One of the most influential contemporary historians in the field of twentieth-century Jewish and Israeli history, Anita Shapira helped to lay the foundations of Israeli historiography and launch the discipline of Israel Studies. Born in Warsaw in 1940, Shapiro immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1947 with her adoptive parents after her birth parents perished in the Holocaust. After earning her PhD in history, she published her breakthrough biography of Labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson; the book had an enormous impact and turned Shapira into the “princess of Zionism.” Her most important work is Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948. a sprawling investigation of the revolutionary transformation of the Jewish national ethos with regard to the use of force.
Anita Shapira is one of the most important and influential contemporary historians in the field of twenty-first-century Jewish and Israeli history. She is Professor Emerita at the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and winner of the 2008 Israel Prize for research on Jewish history. Shapira played important roles in laying the foundations of Israeli historiography and launching the research discipline known today as Israel Studies.
The Girl from “There”
This quintessential representative of the Israeli historical establishment and a key figure in crystallizing research on native local Israeliness was born in Warsaw in 1940. Shapira’s parents perished in the Holocaust; she immigrated to Mandate Palestine at the age of seven with her adoptive parents. Shapira consistently refuses to speak about her early years. On various occasions, she recalled that, after the success of Berl, her biography of Berl Katzelson, a relative grabbed her and said, “You’re one of us, a refugee. Why are you writing about them and not about us?” “Since then,” she continued, “now and then I write both about ‘them’ and about ‘us.’ From that standpoint, I see myself as someone who’s able to understand both sides—not intellectually but from the gut” (Katzman; interview with Dan Margalit). When Shapira wrote about Holocaust survivors, it was through their encounter with nativeness. “More than that was hard for me.”
The small family reached Haifa in summer 1947, on the day Irgun operatives hanged two British sergeants in a citrus grove in Netanya. She remembers British soldiers standing on every streetcorner and her parents sighing: “Gevalt, what have we come to?” Soldiers garroted her doll’s head in order to rummage inside.
Shortly after she reached The Land of IsraelErez Israel, the War of Independence broke out. Shapira remembers the Egyptian air raids on Tel Aviv as a foundational experience. One day, a bomb landed directly on a building near theirs. She recalls the funeral processions passing her family’s house, sometimes several each day. “My basic empathy for Zionism and its achievements originates in those experiences, too, but they don’t get in the way of a critical approach. The girl who experienced [them] is not exactly the woman who writes.”
Shapira earned her undergraduate degree in general and Jewish history (cum laude) in 1964 at the newly established Tel Aviv University. In 1968, she completed her Master’s degree in general and Jewish history (again cum laude). Her thesis, “The Political Development of the Gdud ha’Avoda,” (a socialist Zionist work group in Mandatory Palestine) was advised by Professor Shlomo Ne'eman . In 1974, she completed her PhD in Jewish history. Her dissertation, “The Futile Struggle: Hebrew Labor 1929–1939,” advised by Professor Daniel Carpi, was approved summa cum laude.
Shapira spent her academic career at Tel Aviv University. From 1990 to 1995, Shapira was dean of the Faculty of the Humanities. From 1995 to 2009, she was the Ruben Merenfeld Professor of Studies in Zionism, and from 2000 to 2012 she headed the University’s Chaim Weizmann Institute for Zionist and Israel Studies. In 2020, she was elected to the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
Berl, the Breakthrough Biography
In 1980, still early in her academic career, Shapira published her biography of Berl Katznelson, one of the most prominent leaders of the Zionist Labor Movement in Mandate Palestine. The book had an enormous public impact. Conferences, workshops, symposia, and a lengthy series of media interviews turned the young scholar into the “princess of Zionism.” Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist, Berl Katznelson, 1887–1944, was based on extensive documentation and rigorous historical research. Enhanced by Shapira’s extraordinary writing skill, it became a bestseller and a paragon of the biographical craft. It has been translated into several languages and won multiple prizes.
Berl was published only three years after the electoral upheaval in Israel that brought a right-wing government, headed by Menachem Begin, to power for the first time. For this reason, Berl was sometimes seen as a requiem to the Israeli Labor Movement and its achievements. On this account, too, it made waves as no history book published in Israel had before.
The enormous success of Berl gave the genre of historical biography a new position in Israel studies, which until then had not looked favorably on this form of writing. It cleared the way for a series of biographers who hoped to reenact its success.
Berl also made Shapira one of the most prominent academic personalities in Israel, an authoritative source for those interested in understanding Israeli society as well as those who criticize Zionism.
Over the years, Shapira published additional biographies: of Yigal Allon (2004), a general in Israel’s War of Independence and a politician during the less glorious days that followed; of Yosef Haim Brenner (2008), the Hebrew writer who retains a special place in the pantheon of the Zionist Labor Movement; and the founding father of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (2015). In all these biographies, Shapira wove her subjects’ life stories into the histories of their eras and displayed the kind of stylistic flourish that occasionally makes scholarly tomes into eagerly sought bestsellers.
In 2020, Shapira published a new book about three members of the Bilu movement: Chaim Chessin, Jacob Chertok, and Zev Dubnow. Again she spun a fascinating tale, this time about young people flush with pathos, torn between exalted values and a disappointing reality. Precisely by focusing on fringe personalities in Zionist history, she shed new light on the beginning of the Zionist project.
The heroes of Shapira’s later books did not sway her from the true object of her research love: “It was and remains Berl Katznelson. He had no equal in his combination of sophistication and leadership. Ben-Gurion was the preeminent leader, of course, but he was not an object for love. With Berl I could converse. To Ben-Gurion I could listen” (Interview with Yaron London).
Books and Articles
Over the years, Shapira has published thirteen books, eight that she edited or co-edited, and dozens of articles. Her best-known articles were gathered into three collections: Walking on the Horizon (1989), New Jews, Old Jews (1997), and Jews, Zionists, and What Is Between Them (2007) (all in Hebrew).
Shapira’s most important work is Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948 (1992), a sprawling investigation of the revolutionary transformation of the Jewish national ethos with regard to the use of force. Making extensive reference to songs of the time, she deftly describes the history of national myths and analyzes their place in the Israeli culture of remembrance. Her study sheds light on the real-world consequences of words and symbols, the way people tell themselves the stories that best fit their needs, and how these stories, some true but many fictive, create reality.
Shapira’s point of departure for Land and Power was an article by Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister at the time she began the book, on the merits of a “war of choice” in Lebanon. In this sense, the book was another example of how Shapira’s writing transcends historians’ professional discourse, taking an active role in public discourse and playing an important part in shaping the image of Israeli society. Shapira neither restricts her discussions to the past nor contents herself with archival documents. Instead, she gives herself license to flow from the past to the present, to contemplate current trends in Israeli society, and to subject these trends to assessment. Two additional examples of such work are her articles “Historiography and Memory: the Case of Latrun 1948” (Hebrew) and “Ben-Gurion and the Bible: The Forging of an Historical Narrative?”
Shapira’s activities and public posts are not confined to the academic world. From 1985 to 1989, she served on the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Israel Council for Higher Education; from 1987 to 1990 she chaired the board of the Am Oved publishing house; and from 1988 to 2010 she was a member of the board of the Zalman Shazar Center, a government agency that engages in research on the Jewish people. From 2002 to 2008, Shapira served as President of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. From 2008 to 2013, she was a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Shapira also initiated the establishment of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies and headed it from 1996 to 1999. In this capacity, she established a forum of young researchers under the umbrella of Tel Aviv University, which she managed until 2018. Dozens of doctoral and post-doctoral students from all universities in Israel have participated. Shapira’s contributions to the forum are further evidence of her abilities as a teacher who, while not withholding criticism, is kindly, generous in sharing her knowledge, and uncompromisingly committed to steering her students through the demands of academia.
Until recently, Shapira co-edited the Journal of Israeli History with Professor Derek Penslar of Harvard University. She also co-edits, in conjunction with Professor Steven Zipperstein of Stanford University, the biographical series Jewish Lives, published by Yale University.
Over the years, Shapira has lectured and taught at many universities including Yale, Berkeley, UCLA, Brandeis, and New York University, to name only a few. In addition, she has been a member of and a consultant to multiple boards of directors, committees, councils, and foundations in Israel and the United States.
The “New Historians” Controversy
Due to her books’ success and her central position in the Israeli academic world, Shapira attracted much criticism in the controversy that erupted in Israel in the late 1980s between the “New Historians” and the “old” ones. In this polemic, Shapira was termed a key member of the latter group, the ostensibly establishment faction; critics argued that her studies were committed to the “Zionist narrative”—even though in her books and articles, some predating the controversy, Shapira powerfully and firmly challenged some of the myths that generations of Zionist establishmentarians had tried to instill. Other critics charged her with absenting “others” in her studies— Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi Jews, women, and right-sing figures, inter alia.
Being a Successful Woman in Academia
Over the years, Shapira has had to face the question—asked perennially of successful women but never of successful men—about the clash between career and family. On one such occasion, she replied, “I was never a belligerent feminist but I had no inferiority feelings toward men, either. Does a woman encounter special hardships in academia? Definitely .... Another question is how women are accepted in forums that have large male majorities. They were always amazed to find that I was the only woman on all sorts of forums, and it made me very angry. Another thing I cannot ignore is that when I was elected dean, some in academia didn’t like having a woman as a dean” (Interview with Yaron London).
When Shapira wrote her MA thesis, the members of Gdud ha’Avoda initially refused to speak with a “girl,” agreeing only to let her submit questions in writing. “If they’d find the questions appropriate, they said, they’d consent to talk with me. I wrote the questions whenever my first-born son agreed to doze off for a few hours and free some time for me. They were favorably impressed by my questions and we became good friends” (Yatziv, “What’s the Point of Writing History?).
Shapira was married for fifty-three years to the late Shmaryahu (Bobby) Shapira. She has three children and five grandchildren.
Prizes and awards
The Association of Israel Studies Award for Lifetime Achievement in Israel Studies.
The Washington Institute Silver Medal Award for Ben Gurion, The Father of Modern Israel.
The National Jewish Book Award in History, for her book Israel: A History.
The Israel Prize.
The Herzl Prize for Excellence in Research.
The Zalman Shazar Prize in Jewish History, for the original Hebrew version of her book Yigal Allon, Native Son.
The National Jewish Book Award in History, for her book Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948.
The Am Oved Jubilee Prize for Outstanding Nonfiction Book, for the original Hebrew edition of her book Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948.
The Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Prize for her book The Futile Struggle: Hebrew Labor, 1929–1939.
Selected Works by Anita Shapira
- Bilu Junction: Three Bilu Members and the Land of Israel (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Am Oved, Sifriyat Ofakim, 2019.
- Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
- Like Any Other Nation: Israel 1881–2000 (Hebrew). Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2014.
- Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.
- Israel: A History. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012.
- Yigal Allon, Native Son: A Biography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
- Jews, Zionists, and What Is Between Them (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Am Oved, Sifriyat Ofakim, 2007.
- The Bible and the Israeli Identity (Hebrew). Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005.
- Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Walking on the Horizon (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Am Oved, Sifriyat Ofakim, 1989.
- From the Dismissal of the Chief of National Headquarters to the Dismantling of the Palmach: Issues in the Struggle for the Defense Leadership, 1948 (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1985.
- Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist, Berl Katznelson, 1887–1944. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
- The Futile Struggle: Hebrew Labor, 1929–1939 (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1977.
- Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli Story: A Historical Album Based on an Exhibit in the Museum at Rabin Center (Hebrew), co-edited by Nurit Cohen Levinovsky. Tel Aviv: Kinneret, 2016.
- Three Gunshots and Twenty Years: Reflections on the Israeli Mosaic (Hebrew), co-edited by Nurit Cohen Levinovsky. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2015.
- We Hereby Declare: Sixty Selected Speeches in Israeli History (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Kinneret, 2008.
- Israeli Identity in Transition. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2004.
- Israeli Historical Revisionism: From Left to Right, co-edited by Derek Penslar. London: Frank Cass, 2003.
- A State on the Way: Israeli Society in the First Decades (Hebrew). Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2001.
- The Age of Zionism (Hebrew), co-edited by Jehuda Reinharz and Jay Harris. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2000.
- Independence: The First Fifty Years (Hebrew). Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1998.
- Essential Papers on Zionism, co-edited by Jehuda Reinharz. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
- Zionism and Religion (Hebrew), co-edited by Shmuel Almog and Jehuda Reinharz. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1998.
- “The Second Aliya”: Berl Katznelson’s Lectures to the Socialist Young Guard (1928) (Hebrew), co-edited by Naomi Abir. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1990.
Jubilee volume in Honor of Anita Shapira
Chazan, Meir, and Uri Cohen, eds. Culture, Memory, and History: An Appreciation of Anita Shapira (Hebrew). Jerusalem, Zalman Shazar Center, 2012.
Interview with Dan Margalit on the Hotam Ishi (Personal imprint) program (Hebrew), June 5, 2016, Kan Educational TV, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThNuzIQ7TkE
Interview with Kobi Medan on the Hotze Yisrael (Cross-Israel) program (Hebrew), February 12, 2014, Kan Educational TV, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDivv9qeNF4
Interview with Yaron London, “Shimshon Ha-Misken Yoreh u’Boheh.” Yediot Aharonot, September 25, 1992.
Katzman, Avi. “Sheret Ha’Historiah” (The History Server). Ha’Aretz, October 10, 1997.
Yatziv, Gadi. “What’s the Point of Writing History?” The Land, Culture, and Literature, February 20, 1998. [Hebrew]