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."

When it comes to substantiating these claims, however, so obviously does Rose undermine her own critique--so outlandish and patronizing is the hyperbole, so plain the poor grasp of messianism, so self-evident the mistakes and the lapses in logic--that The Question of Zion, published as it is by a reputable university press, can perhaps only be meant to be taken seriously on its deeper level as an ingenious refutation of itself. If so, it succeeds brilliantly.

In developing her notion of Zionism as unconscious messianism, for instance, Rose herself gives evidence that many of the early Zionist thinkers thought quite consciously otherwise. She cites the early Zionist leader Max Nordau: "The new Zionism which has been called political differs from the old, religious, messianic variety in that it disavows all mysticism, no longer identifies with messianism." It could be argued, of course, that Nordau was in denial. But to determine who should be taken at face value and who shouldn't, Rose appeals to the authority of Gershom Scholem, only to quote him as writing "I absolutely deny that Zionism is a messianic movement."

It is as if Rose leaves us clues that she wants us to think through for ourselves the complex relationship between Zionism and messianism, and to discover the reverse of her overt claims. She wants us to understand, perhaps, that although Zionism is intimately connected with messianic hopes, it broke with messianism precisely by moving it onto the historical plane. In this sense, Zionism is the very antithesis of all the divergent attitudes of Jewish messianism put together, since it refuses the demand to wait for divine redemption, calling for human, this-worldly, self-reliant action where messianism awaits divine, otherworldly acts.

If we did take Rose's hints, we might further appreciate that Zionism need not feel embarrassed by its association with messianism, understood as a longing for regained independence and the fulfillment of the prophets' yearning for justice and peace, as in Isaiah's wonderful vision: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." We might understand, too, that, by Rose's definition, every political movement of the 20th century was messianic in its impulse.

Then there are the mistakes, each of which may be read as a tip to look beyond the veneer of scholarship, which Rose draws from a few secondary sources. "[Moses] Maimonides tried to abolish messianism as a historical force," Rose writes, even though it is well known that the medieval Jewish sage raised messianism to one of the 13 essential principles of faith. In fact, Maimonides tried to eliminate apocalypticism, a very different thing, which postulates not redemption but catastrophic redemption. This is typical of Rose's conflation of false and dangerous messianism with messianism as such, and of messianism with religion as such.

Rose's simplifications and overwrought hyperbole also pervade her discussion of the Holocaust, which rests on her claim that it "fully enters the [Israeli] national memory only after the 1967 Six Day War." This is only partially true. Rose neglects to mention the "rebirth-from-ashes" rhetoric of Israel's founders, the illegal immigration of refugees that spurred Jewish resistance in Palestine in the 1940s, the fierce debate over accepting German reparations in the early '50s, the Rudolf Kastner trial (1954-58) and the Adolf Eichmann trial (1960-62). Rose, instead, contradicts herself, observing that awareness of the barbarism taking place in Europe caused myths of Jewish heroism to be "revived and polished with new vigor in Palestine."

So ridiculous, meanwhile, are Rose's comparisons of Zionism and Nazism that you can only read them as signs that the book intends not to be taken at face value, but rather to criticize the criticizers of Zionism from within by caricaturing their views. "According to one story," Rose writes, "it was the same Paris performance of Wagner . . . that inspired Herzl to write Der Judenstaat ['the Jewish State'], and Hitler Mein Kampf."

There are other clues to this book's possible esoteric intent. Rose claims that an important part of Zionism's psychopathology is its inability to criticize itself. And yet because she has little firsthand knowledge of the country, and even less of its language, she draws her critique from an impressive array of leftist Israeli critics, academics, peace activists, conscientious objectors, post-Zionists, and non-Zionists both past (Scholem, Martin Buber, Ernst Simon) and present (Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Uri Avnery, Amos Elon, David Grossman, Baruch Kimmerling), each of whom she quotes denouncing Zionism. She thereby implicitly--and, as it happens, accurately--gives the impression of an extremely lively tradition of Israeli self-criticism.

Aharon Megged, an Israeli novelist and veteran of the Labor movement, has said of the country's intelligentsia: "For two or three decades now, several hundred of our society's 'best' men of pen and spirit . . . have been working single-mindedly and without respite to preach and prove that our cause is not just," perpetrating thereby an "assault on Zionist legitimacy." In short, Rose subtly provokes us to wonder whether any other country hosts such eviscerating self-criticism.

This brings us to the question of timing. This seems a glaringly odd time to write a book dedicated to explaining what Rose calls Zionism's "compelling inner force," just when many in Israel are remarking, either in celebration or in lamentation, on the end of Zionism, on its irrelevance to youth, on its absence from schools, and on the psychological and theological blow dealt to religious Zionism, in particular, with this summer's evacuation from the Gaza Strip of 8,000 Jewish settlers.

Finally, this book is late in another respect: Many of its criticisms are simply derivative. Here, for instance, is the New York University historian Tony Judt, another child of British academe, in 2003: Israel "imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on. . . . Israel, in short, is an anachronism." And here is Jacqueline Rose in 2005: Zionism "imported into the Middle East a Central European concept of nationhood in the throes of decline." And a bit further on: "Out of the ashes a strange anachronism, against all odds, was being born."

The cumulative effect of all this is to bring into high relief the difference between the two levels on which The Question of Zion seems to move. On the surface, in insisting that Israel is destroying itself, and in calling for the self-abolition of Jewish nationalism, Rose puts forth her own apocalyptic form of counter-messianism--one based on shame. She believes that the only cure for her malady of shame is the abolition of its object: Israel. Shame, indeed, is the theme that runs through Rose's collection of essays, On Not Being Able to Sleep, and it plays an important role in this book, too, which is in part motivated by the author's feeling "appalled at what the Israeli nation perpetrated in my name."

But the book's latent message, if indeed it has one, is more profound. "What would it be like," Rose asks, laying a last bread crumb on the path to esoteric intent, "to live in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame?" Jacqueline Rose, unlike many Jewish critics of Zionism motivated by shame, seems to be saying that she is on some deep level ashamed of her shame. In showing us why, she deserves our gratitude.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is associate editor of Azure.