Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who?: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, Zero Books, Winchester, UK 2011

Zionism and Neurosis

The Dialectic of Negation

Gilad Atzmon

Tribalism and universalism are like oil and water, they don’t mix well. Jews who are subject to this schizophrenic ideology find themselves bouncing between two conflicting promises. As much as they insist on loving themselves for who they think they are, they hate themselves for what they happen to be. Such circumstances may be seen as the ultimate tragedy, a metaphysical limbo; nevertheless, it can be a powerful position. pp.78-79

Here are some quotes that reveal what early Zionist ideologists thought of their brothers, the Diaspora Jews, those for whom they were developing a nationalist project based on a philosophy of racial ethnic identity:

‘The Jew is a caricature of a normal, natural human being, both physically and spiritually. As an individual in society he revolts and throws off the harness of social obligations, knows no order nor discipline.’ (Our Shomer ‘Weltanschauung’ Hashomer Hatzair, December 1936, p.26. As cited by Lenni Brenner36)

‘The fact is undeniable that the Jews, collectively, are unhealthy and neurotic. Those professional Jews who, wounded to the quick, indignantly deny this truth are the greatest enemies of their race, for they thereby lead them to search for false solutions, or at most palliatives.’ (Ben Frommer, The Significance of a Jewish State, Jewish Call, Shanghai, May 1935, p.10. As cited by Lenni Brenner37)

‘The enterprising spirit of the Jew is irrepressible. He refuses to remain a proletarian. He will grab at the first opportunity to advance to a higher rung in the social ladder.’ (The Economic Development of the Jewish People, Ber Borochov, 191638)

‘The emancipated Jew is insecure in his relations with his fellow-beings, timid with strangers, suspicious even toward the secret feeling of his friends. His best powers are exhausted in the suppression, or at least in the difficult concealment of his own real character. For he fears that this character might be recognised as Jewish, and he has never the satisfaction of showing himself as he is, in all his thoughts and sentiments. He becomes an inner cripple, and externally unreal, and thereby always ridiculous and hateful to all higher-feeling men, as is everything that is unreal. All the better Jews in Western Europe groan under this, or seek for alleviation. They no longer possess the belief which gives the patience necessary to bear sufferings, because it sees in them the will of a punishing but not loving God.’ (Address at the First Zionist Congress, Max Nordau, 189739)

Early Zionist ideologists were pretty outspoken when it came to the ‘Diaspora’ Jewry. Ber Borochov eloquently diagnosed the inherent Jewish non-proletarian tendencies. Max Nordau didn’t spare words when confronting the intrinsic post-emancipated Jewish social incompetence. In the eyes of Hashomer Hatzair, the Diaspora Jew is nothing but a caricature and, for Ben Frommer, it is nothing less than neurosis we are dealing with. Yet, they were optimistic, they somehow believed that a ‘new beginning’ would cure the emancipated Jew of what seemed to some as a ‘disgraceful’ fate. They believed in a global Jewish ‘homecoming’, they were convinced that such an endeavour would heal the Jews of their inherent symptoms.

In an article published just after the first Zionist Congress (1897) Ahad Ha’Am, the most prominent Jewish polemist at the time, wrote ‘...the Congress meant this: that in order to escape from all these troubles [the Jewish anti-social symptoms as described by Nordau] it is necessary to establish a Jewish State.’40

Being inspired by 19th century ideologies such as Nationalism, Marxism, Early Romanticism, Darwinism and Life Philosophy (Leben Philosophie), early Zionists preached for the emerging of the bond between the Jew and ‘his’ soil. Naively, they believed that the love of farming, agriculture and nature would turn the emancipated Jew into an ordinary, civilized human being. Early Zionists predicted that Zionism would create a new authentic form of Jewish-ness, in which Jews would be entitled to love themselves for who they are rather than who they claim to be. While the socialists amongst them were talking about a new commitment to working class ideology (Berl Kazanelson, Borochov, A.D. Gordon), those on the right wing (Jabotinski, Frommer) dreamed of a master race that would emerge and rule the land.

Both Right and Left truly believed that, due to their homecoming, Jews would be able to replace their ‘traditional traits’ with aspirations towards sameness. They genuinely believed that Zionism would turn Jews into ‘people like all people.’ Failing to understand that the premise was categorically flawed for ‘other people’ do not wish to be ‘like other people.’ In other words, as long as Jews insisted on being like ‘all people’ they would always fail to be themselves.

Just as early Zionists had never tried to disguise the extent of their prophetic dream, they also didn’t make any efforts to conceal their contempt towards their ‘Diaspora’ Jewish brothers. In their emerging fantasy of national awakening, Jews would divorce from greed and money-seeking as well as cosmopolitan tendencies. In their vision, Zion was there to transform the Jew into an ordinary organic human being. The move to Zion was there to fill the chasm created by emancipation. The settlement in Zion was there to give birth to a new man. A Jew who looks at himself with pride, a Jew who fills Jewish-ness with meaning. A Jew who is defined by positive qualities rather than by mere negation.

Emancipated, Assimilated and Zionist

When it comes to secular Jews, things get complicated. While observant Jews can easily list a few measurable qualities they identify with, for instance they follow Judaism, they observe Jewish laws, they follow the Talmud, they follow Kosher dietary restrictions, etc., emancipated secular Jews have very little to offer in terms of positive characteristics to identify with. Once you ask a secular Jew what makes him into a Jew you may hear the following: ‘I am not a Christian nor am I a Muslim.’ OK then, but what is it that makes you into a Jew in particular? He may say, ‘l am not just American, French or British. I am somehow different.’ In fact, the so-called emancipated, assimilated or secular Jews would find it hard to list any particular positive quality that may identify them as Jews. Emancipated Jews are identified by negation — they are defined by the many things they are not.

This is exactly where Zionism interfered. It was there to set the Jews up in a project that aimed towards an authentic identification. Zionism was there to let the Jew think in terms of ‘belonging.’ Within the Zionist phantasmic reality, the generations of home-comers were there to declare: ‘We are the new Jews, we are Israelis, we are human beings like all other human beings, we live on our land, the land of our forefathers. We speak Hebrew, the language of our ancestors, we eat the fruit and vegetables that we ourselves farmed on our soil.’

Zionism has failed for various reasons. Zionism could never have prevailed. It has been entangled with an endless list of sins from day one. Yet, as much as Zionism quickly established itself as a criminal practice, some of its criticism of the emancipated Diaspora Jewish identity is worth looking into. At the end of the day, the so-called emancipated Diaspora Jew is still defined by negation and this fact alone has very many grave implications.

The fact that emancipated Jewish identity is defined by negation may also help us to realise why it is that emancipated Jews are so often part of political campaigns and revolutionary movements: those who are defined by negation are always against something. p.65

Frequent changes of this sort in the mood of the Israeli public are another outcome of Zionist collective neurosis. p.80

They have never become ‘people like all people.’ To repeat: the more they insist on loving themselves for who they think they are, the more they loathe themselves for what they have become. p.86

Excerpts from Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who?: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, Zero Books, Winchester, UK, 2011.

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