Ruin and Redemption

David Simpson

  • The Question of Zion by Jacqueline Rose
    Princeton, 202 pp, £12.95, April 2005, ISBN 0 691 11750 0

Jacqueline Rose has written a timely and courageous book. One immediate sign of this is its dedication to the late Edward Said, and its rewriting of the title of one of his most important books, The Question of Palestine (1980). To write ‘as a Jewish woman’ and in homage to Said about the failures of the Israeli state will surely inspire some of the hate mail that Said himself received for more than thirty years as the major Western explicator of Palestinian history and Palestinian rights. Recent events, including the New York City Department of Education’s barring of Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian, from lecturing to schoolteachers, and the British Association of University Teachers’ soon overturned boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities, make clear that public sensitivity to anything concerning the question of Palestine remains very high.

Said’s book took Zionism as a relatively coherent entity, coincident with the European imperialist project in the Orient and with the historical efflorescence of European liberal capitalism. That, for all the talk of agrarian socialist ideals and returning to the land, was the long and the short of it. Zionism was never unambiguous about its status as a Jewish liberation movement; it did however speak confidently of itself as ‘a Jewish movement for colonial settlement in the Orient’. While insisting that what mattered most about Zionism was its implacably negative effect on the lives of the Palestinians, Said at least paid lip-service to its embeddedness in a complex history that its exponents have sought to occlude from critical attention. For those suffering the effects of its deployment in support of vicious colonialist practices, such complexities are cold comfort; for those seeking to keep it on message, they are positively threatening. The exposure of some of that complex history, for her the subject of an ‘anguished curiosity’, is the task Rose sets herself in this published version of the Gauss seminars she gave at Princeton in 2003. But what she offers is ‘neither history nor survey’ so much as a psychoanalysis of the national subject as it absorbs yet fails to bring to consciousness its Zionist legacy. Her book is about a ‘mindset’ that runs through history, and which she believes is ‘the key to the tragedy daily unfolding for both peoples in Israel-Palestine’.

Zion began life as a hill in Jerusalem, as a place already overdetermined by the pressure of a present and future politics, a place to which to return, or to establish authentically for the first time. According to Rose, the history of this figment has never been simple or settled but has always been riven by both internal and contextual argument. Alongside the well-marketed image of utopian communities farming the land and sharing its fruits, there is that of a violent messianism establishing a commitment to catastrophe and trauma which is then reproduced through time as its own justification. For Rose, Gershom Scholem’s revival of the history of the 17th-century radical mystic Shabtai Zvi is the type of a messianic Zionism which believes that the worse things get, the closer they are to the promised end. Zvi was strenuously antinomian, believing that the saint must sin and that the law must be upheld by being broken, as he himself broke it in spectacular fashion by singing Christian songs and converting to Islam. Zvi coincided with the cusp of a proto-Zionist popular uprising across Europe and North Africa, in which visionary and political power combined in a mass movement aiming to return the Jews to Palestine. Rose finds the records of the historical Zvi eerily familiar; they remind her of settlers she interviewed in 2002 who also took comfort in horror and affirmed the necessary coincidence of ruin with redemption. These are people who take comfort in the perception that the suicide bombings are responsible for driving up the Israeli birthrate, who believe that the more Jews there are in the promised land and the more they suffer, the closer is the end of historical time. Catastrophe is not dreaded but eagerly anticipated.

This formation, as Rose sees it, is the legacy of messianic Zionism, which is popular among the settlers now occupying parts of the West Bank. Reading the messianically inclined founding fathers Chaim Weizmann and Theodor Herzl, as well as a lineage of secular and sceptical Zionists and sceptics about Zionism per se, including Hannah Arendt, Hans Kohn, Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am, she portrays the divisions within and about Zionism both as a terrifying legacy and as a source of hope against the grain of current history. The terror comes from the willingness of modern Israelis to assimilate covertly and seemingly without reflection this messianic strain, so that they can declare themselves ‘at once horrified by history and divinely inspired’. The hope comes from Zionism’s being a contested paradigm: familiarisation with the notion of its contested nature might offer both Israelis and the rest of the world a practice of self-examination that would deprive historical agents of the authority of myth.

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[*] See ‘Interpretations of War: Kant, the Jew, the German’, in Acts of Religion, edited by Gil Anidjar (Routledge, 2002).