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.
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?
I gave this interview sitting in bed at 9 in the morning to a South African Islamic radio station. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘former Zionist’ really, though I suppose I did write that in this blog’s ‘About’ section…
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.
Einstein was a very strong cultural Zionist, who believed that the creation of a national homeland for Jews (read homeland, not state) could awaken a revitalization of Jewish culture in the face of anti-Semitism. However, he, like many other Jewish intellectuals of his era, was careful to maintain the absolute primacy of moral and social equality with Arabs- the universalistic, humanistic ethos- over any kind of fanatical belief in the moral superiority of the Jewish people. His Zionist legacy is much contested right now, because he did publicly support Zionist efforts on several occasions, traveling to America in the 1930s to raise money for the cause.
(Einstein and his wife, Zionist and future president of Israel Chaim Weizmann and his wife, Menachem Ussishkin and Ben-Zion Mossinson, NYC, 1921)
“I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state. My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain—especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state. … If external necessity should after all compel us to assume this burden, let us bear it with tact and patience.”
– Albert Einstein, 1938 speech ‘Our Debt to Zionism’
“[the Zionist] movement [must] avoid the danger of degenerating into a blind nationalism. In my opinion, we must endeavor above all that psychological understanding and an honorable will towards cooperation take the place of resentment towards the Arabs. The overcoming of this difficulty will, in my opinion, be the touchstone that our community has a right to existence in the higher sense. I must unfortunately openly acknowledge that the attitude of our [Zionist] officialdom, as well as the majority of public expressions in this connection, appear to me to leave much to be desired.”
– letter to Heinrich York-Steiner, November 19 1929
‘The most important aspect of our [Israel’s] policy must be our ever-present, manifest desire to institute complete equality for the Arab citizens living in our midst … The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.”
In February 1930 Freud was asked, as a distinguished Jew, to contribute to a petition condemning Arab riots of 1929, in which over a hundred Jewish settlers were killed. This was his reply:
Letter to the Keren Hajessod (Dr. Chaim Koffler)
Vienna: 26 February 1930
I cannot do as you wish. I am unable to overcome my aversion to burdening the public with my name, and even the present critical time does not seem to me to warrant it. Whoever wants to influence the masses must give them something rousing and inflammatory and my sober judgement of Zionism does not permit this. I certainly sympathise with its goals, am proud of our University in Jerusalem and am delighted with our settlement’s prosperity. But, on the other hand, I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state, nor that the Christian and Islamic worlds would ever be prepared to have their holy places under Jewish care. It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy. I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.
Now judge for yourself whether I, with such a critical point of view, am the right person to come forward as the solace of a people deluded by unjustified hope.
Neturei Karta is a group of anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jews who pray for the ‘peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel’. Descended from the Orthodox Jewry who, for hundreds of years before the advent of Zionism in the 1900s, lived in peaceful coexistence with Arabs in Palestine, they base their opposition to Zionism not only on the rich tradition of written and oral Jewish prophecy- which says, among other things, that Jews should not settle in the land of Israel until the coming of the Messiah, and that at no time during the Diaspora should Jews return en masse to the land and settle it by force- but also on their clear perception that the human rights abuses committed by Zionism run directly counter to Jewish ethics and morality.
From the USA branch’s website-
‘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).’
Before we take this quote and apply it to the modern world, we should be clear that, according to Neturei Karta and all Orthodox Jewry, the ‘scribes and the scholars’ are primarily the rabbis and students who pour over the collected body of Jewish writings and, above all, the Torah, those who follow what is written in the Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers)-
“Ben (son of) Bag Bag said: Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.”
Much of Neturei Karta’s condemnation of the state of Israel is founded on principles of Torah and Judaic eschatology which are foreign to us; their primary opposition to the State of Israel is founded not on its grossly imperialistic human rights violations, but on its infidelity to the true dictates of the Torah (the former, for them, derives from the latter). Nonetheless, they share with secular anti-Zionism the universal moral imperative, and the desire for a liberated, secular, democratic Palestine. Accordingly, this parable can take on meaning for us beyond its Torah context. We can apply it not only to contemporary discussions of the State of Israel, but also to the modern State as such, the capitalist cosmo-polis that threatens to engulf the planet; we can distill from this parable a drop of insight touching on the general question ‘What is to be done?’, in reference both to this particular manifestation of imperialism (Israel), and to imperialism as such. What is to be done? that is, how shall we resist? What is resistance in this day and age?
In this parable, who are the ‘scribes and scholars’, who are the ‘city guard’, and what is the ‘city’? A simplistic, surface-level bourgeoisie reading would suggest that the ‘city guard’ refers to the modern police and army, (in the case of Israel, the Israeli police force, the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, etc.), while the ‘scribes and scholars’ of the city refer to the lawmakers and judges, and, in a broader sense, the bourgeoisie academics and journalists, the entire literate cosmopolitan public- from the politicians who spit out policy, to the state-worshiping intellectuals who scrutinize its details while, implicitly or explicitly, paying lip service to the ideological power structures of the State (in the case of Israel, the entire ideological apparatus, from the Supreme Court and the Knesset in Israel proper, to the entire gamut of international Zionist apologist intellectuals- Dershowitz, Joan Peters, etc).
The parable’s message, according to this bourgeoisie reading, is that the ‘guardians of the city’, the preservers of the social order, are not its police, who guard its walls with brute force, but its lawyers and judges, its intellectuals, who maintain the symbolic social order by controlling, interpreting, defining, and proscribing its laws. The fountain of law flows from the lofty heights of the latter down into the guns of the former. The lawmakers write the laws, and the cops enforce their dictates. The real guardians of the social order, those who truly protect and constitute the life-blood of the social body, are not those who enforce social policy with a strong arm, those who stand in as the physical representation of its laws; rather, the strength of the city is actually ensured by those who generate the laws, those who protect and transmit the ideas and ideologies that knit the social body together. The ‘scribes and scholars’ constitute the Mind of the State, while the ‘armed guards’ stand in as its inert and obedient Body.
But we see the flaw in this interpretation when we ask- how, then, according to this model, are we to understand that the armed guards of the city are ‘not its guardians, but its destroyers’? The police are not the destroyers, but the executors and enforcers of the written law of the state. If we are to claim that lawmakers and judges are the true guardians of the city, it does not make sense to say in the next breath that the police ‘destroy’ the city that these lawmakers guard; quite the contrary- the police, in modern societies, seem to get along just fine with the lawmakers! Nor can we be content with interpreting this parable to mean merely that the ‘purity’ of the written law of the state, as it flows from the fountain pen of the court, is ‘imperfectly’ carried out on the street, is compromised or tainted by the corrupt cops, who enforce it according to their own whims. The disparity between the ‘scribes and scholars’ and the ‘city guard’ in this parable runs deeper than this- the latter destroy what the former guard. There is clearly a moral cut that runs between the two, whereby they work not in harmony but in direct opposition. The ‘scribes and scholars’ preserve the city from the destructive hands of the city guard; if it were up to the latter, there would be no city left to guard. How can this be, if the former write the city laws, and the latter guard the city walls? Who are the ‘scribes and scholars’, if not the bourgeoisie lawmakers and intelligentsia, and what is the ‘city’ that they guard, if not the concrete city and its body of social law?
The bourgeoisie reading of this parable erroneously believes that the ‘scribes and scholars’ ‘guard the city’ by serving as its state-sponsored lawyers, judges and apologist intellectuals, developing and upholding its ideological banner, and thereby fortifying its oppressive social order. The parable does not speak of these folks at all. The ‘scribes and scholars’ of this parable play no role in the fortification of State power.
In truth, the ‘scribes and scholars’ can only be those within society who critique its power structures, those who ‘speak the truth to power’, those intellectuals and writers who, in every generation, denounce those elements of oppression within the social order that stifle the potential of the people. These writers and speakers work alongside social activists, on the ground, as part of a single concerted effort, embodying in written form the ‘theory’ that animates, as well as the poetry that gives voice to, the movement. These writers and thinkers leave traces of their spark both in the lofty heights of academia (though much of what is ‘up there’ is too far removed from the ground to serve much use, and ends up calcifying into lifeless refuse), and in the innumerable daily publications by which the innumerable NGOs of the world document the innumerable human rights abuses that occur every day. In the present struggle, the written word that ‘speaks the truth to power’ does not exist sequestered on a plane apart from the concrete, practical political fight for justice; it is the very effulgence of this battle itself, its lasting expression, cast off its breathing back like a shell, left behind to remain imprinted on the temporal skin of cultural memory.
For as long as humanity has left written traces of its existence, we find the marks of this spark- its roots lie back in the prophetic lamentations of religious texts that cry for social justice, speak for the poor and downtrodden, and decry the corruption that men of power unleash upon the world; closer to the modern age, as the opportunities for social change become more tangible and practical, we find a myriad of social movements that blossom, unleash their clarion call into the world, and wither in time, leaving their skeletal remnants as testament and sign, from which future generations draw inspiration, receive vision and become firm in footstep.
By speaking words of dissent and leaving written traces of protest, these ‘scribes and scholars’ maintain in history a revolutionary flame that illuminates the past and casts its light forward into the future. Thanks to this unbroken chain of resistance, held firm through the generations by revolutionary remembrance, we can stand at our ‘point’ on (what we imagine to be) a historical time line, look behind us, and see signs and signals left by those who came before, little lights flickering on the dark hillsides of the past that give us hope in our struggle. It is our job, as the precious few ‘scribes and scholars’, to answer to the revolutionary struggles of those who have come before us in time; for if we do not give testament to the bones of the oppressed, their memory will be covered over by the oppressors, past and present, who, in the interest of the perpetuation of their own power, would happily erase the record of injustice from the historical register (ironically, this very logic is used to justify the State of Israel in the name of holocaust remembrance; more on that below). The archive is a battleground, and, in the words of Walter Benjamin, “Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage…a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which [one] cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” (Theses on the Philosophy of History)
Just as the ‘scribes and scholars’ are a far cry from the bourgeoisie judges, lawyers and apologist intellectuals of the State, so, too, do they guard a ‘city’ which is a far cry from the city whose walls are patrolled by armed guards, whose laws are enforced by armed policemen. The ‘city’ of the parable, the ‘karta’, refers not to the established State with its army and its laws, but rather to the productive, communal social body as such, the democratic space of plurality as it exists both tangibly- before and between us- and ideally- beyond us, as the democratic ideal towards which we strive. The ‘guardians’ of this city are certainly not the policemen who maintain law and order, nor the lawmakers who proscribe law and order, but are rather the visionaries who speak this ideal of justice to the people, who remind the human community of its moral shortcomings and its innate possibilities.
The true ‘guardians of the city’ guard a city that is not perceptible by the senses in space and time; the ‘scribes and scholars’ of each generation dwell with suspicion, distrust and outright condemnation in earthly cities, which anyway are guarded perfectly well by paid armed guards. The city guarded by the ‘scribes and scholars’ is of an entirely different nature- it is a vision of a social structure wherein humans live in democratic peace and equality, and, as a transcendent corrective ideal, it translates into immanent critique of oppressive social structures which fall far short of justice. The City is To Come, because as a human community here on planet Earth we are still divided by bloodshed and strife. Nonetheless we whisper to each other words of hope, that this City is possible, and one day may come.
In the Diaspora, observant Jews pray to God three times a day, saying, among other things-
‘And To Jerusalem, your city, may you return in compassion, and may you rest within it, as you have spoken. May you rebuild it soon in our days, as an eternal structure, and may you speedily establish the Throne of David within it.’
Orthodox Judaism is unflinching in its belief that ‘Jerusalem’ refers to the actual piece of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean; Zionism has warped this into the political belief that Jews must now rush over there and drive out its inhabitants; but in the course of the Diaspora, many Jews, Orthodox and secular alike, have expanded the signifier ‘Jerusalem’, which in Hebrew means ‘abode of peace’, to refer not to any particular city, but to the vision of a peaceful, just, and mutually equal human community as such. The ‘Throne of David’, also, refers to the Messiah, who upon his arrival will, among other things, unite the human community in a singular peace. (Of course, there are many problematic aspects to the Jewish concepts of Jerusalem and Messiah which unquestionably prefer the Jewish people over others, but as a secular humanist Jew who believes in the universal human community, I reject these elements. If, as the Orthodox (and many secular Zionists) will claim, I have sinned before God by forgetting the special lot of the Jewish people, then perhaps my soul will not be rejoined with my body in the World to Come, when all the righteous will be resurrected to study Torah for all eternity. My bad!)
Judaism is suffused with this spirit of revolutionary remembrance, though it often runs as an undercurrent beneath the surface of revealed tradition, and is today almost completely submerged under the colossus of Zionism. As Joel Kovel says in his book Overcoming Zionism, ”Judaic being can conduce to universality and bring forth emancipation. We should regard this as its priceless potential, if not always a legacy. However, emancipation has always, indeed necessarily, occurred in reference to a critique of, and a standing away from, the established order, including the order of Judaism itself. The Prophetic tradition within the Old Testament is certainly one of the great gems given to the world by the Jewish people, and an example of this. By definition oriented to an as-yet-unfulfilled future, it is therefore grounded in critique of the given. The prophet is one of the people but stands outside the city and reminds it of its falling away from the universal that is God’s true being.” (22)
Neturei Karta, and the handful of other ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist groups that exist, represent an attempt, at the Torah level, to redeem the religious essence of Judaism from the clutches of Zionism; but Western, secular Jews who critique Israel and Zionism in word and deed also have an important role to play as ‘guardians of the city’, in this case, of the prophetic, critical, anti-establishment legacy of Judaism. The radical kernel of Judaism can be reaffirmed, in the name of the prophets, by wresting the monopoly over the Jewish legacy away from the clutches of the Zionist enterprise. Joel Kovel- ”a multiple linkage and dissolution is involved: casting off the identity of the Jew as Zionist who is to redeem Israel and restore its glory, and in the process, undoing the linkage of Zion to capital and Western imperialism” (7).
The irony, in relation to the state of Israel, is that Israel was founded in 1948 on the imperative to ‘never forget’ the Holocaust, and now, in the name of precisely this sort of ‘remembrance of the oppressed’, it continues to pump its ideological life-blood from the corpses of the six million Jewish victims of Nazi Germany. Its Zionist apologists portray themselves as precisely those ‘guardians of the city’ who fight to protect the remembrance of past oppression from the clutches of the ‘armed guards’, the Islamo-fascists who today are enemies of Western ‘freedom’. Israel, then, is portrayed as the physical embodiment of the morally virtuous City of Peace, upheld by the ‘scribes and scholars’ who protect the remnant of justice in the world. Zionism has usurped for its own purposes a stale image of Judaism’s revolutionary, prophetic function, and uses it to bolster its banner of State power.
This sort of trick is emblematic of all postmodern, decentralized, disembodied, omnipotent, immanent forms of societal oppression- even the ground on which one could stand outside of and critique the existing order seems swallowed on all sides by that order, so that one has nowhere to turn; even the voice of resistance, which speaks different tongues in different ages, itself blares out of the megaphones, and is emblazoned on the banners of, the very social structure against which one must nonetheless speak. Regarding the Holocaust, Zionism has twisted remembrance of the oppressed into a new oppression, and perversely uses the former as the weapon of the latter, creating, out of the specter of anti-Semitism, and inscribing, on the fabric of the moral weight of history itself, a seemingly impenetrable shell to house the parasite within.
On December 12, 2006, Rabbi Yisroel D. Weiss of Neturei Karta gave a speech in Tehran, Iran at the controversial ‘International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust’. Largely denounced by the Western intellectual community as a hotbed of Holocaust denial, the conference aimed in its own words to open a space “for suitable scientific research so that the hidden and unhidden angles of this most important political issue of the 20th century becomes more transparent”, to, in the words of the Foreign Minister of Iran, “create an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust”. While I can currently pass no judgment on the conference (I have only given a cursory glance at its Wikipedia page), it is safe to say that its very existence highlights the fierce political, social and moral battle over the memory of the Event. Zionists would claim that the Holocaust itself, as well as this conference, as well as any attempt at all to criticize Israel, constitute examples of “a document of culture, which is simultaneously one of barbarism”; while others would claim that Zionism itself constitutes such a document of culture, as it manipulates the memory of the Holocaust to justify the existence and actions of a brutally oppressive military regime and imperialist monster. Here are the words of Neturei Karta rabbi Yisroel Weiss-
“Now maybe I can say that at the discussion of the holocaust, I may be the representative, the voice of the people who died in the holocaust because my grandparents died there. They were killed in Auschwitz. My parents were from Hungary. My father escaped and his parents remained. He wasn’t able to get them out of Hungary and they died in Auschwitz as were other relatives and all the communities that they knew. So to say that they didn’t die, to me you can not say that. I am the living remnant of the people who died in the holocaust and I am here, I believe sent by God, to humbly say, simply to speak to the people here and say, “you should know that the Jewish people died, and do not try to say that it did not happen. They did die.” There are people throughout the Jewish communities, still alive in their seventies and eighties and every one of them will tell you their stories. It is something which you can not refute, but that being said, it doesn’t mean that the holocaust is a tool to use to oppress other people. And that is the most new unfortunate piece of the holocaust, why the holocaust is such a bad word, because the holocaust is being used today to oppress another people….The main people who are suffering anew from the holocaust today, would be the Palestinian people…The holocaust is being manipulated and abused by a movement that refers to themselves as the Jewish nation, that usurped the name of the Jewish nation. The Jewish nation after World War II was very weak and the people who were in power, who were non-religious, people who were far from God who decided for convenience sake that they wanted to use the word “Judaism”, they wanted to use the Star of David, they wanted to use the Bible to be able to gain a materialistic gain: the state of “Israel”. They decided that they are going to use the holocaust to be able to reach their goal of having a nation…There should be Nuremburg trials on the actions of the Zionists. Not only that, but the irony is, they said “as more Jews die then we will get more land because the more the bloodshed, then the nations will feel guilty and the nations will give us land”. After World War II they went to the nations and said “you must give us land”. They were given the land. Therefore they use the word “holocaust” because they demand that, that is one of the reasons to give them land. And they are afraid that if you talk about the holocaust, you will be able to find the truth: that they are guilty just as the Nazis are…Jews were killed, but they died to sanctify God’s name. Their souls went up in purity and they don’t want to be brought down now to rebel against God. I am here to speak the cry of the dead of the holocaust: “We do not want to be used, to be soiled, to rebel against God with our blood. We do not want the state of “Israel”. We don’t want that our blood should be used and tainted for the state of “Israel”, which is a steady rebellion against God. We want a speedy and peaceful dismantlement of the state.”“
Like all struggles against oppression, that against Zionism is fought not only on the ground, in the present, but in the past as well. It is a battle over the past, where the tides of ideology turn in line with our changing comprehension of the timeline of events that have led us to this moment. We see this not only with regard to the Holocaust, but also with regard to the Nakba (disaster), the name given to the ethnic cleansing of 1948, the primitive accumulation by which Zionism drove out the Palestinian inhabitants of this land to secure for itself the territory necessary for the Jewish state. A major battle was won in the 1980s, when a New School of historians from the right and the left (Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, and others) unearthed into the public light something which had long been denied by Zionist historians- that the Arabs did not leave of their own free will in 1948, that they were actually brutally driven out by their oppressors. Folks on the ground, not least the actual victims of the Nakba, had long known this to be the case, but for the first time the entire literate public was forced to remember that which for decades had hovered over the precipice of obscurity.
In our struggle, we must remember that those who struggled before us, struggle anew alongside us today; we must struggle in the name of the wellspring of resistance that bubbles just beneath the surface of the officially recognized, bourgeois picture of history. For as we struggle against oppression, we inherit, we give voice to, we carry the flame of a struggle that long precedes us, and will continue long after we are gone. The ‘scribes and scholars’ of every generation play a vital role in guarding, carrying, and transmitting this revolutionary inheritance.
“The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it.” – Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’