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Anti-Zionism and the Fear of Jewish Ghosts

On Leon Pinsker’s 195th birthday, what he got right—and wrong—about his idea that a Jewish state would cure the world of anti-Semitism

Eylon Aslan-Levy
December 13, 2016
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Anti-Semitism exists because people are naturally afraid of ghosts: The Jews in exile are a “ghostlike apparition of a living corpse,” and so the widespread “fear of the Jewish ghost” is a natural consequence of their statelessness, explained Leon Pinsker, who made this disturbing argument in his 1882 pamphlet Auto-Emancipation. The human fear of ghosts renders anti-Semitism—or Judeophobia, as he called it—a hereditary and incurable “psychic aberration” common to the whole of mankind. It is impossible to combat this superstitious prejudice, argues Pinsker, but independent statehood would enable the Jews to cease being despised aliens: only this could exorcise, or at least soothe, this historic psychosis.

In hindsight, on what would have been his 195th birthday today, one might argue that history has proved Pinsker wrong. The Jews resumed sovereignty nearly 70 years ago, and anti-Semitism persists—against diaspora Jews and, more worryingly for Pinsker’s case, against the resurrected Jewish state itself. Far from diffusing antipathy against Jews as homeless aliens, the Jewish state is a magnet for this rage. Its very right to exist is challenged incessantly.

Such a position, however, fails to do justice to Pinsker’s perspicacity. His flaw was not in his diagnosis of anti-Semitism, but in his prognosis: not in his premises, but his failure to take them to their logical conclusions. For if people are naturally afraid of ghosts, they must be even more afraid of ghosts that come to life. As much as they might fear ghosts, they are used, at least, to seeing ghosts as disembodied and ethereal. For ghosts to assume flesh and blood and wander the Earth is an act of necromancy.

Indeed, for two millennia, the West grew accustomed to seeing Jews as dependent minorities. As David Nirenberg outlines in his masterful Anti-Judaism, the way that societies defined themselves in relation to the Jews throughout the years was central to their own self-imagination. So central was the image of Jews in Western thought that if they did not exist, the West would have had to invent them—indeed, even in Judenrein medieval European societies, the trope of the Jew remained the ultimate Other.

As the years dragged on, the thought that this dispersed minority could ever be embodied as a nation-state grew more and more incongruous and absurd. With the Emancipation, the different European states sought to mold the Jews into a culturally assimilated community with a different religion, rather than a discrete people. Indeed, Zionism was such a revolutionary idea at its inception that the idea appeared far-fetched even to many Jews.

Now the Jews have a state, and there are many who wish to roll back that achievement. Yet, unlike the anti-Semites of old, today’s anti-Zionists do not necessarily want to annihilate the Jews. They just want the Jews to return to being stateless minorities, as they have always known them. In short, anti-Zionists want their Jewish ghosts back.

There is no shortage of explicit examples of hostility toward Israel driven by a belief that this nation should not assume flesh and blood, often underlined by lingering discomfort about Jews in their disembodied state. Historian Arnold Toynbee called the Jews “an extinct society which only survives as a fossil,” an exception to the rule of civilizational decay. But fossils are not supposed, as Abba Eban paraphrased it, to “revolt against [their] own petrified status.” But nor are they meant to grow and develop even as fossils. So we are left both with a hostility to Israel and an underlying ambivalence and even apathy toward Jews in their Diasporic condition.

Tony Judt described Israel as an “anachronism” for which there was “no place in the world”: He argued that Zionism was born in the mound of countless other European national projects, but that Israel “arrived too late … into a world that has moved on.” Yet it is only Israel that Judt insisted should not exist—not the Eastern European countries with which he says Israel has so much in common. The nation-states established before the world “moved on,” he implies, can stay. What would be the fate of the Jews after their life as a self-determining entity is terminated? The question does not appear to have concerned Judt, himself a Jew. Nor did Judt seem particularly concerned with abolishing the many postcolonial nations born after Israel.

For Judt and other anti-Zionist figures, the creation of Israel represents an affront to the natural order, which can be rectified only by returning to the status quo ante. But there is an added complication to their arguments.

From the very title Auto-Emancipation, it is clear that Pinsker proposed Zionism as an independent process by which Jews would regain their self-determination: Foreign governments would have to offer support, but the initiative would be a Jewish one. Yet in the West, Israel is not seen as having established itself against the odds, but rather as having been willed into existence by benevolent colonial powers. Elevated by the Balfour Declaration and the U.N. Partition Plan, the Jews did not emancipate themselves so much as they were emancipated by an act of international magnanimity. And what the Lord giveth, he may take away.

In the Western anti-Zionist’s mind, the West sinned against the natural order by creating Israel. For the natural order to be restored, Israel has to be swept away, and those who created it have a right, if not a duty, to rectify their wrong. Just as ghosts are not supposed to assume the form of people, Jews are not supposed to assume the form of a people. The powers that brought them to life, namely the United Nations, have a sacred trust to undo their monster.

This theme of the creator who turns on his wayward creation courses through the veins of Western literature and has profound resonance in the human psyche. In the eponymous Greek myth, Prometheus provokes the wrath of the gods by stealing fire and giving it to mankind; in punishment, an eagle pecks out his eternally regenerating liver. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein promptly abandons his hideous creation, then hunts him down to kill him when the scorned monster turns violent. In Jewish folklore, the Golem is brought to life from inanimate matter—and destroyed by its creator when it misbehaves.

Israel, in this reading of the anti-Zionist mind-set, is the terrible, haywire creation that needs to be put down by its progenitors. Indeed, Omar Barghouti, founder of the BDS movement, has argued that he supports the “euthanasia” of the Jewish state; his movement is plainly leveraging the postcolonial guilt of the global left to undermine the foundations of Israel’s existence.

More than a psychosis, anti-Semitism is a mental virus. Viruses adapt not just despite attempts to kill them off, but because of them. As the metamorphosis of this ancient prejudice against Jews into a hatred of the Jewish state shows, the virus of anti-Semitism is no exception to that rule. Two millennia of exile placed the Jews in a bind, whereby any action they performed to expunge the threats against them only causes those threats to metamorphose.


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Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.

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