The Magazine

What Zionism Is Not

The many ways the Jewish state is misunderstood.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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The Question of Zion

by Jacqueline Rose

Princeton, 202 pp., $19.95

IF LEO STRAUSS HAD NOT taught us to read esoterically, to discern the ways a text's hidden meaning may contradict its overt message, we could have learned the skill from Jacqueline Rose, whose impassioned new book seems to ask to be read on two very different levels.

On the surface, The Question of Zion--the title is a tribute to Edward Said's The Question of Palestine (1979)--is a scholarly attempt to trace Zionism's strange power to command "passionate and seemingly intractable allegiance" to two forces in the Jewish unconscious: messianism and the psychopathology of the Holocaust.

Rose, a professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London, has made several previous skirmishes from her work in psychoanalytic and literary theory into this contentious subject. In a debate in London last January, she argued for the proposition that "Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews." And in a piece published three days after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three people and wounded 32 last year in Tel Aviv's open-air market, Rose urged us to understand suicide bombers "without condescension," and referred to the

unbearable intimacy shared in their final moments by the suicide bomber and her or his victims. Suicide bombing is an act of passionate identification--you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace. As Israel becomes a fortress state and the Palestinians are shut into their enclaves, and there is less and less possibility of contact between the two sides, suicide bombing might be the closest they can get.

But Rose's latest book--already praised in England as "courageous" (London Review of Books) and "brave" (Observer)--represents her first full-scale foray. It is driven by a question that presses on its author keenly: "How," she asks, "did one of the most persecuted peoples of the world come to embody some of the worst cruelties of the modern nation-state?"

Invoking the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Rose suggests that the answer begins in understanding Zionism as a new messianism, unaware of its own messianic zeal and unable to be self-critical. Just as powerful messianic undercurrents in the 17th century brought forth the false messiah and apostate Shabtai Zvi from Judaism's dark, mystical depths, she says that today, cloaked in nationalism, the same forces have made Israel into a false and dangerous god. Zvi was a "proto-Zionist" and Theodor Herzl a modern-day Zvi--and both, Rose suggests, were inspired and insane in equal measure.

It matters little that Israel was founded and is still led by staunchly secular Zionists, deaf to any resonances of Jewish messianism. "The language of secular Zionism," Rose writes, "bears the traces and scars of a messianic narrative that it barely seeks, or fails, to repress." According to Rose, to see that "messianism, as unconscious inspiration, is in the air and soil of Israel" is to begin to understand the "sacred, violent fury, militarism, religious fanaticism" at the heart of Israeli society.

But Rose also sees in that society an even unhealthier act of repression. The conventional wisdom is that Israeli policies were not irrational responses to the Holocaust, but rational responses both to existential threat and to the long refusal of its neighbors to accept the nation's legitimacy--responses, in other words, to the disconcerting sense that if the Holocaust made individual Jewish existence a crime, Israel's Arab neighbors made collective Jewish existence a crime.

Rose, however, considers this to be self-delusion. Israel, she says, is founded on "a colossal sublimation of historical pain . . . the problem of historical injustice became a narcissistic wound." If Israel affords an example of the ways in which messianism and the repression of its memory can lend to Israel's political life its ruthless tint, Rose argues that it also "gives us an exceptional, magnified vision of how a wound turns into the cut of a sword." Or, as she puts it elsewhere, Israel "gives us the unique opportunity to watch the militarization of suffering."

The wound she refers to is the Holocaust--the repression of which is Israel's other great act of denial. The sword is Israeli state violence, which exploits the Holocaust in order to justify itself, and in a perverse sense even replicates it. In its treatment of Palestinians, Rose concludes, "the Israeli army reenacts one of the buried, shameful fragments of the past it most fiercely dreads."

Having put Israel on the couch, what treatment, then, does Rose recommend to her violent patient? "Jewish nationalism must take out the ego," she writes. "[It] will come into being only if . . . it abolishes itself."