Lost in the fault lines of Zionism

The Last Resistance
July 27, 2007

David-Hillel Ruben takes issue with an idiosyncratic critique of Israel

This collection of somewhat popular, occasional essays - all written since the events of 9/11 - is a characteristically Jacqueline Rose blend of literary criticism, psychoanalytic theory and political comment, some directed at the US but mostly focused on Israel and Zionism. The first two disciplines are presumably there to offer justification and support for the political analysis and comment. Does this methodology work, if indeed that is the intended methodology?

Convincing political comment and analysis is or should be a serious business. It requires some knowledge of comparative politics, economics, regional history, intellectual history and social structure - the more of these things the better. I cannot see that Rose's foundations give her what she needs to produce convincing scientific political analysis in these essays, which were either given as public lectures, written as introductions to various edited volumes or as articles for magazines (as often as not, the London Review of Books ). As a consequence, there is an ineliminable subjectivity to her critique. Fiction is, after all, just that, fiction. Fiction has many uses. It helps us see the point of view of the other; to feel what it is like to be someone other than ourselves, perhaps even our enemy. While I do not accept the somewhat philistine view that fiction is irrelevant to politics, I do not believe it offers much in the way of a secure foundation for theorising about a politically contentious situation.

Psychoanalytic theory is a different story: it must be relevant to politics. Those who think that the foundation of politics is in rational-choice theory have already conceded the foundational link between psychology and the social sciences. Add to that the barely disputable view that there is an unconscious side to human thought, and the importance of psychoanalytic theory to politics is manifest. Which is not to say that the only, or necessarily even the most important, element in support of political analysis is or can be psychoanalytic theory. It may be an ingredient. But without the other contributions mentioned above, the political critique appears grossly underdetermined and under-argued.

Rose's essay "Holocaust premises" is a particularly striking example of this partial approach. I am sure she is correct in her assertion that there is a psychoanalytic element relevant to understanding the Israeli approach to the Holocaust, but there is so much else besides, in terms of religion, ideology, even political economy. To speak of that approach only or mainly in terms of Israeli guilt about and revulsion to the Holocaust is to make partial truth into falsehood.

There is also the fact that the state of psychoanalytic theory is itself essentially contested. There are different and competing theorists - as Rose knows far better than I - and the whole area seems to me to be in a sufficiently unsettled state to deter us from relying on it as a ground for political analysis. It certainly yields individual, striking apercus. The overlap that Rose notes between the languages of politics and psychoanalysis - defence, resistance, displacement - is just such an insight. But as a basis for political analysis, the theory seems too undeveloped and insecure to bear the burden Rose places on it. There were occasions when some of Rose's psychoanalytic comments or quotes from others would have struck me as equally plausible had a negation been inserted in the sentence.

I have heard it said of Rose that she is a self-hating Jew. Not only is the accusation crass, but also nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, in many of these essays, she seems obsessed (and I do not mean this negatively) with being Jewish. She reminds me of the class asked to write an essay on the elephant, and the Jewish child in the class writes the essay on "The elephant and the Jewish question". But there is something disturbing to me about Rose's writing on Israel and Zionism, and it is important to say what that is, if it is not the above.

Every nation, ethnic group and culture, has a narrative about itself. Those narratives are a blend of fact and fiction, history and myth, self understanding and blindness. The Jews and Israelis are no more immune from this than is any other social group. And who better, you might ask, to expose the flaws in that narrative than a member of the group in question, rather than an outsider? But Rose is highly selective in the sources she uses to evaluate the Zionist narrative. She seems only ever to believe the criticisms against the narrative and not even to consider the arguments in support of it.

She sometimes quotes a source that asserts something to be the case and then, implicitly, seems to slide to the view that therefore it is so. (A particularly egregious example of both of these points is her citation of a writer who asserts that the world's first suicide terrorists were Jews, namely two sects active at the time of the destruction of the second temple in AD70, thereby conflating two distinct cases: one in which a terrorist intends to die while carrying out the act; the other in which the terrorist does not intend to die although he realises that there is a high probability of death associated with his action.)

Rose also concentrates only on one small part of the larger group narrative of the Jews: modern Zionist history. I would say that her detachment of that small part of the narrative from its much larger setting is not always helpful.

However, the main point, I think, is this. Although exposing flaws in a group narrative is in itself a perfectly acceptable intellectual task, the context in which it is done has also to be considered. To the best of my knowledge, no one among the Palestinians is examining the flaws and blindnesses in the Palestinian narrative about themselves. What support historically do they have for being a distinct people? How is truth and falsehood mixed in their account of their current diaspora? Why have they been unabsorbed, remaining as refugees in other Arab countries over such a long period of time? What is their class structure like? What power does the religious leadership have in current Palestinian politics? What role did the Palestinian land-owning classes play in the period before the creation of the state of Israel?

These, and many more similar questions, are politically highly charged, just as they are in the case of the Israelis and Jews, and for there to be a literature that asks one set of questions in the absence of a literature that asks about the other set, is itself a political action that smacks of a lack of even-handedness in approach.

David-Hillel Ruben is director, NYU in London professor of philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London.

The Last Resistance

Author - Jacqueline Rose
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 240
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9781844671243

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