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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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.