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Whither Žižek?: On Zionism and Jews

Slavoj Zizek’s line of thought conveniently plays into the hands of Israel’s hard right, like newly reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli expansionists.

BY Louis Nayman

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What Zizek's argument comes down to is that everyone would be better off if Jews would only do the world a solid by repudiating that which makes us Jews, denying where we came from, and maybe – if it wouldn’t be too much trouble—disappearing as a nation from the face of the earth.

Slavoj Zizek's recent In These Times article, “Whither Zionism?” seems to start with a conclusion: the final solution to the world’s Jewish problem that Hitler left unfinished, Zionism will complete.

In order to prevent this outcome and spare the rest of the world continuing unrest in the Middle East, Zizek’s advice to the Jews—“arguably the most creative and intellectually productive people in the world,” thank you very much, professor—is: forget Judaism’s “mythic past,” abandon your national identity and stop with the Zionism already.

This is not an original idea. Phillip Roth, in his brilliant 1993 satirical novel Operation Shylock, has a character who also is named Phillip Roth make the case that the real Jewish homeland is not Israel, but Poland. A sort of Vladimir Jabotinsky in reverse, Roth’s doppelganger travels throughout Israel warning Jews to escape a coming Holocaust of the Middle East by returning to their Diaspora homes in Eastern Europe. Anti-Semites Anonymous, a self-help organization co-founded by Roth’s double and a sexually promiscuous oncology nurse, is the proposed vehicle—along with Jews returning from Israel—for civilizing gentile bigots in Germany and Poland. At one point, the Diasporist Phillip Roth meets with Lech Welesa, for whom the absorption of Jews from Israel proves to be an easy sell. In Roth’s hands, the questions of national and personal identity, vengeance and justice and individual and collective redemption are treated with empathy, humor, intelligence, complexity and carefully earned irony.

Zizek strains for irony in recounting a meeting in the 1930s between a faction of underground Zionists and Adolf Eichmann aimed at exploring the feasibility of ransoming German Jews for resettlement in Eretz Yisrael. In a parenthetical aside, Zizek concedes—“incidentally”—that there may have have been a reason for trying to enter into negotiations with anyone who had the power to save Jews on the eve of the Shoah, but not before characterizing the motives of this enterprise as the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from Germany and Arabs from British Mandatory Palestine.

Comparing the Jewish State to German Nazis is a calumny that passes for cleverness on cardboard picket signs and the smug postings of online trolls, but it’s disappointing, if not surprising, to see it reprised in the work of an accomplished academic and philosopher of Zizek’s stature and repute.

What Zizek's argument comes down to is that everyone would be better off if Jews would only do the world a solid by repudiating that which makes us Jews, denying where we came from, and maybe—if it wouldn’t be too much trouble—disappearing as a nation from the face of the earth. The world would be a simpler place if only the Israelites would agree to be the rootless cosmopolitans of Josef Stalin’s characterization than try to live authentic lives as a people and nation of The Book.

To make his case, Zizek draws from an eclectic variety of sources, citations, and allusions, including: a cartoon in a Vienna newspaper, the ravings of a Norwegian mass murderer, the controversy surrounding the opera The Death of Klinghoffer, some particularly grisly Old Testament passages involving smiting and razing and my favorite, a retelling—without irony—of a back and forth over Gaza between Jon Voight on one side, and Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz on the other.

“The lesson,” writes Zizek, “is simply that every form of legitimization of a claim to land by some mythic past should be rejected.”

Presumably the “mythic past,” he would like Jews to forget is the Old Testament, especially verses such as: 

And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land.’ (Genesis 12:7)

And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children forever (Ezekiel 37:25)

By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea we wept, When we remembered Zion. / Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps. / For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, And our tormentors asked of us mirth: / “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” / How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137)

Hear, O Israel: The Lord Our God, the Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The centrality of Eretz Yisrael to Judaism is a fact, irrespective of whether you read scripture as hocus pocus, myth or literal truth. Demanding that Jews repudiate and “forget” our creation story—“mythic” or factual—is not a demand you hear many on the Left make of the Irish, Black South Africans, Basques, indigenous peoples in the Americas or Arab nationalists.

By failing to instruct residents of the West Bank and Gaza to forget the iron keys, olive groves and mosques of their recent past, Zizek implies a particular statute of limitations for Jewish nationhood. Having been dispersed as a nation and cast out of your homeland, what’s the time limit after which you forfeit your collective and individual identity, national rights and homeland? A generation? A century? A millennium? Never? It’s a standard Zizek and others on the left have no difficulty applying to Jews but never raise when it comes to others. 

That Zizek’s prescription is an insult to Jews is not the worst of his transgressions. Driven from Zion and dispersed throughout the world, Jews built prayer houses so they pointed toward Jerusalem. Every Passover Seder—commemorating the Israelites’ redemption from bondage in Egypt and deliverance to the land of Israel—concludes with the prayer “next year in Jerusalem.” It’s a prayer of redemption spoken by Diaspora Jews throughout history, from medieval Europe, to the Spanish Golden Age, and from the lips of my grand parents, uncles and aunts, and parents in the ghettos and death camps of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Jews have learned to overcome far worse than flippant insults, whether uttered by skinhead toughs or leftwing intelligentsia.

The most pernicious consequence of Zizek’s line of thought is how conveniently it plays into the hands of newly reelected Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli expansionists. By delegitimizing reliance on a “mythic past” as a claim to peoplehood and land, Zizek validates conquest, force of arms, and perpetual occupation. In this construct, appeals for justice and redress lose their justification over time, so that all that counts is the power and means for imposing hegemony, either by Arabs or Jews.

Equating the Jewish creation story and national identity with a “craving for their particular Blut und Boden,” the Nazi slogan Blood and Soil, is a blood libel that’s not likely to advance justice, compromise, mutual respect, and peace for inhabitants of either side of the Jordan River, only perpetual conflict and strife. Zizek’s argument, stripped down to its amoral essentials, is: Possession is 100 percent of the law, and might makes right. If that’s the road Zizek wants to go down, Netanyahu and Israeli expansionists would seem to be only too happy to oblige.

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Louis Nayman is a longtime union organizer.

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