The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national centre, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
In the Zionist Congress of 1901, Max Nordau, one of Herzl’s close associates, delivered a speech in which he spoke about the need for a rethinking of the very nature of Jewry. ‘For too long,’ he said, ‘…we have been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh. Or rather, to put it more precisely – others did the killing of our flesh for us’. The more precise characterisation that Nordau adds as parenthesis, evokes a growing sense of self assertion amongst the Zionists to see the persecution they suffered as not owing to the Jews and their sins – the explanation of orthodox Judaism – but because of their vulnerability in front of others, a vulnerability encapsulated in their lack of a state they could call their own. Thus the state of Israel would come to occupy not only an objective structure that would help halt the cycle of persecution and toleration that Jews had endured living in non-Jewish society, but also inaugurate a subjective re-imagination of the very interiority of post-Diasporic Jewry. This interiority however, would be created through the re-moulding of the Jewish male’s exterior body. To this end Nordau wrote his Muscle of Jewry in which he laid a case for the need to reconnect Jews to their pre-Diasporic past so that ‘[we may] once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men’ which, he believed Jews had been prior to their dispersion across the globe. ‘History is our witness’ he asserted that such strong muscular Jews existed and who lived with honour and pride able, most of all, to defend themselves against exterior threats. In the Zionist imaginary, then, Jewry’s statelessness or Diasporic condition had rendered them weak and vulnerable; what the state of Israel would provide is a way of overcoming the centuries of oppression that had transformed the once muscular Jew into his meek and docile successor. Israel would not only be ‘home’, as in a land of refuge, but a refuge from certain episodes of Jewish history.
Much of this is captured rather well in Agnieszka Holland’s acclaimed 1991 film Europa Europa in which a Jewish boy, Solomon (Solly) Pearle, is mistaken for a gentile and sent to a Nazi school. Once there, he is engaged in a series of close encounters by which he is almost discovered as being Jewish; and while Nazi practices like tracing familial genealogies and phrenological measurements are all alluded to in the film, it is Solly’s circumcised penis which emerges as the dominant marker of his Jewishness. Indeed, such is the film’s obsession with Solly’s Jewish penis that it becomes the dominant motif in the film, apparent from the start when we see the baby Solomon’s actual circumcision to the end when he is finally able to urinate openly without fear of being discovered. This obsessive concentration on Solly’s body is also clear from another early sequence in the film where an attack by Nazi youths on his home leaves his sister Bertha dead. But instead of concentrating on Bertha, the camera follows the naked body of the adolescent Solomon as he jumps out of his bath at the moment when stones begin to smash the windows of his house, and, hiding his penis, escapes out of a window. It is only when he returns that the camera looks upon Bertha’s dead body and the devastation of his family and home. 
Because Holland uses the circumcised penis as a metonym for Pearle’s Jewish identity, the constant need to hide the fact that he is circumcised foregrounds the difficulty involved in being a Jew in early twentieth century Europe. Solly’s encounter with a German Army official – Captain von Learnau – leads to an interesting dialogue in which the antipathy for Jewry amongst the Germans is highlighted. The Captain asks Solly whom the Germans are at war with. Solly’s answers all gravitate around states – Russia? France? England? – until the captain corrects him by telling him it is against the Jews; the war, he continues, is nothing short of a means of liberating Europe of the entire Jewish race. The irony of course is heightened with the fact that the captain is confiding in Solly who himself is Jewish, but this exchange also highlights more importantly the statelessness of the Jewish people too. Germans are able to wage a war against Jews because Jews, unlike the other nations Solly mentions, are without a state that can protect them. Under these circumstances, Solly’s fight for survival is bound up with a public denial of his Jewishness and it is this which becomes the abiding message of the film: to not have a state or, in Arendt’s terms, a political identity is to not exist.
At one point in the film, Solly tries to create an illusory foreskin by pulling down and tying some skin around his penis. The attempt, like all of Solly’s other acts, is a way of erasing his Jewishness in a context of desperate survival. When this fails he acknowledges painfully that he could not escape his own body and so, ‘I still had to hide’. It is only in the end, when the Nazi’s are defeated that Solly and his estranged brother Isaac both whip out their circumcised penises and urinate together in celebration of being “liberated” and able now to meet, as Joseph Mossad calls it, the gentile gaze head on.
When it is considered that the story of Europa Europa is narrated by Solly in retrospect from Israel where after the war he went and settled, the implication is clear to understand. Whereas earlier in his life he was a stateless/worldless person, in Israel he is able to embrace his identity once and for all. Earlier on in the film, Solly had asked a German soldier who had befriended him and told him that before the war he was an actor, whether (thinking about his own peculiar circumstances, no doubt) it was ‘hard to play someone else?’ Now, living in Israel he could finally put those difficulties he had encountered behind him and never have to hide the sign of his covenant with God ever again.
An early review of Europa Europa in the New York Magazine hailed the film as a triumph. ‘In dozens of movies,’ the reviewer wrote, ‘annihilation, especially the annihilation of the Jews, has been an obsessive theme, for it is an overwhelming truth. But survival is a truth, too, and Holland has offered a buoyant witness to it.’ Yet what the reviewer failed to mention and indeed Holland failed to account for is that this survival, of which Israel is presented as the ultimate victory, was gained at the expense of another people who have since 1948 been subject to nothing short of a Holocaust too. It is this paradox that Edward Said drew attention to when he termed the Palestinians the victims of the former victim. By omitting this crucial information, the reviewer, Holland, and indeed Israelis themselves perpetuate an injustice against the Palestinians, for there is ‘simply no earthly or divine dispensation that could excuse a state or a people from wreaking havoc upon another while pleading the travails of its own past as an excuse’.
If the state of Israel was going to act as a metaphoric escape from history it was also at the same time tied – paradoxically – to that history. Israel’s coloniality, of which I have written elsewhere, means that the only way it can narrativise away its atrocities and crimes against humanity is by making constant appeals to its own victimhood. A recent comment by the Jewish MP Sir Gerald Kaufman draws attention to this fact when he speaks out against the ruthless and cynical exploitation Israel makes of the memory of the holocaust to justify its own brutality against besieged Palestinian communities. Indeed, the Zionist tactic of deflecting all criticisms of Israel by a characterisation of the world outside it as anti-Semitic and positing thereby the state of Israel as a metaphoric safeguard against anti-Semitism is a continuity of an earlier Zionist psychology.
For Nordau, the efficacy of Israel in this tactical schema was directly related to the need to re-create Jews themselves. In the Zionist imagination, then, the transposition of Jews from Europe to Israel did not simply mean transplanting them into a new geography but involved a broader transformation of their very nature. Such a mentality in Nordau pushed him to realise his vision of, what Paul Breines has termed, the “tough Jew”. In 1898, Nordau opened the Bar Kochba gymnasium in Berlin as a way to organise and train Jewish youth and to normalise a new physique for Jewish men that emulated the Jewish athletes of antiquity who used to compete with the Greeks and Romans of old. Israel’s self image, therefore, became intimately tied with the Israeli male’s masculinity where the role model, like Bar Kochba (the hero of the last Jewish uprising against the Romans), was the strong muscular Jew and not the effeminate weakling popularised in Europe and its anti-Semitic discourses.
The conflation of strength in the Israeli national imaginary with the state of Israel itself is a complex matter. It can be seen in the importance Israel places on militarism and the way its brutality is accepted with pride and interpreted triumphantly as a show of strength. At the same time, its discursive appeals to the history of the Jewish people are a way of shielding it from what ought to be a concomitant guilt. Indeed, such conflation existed even in the early days of Zionism when the future Prime Minister – Golda Meir – is said to have replied to a Polish Jew who, on returning to Europe from Palestine in 1920, remarked that the bride is beautiful but she has got a bridegroom already. ‘And I thank God every night’, Meir is said to have retorted, ‘that the bridegroom was so weak [that] the bride could be taken away from him’.
By conflating the image of the tough Jew with the state of Israel, Zionism has sought to ground its national vision in a project of recapturing the Jewish body from the confine of anti-Semitic discourses. Yet if the world outside Israel is, as Zionism proposes, anti-Semitic then this tough Jewish simulacrum can only exist within Israel and not outside it. In this way the Israeli Jew is caught in a kind of psychosis, where the state of Israel is both a dream-like space to escape history and yet a space that ties him ever more closely to the nightmares of his past. It is this psychosis that turns – to modfiy Said’s phrase – a once persecuted community into today’s brutal persecutors.
The psychosis that characterises Israeli imagination is not one that is purely self-sustaining however. It is a condition that is propped up by broader structures which, by sustaining the state of Israel itself, feed its psychosis. These structures have been there from the start and because they have always been implicit in Imperial frameworks, Israel’s essential coloniality – a key factor in the mechanics of its psychosis – is underscored all the more.
Writing in the nineteenth century, Moses Hess drew on Earnest Laharanne’s 1860 book, La nouvella question d’Orient: Reconstruction de la nationalite Juuvie, in his own tract published two years later called Rome and Jerusalem. Emboldened by Laharanne’s endorsement of the Zionist project, Hess asked of those who remained unconvinced by Zionism whether they ‘still doubt that France will help the Jews to found colonies which may extend from Suez to Jerusalem and from the banks of the Jordan to the coast of the Mediterranean?’ Zionism’s dependency, therefore, on exterior structures of power to sustain itself was embedded into its own politics from the very start when early Zionists canvassed the Imperial powers of Europe in their effort to secure some land that they could claim as their own. When Herzl settled on Britain as the Imperial power most able to help deliver the Zionist dream, he offered her a lasting friendship and loyalty of the Jewish people if she would become their ‘protective power’. ‘At one stroke’, he declared in an address to the Fourth Zionist Congress, ‘England will get ten million secret but loyal subjects active in all walks of life all over the world.’ So pervasive was this type of thinking that it was common in other Zionist thinkers too. Leo Pinsker, for instance, wrote openly in 1881 that ‘without the support of [European] governments’ the establishment of a Jewish colony was impossible.
Even today, Israel is not independent. In War without End, Anton La Guardia says it plainly when he writes that ‘[p]olitically and militarily the United States has sustained Israel against its enemies’, a truth that activists like Chomsky and Pilger have long emphasised. In fact, in Chomsky’s latest article (“Exterminate all the Brutes”, 2009) he uses the formulation US-Israeli to characterise the aggression meted out to Palestinians in the latest of a long string of Israeli military assaults. This formulation isn’t new, however, and Chomsky has been consistent in his insistence that – in the terms of this essay – the greater structures that sustain Israel as a political entity ought not to be overlooked. ‘The massacre [of Dec 2008/Jan 2009]’ he writes, proceeded with ‘crucial military and diplomatic support’. This included, on the one hand, US supplied weapons underwritten by the US taxpayer, and on the other hand, vetoes of Security Council resolutions that sought to halt the aggression.
In the same article Chomsky returns over and over again to the issue of pro-Israeli reasoning that harsh actions had to be undertaken for reasons of security. His repetitive strategy whereby his reference back to this reasoning following long descriptions of Palestinian suffering or Israel’s own chequered history concerning issues it criticises Hamas for is formidable. It mockingly undermines the rationale’s seeming logicality, delivering it one blow after another. It is this mockery of pro-Israeli reasoning, something which numerous Western politicians shamelessly adopted, that I want to focus on. Moreover, I want to develop Chomsky’s own characterisation of such a rationale as ‘convenient fabrications’ and, specifically, ‘a fantasy of apologists’. In approaching the issue from this angle rather than, say, detailing Western/Israeli hypocrisy, the minutiae of resolutions which Israel has violated or that America has vetoed, or the unsatisfactory reporting which media outlets have undertaken, I want to argue that the pro-Israeli rationale is part of a bigger fantasy that is sustained through cultural production which ratifies a dominant narrative on the Israel/Palestine issue and that, as a result, there is a global psychosis, in so far as a psychosis is an impairment of one’s relation to reality.
I want to begin, then, by talking a little about the nature of this (collective) fantasy on the part of pro-Israelis both inside Israel and those outside it. The first thing to strike one about the psychical space within which the “fantasy of the apologists” operates, is the fact that though American support for Israel is patently clear – Obama, after all, declared Israel’s security as “sacrosanct” and “non-negotiable” – its role in the conflict is somehow erased. The fact that Israel behaves the way it does in the context of American power is thought and then unthought. It is this frustration that can be read in between the lines of Chomsky’s latest article, like when he says:
A few days later under intense international pressure, the US backed a Security Council resolution calling for a “durable ceasefire”. It passed 14-0, US abstaining. Israel and US hawks were angered that the US did not veto it, as usual. The abstention, however, sufficed to give Israel if not a green at least a yellow light to escalate the violence, as it did right up to virtually the moment of [Barack Obama’s] inauguration, as had been predicted.
The use of the image of the traffic light evokes the fact that any focus purely on Israel is not only a mis-description but a function of the continuing fantasy – or, in the terms of this essay, a result of the psychosis suffered globally by news media and politicians alike. In this warped mental landscape, America’s complicity in Israeli crimes and its wars is erased.
This erasure, however, occurs through discourse and in cultural production wherein the dominant narrative of the Israel/Palestine issue is cognised. The best example I could find of this was a film called, You don’t mess with the Zohan (dir. Dugan, 2008). While taking a media lesson, some of my students requested that if they finished their work could they watch a movie. I agreed and when the time came they all chose director Denis Dugan’s 2008 comedy. Zohan is a quasi-superhero-like Israeli soldier who has built himself a reputation of being indestructible and is popular for having captured some of the most dangerous Palestinian “terrorists”. In a comic fight sequence, Zohan is attacked by a number of militants whom he defeats without so much as breaking a sweat. In one instance he walks directly into a fire of bullets dogging everyone and in fact catching the last one in between his finger and thumb. In between the comic fight sequences there is some revealing dialogue between Zohan and the numerous “terrorists”, like when he says to one firing bullets at him: ‘I get it, I get it, you don’t like our country’, to which a Palestinian “militant” replies, ‘oh so we’re the bad ones’. Emerging as the voice of reason Zohan explains, ‘I’d love to sit and discuss this with you, but I’m short on time’. In dialogue and in action the Israeli emerges as reasonable and misunderstood. Throughout the opening fight sequence, Zohan engages with Palestinian “militants” using no weapons; instead, it is the Palestinians who are shown to possess sophisticated machinery, like a missile launcher which one of them shoots in a market square destroying a fellow Palestinian’s shop. Looking at the devastation, the shopkeeper is consoled by Zohan who passes him a business card labelled “Bomb-Fix for free (Government Reparation)”. The comedy made my students laugh, while I could not get over the semiotics of the scene. Palestinians blow up their own shops and institutions, while the Israeli (and moreover, the Israeli Government) is cast as the compassionate re-builder, helping the Palestinians repair their surroundings! Palestinians use high tech weapons while the Israeli uses only his body – a sort of pacifist in relation to the gun-ho Palestinians. In another sequence Palestinian children hurl stones at Zohan, who, like a circus clown, makes a dog out of them, as if to say, if only the Palestinians gave the Israelis a chance they’d realise Israel is not some colonial state hungry for land, but rather a misunderstood party forced into a context of conflict.
The film is full of such crass humour and, what to me, was often an appalling disfigurement of the complex politics of the region. However, none offended me more than the manner in which the US appeared as some sort of haven. Tired of the conflict in the Middle East, Zohan wishes to escape the cycle of violence and so decides to fake his death and fly to America. This, if nothing else, was a blatant example of masking the realities of the Israel/Palestine issue for it acquits America of its role in the troubles of that part of the world. Indeed, seen in a more holistic light, Zohan is not escaping the conflict but merely going to its Imperial centre, yet the film in no way acknowledges this reality.
Indeed, it is only amongst left-leaning intellectuals where you’d find the description of America as Imperial. In fact, one of the key tropes of the psychosis suffered by the news media and politicians alike is a dismissal of this reality as – ironically – phantasmal or simply anachronistic. Yet it is a key feature of our modern world that though we live without formal Empires, we live in a world where Imperialism is not yet dead. To see it at its most palpable one must make a historic link with the decline of the British Empire during the twentieth century and the rise of American influence in the Middle East.
Britain emerged from the first world war as victorious and unchallenged in its power and influence. Russia, a once likely competitor, was reeling from its own internal conflicts, the revolution having just occurred. Fascist Italy was a rival in the Mediterranean but not beyond that point, and France who was perhaps the best placed to be contender had suffered badly in WW1 and could only muster influence in Syria and Lebanon. Britain therefore was, in one respect, unrivalled. Only the US was in a position to challenge Britain’s influence, and indeed, Britain wanted America to play a bigger role in the enormous task of managing the Middle East – that is, of controlling its geo-politics in order to secure its vital resources. The US, however, chose a policy of isolation initially, believing its interests could be secured without making political or military commitments. ‘Here lay the principal difference between the United States and Great Britain’ writes Avi Shlaim. Whereas Britain was an imperial power – with imperial concerns influencing foreign policy – ‘[t]he United States was a world power with no imperial preoccupations. It had no vital strategic interests, no possessions, no military forces, no bases, no mandates, and no clients in the region.’ Yet all of that would change as the decades progressed and that change of attitude as well as an eventual move to mirroring British Imperial preoccupations casts the current American outlook as profoundly imperial. It is through this lens that America’s commitment to Israel makes sense since Israel is like an outpost of an American empire – it houses bases offering strategic support in a part of the world where, in neo-con terms you have not only Iran but also the unpredictable wahabis, who, despite the friendly regime in Arabia, are a point of concern. So when a shipment of arms was made to Israel in the middle of the 2008/09 conflict, the justification given by the Pentagon was that (a) the shipment would arrive too late to escalate the Gaza attack and (b) as it happens, it was meant to be pre-positioned in Israel for potential use by the US military. ‘That’, writes Chomsky, ‘may be accurate’. ‘One of the many services that Israel performs for its patron’, he continues, ‘is to provide it with a valuable military base at the periphery of the worlds major energy resource’. Drawing a parallel at this point with Britain’s concerns in 1916 to secure the oil fields in Iraq (as it fought the Ottomans in WW1) is instructive in highlighting the context of a now American imperialism, which I am advocating.
American Imperialism is also mirrored in its 725 military bases across the world, a fact rarely spoken about. This has been a natural tendency amongst other Imperial powers. Rome, for instance, is said to have had 37 bases to police its outposts, from Britannia to Egypt, from Hispania to Armenia. The need to recognise America as an Imperial power, operating with an Imperial mindset is important to set aright the way we see our present world. The global psychosis that plagues the minds of so many people remains in tact through a disavowal of this reality. Under its influence what emerges is a disfigured mental landscape, which drives the disastrous actions and brutality of the powers that be. America and Israel, thereby, are mutually implicated in the structure of this collective psychosis because neither admit their true imperial/colonial nature.
Approaching this issue through narrative, discourse and cultural production helps at the same time to point us in the direction of solutions. Like narrative psychotherapy, what is needed is a vigorous re-narrativisation by echoing counter discourses and popularising counter-hegemonic cultural production. In pursuing this course of action one implicitly underscores the fact that imperialism is not purely a political or economic process which legitimises itself calculatingly through ideologies of racism or notions of progress. Instead, imperialism is a cultural phenomenon and as such creates and diffuses globally a culture through which to (mis)cognise the reality of our present. That being the case, imperialism is both present and hidden, a dynamic which impairs peoples and nations’ relation to reality, such that to decipher the politics of this psychosis is both a point of entry into an otherwise murky realm of doublethink, and a topic to begin our narrative therapy for those – like America and Israel – imprisoned in their own psychotic mental landscapes.
You don’t mess with the Zohan (dir. Denis Dugan, 2008)
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