The official, textbook history of any nation or group of people, writes radical historian Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, can be sure to conceal “the fierce conflicts of interests, sometimes exploding, often repressed, between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated. … In such a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
Acording to Zinn, it is the task of the radical historian not merely to recount the events of the past with the disinterested, depoliticized gaze of an “objective” academic. We need a history, rather, that lets the marginalized and oppressed voices of the past speak, that listens to these voices so as to distill new lessons, perspectives and imperatives urgently needed to face the political reality of the present.
Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism, written by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, attempts to write such a subversive and relevant history. First published as Le Yiddishland révolutionnaire in 1983 and re-released this November in a first-ever English translation by Verso with new editorial notes, references and an introduction by the translator David Fernbach, the book deals with the generation of Jewish radicals in Eastern Europe who, in the first half of the 20th century, helped raise the banner of world revolution against the terrifying forces of capitalism and fascism. A haunting, inspiring and often tragic book, Revolutionary Yiddishland uses first-hand interviews, deep archival research and sharp analysis to bring to life a complex landscape of factory workers, partisans, poets, party leaders, refugees, ghetto fighters and movement intellectuals.
Released on the day of Donald Trump’s election, the book’s timing of could not be more appropriate. Today, we see clouds of fascism disturbingly analogous to those of a century ago darkening our own political landscape, driven by a toxic and too-familiar collusion of xenophobia and scapegoating, authoritarianism and far-right nationalism, liberal capitulation and corporate mega-profit.
The Radical Jews of Yiddishland
In the late 1800s, millions of Jews living across Eastern Europe left their rural villages, called shtetls, and sought work in the new industrial factories crowding cities like Minsk and Vilna. Before long, this Jewish proletariat birthed a militant trade union movement with messianic intensity. The largest of these mass organizations, the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund, or the Jewish Workers Bund, sought to unite all Jewish workers into a socialist party that demanded, in a revitalized Yiddish tongue, equal civil rights and freedom from discrimination for Jews and all workers, an end to class oppression, and a new Russia founded upon democratic socialism and cultural and religious freedom.
As the book recounts, these radical Jews created a new, socialist Jewish culture that brought secular Yiddish theatre, literature, discussion groups, educational systems and other vibrant and democratic institutions to a Jewish world in upheaval. This is the beating heart of Yiddishland—a word which, for the authors, conjures at once the region of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish culture and radical spirit of the Jews who lived there, and the historical moment itself, the dynamic and terrifying 20th-century arc upon which their lives unfolded.
Revolutionary Yiddishland traces how, as the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsar and brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917, many Yiddishland radicals helped drive the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm that swept Western and Eastern Europe. They helped build left parties, socialist governments and, in many cases, Jewish wings of these and other movements across the continent.
Meanwhile, the nationalist ideology of Zionism, popular among middle-class Jews in Western Europe, also began to make inroads in Yiddishland. The book unearths the passionate arguments between, on the one hand, those Jewish Communists and Bundists who insisted on staying and fighting as part of broad-based grassroots movements in Europe, and, on the other hand, those left-wing Zionists who struggled to fuse their aim of world revolution with their attraction toward a Jewish national home in Palestine.
Later, the book shows how, as fascism spread across Europe, the revolutionaries of Yiddishland fought falangists in 1930s Spain, formed self-defense militias in Nazi-occupied countries like France, organized underground networks of resistance in ghettos like Warsaw, and launched covert campaigns of sabotage and attack as partisans hiding deep behind enemy lines. Finally, we witness the utter liquidation of Yiddishland in the ovens, battlefields and mass graves of Nazi terror. We see its few survivors struggle, and often fail, to maintain their revolutionary spirit in a post-war world that was too quick to suppress and stigmatize the trauma of their destruction, and too eager to denounce their radicalism in the name of realism, or Zionism, or liberalism.
Though Yiddishland traces dense political trajectories across a broad historical arc, it is grounded in a fabric of human experience that makes these narratives anything but abstract. The authors, who in the 1980s conducted extensive interviews with survivors, offer vivid, intimate glimpses into the beating heart of a vanished world.
In the grueling sweat of the factory, we see young workers replace Torah and Talmud with the Communist Manifesto, and convince their religious parents to join them in the fight for a new Messiah. In the crowded working-class neighborhoods of Białystok, we see struggling Jewish families rejoice in the discovery of new literature and theatre that speaks to their own troubles and aspirations, in their own proud Yiddish tongue. On the frenzied streets of revolutionary Russia, we watch patrols of Jewish workers battle tsarist soldiers and chase spies away from meeting houses. On a Yom Kippur night in early 1940s Moscow, we listen as worried Jewish refugees from Poland huddle with their Russian Jewish comrades outside a synagogue, trading terrifying rumors of the ovens at Auschwitz, narrating heroic tales of resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto.
These stories, and so many others, jostle together in the crowded pages of Yiddishland, the faces of the protagonists gazing from the past asking us, if not to avenge their death, at least to remember their life. And Yiddishland does just that, in a stark, refreshing prose that does not glorify these fighters in any “cult of great Heroes,” or idealize them as larger-than-life martyrs.
Rather, the book portrays what it calls a “resistance of the shadows” made of ordinary people who, in extraordinary times, dedicate themselves “without hesitation” to a gritty, uncertain struggle to survive with dignity. The texture of their resistance is not romantic but brutal, often marked by “hunger and fear, missed encounters, tiresome tasks, boredom and greyness, pain and anguish.” And while Yiddishland tells a specifically Jewish story, it opens a first-hand window into the larger movements for political emancipation, working-class empowerment and resistance to fascism that made the 20th century so momentous, and terrifying, for the whole human race.
Why Study Yiddishland Today?
As the authors of Yiddishland detail, a vast, seemingly unbridgeable gulf separates the world of these radicals from our world today. Put simply, German fascism erased their existence from the face of the planet, and uprooted the language, customs, history, cuisine, institutions, religion and economic life of the world that they called home.
How does the Left as a whole view its own past today, ninety-nine years after the Russian Revolution helped usher in a near-century of powerful socialist, leftist, anti-imperialist and other movements that shook the planet? We view these movements mostly as anachronisms of a bygone era—flawed and failed, if well-intentioned and inspiring.
But we have yet to find new forms of resistance capable of challenging and dismantling a rapacious and rampant 21st century global capitalism. As the authors of Yiddishland make clear in their introduction, the larger Left today, like radical Jews, has yet to process and mourn the twists and turns of its recent history. We cannot help but look upon the passionate, almost messianic optimism of early-20th century radicals with a strange sense of dislocation and longing.
In the Jewish imagination today, the memory of the revolutionary Jews of Yiddishland is suppressed, or at most, consumed as a pale imitation. In its absence, the ideology and historiography of Zionism places the creation of Israel at the pinnacle of Jewish history, and portrays the millennia that Jews lived in diaspora, amongst the peoples of the world, as a cycle of permanent suffering, plagued by an eternal anti-Semitism.
In the hegemonic narrative shared and co-created, to some extent, by most Jewish communities in both America and Israel, the memory of the revolutionary Jew of Yiddishland is an image held dimly, and with warmth and pride. But, so the narrative continues, this history’s bitter lesson is that Yiddishland values of solidarity and revolution did not protect even these Jews from Hitler, and that only the Jewish state of Israel can provide the haven of safety, security and identity needed for Jews to exist in the world today.
Even most Jews on the radical left today scarcely remember the names of the radical Jews of Yiddishland. With mere traces of remembrance, we have yet to give them a proper burial, to learn what they yearn to teach us, to know exactly what we, today, have inherited or have yet to inherit from them. Meanwhile, the state of Israel’s 68-year old assault on Palestinian land and life continues at a dizzying rate, and American Jewish support for the Israeli regime continues to lure us onto the wrong side of history, like a collective nightmare from which our community cannot yet awaken.
A New Yiddishland?
It is highly fitting that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today in English, just as a new radical Jewish movement is emerging here in America, the largest global Jewish population center since Yiddishland itself (slightly edging out Israel by some estimates). Today, more American Jews than ever are joining and building movements against Israel’s occupation and apartheid. Meanwhile, across a thousand spheres of Jewish communal life, progressive movements are forming which seek to hold our many institutions and leaders accountable to the racial and economic justice struggles around and within which we as Jews live. In my work as Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization inspired by Jewish tradition to stand for justice in Palestine and against all forms of racism, I see this new Jewish identity being built by student activists on college campuses every day.
One hundred years later, with the state of Israel and its right-wing allies in the U.S. finding clear common ground with Donald Trump and neofascist forces worldwide, little has changed since the radicals of Yiddishland organized against capitalists and fascist collaborators in their own community, and denounced Zionism as a bourgeoisie, nationalist movement that allied itself with imperial interests and ruling elites, and cared little for the real struggles of poor and oppressed Jews and non-Jews around the world.
But if this burgeoning movement may be symbolically called here a “new Yiddishland,” it must be stated that this new movement is hardly Yiddish. In a porous, multicultural America, while many Jewish radicals trace their roots to the shtetl, many others inherit traditions from the many non-European Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and from non-Jewish ancestors as well. There are other important differences between past and present: While the radical Jewish identity of Yiddishland was forged in direct struggle against class exploitation and violent anti-Semitism, many, though certainly not all, American Jews today benefit from some degree of race and/or class privilege. While yesterday’s Jewish radicals were staunch atheists, today many of us embrace prayer, ritual and spiritual identity infused with, and inseparable from, our radical politics and lives.
It is also appropriate that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today as a resource for the Left as a whole. As neoliberal capitalism maintains its destructive grip and delivers misery to most inhabitants on the planet, the Left faces a terrifying fascist threat unseen since the era of Yiddishland, with the rapid embrace of far-right politics engulfing Europe and culminating, last week, with the startling seizure by Donald Trump of the most powerful political position in the world. As we combat mounting attacks on Muslim and Arab communities, black folks, immigrants, Jews, women, LGBTQ folks and more, we have much to learn from the boundless optimism, the fearless advances and the terrifying retreats of those who struggled before.
We need to draw hope from this previous generation of radicals who believed, against all odds, that a new sun was dawning in the sky of history. Revolutionary Yiddishland lets this generation speak, and helps us to listen. Through this radical act of remembrance—and through continuing, in our own time, the struggles they were not able to see to victory—we inherit their fight, we redeem their loss, we ensure their death was not in vain. And we relearn, in a new way, that vital lesson expressed in a saying of the ancient rabbis: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Abraham Weizfeld is a co-founder of the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians, whose motto is ‘Jews & Arabs Are United, Israel’s Wrongs Must Be Righted’. He was also a founder of the Jewish People’s Liberation Organization. Here, he speaks with the Alternative Information Center (AIC):
Jews who are opposed to Zionism marching in Canada (photo: flickr/Ullyses)
Zionism formed in response to European persecution of the Jewish people. Where did it go wrong?
Zionism said that the Jews should establish a Jewish nation state in their own name, excluding any other nation, just as the Jews have been excluded from Germany and Europe, because they realized that Jewish liberty in Europe was not feasible. So instead of opposing the exclusionary European nation state, they adopted the same methodology and chose to implement it in their own name, with the alliance of those European nation states, which considered that the Jews didn’t belong in their nation state, and that the Jews should go to their Jewish nation state, and incidentally form an outpost of European colonialism.
Zionism was separatist, it wanted to segregate the Jewish people in Palestine. That’s the true origin of Zionism. This has corrupted Jewish spiritual culture, and has destroyed a great part of Jewish political culture, the Yiddish language. Now I am a Yiddish speaker who can speak with nobody. Nobody speaks Yiddish, except the Hasidim.
Instead of Zionism going off and establishing its own nation state on the model of European exclusionary nation states, how could they have stayed and fought persecution?
In Poland the Jewish workers’ movement formed a civil rights movement, much like the African Americans did, and they developed it into a political party and a trade union federation called the Jewish Labor Bund. My mother was a member of the Bund and so was her brother, who became a partisan during the Nazi invasion of Russia.
This Jewish Bund, which means ‘union’, was of the opinion that the Jewish people who lived in Poland were legitimately Polish, as legitimate as any other Polish person. They had had lived there for over 500 years. They spoke Polish to each other in their home as well as Yiddish. My parents spoke to each other in Polish, not in Yiddish, and with me they spoke Yiddish. They were as Polish as any other Polish person, only they were Jewish as well, they had a dual identity.
The Jewish people are one of the least religious nations in the world nowadays…but the Jewish cultural-national identity continues to exist. The Jewish Bund was based on this national identity…The Jewish Bund developed on a civil rights basis as an alternative to Zionism, in fact it was anti-Zionist. It was devastated both by the Nazis and the Stalinists, but it survived nonetheless, and here I am. I was raised as a Bundist by my mother, who was also an anti-Zionist.
It’s interesting that whereas the Bund sought to maintain a duality between their national identity as Jews, and their full participation in the Polish or Russian class struggle as Poles or Russians, Zionism sought to collapse that duality into a single identity, where the cultural-national identity as Jew immediately coincides with the nationalistic identity as Israeli.
The Zionists are so fanatical on that point, their official ideology doesn’t even allow an Israeli national identity to be established. There is only a Jewish identity, though two thirds of the world’s Jewish people do not have a vote on the Israeli elections… That’s why I advocate a Jewish revolution against Zionism, for the independence of the Jewish people from the state of the Zionists. There may be an Israeli nation now, but it is not a Jewish nation. It does not represent the Jewish people.
The Jewish Bund was proven correct in its critique of Zionism, in the sense that it was not necessary for Jewish people to run away to Palestine to preserve their identity. Jewish people are not going to lose their identity, they are not going to be assimilated, even though they live in other societies. Jewish people are strong enough to have a dual identity.
You can speak more than one language. You can have more than one identity. Humans are not limited to being just one thing. To be Jewish is to be creative, it is to develop new ideas, to adapt new ideas, to learn from other cultures, and to fuse them with what the Jewish people have learned from the various cultures, to develop an internationalist culture which is very dynamic.
We have formed an international Jewish opposition to Zionism now. There are various Jewish organizations that are either anti occupation or anti Zionism… Jewish identity has to be asserted in an independent fashion, and Jewish identity has to be rebuilt, without feigning allegiance to the Zionist state, which is artificial and is not representative of the actuality of Jewish culture in any country.
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.