Last week I interviewed Rabbi Meir Hirsch, leader of Neturei Karta Palestine, at his home in the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem. Mea Sharim is a tight, crowded maze of a neighborhood with windy, dirty, dimly lit streets. Walking down a cobblestone pathway at night, with Orthodox men, women and children hurrying by on all sides, with cats scurrying in and out of dumpsters, with a yeshiva to the left and a kosher slaughterhouse to the right, one can sometimes get a flashback to a past life in an 18th-century Russian shtetl.
In the few blocks around Rabbi Hirsch’s home, the Neturei Karta stronghold in the center of Mea Sharim, one starts to see Palestinian flags scrawled on the walls, with slogans like ‘No Zionists Allowed’, ‘Zionism is Dying’ and ‘Arabs are Good’ graffiti’d in Yiddish, then crossed out, then graffiti’d again. Rabbi Hirsch’s doorbell reads ‘A Jew Not a Zionist’.
Meir Hirsch: I am the fifth generation in this land. My family came 150 years ago from Russia. Then, Aliyah as a term, like Zionism, did not exist. People outside of Israel aspired to get to Israel in order to better worship God. When Mea Sharim was made 145 years ago, it was a wilderness at first! There were animals roaming around, people had to lock their doors!
When the Orthodox community saw waves of European secular Zionists coming, how did they feel?
The Balfour Declaration of 1918 made the people here, especially the orthodox families, very upset. There was an objection from the ultra Orthodox community, which was the majority, specifically in Jerusalem but in other parts as well. Jacob Israel de Haan was a secular Jew who became religious, and came here from Poland. He came to Palestine and at first he went to the Mizrahi movement, but was not content with their version of religion and connected with [WHO] the Chief Rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox. Because of his diplomatic connections he almost got the Balfour Declaration canceled- he had connections with Arabic leaders and British leaders. The Zionist leaders, because they saw that he was about to succeed, decided to assassinate him. When he was coming back from Maariv (evening) prayer, they shot and killed him. That led to the foundation of the Neturei Karta movement to continue to resist the Zionist movement.
De Haan was trying to make a bi-national state?
He was trying to undo Zionist aspirations towards statehood. The Zionists were progressing with their project and the Arabs were very much worried that the Zionists were trying to take their land. He met with King Abdallah of Jordan who promised him that Jews would have no problems living in Jordan or wherever he may rule, as long as they didn’t have any aspirations for political dominance.
Could you call de Haan a cultural, rather than a political Zionist?
He was anti-Zionist! He was completely detached from Zionism. All along Neturei Karta has been completely detached from Zionism in any form.
Where does the name come from?
Neturei Karta means ‘Guardians of the City’, it is an Aramaic term from the Talmud. It basically means to guard the city from Zionism entering the culture.
I lied to you, I actually know where the name comes from! [Taken from www.nkusa.org-Neturei-Karta is the Aramaic term for “Guardians of the City. The name Neturei-Karta originates from an incident in which R. Yehudah Ha-Nassi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) sent R. Hiyya and R. Ashi on a pastoral tour of inspection. In one town they asked to see the “guardians of the city” and the city guard was paraded before them. They said that these were not the guardians of the city but its destroyers, which prompted the citizens to ask who, then, could be considered the guardians. The rabbis answered, “The scribes and the scholars,” referring them to Tehillim (Psalms) Chap. 127. (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Hagiga. 76c).] So the Zionists in this metaphor are the armed guards of the city, and Neturei Karta represents the scribes and scholars who keep the truth alive?
Well in the passage, the armed guards were the Romans who had conquered Jerusalem, so they actually were the ‘destroyers’.
A (Hirsch’s wife, who wished not to be named): This passage is referring to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Then, the scribes and the scholars literally were the guardians of the city in that, through the merit of their Torah learning, they watched over the city. But the name ‘Neturei Karta’ does not mean they are guarding over the city physically, but ideologically- they are guarding the city of Jerusalem from the ideas of Zionism.
MH: There were also ‘destroyers’ of the city who were not Roman. In the time of the 2nd temple’s destruction, there were a group of Jews called Beriyonim, the ‘Bullies’, the family of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. They resisted the Romans, they decided not to surrender to the Romans at all. They were called Haruvei Karta, the Destroyers of the City. While everyone else accepted the Romans, they were adamant about not surrendering. And that is why the Romans destroyed the Temple, because of this resistance.
There’s a growing movement of reform and secular Jewish opposition to Zionism, in Israel and around the world. What is the relationship between this movement and Neturei Karta’s Orthodox opposition to Zionism?
The difference is that secular Jews are opposed to Zionism for humanitarian ideals which are basically Gentile, while Neturei Karta’s objection to Zionism, though it is also because of the humanitarian ideas, is drawn from religious commands. This is why our objection is much stronger, because it is based on religion.
The secular and reform anti-Zionist movement shares with Orthodox opposition a valorization of diasporic Judaism, but for different reasons- secular Jews feel happy and productive in their various countries, whereas for the Orthodoxy diaspora is our God-given lot until the coming of Messiah….
There is a similarity, but there is a fundamental difference because again, the Orthodox argument is based on a divine command to stay in the diaspora, while the secular Jewish ideas are based on humanitarian values.
What’s the difference between humanitarian moral ideas and divinely commanded moral ideas?
In Syria people are resisting the totalitarian regime. A humanitarian person would object to what’s going on, and would care about what’s going on there. However, in Israel the state is using religious symbols to justify oppression. For example its name, Israel, is the name given to Jacob in the Torah. Whereas anyone would care about humanitarian catastrophes going on in Syria, this is the basis of Neturei Karta’s objection to the religious aspect of Israel’s crimes.
Would you compare the State of Israel to the Jewish people’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf?
It is much worse than worshipping idols, because while you are worshipping the Golden Calf, you are a Jew who worships wrongly, who worships other Gods. But Zionism comes in order to fundamentally remove the roots of Judaism, it aims to destroy the Jewish people.
A: Zionism claims the Jews need a nationalistic state, they need a land and a language like all other countries. Jews are not based on a land and a language, they are based on following God’s commandments, whether they live in Russia or England or anywhere.
I want to ask about the Three Oaths. (Talmudic passage cited by religious Jews as forbidding a Jewish state in Palestine)
One of them is ‘do not rebel against the nations of the world’- when the Jewish people are in diaspora, they should not rebel against the powers-that-be. The second one is ‘do not go up the wall’. ‘Go up’ is ‘aliyah’. There is no problem with living in the land of Israel, but Jews should not make a pilgrimage, we should not go there en masse. The third one is do not hurry the end- there should be redemption at the end of days, but there is nothing we can do to rush it.
I am curious- one of the Three Oaths is that Jews should not rebel against the nations of the world. Many revolutionary Communists, socialists, anarchists, etc. of the 19th and 20th centuries were Jewish. Were they violating the Oath by rebelling against states?
That is true, but the ones who did that were not Jews. They were fully secular, and therefore not part of the Jewish people anymore. So it was not against the divine command anymore, because they did not do it as Jews.
It is often said that the Messiah will come only and exactly when the world falls completely to pieces. Is the existence of Israel and its effects upon the world a sign that, because things are getting so bad, the Messiah will come soon?
We are not prophets, so we do not know! According to the Torah, the Zionist State of Israel should not exist, so it will be unmade.
The Book of Joshua details the migration of the Jewish people out of the desert into the land of Israel, and their slaughter and expulsion of the land’s inhabitants. What do you think of those who justify the modern-day creation of the state of Israel by citing this biblical precedent?
Because Zionism is coming to destroy the Jewish people, they have no right to do this. Attempting to come and use a Biblical ideal to justify their actions is blasphemous, it is like mixing light and dark.
Some religious Zionists say that Palestinians are descended from Amalek, the so-called eternal enemy of the Jewish people. What do you say to this? [Deuteronomy 25.17-19- “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.“]
This is brainwashing propaganda by the Israeli Zionist media machine. It has nothing to do with Torah. Zionists are actually Amalek! The Chofetz Chaim said that he who goes against Judaism is from the seed of Amalek! And so therefore Zionists are from the seed of Amalek.
Something else I’ve heard is that the Arab world hates the state of Israel because of a deep-seated Muslim hatred of Jews, turning the Israel-Palestine conflict into a ‘holy war’ between Islam and Judaism.
This is a very big distortion of history. If you go throughout 3000 years of history, the big persecutions of Jews were always in Christian, not in Muslim countries. The classic example is the deportation from Spain, where Jews, deported from Christian Spain, found refuge in Muslim countries. But you don’t have to go that far- in the Holocaust time, Jews found safe havens in many Muslim countries.
How is Neturei Karta received by the rest of the Orthodox community?
Almost all Orthodox Jews reject Zionism, and this is why almost none of them enlist in the army. Although many receive funds from the government and involve themselves in the politics of the Zionist state, they reject Zionism’s ideals. The impression is that Orthodoxy supports Zionism but this is not true. They cooperate, they go hand in hand with it but they do not agree with it ideologically. They have gotten used to it. But the difference between them and Neturei Karta is that we desire to have contact with Muslim people and Palestinian leaders.
How old were you when your father visited Yasser Arafat in Ramallah? What was it like?
I was 15 or 16. Even when Arafat was living in Tunisia my father went to him and explained that Judaism and Zionism are two opposite ideas, and that Neturei Karta aims to support the right of Palestinians to receive their national home in Palestine. I met Arafat in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip. It was very important for me, and a few days later, when Arafat spoke at the UN, he said he knew the difference between Judaism and Zionism. This was very important for me.
Were you or your father condemned by the Jewish community for this?
Of course there were objections, by settlers for example, to these meetings, but of course we don’t really care.
So you are carrying on your father’s message!
Why is this important for you?
Zionist actions are creating a lot of hatred against the Jews, and it is important for us to make it very clear to Palestinian leaders that true Jews are anti-Zionist, to try to prevent as much as possible this misunderstanding.
There are some Orthodox Jews who simply ignore the State of Israel, refuse to pay taxes, etc. but Neturei Karta actively vocalizes and demonstrates opposition. What is the importance of this?
It is very important to be active against Zionist actions, because they are harming both Jews and the rest of the world. So it is important to maintain vocal opposition, to dispute the Zionist agenda and make it understood that the Zionists are not really the Jewish voice.
Do you go to the Kotel (Western Wall)?
Because it has been occupied by the Zionist state, and I do not recognize this occupation.
It must be difficult for you, because it is one of the holiest places in Jerusalem!
It is hard, because it is only five minutes away from here by foot!
What do you think of international Neturei Karta members who refuse to even set foot in Israel for the same reason?
It is equally important, I believe, to be able to declare opposition from within here, to speak out against Zionist actions.
Do you think that the State of Israel will disappear and become another stain in Jewish history, like Sabbatai Tzevi or any other idol worship in the past?
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.