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The Sacred-Secular Dialectic: Zionist Superstructure in Palestine



In any society, the economic base (the mode and means of production) is stabilized by the superstructure (i.e. politics, ideology, religion, culture, etc.). This stabilization is due to the dialectic relationship between base and superstructure in which the former shapes and is shaped by the latter.[1] The ideological and cultural apparatuses of capitalism serve to both naturalize and maintain necessary social relations through mutation of common sense (i.e. what is taken for granted). However, in the colonial context the base is also often the superstructure.[2] That is, the appropriation of space, resources, and/or highly exploitable labor is at once the means of production and political/cultural dominance. This colonial reality is particularly pronounced in the political, cultural, ethnic, and economic goals of Zionism.

Taking a principled anti-imperialist and anti-revisionist position, the following paper analyzes Zionism from an historical perspective in order to assess its roots and ideological affiliations as well as to understand its role in processes of accumulation and dispossession. However, as Edward Said asserts:

"[p]resent political and cultural actualities make such an examination extraordinarily difficult, as much because Zionism in the postindustrial West has acquired for itself an almost unchallenged hegemony in liberal ‘establishment’ discourse, as because in keeping with one of its central ideological characteristics, Zionism has hidden, or has caused to disappear, the literal historical ground of its growth, its political cost to the native inhabitants of Palestine, and its militantly oppressive discriminations between Jews and non-Jews."[3]

Colonial amnesia reinforced and reshaped by a public-private partnership of the Zionist superstructure is vital for ongoing Israeli expansion and Palestinian dispossession. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jerusalem. Struggles for legitimacy and recognition determine, in large part, who has a right to Jerusalem and what that right entails. At times, these struggles play out both within and between Israeli and Palestinian communities that are all trying to assert their right to the city—a right reserved for the group that is able to produce space that reflects their beliefs and collective identity. While the Israeli state may enjoy dominance in Jerusalem, its monopoly is only relative and is subject to contestation on the part of Palestinians, non-Israeli Jews, and in some cases Israeli citizens. That is why the Zionist memory—which creates legitimacy in passing as a fixed and uncontestable past—must be actively maintained and adapted to reproduce consent for further colonization.

The prime actors or institutions that work to construct the legitimacy of the Zionist monopoly include the Israeli state—which itself includes both the Israel Defense Forces and agencies such as Israeli Department of Antiquities and Israeli Antiquities Authority—and the private Ir David Foundation/El'ad which finances archeological excavation of the city, educational tourism, and residential programs restricted to Jews. While the first two tactics play key roles in Israel’s pursuit of a legitimate dominance of space, El'ad’s residential programs are intended to make the area strictly Jewish—thereby undermining Palestinian contention. This adds to the Israeli narrative of Zionism and a legitimate monopoly of space by projecting the Jewish exclusivity it seeks to construct and disseminate (through archeology and tourism respectively) on to physical space. Through the appropriation of Palestinian land for the sole purpose of Jewish settlement, Israel has been erasing the living Palestinian history that contributes to a contending meaning of Jerusalem as a place and a home beyond the exclusionary Zionist representation.


The Zionist cause of expansion requires legitimacy which it produces through a shifting and inconsistent memory of Israeli space. The continued colonization of Palestine is powered not only by the financial and military support of the U.S. and other imperialist nations but by a process of “dispossession through amnesia.”[4] As such, there are certain inconsistencies in the collective Zionist memory that when analyzed reveal significant contradictions. The tendency to ignore British imperialism and Zionist colonization prior to the 1948 founding of the Israeli state is a convenient blind spot in the supposedly ancient memory of Zionism. This of course serves a vital purpose as such memories would delegitimize the Zionist narrative. It would expose the origins of ethnic cleaning in Zionist ideology—as opposed to the narrative that Zionist appropriation is justice for the Holocaust which happened after the processes of colonization was already underway. It would also expose the foundational role of western imperialism in strategically creating the conditions and propping up the state of Israel for political and economic dominance in the region. Straight from the mouth of one former British governor of Jerusalem, the Zionist cause gave the British empire the opportunity to set up a “little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”[5] In forgetting this history, Israel can claim land taken from the Palestinians through British conquest—such as Jerusalem in 1917—without acknowledging the dispossession of its inhabitants or the fundamentally imperialist nature of the Zionist project.

The establishment of the Israeli state and the conflict that led up to it resulted in the 1948 conception of the Green Line—the internationally recognized border created by the United Nations’ Resolution 181. This resolution divided Jerusalem into Israeli (West) and Arabic (East) territory, thereby leaving the Old City and the City of David in Jordanian control. The newly established Israel chose Jerusalem as its capital. It was also assumed that East Jerusalem would house the capital of a separate Palestinian state that intended to govern from the Orient House—a culturally significant seat of Palestinian power. This conception was at odds with Ben-Gurion who was determined to make the entire city the capital of Israel.[6] In 2001 Israel shut down the Orient House in a move to bolster their monopoly of political legitimacy. Israel’s development beyond the Green Line began after the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel captured the Old City. The official state narrative would suggest that this was a move to unite Jerusalem. In reality, it marked a new phase in the ongoing campaign of settler colonialism. Paradoxically, Israel has since coupled with its assumptions of an ahistorical and ancient antagonism with Arab inhabitants the assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict originated in 1967—thereby limiting any negotiations to Gaza and the West Bank and refusing to acknowledge earlier acts of ethnic cleansing.[7] Here again, the Zionist memory is purged of historic detail to legitimize continued colonization as an ancient right of Jewish people.

Israel’s claim to space is rooted in the monopolistic assertion of first arrival—a claim of indigeneity meant to displace the indigenous. Ancient religious text is the basis for assuming the essentially Jewish character of Jerusalem.

The state believes it can prove or legitimize this view of exclusively Jewish space via archeology. This ancient narrative is used to make the City of David and the idea of a “unified” Jewish Jerusalem authentic to inhabitants and visitors alike. According to historian Ilan Pappe:

“Zionism secularized and nationalized Judaism. To bring their project to fruition, the Zionist thinkers claimed the biblical territory and recreated, indeed reinvented, it as the cradle of their new nationalist movement.”[8]

This synthesis of the sacred and the secular serves to make the process of expansion and dispossession hegemonic to Israelis and many western states.

The importance of archeology in producing and reinforcing this hegemony can not be overstated. Archeological excavations are used to justify further expansion beyond the Green Line. It is from findings that can be claimed to verify ancient texts that the settler colonial Zionist memory is constructed. The ancient City of David is used to assert the right to contemporary Israeli expansion—a right that entails Palestinian dispossession and the erasure of non-Jewish history. Archeology serves as an institutional means to connecting a modern Jerusalem to Biblical Jerusalem so as to legitimize contemporary development within a religious conception of history. This historical approach to religion and spatial politics means that Israel can find only remains that are understood under their religious paradigm which by its very nature can not be itself disproven since religious authority escapes the rigorous standards historians, geographers, and other scientists are subject to and instead is subject to its own internal logic. All findings that corroborate the narrative are deemed significant while anything that does not fit the conception of a united and inherently Jewish Jerusalem are disregarded as mere static—if not destroyed.[9] It is this blurred line between faith and fact (i.e. religious right and archeological excavation) that Ir David Foundation/El'ad seeks to straddle in its ideological battle with Palestinian (or non-exclusive) Jerusalem.

The conception of a greater metropolitan Jerusalem is the social product of a political struggle over who has the right to space.[10] A united Jerusalem, therefore, implies (at least in the Zionist common sense) a Jerusalem for Jews. The right which Jews feel they are granted through religious history has become a means to monopolize space. The right to the city in Jerusalem and the City of David, in particular, is restrictive rather than liberating. Jews have a right to the city not afforded to Palestinians. In fact, the rights of the former are founded on the dispossession of the latter. While Jewish settlements are frequently erected, most Palestinian construction is considered illegal and therefore subject to demolition. Israeli’s are granted some say as to the composition of Jerusalem, whereas Palestinians are systematically excluded from development decisions and political acknowledgment—with the exception of when they take to the streets. The conception of what constitutes the City of David also grants Israelis the supposedly sacred right to the Old City and Silwan as parts of each are considered to fall within the national park.


Israeli development is first about claiming a monopoly of space it deems to be exclusively Jewish. It is a means to actualize the Jewish Jerusalem in the here and now, of physically constructing social and symbolic space. To do so requires that political, religious, and capitalist components work in lockstep toward Zionist ends of accumulation through ethnic cleansing. Private development relies on political or state power—whether in the form of conquest, security, or subsidization. The relationship between the state and private institutions like the Ir David Foundation combines political and religious authority bound together by Zionist ideology in order to fuel continual expansion.

The blurred line between Israeli development and the state serves to entrench further the expansionist approach of “uniting” Jerusalem into Israeli common sense—thereby preventing mass dissent of its citizens and encouraging their willingness to occupy territory they see as essentially and exclusively Jewish. Getting Israelis to not only consent but to contribute their bodies is essential in making a Jewish Jerusalem as it provides settlers necessary for further development and expansion. This participation is essential to constructing Jewish space out of appropriated land. A parallel can be drawn between imperial subsidies given to British citizens willing to settle in Ireland who were also necessary for establishing political dominance and claiming the land to be legitimately British due to the presence of British people. In fact, the same British forces and tactics that were used against the Irish were unleashed on Palestinians. British politicians saw Zionists serving the same role as the Scottish Presbyterians that colonized the north of Ireland in the 17th century.[11] In the same fashion, creating Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem is used to construct Israeli space in the present as proof of an exclusively Jewish past—the ideological justification of continued expansion. Settler colonialism requires a particularly active form of consent on the part of settlers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the nearby Palestinian village of Silwan. El'ad’s financing of residential programs in Silwan expands the City of David and therefore Jewish Jerusalem. By continually appropriating land, El'ad achieves two goals: reducing Palestinian control of space and the expansion of Jewish space into what is becoming a suburb of the City of David. Such appropriation of land serves to both undermine Palestinian claims and bolster Israeli claims to Jerusalem. As mentioned above, Silwan is seen to fall partially under the jurisdiction of the City of David. Therefore, Zionist common sense gives settlers a supposedly religious right to the land under Palestinian feet.

Given the role of religion in the Israeli narrative of Jerusalem, the authority of the state and institutions like Ir David Foundation represents an ongoing dialectical process between the sacred and the secular in which the public political society and private civil society work hand in and to maintain Zionist dominance. This uniqueness also informs the sociopolitical dynamics at play in Jerusalem. The Zionist cause is preoccupied with justifying Israeli dominance through traditional religious claim which it, in turn, justifies via the institutional function of archeology. Where the public (i.e. the state) provides military protection to instill a sense of security necessary for Ir David Foundation and El'ad to function as intended, the sacred aspects serve to justify the secular power of Israel over Jerusalem as an ancient right reserved solely for Jewish people. It is in the use of archeology that sacred and secular authorities coalesce in an attempt to legitimize the Israeli colonial monopolization of space.

However, archeology is not only a tool for Israeli hegemony but a weapon of counter-hegemony to be turned back on the Zionist conception of Jerusalem.

While the Ir David Foundation looks only to archeological excavation as a means to corroborate with the narrative of Israeli ownership, other organizations see archeological findings as revealing a more demographically diverse spatial history. Emek Shaveh is an archeological activist organization that has been a vocal opponent of the politically motivated City of David excavations. They work in places such as Silwan conducting educational campaigns to promote an opposing view of a land with a diverse history and ethnoreligious demographics. Zochrot—an Israeli-Palestinian organization—is an institution that embodies this spirit of cohabitation and cooperation. These oppositional institutions show that Zionist hegemony is not absolute amongst its citizens and that Israeli civil society (and the larger Jewish population even more so) is a site of contestation that is capable of aligning its interests with Palestinians.

The counter-hegemonic understanding that has developed amongst Israelis and Palestinians alike suggests an alternative conception of Jerusalem as an inclusive and egalitarian place of shared significance. With contending Palestinian claims to space and the absence of absolute consent amongst Israelis, political stability can only be achieved through inclusiveness and cooperation. There is therefore a certain irony in the fact that the assaults perpetrated by Israeli forces in the name of security (a euphemism for exclusivity) actually undermine Israeli hegemony and perpetuate conflict.


In closing, the increasing domination of Zionists over Jerusalem reflects struggles over legitimacy and ownership. This colonial domination is twofold: the ideological process of creating Israeli consent as to what constitutes Jerusalem (and Israeli territory more generally) and the political struggle against conflicting Palestinian claims to space. Israeli hegemony requires consent of citizens as well as the exclusion and eventual expulsion of those who it deems alien. Due to its colonial and exclusionary nature Israel cannot gain Palestinian consent but must control by means of coercive force instead. The consent and active participation (i.e. settlement) that are essential for Israeli hegemony are produced by a narrative of ancient authenticity and rightful ownership. While the Zionist memory sees archeology as a means to legitimize solely Jewish ownership of Jerusalem, no archeological findings can justify exclusion and marginalization of Jerusalem’s other inhabitants.

In fact, archeology has also been used to challenge such attempts at justifying Israel’s takeover by providing evidence of diverse communities that would suggest a more open and inclusive right to the city. This is the counterhegemonic understanding of Jerusalem put forward by organizations like Emek Shaveh. The continued assault on Gaza, annexation of the West Bank, and the full support of the U.S. government—most recently codified in Trump’s “deal of the century”—serves to fully realize the colonial aspirations of the Zionist project. Nothing short of complete extinction of Palestinians can wipe out indigenous resistance. In order to truly resolve issues of ownership and citizenship in Jerusalem—and Palestine more generally—there must be a radical reimagining of space and how people use it to relate to one another. Such a conception implies a shift from the traditional relations of power and exclusion to relations of cohabitation and cooperation. Only then can there emerge a single secular state based on the common right to the land. Only then will Palestine be made “into a human paradise for Arabs and Jews and lovers of freedom.”[12]



[1] Friedrich Engels, Letter to J. Bloch (1890).

[2] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1963), 5.

[3] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (1992), p. 57.

[4] John Nagle, Ghosts, memory, and the right to the divided city: resisting amnesia in Beirut City Centre (2017) Antipode 49(1): 149-168.

[5] Ronald Storrs, Orientations (1945), p.345, 2nd ed. London: Nicholson & Watson.

[6] Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 11.

[9] Dubrovsky A (2018) Jerusalem municipality seizes historic Islamic cemetery.

Silver. C (2015) Claiming to preserve Jerusalem, Israeli archeologists Wreck Palestinian Heritage.

[10] Mark Purcell, Excavating Lefebvre: the right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant (2002). GeoJournal (58):99-108

[11] David Cronin, Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel (2017).

[12] Leila Khaled, My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary (1973).


Cronin D (2017) Balfour's Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel. London: Pluto Press.

Dubrovsky A (2018) Jerusalem municipality seizes historic Islamic cemetery. islamic-cemetery-video/ (last accessed 31 May 2018).

Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Nagle J (2017) Ghosts, memory, and the right to the divided city: resisting amnesia in Beirut City Centre. Antipode 49(1): 149-168.

Pappe, I (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. London: Oneworld Publications.

Purcell M (2002) Excavating Lefebvre: the right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant. GeoJournal (58):99-108.

Said, E. (1992) The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage Books.

Silver. C (2015) Claiming to preserve Jerusalem, Israeli archeologists Wreck Palestinian Heritage. https:// preserve-jerusalem- israeli-archaeologists-wreck-palestinian- heritage/14579 (last accessed 31 May 2018).

Storrs, R (1945) Orientations. 2nd ed. London: Nicholson & Watson.


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