Compare and contrast: Review of The Question of Zion

From the archive (legacy material)

Rafael Behr | The Observer | 17 July 2005

Likening the Israelis’ treatment of Palestinians with the Holocaust is outrageous to most Jews. But Jacqueline Rose has dared to do just that in The Question of Zion, says Rafael Behr
The Question of Zion
Jacqueline Rose
Princeton University Press £12.95, pp155
Shortly after the bombs went off in London last week, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, issued a gagging order to stop his ministers from commenting on the event. It was good diplomatic judgment. Sharon knew that his lieutenants would race to draw parallels between Britain’s terror threat and Israel’s and that the comparison could look like point scoring – ‘Now you see it from our point of view’ – when the hour demanded apolitical condolence.
But Sharon also knows that the comparison is specious. Britain’s war with terrorists and Israel’s war with the Palestinians have distinct histories. They merge only inside heads of fundamentalist jihadis, for whom ‘British imperialism’ makes common cause with ‘Zionism’ in a conspiracy against Islam.
Not surprisingly, Sharon does not like to legitimise bin Laden’s definition of Zionism. But what definition does he use? And which one is best? The word has been pushed and pulled about so roughly by friends and enemies of Israel that dispassionate observers are scared to touch it in case it falls apart in their hands.
Brave is the scholar who embarks, as Jacqueline Rose has done in The Question of Zion, on a critical analysis of the ideology that created modern Israel. Braver still is the writer who uses this analysis to diagnose that country with a dangerous, possibly fatal pathology contracted at birth. Few subjects stir as much passion and draw as much poison-penned invective.
Professor Rose’s analysis, however, is modestly expressed and methodical. It is also fiercely intellectual. Judaic theology and psychoanalytic theory are wielded like tools, unpicking the minds of Israel’s pioneers from Theodor Herzl, the 19th-century Austrian journalist and visionary who dreamt of a Jewish Utopia on the shores of the Mediterranean, to the Bible-bashing settlers currently resisting evacuation from Gaza and the West Bank.
It is a story beset with contradiction. Zionism was secular, a case of 19th-century national self-discovery in reaction to repressive empire. Zionism was religious; it took its mandate from God’s covenant with Abraham.
Zionism looked forward; many of its early followers despised the legacy of the European ghetto, which they saw as craven and weak. They changed their names and their language from Yiddish to Hebrew; they scorned the old culture of bookish urbanity and embraced a cult of labour and soil. Zionism looked backwards; the Jews seeking return to the land of their forefathers.
Rose explains why this complex vision held such allure for the generation of Jews which, in the first half of the 20th century, saw its long campaign for acceptance by Europe dissolve in an acid rain of anti-semitism. Zionism had one foot planted in history, the other in faith; both arms outstretched to a brave new world.
And then there was the Holocaust.
To trace a connection between the savagery of the Third Reich and the blinkered belligerence of modern Israel is both truism and taboo. It is self-evident that a state, peopled with survivors of genocide, should determine to defend itself at all costs, and that it should care little for the judgment of other states that stood by or were complicit in the worst of crimes.
It is also a repulsive proposition for Jews, accustomed to a moral system that holds fascism as the ultimate evil and natural enemy to Judaism, to think that the army of the Jewish state might carry out fascistic acts. To utter such a thing feels treasonous, anti-semitic even. The very act of comparison puts Nazi atrocity in the realm of relativity, whereas in Jewish consciousness it is absolute. To compare Jews with Nazis is beyond blasphemy.
But Rose does not flinch from the horrible analogies that appear in accounts of Israeli treatment of Palestinians and German treatment of Jews. On the contrary, she stares them full in the face. She reads them in the testimony of Israeli army refuseniks, peace campaigners and disillusioned Zionist writers and poets.
The Palestinians, in Rose’s analysis, are scapegoat for Israel’s tortured memory of the Holocaust. They represent not just the threat of arbitrary destruction (of which each suicide bombing is a constant reminder) but they are made also to pay for the suppressed shame that Europe’s Jewry felt at having bowed to its fate at Hitler’s hands.
This bleak psychoanalysis does not make for comfortable reading. Doubtless, it is the part of Rose’s book that will attract the most attention and hostility from the Israeli right. But there is another strand that, while less politically pungent, is no less dispiriting for those who hope that Israel might one day cease to be an epicentre of strife.
One of Zionism’s core ambitions was to normalise the Jewish people’s standing in the world; to end the wandering and the exile; to make of the Jews a nation that would live in a state just like every other, like Poles in Poland or the French in France.
But, paradoxically, Zionism depended also on the uniqueness of Jewish destiny, on a Messianic vision with roots in scripture. Israel, from day one, wanted to be just like every other country, only completely different.
Rose unearths misgivings about this contradiction in the writings of the early Zionists and Jewish anti-Zionists. She charts how these dissenting voices have been sidelined in history in the same way Israel’s modern peaceniks are sidelined in politics.
She also draws a link between the hushing of debate and the ascent of Zionism’s Messianic strain. As the prospect of peace recedes, so rises a tide of apocalyptic thinking. The cycle of violence – attack and retribution – starts to feel inevitable and, to the Messianic believer, inevitability looks like destiny.
Israel stands on the brink of an abyss, and there are forces in the society that prefer to leap in than to pull back. Fundamentalists of all faiths are besotted with the redemptive power of destruction.
Jacqueline Rose’s pessimistic analysis is tightly woven. It stands on a solid edifice of scholarship. That does not put it beyond refutation, but it does demand an answer more sophisticated than the angry denial that it will certainly provoke.