Book Review of three recent books by Jewish writers, Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on Israel.
This rose is red
Red is a colour
Therefore this rose is coloured
There is an initial plausibility to such syllogizing but Hegel uses this example to show where such thinking goes awry. It associates a universal (red) with a particular (rose) but, because different universals can be associated with a particular, the form of inference being employed here allows for more than one conclusion to be drawn. Red can also be a representation of communism or, as the crowds recently celebrating Alex Ferguson demonstrated, of Manchester United but we cannot infer that this rose is communist or a Manchester United rose. A plurality of conclusions can be drawn, though, because the presence of one universal does not preclude the possibility of there being others. The rose is not just red. It has a certain aroma, shape and so on but these various features do not have any necessary connection to one another.
A similar kind of understanding applies to the kind of dodgy syllogizing that goes along the lines of:
Hostility towards Jews is anti-Semitism
Israel is a Jewish state
Therefore hostility towards Israel is anti-Semitic
It might be thought to be a problem when Jews are hostile to Israel because an anti-Semitic Jew sounds a little odd – but, no, this is not a problem because they are just self-hating Jews and as such they deserve a place on the Jewish S.H.I.T. list (‘Self-Hating and/or Israeli-Threatening’). Not surprising, then, to find Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on this list.
In books written in Hebrew, Palestine is always translated as ‘Land of Israel’ but Shlomo Sand explains how the biblical Land of Israel, ancient Samaria, did not include Jerusalem, Hebron or Bethlehem. The Bible’s name for the region encompassing ancient Judea and Israel was Canaan. Such distinctions are important to more than just those with an interest in ancient history because they are erased, by a semantic sleight of hand, in Zionism’s elevation of Land of Israel as a national essence. Zionist settlers expropriated the term Land of Israel – first used, probably, in the New Testament — as part of their nationalist narrative justifying a messianic claim to Palestinian territory.
Shlomo Sand has form when it comes to dismantling nationalist myths. His earlier book, Invention of the Jewish People, deconstructed the idea that most Jews belong to an ancient race-based people, exiled and wandering until a return to their homeland reconstituted their rightful tenure. In his new book, the mythical status of Land of Israel as the ancient homeland, promoted mostly by secular Zionists, is subjected to sustained and withering criticism. He reminds readers that neither Abraham nor Moses came from there, adding how when Moses is told of the Promised Land by God on Mount Sinai it is made clear than the current inhabitants of the land will be destroyed (Exodus: 23:, 20-23, Deut. 19.1) – though the evidence suggests that no exodus from Egypt took place and that the two kingdoms of Israel and Judea developed from local inhabitants, Canaanites and Hebrews, as they evolved from a nomadic to an agricultural way of life. Monotheism came from Babylonia to the small village of Jerusalem in the early 5th century BCE and it was around this time that the Biblical legends that are taught as history in Israel’s classrooms began to be constructed by a community of authors across many generations. Indeed, when Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land got under way in the 12th century, there was no comparable Jewish movement of worshippers and, remarkably, this remained so until the end of the 18th century.
In the 19th century, the Christian notion of a sacred land rooted in the ancient past first became entwined with colonial interests in the Middle East, a duality conveniently served by viewing Palestine as abandoned territory waiting to be saved from desolation. In the early 1880s the first Jewish settlers fleeing pogroms in Russia began to arrive in Palestine– as many as two and a half million Jews may have left Russia by 1914 – beginning a long and gradual process. Jewish immigration to Britain was causing concern and the UK government was keen to restrict it, enacting legislation to this effect in 1905. By 1917, the British government gave a boost to Zionism, born in the late 1890s, by openly supporting the idea that Palestine, home to 700,000 Arabs, could provide a ‘national home’ for Jews (60,000 of whom then lived there). The Balfour Declaration served Britain’s interests in the Middle East, anxious to secure the area around the Suez Canal and restrict French colonial ambitions, while also massaging Evangelical Christianity (the then prime minister, Lloyd George, said himself he was more familiar with sites of the Holy Land than with the names of WWI battlefields).
Sand has an absorbing chapter on how Zionism dealt with the fact that their Jewish nation-state would be established on land where the majority of people were not Jewish. The protests of Zionists who sought a non-political Jewish home in the Land of Israel were ignored, their pleas for justice swamped by the ideology of ‘historic rights’. Just as Serbs could claim sovereignity over Kosovo based on a 14th-century battle against the Ottoman Empire, Jews claimed a ‘natural right’ to Palestine on equally spurious grounds — expulsion from the Land in the year 70 CE (and modern Jews’ racial descent from the ancient Hebrews). Sand effectively demolishes the mythology surrounding this claim while demonstrating how it was exploited to dispossess Arabs of their land. His analysis continues with the birth of Israel after WWII and the expulsion of Palestinians, leaving 100,000 (and 40,000 who managed to return) isolated and discriminated against. Throw in Israeli legislation that bars civil marriages between Jews and non-Jews and Zionist policy is well-nigh complete: pure ethnic colonization, as Sand puts it with the necessary scare quotes around ‘ethnic’. The post-1967 story of Israeli settlements in areas of Palestinian population leads to the book’s sombre conclusion:
The posture maintained by the fictional Israeli ethnos reflects a mixture of contempt and fear towards its neighbours, spawned by its own fictitiousness and its own lack of confidence in its nation-cultural identity (especially vis-à-vis the Middle East). Israelis continue to refuse to live together, and certainly to live together in equality, with the Others who dwell in their midst.
The Last Resistance, Jacqueline Rose (Verso, 2013)
The Israeli novelist David Grossman is at one with Sand in bleakly assessing the state of Israel-Palestine:
“In Israel, the reality is that it is easier for a man to change religion, maybe even his sex, than to change in any decisive way his political opinions.”
Grossman is just one of the Jewish writers Rose has written about and The Last Resistance is a collection of such essays, the underlying vector of which is the ambivalent journey from the ashes of Nazi Europe to the fertile earth of Palestine. No one, she says, has a monopoly of pain and resisting the idea that Jewish pain justifies what Israel has become is the inflamed nerve that drives her to discuss the fictional and factual stories that capture her attention. Resistance is Janus-like: it’s a struggle against injustice but, in an about-turn of face, it becomes a psychic blockage, cutting off others’ pain, a Freudian wall in the shadow of the concrete wall that Israel has built to keep out the Palestinians. One causes the other, for people are never more ruthlessly cruel than when censoring a part of what is in their minds, and Freud speaks not of resistance to the unconscious but resistance of the unconscious. The ‘last resistance’ of the title is the tyranny of the superego, the vampirish resistance to self-recovery that feeds off itself; a pleasure in pain.
This is not a concept to be left to the psychoanalyst’s couch: its hideous reality is the building of a 425-mile-long wall, targeted assassinations, dismantling the furniture of Palestinian life, humiliating them, taking yet more of their land. Meanwhile, as Rose reminds us, Israeli soldiers are regularly sent to Auschwitz to strengthen their resolve and justify their actions. When Israeli men refuse military duty, in the words of a prosecutor’s summing-up at the trial of five refuseniks at the Jaffa Military Court, they are labelled ‘ideological criminals’ – ‘the worst kind’: ‘The fact that they are idealistic people and in many ways positive characters should be counted against them’.
Perhaps the most notable of the truth-telling writers singled out by Rose is David Grossman, a practitioner, in the spirit of Freud, of the writing cure. He lays bare the sick soul of Israel, a society in denial, a land where a protestor shouts out ‘Don’t shoot, we’re Israelis’ before being shot and seriously injured by the IDF. Other essays deal with lesser-known writers and readers will come across a number of books that should find a place on your reading list, like Marcel Liebman’s account of childhood in Nazi-occupied Belgium, Born Jewish (and mention too should be made of his The Russian Revolution, one of the best concise accounts of political events between February and October 1917).
Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Judith Butler (Columbia University Press, 2012)
Judith Butler is a philosopher of distinction and her early book, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-century France (1987, republished last year by Columbia University Press), is not as well known as her Gender Trouble although it deserves to be. The book focuses on Hegel’s account of lordship and bondage in the Phenomenology of Spirit, tracing its enormous impact on French thought. What interests her, and this is germane to her critique of Zionism, is the space for reversibility of identities in Hegel, a dialectic that springs from self-estrangement. As she puts it in the 1999 preface to the paperback edition of Subjects of Desire:
“Although it was within the context of French theory, after all, that Hegel became synonymous with totality, teleology, conceptual domination, and the imperialist subject, the French appropriation of Hegel also puts the totalizing and teleological presumptions of Hegel’s philosophy into question.”
Butler finds in Zionism the kind of totality and imperialist subject that does not properly belong to Hegel, a conceptual domination that brackets criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism while remaining blind to the realisation that the oppression of Palestinians only serves to increase the threat to Israel by provoking resistance both violent and non-violent, dryly commenting how, ‘One does not need to be an advanced student of Hegel to grasp this point.’ Perhaps, though, Israel does grasp this truth and consciously provokes resistance as a way of ensuring its own identity, blocking out the other truth that it really cannot confront – the truth that the very genesis of Israel was an unjust act. A standard rejoinder used by those who defend Israel’s actions is that every nation has a right to defend itself and that the Palestinians are at fault because of the way their resistance is conducted. Butler replies:
“But any evaluation of Palestinian strategies would have to take place within the framework of political resistance. The positions have never been equal, and so it makes no sense to treat the relations between Israel and Palestine as ‘two sides of a conflict’. Those models that assume equal contributions of Israel and Palestine build equality into explanatory models and so efface the inequality on the ground.”
Butler’s book is more intellectually demanding than Sand’s or Rose’s because most of the time she is engaging in a philosophical conversation with Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Arendt, Primo Levi in order to draw out from these Jewish writers, and from the work of Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, space for a non-Zionist understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Of all the writers she engages with, it is Levinas that one comes to distrust. He is famous for his espousal of the need to be open to the demands of the Other, to face the awful inhuman alterity that is common to our humanity so that through a decentring of the self some ethical ground can be found. The Other demands that we be responsible, a Kantian imperative that is itself groundless but which emerges when we look into the face of others: ‘The face, for its part, is inviolable, those eyes, which are absolutely without protection, the most naked part of the human body, nonetheless offer an absolute resistance to possession…’. Butler is not alone in wondering how his refined humanism does not include Palestinians and how he can fall back on the notion of Israel as a state eternally suffering persecution but not as a political entity that practises persecution, colonizes the land of others, produces nearly a million displaced persons in Lebanon and refuses to countenance the possibility of peace based on equality and justice.
Photo of Natan Blanc, a 19-year-old from Haifa, who has spent more than 120 days in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli military. Courtesy of Electronic Intifada