Last September I went to hear Professors Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler give this co-presentation of their views of the way in which (according to them) the Holocaust governs Israeli politicians' and the Israeli Jewish policies towards the Palestinians.
They held it in one of the biggest auditoriums in the University of London, and they needed to. Hundreds lined up to hear these two academic superstars speak. I was riveted by the sight of rows of other feminist superstar professors in their immaculate designer clothes on the platform, as well as the more predictable legions of traditional academic radicals in their lumberjack shirts and jeans. Professors Steven and Hilary Rose glowered away in the background, for although they share with Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler an ardently anti-zionist politics, they seem to see all this high falutin discourse analysis as a distraction from their central aim of campaigning for the boycott of all things Israeli. Given that the title of the presentation was Holocaustal Premises: Political Implications
of the Traumatic Frame
, that was understandable.
I should say I started my academic career as an English Lit academic, and, long after I'd switched tracks into the teacher training world that was most of my subsequent professional life, I became involved with the French-influenced transformation of literary criticism from being the manifestation of sophisticated individual or class based analysis to the elucidation of texts as discourses and narratives. Somehow, this involved taking on a near impenetrable discourse, typified by the title of their presentation, which originated from most of the key reference texts being translated from French philosophical discourse. I'm no populist, so that wasn't a serious deterrent to me.
But discourse analysis as influenced by Edward Said and developed by Rose and Butler involved a quite gross appropriation of the methods of psychoanalysis, in which they sought to analyse at times the entire Israeli Jewish population and at times such individual Israeli politicians as Ariel Sharon as if they were patients they were psychoanalysing.
Part of the wonderful world of literary criticism is that there has never been any professional standard of practice or qualification other than peer approval. On the other hand, psychoanalysts these days have rigorous codes of practice which would rule out the absurd method Rose and Butler used of arbitrarily picking out bits of this speech or that text and using it to "demonstrate" that Jewish Israelis and Israeli politicians are in the grip of post-Holocaust traumas that compel them (as they argue) to be obsessed with their own suffering whilst oblivious to the brutality they inflict on the Palestinians. To be sure, Freud himself did dabble in applying psychoanalytic perspectives to such figures as Moses and Hitler. But the results of that were trite and off-beam. No one who reads them today is likely to see them as other than an embarrassing curiosity of Freud's career.
The more I listened to their presentations the more it seemed that what they were saying was little different from long-established Soviet and Arab League-originated anti-zionist tropes: the Zionists use the Holocaust to justify their oppression of the Palestinians; the Zionists try to present their own suffering as the only one worth considering. Only in their mouths, it was all clothed in the verbiage of psychic woundsand other formidably obscure sounding psychoanalytic persiflage. This had the impact of making their analysis sound much less like propaganda and more like disinterested analysis.
Being a literary critic means never having to say you're sorry, it seems. For no practising psychoanalyst could get away with arbitrarity selecting bits of a patient's public pronouncements. Psychoanalysis is posited on what's offered by patients in the privacy and spontaneousness of the one-to-one psychoanalytic encounter. The idea of applying psychoanalytic weight to Ariel Sharon's speech at the opening of the then new Yad Vashem building, as Jacqueline Rose did, is absurd. For a start, it was scripted, and no doubt drafted by one or more officials. Yet here at the London University conference were legions of highly respectable academics listening with apparent respect and admiration as Rose and Butler presented these travesties of psychoanalytic method.
It also struck me that appropriating the role of the all-powerful psychoanalyst was particularly attractive to the surviving devotees of a now discredited marxism, for the analyst famously self-presents as utterly detached, disinterested and dispassionate. Should you disagree with the analysis they offer, you merely demonstrate your resistance to and denial of the truths they reveal.
Likewise, as I've previously noted in this post, once you move into a world where you do not have objective facts, only discourses and narratives, the question of truth can be safely jettisoned. I haven't got the book to hand, but I seem to remember Jacqueline Rose being quoted by Janet Malcolm in her irresistibly mordant take on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes as saying "I'm not ever interested in what actually happened" [between Sylvia and Ted]. That's all very well when your subject is literary myths and reputations. If every field is but narratives, discourses, texts and frames, then you can be an instant expert competent to subject anything to your analysis. But when your territory is political intervention and campaigning for boycotts against Israeli academics and performers, and disinvestments, that's another matter.
And when the territory in question is the history of the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab/Islamic world, Rose and Butler are likely to find a less deferential audience amongst their academic peers.
Which is why I was delighted to read the quite outstanding academic critique by Professor Shalom Lappin of Jacqueline Rose's The Question of Zion, which has been reverentially received and promoted by such champions of literary discourse theories as the London Review of Books.
For a start, Lappin shows how Rose's book is riddled with gross factual errors, derived from her use of secondary sources whose wider context she appears to know little of. My favourite is this sardonic paragraph:
In two cases authors are resurrected to make posthumous remarks. Rose says of Herzl 'To his first biographer Reuben Brainin in 1919, he describes this dream he had at the age of twelve' (p. 29). Quoting Jabotinsky she tells us '"Of all the necessities of national rebirth," Jabotinsky stated in 1947, "shooting is the most important of all."' (p.124). (2) Given that Herzl died in 1904 and Jabotinsky in 1940, it seems that Rose has moved beyond psychoanalysis into parapsychology. In both cases she has confused the publication date of the work in which the statement appears with the time of its utterance
But Shalom Lappin exposes far more fundamental and systematic errors and partisan omissions by Rose. He excoriates a major plank of her claims of the Israeli exploitation of the Holocaust thus:
Rose psychologizes Israel's response to the Holocaust as a case of initially suppressed trauma combined with the transfer of violent rage from the actual agent of abuse to an innocent bystander. Concerning the suppression of memory she says:
It is not therefore talking about the Holocaust after 1967 that needs to be examined, but the fact of not -or barely- talking about it before. How could such an act of colossal denial not have the most profound effect on the birth and subsequent evolution of the fledging nation-state? (pp. 140-1).
A more appropriate question is how an assumption so radically at variance with the facts could be so casually passed off as true. Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, created in 1943, was named after Mordechai Anilewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it was dedicated to the memory of the uprising. The Ghetto Fighters' House – Itzhak Katzenelson Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum was established in 1949 on Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot (the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz), which was founded by survivors and resistance fighters. The Knesset instituted Yom Hashoah as an annual day of Holocaust remembrance in 1951. It established Yad Vashem as the national Holocaust memorial and research centre in 1953. The Eichmann trial was held in Jerusalem from April 2, 1961 until August 14, 1962, and the government used it to focus international attention on the mechanisms and the enormity of the Nazi genocide. The Israeli writer Aharon Applefeld, whose work is devoted to a literary exploration of the Holocaust, published his first three collections of stories between 1962 and 1965. It is the case that the Holocaust became an increasingly central part of public discourse in Israel over the years as awareness of its dimensions and its historical significance crystallised. However, Rose's blithe presupposition that it was rarely discussed before 1967 has no basis in fact.
Indeed, I was in Israel in 1962 during the last eight months of the Eichmann trial and I saw its impact on the schoolgoing and teenage generation of Israelis, who were sent by their schools to listen to the proceedings. It was visibly a time in which dialogue about the experience of the Holocaust began to be common between survivors and their children which was not to be paralleled outside Israel for many years.
Shalom Lappin is quietly scornful of the Eurocentrism which Rose betrays in writing of Israelis as if they were all of European origin, when a majority in fact originate from Arab and other Middle Eastern countries:
Given Rose’s professed reverence for Edward Said it is also strange to find her trapped in a thoroughly Eurocentric view of contemporary Israel. On her account, Israeli society is entirely the product of European Jewish immigrants and their neurotic reactions to persecution in Europe. The overwhelming majority of the (approximately) 850,000 Jews forced out of Middle Eastern and North African countries between 1948 and 1965 were absorbed in Israel, where they and their offspring now constitute approximately 50% of the Jewish population. The experiences of these people in their Arab and Muslim host countries, from which most fled as refugees, is a significant factor in determining their attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s rightwing parties in Israel successfully exploited both the social marginalisation of many Middle Eastern Jews and the deep suspicions with which some of them regard the Arab world in light of their encounters as a minority there, in order to gain support for hard line nationalist or ultra Orthodox religious agendas. Part of the populist propaganda that these parties employed in their campaigns painted supporters of the Israeli left and the peace movement as members of a European elite that dominates the economy and indulges hostile Arab interests through misguided liberal naiveté (or worse), while disregarding the concerns of deprived Middle Eastern Jewish voters. This dimension of the Israeli political scene and its role in shaping Israeli-Palestinian relations escapes any mention in Rose’s psychological parable.
There's plenty more to read from Shalom Lappin, including his well informed presentation of real Israeli history as opposed to the travesty which Rose presents.
So do go and read the whole thing.
Oh, and the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme will be featuring Shalom Lappin at 8:50 on Thursday 7th September, on the subject of the forthcoming report of the Parliamentary Committee enquiry on anti-semitism, to which he gave evidence. Interestingly, the Today Programme will present him in debate with Professor Steven Rose. How telling that the Today Programme finds it necessary to field Steven Rose, a biologist specialising in the aetiology of Alzheimer's disease, and an active campaigner for boycott action against Israel alone of all the nations in the world.