethno-supremacists
In March of 2010, Iranian photojournalist Caspian Makan visited Israel as a guest of the Israeli television network Channel Two. Makan was the fiancée of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian bystander shot dead by government security forces during the crackdown on the Green Movement protests of 2009. Agha-Soltan’s death became a symbol that galvanized opposition to the Ahmadinejad government in Iran, and Makan later fled the country amid the intense attention the incident garnered.
During his visit to Israel, Makan met with President Shimon Peres and declared himself to be “an ambassador of the Iranian people” and “a messenger from the camp of peace.” His visit provoked a backlash among many Iranians, particularly those within the Green Movement, who saw the move as a “gift” to the Iranian regime for ostensibly allying protesters with one of the government’s greatest external enemies. Agha-Soltan’s mother even came out in condemnation of the trip, saying that Makan had “misused Neda’s name” and “ruined [his] reputation” by going because “Israel does not have any place among the Iranian people.” She added, “please let Neda's soul be at peace."
The uproar in Iran, notably, mentioned neither Palestinian resistance nor ethnic cleansing, nor the guilt of Peres or Channel Two. Even among those opposed to the visit, the reactions from within Iran barely mentioned the legitimacy bestowed upon the “Zionist entity” by the visit of a self-described spokesperson of the Iranian people. Instead, the backlash was entirely focused on the Iranian meaning of the act – the ways in which it aligned or diverged with the government's interests and the implications that this could have for the domestic opposition. Makan’s visit to Israel seemed to be far more about Iranian internal politics than it was about Israel itself.
In 1964, prominent Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad also visited Israel on an official trip. The results of his time spent there were compiled into a travelogue entitled Journey to the Land of Israel, which was added onto and published by his brother Shams in 1984 after Al-e Ahmad’s death under the title Journey to the Land of the Angel of Death [Ezrail]. This text was recently translated and released in English by Samuel Thrope as The Israeli Republic.
The existence of the diary itself is quite surprising. Al-e Ahmad is widely commemorated as one of the great intellectual inspirations for the Iranian Revolution, and his trip to Israel came only two years after the release of his seminal work, Westoxification (also translated as “Occidentosis”), a condemnation of the invasion of Western culture under the Pahlavi regime and a call for the Iranian nation to return to its traditional culture, which he defined in deeply Shia Islamic terms, in order to forge a new vision of society. The fact that he was personally invited by an Israeli embassy official in Tehran and taken on a government tour of the country makes the work’s existence all the more striking.
The book consists of the translator’s introduction as well as five chapters, retaining the structure of the book as it was published in Persian after the Revolution. The first four chapters are Al-e Ahmad’s recollections of his trip to Israel, which primarily take in a visit to Jerusalem as well to a kibbutz on the Syrian border, Ayelet HaShahar. A friend of Al-e Ahmad, however, wrote the fifth chapter (although Al-e Ahmad notes at the beginning that he added to the piece), which was penned immediately following the Israeli invasion of its neighboring countries in 1967. The four chapters written by Al-e Ahmad portray Israel in an overwhelmingly positive light, but the tone shifts dramatically in the last chapter in light of the war.
Thrope works to convince the reader that Al-e Ahmad’s 1964 travel diary is as much, if not more, about Iran than it is about Israel. In the introduction, Thrope argues that the visit came about in the context of growing relations between the two states, and that Al-e Ahmad’s writings reveal that he believed Israel to be a potential utopia that offers an example of how to “overcome” the division between East and West in Iran that he highlighted in his work “Westoxification.” Later Thrope goes even further, arguing that Al-e Ahmad envisioned Israel as a potential model of an “Eastern and Islamic utopia,” even while he recognized that the Zionist project had brought the “sure bridgehead of Western capitalism” into the Middle East as part of a “coarsely realized indemnity” for the sins of Europe in the Holocaust.
Thrope says that for Al-e Ahmad, Israel represented "a mix of Western industry and native culture,” appealing to him as a potential model for Iran while also resolving "his personal and cultural crisis” as a secular leftist intellectual who embraced Islam as a key to Iranian authenticity. Indeed, Thrope argues that for Al-e Ahmad these contradictions seem to have been addressed in the young Israeli state, which had succeeded in rooting itself in the land by dint of its socialist principles and an ethno-nationalist vision that extended beyond its borders but maintained a secular emphasis.
Thrope focuses on Al-e Ahmad’s use of the word “velayat” in particular, arguing that its prominence in Al-e Ahmad’s prose instead of a more common Persian substitute for “state” or “nation” indicates that he saw an ideal Islamic model realized in an Israel that imagined itself to be the guardian of Jews worldwide while simultaneously embarking on projects of wealth redistribution and universal education at home. Thrope’s tone grows increasingly romantic and celebratory through the course of analysis, and his excitement reaches a crescendo towards the end of the introduction when he bursts out in joy at what he calls a “a truly unprecedented take on Zionism”:
Today it is just as easy to be overwhelmed (and infatuated) by the power of Al-e Ahmad’s vision of Israel as an ideal Islamic state: An Iranian who loved Zionism! A Muslim who loved Israel! Encountering these early chapters of The Israeli Republic for the first time, it is difficult not to think in exclamation points.
He concludes by comparing Iran and Israel’s contemporary situations, arguing that they both face contradictions between reconciling tradition and modernity, religion and state, and the conflict between “ideological commitment and intellectual freedom.”
Putting aside momentarily the wave of clichéd generalizations that flow through the translator’s jubilation at finding a “Muslim who loved Israel,” perhaps the most surprising aspect of Al-e Ahmad’s travelogue itself is how ignorant he is of the country he is encountering, and how much his descriptions rely on the explanations that his official Israeli government tour leaders give him. This naiveté and facile acceptance of the narratives he is presented with is further colored by a deep streak of anti-Arab racism that tumbles out incoherently when he tries to explain the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
His anti-Arab sentiments emerge from a very specific elite Persian nationalist view of history whereby the spread of Islam is configured as an Arab attack on Aryan civilization, and Persians are understood as a people subjugated and oppressed by their incompetent and hateful Arab neighbors. “I who suffered…at the hands of these rootless Arabs am happy with the presence of Israel in the East,” Al-e Ahmad says, highlighting that he has been “beaten by the Arabs’ stick in the past and am still taking a beating now.”
These lengthy diatribes against a monolithic expanse of corrupt, violent, and money-hungry “Arabs” bent, as he says, on re-establishing the Caliphate, recycle the same Orientalist clichés that circulate within Israeli discourse, while his use of the phrase “parasitic” to describe Palestinian refugees abroad comes almost straight out of an Israeli Foreign Ministry handbook. “The Arabs” are at once too Muslim and yet not Muslim enough, and he distinguishes himself from their anti-Israeli sentiment by pointing out that as an “Easterner” like himself “devoid of fanaticism,” he sees Israel as a “herald of a future not too far off.”
At the same time, Al-e Ahmad’s anti-Arab streak reflects a wider fascination with Israel among the Iranian intellectual elites of his time. The Pahlavi regime espoused a narrowly ethno-nationalist view of Iran and Iranian history that celebrated the pre-Islamic Persian imperial past. This vision not only excluded non-Persian ethnic minorities within Iran (who comprise just under half of the population), but also produced a specifically anti-Arab discourse that married anti-clerical sentiment with a sense of racial superiority to neighboring Arab countries. This discourse also created a sense of attachment to Iran’s non-Arab neighbors, leading to an “Alliance of the Periphery” that encompassed to some extent Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel, and even royal Ethiopia at times. This sense of alliance with Israel against the Arabs pervades much of Al-e Ahmad’s text, even if it rarely emerges in explicitly geopolitical terms.
Despite his translator’s exclamation points, the text’s fascination with Israel comes crashing down in the last chapter, as the Zionist project expands in one fell swoop into the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights. The chapter’s relationship to Al-e Ahmad is still quite unclear, however, as it was originally a letter from a friend that Al-e Ahmad edited and added his own input into. A cryptic note at the beginning written by Al-e Ahmad says that “the nonsense and beard-pulling is mine; the reasonable speech his,” implying that he felt at least partial ownership over the piece and most likely agreed with the general thrust. Thrope suggests, however, that Al-e Ahmad’s brother, who published the book, may have included the letter in order to allow the text to pass the post-Revolutionary censors, which would have likely rejected anything so pro-Israel in the new political climate.
Regardless, this chapter dramatically reframes the rest of the book, highlighting the support of European intellectuals for Israeli expansionism and condemning the forcible expulsions of Palestinians from the recently occupied lands. The author decries the hypocrisy of Israeli leaders, arguing that, “Zionism is exactly as dangerous as the Arab puppet governments” and stressing the need for a bi-national federal state for Arabs and Jews in the region.
The fifth chapter is the first time in the text where we seem to be reading about Israel as Israel, and not as a projection of Al-e Ahmad’s take on Iranian fantasies and internal conflicts. Until this moment, Al-e Ahmad’s reflections read about as intellectually as the diary of a typical young American Jew on Birthright – excited by the opportunity of a free trip, vaguely aware that Israel might be doing something wrong, but too ignorant and unconcerned to actually explore those suspicions. But in the fifth chapter, the Israel he sees is actually the country at war, and not a metaphor for anything else.
Thrope is in many ways correct in his introduction when he asserts that Al-e Ahmad is using Israel to think about Iran. Like Caspian Makan, Neda Agha-Soltan’s fiancée who visited Israel after fleeing Iran, Al-e Ahmad writes about Israel with an eye towards making a point about Iranian domestic politics as well as its relationship to the Arabs. As a result, Al-e Ahmad’s reflections are not a particularly insightful reading of Israeli realities in the 1960s, but instead do offer a portrait of an intellectual conflicted by his own unresolved tensions. From his perspective, Israel provides a vision of a secular, socialist utopia with firm roots in its “native” culture, a bridge between East and West without the untidy contradictions of life in Iran.
This perspective on Israel, however, is a superficial, ahistorical reading that takes Zionist ideology at face value in the desire to ignore the fact that life everywhere is riven by untidy contradictions. The state of Israel is, of course, precisely not a “native” culture to the land he visits, and any appearance of indigeneity he describes is the direct result of the ethnic cleansing of around 750,000 Palestinians less than 20 years prior. Thrope, who is currently a fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, himself regurgitates this discourse of liberal Zionism in the introduction. This is most obvious when he suggests that the contradictions of Zionism – between desiring a Jewish majority but also seeking to protect the rights of the minority – are somehow new challenges facing Israel since the beginning of the occupation in 1967.
But the only way we can see these two forces as a contradiction, and not the essence of Zionism, is if the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 is completely ignored, or at the best rendered incidental to the history of the Israeli state. The Zionist project was from its beginnings a project of ethno-nationalist settler colonialism, and the Jewish majority there prior to 1967 only existed because 750,000 people had been methodically expelled from their homes in the immediate lead up to, during, as well as after the 1948 Israeli “War of Independence.”
To posit that Israel is faced with the dilemma of being both “Jewish and democratic” is to obscure the fact that Zionism is in its essence a movement that depends on the eradication of the native presence from what it has deemed its own “national homeland.” Zionism is the erasure of the Palestinian presence and “indigeneity” on the land, coupled with the minoritization of the small number of Palestinians who managed to escape ethnic cleansing and stay where they were. If those Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were expelled in 1948 were able to return to their homes (as part of the bi-national federal state that is proposed in the fifth chapter, for example) and live as Israeli citizens in a democratic state, the Zionist project would, for all intents and purposes, collapse. It is both intentionally misleading and deeply naïve to suggest that racism and Israeli democracy are somehow contradictory phenomena when it is clear that without ethnic cleansing, the Israeli republic would not – and cannot – exist.
In chapter four, Al-e Ahmad visits the Israeli kibbutz of Ayelet HaShahar. He is enthralled by the potential of kibbutz life for revolutionizing and socializing society. He speaks with a local resident about the kibbutz and about the guns that residents keep. The resident explains that they will need the guns on the kibbutz as long as they as are “under siege by the Arabs.” In a rare moment of clarity, Al-e Ahmad reminds the resident, “you took this territory by force, and you do not get along with the true owners.”
Ayelet HaShahar sits immediately beside a Palestinian village, Kirad al-Ghannama, whose 406 inhabitants fled in April 1948 following a massacre in a nearby village. The residents were forbidden to return for good in 1956, when Israel demolished their village. Residents for the most part fled over the nearby border to Syria. These events occurred only eight years prior to Al-e Ahmad’s visit, and the hill on which the village is directly visible from the kibbutz. Even today, the decaying foundations and rubble of the village homes can be found along the hill.
It is these haunting absences that pervade the book. Neither Al-e Ahmad nor Samuel Thrope attempt to integrate Zionist history prior to the 1960s into their analysis, and as a result both present us with impoverished, superficial comparisons between Israel and Iran that tell us little about either. Thrope is “infatuated” with Al-e Ahmad, and it is not difficult to see why. Both of these authors's projects are flattered by flawed, superficial readings of Israel and Zionism that are based on Israel’s account of itself, with all the gaps that an official narrative necessarily entails.
The Israeli Republic documents a particular, almost forgotten moment in Iranian intellectual history and its relationship to Zionism, and for this reason it is a rare and fascinating read. Memories of the close relationship Iran had with Israel in the decades prior to the Iranian Revolution have been almost completely obscured by their antagonistic relationship since. A tendency to romanticize this historical connection has emerged in recent years, among Zionists as well as embittered Iranian intellectuals, who look back upon seemingly simpler times when Israel was still young and good, and Iran happily reached out to embrace its secular neighbors. But this was a relationship built on the flimsy promises of ethno-supremacism and historical erasure, and one that should be neither idealized nor recreated.
Thrope’s celebratory tone in the introduction suggests a desire to deploy Al-e Ahmad’s text in the service of this nostalgia, and his tokenizing affection for this “Muslim who loved Israel” comes uncomfortably close to contemporary Israeli government efforts to highlight friendly minority voices while avoiding the issues of ethnic cleansing and occupation at stake. The Israeli Republic is a strange and riveting historical document, and the book offers insight into how pre-Revolution Iranian intellectuals rationalized a support for Israel that is today difficult to imagine. But Al-e Ahmad’s parroting of Orientalist anti-Arab cliches and his troubling ignorance of Israeli history should be seen as an unfortunate chapter in Iranian intellectual history not to be repeated, not a model for the future.