Building National Identity
In Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots he identifies and outlines the components of “national identity.” National identity is described as a group’s common historical highlights. This identity is established through “collective memory” i.e. a group’s vision of their history based on historical records revised to fit “social and political agendas.” The revision is not a rewritten history but rather a representation of history with selective emphasis on historical events. A selective emphasis, “elaborates, condenses, omits or conflates historical events” to fit a given agenda. Zerubavel states that “commemoration” is the basis for a group’s collective memory. He holds that commemoration (rituals, holidays, festivals) allows groups to “articulate and negotiate their shared memories of particular events.” When these shared memories are combined, they create a “master commemorative narrative” or a general notion or storyline of a shared past. The shared historical view is termed “commemorative time.” This reconstructed view of historical time, molded by the group’s “commemorative density” and “collective amnesia” (selective emphasis) generates the national identity.
Zerubavel applies his model of national identity to the creation of the state of Israel. He determines that the reconstructing of historical events based on the selected agenda (of the political elite) is the catalyst for a national identity. In the case of Israel, commemorative time is created by first; recalling and glorifying of the Jew’s struggles and successes of antiquity. This is followed by a gap in time of failure and deterioration of group unity (the exile), generating in turn a vision for a rebirth of the glory of antiquity through current generations (new Israeli settlements). This Israeli model selects a certain point in history at which point the cultural identity deteriorates, in turn the historian selects a recent historical event as the positive impetus for a return to the glory of the past. Thus the authors of the historical record directly influence a people’s comprehension of their history.
Zerubavel calls attention to the correlation of historians and the shaping of a nation’s collective memory. He admits that even though historians attempt to be “detached analysts,” they are however members of their society influenced by “prevalent social ideas of the past.” Thus the duality of historians as detached analysts and members of society influenced by collective memory, makes it virtually impossible for them to create “objective” views of the historical record. Nonetheless as Zerubavel holds they are the crucial players in outlining a nation’s collective memory and national identity.
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