Shapira, Anita (1940–)

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Shapira, Anita

Anita Shapira is an Israeli historian who has pioneered the academic study of the origins and development of the state of Israel.


Anita Shapira was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1940. In 1946 she went with her family to Paris, and the following year they came to Palestine via illegal immigration. Although not ideologically Zionist, Shapira's family felt a deep psychological need to live among Jews as Holocaust survivors. Shapira grew up in Yad Eliyahu, a lower middle class and ethnically mixed town near Tel Aviv. While attending high school in Tel Aviv, Shapira developed a serious interest in history. After briefly studying sociology and history at the University of Haifa, she enrolled at Tel Aviv University, where she went on to complete her BA, MA and Ph.D. studies.

Although raised speaking Polish, Yiddish, and Russian as well as Hebrew, Shapira considered doing her MA thesis on Chartism, a radical reforming movement in mid-nineteenth-century England. She was fascinated by the clash between human idealism and revolutionary enthusiasm on the one hand, and the political and material constraints on human freedom on the other. Shapira decided to switch her focus to the early years of the Zionist labor movement in Palestine. She wrote her MA thesis on the Labor Brigade—a socialist-Zionist faction of the 1920s whose Bolshevik revolutionary values clashed with the more pragmatic and eclectic views of what would become the Labor Zionist leadership, headed by David Ben-Gurion. She continued to study the struggle between ideology and material forces in her doctoral thesis, making a study of Labor-Zionist attempts to fend off inexpensive Arab labor and promote the growth of a Jewish laboring class in Palestine under the British Mandate. This thesis became her first book, Ha'Ma'avak ha'Nechzav: Avoda Ivrit, 1929–1939 (The Futile Struggle: The Hebrew Labor Controversy, 1929–1939, 1977).


Shapira is the youngest member of the founding generation of professional historians examining the origins and development of the state of Israel. This generation carried out its research through institutions like Tel Aviv University's Institute for Zionist Research, which Shapira directed for a number of years. Shapira, Yosef Gorny, Israel Kolatt, and other pioneering Israeli historians were closely tied, both personally and professionally, to Labor Zionism. From the 1920s through 1970s Labor Zionism was the hegemonic political and cultural force in the Yishuv and state of Israel, and it retained considerable influence within the Israeli intelligentsia for many years thereafter. Thus Shapira served for many years on the board of directors of the Israeli national trade union's prestigious publishing house Am Oved, and she was the initiator and first director of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies.

Shapira has written or edited some twenty books and has published more than fifty scholarly articles. She entered public prominence with her second book, a biography of the Labor-Zionist thinker and leader Berl Katznelson. In Israel the two-volume book sold 26,000 cloth-bound copies. The book's popularity can be attributed to a number of factors: Katznelson's iconic status in the Zionist labor movement; Shapira's engaging style; and, not least, the book's appearance three years after the venerable Labor Zionist parties had finally gone into eclipse—defeated by Menachem Begin's hawkish Likud in the 1977 elections. Many readers believed Katznelson to have epitomized the humanist and socialist values of Labor Zionism, and so the book served as an eulogy for a bygone era.

In 1992, Shapira published Herev ha-yonah (Land and Power), a historical analysis of Zionist concepts of force, from the beginnings of Zionist settlement in Palestine to the eve of the 1948 War. The book, now a standard work, argued for a transition in Zionist sensibility from a "defensive ethos" of force, emphasizing settlement and labor over military organization, to a more "offensive ethos" that emerged in the 1930s as a reaction to violent Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise. In this book as in much of her other work, Shapira blended literature and poetry with the more conventional sources of political history. Also typical of her style is this book's emphasis on generational divisions between the immigrant fathers and their native-born sons. The former were steeped in both cosmopolitan and Jewish values, committed to ideology and thus wracked by contradictions between universalistic humanism and romantic nationalism. The latter were tougher, more pragmatic, and open to devising military solutions to political problems. The former was the generation of Berl Katznelson, whose biography Shapira had already written; the latter included the likes of Yigal Alon, a Zionist military commander whose life story is the subject of Shapira's later book, Yigal Alon: aviv eldo (Yigal Alon: The Spring of his Life, 2004).


Name: Anita Shapira

Birth: 1940, Warsaw, Poland

Family: Husband, Shmaryahu Shapira; three children

Nationality: Israeli

Education: BA, MA, and Ph.D., Tel Aviv University (1964, 1968, 1974)


  • 1947: Family emigrates illegally to Palestine
  • 1977: Publishes first book, The Futile Struggle
  • 1984: Publishes biography of Berl Katznelson; sells 26,000 copies in hardcover
  • 1992: Publishes Land and Power
  • 1997: Establishes Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies and serves as first director
  • 2004: Publishes Yigal Alon: The Spring of his Life

While attracted to the highest circles of power, the subjects of Shapira's books are more likely than not to be failed leaders who fall short of realizing greatness. Katznelson was a man of ideas and Alon a man of action, yet neither was able to rise to the summit of political leadership. Shapira's abiding awareness of the chasm separating human aspiration and achievement may account for a later project, a study of the troubled, brilliant early-twentieth-century Hebrew author Y. H. Brenner.


Much of Shapira's work has been translated into English, French, German, and Russian, yet it is particularly attuned to the Israeli political-cultural context and the rhythms of the Hebrew language. Shapira's nuanced stance toward the Zionist enterprise, portrayed by her with deep sympathy as well as profound understanding of its flaws, is seen by some as overly apologetic—constrained, they argue, by an ideological framework that the "new historians" of the late 1980s and afterward have claimed to transcend. Yet even Shapira's critics acknowledge her intellectual acumen and stylistic grace. Her work is essential for understanding the mental universe of Israel's founders and the political ideologies that dominated the state for many decades.


Anita Shapira's work in her field has opened the doors for successive generations of scholars of Israeli history. In addition to being a prolific author, Shapira has directed multiple major academic institutions devoted to the study of Israel, and has mentored many doctoral students who have gone on to careers teaching Israeli history. She is respected and will be remembered as a pioneer in her field.


Shapira, Anita. Berl Katznelson: A Biography of a Socialist Zionist. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

―――――――. Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

―――――――. "Historiography and Politics: The Debate of the 'New Historians' in Israel." History & Memory 7 (1995): 9-40.

―――――――. "Historiography and Memory: Latrun, 1948." Jewish Social Studies 3, no. 1 (October 1996): 20-61.

―――――――. "The Bible and Israeli Identity." Association for Jewish Studies Review 28, no. 1 (2004): 11-42.

―――――――. Yigal Alon: The Spring of his Life. A Biography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Shapira, Anita, and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. Essential Papers on Zionism. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

                                          Derek J. Penslar

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