the unheimlich diaspora

by tobybee

Over on another blog I recently commented on a post and accompanying comments which made the same old tired comments about anti-Zionist Jews not really being Jewish. Moreover, that Jewishness and Zionism are inextricably intertwined to the point where it’s not just that anti-Zionist Jews are not Jewish, but that they are antisemitic or self-hating Jews. Obviously I disagree, but it’s always vaguely interesting when you’re forced to work through the arguments of why this understanding is wrong.

In a section of my thesis – in the chapter which deals with Zionism – I’m making the argument that we can understand this response from Zionism to the diaspora through a psychoanalytic approach. Sigmund Freud raises the idea of the uncanny, or unheimlich, and I think it can be very well applied to the relationship between Zionism and the diaspora. Here’s what I write in my thesis, see what you think:

Freud’s idea of the uncanny is particularly useful to aid our understanding of the gendered distance created by Israel, or Zionism, towards its diaspora. Freud asserted that the “quality of uncanniness can only come from the fact of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since surmounted—a stage, incidentally, at which it wore a more friendly aspect. The ‘double’ has [since] become a thing of terror.” The uncanny is further described as “in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old—established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” The uncanny double is something which was once a part of the self, but has since become separated and thus frightening. If we apply this to the Zionist discourse, we can understand that the diaspora serves as (one of) Israel’s uncanny others—the other being the Mizrahim, the Jewish Arabs. The qualities of the diaspora, figured as the feminine, are what Zionism represses—it is from the diaspora that the Zionist has sprung, yet it is those qualities which Zionism disavows. The particular masculine nature of Zionism needs to be continually reinforced so as to maintain the separation from diaspora culture.

The path that political Zionism has chosen—that of preferencing the Jewish people over all others and thus of protecting its people, as well as rebutting its inferior, uncanny, others—can be seen in the masculinity constructed and its accompanying violence. It could be argued that the violence that has characterised the nation-state results from a desire to assert the masculinity of the State to distinguish itself from the perceived passivity of the diaspora. Amos Oz made this point powerfully in his essay “The State as Reprisal”. In this essay he commented on the State of Israel’s identity as a masculine aggressor, asking
“Who, other than a self-hater, would feel the need to protest endlessly that we are strong and cruel and suntanned and we work on the land and love sports and we are bold and warlike? (In other words, we are no longer studious weaklings, full of pity, pale-faced and intellectual, hating bloodshed. In other words, shame on our ancestors, the gentiles must respect us now because we are not like our ancestors, we are like those who persecuted our ancestors.)”
Oz argued that Israel asserts itself in this way as “an extended act of reprisal, not against the gentiles but against the gloomy past of the Jews in the diaspora.” In other words, the nation-state of Israel asserts itself as violent and masculine in order to differentiate itself from diaspora Jews as they perceive them to be. Notably, these diaspora Jews are the ancestors of the hyper-masculine Israeli Jews: they are a former part of these Jews. What is uncanny and frightening about them is that it is literally from these Jews that Zionism has sprung. The masculinisation which occurs in response to this frightening uncanny figure is a mimicry of the dominant masculinity of Western modernity. This gendered element of Zionism is important, for Zionists (both in Israel and the diaspora) are also seeking to mimic the embodied and discursive masculinities that are offered by the Western tradition. When the diaspora-based high-school teachers of the Holocaust mimic Zionist modes and methods of narration of the Holocaust they are also seeking to mimic and thus acquire the masculinity and masculinism that Zionism claims for itself.

How is this then dealt with by these teachers narrating and navigating diaspora Jewish histories and identities? Let us move through the steps. It is being identified here that for Zionism and for Zionists (whether in the diaspora or in Israel), the Holocaust is a haunting figure. It represents the possibility of extermination, or absolute destruction, or a radical and absolute disempowerment. If we view this through the lens of the uncanny we can understand that the Holocaust (being a representation of what Zionists believe could have happened only because Jews lived in the diaspora and indeed is what necessarily happens to Jews in the diaspora) remains as a spectral figure, escaping repression and frightening Zionists that it will happen again. This uncanny then is a source of anxiety: Zionists can be seen to be scared and anxious that another Holocaust will occur. It is a special kind of relationship between the uncanny double and the subject. Here the subject is Zionism and the uncanny double is the diaspora: this is the most intimate relationship, which haunts and defines.

In other words, because the diaspora is a frightening thing, it needs to be pushed aside or repressed, and the necessity of the nation-state brought to the surface. So I guess I’m arguing that when Zionist Jews say that anti-Zionist Jews are not really Jewish, they do so because they’re afraid of what a diasporic Jewishness is and means. Of course, there’s also an interesting political analysis as to why this approach is taken, but I think the psychoanalytic answer has much to offer…