Sternhell, a veteran Israeli political scientist, engages here in a great deal of academic posturing and not much Israeli history. The Founding Myths of Israel is a bid for fifteen minutes of fame in the rapidly expanding circle of Israeli "revisionists" who vie to debunk the received history of Israel. The book in fact involves no debunking—only a restatement of the obvious in political-science jargon. Contrary to his claim of having "search[ed] the archives," the book is based overwhelmingly on published secondary source-material.
Sternhell's central argument, that for the mainstream Zionist labor movement "socialism was always a secondary factor" in comparison with the overriding goal of "national rebirth," comes as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the Zionist saga. Israel's national anthem itself makes this point, stressing "To be a free people in our land." Nor could the priorities be otherwise: there would be no socialism without a sovereign state of one's own.
Sternhell wrongly argues that the founding fathers of Labor Zionism, not having been utopian intellectuals, were contemptuous of "universal norms and values." To the contrary, the institutions of the Zionist movement were from the outset founded on parliamentary-democratic principles. Sternhell misrepresents Zionist socialism, a variant of European social democracy, as a totalitarian brand of socialism, or what he calls "nationalist socialism" and then—to drive the point home—paints it in Germanic colors.
Commentary may be free, to use Ronald Storrs' handy quip, but facts must be sacred. Sternhell has a cavalier approach to facts, getting dates wrong (when the Weizmann-Faysal meeting took place), making anachronistic slips (the "Saudis" in 1917?), and drawing faulty connections (he attributes "the violent disturbances of 1920-21 in Upper Galilee. . . to the [Balfour] declaration," when they were triggered by the French expulsion of Faysal from Syria). Worst of all, Sternhell misrepresents the essence of Labor Zionism, claiming for example that by 1977, "Secondary education, a prerequisite of upward mobility in modern society, was expensive and inaccessible to large numbers of laborers, salaried employees, artisans, shopkeepers, and new immigrants." At a time when Israel boasted one of the most advanced and accessible state-education systems in the world, this is a mind-boggling assertion. But then, why be bothered with facts?