Jacqueline Rose is a formidable scholar of English literature with a deep understanding of psychoanalysis that she now turns on Zionism, a movement that she believes is damaging the Palestinian Arabs, the Jewish people and Israel itself. Rose sees Zionism as one in a chain of Jewish messianic movements. This explains its appeal and its resistance to critique. To her, Zionism arrogated to itself the aspiration to redeem the Jewish people and, ultimately, contribute to the salvation of humanity. Such grand designs made it easier for followers to disregard the presence of Palestinians in the land of Israel, while the use of violence against them could be justified within an eschatological framework.
Rose also locates Zionism's origins in the response to anti-Semitic violence. Jewish suffering convinced Zionists of the need for self-defence and security. Alleged Jewish "passivity" also instilled feelings of shame that had to be repressed or displaced. She detects a "line that runs from suffering to political power". Expression of compassion became signs of weakness that threatened to take Israel back towards the "buried, shameful fragments of its past". But is she right?
The Question of Zion suffers from all the flaws of psycho-history. If it is dubious to apply psychoanalysis to long-dead individuals, it is stretching credulity to apply it to a diverse people spread across continents conjoined by a movement that spanned decades.
Rose reduces Zionism's appeal to a form of secular messianism. She seems innocent of the roots of Zionism in the rationalist critique of Jewish society that appeared during the Enlightenment and was internalised by the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment. She trumpets biblical claims to Israel and Zion's mystical allure, but Zionism drew on well-established prescriptions for remedying the perceived abnormalities of Jewish life.
Palestine was not even thought to be essential for these panaceas.
So eager is Rose to trace Zionism to messianism and "unconscious" longings that she downplays the impact of anti-Semitism. She asserts that when Theodor Herzl advocated Zionism in the 1890s and Chaim Weizmann in the early 1920s, "atrocity against the Jews of Europe had of course barely begun". This hindsight ignores the trauma caused by discrimination, pogroms and blood libel accusations from the 1880s to the 1910s, not to mention the slaughter of more than 100,000 Jews in Ukraine after the First World War.
From the inception of Zionism, Jewish masses clamoured to emigrate, not out of messianic longing but to secure a better, safer life.
There were always dissidents in the Zionist camp, including the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha'am, Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt. But Rose misunderstands and misappropriates them. True, in 1891 Ha'am wrote a famous essay pointing out the presence of Arabs in Palestine and criticising the way the settlers treated them. But Rose fails to mention that he was a hardline proponent of political Zionism who later egged on Weizmann in the bid for a Jewish state. Ha'am criticised Herzl only because he believed he was going too fast.
Rose overlooks the fact that in the 1920s Buber was a proponent of the very "blood and soil" Zionism she abhors. He was entitled to change his mind by the 1940s, and it was bold to advocate a bi-national state after the Arabs had repeatedly declared their willingness to settle for nothing less than a unitary Palestine with an Arab majority. But this is an understandable reason for his marginalisation. Rose claims that Arendt's misgivings, too, were ignored in Israel because they were not conducive to Zionism. But Amnon Raz-Kakotzkin, on whose research she relies, states that "her (Arendt's) exclusion from the Zionist discourse was on different grounds and was related to the 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' affair" in 1963.
Such high-handed treatment of her sources begs many questions. Rose accuses Zionism of lacking self-reflection, but she seems blind to the rage that permeates her own writing and her tendency to veer into exactly the kind of polemic she disdains. The worst example of this is her equation of Zionism with Fascism/Nazism. After quoting Herzl imagining a nationalist movement with a flag and doctrines inspiring self-sacrifice, she comments: "To call this proto-fascist is simply to recognise how miraculously efficient fascism is in such training of bodies and minds." On this basis, Rose would make the Boy Scouts into fascists.
The most egregious attempt to associate Zionism with Nazism comes when she considers the effect of Wagner on Herzl. "According to one story", she writes, "it was the same Paris performance of Wagner, when - without knowledge or foreknowledge of each other - they were both present on the same evening, that inspired Herzl to write Der Judenstaat and Hitler Mein Kampf ." But Hitler did not go to Paris until 1940, and Herzl died in 1904.
This is simply a fabrication designed to taint the origins of Zionism with Nazism. How on earth could Rose reproduce such a preposterous story with no source or authority and no hint of suspicion?
These solecisms cannot be ascribed to historical ignorance. Rose is inaccurate about contemporary matters, too. She asserts that in the intifada, the Israeli Army "responded to suicide bombing by razing the town of Jenin". Really? The fighting in April 2002 occurred mainly in a refugee camp adjacent to Jenin. A large area of the camp was destroyed, but the town itself went unscathed.
Rose claims that in the path-breaking Geneva Accords negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian "doves", "no responsibility is taken by Israel for what happened to the refugees in 1948". But Article 7 is all about how Israel must deal with the Palestinian refugees, and Section 10 pledges Israel to offer compensation. What is this if not an acceptance of responsibility? For all of Rose's academic laurels, this book is intellectually lazy in conception and sloppy in execution.
David Cesarani is research professor in history, Royal Holloway, University of London.
The Question of Zion
Author - Jacqueline Rose
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 187
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 0 691 11750 0