Rose-Colored Glasses

By Allan Arkush
Monday, February 20, 2012

Jacqueline Rose, a noted professor of English in the United Kingdom and the author of many works of literary criticism, has stepped beyond the academic precincts where she first made her name to produce, over the past decade or so, a substantial opus dealing with Zionism and Israel.  Her books on these subjects possess the veneer of expertise and have been published by prestigious university presses. Princeton brought out The Question of Zion in 2005 and now Chicago has published her Proust among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East.  Jacqueline Rose has consequently acquired the status of an authority. 

This is unfortunate, since she often doesn't know what she is talking about.  The thinness of her learning is most apparent when she writes in venues where she is not subject to any serious fact-checking.  Take, for instance, her article "The Zionist Imagination" in the Nation in June of 2006 where she describes Menahem Begin recalling "the moment he issued the order for the revolt in 1937 against the British authorities in Palestine."  She's off by seven crucial years.  In a 2005 interview with openDemocracy, she sagely reports what Ahad Ha'am was saying in the 1930s and 1940s (many years after his death).  In the original version of The Question of Zion she cites a 1947 utterance of Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky (who died in 1940), but this blunder was somehow corrected in the subsequent paperback edition. 

If you think this is mere nitpicking, take a look at Alexander Yakobson's exhaustive and devastating analysis of The Question of Zion, and you'll see that it's just the tip of the iceberg.  The real problem with Rose, however, is not her factual errors but her bad arguments.  And they haven't been getting any better.

She is not, to be sure, the worst sort of anti-Zionist.  In Proust among the Nations she reminds us of her refusal in 2008 to sign a letter protesting Israel's sixtieth anniversary celebration because the letter equated Zionism with Nazism.  Instead, she tells us, she signed a different letter, one that merely "noted Israel's continuing oppression of the Palestinians as a reason not to celebrate."  But even if Israel were to pull back from all of the territory taken in the Six-Day War, it's unlikely that we would find Rose dancing in the streets on its Independence Day.

From her point of view, things went awry not in 1967 but in 1947, when the United Nations partitioned Palestine.  In the longest chapter of Proust among the Nations Rose lambastes the very idea of territorial partition as a solution to ethnic crises.  She approvingly cites historian Aamir Mufti's description of its imposition in Palestine as a repetition of "the very mode of thought, the historical process which, in the case of the Jews of Europe, it was intended to resolve."  In practice, she contends, partition had dire consequences, the ethnic transfer of masses of Palestinian Arabs and the subjugation of others, which amounted to the creation of "a new, still unresolved injustice."   

In The Question of Zion, Rose strongly regrets that this injustice was not forestalled by the creation of a bi-national state in 1948.  In her new book she doesn't dwell on this matter at length, but seeks to undermine the idea of Jewish statehood by other means.  Re-examining what is generally taken to be one of chief impetuses of Zionism, the Dreyfus Affair, she concludes that it is not the journalist Theodor Herzl who drew the right lesson from it but the novelist Marcel Proust.   

As Rose correctly notes, recent scholarship has shown that what happened to Dreyfus did not really play as large a role in converting Herzl into a Zionist as he himself later claimed it did.  But since there is after all "some truth" to the idea that "because of Dreyfus, so Israel," Rose endeavors to turn the tables.  Her "different version of the story" takes "from Dreyfus, a warning—against an overfervent nationalism, against infallible armies raised to the level of theocratic principle, against an ethnic exclusivity that blinds a people to the other peoples of the world, and against governments that try to cover up their own crimes."  These are all things of which Israel is guilty, according to Rose, and in ways that are strongly reminiscent of the nefarious forces arrayed against Dreyfus. 

As for Marcel Proust, who took up his pen against these same forces, he, it seems, brings to Rose's mind the combatants of the excesses of Zionism whom she admires, such as Jean Genet and Edward Said, and no doubt, herself.  Fortuitously enough, Proust also lined up against Zionism! Admittedly, there are "only two references" to the movement "throughout the whole of À La Recherche," but they are "unsympathetic to the point of disparagement."  We need hardly doubt that his opposition to Zionism was deep-seated, since he was a man "longing for a world of permeable boundaries," not partitions between peoples.  He is thus someone worthy of being claimed as a precursor.

Rose's eagerness to enlist Proust in her cause reminds me of the way some Zionists have done much the same thing with Spinoza, who can be credited with only one vaguely proto-Zionist utterance.  Neither claim holds water.  Nor can either of them serve as the anchor for a serious analysis of Zionism or Israeli policy—something with which it would in any case be unreasonable to expect Jacqueline Rose to provide us.  In the meantime, we can take a little bit of solace, however, from her refusal to equate Zionism with Nazism, even as she writes a book with no other purpose than to enumerate its similarities to what she herself identifies as "protofascism." 

Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

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