Telling the Story: The Four Genres of Zionist History

Telling the Story: The Four Genres of Zionist History

This lesson explores the nature of historical narrative: the ways in which we interpret historical events. We will learn a four-genre model of literary style, and use this model to look at the key events from Zionist history through 4 different different prisms.
 Click here for the printable pdf.


  • The students will be challenged to ascribe multiple interpretations to events in Zionist history
  • The students will be exposed to the multi-voiced nature of interpreting historical events
  • The students, with their newly acquired perspective on Israel’s history, will understand both the wonder, and the complexity of Israel’s reality
  • The students will learn about some of the key events in Zionist history
  • The students will learn Frye’s 4-genre model of literature

Outline of the activity:

  • Stage 1: Introduction: In the first stage of this lesson, the teacher will introduce Northrop Frye’s literary model to the class
  • Stage 2: Creating: In the second stage of the lesson, the students will be divided into groups and assigned a genre. They will have to write a skit telling the Jewish Zionist story through the lens of their genre.
  • Stage 3: Performance: In the third stage, the students will perform their skits
  • Stage 4: Discussion: In the fourth stage, the students will analyze the performances they saw, and begin to appreciate the need for all four genres
  • Stage 5: Revision: In the fifth stage, the stories will be edited, revised, etc. to include elements from each genre
  • Stage 6: Performance: Finally, in the last stage, the re-worked skits will be performed

Background Information:

Northrop Frye, the Canadian literary critic, divided up literature into four basic genres:  romance, tragedy, irony, and comedy. For our purposes, so as not to get de-railed by the connotations of each genre, we have renamed the genres as follows.

  • Adventure (romance), in which the protagonist as the hero sets out on a journey, encounters obstacles and manages to overcome them.
  • Misadventure (tragedy), in which the protagonist sets out on a journey, encounters obstacles but is unable to overcome them. Instead, the hero falls in the abyss, never to reach his destination.
  • Alternative adventure (irony), in which the protagonist sets out on a journey according to a preconceived route, encounters an obstacle, manages to overcome them, only to get hopelessly lost. The hero never makes it to his destination, yet he also does not fall into the abyss.
  • Merry-go-round (comedy), in which the protagonist sets off on his journey, encounters an obstacle, overcomes it. Hopelessly, and via a circuitous, unplanned route, manages to reach his destination.


The premise of this activity is that Jewish history, and the narrative of Zionism, have all-to-often been taught in a black-and-white manner, typically choosing to stick to either “romance” or “tragedy” narratives. Either the Jewish people have been tragically victimized, wondering hopelessly for century after century. Or, the Jewish story has been victorious and triumphant in declaring national autonomy after a two thousand year-long journey(!).

It is our belief that a true, sophisticated understanding of the Jewish narrative reveals that there is a strong need for other narratives to be given voice as well. It is not that the Jewish narrative has not included romance or tragedy, it certainly has, but that is not the entire story.

We also would like to show that the same series of events can be interpreted, or even manipulated, to convey drastically different messages, accomplish different goals, etc. This is not a bad thing, this is merely the nature of history and story-telling.

In this activity, we challenge the students to organize a series of events, using drama and art, through the various lenses. We challenge them to integrate all four voices, and walk away with a multi-voiced narrative that comprises elements of each perspective.


Needed: 4 facilitators to guide discussions, and the printed materials provided in the appendix

Stage 1: Introduction

Introduce the activity and to Northrop Frye’s 4-genre model to the students based on the background information provided above.

Stage 2: Genre Groups

Divide the students into 4 groups. Give each group one of the four genres, so that all four genres are assigned.

Give each group 2 cards:

  1. an explanation of their genre  (Appendix I)
  2. a list of 10 key events in Zionist history (Appendix II)

The assignment is simple:

Each group must write and perform a 5-minute skit that tells the story of the Key Events (they must use at least 7 of the 10 events, but are encouraged to use all 10) in the style and tone of the genre they were assigned. Emphasize that the purpose of the genre is not for them to ignore or leave out the events that don’t seem to fit into their category. The genre is there to instruct the style and form that the interpretation, or telling of the story takes on.

Make sure every member of the group is involved in the performance.

We recommend walking around and consulting with each group to make sure they grasp the basic assignment.

Give them about 15 minutes to prepare their presentations.

Stage 3: Performances

Have each genre group perform their 5-minute skit in front of the other groups.

Stage 4: Discussion

Re-divide the students into 4 new groups using the jigsaw strategy: make sure each new group has a proportionate representation of members from each of the original genre-specific groups (i.e. each of the new groups needs to contain members from the adventure, misadventure, alternative adventure, and merry-go-round groups)

Lead a discussion about the performances they experienced. Here are a few suggested guiding questions:

  • Which story styles did you prefer to watch?
  • Which are the easier styles/genres to portray? Which are the more challenging/complex to portray?
    • Why?
  • Which events were left out, and by which groups?
    • Why do you think those groups had a difficult time including those events in their narrative?
  • Which telling of the story seems to you to be the most honest or realistic?

Guide the conversation such that the students begin to see that perhaps the fullest telling of a story occurs when elements from each of the genres is incorporated


In order to bring the point home, before having the students revise their stories to include all the genres, present the following points:

Stage 5: Revision and Conclusion

The final stage of the activity is a continuation of Stage 4 (above). Having discussed the main points covered in the “guiding points” above (in stage 4), together, the jigsaw group of students are presented with their final challenge. Ask them: how can we re-write, revise, or re-tell the “story” of the 10-key events (without excluding any of them), to include elements from each of the 4 genres?

Have the students re-write and re-design their original stories. Make sure that each genre receives some attention in the final product.

Performing the revised narratives is recommended, but not necessary, so gauge your time constraints and attention spans and decide accordingly. The activity can end with each discussion group having re-written the story, without seeing the other groups’ performances. The bottom line is the process, so if they get as far as completing the revision, the message will have come across.

For Teachers:

Here’s some more information on each event, feel free to decide how much you want to give over to your students, taking into account whether or not they have prior familiarity with Zionist history.

10+ Key Events in Zionist History: An annotated list

  1. 1897: First Zionist Congress

Called by Theodor Herzl as a Parliament for those in sympathy with the implementation of Zionist goals, the congress included some 200 participants from 17 countries.

The main items on the agenda were the presentation of Herzl’s plans, the establishment of the World Zionist Organization and the declaration of Zionism’s goals-the Basel program.

“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz ­Israel secured under public law. The Congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end:

  1. The promotion by appropriate means of the settlement in Eretz-Israel of Jewish farmers, artisans, and manufacturers.
  2. The organization and uniting of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, both local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.
  3. The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.
  4. Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, in order to reach the goals of Zionism.”

At the Congress, Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organization and Max Nordau one of three Vice-Presidents. HaTikva was established as the official anthem of the Zionist Organization. Thereafter, the Zionist Congress met every year (1897­-1901), then every second year (1903-1913, 1921-1939). Since the Second World War, meetings have been held approximately every four years.

  1. 1905: the 7th Zionist Congress

At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, Herzl proposed the British Uganda Program as a temporary refuge for Jews in Russia in immediate danger. By a vote of 295-178 it was decided to send an expedition (“investigatory commission”) to examine the territory proposed.

While Herzl made it clear that this program would not affect the ultimate aim of Zionism, a Jewish entity in the Land of Israel, the proposal aroused a storm at the Congress and nearly led to a split in the Zionist movement. The Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO) was formed as a result of the unification of various groups who had supported Herzl’s Uganda proposals during the period 1903-1905.

The Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905 opened with a eulogy on Herzl by Nordau. The Congress heard the report of the Commission that had been sent to East Africa which had concluded that “Uganda” was unsuitable for mass Jewish settlement and proceeded to vote against a national home anywhere except Palestine and its immediate vicinity. The Uganda Program was finally rejected.

  1. 1917: The Balfour Declaration,

The British government decided to endorse the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. After discussions within the cabinet and consultations with Jewish leaders, the decision was made public in a letter from British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild. The contents of this letter became known as the Balfour Declaration, including the expression of the British government in favor of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

The Mandate for Palestine’s purpose was to put into effect the Balfour Declaration. It specifically referred to “the historical connections of the Jewish people with Palestine” and to the moral validity of “reconstituting their National Home in that country.” The term “reconstituting” shows recognition of the fact that Palestine had been the Jews’ home. Furthermore, the British were instructed to “use their best endeavors to facilitate” Jewish immigration, to encourage settlement on the land and to “secure” the Jewish National Home. The word “Arab” does not appear in the Mandatory award.

The Mandate was formalized by the 52 governments at the League of Nations on July 24, 1922.

  1. 1920: The Haganah is formed. The Haganah was the predecessor of the Israeli Defense Forces.

The Haganah was the underground military organization of the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael from 1920 to 1948. The Arab riots in 1920 and 1921 strengthened the view that it was impossible to depend upon the British authorities and that the yishuv needed to create an independent defense force completely free of foreign authority. In June 1920, the Haganah was founded.

The Arab riots in 1929 brought about a complete change in the Haganah’s status. It became a large organization that included a comprehensive training program for its members, ran officers’ training courses, etc. The Haganah established central arms depots into which a continuous stream of light arms flowed from Europe, while simultaneously, the basis was laid for the underground production of arms.

In the spring of 1947, David Ben-Gurion took it upon himself to direct the general policy of the Haganah, especially in preparation for impending Arab attack. On May 26, 1948, the Provisional Government of Israel decided to transform the Haganah into the regular army of the State, to be called “Ztava Haganah LeYisrael”—The Israel Defense Forces.

  1. 1933: Adolf Hitler is elected as chancellor of Germany

In January 1933, Adolf Hitler took the reins of the 14-year-old German democratic republic. By this time, the economic pressures of the Great Depression combined with the indecisive, self-serving nature of its elected politicians had brought government in Germany to a complete standstill. The German people were without jobs, without food, quite afraid and desperate for relief. Around noon on January 30th, Hitler was sworn in.

Within weeks, Hitler became an absolute dictator of Germany and set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the Second World War and the eventual extermination of millions.

  1. 1945: World War II ends, Nazi concentration camps are liberated

In 1945, the Allied armies liberated the concentration camps as World War 2 came to an end. Tragically, deaths in the camps continued for several weeks after liberation. Some prisoners had already become too weak to survive.

According to SS reports, there were more than 700,000 prisoners left in the camps in January 1945. It has been estimated that nearly half of the total number of concentration camp deaths between 1933 and 1945 occurred during the last year of the war.

Later calculations estimate the Jewish death toll at nearly 6 million. Roughly 3 million Jews survived and became refugees, later to settle in countries around the world, largely in Palestine and North America.

  1. 1948: The State of Israel is declared in Tel Aviv by David Ben Gurion

The United Nations Resolution 181 on November 29, 2947 called for a partition plan to divide Palestine between Jews and Arabs. The Jewish state was to receive around 56% of the land area of Mandate Palestine, encompassing 82% of the Jewish population, though it would be separated from Jerusalem, designated as an area to be administered by the UN. The plan was accepted by most of the Jewish population, but rejected by much of the Arab populace. The division was to take effect as part of a British withdrawal from the territory (to be no later than summer of 1948).

The Israeli Declaration of Independence was made on 14 May 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), the day before the British Mandate was due to expire, and was the official announcement that the new Jewish state named the State of Israel had been formally established in parts of what was known as the British Mandate of Palestine and on land where, in antiquity, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah had once been. The new State of Israel was invaded the very next day by seven Arab armies, and the “War of Independence” was fought.

  1. 1952: Israel participates in its first Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.

Israel had been unable to participate in the 1948 Games because of its War of Independence. A previous Palestine Mandate team had boycotted the 1936 Games in protest of the Nazi regime. Israel competed in the Summer Olympic Games for the first time at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

Though Israel did not take home a medal until 1992, their participation in the Olympics is an important landmark in its history.

  1. 1967: Jews gain access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem

The Six Day War fought between June 5 and June 10, 1967, by Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt [known then as the United Arab Republic (UAR)], Jordan, and Syria. The outcome was a swift and decisive Israeli victory. At the war’s end, Israel took effective control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The status of the territories captured by Israel during the war and the concurrent refugee problem, are central concerns in the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

With both sides of Jerusalem united, Jews could finally gain access to the Western Wall.

  1. 1990-91: Collapse of the Former Soviet Union, over 1 million Jews immigrate to Israel from Russia

In 1991, communism collapsed and the Soviet Union dissolved. This allowed for 1.5 million Russian Jews to freely leave the Former Soviet Union. Of those, roughly 1 million have emigrated to Israel, drastically affecting the overall population of Israel.

Ariel Sharon, in his capacity as Minister of Housing & Construction and member of the Ministerial Committee for Immigration & Absorption, launched an unprecedented large-scale construction effort to accommodate the new Russian population in Israel so as to facilitate their smooth integration and encourage further Jewish immigration as an ongoing means of increasing the Jewish population of Israel.

  1. Something missing? Add 1 event of your own!

Allow the students to include an event they may know about and think should be on the list!

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