Nation as trauma, Zionism as question: Jacqueline Rose interviewed

About the authors
Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy Editor. She chaired the National Peace Council and Peaceworkers UK and edited New Times before joining openDemocracy in 2000. For the British Council, she has edited four volumes of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined (2003 – 2012) and written Unbounded Freedom – a guide to Creative Commons thinking for cultural organizations (2006). Her compiled volume on the Convention on Modern Liberty was published by Imprint Academic in 2010. Her PhD was on Samuel Richardson: she has reviewed literature for the TLS and politics for Political Quarterly.
Jacqueline Rose is a writer who teaches at the school of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London.
In “The Question of Zion”, Jacqueline Rose applies the insights of psychoanalysis to the inner world of Zionist doctrine and attitudes. openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler talks to her.

openDemocracy: The Question of Zion is dedicated to the memory of Edward Said: its title a tribute to his 1979 work, The Question of Palestine. In what sense is this study a continuation of Edward Said’s project?

Jacqueline Rose: There is a neglected strand in Edward’s work, which begins with that book’s key chapter, “Zionism from the standpoint of its victims”, and continues in his 1997 essay, “Bases for Coexistence”. In the latter, he says: “we cannot coexist as two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering.”

He argues that there has to be understanding not just of the others’ history, but of the others’ history of suffering. He also asserts: “The internal cohesion and solidity of Israel, of Israelis as a people and as a society, have, for the most part, eluded the understanding of Arabs generally.” He sees that as a failure.

It is my belief that this same understanding has eluded the critics of Israel. So my starting-point is the Gramscian exhortation to anyone wishing to navigate history that runs through Edward Said’s writing also: of knowing yourself as a “product of the historical process”. He described Zionism as having an “immense traumatic effectiveness” for the Palestinians. In such comments he is making a plea for something almost impossible: to hold on to the twin emotions of empathy and rage.

Edward’s work was so often about just such tugs-of-war. It was central to his work that this was a story of injustice, but at the same time he believed there must be a certain level of understanding; above all, of why Zionism is so powerful. How does it command such an apparently intractable allegiance?

Jacqueline Rose is a writer who teaches at the school of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London. Among her books are States of Fantasy (Oxford University Press, 1998), On Not Being Able to Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World (Princeton, 2003) and The Question of Zion (Princeton, 2005.)

Zionism – which I think has been traumatic for the Jews as well as the Palestinians – seems untouchable, so deeply has it entered the hearts of what people feel about themselves. Michel Warschawski (“Mikado”), the veteran peace activist and author of On the Border (South End, 2005) implies this in his comment that real change would necessitate the entire overhaul of an identity.

Another, very personal link to Edward’s work again relates to the Gramscian thread in his thinking. I feel he would have wanted me to revive the story of internal Jewish dissent. He describes the purpose of critical thinking as “to make differences where previously there were none.” I like to think that this is what The Question of Zion has tried to do.

openDemocracy: The book begins by clearing the middle ground you wish to occupy in order to set about making these differentiations. You claim the right to excavate “one of the most potent collective movements of the 20th century” against both those quick to see any criticism as anti-semitism and those flatly opposed to something they scarcely understand. But doesn’t this almost impossible stance run the risk of pleasing no one? What then are the prospects for your challenging thesis to be properly debated?

Jacqueline Rose: One or two foul reviews accuse me of equating Zionism and Nazism – a wilful misrepresentation of my project, and something I have always explicitly ruled out. But Ilan Pappe, perhaps the most controversial Israeli historian in the west and someone for whom I have high regard, suggests that I have achieved my intention: to steer a clear path between an elated identification with the state’s own discourse and a string of insults.

At the same time, the shocking divide between the founding fathers of Zionism and its later “internal” critics can give the impression that Israel offers to its citizens (and indeed the rest of the world) only lethal identification or radical dissent.

This is a tragedy. I would not want – especially in talking to you, Rosemary – to underestimate the growing numbers of Israeli people who are slowly, painstakingly, working for peace through contacts with Palestinians and other Arabs. But they don’t have an effective voice in the country, and they certainly have no political representation.

Daniel Barenboim commented at a conference in Budapest commemorating Edward Said that “there is no opposition (in Israel)” and that “1967 changed everything”. Religious parties who until then were politically marginal hailed the victory of 1967 as a miracle, and called in its aftermath for the cohesion and expansion of the Israeli state. Moreover, the post-1967 occupation and the cheap Palestinian labour it made available destroyed socialism as an inner motivating principle for building the state.

Even in the conditions today that Barenboim describes, the debate about Zionism is gathering pace. Bernard Avishai’s extraordinary 1970s book The Tragedy of Zionism was reissued in 2002; John Rose’s The Myths of Zionism was published in 2004. So I am with the zeitgeist: many people are thinking that they need to understand this phenomenon. My central chapters are already being translated into French and Hebrew. But will the wider discussion that I would like to see develop? The jury is still out.

Zionism and messianism

openDemocracy: Your first chapter addresses Gershom Scholem’s analysis of how messianism’s “strange inmixing of visionary and political power” influenced Zionism and its leading thinkers like Vladimir Jabotinsky – who in turn, you argue, may have inspired Binyamin Netanyahu and “many of today’s Israeli right who are ruling the country”. Emanuele Ottolenghi and David Cesarani have rebutted such associations.

Jacqueline Rose: Some critics believe that to link Zionism to messianism is to degrade it. This was long debated amongst Zionists themselves: many early secular Zionists, and first leaders of Israel like Chaim Weizmann, emphatically denied owing anything to messianism, and above all to mysticism. Instead, they insisted that they were rationally constructing the territory to produce a fortified, secure habitat for the Jewish people. But I could not avoid noticing uncanny resonances between Gershom Scholem’s religious language and the apocalyptic tone of many of Israel’s pronouncements about itself.

Meanwhile, in the work of secular Zionists I discovered messianic discourse of an extraordinary kind – including a complex vocabulary of suffering and redemption, frequent references by David Ben-Gurion and others to the “ingathering of the exiles” (technically an apocalyptic reference), and notions of “redemption” and the “rock of Israel” found in Israel’s declaration of independence.

The same vocabulary is employed today by those like Ariel Sharon who address the “demographic problem” by working to ensure the long-term Jewish majority of the state, including mass immigration of Jews and obstructions to the naturalisation of Arabs. Such leaders are unapologetic about the fact that they have a demographic plan with a messianic element.

Indeed, they cannot explain themselves on other grounds. They may justify the right to a secure Jewish state in terms of a permanent, existential threat to the Jewish people. But they can only justify the right to be a majority ruling over the Palestinians – who were there when Zionism established itself – by invoking the Bible as their “mandate”. This allowed the messianic element that was present from the start of the discourse to become established. As Ben-Gurion (“every man his own messiah”) said:

“Without a messianic, emotional, ideological impulse, without the vision of restoration and redemption, there is no earthly reason why even oppressed and underprivileged Jews…should wander off to Israel of all places…”

openDemocracy: What was your purpose in tracing the influence of messianic thinking in Zionism to its roots?

Jacqueline Rose: David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and author of Israelis and the Jewish Tradition, argues that Israel must shed its messianic identity or else Israel will not survive and the next generation will become alienated from Judaism itself. This, he says, is the greatest challenge both face today.

Hartman, like Martin Buber, seems to be pleading on behalf of the slow interstices of historical time and their daily tasks. His work echoes Sholem’s identification of a struggle for the soul of the Israeli nation between a mystical, cosmic vindication of statehood and a religion that must detach itself from notions of national power.

Yeshayahu Leibovitz, distinguished philosopher and outspoken critic of the Israeli state, was a fiercely orthodox religious man who also argued that the attempt of Israel to justify itself in religious terms is to come close to fascism.

Both Hartman and Liebovitz helped me grapple with the inspiring work of Gershom Scholem, who laboured in Jerusalem while Zionism was taking shape around him. I needed to know why he wanted to revisit Jewish mysticism at such a time; as I progressed, it became clearer that this derived from his fear of messianism and his conviction that the Jewish tradition contained something both demonic and creative that had been curtailed and repressed, and could explain the fervour of contemporary Jewish life.

Scholem loved the messianic vision, and wanted to restore that tradition. But he felt that a false, secular messianism in which the state becomes deified as the emblematic fulfilment of God’s purpose was becoming dominant in Israel.

This messianic motif is omnipresent in settler culture. It was evident among those in Gaza who argued that their allegiance was to the land not the state – because the land is the beginning of the redemption of Israel. But another settler, Rabbi Menachem Fruman from Tekoa on the West Bank, told Ha’aretz that he would stay – because this was the beginning not of redemption but of peace, and that he would live side-by-side with the Palestinians. That was a wonderful moment: a messianic discourse turning on itself and producing a progressive vision willing to shed its militancy for the sake of another way of living.

This redemptive vocabulary is not confined to those Jews who proclaim themselves messianic. Neturei Karta and at least two other explicitly messianic groups have been virulently opposed to Zionism from its inception. They see it as a travesty on the grounds that redemption cannot be performed on your own behalf, but achieved only through the will of God.

Among Rosemary Bechler’s interviews, essays and profiles in openDemocracy:

“Everyone is afraid: the world according to Abou Jahjah (May 2004)

“A bridge across fear: an interview with Tariq Ramadan” (July 2004)

“Islam and democracy: an interview with Heba Ezzat” (May 2005)

Zionism and nationalism

openDemocracy: You argue that Zionism is a “wonderful example” of the work of the psyche in the constitution of the modern nation-state. It imported to the middle east, you go on to say, “a central European concept of organic nationhood – one founded on ethnicity and blood – that was in the throes of decline.” Perhaps it is in crisis but not in decline – then or now – as much as we might assume?

Jacqueline Rose: The collapse of Yugoslavia taught us that this has not gone away. Theodor Herzl’s biographer, Amos Elon describes (in A Blood-Dimmed Tide) the tragic cost of Zionism’s success: “when religion is seen primarily as a quest for identity, it comes at the expense of its other higher purposes, charity and compassion”; he adds, “(in) the final analysis, as Karl Kraus warned, every ideology gravitates towards war.”

Ahad Ha’am, the autodidact genius from Odessa, understood this in the 1930s and 1940s: he asked whether it was possible to struggle for an identity that was self-defining in ethnic and religious terms while you also recognised it as provisional and contingent.

Here again, Edward Said is an exemplar. When people ask why my book contains no critique of Arab or Palestinian nationalism, I cite Edward’s late use of humanism and (crucially) music to propose a different form of national identity: modulated, subtle, supple, open and aware of its own provisionality. This surely is the question for our time: whether or not you can have an identity that knows its limits. The jury is out on this too. In any case, loose appeals to cosmopolitanism don’t have the answer either.

openDemocracy: You say, rather tantalisingly, that Edward Said would not have agreed with everything in your book.

Jacqueline Rose: He did once ask me if I was writing an apology for Zionism. I believe he would never have agreed with those who argue that to ask the Palestinians to understand Zionism is like asking a rape victim to understand the rapist. But I can see that my wager in the book to “go into the mindset of Zionism without blocking the exit” might have felt to him like risking one identification too far.

He would have been very concerned that the attempt to understand and empathise with the Jewish predicament should not become an apology for the state of Israel. Although he never designated Israel an illegitimate state, he was of course severely critical of its founding premises. But although he supported the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, he latterly talked of the injustice that would be perpetrated if the Israelis were now forced out of their homes as the Palestinians had been in 1948. His position was absolutely clear politically in terms of injustice suffered by Palestinians, but also complex in ways so often ignored.

Zionism and identity politics

openDemocracy: Is your analysis of Zionism a case study in identity politics?

Jacqueline Rose: I have always been sceptical of the concept of identity politics. In States of Fantasy, I criticised it on two grounds: that it takes “identity” as a given, something stable; and that it detaches “politics” from state power.

My work on psychoanalysis and feminism is concerned with this problem. Psychoanalysis declares that your identity is always unstable, on the move, capable of transformation: it is not something you simply own. This idea is what motivated my study The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; for someone like Sylvia Plath, it was essential that she could rail against the injustices of a patriarchal culture while both analysing her own considerable complicity with male sexual power and talking about the murkiest depths of visceral psychic involvement with her mother. In other words, her critique of injustice was inseparable from her understanding of the complexity of her own psychic life. I would welcome an identity politics that looked like that.

I realised only recently that my work on feminism and on Zionism really are the same project. Helena Kennedy, the brilliant radical lawyer whom I greatly admire, wrote in the Guardian about how the far greater number of female than male victims – of violence, rape, domestic violence – reveals the incomplete agenda of feminism. This is undoubtedly true, but it made me uneasy. A short time later, she delivered a Bronowski lecture at London’s Queen Mary College where she asserted that the problem with “New Labour’s” definition of the public as consumers is that it turns everybody into a victim: you are passive, always being put upon, which is why you must be given choice.

I noticed that her lecture had identified what had made me feel momentarily uncomfortable in reading her article. For me, victimhood is an event – something that happens to you. If you turn it into an identity, you have created a profound internal problem for yourself. Of course men do things to women, but feminism must not be a politics based on the notion of the woman as victim; because this both disempowers women and makes the relationship between violation and what it is possible to be, too monolithic. It shuts something down.

In turn, I realised that this is exactly what I am saying in the third chapter of The Question of Zion, “Zionism as Politics”. My worry about identity politics is that it fossilises something, whereas we should be working for greater mobility about who we can be. The most unutterably terrible things have happened to the Jewish people; but if this fossilises in the heart and becomes something to hold onto as an exhaustive account of who you are, victimhood becomes a prediction that will last an eternity.

Zionism and its others

openDemocracy: Ariel Sharon used the same formula at the sixtieth anniversary commemorations of the liberation of Auschwitz, and of the end the second world war in Europe (“we know that we can trust no one but ourselves”). As you say, this leads directly to a militarisation of suffering – and there is only one suffering. All other categories of people targeted by the Nazis – a roll-call of the crisis of the Enlightenment in our times – seem to have no place in this account.

Jacqueline Rose: I would like to see an end to the expression “Jewish suffering”. I don’t mind “the Jewish history of suffering” or “the history of the atrocities that have been done to the Jewish people”, but the expression “Jewish suffering” contains something else. It seems to me that the suffering of a woman on the edge of the pit with her child during the Nazi era, and a Palestinian woman refused access to a hospital through a checkpoint and whose unborn baby dies as a result, is the same.

Hannah Arendt said that the fact that Theodor Herzl’s prediction that the Jews would come to see themselves as surrounded by eternal enemies was hideously actualised by the Holocaust does not make his vision “any truer – it only makes it more dangerous”.

openDemocracy: Your second chapter, “Zionism as Psychoanalysis”, attempts to recover the moments that were open to an alternative way forward, in order to acknowledge choices that we still have today. This possibility of auto-critique seems to interest you.

Jacqueline Rose: This is one of the reasons why I am convinced that Zionism should not simply be dismissed. Hans Kohn turned away from Zionism, but Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am definitely did not. If Zionism can produce voices such as these, this is evidence of a fermentation of rare value.

Discovering thinkers like Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt and Ahad Ha’am was like encountering pieces of coral from a deep pool. I had read Arendt and indeed some of Buber’s work before, but I did not anticipate the sheer prescience of their critique of Zionism. For example, Arendt predicted that the Jewish state would become utterly reliant on American force, and live “surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population” in which all “development would be determined exclusively by the need of war”; this is so accurate, it sends a shudder down your back.

Then there was the romantic, semi-mystical discourse of Buber and Ahad Ha’am, posing the question of who we are at its most profound. Their vocabulary revolves around spirituality, selfhood, self-knowledge, truth, understanding, denial. In order to put into words the perils of Zionism, these thinkers had to explore why people can desire identities that become ultimately destructive. I found their work an extraordinary resource.

This sort of internal critique of a nationalist identification is not exclusive to Zionism. The greatest compliment paid to my book so far came from Paul Muldoon who attended a couple of my lectures in Princeton; he told me: “We need to do this for Irish nationalism”.

Zionism and psychoanalysis

openDemocracy: What is the relationship between your approach to Zionism and psychoanalysis?

Jacqueline Rose: Zionism was a self-conscious, self-created movement out of nothing – no language, no state, no home. As Jacques Lacan says about the hysteric: the membrane between the conscious and the unconscious is drawn so thin that you can look in and see everything fermenting underneath. It was a phantasmagoria that then came true due to sheer will and determination.

Consequently, Zionism reveals precisely the unconscious determinants of what it is to try and forge a national identity, including the pain and the costs involved. So I reject the charge of humiliating the founder figures, Theodor Herzl or Chaim Weizmann; instead, I argue that they were in touch with the disturbing nature of what they were attempting, and that this is a form of creativity.

I have just finished working on the new Freud edition of Moses and Monotheism (now retranslated as Moses the Man), in which I discuss Freud’s relationship to his Jewishness. In this iconoclastic work, Freud argues that Moses was an Egyptian.

Edward Said’s little essay “Freud and the non-European”, says that Freud was searching for a prototype of a national entity which would allow itself to be founded by a stranger. What a fantastic insight! For me, it is no coincidence that at the same time as Zionism is importing into the middle east what, for urgent historical reasons, is a very rigid version of a self-defining, self-sufficient, monolithic ethnic identity, psychoanalysis was taking apart the fantasy of any notion of national belonging of that kind.

I have just finished an article about the correspondence between Freud and the novelist Arnold Zweig, who went to live in Palestine in 1933 and hated it. The correspondence between Zweig and Freud was all about national identification. Zweig is saying that he could no longer identify with Germany as a fatherland, but nor did he feel that he belonged in Palestine. He decides to leave when he goes to a peace demonstration with a leftwing group and they refuse to talk to him in German. He objected that most of them would have been speaking Yiddish at home, even while insisting he spoke Hebrew. He wanted nothing to do with nationalism of this kind.

So psychoanalysis was offering a critique of militant forms of national self-identification at the same time as Zionism was establishing itself: they are reverse sides of the same coin.

openDemocracy: Theodor Herzl’s evolution as a founder of the Zionist state is equally tormented and complex, according to your account. In 1895 he declares to the Rothschilds that he “can never be anything but a German”; by 1898 he is eliciting support from the German Kaiser by promising to “take the Jews away from the revolutionary parties”.

Jacqueline Rose: In my final chapter I touch on the anti-semitic aspects of Herzl’s stance, one that resurfaces even more clearly in Ben-Gurion’s response to the Holocaust. Even in August 1939, David Ben-Gurion wrote: “Call me an antisemite, but … we are choking with shame about what is happening … We do not belong to that Jewish people … We do not want to be such Jews.”

But I am also concerned in my book to give Herzl the respect due to him as an analyst of anti-semitism. Even though his pronouncements could often be construed as anti-semitic, his understanding of that phenomenon in Der Judenstaat was extremely subtle and anticipates that of Hannah Arendt.

Theodor Herzl was a complex and incredibly disturbed depressive whose highly creative but nearly impossible life-mission seems to have wreaked a terrible effect on himself and his immediate family. Arendt once described him as “in touch with the subterranean currents of history”, and less generously as “a crackpot”.

But Herzl is also the author of a surprisingly alternative, cosmopolitan narrative in his 1902 novel, Altneuland. This portrays Jewish settlement in Palestine as a stateless form of “autonomy and self-defence” working to the benefit of Jews and Arabs alike – a belief strongly held by many of the early Zionists. At the time, the multi-faith future Herzl envisaged was far too progressive for many. The novel was much criticised for not being sufficiently Jewish. Ahad Ha’am objected to Herzl’s suggestion in the novel that the liberation of the Jews will be followed by the liberation of black Africans – with which he wanted nothing to do.

openDemocracy: David Cesarani sees your anecdote about Herzl and Hitler being inspired by the same Wagner opera performance as proof of your wilful distortion of the evidence.

Jacqueline Rose: The story is totally apocryphal. In the paperback edition we make that clear, as I should have done in the first place: Hitler would have been six years old at the time. But I included the story as George Steiner told it to me, because I thought people would get the point. It illustrates the insight that the work of the notorious anti-semite Wagner had such radically discrepant effects on these two figures.

The book is all about discovering differences, and it is surely fascinating that the love of Wagner inspired both these major figures in Jewish history to seek such extreme remedies. I make quite explicit that they are not the same, and that Zionism cannot be equated with Nazism.

openDemocracy: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (2005), also discusses the central messianic concept of tikkun (mending). He emphasises the fact that Lurianic Kabbalah, while it is “a vision of cosmic catastrophe” is “also a healing vision”. In Israel, healing is precisely what seems deferred by a quest for military impregnability that has ensured the reverse. This may be a normal impulse among the nation-states of the world, but here it is surely taken to an abnormal extreme. Doesn’t that quandary have to be the starting point for any attempt to salvage the state or the tradition?

Jacqueline Rose: I do believe – and David Grossman has analysed this more fully than anybody – that the consequence of the shame at the passivity felt by the Jews in the face of their Nazi oppressor has been a hardening and militarisation of their identity which is indeed explicable in terms of Jewish history. On this point, some of my critics should revisit Freud’s concept of over-determination, because it is perfectly possible to have both a concrete reason for something and other, less tangible, reasons as well.

But that rigidification of identity which the state justifies in terms of such a history, ensures that every catastrophe that happens to Israel becomes a confirmation of its view of itself. It leads to a fortification of the soul. This distressing overlap between the need to feel safe as a nation and the need to believe in yourself takes on the form of a repetition of trauma.

Here you really need a psychoanalytic distinction. Israel is now the fourth most militarily powerful nation in the world. It is a nuclear power. It is not in danger. The fear that Israel will be destroyed is groundless. But that does not mean that it isn’t real. The fear is real and it is understandable. This is the difficult territory: you have to say both things at once. But, as I said earlier, when the fear becomes an identity that justifies itself by a violence that cannot acknowledge itself as violence, something has gone terribly wrong.

The best example in my book is the commandant in Gaza who steels himself in the battle against Palestinian children by remembering as he says, “the flames of the Holocaust”. This fortress mentality that Israel cannot relinquish means that it cannot see itself as the agent of violence. That is one of the effects of trauma: you can’t then see what you are capable of doing. You are always repeating a situation in which you are threatened and potentially destroyed.

openDemocracy: Many Christian evangelicals and “Christian Zionists” in the United States seem to have bought into this apocalyptic discourse wholesale. How do you deal with this craziness?

Jacqueline Rose: The Christian fundamentalists who helped win the November 2004 election for George W Bush are indeed the most passionate supporters of Israel. They did not support the Oslo accords. They now do support Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, though reluctantly and with complex provisos.

I once asked Binyamin Netanyahu why he accepted the support of the Christian fundamentalists, since they believe that at Armageddon all the Jews will be destroyed or converted? He said that he tells them that he welcomes their support and that when they get to Armageddon, they can argue about it then.

But all this is frightening rather than crazy. One of the things psychoanalysis does is to allow you to understand how identifications can go to an extreme of themselves. Freud describes the superego as violent. The instance of the law is perverse and pulls on the unconscious in order to enforce its will on the psyche. You have therefore an internal perversion inside the mind at the point where it submits to the law. From Freud’s perspective, the fact that people can identify with persecuting, vicious instances of authority to which they must subject themselves, is written into the constitution of the psyche in ways which are truly troubling.

Zionism and politics

openDemocracy: How does your deeper understanding of what motivates this particular concept of nationhood impact upon your approach to politics?

Jacqueline Rose: With Freud – whose later work was about civilisation, religion and Jewishness, the application of psychoanalytic terms to collective life – I believe that psychoanalysis can help us understand better how identities are formed and make and break themselves. What you learn, at the risk of sounding woolly, is simply that you must open up points of dialogue wherever you can.

Psychoanalysis also asks us to believe that the carapace breaks: that the symptom cannot hold. You hit the wall of your own defences and the symptom becomes too costly in terms of the energies of the mind. It becomes too expensive in terms of that economy.

The same questions that concern me now in relation to Zionism exercised us as feminists. You don’t have to be a harmonious political subject. You can work in different ways and at different levels, according to the needs of the time.

In the present conjuncture, I have little doubt that Sharon’s pull-out from Gaza is a subterfuge masking the consolidation of the West Bank settlements. This is becoming clearer by the day. The occupation must end. Beyond that, the question of what a Palestinian nationalism and indeed a Jewish nationalism can be remains open, and indeed must be kept open.

openDemocracy: If dialogue is needed, don’t people who are thinking of a political response have to consider what impact a tactic like academic boycott has, in terms of hardening the parameters of an identity, or deepening a complex?

Jacqueline Rose: I think there should be economic and military sanctions against Israel, and an academic and cultural boycott as well. In face of the complete destruction of freedom of speech in Palestinian educational infrastructures, to point to the forms of creative dialogue that might take place across academe is evasive. This is a time for deciding which side you are on, and what you can do to prevent the deterioration of the situation.

True, there is a risk of boycott hardening the identity you are trying to open up. But at certain moments you must recognise that you are involved in different kinds of political calculation, and ask: what is being done to end this situation? What forces are being brought to bear? The answer is: none. That is why I feel that it is beholden on academics as a matter of conscience to do something about this, even if it creates something of a mess.

Ilan Pappe at Haifa University has a vision reminiscent of Herzl’s Altneuland, of an eventual one-state solution, of cooperation and creative engagement between the peoples. But he also supports an academic boycott. I don’t think it is inconsistent to say: “This needs to be done now, at the same time as an effort to make it possible for as many people as possible to talk to each other”.

The boycott decided, then rescinded, by the Association of University Teachers in Britain sought an end to the normal, formal situation in which academics representing the Israeli state wander around the world giving papers which are nothing to do with the political situation and which simply accrue prestige to the state. But it absolutely did allow all contacts related to the struggle, the occupation, justice and peace – all contacts that at least recognise what is actually happening to the Palestinians – to continue.

openDemocracy: So an academic boycott should be part of an attempt to bring into the open something which has been in denial, so that healing can begin?

Jacqueline Rose: We are talking about acknowledgement. It is important to understand that the academic boycott is saying: “Boycott the institution – and yet keep the lines open, not just to the people who you think are OK, this is not about blacklisting – but to anybody at all, if the point of the contact is to address the injustice of the situation in Israel/Palestine.”

This may also play its part in helping the Palestinians, whom Edward Said characterised as “the victims of the victims”, and whom Primo Levi described as “the new Jews”. This particular boycott may have been overturned, but Israeli friends have told me that it has had the profoundest effect in Israel, in focusing and drawing attention to the issues.