Ruin and Redemption
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] See ‘Interpretations of War: Kant, the Jew, the German’, in Acts of Religion, edited by Gil Anidjar (Routledge, 2002).
Vol. 27 No. 13 · 7 July 2005
David Simpson commends the force of Jacqueline Rose’s arguments ‘not only in and for Israel but beyond’ (LRB, 23 June). It might indeed be useful to extend debates around nationalism to the rest of the globe. At the very least, we should be ready to acknowledge that the best efforts of socialists, pacifists and others over the past two centuries have established neither international institutions able to replace the nation-state nor forms of international thinking which replace nationalism’s brutalities and raisons d’état.
The winding-up of Western colonialism, the disintegration of the former Eastern Bloc, the current impasse of the European Union and the low morale of the United Nations offer very little hope that we might see the end of national political units, no matter how tiny or unviable they may be. There is little point in aspiring towards a political solution in the Middle East which would not be considered workable in, say, the former Yugoslavia. There may be a case for applying psychoanalysis to the problem, but it will not supply solutions in the short term.
The best prospect for Israel-Palestine, and the most we can realistically hope for, would be a modest range of practical measures: agreed frontiers, agreed financial compensation, a cease-fire. If the ideologues on both sides wish to preserve their purity by saying that such a truce could only be observed for 50 years, that would give two generations time to become habituated to peace and a degree of economic security which they would be reluctant to surrender. To propose more ambitious goals for the immediate future may make some people feel good about themselves; the growing pile of corpses will feel nothing at all. If the course of 20th-century politics has taught us anything at all, it is that intellectuals have obligations to pragmatism.
London Metropolitan University
Vol. 27 No. 14 · 21 July 2005
Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion, reviewed by David Simpson, gives a hostile account of the Zionist project (LRB, 23 June). She adopts the position of a binationalist, advocating a common future for Jews and Arabs in a single state. Jews fought for older versions of this position in the decades between the Russian pogroms of 1881 and the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. The venture foundered for the want of any reciprocating Arab interest. There is no real prospect for binational coexistence in any part of the Middle East today and binationalism now serves mainly rhetorical purposes, including the defaming of the Jewish state in the name of an impossible alternative.
Rose writes about Zionism as if it were a person with a mental illness. The form taken by this illness is said to be Messianism, which can be diagnosed by reference to statements made by individual Zionists. When it suits her, she is ready to take these statements at face value, and to treat them as representative. She lumps together the secular and the religious, and elides the quests for spiritual redemption and territorial expansion. Her notion of Messianism swamps all the necessary distinctions. Israel is in danger of destroying itself, she writes. This is her own counter-Messianism. A misleading account of Zionism as Messianism becomes the means by which a falsely catastrophist account can be given of Israel’s prospects.
Any effective critique of Zionism has to address the following questions (I will suggest some answers of my own).
First, did the Arabs have the right to resist the settling of Jews in Palestine on any terms? While Palestine was not a land without a people, it was a land that could accommodate that fraction of the Jewish people who wanted to settle there. There was more than enough room for both Arabs and Jews.
Second, was the creation of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine necessarily a violation of Palestinian rights? Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War One. It was then administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. The right of the Jews to a national homeland was part of the mandate’s charter. It is true that many Arab Israelis do not consider that they have the same stake as their Jewish fellow citizens in the Jewish state. But an adjacent, viable Palestinian state, and full civil rights in Israel, is the best set of circumstances for the indigenous peoples of that part of the Middle East.
Third, do the Palestinians bear any responsibility for their own stateless suffering? They rejected statehood for themselves in 1937 and then again in 1947. In 1948, instead of declaring a state, they made war on the new Jewish state, along with many Arab armies. More than 6000 Israelis lost their lives, 1 per cent of the total Jewish population. During the war, many Palestinians left – some willingly, many not. At about the same time, and in the months that followed, a similar number of Jews were driven out of Arab lands. Jordan ruled the Palestinians of the West Bank; Egypt, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians were kept in camps, while the Jews from the Arab lands were absorbed into the new Jewish state.
Fourth, to what extent does anti-semitism play a part in the Middle East dispute? The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not an obstacle to the disappearance of Muslim anti-semitism; Muslim anti-semitism is an obstacle to the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Sceptics may consult the Hamas charter, available on the web, to satisfy themselves that this is so. It holds the Jews responsible, among other things, for the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, and for the First and Second World Wars.
Fifth, how did the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank come about? It was as a result of the Six-Day War, which was precipitated by Egypt’s closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and the eviction of UN peacekeeping troops from Sinai. During the war, Israel captured what are known as the Occupied Territories. It then invited its Arab enemies to peace talks, an invitation rejected by them at the Khartoum Summit. Israel’s hope that it could use the newly conquered territories as bargaining chips for peace faded. At this point, and not before, Israel’s settler movement emerged. It is the latest version of Zionism, and not the normative one. Its principal political patron, Ariel Sharon, has himself now repudiated it.