Ideology at war in Israel

The vitriol Jacqueline Rose’s ideas have provoked is, perhaps, more startling than the ideas themselves. After Rose spoke on the winning side in a public debate on Zionism in January, British columnist Melanie Phillips—one of the speakers on the losing side—described her as one of ‘three Jewish persecutors of Israel who strutted their repellent stuff’‘, and accused her of implicitly suggesting that ‘the Jews are responsible for their own destruction’‘.

Last month Amnon Rubinstein suggested bitterly in a Jerusalem Post article on books about Zionism, which included Rose’s The Question of Zion, that ‘Iran’s president is not alone in wanting to wipe Israel off the map’‘. In her book, an analysis of Zionism that examines the paradox between what was a secular political cause and its inextricable link with a Messianic vision, Rose criticises the Israeli state.

Most provocatively, she draws tentative analogies between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.
Even a sympathetic reviewer raised an eyebrow, observing that ‘in Jewish consciousness ... to compare Jews with Nazis is beyond blasphemy’‘.

Unsympathetic reviewers were outraged. Although she began her career as a critic of 19th-century children’s literature, and remains professor of English at Queen Mary College, University of London, Rose has always seen a clear connection between her work in literature and on geo-political issues. ‘It’s all profoundly linked,’’ she says. ‘The interest in children’s fiction was an interest in collective fantasy and what makes a certain image of the child take hold in a culture.

‘In the case of the writer JM Barrie, I felt that passion for the innocence of Peter Pan was covering a multitude of sins as to how children were actually being treated and pervasive sexual anxiety as to what a child is.

‘So there’s always been a sense, for me, that the way such collective fantasies organise themselves can be deceitful, self-blinding or damaging to those they claim to represent. The second linkage is to psychoanalysis, which for me has always been a radical form of thought. Something that takes the lid off our values and reveals all the disturbing and challenging thoughts that you have but don’t dare to have.’‘

In The Question of Zion, therefore, she was uncovering the collective fantasies that have plagued Israel since its birth, and trying to look behind the state’s proclaimed public values. Rose explicitly applies psychoanalysis to lift the lid, so to speak, off Zionism.

When I ask whether she believes Israeli democracy has the resources to absorb and use the kind of criticism that Rose and others bring to it, she replies: ‘It’s a very difficult question. ‘Psychoanalysis says if you have a rigid symptom, the symptom will end up being too psychically or economically expensive, as it were, and will cease to be viable.

‘In my book on Zionism, one of the things that really made me very happy to discover, like a coral at the bottom of a pool, was this extraordinary tradition of dissent inside Israel.

‘Part of the argument I’m making is that Zionism knows itself better than it appears. In psychoanalysis, Freud said famously that the patient is in the position of knowing and not knowing at the same time. I believe that Zionism is a very rigid system of thought, but with incredibly creative forces running through it and a self-critique at the heart of it. I believe that other side will assert itself. So in that sense I’m optimistic.’‘

How did Rose get to where she is now? ‘I am Jewish and Israel/Palestine was part of my identity, growing up as the daughter of second- generation Holocaust survivors. It was a slow process of gradually understanding that something was terribly wrong in the way that Israel had constituted itself and was conducting itself.

‘The decisive moment was in 1980, when I visited Israel for the first time and met Dima Habash on the plane on the way there. She was the niece of George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She asked me to come to Ramallah and see the refugee camps. We went to visit Dima in Ramallah, where her mother was running a United Nations relief operation for young Arabs. A whole crowd of girls rushed up to us, all incredibly excited that we foreigners were there ... Then they smiled and their teeth were rotten. There was no dentistry in the refugee camps.

‘That was like a political education in a split second and it’s never left me. It still gives me shivers when I talk about it. Those were the decisive moments and, if anything, I would say it’s taken a while for my intellectual life to catch up with those moments.’‘

So does she see what is going on in Israel now as an ideological civil war, or something more like a lively internal debate with the possibility of hopeful political conclusions? ‘It’s an ideological civil war. The voices of dissent and opposition are very strong inside Israel. But I think things have never looked worse in the sense that Ariel Sharon is now a hero in Israel among large parts of the population and the Gaza disengagement is seen as a success. Meanwhile, the annexation of swathes of the West Bank and the building of the wall are proceeding apace.

‘It’s a very dangerous moment and it’s a very pessimistic moment. But the good thing that’s happening is that it’s so rigid and brutal in its enactment that it’s going to provoke increasing resistance. And it’s also going to fail. It cannot work.

‘As WG Sebald says in Austerlitz, no fortification in the world has ever succeeded in defending what it wanted to defend. Fortifications, like the wall in Israel, breed defiance and their own eventual destruction. It’s non-viable. So I would say the combination of the internal dissent inside the country, and the non-viability of the solution, means that something must change.’’—

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