Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Should Palestine get its own state?

The history of Zionism is long and baroquely complex. This Judaic philosophy of nationhood and return to the ancient homeland was made possible partly by the cultural value placed upon celebrating agricultural feasts, calling for rain according to the seasons of ancient Israel even in Russia, and the importation of sacred vegetation from ancient Israel. When muslims took over the area, their tolerant attitudes towards other religions coexisting with them permitted the Jewish community in Palestine to revive. This revival suffered a drastic setback during the Holy Wars of the Crusades around 1000 AD, when all but about 1000 Jewish families survived the slaughter and subsequent exile. After Saladin regained control of the area on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish rulers occasionally invited members of the Jewish diaspora back to Palestine to settle. Because of ghettoization in many European cities, this prospect became very attractive, and once again the Jewish community experienced a time of revival.

These cultural memories, combined with the occasional emergence of would-be messiahs who called for a return to Israel, kept alive the idea of return. Indeed, if we think of a nation of people, as Zionism treats Jews, as a body, then we can think of the original exile as a trauma. As Freud, himself a Jew in the fraught atmosphere of Vienna during the rise of the Nazis, noted, behaviour is often outside of conscious control, shaped in part by the occurrence of trauma and its memory. In remembering trauma, we often become transfigured, made over as we were at the time the trauma happened. The return of Jews to their original homeland became in the popular imaginary of Jewry a kind of therapy: a guided return to the site of trauma in order to resolve the “issue” and heal the wounds of the collective psyche.

There were several precursors to the formal emergence of Zionism as a coherent ideology. In 1808 a group of Lithuanian Jews settled in Palestine and forged an agricultural community there. A rabbi named Zvi Hirsch Kalischer petitioned the wealthy Rothschild family to buy Palestine or at least the Temple of the Mount for the Jews in 1836. Another rabbi named Rabbi Solomon Hai AlkalaI believed and taught around this time that redemption was only possible through a return to the ancient homeland. Then, in 1896, Theodore Herzl formally founded the doctrine of Zionism: the idea that the Jews were a nation, a people, and that to enfranchise themselves politically and economically, they needed a state. The next year, there was a conference at Basle, and the focus of Zionists was to procure a state through diplomacy.

Britain favoured the idea, and negotiated with Herzl to build the Jewish State in various places such as Cyprus, Uganda and Palestine. All this diplomacy never amounted to much, but his practical program of encouraging Jews in the diaspora to immigrate to Palestine, especially in the face of of pogroms and other anti-semitic activities in Russia and Europe succeeded. Soon Zionist leaders, in the colonialist fashion of the period, started to discuss plantation plans that included Arab labour much like the plantation system in Algeria, a French colony. The oppression of Jews deflected onto another group: the Arabs.


It has been fashionable for the left to condemn Zionism because of the trouble in the Middle East, and because of its historical association with colonialism. But this does no justice to the breadth of Zionism as an ideology. Some Zionists, in fact, were socialists who envisioned a Jewish State as the only road to true political enfranchisement, and who also founded the kibbutz movement, heavily informed by utopian and socialist sentiments. On the other hand, there were (and are) Zionists who openly discussed the purposeful displacement of Arabs who had long been settled in the area. As it is, the Arabs still do not have a formal State in an area they have lived in for over a thousand years. This just repeats the historical wrong of the exile of the Jews… and the viscious cycle continues.

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