“And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.”
– from ‘Gevurot’, ‘God’s Strength’, a daily Jewish prayer
“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.”
– Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’
For modern secular Jews, the ‘resuscitation of the dead’ can be one of the more alienating aspects of our tradition. Techiat HaMeitim, codified as one of the 13 foundational principles of Judaism by Maimonides in the 12th century, dictates that when Moshiach (Messiah) returns and redeems the world, the bodies and souls of the faithful will be resurrected to live again in a perfected world, this world, a world which will be at once fully ‘earthly’, and fully ‘divine’. Most of the time, I see Reform or Reconstructionist prayer books change this daily prayer from ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who resuscitates the dead’ to something like ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who gives life to all that lives’. Says the Enlightened Jew to himself- ‘of course, my dead body will not rise, fully intact, from my grave one day when a Messiah comes, and walk upon the earth again for all eternity, as the rabbis promised’. So we discard this notion completely, and regard the resuscitation of the dead as a quaint, magical notion, ill-suited to the rational world of today.
I would like to resuscitate this dead notion of the resuscitation of the dead, through a Marxist lens. I think, in discarding it completely, we are losing one of the most compelling aspects of our tradition. I would like to reinterpret it as referring, not to the literal reawakening of the human body, but to a way of relating to memory, animated by a passionate fidelity to the living past. Moreover, the memory in question is inherently radical and revolutionary. According to Rabbinic tradition, the resuscitation of the dead will occur only once the Messiah has come- and the Messiah comes to end all wars and oppression, and usher in an era of tranquility and peace upon the earth. It is no coincidence that, for the rabbis, the dead will awaken when the earthly bonds of oppression are shattered.
In 1940, the German Jewish philosopher and Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as he was trying to escape Nazi-occupied France. He committed suicide one stormy night on the border, unwilling to be delivered by the French to the Germans. Fellow theorist and German Jew Hannah Arendt managed to smuggle his ‘Theses’ on scraps of paper out of Europe, and to publish it as his last work.
Benjamin’s ‘Theses’ are suffused with a Jewish spirit of radical remembrance, a quality that Benjamin himself, within the 18 Theses and in his larger life’s work, makes no effort to hide. For Benjamin, the Marxist historian is commanded to remember the struggling, oppressed peoples of the past, and to continue their struggle in the present. Echoing Howard Zinn, the ‘official’, textbook history of the past is most often the history of the victors, the gilded, hegemonic narrative crafted by the rulers of society, the story that fits their interests, portrays their rule as benevolent, inevitable, natural and divine. And why would we expect any different? Today, those with the power and resources write the textbooks and control the narrative; yesterday, the kings had the scribes, the rich had the parchment. Everyone else- the 99% of past and present, the overwhelming majority of the human race- could not as easily transmit their stories and histories to future generations. Of course, the historical memory of any suffering people is long- in rituals, in customs, in stories, in rich oral traditions, cultural memory is preserved and transmitted by all oppressed peoples as a means of survival. But this memory rarely builds monuments to itself; it is rarely recorded diligently, in great detail, and guarded closely in the king’s palace. It is not broadcast to millions of living rooms on the nightly news; the state produces textbooks glorifying its leaders, not exposing their barbarism.
It is the task of the radical historian to tear away the textbook ‘bourgeois’ version of history, and to listen, underneath, for the narrative and perspective of the oppressed. From this perspective, it is clear, writes Benjamin, that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To uncover the history of the oppressed is to learn that they lived, suffered, and died under oppression, and to realize that their struggle against that oppression, in their lifetime, was not completed. This memory is a work of mourning, a realization that the textbook version of history is dripping with blood, and that the suffering of the oppressed has not yet been avenged. And because “all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them”, the radical historian realizes that yesterday’s king left the seat warm for today’s president; today’s America is the Roman Empire reincarnate; we confront the very same oppressor our ancestors faced.
When we uncover this hidden truth of the past, we clarify the past, we bring it from a place of obscurity, hiddenness and falsehood- for example, ‘Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is caused by antisemitism’- into a light of truth- ‘actually, Zionists drove the Palestinians off of their land, and that has caused the conflict today’. This clarifies, not only the past, but the present as well. Growing up, we are taught that the suffering of our situation is ‘natural’, or inexplicable, arbitrary and beyond our control; later, we realize this is actually the oppressor’s narrative, and that systemic inequality, not blind chance, structures our world through a series of traceable processes, in the past, that create and condition our suffering in the present.
In his ‘Arcades Project’, Benjamin describes this illuminating, clarifying power of radical memory as a form of awakening, as the ‘dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance’. It is an awakening, because once we awaken to the root causes of our situation, we realize, like Neo leaving the Matrix, how asleep we once had been. “The tradition of all dead generations”, writes Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” As long as oppressive structures are not overthrown, humanity remains in a kind of sleep, in an incomplete process of shrugging off the yoke of the past, of overcoming systemic inequities that are outmoded, reactionary, that prevent humanity from achieving its full potential. The existence of Donald Trump as president mocks us, like a sick joke, a rotting remnant of a capitalist world-system on life support, surviving only through the worst crisis-ridden speculations of finance capital, a nightmare which should have died long ago.
Just as our ancestors were unable to vanquish the enemy, it is by no means guaranteed that their stories of struggle, and our own, will be remembered. “In every era,” writes Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism which is about to overpower it”. In every era, the ‘truth’ of the past threatens to be forgotten. The false version of events, told by the oppressor, is largely accepted as fact; the stories of the oppressed threaten to be buried under the weight of this oppression, to slip permanently from our collective memory. It is incumbent upon us to attempt, over and over again, to re-awaken and clarify subterranean history, to overcome the gravity of forgetting, to do continuous, circuitous and always-novel battle, with pen and sword, against the persistent effort of the rulers to maintain hegemony, to restore illusory narratives, to destroy radically subversive institutions of cultural memory.
“And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead”. With this plea, the rabbis begged God not to forget, but to fulfill, the tradition of the oppressed. Though we oppressed Jews may die today, they said, God will not forget our suffering, as He will not forget those who came before; one day, the Messiah will come, this earth will know peace, and we all will dwell anew and free in this kingdom of peace. This is not a heaven or afterlife, occurring on some other plane or dimension- our bodies are restored on earth, the promised kingdom is created politically, here, as a harmonious human society, at once earthly and divine but in the flesh, immanent, interpersonal, within our grasp.
In the future messianic kingdom, according to rabbinic tradition, all the faithful, oppressed Jews who have existed across all moments of history will be resurrected; they will dwell together, in harmony, in the land of peace towards which, in the suffering of their former lives, their prayers had always turned. Says Chabad.org– “In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since ‘G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due’, all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.” In the same way, the Marxist historian believes that in the future, all the oppressed of the past will be remembered; the enemy that oppressed them will be finally vanquished; the world for which they struggled will come to fruition; they will be redeemed. The spirit dwelling behind both these Messianic visions is the same.
“The Era of Moshiach is not a supernatural world; it is the very same world we know today–without the corruptions of human nature. Man will have conquered his selfishness and prejudices; a harmonious world community will devote its energies and resources for the common good and the quest for continued growth in wisdom and perfection. In short, the Era of Moshiach represents man’s attainment of the peak of his natural potential.”
Neither the radical historian nor the religious Jew prays for the liberatory force of history, or for God, merely to ‘remember’ the dead, but to bring the dead back to life. The latter is much more radical. It is not that in the promised stateless classless society, the great, definitive history book will finally be written, and all oppressed narratives of the past will be remembered fully, in a grand apotheosis of knowledge- this fantasy of pure knowledge, of total accuracy in and for itself, is in fact closer to the bourgeois fantasy of total history. Rather, it is that the better world, for which our oppressed ancestors struggled, will finally come to fruition; their vision will be actualized; their arrow will reach its target; their oppressors will have not won. Freedom, which for them was only partial, a distant, longed-for vision, becomes actual, confirming their faith in its inevitability. By avenging their oppression, by vanquishing their oppressor, we bring to fruition that which, for them, slumbered in potentiality. Their struggle was not for naught- just as the end of a sentence bestows meaning upon its beginning, the meaning of their struggle is retroactively confirmed, made apparent, vindicated by our success in the present. They are brought back to life in victory, and their death- that is, their defeat by the oppressor- was in fact a falsehood.
When we struggle, in the present, we struggle also for the past; we fight for those before us, who were vanquished, who pray now, from beyond the grave, for our success. We bring with us their hope, it animates and sustains us. We avenge their deaths and we redeem their lives. So in the present, we pray for them to give us strength; we pray for the spirit of resistance that animated their bones, to animate ours as well; we pray that the liberatory spirit of God which guided their hands, will guide ours to victory. We have faith that their struggle was not in vain- that the movement of history towards justice ‘is faithful to resuscitate the dead’.
‘You will resuscitate the dead’- for the religious Jew or radical historian who mutters these words, the memory is turned toward the past, but the promise is futural. Suspended in this dislocated temporality, the religious Jew is comforted by the promise, not just that yesterday’s dead will be revived, but that we too, one day in the future, will be revived as well. Similarly, when we remember the struggles of oppressed peoples in the past, we know that they expected this of us; we ourselves pray that one day, some future radical will remember our struggle. The torch of struggle is passed between the generations, casting a glow into past and future with a flame that scintillates within this imperfect world, and gestures beyond, toward the half-glimpsed promise of the world’s perfection.
‘And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead’- may we merit, in our own day, to see humanity awaken from its sleep, unshackle the cords of oppression, and complete the process of liberation that animated our ancestors in struggle, and animates us today.
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)
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.
“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.
“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.