Frayed at the Edges

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Review of 'The Question of Zion', Jacqueline Rose, Princeton University Press £12.99

Jacqueline Rose has produced a book that is timely and compelling. Written in a style both elegant and incisive, it insists on the need not simply to lambast Zionism but to understand it from within. The strength of Rose's book is that she approaches Zionism from both points of view: that of the victims of European anti-Semitism, but also, crucially, from that of the Palestinian victims of Zionist colonisation - the victims of the victims - as Edward Said described them.

Her first chapter is devoted to the link between Zionism and messianic movements, such as that of Shaptai Zvi in Smyrna in the 1660s: 'Messianism flourishes in dark times. Like Zionism it is the child of exile.' It played a significant role in the creation of modern political Zionism, despite the officially secular nature of the movement. If this suggests an analysis too strongly oriented to the religious or spiritual roots of Zionism, Rose does point to the influence of a central European nationalism in decline, though she doesn't assign to it anything like the same emphasis as messianism, or possibly as much as it deserves.

In a second, highly imaginative, chapter, 'Zionism as Psychoanalysis', she describes it as 'a child of the psyche, a dream'. Zionism 'taps the unconscious'. Here she examines the work of dissidents such as Ahad Ha'am, Martin Buber, Hans Kohn, Judah Magnes and Hannah Arendt, writers who opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in favour of, in Buber's phrase, a '"covenant" of two independent nations with equal political rights, united in the enterprise of developing their common homeland'.

Rose argues that Zionism was 'from the beginning riven by internal critique'. 'Frayed at the edges' would be more accurate. Was there, in 1948, a possibility of Zionist colonisation with a human face? Unfortunately, the dissidents were a small group of isolated intellectuals whose views never found an echo in the wider Zionist settler community, and who therefore stood no chance of building a political base strong enough to make their binational politics a serious runner. Even the most left wing Mapam (forerunner of Meretz) kibbutz didn't accept Palestinians as members and, once land was bought from a Palestinian landowner, were as ruthless as any in evicting the Palestinian smallholders from the land. However, we should be grateful to Rose for reconnecting us to that tradition, whose writers were important figures. Their time is perhaps yet to come.

The third chapter highlights Zionism's militarism, the inevitable consequence of its injustice towards the Palestinians. There are some telling insights, such as the fact that Israeli use of the Holocaust as the key legitimating event only began after the 1967 war, due to the shame felt at the passivity of the Jews who entered the gas chambers without a fight. But the victory in the Six-Day War wiped out that shame.

Arguably, Rose doesn't give sufficient weight to the assimilationist trend in 20th century Jewish life, of which socialism was one important example, especially in eastern Europe in the aftermath of the pogroms at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. In 1917 most eastern European Jews supported socialism as the answer to anti-Semitism, not Zionism. In Poland as late as 1936 a local election in a Jewish area of Warsaw saw the Zionist candidate receive 22 percent of the vote compared to 30 percent for the Bund socialist, anti-Zionist candidate. Zionism only became a majority creed among Jews after the Holocaust, but also after Stalinism destroyed their hopes of a socialist solution to anti-Semitism.

Related to this is the other, crucial, debating point - whether Zionism is reformable from within. Rose's statement that 'you will not have any effect on Zionism by simply accusing it of being based on a set of myths' implies that it is. However, all the evidence indicates that Israel, as a settler colonial society that excluded rather than exploited the indigenous population, perenially dependent on imperialism, is immune to internal calls for radical change or movements from below. Change will, therefore, have to come from outside.

In the end, though, Rose leaves no doubt as to where she stands - it is with the oppressed, whether they be Holocaust survivors or Palestinians oppressed by the state of Israel. Her book is an important contribution to the growing debate about Zionism, and should be read by anyone concerned about the prospects for peace in the Middle East.