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[Back in 2005 I interviewed Jacqueline Rose about her book The Question of Zion, a fascinating and provocative analysis of the ideology of Jewish nationalism that underpins the Israeli state. It was published in Socialist Worker in January 2006. Given recent events in Palestine I thought I’d dig it out and republish it here.]
The state of Israel was founded in 1948 when Zionist militias — with the connivance of British authorities — embarked on a brutal ethnic cleansing programme that drove over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, an event known as the Naqba, or catastrophe.
These facts are well known, and not disputed by any serious historians. But certain questions are less easily settled about the nature of the Zionism, the political movement that led so many European Jews to settle in Palestine during the 20th century and attempt to build a Jewish “homeland” there.
Was Zionism always so implacably hostile to the Palestinians, or did this hatred only surface later on? And did Zionism’s supporters and sympathisers uniformly support the Naqba and the 1948 Israeli declaration of statehood, or was there a dissident streak internal to Zionism?
These are some of the questions the British writer and literary critic Jacqueline Rose attempted to answer in her book The Question of Zion. Rose, currently professor of English at Queen Mary University in London, is a long standing socialist and supporter of the Palestinian cause.
The book closely examines the writings of leading Zionist writers, ranging from prominent leaders such as Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weitzman to intellectuals such as theologian Martin Buber and philosopher Hannah Arendt.
The aim, says Rose, is to understand Zionism from the inside — an aspect she argues has often been overlooked by the left. “The book is a tribute to Edward Said — his work The Question Of Palestine is the title from which I take mine,” explains Rose.
“In his essay Zionism From The Standpoint Of Its Victims, he says the ‘internal cohesion and solidity’ of Zionism has ‘for the most part eluded the understanding of the Arabs’, that they do not understand the ‘terror and exultation’ out of which it was born.
“I would add that it isn’t understood by the left either. On the left — and obviously I include myself in that — Zionism is a dirty word. Said was saying there was something intractable, but also traumatically inspired about the Zionist movement that we need to understand.
“That’s what my book tries to do. But it’s difficult, because if you enter into the mindset of something, you can possibly be seen to be colluding with it. Edward Said once asked me if I was writing an apology. I said of course not, I’m completely clear where I stand. And the fact that it is not an apology has been confirmed by the vitriol that’s been poured on the book by Zionists.
“But the strongest rage has been against the book’s use of psychoanalysis. This comes from people who are convinced that Zionism is completely rational, that it was the pursuit of a Jewish national homeland in the face of historic disaster—and that nothing else needs to be said. But there’s a lot more that needs to be said to understand why it won’t budge, why it defends itself with such fierce ideological and Biblical commitment.”
Reading the book it’s not hard to see why it sparked such a vociferous response from the Zionist right. Rose meticulously documents the way in which Zionism was from its earliest roots shot through with a “messianic” streak that celebrated cataclysmic redemption and militarised colonial violence.
“The more I have read of this writing,” writes Rose, “the more convinced I found myself becoming that the classic and famous Zionist claim — Palestine was a land without a people — was not just a blatant lie but a cover. The draw of Palestine resided at least partly in fear.” In other words, the pioneers of Zionism knew full well they were taking others’ land by force — and Zionism as an ideology repressed this knowledge.
But other audiences have been much more receptive to the book’s argument, says Rose. A new generation of students has been deeply influenced by the arguments of the “New Historians” — scholars such as Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim who have demonstrated how official accounts of Israeli history are Zionist propaganda with little or no basis in fact.
“Zionists claim that ‘Arab intransigence’ has blocked peace from the beginning,” says Rose. “But Avi Shlaim’s book The Iron Wall establishes that it is actually Israeli intransigence, if anything, that has blocked peace. And if people are even partly persuaded by that argument, they might want to ask themselves why.
“If it is intransigence, then psychoanalytically there will be a very good reason for it. It will come out of fear and insecurity, out of an inability to acknowledge one’s own capacity for violence. People aren’t intransigent without reason—I wanted to find the reason.”
But Rose’s book has also attracted criticism from the left, in particular over its attempt to develop what could be called a “post-Zionist” position that is neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist. In particular she criticises the poet Tom Paulin, also a staunch defender of Palestinian rights, for saying, “Look, you’re either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, there’s no middle way.”
“The problem is that if you think like that there becomes no position within which you can understand what Zionism means,” says Rose. “It reproduces the history of the Israeli state, that the only alternative is either lethal identification or radical dissent. And it doesn’t leave space for what Edward Said spoke of — an understanding of the ‘terror and exultation’ on which Zionism was made.
“However, on certain issues the book is unequivocal. There was a historic injustice against the Palestinians in 1948 that has not been redressed. Even if you understand the rationale for Jewish self determination, there’s something very disturbing about the way Israel has imported a romantic nationalism based on mysticism, land, blood, descent into the Middle East.”
But isn’t there a danger that by moving “beyond” the opposition between Zionism and anti-Zionism, you end up depoliticising the argument and avoiding the necessity of taking sides in a struggle?
“The book is a contribution to ideas, rather than an activist handbook,” replies Rose. “It’s not a programme, not a manifesto, except that it says read Arendt, read Buber and you will know what has to be done. Israel must become a state of all her citizens — whether that’s by partition or a binational solution doesn’t matter.”
Another point of controversy is Rose’s argument that despite its constitutive intransigence, Zionism can nevertheless be transformed from within. She highlights the work of Zionists such as Arendt and Buber that fiercely opposed the 1948 foundation of Israel and argues they represent an internal critique of Zionism, rather than marginal dissident voices.
“Hannah Arendt’s 1945 essay Zionism Reconsidered predicts with an uncanny prescience everything that was going to happen,” says Rose. “The economy would be subordinated to the needs of war, Israel would become dependent on the US. Reading it now is bizarre — her views were silenced in proportion to the degree she proved to be correct.
“Israel’s current policies cannot be the way forward, and one of the things the book is trying to say is that inside Zionism there is a knowledge of that. No discourse is completely coherent — the more it clings to a mirror-smooth fantasy of its own inviolability, the more you can be sure that somewhere something’s giving, elsewhere in the system.”
This may be true, but it doesn’t address the question of political efficacy. As Sabby Sagall argued in a recent review of Rose’s book, “All the evidence indicates that Israel is immune to internal calls for radical change or movements from below. Change will, therefore, have to come from outside.”
“I don’t want to evade Sabby’s point,” replies Rose. “It’s true that these people were roundly defeated in 1948 — but what they were saying is going to become more and more relevant.”
And the voices highlighted in her book certainly remain essential for a full understanding of the traumatic, interconnected history of the Jewish and Arab people in the 20th century. “It’s not for me to say the book will have an effect,” she adds. “It is being translated into Arabic and the central chapter is being translated into Hebrew. All can say is that I hope it will enter into a dialogue — that it will become part of the dialogue that it’s also describing.”