Edward Said (Zionist)

I don’t really think this, but let’s try it out. No matter how critical she or he might be, maybe a “Zionist” is anyone who contributes to the discourse of Zionism and to an understanding of Zionism, anyone who talks non-stop about Zionism. By this definition, how could an anti-Zionist not be a Zionist? That’s hegemony at work. The more you resist a category, the more it binds you to it.  That ranks Edward Said as one of the great theorists of Zionism. I make sure to include The Question of Palestine when I teach my class on “Israel and Israeli Judaism.” I do so because it’s a great book; a tendentious one, even too tendentious, but a great one. I don’t think you can understand Zionism apart from Palestine, and you can’t understand Palestine and what happened to it without Said’s analysis. And if you don’t want to call Said a Zionist, which he wasn’t, or even a fellow traveler, which he also wasn’t, then at least let’s call him a strange bedfellow.

I’ve been playing around with this idea for some time, the idea that an anti-Zionist is a Zionist, in response to friends on FB who write critical things about Israel and Zionism all the all the all the time. This thought came back to me while re-reading and re-teaching The Question of Palestine, the highpoint of which for me is this contribution to Zionist space-concept.

What I get from The Question of Palestine is a political aesthetic having to do with perspective, with the inability of both parties to the conflict to “see” each other, the inability of Jews to see Palestinians and the inability of Arabs to see Jews, namely the national interests of each respective party. Said tries to walk this back, claiming that the Jews were more blind to the Palestinians than vice-versa, but, frankly, he let the cat out of the bag.

Most persuasive is Said’s attention to representation, on the construction and re-construction of space and spatialized, optical systems. To turn Palestine into Israel “it was necessary to visualize and then to implement a scheme for creating a network of realities –a language, a grid of colonies, a series of organizations – for converting Palestine…into a Jewish state. This network would so much attack the existing ‘realties’ as ignore them, grow alongside them, and then finally blot them out, as a forest of large trees blots out a small patch of weeds” (86). In this view, Zionism was a visionary “discipline of detail,” surveying, settling, planning, building “and so forth in detail,” “a policy of detail, of institutions, of organization” by which “to produce” a Jewish land(95).

Said understands Zionism as a system of grids and schemas superimposed over the land, which it then reconstructs in its own image. About this I don’t think there’s any argument, as far as it goes (Said tends to leave out intentions). About this I think even a Zionist and an ant-Zionist can come to some kind of agreement about the productive energies that defined Zionism and gave it its edge in the struggle with “the Arabs of Palestine.” About these kinds of things, I tend to think it is best not to moralize, as Said tended to do when writing about Palestine, but  which he did not do at his best, as here, in these passages cited above in the chapter on “Zionist Population, Palestinian Depopulation.”

The pre-state and early state socialist Zionists effectively transformed “Palestine” into “Israel,” the latter forming a palimpsest over the former, just as the Byzantine Church turned the Land of Israel into “The Holy Land,” and just as “the Arabs” turned that Christian grid into a Muslim place, and just like, today, the Haredim and settlers are turning the “secular” State of Israel into a religious one, and one day, the Israeli right will transform the democratic State of Israel into a bi-national, apartheid country, on the basis of the politics of space, population, and depopulation.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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