Interview with PFLP Leader Abed Al Aleem Dana

a longer version of my Electronic Intifada article here

Abdel-Alim Da’na is a PFLP leader who is also a professor at Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron, teaching Palestinian history, human rights, and the Hebrew Language. He has been imprisoned by Israel for 17 years since the 1970s. Myself and fellow ISMer ‘Alistair George’ went to interview him in his beautiful home in Hebron. Here he is posing with what he affectionately refers to as his ‘Freedom Flotilla’, which he made over a 3 week period while behind bars!

Abdel-Alim Da’ana with a model ship he built while in Israeli prison.

He is a man with decades of revolutionary experience organizing and resisting, who spent four years in the same prison cell with Ahmad Sa’adat. He told us about Marxist-Leninist education in prison, PFLP’s philosophy and views on Hamas’s Gilad Shalit deal and the Arab Spring, the collaboration between PFLP, the Black Panthers and Neturei Karta in the 1970s (though he couldnt say much about that), and much more.

 

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How long were you in prison?

I spent 17 years in Israeli prisons. In 1972 I spent more than one year, and in 1975, they gave me 17 and a half years. I was released by an exchange of prisoners between PLO and Israel in 1985. I spent ten years and two months in jail. Then they arrested me in the First intifada, the first uprising, and I spent four years without a trial, an administrative detainee. Then I spent about one year or more, and then in 2004 I spent one and a half years.

The Israeli management inside the prisons is very difficult, and they mistreated us inside the prisons. Dozens of people inside the prisons were absolutely crazy, I saw many go crazy because of the very bad conditions inside the prison. I wrote about more than two hundred detainees who died inside the prisons. And I wrote in 1989 about the social situations and political situations about the Intifada detainees, and this is research I did inside the prison. And now I want to publish another book, but I haven’t the money. But I will publish it if I get enough money! And I have written many essays about the prisoners inside the prison.  I wrote a book about the 94 prisoners who died inside the prisons, and I am going to continue to speak about the other men who died inside the prisons because some of them were killed because of interrogations, and some of them were not given suitable treatment.

And you must believe me that the situation is very difficult, very hard and we see that, because we are inside the prisons, everything is confiscated, including our freedom, and we haven’t enough food, our family can’t visit us inside the prison freely, and they mistreat our families when they visit us.

We organized ourselves inside the prison. Every political organization makes their systems and law. There were Fatah, PFLP, DFLP, and these were the three main organizations. All the organizations do their best so as to find books. At first we hadn’t books, we hadn’t newspapers, we hadn’t papers or pens so as to write, but we smuggled many things like these. Also, once we smuggled books into prisons, we smuggled papers and pencils and we copied the books by hand to give to our friends.

The first thing we did when we entered the prison was put an end to illiteracy. Everyone when they enter the prison must learn to read and to study. Some people when they enter the prison cannot read or write, and we put an end to their illiteracy. Some of them are very famous journalists now, some are poets, some are writing in the newspapers and writing research. I have many names of these people who couldn’t read or write, and now they are very respectable members of Palestinian culture, men in the Palestinian Authority and writers of all sorts. For example, Fadel Unis (sp?) wrote many tales, he is a very famous author! For example, Mohayed Abdeh Samad (sp?), he wrote three books! Faheed Al Haj, he wrote five researches about the prison, and when he entered the prison he could not read or write at all! Now he is a famous researcher. Hundreds of people who entered the prisons are now working with the Palestinian Authority.

About 70% of Palestinian writers and cultural people were once in prison. You must know that from 1967 to now, more than 800,000 people entered Israeli jail! Now in the West Bank there are about 3 million people, and 1 and a half million in Gaza. You can see that in any house or home, in any family, they have a prisoner. More than 90% of our people, their son or their neighbor or their relative entered the Israeli prisons.

We have many educational programs inside the prison, for example the leftist organization, like PFLP or DFLP, has a program in philosophy, political economy, Lenin’s books, and all of the Marxist-Leninist texts. It is a part of our culture.

So you took illiterate prisoners and started to teach them Marx and Lenin and philosophy and economic theory inside the prison?

Yes. All of the books we have inside the prison we smuggled them, and we gave money to the guards and police so as to bring the books for us.

What happens if they find items that have been smuggled in?

They confiscate it, but we have many copies, the prisoners have many branches. We have a book in every branch. If they confiscate one, we have others inside other sections. And we have many hunger strikes, and are used to struggling inside the prison to make our life possible. For example, the first hunger strike was in 1970, this strike was to put an end to Israeli mistreatment of our prisoners. The guard or the policemen said ‘Issa, come in!’ He beat him. Why? ‘Because I don’t like him!’ And when you speak to the guard, you had to say ‘please sir, ok sir’ and you had to bend your head. We saw that they are treating us very ugly, very inhumane. This was the first hunger strike. And we succeeded in this hunger strike in 1970, to put an end to the guards’ mistreatment of prisoners.

And then we called to bring us newspapers. They at first brought us a newspaper called ‘It Al Anbar’, it was reported by Israel intelligence, by Shabak. We wanted to change this. Another time in 1956 Ashkelon prison had a big strike, they continued with this strike for forty eight days, so as to bring freely Arab magazines and Arab newspapers and Arab books inside the prisons.  And the Israelis consented to bring in the books! We called this very important for the prisoners, it changed our lives. Then we made other hunger strikes and other struggles against Israel. Everthing we have taken from Israel is not given to us by the authorities, it is by our own strikes.

We have also inside the prisons magazines, very simple magazines we wrote by hand. For example Fatah has one or two magazines inside the prison, and also PFLP has a magazine. Sometimes we call it Al Hadaf- The Goal. We wrote these magazines by hand, with pencils, and some people put drawings in the magazines, and some prisoners wrote poems, some wrote tales and short stories.

Did you also write about political theory and philosophy inside the magazines?

Yes of course, we wrote about political theory and philosophy inside the magazines, and political economy, many Marxist-Leninist essays inside these magazines. And we also had essays where we discussed our situations inside the prisons, and our relationship with other organizations.

Did you write about news inside these magazines?

We did not have radio transmitters, we were smuggling transistor radios but the Israeli authority considered it very dangerous. We put them inside the cells, and they discovered some of these, but some they did not. In September 1985 we had a hunger strike in Ijnaid [sp?] jail, we continued it for 13 days. The police minister discussed with us about this hunger strike. I and Jibrin Al-Joob [sp?] and Salam Eid Dawardat [sp?], we had six representatives of the prisoners, we discussed our demands and we forced them to permit us to bring a radio. And this made a revolution inside the prisons!

We had many other demands and we forced Israel to give us these demands. Some were big strikes, some were only one prison or a few prisons, but we had some strikes for all the Israeli prisons. We forced Israel to give us many things, for example Hebrew newspapers and Hebrew magazines- they brought the Jerusalem Post from 1970 onwards. We used this to learn the Hebrew language! And everyday we translated the Hebrew magazines. I myself had already graduated from the university in 1971, but I read very very much, and studied hundreds of books in many branches of culture inside the prison, and I taught the Hebrew language to other prisoners. Now I teach this language inside PPU and Hebron University!  And I improved my English language inside prison.

The education rates inside the prisons is very high. This is true for all the Palestinian people. It is like France and like Germany, we are literate people and people of culture. The rate of the girls until grade 11 who study is more than boys, in all of Palestine! We are a highly educated people, and for this we are proud, and we do our efforts to put an end to illiteracy. Now, as the United Nations reports, Palestinian people are one of the highest educated people, the rate of Palestinian people who are educated is 90%, more than any Arab country and many countries in Asia and Africa! This makes us proud about our people.

I was wondering about the education committees in prison. Are they organized by parties? Does PFLP only educate prisoners inside the PFLP? Are different parties exposed to other’s political ideas?

We do some lectures with everyone listening and discussing. Some from Fatah make  a lecture about their situation, and some from PFLP- we do many things with each other. But sometimes, because we have a leftist wing, we also have our own left culture. And some Fatah members have also their programs about national culture.

Does everyone read the magazines?

Yes, but everyone prefers to write in their own magazine. But inside Tulkarm prison, we had one magazine, and we all wrote in it, it was a very good magazine.

What Marxist-Leninist books did PFLP teach the prisoners?

Philosophy. All the Lenin books. Das Kapital.

All of Das Kapital?

Yes! It was large, and very difficult, but we studied it. Engels- ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’. I explained this book more than ten times, I am very admired of this book, it is very important. We also read Das Capital- because we studied political economy, we were dependent on it. Also Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. And we read Guevara, and many Marxist Leninist theoreticians.

What is the value for the PFLP of teaching that to prisoners?

Philosophy is explaining about the world, all the world, philosophy gave us all the ideology about the world and about how ideologies have been born.  And philosophy explains the truth of life. For this reason it is important.

And to teach the prisoners about resistance and revolution in the past and in other countries, does this help the prisoners understand how the Palestinian resistance is part of the revolution all over the world?

Yes, we consider ourselves a part of the international revolution. We did not have relations with the world revolution because we are inside the prison, but we are with any movement that struggles for its freedom, for its liberty, and we support all the movements all over the world who want to determine themselves and their own people.

How much of an inspiration is the Arab spring for the Palestinian people?

I say it is a very good revolution and a very civilized revolution, and this reflects that the Arab people want to live in a democracy like other people all over the world, to elect their governors and dismiss them! We are proving ourselves as Arabs. I do not look on us as Palestinians in one sense, I look on us as Arabs. We are all speaking Arabic, from Morocco to Amman, we are all speaking Arabic and Islam is our culture, and we have cooperated with each other on many many things. We have the same culture, the same happiness. Imperialism divided us, because when we are divided it can exploit us, and exploit our wealth. And dividing us gives imperialism the opportunity to exploit these divided countries. All of the Arabs are with us as Palestinians, because we know we are under occupation. Our catastrophe is that the world believes in Israel and Israel lies.

Historically, if you want to know, Israel established a state 1000 years before Christ, and this state continued about two hundred years, about two percent of Palestinian history! Because of this they say they have a historical right to establish their own state. They haven’t any kind of historical right! If they have rights, we have as Arabs a right to establish our own state in Spain because we stayed there seven hundred years, or Sicily because we had an authority in Sicily more than four centuries! And then we have the authority as Arabs to establish dozens of states, until we reach to China, because we stayed there hundreds of years!

But the interests of the Jews and the interest of imperialism were very close to establish a state in Palestine. Palestine is between Africa and Asia, and when they put a state in Palestine they divided the Arab countries who live in Africa and the Arab countries who live in West Asia. It is very strategic for imperialism to control the Suez Canal. But when the Jews established the state hundreds of years before Christ, they established it on 10% of Palestine. Now they have occupied all of Palestine! Even if they have historical rights to have a state here, why did they take all of it? They have no historical right. Our catastrophe is that the West believes Israel’s lies, and the Arabs and Palestinians do not have the propaganda to persuade the world that this land is ours! But the West is not looking for the truth, they look only for their interests in Palestine or in the East.

What kind of state does the PFLP envisage or fight for now?

We believe in a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, in Gaza and the West Bank, with Jerusalem as its capital. But we have to return the Palestinians to their homes, to their villages! We have UN resolutions giving the Palestinians the right to return to their homes, but Israel refused. And ultimately we have to establish a secular state in all of Palestine, where everyone, every religion and every ethnic nation have rights to their literature and have rights to be elected and to elect, like every other democratic state!

What is PFLP’s belief about Abu Mazen’s (Mahmoud Abbas’s) call to statehood in the UN?

Yes, we support this. It is in the Palestinian’s interest for the US and the UN to accept a Palestinian state.

In the past there have been people like Nasser who believed that the whole Arab world can unite against imperialism. Do you think that with the Arab Spring that might happen today?

The Arab Spring revolutions are a kind of Gamal Abdel Nasser strategy, because all their revolutions call to dismiss Israeli occupation from the occupied territories, and the uprising people believe in Palestine. And they know that Israel is not established against Palestinians, it is established to weaken the Arab world, so that imperialism and capitalism can exploit all the wealth in the Arab world! The Arabs who are torn and not united will see that their interest is to make a union between them. They begin to know now that Israel is not against the Palestinians, but against the Arabs, and also against world peace.

Israel’s policy of mass imprisonment attempts to break the political resistance and will of the Palestinian people, but prison life increases political resistance and revolutionary will…

Israel can arrest hundreds of people, thousands of people, but in spite of that Israel cannot put an end to the revolution and Palestinian resistance! Since 1967 Israel has been arresting people, but it cannot end the resistance. Israel has imprisoned millions of people under the collective punishment of occupation, it has put many obstacles against Palestinian people in every branch of life, but our people resist, like any other people all over the world who are living under occupation and tyranny. Israel has mistreated all the prisoners and detainees, but we have a soul. We do not enter prison because we rob or rape or anything, but because we resist the occupation authority, because we resist Israel’s procedures against our people.  And the people support the prisoners in demonstrations, in protesting, and support them by money, and by visiting the families of prisoners- these prisoners are the heroes of our people. And the prisoners who enter these prisons live in a national atmosphere and a resistance atmosphere.

So it’s against Israel’s interests to send Palestinians to prison, because they are creating a culture of resistance! It’s backfiring!

Of course, it is very bad for Israel! But Israel can’t do anything! They are thinking that ‘when we put them inside the prison, we end the resistance’. Instead, this imprisonment created hundreds, thousands of resistant men and youth.

I want to ask about your life, how did you get involved in political activism when you were younger, and why did you join the PFLP?

It is my ideology, the ideology of the PFLP is suitable for me. It is rational thinking, it is logical thinking. I was in the university, and I was very affected by the students and our lecturers, and by the revolution atmosphere. This effected me and thousands like me, and I resisted the Israeli occupation authority.

And then you became a teacher, inside and outside of prison! Did you teach every day?

We had classes every day except Friday. But we had many lecturers inside the prison. Sometimes I taught philosophy, sometimes political economy.

From the 1990s onwards, religion became a large part of Palestinian resistance, and now you have many people turning to Hamas’s fundamentalism instead of PFLP secular leftism. Why?

You see, the Marxist-Leninist theory failed. Not because it is wrong, but because its applications failed. For example, the Soviet Union failed to apply this theory, and this effected many leftist organizations. The people want to search for other ideologies to explain the world and to struggle against imperialism and colonialism, and of course Israel. And for them, the religious ideology serves to explain all the difficulties that they face.

How does the PFLP feel about Hamas?

It considers Hamas as a national organization that struggles against occupation. But we have many differences with it, because it explains the world and situations not like us, you see. And it is not considered a historical resistance organization. It began in 1987, but we have leftist national organizations that began a half century ago!

What do you think of Hamas’ prisoner deal?

We appreciated this bargain, yes.

But PFLP was holding a large hunger strike at the same time!

When we began the hunger strike we did not know that there would be a bargain between Hamas and the Israel authority, and it is not in the interest (of the hunger strikers). If they knew there was going to be an agreement, they would not have begun the strike. But in spite of this the strike was not bad, it ended solitary confinement.

Do you think that the Palestinian people will have an Arab spring, or another intifada?

This is a difficult question! We are under the Palestinian Authority and under the occupation, and Israel interferes with everything in our life. But we are struggling democratically in the occupied territories. It is difficult to think about an intifada, because we have direct occupation. We are facing the Israeli soldiers only at the checkpoints. But if there is still a direct occupation, we must have the third and fourth intifadas until they are dismissed from the occupied territories.

Do you know Ahmad Sa’adat?

I spent four years with him in Tulkarim prison, inside the same cell! He is a friend of mine.

There is widespread torture by the Israelis in prison, were you subjected to any torture?

Yes of course, they used all kinds of torture. Of course it is illegal, but they are looking for their interests. More than 200 died inside the prisons. More than 50 of them died under hard interrogations. They use all kinds of torture, all kinds.

Did you spend time in solitary confinement, in isolation?

Yes, if you do anything they consider illegal in prison, they put you in isolated cells. In interrogations I spent more than 100 days inside isolated cell without anybody, and they used all kinds of torture to take information from me. Not only I, but many persons, many detainees.

Why were you arrested?

Because I resisted the occupation, and in 1972 I organized the students in the West Bank to resist the occupation. And I made contact between an Arabic and Israeli organization to resist the occupation authority, and some of them have been arrested from the Israeli side, and some escaped outside the country.

Do you mean Matzpen?

Not Matzpen, with the Black Panthers, we helped each other organize and cooperate with many things against the occupation. Also with some Haredim, some very religious men who believe that establishing a Jewish state is against God’s will. They consider Zionism  as against Judaism and against God’s will. Neturei Karta and other organizations. To prove they were with us, for example, they brought weapons for us. I did not use it, but they smuggled weapons to us to prove they were with us to resist against the Israeli occupation. We cooperated with them in many branches of struggle. To press magazines, they brought us instruments.

The Black Panthers sung many songs, one of their songs went “I went to the labor office, so as to work. They asked me, ‘where are you from?’ I said, ‘From Morocco!’ They said ‘get out!’ I went to the labor office, so as to work. They asked me ‘where are you from?’ I said ‘From Poland!’ They said ‘Ah yes! Bring him a cold drink!’”

Archeo-(il)logical Imperialism, Political Theology, and Linguistic Fascism

Within the ideological innards of both camps of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and connecting the two inextricably, there quivers a web wedding religious aspiration and political action, very tangled and dense, but not impenetrable.  On the side of the oppressor (Israel), the religious idea of a ‘return to the homeland’ is the whole reason Zionism has chosen this patch of land over all others, and its process of colonization and displacement of the 1000-year native Palestinian population relies completely on the idea that Jews were ‘here before’, and so have returned to ‘resurrect’ their innate, divine claim to the land. Zionism colonizes this land through remembrance- it fleshes out the past and uses it to usurp and cover over the present Palestinian presence. The past is its sword and shield.

On the side of the oppressed (Palestinians), a religious rejection of modernity, and a deep-seated desire for the revitalization of the Golden Age of Islam, have taken in their stride, in the land of Palestine, a protracted anti-colonialist struggle to throw off the yoke of oppression. These spiritual  desires in the Islamic world are part of a much larger religious and social movement that spans the last several hundred years; nonetheless, through radical, political Islam, they have taken shape, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as a struggle to liberate the Palestinian people ‘from the river to the sea’, and to establish a self-determining Muslim state with Jerusalem as its capital.

We must remember that, among Jews and Palestinians, those motivated chiefly by such religious worldviews represent but a small fraction of the total population. Not all Jews yearn for a Greater Israel, and not all Palestinians yearn for a new Caliphate. In his 2009 booklet  Obstacles to Peace, Israeli human rights activist Jeff Halper writes that “Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other Palestinian “rejectionist” groups that reject peace with Israel and have turned to violent means of resistance represent about the same proportion of Palestinian society in the Occupied Territories – say 15-20% – that extreme settler and other right-wing rejectionist groups represent in Israeli society.” (28) Nonetheless, this small minority polarizes both sides of the conflict, paints the conflict with an air of divine irreconcilability, and grafts onto the conflict an irreducibly religious dimension in the sphere of ideology, that vast stomping ground of fantasy and mirage where humans manage to develop very confused ideas of what they are doing to themselves and to each other.

I will attempt here to tentatively explore the complex, interdependent relationship between the spiritual-religious beliefs of Zionism, and its national-political aspirations, focusing on the twin lenses of the Zionist revival of the Hebrew language in the early 1900s, and the archeological excavations in modern-day Palestine, in particular the 1967 transformation of the Western Wall into a vast secular spectacle. Looking at the deliberate revivification of ancient Hebrew in the 1900s as a modern, secular language for (what portrayed itself as) a modern, democratic nation-state, I will examine the intense Zionist drive to unleash and channel this religious well-spring for its own secular, nationalist purposes, to fashion a new beast out of old clay, at the expense of the day-to-day language of the Diaspora that, for a vast amount of time in between, separated the Hebrew of the past from the site of its purported rebirth- Yiddish.

This double movement within Zionism, at once remembrance of Hebrew and suppression of Yiddish, has as its parallel the colonization of Palestine, where the ground was literally dug up from under the feet of the 1000-year indigenous  Palestinian population through the archeological recovery and recollection of an ancient Israelite presence, so that colonization appears as recolonization, settlement as resettlement, occupation as return. This is a peculiar  sort of imperialism, which summons to life a new cultural and political beast clothed in remembrance of the dead letter, which calls on the skeletons of its ancestors to spiritually finance a deadly occupation, and draws all the power and might of Western arms and capital in its wake.

In ‘The Eyes of Language’, Jacques Derrida speaks of a 1926 letter from Gershom Scholem, a cultural-turned-political Zionist who was teaching Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew University in Palestine, to Franz Rosenzweig, an anti-Zionist, pro-diaspora Jewish writer who was then paralyzed on his deathbed in Germany. Though there had long been a friendship-rending disagreement between the two over the question of Zionism’s fidelity to (Scholem) or betrayal of (Rosenzweig) the messianic core of Judaism, Scholem, though he defends the validity of Zionism, confesses to Rosenzweig in this letter his startling and discomforting recognition of an evil that may lurk, unbeknownst even to its host, within the very essence of Zionism. In Derrida’s words, “It is a confession before Rosenzweig the anti-Zionist, because Scholem is a Zionist- that is what he wants to be, that is what he remains and confirms being. Yet, he cannot but recognize in Zionism an evil, an inner evil, an evil that is anything but accidental. More precisely, one cannot but recognize that the accident that befalls Zionism or that lies in wait for it threatens it essentially, in its closest proximity- in its language, and as soon as a Zionist opens its mouth….It is a matter of what used to be called then, in Palestine, the “actualization (Aktualisierung)” of the Hebrew language, its modernization, the transformation undertaken since the beginning of the century (Ben Yehuda) and pursued systematically toward adapting biblical Hebrew to the needs of everyday communication, be it technical and national, but also, for a modern nation, international and interstate communication.” (Acts of Religion, 194)

From the 2nd century CE, until the latter half of the 1800s, Hebrew was a language that for the Jewish people had virtually vanished from literary or spoken expression, and was reserved only for prayer, theological writing, and books of law. In the late 1800s, Hebrew enjoyed a somewhat obscure literary revival  among Ashkenazi Jewry in Eastern Europe; at the same time, the spark of Zionism was struck among  Eastern European Jews, as part of a wider European wave of nationalism and in response to growing anti-Semitism. Says Ghil’ad Zuckerman in his linguistic study Hybridity Versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns, “At the time, although territory and language were at the heart of European nationalism, the Jews possessed neither a national territory nor a national language.” (43) http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/Hybridity_versus_Revivability.pdf  In the soil of the Hebrew language, this spark of Zionism burst into a flame, propelling a fireball of cultural pride into a political movement  that used the revival of Hebrew to foster a new national self-consciousness, a new Jewish identity that, in typical Enlightenment spirit, considered itself a soul birthed anew out of its past, and sought for itself a body in a new land- Palestine.

The glorification of Hebrew in the 1900s by Ben-Yehuda and others went hand in hand with the proliferation of Zionist Jews in the land of Palestine; the transformation of a language went hand in hand with the political expansion of a people. According to Wikipedia, “the process of Hebrew’s return to regular usage is unique; there are no other examples of a language without any native speakers subsequently acquiring several million such native speakers, and no other examples of a sacred language becoming a national language with millions of first language speakers.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revival_of_the_Hebrew_language

Scholem confesses his fear that Zionism, by transforming the sacred language of Hebrew, charged as it is with (what to him appeared as) holy potentialities, into an everyday secular tongue, thereby unleashed into the national-political scene of the 1900s an ancient monster beyond anyone’s control.  “This country is a volcano”, says Scholem, “it houses language…if we transmit to our children the language that has been transmitted to us, if we-the generation of transition- resuscitate the language of the ancient books so that it can reveal itself anew to them, must then not the religious violence of this language one day break out against those who speak it? And on the day this eruption occurs, which generation will suffer its effects?…Hebrew is pregnant with catastrophes.”

Scholem senses that the Zionism in which he places his faith, the Zionism which has revitalized Jewish culture, is nonetheless also the Zionism which, by secularizing, modernizing and normalizing the Messianic forces that dwell in the holy Hebrew tongue, has injected a divine, schizophrenic and unpredictable energy into a national populace that, in 1926, was still working to birth itself into the political world as a nation-state among nation-states. This did not just occur on the abstract plane of language, rather, it took place as a process in history that began in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and, by 1948, solidified into a political Event, the consecration of a new nation-state. Alongside this guided (forced) evolution of Hebrew, from sacred tongue to national-secular dialect, was a transformation of cultural Zionism, which sought to revitalize Jewish culture and identity in face of the threats of assimilation and anti-Semitism, into political Zionism, which took this cultural drive for renewal and turned it into a national-political agenda to conquer a land and form a militarized nation-state.

Today, as we look back upon and form the narrative of the past that has led us to this 21st century present, we must guard against a tendency to mythologize the past, to summarize it with the broad strokes of abstract historical ‘forces’. There is a deification of the force of language, in Scholem’s worldview and in Derrida’s interpretation of it, that leads to a reification of an immaterial essence- Hebrew and its holy potentialities- as the driving Spirit behind the history of Zionism. For according to Scholem’s narrative, the transformation in question here, from Hebrew as holy tongue to secular dialect, and from cultural Zionism as Judaic revitalization to political Zionism as nationalist project, is a transformation that occurs first and foremost in the former field of language, and only then trickles down to transform the latter field of ideology.

Or, if the two transformations in truth occur as a single evolution, they unfold, in ‘The Eyes of Language’, upon a field that, true to Derrida’s entire project (which, for all its beauty, is not Marxist), is not the concrete, immanent socio-economic field of politics and history, but is rather the semi-transcendent, partly-ineffable, infinitely-open play of interpretation and the letter. “There is a power of language”, Derrida claims, “at once a dynamis, an enveloped virtuality, a potentiality that can be brought or not to actuality; it is hidden, buried, dormant. This potentiality is also a power, a particular efficacy that acts on its own, in a quasi- autonomous manner, without the initiative and beyond the control of speaking subjects.” (213-14) If we wish to actually reconstruct the chain of events that constitute the history of Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict from which it cannot be disassociated, we are left with little time to leave our reasoning power at the door, slip off our slippers, remove our thinking caps and kneel before the altar of the Hidden Potentiality of Language. Derrida tries to account for all concrete political history by enveloping it within his Play of the Letter- “this catastrophe of language will not only be linguistic. From the beginning of the letter, the political and national dimension is staged.” Nonetheless, the latter two dimensions of politics and national identity are framed within, and bow before, the former dimension of the letter, so that the catastrophe of Zionism can be seen as ultimately a catastrophe of language, and so that the political-historical events which constitute Zionism’s unfolding become the playing-out of supra-natural, transhistorical essences.

As good materialists, we cannot rest easy with Scholem’s worldview that explains historical phenomena as the surface effects of ghostly, ephemeral, spiritual-Biblical processes that play themselves out behind the given socio-economic-political reality. Nor can we be satisfied with a Derridean picture that leads our eyes away from historical fact, towards a pseudo-theological play of signifiers (however tempting speculation regarding the latter may be). The danger in this is clear- throughout the 1900s, it was precisely the Zionist mythology that viewed its concrete imperialist project as a spiritual process, as God’s will manifesting itself on Earth. Zionism used this spiritual meta-narrative to justify and to cloak the oppression of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land. In addition, it is easy today to look at the Old City, where Al-Aqsa mosque sits so close to the Western Wall, and to become convinced that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a cosmic clash between divine forces, a Battle of the Monotheisms, in which the human narrative is mere puppet play. The radical factions within Judaism and Islam inflame and obfuscate this conflict by painting it with precisely these transcendent, passionate colors.  Today, to dispel the tangled, illusory and confusing clouds of religious passion and tribal ideology that drive everyone into a deeper mess, we must see the historical facts of the Israel-Palestine conflict for what they are- historical facts, composed of the concrete interplay of  social, economic and political relationships.

Though we must guard against romanticizing and mythologizing the stark reality of the conflict, we can nonetheless draw from Derrida and Scholem’s discourses on language important insights regarding the relationship between religious mythologies, national orientations, and political affiliations. We can see the intrinsic relationship between the Zionism which bends the sacred language of Hebrew for its secular nationalistic purposes, and the Zionism which twists and channels the Biblical passions of Judaism into a concrete political agenda. For while spiritual-metaphysical concepts do not possess any transcendental reality, and in themselves have no immanent causal effect in the realm of social-political configurations, they are used, within these latter configurations, as signifiers of extreme force and violence, so that, as elements of language and pawns of ideology, the forces embedded in religious ideas come to play a major role in world politics and history. As critical secular thinkers, we must affirm that there is no Judaic ‘God’ or divinely mandated ‘ingathering of the exiles’, we must affirm that there is no ‘Allah’ and no divinely mandated ‘jihad’; nonetheless, we cannot fail to recognize how these ideas play such a crucial role in inflaming political agendas and social movements. In the thought, word and deed of humans, these ideas seem to take on a life of their own.

This is the sphere of political theology- the study of how religious and theological concepts play themselves out in, and influence, the political patterns by which humans navigate and organize their shared social reality. For “those who believed that they secularized the sacred language did not do so in order to desacralize. They believed, thoughtlessly, that they were going to ‘resuscitate’, to reanimate the language of origin in a modern world and in a modern state.” (Acts of Religion, 206) Throughout the 1900s, the actors of political and cultural Zionism, as they pushed for the creation and sustenance of the State of Israel, believed either that they were fulfilling, in earthly politics, God’s will as written in the Torah, or that they were protecting and strengthening the Jewish people, as a nation and a culture. Be it cultural or political Zionism, be it in the practical atheist nationalism of Theodore Hertzl or in the all-Jews-to-the-Holy Land unification theology of Abraham Isaac Kook, we see one and the same drive to unify and uplift a people. Both camps sought to glorify the given, and so, consciously and unconsciously, they translated theological emotions into political motivations. They tapped into deeply-embedded cultural motifs of collective exile and redemption, not to ‘desacralize’ concepts previously only whispered in prayer or eyed in fantasy and longing, but to ‘resuscitate’ a scattered and battered people threatened by diaspora, assimilation and anti-Semitism, to raise this confused and secularized mass closer towards what they perceived to be a new state of sacred Becoming.

In this nexus of political theology that in the 1900s animated the Zionist project, we see the violence of a double inscription, carved atop a double erasure- first, on the surface of Zionism’s body, the land of Palestine, we see the forced settlement of the Jewish population, coincident with the forced suppression of the indigenous Palestinian presence; second, within the borders of Zionism’s self-identity, we see the forced revitalization of Hebrew, coincident with the forced forgetting of Yiddish. The parallels are clear as day- in Palestine, Jews had for centuries been a tiny minority among Arabs; in Diaspora Judaism, Hebrew had been for centuries the language of a tiny minority, spoken only in prayer, while the vast majority of Jews spoke Yiddish. As part of the national-political Zionist project, the former element was dragged out of obscurity and forced atop the latter in a deliberate, unnatural gesture of dominance. The movement which scarred the Palestinian people had also to scar itself; the mark of difference had to wedge itself between Jew-Arab on the outside, and between Hebrew-Yiddish, and in a larger sense Israel-Diaspora, on the inside; Zionism had to cover over both scars with the same brazenness, the same masculine over-assertion, the same all-encompassing cultural and political upsurge of nationalism and pride.

In the early 1900s, the Legion of the Defenders of the Language was established in Tel Aviv to harass Yiddish theater performances, ban and hinder the spread of Yiddish publications, and otherwise forcibly promote the development of Hebrew as the only acceptable language for what would become the Jewish nation. Zuckerman, cited above- “In the 1920s and 1930s, gdud meginéy hasafá, ‘the language defendants regiment’, whose motto was ivrí, dabér ivrít ‘Hebrew [i.e. Jew], speak Hebrew!’, used to tear down signs written in ‘foreign’ languages and disturb Yiddish theatre gatherings.” (48) As Sue Wright says in her book Language and the State- Revitalization and Revival in Israel and Eire, “The struggle with Yiddish continued even after Hebrew was firmly established. It was seen as a continuing threat during the immigration of the early days of independence in the 1950s. Yiddish was the prototype enemy of Hebrew. It was the language associated with the Diaspora, and so with the rejected identity of Diaspora Jew. It was the language of the religious anti-Zionists, a group seen as a constant reminder of another rejected identity. And it was the language espoused by an identity that rejected territorialism and the return to Zion.” (19) Or as Benjamin Harshav points out in Language in Time of Revolution, “The revulsion from [the Yiddish language]…[was] a recoil from Diaspora existence… [from] the mother tongue, intimate and hated at the same time, from the parental home of the shtetl, corroded by idleness and Jewish trading, and from the world of prayer, steeped in the scholastic and irrelevant study of Talmud, and the irrational and primitive behavior of the Hasidim.” (157)

The Committee of the Hebrew Language, late 1800s, with chief proponent of the revitalization of Hebrew, Eliezer ben-Yehuda, first on right

Yiddish was rejected, and Hebrew was enforced, in the same Zionist stubbornness which spit out, like a bad memory, the thought of the Diasporic Jewish community, dependent on the bricks of another’s house, guests in a foreign land, too weak to determine itself like the rest of Europe. For the newly-forming Zionist consciousness, wrenching itself away from this reality meant violently shoving it into the past. This was accomplished in a double motion- on the one hand, breaking into and creating a new future, in a new land, with a new identity; and, on the other hand, digging up, as in an excavation, the comforting pretense of an ancient past, and clothing the forward march in the shreds of this past, thrusting the name of this past ahead as justification for the advance.  The land of Palestine combined perfectly this motif of Enlightenment futurity with the trace of an anarchic, irretrievable, Biblical past.

To reconcile Zion the imaginary with the Real patch of land on the coast of the Mediterranean, required an immensely surreal, novel and traumatizing leap of forced familiarity. Writing of Gershom Scholem in 1926 Palestine, Derrida asks us to imagine “the paradigmatic scene of this Berliner intellectual from the diaspora, living two cultures, familiar, as are so many others, with sacred nonspoken texts reserved for study and liturgy, and who all at once hears, in the Palestine of the 1 920s, these sacred names in the street, on the bus, at the corner store, in the newspapers that every day publish lists of new words to be inscribed in the code of secular Hebrew. One must imagine the desire and the terror in the face of this outpouring, this prodigious, unbridled prodigality that flooded everyday life with sacred names, language giving itself out…”  (209) He continues- ‘The  demonic horror of these sorcerers’ apprentices gifted with an unconscious courage  that pushes them to manipulate forces which surpass them-here is this horror commensurate with a kind of death, the death of the living dead…as if the return to life were only a simulacrum for which one was going to disguise the dead as a caricature of itself for the funeral home, a nonlanguage, the frozen grin of a semiotics, a disincarnated, fleshless, and formally universal exchange value, an instrument in the commerce of signs,  without a proper place, without a proper name, a false return to life, a shoddy resurrection.” (209-10)

A perfect example of the Zionist drive to ‘disguise the dead as a caricature of itself for the funeral home’, to fix the past in a ‘frozen grin’, is what is now known as the Western Wall.

For 2030 years, this wall has stood; for nearly 2000 years, it has been the only remnant of the structure of the Jews’ Second Temple; for at least 1000 years, the wall itself has been for the Jews a supreme object of religious fixation.

Only for the last 44 years, however, has a magnificent open-air synagogue plaza paved the way to the wall for the Jews- paved, as it were, over the remains of 135 houses, a mosque, a school, and the 800-year history of the Moroccan or Mughrabi Quarter.

The Moroccan Quarter sometime between 1898 and 1946- virtually everything in the lower half of the picture was demolished to make way for the Western Wall Plaza

from Wikipedia-

“Three days after Israel seized the Old City during the Six Day War, on the evening of June 10, 1967, 650 inhabitants of the Moroccan Quarter were told to vacate their homes on a few hours notice. Workers under the guard of soldiers then proceeded to demolish the quarter, consisting of 135 houses, the al-Buraq mosque, the Bou Medyan zaouia and other sites, with the exception of a mosque and a zaouia which were demolished two years later. According to Etan Ben Moshe, the officer in charge, several persons died following their refusal to leave their homes; one woman from the quarter who did not hear the calls to vacate was buried beneath the rubble, her body found the next morning under the ruins of her home. In the following days all of the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter were also evicted…Almost a year later, on April 18, 1968, the Israeli Ministry of the Treasury officially expropriated the land of the quarter for public use, along with the Jewish Quarter, and offered 200 Jordanian dinars to each family which had been displaced.  After the destruction, the section of the Wall dedicated to prayers was extended southwards to double its original length from 28 to 60 meters, while the original facing open area of some four meters grew to 40 meters: the small 120 square meter area in front of the wall became the vast Western Wall Plaza, covering 20,000 square meters over the ruins of the Moghrabi Quarter.The site of the Moroccan Quarter is now a large open plaza leading up to Western Wall, in use as an open-air synagogue.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moroccan_Quarter

The Western Wall has always been for the Jews a present symbol of an irretrievable past, the living remnant of a dead temple, the trace which persists in time to announce that which has passed, the visible sign of an invisible promise. It is the only remaining segment of the guard wall that once surrounded their Second Temple, destroyed almost 2000 years ago. Like any other religious site, the wall has been imbued over the years with what we can refer to as a ‘holiness’, not (for us seculars) by the will of God, but through the intense devotion of generations of human hands, hearts, words, and tears. To forcibly inscribe a new conquest and to markedly denote a new era, the Zionist movement bathed this living symbol in blood and artificially grafted a new limb onto it. Just as the Hebrew language persisted in a similar holiness for thousands of years, and then was hijacked, magnified and warped by the Zionist movement, so did this wall exist as a holy site for thousands of years before the Zionist project covered it with the flood lights of a nationalist spectacle. It is not that the holy presence has totally withdrawn from this wall because of Zionism; just as Yiddish today has seeped back into the Hebrew language, exists alongside it and has gained a new strength of its own- just as the Palestinian people have mounted a steadily increasing resistance since the occupation, illuminating and elaborating the cracks in the Zionist edifice- so the inherited holiness of the wall now coincides awkwardly with, hides itself as a trace behind, persists uncomfortably in spite of the ‘frozen grin’ of the occupation which has hijacked and transmogrified it for purposes which, were we religious, we would rightly call idolatrous. That which is suppressed cannot be forgotten, but inevitably returns again, first as a specter to haunt the oppressor, then as the ominous cracks in the edifice of oppression, and finally as a full-on revolution which tears down the wall and liberates the enslaved. We are reminded of the famous passage from Marx’s Capital, which describes how capitalist oppression cyclically spirals towards its own breaking point and creates its own self-supersession and the liberation of the proletariat- “Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital [read: Zionist oppressors], who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class [read: Palestinian people], a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production [read: Zionist exploitation] itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (Capital Volume I, Chapter 32)

The alternative archeology association Emek Shaveh has this to say about another Old City site (the City of David, currently excavated under/pasted over the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan), but it applies just as well to the Western Wall- “[The] incorporation of this site into the Jewish-Israeli narrative is multifaceted — mixing religious nationalism with theme- park tourism. The past is, of course, a palpable presence, used both to shore up the new Jewish settlers’ claim for primacy and to attract Bible-oriented tourism. As a result, conflict with local Palestinians occurs at the very basic level of existence, where the past is used to disenfranchise and displace people in the present.”  http://www.alt-arch.org/silwan.php

In the West Bank city of Hebron (al Khalil in Arabic), we find a blatant example of how archeological excavation goes hand in hand with Jewish settlement, and thus betrays its underlying ideological motivations. At the site of Tel Rumeida, about a two minute walk from where I am currently sitting, seven Israeli families moved in with caravans in 1984, as part of a broader wave of settlement starting in 1980. In the face of mounting violent resistance, the Israeli government agreed to construct permanent housing for these settlers. This description, taken from a Zionist website, shows how the excavation, which unearthed 4,000 years of fascinating history, was undertaken explicitly for the purpose of settlement. Though this is an atypical example, framed in a context that unusually and dramatically weds excavation and settlement, it is still worth mentioning, if for no other reason than that it holds special significance for me right now, as I walk right past the settlement home every day.

http://www.gamla.org.il/english/article/1999/july/h1.htm

“The archeological work was licensed two weeks before the Israeli general election in May as a “rescue excavation” to research the site before permanent homes are built there for the settlers…Dr Hamdan Taha, director-general of the Palestinian ministry for archeology, said the excavation had been politically motivated. “We think the site should be protected as an archeological site without any ideological attempt to threaten and endanger a cultural heritage that represents the ancient history of Hebron,” he said. Officials at the Israeli antiquities authority privately agree. “If such a significant site were inside Israel proper, the law would prohibit anything being built on it,” a senior Israeli archeologist said. Persuading the settlers to go, however, will be difficult. David Wilder, spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, said the excavation proved their right to live there. “We always knew this was the site of the ancient city; now these excavations have found positive proof of Jewish presence from the time of the patriarchs,” said Wilder. “In terms of Jewish roots and heritage, what more do you need?”

 In most instances of Israeli archeological imperialism, the old is excavated gradually, as a groundbreaking first step that paves the way for the eventual new colonial settlement which, all along, was the implicit purpose of excavation. At Tel Rumeida, the old was excavated after the new was already set to be established; the fact of settlement explicitly caused the necessity of excavation; the structural order was inverted, allowing the overarching ideological motivation, teleologically oriented towards the establishment of the new, to emerge even clearer into the clear light of day.

David Wilder, mentioned above, had this to say, on the Jewish Community of Hebron web site, about the Tel Rumeida site, called by the settlers Beit Menachem-

“To me, this site could be called Tel Aviv. Why? Today’s Israeli metropolis is named after Theodore Herzl’s book, Altneuland, which literally means ‘old — new land,’ with ‘Tel’ [the name for a hill containing the remains of an ancient city-ed] representing the old and ‘Aviv’ (which means spring in Hebrew), representing the new. However, the authentic ‘old’ is here in Hebron, the roots of our existence, at the site called Tel Hebron. And the new is directly above the old — a beautiful new apartment complex, the buds of the rebirth of the Jewish People in the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.” http://www.hebron.com/english/article.php?id=241#Hebron,%20the%20Real%20Tel%20Aviv

To repeat, what is unique to this Zionist colonization is that, like Hebrew in relation to Yiddish, what is newly asserted is both excavated under and pasted over that which it replaces- a Jewish presence in Palestine 3000 years ago is used as justification to butt out the Palestinians who have been living here for at least 1000 years; Hebrew’s presence as an ancient holy tongue is cited as a reason to elevate it and to suppress Yiddish; the Western Wall’s longevity is an excuse to turn it into a spectacle over the ruins of the Moroccan quarter. In each case, the former element is brutally enlarged and magnified, while the latter element is crushed to a pulp; but, like a parasite, the former element emerges from within the skin of the latter element, and empties itself out from within the host it has devoured. To conquer the given, the new posits the old as its ground, and then, rising up from this posited precedent, it breaks through the given and projects its unprecedented dominance upon the present and into the future. ‘We were here before in Palestine’ becomes ‘we shall now drive out the Palestinians’; ‘we have always been Hebrews’ becomes ‘we must now all speak Hebrew’; ‘this wall has always been holy to us’ becomes ‘it is now justified for us to decimate a community that has lived here for 800 years’. Most Western imperial projects of the last two centuries have approached a land from the outside, and conquered its native population as an external invasive force. To dominate its object, Zionism discovers itself already there before or beneath the object; it rises itself up from the depths of the ground upon which the object rests, and thus posits itself as always-already the hidden truth of the object.

Speaking again of the City of David, itself an archetypal example of archeological colonization, Emek Shavek writes- “Archaeology provides physical and symbolic capital for [Zionism’s] settlement project, in the form of a narrative emphasizing Jewish continuity and eliding other cultures, and of relics that testify to such continuity…The sanctity of the City of David is newly manufactured, and is a crude amalgam of history, nationalism, and quasi-religious pilgrimage. As such, it curiously incorporates many of the qualities used, according to Ben Israel (1998), by nationalist movements in the creation of hallowed land: a revised and selective history, cased in religious terminology (‘holiness’ imparted by the Bible, the kings and the prophets), with mystical overtones (invoking the ‘energy’ of the place; stating that ‘the wall is not just a wall’).” Throughout the short history of Israel, archeological excavations are not performed for the simple cultural Zionist purpose of learning more about the history of the Jewish people- the ideological subtext of excavation claims that Jews have God-given and historically verified ownership of the land, and the practical consequences of excavation are the Palestinian house demolitions and Israeli settlements that invariably follow the discovery of Jewish ruins.

There may have been a time in the early 1900s when it was possible to distinguish between a cultural Zionism which merely sought to revivify Jewish culture, and a political Zionism which coveted a militarized nation-state in Palestine; in today’s Israel, however, they are one and the same package. The celebration of Jewish culture leads directly to the glorification of Israel, and is thus always-already the oppression of Palestinian culture. Mainstream Jewish pride carries with it a clear Us-vs-Them mindset, and whereas in all previous Jewish history the ‘Them’ may have been ‘the goyim (non-Jews) who do not worship our God, who rule this state and social structure, and who at any time may deny us our right to worship, oppress us as second-class citizens, kick us out of this  country, or worse’, today’s ‘Them’ is a single enemy, a single people who are either reviled and spat upon as sub-human by the extremists, or who are consciously feared and unconsciously demonized by the rest of the population. The modern excavation of Biblical ruins, like the adaptation of Hebrew as secular tongue, services cultural and political Zionism alike, and delineates the point where the two meet, where the harmless Judaic pride of the former is twisted into Fascist domination by the latter.