Organic Compound: Zionism and Science

By Fredrik Meiton
Submitted to Session P4926 (Circulating Science and Scaling Innovation: Science and Technology Studies in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
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In 1906, the Palestinian-born educator David Yellin published an article on Hebrew education, in which he identified Palestine as the ideal location to “train up a [new, Jewish] generation rich in scientific and general knowledge.” In saying this, Yellin was voicing an attitude that was prevalent among all Zionist statebuilders, from Theodor Herzl to Arthur Ruppin, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and many others. Indeed, it is often overlooked that those Zionists who had the greatest impact on the actual creation of a Jewish community in Palestine were not just committed nationalists, but also committed high modernists, striving to become “modern” by organizing society according to rational scientific principles. Moreover, scientific achievement would serve as a justification of the Zionist project to the outside world. In fact, non-Jewish support for Zionism often homed in on the potential of a Jewish state to contribute to science. The prominent British statesman Leo Amery, for instance, saw Zionism as a “great constructive experiment” whose chief virtue was in making Palestine into “a kind of colonial laboratory” that could test “the latest developments in science and agriculture.”

Drawing on archives in Israel, Palestine, and Britain, this paper seeks to recover the importance of science to Zionist statebuilding. It explores how cutting-edge science informed Zionist state-building efforts on the ground in Palestine; and how members of the Zionist movement organized scientific research in Palestine so as to project an image of progress and modernity. It argues that in order to understand science’s role in the making of the Jewish state, we must consider the scalar entanglements that defined scientific ideals in the interwar period, and gave it its epistemically privileged position, not just in the field of knowledge production, but also on the arena of high diplomacy. It thus brings together, among other things, the reorganization of scientific research after a model pioneered by the German Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft, founded in 1911; munitions research during World War I; and the “colonial” science of managing commercial flows and calories.