Slavoj Žižek: Whither Zionism?

In order to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we should not dwell in ancient past—we should forget it.

Slavoj Žižek

(momo / Flickr)

In July 2008, the Viennese daily Die Presse published a caricature of two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians, one of them holding in his hands a newspaper and commenting to his friend: Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!”

The constitution of the State of Israel was, from Europe's standpoint, effectively the realized “final solution” of the Jewish problem (getting rid of the Jews) entertained by the Nazis themselves.

This joke turns around the standard Zionist argument against the critics of the policies of the State of Israel: Like every other state, the State of Israel can and should be judged and eventually criticized, but the country’s critics misuse the justified critique of Israeli policy for anti-Semitic purposes.

When today’s Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli policies reject leftist critiques of those policies, is their implicit line of argumentation not uncannily close to the caricature from Die Presse? Remember Anders Breivik, the Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer: He was anti-Semitic, but pro-Israel, since he saw the State of Israel as the first defence line against Muslim expansion — he even wanted to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt.

His view is that Jews are okay as long as there aren’t too many of them — or, as he wrote in his Manifesto: There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the U.K. and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800,000 out of these 1 million live in France and the U.K. The U.S., on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem.”

His figure thus realizes the ultimate paradox of a Zionist anti-Semite — and we find the traces of this bizarre stance more often than one would expect.

On his visit to France to commemorate the victims of the recent Paris killings, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a call to France’s Jewish community (which is the largest in Europe) to move to Israel for safety reasons. Even before his departure for Paris, Netanyahu announced that he planned to tell French Jews that they would be welcomed with open arms” in Israel.

The title in the main Polish daily Gazeta wyborsza tells it all: Israel wants France without Jews.” So do the French anti-Semites, one might add. The constitution of the State of Israel was, from Europe’s standpoint, effectively the realized final solution” of the Jewish problem (getting rid of the Jews) entertained by the Nazis themselves. Was the creation of the State of Israel not, to turn Clausewitz around, the continuation of the war against Jews by other (political) means? Is this not the stain of injustice” that pertains to the State of Israel?

September 26, 1937 is a date anyone interested in the history of anti-Semitism should remember. On that day, Adolf Eichmann and his assistant boarded a train in Berlin in order to visit Palestine. Heydrich himself gave Eichmann permission to accept the invitation of Feivel Polkes, a high member of Hagannah (the Zionist secret organization), to visit Tel Aviv and discuss there the coordination of German and Jewish organizations to facilitate the emigration of Jews to Palestine.

Both Germans and Zionists wanted as many Jews as possible to move to Palestine: Germans preferred them out of Western Europe, and Zionists themselves wanted the Jews in Palestine to outnumber the Arabs as fast as possible. (The visit failed because, due to some violent unrest, the British blocked the access to Palestine; but Eichmann and Polkes did meet days later in Cairo and discussed the coordination of German and Zionist activities.)

Is this strange incident not the supreme case of how the Nazis and the radical Zionists did share a common interest? In both cases, the purpose was a kind of ethnic cleansing,” i.e., to violently change the ratio of ethnic groups in the population. (Incidentally, one should state clearly and unambiguously that, from the Jewish side, this deal with the Nazis was irreproachable as an act in a desperate situation.)

Those whose memory extends at least a couple of decades back cannot avoid noticing how the entire frame of argumentation of those who defend Israeli policies towards Palestine is changing. Until the late 1950s, Jewish and Israeli leaders were very honest about the fact that they have no full right to Palestine, and they even proudly characterized themselves as terrorists.” Imagine we were to read the following statement in today’s media:

Our enemies called us terrorists. People who were neither our friends nor our enemies. … And yet, we were not terrorists. … The historical and linguistic origins of the political term terror’ prove that it cannot be applied to a revolutionary war of liberation … Fighters for freedom must arm; otherwise they would be crushed overnight. … What has a struggle for the dignity of man, against oppression and subjugation, to do with terrorism’?”

Today, one would attribute this to an Islamic terrorist group and condemn it. However, the author of these words is none other than Menachem Begin in the years when the Haganah was fighting the British forces in Palestine.

Interestingly, in those years of the Jewish struggle against the British military in Palestine, the very term terrorist” had a positive connotation. It is almost attractive to see the first generation of Israeli leaders openly confessing the fact that their claims to the land of Palestine cannot be grounded in universal justice, that we are dealing with a simple war of conquest between two groups between whom no mediation is possible.

Here is what David ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, wrote: Everyone can see the weight of the problems in the relations between Arabs and Jews. But no one sees that there is no solution to these problems. There is no solution! Here is an abyss, and nothing can link its two sides. … We as a people want this land to be ours; the Arabs as a people want this land to be theirs.”

The problem with this statement today is clear: such an exemption of ethnic conflicts for land from moral considerations is simply no longer acceptable. This is why the way the famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, in his Justice, not Revenge, approaches this problem in a way that appears so deeply problematic:

Some day it will have to be realized that it is impossible to establish a state without some people, who have been living in the region, finding their rights curtailed. (Because where no people have lived before it is presumably impossible for people to live.) One has to be content if these infringements are kept within bounds and if relatively few people are affected by them. That was the case when Israel was founded. … After all, there had been a Jewish population there for a long time, and the Palestinian population was comparatively sparse and had relatively numerous options in giving way.

What Wiesenthal is advocating here is nothing else than a state-founding violence with a human face — one, that is, with limited violations.

However, from our present perspective, the most interesting sentence in Wiesenthal’s essay comes a page earlier, where he writes: The continually victorious state of Israel cannot forever rely on the sympathy shown to victims.’ ” Wiesenthal seems to mean that now that the State of Israel is continually victorious,” it no longer needs to behave like a victim, but can fully assert its force.

This may be true, as long as one adds that this position of power also involves new responsibilities. The problem at the moment is that the State of Israel, though continually victorious,” still relies on the image of Jews as victims to legitimize its power politics, as well as to denounce its critics as hidden Holocaust-sympathizers. Arthur Koestler, the great anti-Communist convert, formulated a profound insight: If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

This is the fatal flaw in the one strong argument for the creation of a Jewish nation state after the Holocaust: In creating their own state, the Jews would overcome the situation of being delivered up to the mercy of the diaspora states and the tolerance or intolerance of their nation’s majority.

Although this line of argument is different from the religious one, it has to rely on religious tradition to justify the geographic location of this new state. Otherwise, one finds oneself in the situation of the old joke about a madman looking for his lost wallet under the street light and not in the dark corner where he has lost it, because one sees better under the light: because it was easier, the Jews took land from the Palestinians and not from those who caused them so much suffering and thus owed them reparations.

Somewhere in the 1960s, and especially after the 1967 war, a new formula emerged: peace for land” (the return to the borders of the pre-1967 Israel in exchange for the full Arab recognition of Israel) and the two-state solution (an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and in Gaza). However, this solution, although officially endorsed by the U.N., U.S. and Israel, was de facto gradually abandoned. Due to the rise of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the notion of a sovereign Palestinian state there is more and more an illusion.

What is replacing it is more and more openly signaled in the mainstream media. Caroline B. Glick, the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East) recently claimed in a New York Times column There Should Be No Palestinian State” that those who propose to recognize Palestine as a state

know that in recognizing Palestine” they are not helping the cause of peace. They are advancing Israel’s ruin. If they were even remotely interested in freedom and peace, the Europeans would be doing the opposite. They would be working to strengthen and expand Israel, the only stable zone of freedom and peace in the region. They would abandon the phony two-state solution, which … is merely doublespeak for seeking Israel’s destruction and its replacement with a terror state.

With strategic blindness and moral depravity now serving as the twin guideposts for European policy toward Israel, Israel and its supporters must tell the truth about the push to recognize Palestine.’ It isn’t about peace or justice. It’s about hating Israel and assisting those who most actively seek its obliteration.

In short, what was (and still is) the official international policy is now openly denounced as a recipe for Israel’s ruin. And it is clear that, far from standing for an extremist minority view, this stance just renders explicit the strategic orientation of the gradual colonization of the West Bank in the last decades: The disposition of new settlements (with a large number of them in the east, close to the Jordanian border) makes it clear that a West Bank Palestinian state is out of the question.

Furthermore, one cannot but note the irony of how the stronger Israel gets, the more it presents itself as threatened. The same shift — the expansion of the criteria of what counts as anti-Semitism — is also discernible in other domains. When the Metropolitan Opera recently restaged John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, on the first performance,

men and women in evening attire walked through a maze of police barricades, while protesters shouted Shame!’ and Terror is not art!’ One demonstrator held aloft a white handkerchief splattered with red. Others, in wheelchairs set up for the occasion, lined Columbus Avenue. … Klinghoffer,’ considered a masterpiece by some critics, has long aroused passions, simply because of its subject matter: the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jewish passenger in a wheelchair, by members of the Palestine Liberation Front during the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

One protester at the rally, Hilary Barr, 55, a pediatric nurse from Westchester County, said she believed the opera made excuses for terrorism. By putting this on a stage in the middle of Manhattan, the message is, Go out, murder someone, be a terrorist and we’ll write a play about you,”’ she said.”

How comes that the opera, which was accepted without problems at its premiere in 1991, is now denounced as anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist?

Yet another sign of the same shift: in a recent interview, Ayan Hirsi Ali claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for waging the ongoing military campaign by the IDF against Hamas militants in Gaza. Asked whom she admired, Ali (who dismisses Islam as a nihilistic cult of death”) included Netanyahu on her list, saying that she admires him because he is under so much pressure, from so many sources, and yet he does what is best for the people of Israel, he does his duty. I really think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize. In a fair world he would get it.”

Instead of dismissing this claim as ridiculous, we should detect a cruel irony in its partial truth. Of course Israel is sincere in its striving for peace — occupiers of a country by definition want peace in the region they occupy. The real question is, is Israeli presence on the West Bank occupation,” and is it legal for the inhabitants to resist it, also with arms?

Along the same lines, in order to defend the right of Israel to hold West Bank, Jon Voight recently attacked Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz for their critique of the IDF bombing of Gaza, saying the two of them are obviously ignorant of the whole story of Israel’s birth, when in 1948 the Jewish people were offered by the UN a portion of the land originally set aside for them in 1921, and the Arab Palestinians were offered the other half.”

But who is here really ignorant? The passive form set aside” obfuscates the key question: by whom?

Voight is, of course, making an oblique reference to the Balfour declaration — a colonial master (British foreign secretary) promising to others land that does not belong to his country. (Not to mention the fact that Voight makes it appear as if all of it was set aside” for the Jewish people who then graciously accepted only the half.) Plus Voight presents Israel as a peace-loving nation which merely defended itself when attacked.

But what about the 1956 Israeli occupation of the entire Sinai peninsula (together with the British-French occupation of the canal zone after its nationalization by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser)? Even the U.S. condemned this act as an aggression and pressured Israel into withdrawal.

As for the claim that Jews had a historical right on the land of Israel since, in their view, it was given to them by God — how? The Old Testament describes it in the terms of ethnic cleansing. After their liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites arrived on the edge of the Promised Land, where God then commanded them to destroy totally the people occupying these regions (the Canaanites): the Israelites were to not leave alive anything that breathes.”

The book of Joshua records the carrying out of this command: they devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” Several chapters later, we read that Joshua left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.”

The text mentions city after city where Joshua, at God’s command, puts every inhabitant to the sword, totally destroyed the inhabitants and left no survivors. The irony reaches its peak when we bear in mind that, according to some surveys, Israel is the most atheist state in the world (more than 50 percent of the Jews in Israel don’t believe in God). Their reasoning is something like: We know very well there is no God, but we nonetheless believe he gave us our holy land.”

Does this mean that Jews are somehow guilty of an original act of ethnic cleansing? Absolutely not. In ancient (and not so ancient) times, more or less all ethnic groups functioned like that. The lesson is simply that every form of legitimization of a claim to land by some mythic past should be rejected. In order to resolve (or contain, at least), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we should not dwell in ancient past — we should, on the contrary, forget the past (which is in any case basically constantly reinvented to legitimize present claims).

Another even more crucial lesson is that the Jewish people themselves will ultimately pay the price for the politics of an ethnic fundamentalism which brings them uncannily close to anti-Semitic conservatism. It will push Jews, arguably the most creative and intellectually productive group of people in the world, far towards becoming just another ethnic group craving for their particular Blut und Boden.

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Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.
Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
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