The Question of Zion 
by Jacqueline Rose.
Princeton, 202 pp., £12.95, April 2005, 0 691 11750 0
Show More
Show More

Jacqueline Rose has written a timely and courageous book. One immediate sign of this is its dedication to the late Edward Said, and its rewriting of the title of one of his most important books, The Question of Palestine (1980). To write ‘as a Jewish woman’ and in homage to Said about the failures of the Israeli state will surely inspire some of the hate mail that Said himself received for more than thirty years as the major Western explicator of Palestinian history and Palestinian rights. Recent events, including the New York City Department of Education’s barring of Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian, from lecturing to schoolteachers, and the British Association of University Teachers’ soon overturned boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities, make clear that public sensitivity to anything concerning the question of Palestine remains very high.

Said’s book took Zionism as a relatively coherent entity, coincident with the European imperialist project in the Orient and with the historical efflorescence of European liberal capitalism. That, for all the talk of agrarian socialist ideals and returning to the land, was the long and the short of it. Zionism was never unambiguous about its status as a Jewish liberation movement; it did however speak confidently of itself as ‘a Jewish movement for colonial settlement in the Orient’. While insisting that what mattered most about Zionism was its implacably negative effect on the lives of the Palestinians, Said at least paid lip-service to its embeddedness in a complex history that its exponents have sought to occlude from critical attention. For those suffering the effects of its deployment in support of vicious colonialist practices, such complexities are cold comfort; for those seeking to keep it on message, they are positively threatening. The exposure of some of that complex history, for her the subject of an ‘anguished curiosity’, is the task Rose sets herself in this published version of the Gauss seminars she gave at Princeton in 2003. But what she offers is ‘neither history nor survey’ so much as a psychoanalysis of the national subject as it absorbs yet fails to bring to consciousness its Zionist legacy. Her book is about a ‘mindset’ that runs through history, and which she believes is ‘the key to the tragedy daily unfolding for both peoples in Israel-Palestine’.

Zion began life as a hill in Jerusalem, as a place already overdetermined by the pressure of a present and future politics, a place to which to return, or to establish authentically for the first time. According to Rose, the history of this figment has never been simple or settled but has always been riven by both internal and contextual argument. Alongside the well-marketed image of utopian communities farming the land and sharing its fruits, there is that of a violent messianism establishing a commitment to catastrophe and trauma which is then reproduced through time as its own justification. For Rose, Gershom Scholem’s revival of the history of the 17th-century radical mystic Shabtai Zvi is the type of a messianic Zionism which believes that the worse things get, the closer they are to the promised end. Zvi was strenuously antinomian, believing that the saint must sin and that the law must be upheld by being broken, as he himself broke it in spectacular fashion by singing Christian songs and converting to Islam. Zvi coincided with the cusp of a proto-Zionist popular uprising across Europe and North Africa, in which visionary and political power combined in a mass movement aiming to return the Jews to Palestine. Rose finds the records of the historical Zvi eerily familiar; they remind her of settlers she interviewed in 2002 who also took comfort in horror and affirmed the necessary coincidence of ruin with redemption. These are people who take comfort in the perception that the suicide bombings are responsible for driving up the Israeli birthrate, who believe that the more Jews there are in the promised land and the more they suffer, the closer is the end of historical time. Catastrophe is not dreaded but eagerly anticipated.

This formation, as Rose sees it, is the legacy of messianic Zionism, which is popular among the settlers now occupying parts of the West Bank. Reading the messianically inclined founding fathers Chaim Weizmann and Theodor Herzl, as well as a lineage of secular and sceptical Zionists and sceptics about Zionism per se, including Hannah Arendt, Hans Kohn, Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am, she portrays the divisions within and about Zionism both as a terrifying legacy and as a source of hope against the grain of current history. The terror comes from the willingness of modern Israelis to assimilate covertly and seemingly without reflection this messianic strain, so that they can declare themselves ‘at once horrified by history and divinely inspired’. The hope comes from Zionism’s being a contested paradigm: familiarisation with the notion of its contested nature might offer both Israelis and the rest of the world a practice of self-examination that would deprive historical agents of the authority of myth.

The knowledge thus derived would act as a restraint on the opportunistic rhetoric of the politicians and the believers in a single-minded Zionism, and as a potential alternative to the extremes of ‘lethal identification and grievous disenchantment’ currently on offer. Such a position might understand as historical its own reproduction of mythical norms and cease to repeat its compulsion to yoke together self-creation (as the nation state) and self-destruction (as the effect of its aggression). It might thereby disrupt the assumption that the normal state of the nation is a state of continual crisis, and render less persuasive the acts carried out in the name of that crisis. Rose believes that the crisis compulsion is not acknowledged, and that the current situation is characterised by the repression of the demonic-messianic component of Zionism by those who have an interest in casting themselves as the inhabitants of a modern enlightened state. They do not admit that messianic violence is at the core of Israeli culture and politics today, in a state whose armies destroy, torture, humiliate and kill like most other invaders and occupiers, while continuing to insist (and here too they are not alone) on the exceptionality of such acts within a norm of righteous behaviour. Thus when violence emerges it does so with all the more force for being unpredicted, and is promptly disavowed. Yet it keeps on emerging. This is the peculiar national mindset that Rose analyses and wishes to bring to light for examination, indeed for cure: she holds to the classic (though not undisputed) psychoanalytic premise that ‘the path to transformation lies first and foremost in knowing yourself.’

History, then, is part of the problem but also holds the potential for the cure. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zakhor (1982) made the case that there had been very little Jewish history or historiography, that the specification of relations between past and future was more often marked by mythological assumptions about eternity rather than by careful attention to the productions of time. In so saying he made an opening for precisely such a history. Twenty-three years later, Rose still finds that Israel ‘has never succeeded in distinguishing between action in the sphere of history and hopes that at once fulfil history and leave its world behind’. But is Zionism the ‘key’ to the plot, the ‘mindset’ that holds together, in the mode of repressed knowledge, the day to day tragedies of Israel-Palestine? The current historiographic mindset tends to be suspicious of those who think they have found the key to anything; it is more comfortable with efforts to describe and interpret microhistorical archives where there seems to be some prospect of locally exhaustive accounting, with the big picture left as a task for a better-informed future. Arguments depending on single grand ideas tend to be the property of popular history writers, the best (or at least better) sellers grinding very obvious axes and telling of the clash of civilisations, the upside of empire and so forth.

But of course all histories are motivated, whether they are grand narratives or small stories, although not all are partial to the same degree. And the idea of waiting patiently for a future big historical picture cannot be comfortably entertained by those of us who would like to stop the killing on all sides and who oppose Israel’s continuing engrossment of the land. Highly motivated history can easily look like simplified memory, intact in its message and inattentive to potential resistances. And memory does seem to play a larger than usual role in Israeli politics. Memory always has a historical as well as an individual profile because ideas about collective identity are among the materials passed down through culture from one generation to another. Freud compared the human mind to the ruins of Rome, and believed that ‘nothing which has once been formed can perish, that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light.’ This may be an extreme position, but given a well-organised institutional or doctrinal subculture and a relatively small nation-state, it is by no means fanciful to imagine that ideas can be passed around and down in more or less unmodified form. Such, for Rose, is the case for Zionism. But it is a selective Zionism, she contends, that rules the Israeli media and popular consciousness.

Rose’s image of Israel as a nation ‘believing fervently in its own goodness in the world’ while being ‘devoted not only to the destruction of others but to sabotaging itself’ is reminiscent of Derrida’s articulation (in Spectres of Marx and elsewhere) of the ‘autoimmunity crisis’ he found latent in Western democracies after 1989 and rampant in the United States after 9/11, whereby the defensive system devised to keep out infection (the enemy) actually invites it and works against itself. It recalls also the classic Derridean reading of the pharmakon as both poison and cure – the very fruitfulness of the Israeli land, for example, is what ushers in its violent end – as well as Freud’s thoughts on the Unheimlich as the property of the alien other that is also deeply embedded in the homely and the homeland. So it is that ‘Israel inscribes at its heart the very version of nationhood from which the Jewish people had had to flee,’ and instead of this being a merely contingent irony of history it is central to the appeal and tenacity of the idea of Israel itself.

But this book about Zion as the core of the Israel-Palestine question reminds us of Derrida’s insistence that there are three players involved in the contest over the Abrahamic high ground: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Zionism may be exceptional in its current intensity, and specific to the continuing crisis in Israel-Palestine, but its operations as here described are allied with (and thus appeal to) a wide range of modern nation-states which are invested in what Giorgio Agamben has called the ‘state of exception’ as the means of their own legitimation. Rose herself alludes to this conjunction (though not to Agamben) early in her book, noting that Israel is ‘not the only nation to believe its mandate is holy’, and that ‘we live in a time when the means of combating “evil” seem to take on the colours of what they are trying to defeat’: she particularly notices the invocation of a ‘divinely sanctioned awfulness’ in public discourse since 9/11. The dramatic hostility to foreigners and to the idea of the foreign and the efforts to purify and keep pure the nation’s population are not unique to Israel, nor are they historically inevitable there, given the potential in the alternative Zionism (Arendt, Buber, Kohn) to recognise itself as a foreigner to others in its own place, or even perhaps to propose the archaic foreignness of its own founding doctrines, as Freud did in Moses and Monotheism.

Said was adamant in regarding Zionism as a European idea, the product of a certain moment in the history of colonialism and high capitalism. Derrida also pointed out, in an important lecture delivered in Israel in 1988 during the Palestinian uprising, that Hermann Cohen’s Deutschtum und Judentum (1915) proposed a deep spiritual alliance of mindsets between the Germans and the Jews, involving the Greeks (via Philo Judaeus) and even Kant, the arch-German Protestant.* Cohen’s analysis was designed to dissuade American Jews from entering the war against Germany, and as such it signals that all invocations of a national or transnational psyche or essence are motivated, including the ones employed by the state of Israel today. It also shows not only the Europeanness of these ideas of essential racial-national-spiritual categories, but also the deep implication of the West in the particular messianism that Rose presents as the repressed core of Zionism. Germany too had its destiny to be fulfilled only in violence and apocalypse, and deluded significant numbers of its citizens accordingly. Parallels with certain strains of thought in the contemporary United States also come to mind. What are the implications for Rose’s argument of construing the question of Zion as a special instance of a more general syndrome across ‘the West’, as Said and Derrida both imply that it is? Does this detract from or support her commitment to a psychoanalytic model?

For Rose, the lineaments of Zionism’s condition – denial and repetitive acting out – are indeed principally psychoanalytic rather than historical: she even suggests that Zionism and psychoanalysis are ‘companions of the spirit’ in their efforts to create ‘another scene’. Although only one of her three chapters declares itself concerned with psychoanalysis, this remains the master trope. Zionism is the ‘most wonderful exemplar of the work of the psyche in the constitution of the modern nation-state’. Nations can reproduce the same self-destructive behaviour patterns as individuals, although ‘there is no normal yardstick by which we can measure the neurosis of the group.’ To understand Zionism we turn to ‘psychic’ as much as ‘political’ terms. The cruelty of Israel devolves from the experience of suffering, just as it might for a damaged individual; the ‘historical injustice’ directed at the Jews becomes the source of a ‘narcissistic wound’.

There are obvious dangers in this sort of analysis, not the least of which Rose herself brings up: ‘that the Palestinians have become the inadvertent objects of a struggle that, while grounded in the possession of the land, at another level has nothing to do with them at all’. In one way there is a liberating potential to making a priority of this other ‘level’, the psyche or mindset: from this perspective, the main issues are not about Arabs or Islam; and thus the hackneyed ‘clash of civilisations’ myth is just that, a myth. But there is also a scary insulatedness to such a view, a sense that the problem is not so much one of negotiation between independent entities as it is about Israel getting its own head together. Rose knows perfectly well that there is no single Israel, and this book is written in part to provide support for her allies among the Israeli intelligentsia who are working for the same causes as she is, those who share in her articulation of a counternarrative. But the habit of using, if only for convenience, the language of psychoanalysis to liken the nation to an individual does tend to imply that the nation is a single thing, and that its problems require something like conventional therapy. Even if the individual is not a coherent entity, a simple subject – this was Freud’s great argument, and he has not been alone – there are still assumptions in play about how and by what mechanisms the disunity is preserved and acted on or acted out. There is an armoury of familiar terms – ideology, the culture industry, media influence and so forth – to give different shapes to the ways in which the individual does not include or encapsulate all the possibilities in the larger society, group or nation. They point to some of the ways in which the full range of state apparatuses and political institutions cannot be run through the paradigm of a single human psyche, however fragmented that psyche might be.

Someone might propose, for example, that Rose’s messianic Zionism is not convincing as an epitome of the national crisis, that other forces need attention. This does not seem to me to diminish the value of what she has to say. It is hard to imagine discounting altogether the pertinence of these syndromes, if not as ‘the key’ then certainly as components to be taken seriously. Disavowed messianic Zionism might well be the critical tradition that right-wing politics appeals to in marketing itself to its electorate. At the same time, one might wonder whether another person’s key to it all would be the cessation of indiscriminate economic and political support of Israel by the United States. If the task is to persuade Israel to get in touch with its own demons, this might speed up the process.

The placing of the Zionist mentality in the tradition of Western (not just Jewish) messianism might seem to threaten to dilute the model to such an extent that it no longer has a critical edge – it has even less of an edge if one takes the next step and includes Islamic jihad under the same umbrella. Most religious or religiose doctrines have within them their own antinomian alternatives, but they have seldom won over the orthodox. It is here that a turn to history, not instead of but as well as to the national psyche, can assist us. Said saw Zionism as a ‘translation’ of theory and vision ‘into a set of instruments for holding and developing a Jewish colonial territory right in the middle of an indifferently surveyed and developed Arab territory’. He compared it to an army, not a mindset. Like an army, Zionism’s empirical implementation has required the co-ordination of a lot of bits and pieces for the moving and supplying of masses of people, the subjugation of the people already there, and the subsequent administration and social organisation of both colonisers and natives. Do armies move according to mindsets or as the result of sequences of local decisions? The answer must be both, and that is what guarantees that orders and directions will be followed. Rose’s national psyche can exist along with specific historical determinations as motivators of critical events. Or at least the national psyche is available to be manipulated by the interests of the state and perhaps by its foreign backers.

The two models of history, as psyche and/ or as a set of empirically structured agencies, do suggest different kinds of description and address. Seeing the nation as a psyche emphasises long-standing patterns immune to radical change without radical therapy; the empirical-historical model can support a more open-ended and unpredictable future because the important determinations are seen as so manifold and complex that no single vested interest can be expected to control them for very long. Rose’s analysis tends to the first of these emphases, and if it does not convince as the key to it all, it demands attention both for itself and as a symptom of the question of Israel-Palestine that should not be ignored. One component of the empirical-historical situation is, surely, the ideology of Zionism and its availability for a variety of implementations ranging from cynical exploitation to delusionary good faith.

This book’s literal allusion to Said’s work risks inviting adverse comparison with a history written on behalf of those who have so far been the losers. However much Israel may be ‘self-defeating’ and devoted to ‘sabotaging itself’, as Rose puts it, she does not mean us to suppose any equivalence between the suffering of the colonisers and the army and the miseries of those it has suppressed and still suppresses. Her emphasis on Zionism as a strictly Jewish phenomenon is motivated by an admirable determination not to give way to the familiar injunction that in order to criticise Israel one has to criticise everyone else as well. The inadvertent consequence of this may be to produce a sense of Jewish exceptionalism, even if, as here, a negative one. Any implication of exceptionalism is always to be questioned, not least because it holds as its promise the prospect of getting it right, of heaven on earth: if only Israel could come to terms with the repressed parts of Zionism, then a real Zion might emerge. That, I think, is not what Rose would want. Her case would seem to be that if Zionism were indeed able to admit its divisive legacy and incorporate its own self-criticism then it would cease to be Zionism as we know it. And Israel would be an ordinary state.

Again, this opens a question about what and where an ordinary state might be. The Question of Zion will be read as much in the anglophone West as it is in Israel-Palestine, if not more, and here, too, its lessons are very important, especially in the light of Said’s and Derrida’s cases for the fuller implication of the West in the syndrome under consideration. I don’t know if Rose’s statement that ‘violence will come home to roost’ is a knowing citation of Malcolm X on the Kennedy assassination or just a coincidence of idiom, but the symmetry of the current ruling political rhetoric of the United States with the language of messianic Zionism as here described is hard to overlook, and Rose herself has touched on it. The existence of millions of readers of the ‘Rapture’ novels and the affiliation of some fundamentalist Christians with an apocalyptic understanding of Zion (they too think that things must get worse before they get better) only adds to the uncanny – or is it historical? – overlap between prominent features of two different national cultures.

In the US there has been an overpowering manipulation of the idea that ‘disaster must be meaningful if it is to be borne.’ Thus the dead of 9/11 have been packaged as heroes in the cause of freedom, and Iraq, an uninvolved though already undermined bystander state, has been further shattered because of its opportunistic embodiment as the displaced enemy and sometimes, it has seemed, as the synecdoche of a neo-liberal Christian crusade. Rose alludes to the violence entering the language in the service of messianic projects: ‘bittahon, which originally referred to trust in God, now denotes military security.’ Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, if the Israeli army’s Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin looks all too cannily familiar to Americans raised on such military endeavours as Rolling Thunder, Just Cause, Urgent Fury and Shock and Awe – only the briefly circulated Infinite Justice was deemed too close to divine authority, as if that small moment of self-correction makes all the other coinages excusable.

But we should not assume that everyone who reads about the Rapture believes it, or that every Israeli is committed (even unconsciously) to messianic Zionism. Rose does not make this claim, and the contrary assumption indeed underwrites her book: the assumption that it is still worth writing in the cause of a rational history of the irrational. If there is to be hope, history must overcome myth, or at least contest it when the prospects of overcoming are not so bright. No one has a simple answer to Rose’s question: ‘How do you make a nation pause for thought?’ The common wisdom answers that question, at least it did for the United States in Vietnam, with the invocation of more dead bodies – but they have to be your own. If there is another way, given that the number of dead Israelis is still significantly smaller than that of dead Palestinians, then it is worth opening as many doors as possible.

The core of this book, with its revisiting of the alternative Zionists who might have seen themselves as foreigners to others in the land they shared, and some of whom were suspicious of the entire nationalist project and of the dynamics of statehood itself, is a plea for a history that is insufficiently familiar even in those sectors of the academy that should foster it: ‘What would happen to a political or religious identity, even the most binding, if it could see itself as contingent, as something that might have taken another path?’ If its destiny, in other words, were far from manifest, and far from destined. The power of the ‘most binding’ affiliations is seldom dissolved by mere analysis, but analysis must still do its work in the hope of becoming available for describing a better world. It could do nothing but good if the force of Rose’s argument were to be felt not only in and for Israel but beyond.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 27 No. 13 · 7 July 2005

David Simpson commends the force of Jacqueline Rose’s arguments ‘not only in and for Israel but beyond’ (LRB, 23 June). It might indeed be useful to extend debates around nationalism to the rest of the globe. At the very least, we should be ready to acknowledge that the best efforts of socialists, pacifists and others over the past two centuries have established neither international institutions able to replace the nation-state nor forms of international thinking which replace nationalism’s brutalities and raisons d’état.

The winding-up of Western colonialism, the disintegration of the former Eastern Bloc, the current impasse of the European Union and the low morale of the United Nations offer very little hope that we might see the end of national political units, no matter how tiny or unviable they may be. There is little point in aspiring towards a political solution in the Middle East which would not be considered workable in, say, the former Yugoslavia. There may be a case for applying psychoanalysis to the problem, but it will not supply solutions in the short term.

The best prospect for Israel-Palestine, and the most we can realistically hope for, would be a modest range of practical measures: agreed frontiers, agreed financial compensation, a cease-fire. If the ideologues on both sides wish to preserve their purity by saying that such a truce could only be observed for 50 years, that would give two generations time to become habituated to peace and a degree of economic security which they would be reluctant to surrender. To propose more ambitious goals for the immediate future may make some people feel good about themselves; the growing pile of corpses will feel nothing at all. If the course of 20th-century politics has taught us anything at all, it is that intellectuals have obligations to pragmatism.

Anne Summers
London Metropolitan University

Vol. 27 No. 14 · 21 July 2005

Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion, reviewed by David Simpson, gives a hostile account of the Zionist project (LRB, 23 June). She adopts the position of a binationalist, advocating a common future for Jews and Arabs in a single state. Jews fought for older versions of this position in the decades between the Russian pogroms of 1881 and the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. The venture foundered for the want of any reciprocating Arab interest. There is no real prospect for binational coexistence in any part of the Middle East today and binationalism now serves mainly rhetorical purposes, including the defaming of the Jewish state in the name of an impossible alternative.

Rose writes about Zionism as if it were a person with a mental illness. The form taken by this illness is said to be Messianism, which can be diagnosed by reference to statements made by individual Zionists. When it suits her, she is ready to take these statements at face value, and to treat them as representative. She lumps together the secular and the religious, and elides the quests for spiritual redemption and territorial expansion. Her notion of Messianism swamps all the necessary distinctions. Israel is in danger of destroying itself, she writes. This is her own counter-Messianism. A misleading account of Zionism as Messianism becomes the means by which a falsely catastrophist account can be given of Israel’s prospects.

Any effective critique of Zionism has to address the following questions (I will suggest some answers of my own).

First, did the Arabs have the right to resist the settling of Jews in Palestine on any terms? While Palestine was not a land without a people, it was a land that could accommodate that fraction of the Jewish people who wanted to settle there. There was more than enough room for both Arabs and Jews.

Second, was the creation of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine necessarily a violation of Palestinian rights? Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War One. It was then administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. The right of the Jews to a national homeland was part of the mandate’s charter. It is true that many Arab Israelis do not consider that they have the same stake as their Jewish fellow citizens in the Jewish state. But an adjacent, viable Palestinian state, and full civil rights in Israel, is the best set of circumstances for the indigenous peoples of that part of the Middle East.

Third, do the Palestinians bear any responsibility for their own stateless suffering? They rejected statehood for themselves in 1937 and then again in 1947. In 1948, instead of declaring a state, they made war on the new Jewish state, along with many Arab armies. More than 6000 Israelis lost their lives, 1 per cent of the total Jewish population. During the war, many Palestinians left – some willingly, many not. At about the same time, and in the months that followed, a similar number of Jews were driven out of Arab lands. Jordan ruled the Palestinians of the West Bank; Egypt, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians were kept in camps, while the Jews from the Arab lands were absorbed into the new Jewish state.

Fourth, to what extent does anti-semitism play a part in the Middle East dispute? The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not an obstacle to the disappearance of Muslim anti-semitism; Muslim anti-semitism is an obstacle to the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Sceptics may consult the Hamas charter, available on the web, to satisfy themselves that this is so. It holds the Jews responsible, among other things, for the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, and for the First and Second World Wars.

Fifth, how did the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank come about? It was as a result of the Six-Day War, which was precipitated by Egypt’s closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and the eviction of UN peacekeeping troops from Sinai. During the war, Israel captured what are known as the Occupied Territories. It then invited its Arab enemies to peace talks, an invitation rejected by them at the Khartoum Summit. Israel’s hope that it could use the newly conquered territories as bargaining chips for peace faded. At this point, and not before, Israel’s settler movement emerged. It is the latest version of Zionism, and not the normative one. Its principal political patron, Ariel Sharon, has himself now repudiated it.

Anthony Julius
London WC1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences