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Education as Resistance for Palestinian Prisoners- Interview with Badia Dwaik, 10/28/2011

Badia Dwaik is Deputy Coordinator of Youth Against Settlements, a grassroots Palestinian organization dedicated to the nonviolent struggle to resist the Israeli occupation of Hebron. This Friday I went to Youth Against Settlement’s headquarters, nestled, next to a 2,000 year old olive grove, in between 4 Israeli settlements. Throughout the interview, we observed on multiple occasions soldiers patrolling through the fields around us, a normal occurrence these days for the center of downtown Hebron, plagued now for 30 years by an illegal military and civilian occupying force.

With the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners due to the Gilad Schalit prisoner swap, and the end of the Palestinian prisoner hunger strike, still lingering in the air, I decided to ask Badia about his days as a prisoner inside the Israeli prison system. I particularly wanted to learn how the prisoners organized their own educational system within the prison walls, how they managed to learn together about politics, philosophy, history and literature while imprisoned, and how this knowledge strengthened their will to resist. On the way, we talked about everything from how he felt walking home from work at dark as a little boy, to ways of transmitting messages in and out of prison, to the hunger strike as a method of resistance, even to the nonexistence of God!

Freedom

When I woke up in the morning, the sunlight tickled my golden-brown skin
My eyes burned from its rosy rays and moved at the gusts of air
The intensity of the winds undulated
By this remedy, hope for the hopeless was reborn

And it began to smile on me from afar, as if I have a promise to keep
So I took my pen and my paper as my mind fled
A strange feeling seized me
I began to scribble these words
Maybe I will find something in them to express the emotions of my heart and that which
turns in my mind
The golden sun whose rays began to shine came up in the morning
The rays penetrated through the small window, making me question and seek inspiration
My pen turning the pages of memory
Standing on the dews of the near and distant past
The sun became a roll of burning bread
Come, come slowly

Here and there, mocking laughter
Memories of the past awakened in beautiful aching reality
My heart poured forth
The arteries of my heart were jammed with emotion
My eyes flooded, soaking the furrows in my cheeks
My thoughts began to turn and turn in my mind
Between optimism and pessimism, in a bitter struggle of resistance
At last the sun appeared from far away, but in a new robe
After I had drunk cups of bitterness to the dregs
Then I began to breathe with new appetite
And the seas and rivers and trees whistled the melody of freedom

Thoughts from Hebron Prison, by Badia Dwaik

——————————–

My father was arrested before me. My father was arrested in 1988 and I was around that time like fifteen or fourteen years old. I am the oldest one of my family, and I grew up in a poor family, so my parents decided to send me to work when I was 9 years old. So I didn’t have any childhood or young life because even when I became younger I was arrested, so I missed my childhood, and then the time of my youth I spent in jail.

Did you have education when you were 9 years old, or were you pulled out of education to work?

I was working on the side. My life was to work and study in the same day.  So I used to go to the school, and when I finished my school I would have lunch at home and then go to work, until i finished work at 9 in the evening. I was alone, and it was dark on the way home, and I was very scared. I would hurry back home very quickly, running, because it was scary and I was a child at the time, and I felt uncomfortable to walk around. Especially when I had to work in the old town in Hebron, it was not lit up like it is now, it was dark, and it made it even more scary when I had to get home. And i had difficult experiences, there were bad people, trying to do bad things with me and abuse me.
So I grew up in this situation even after my father was arrested. When my father was arrested I was 15 and I was the oldest one in the family, and in our culture the oldest one usually takes responsibility for the family, so I had to take responsibility for everything in the family. My father was in jail for six months and then he was released, but when he was in jail i joined the First Intifada, as a reaction. Because I was angry, and I just wanted to express my feelings about what happened to my father, it was something personal. So I joined the First Intifada, and I was very young at that time, around 15 years old. My father was in jail, so I continued protesting, and I was very active, demonstrating, organizing demonstrations, and I was also part of the Fatah movement. This was the first of my political life, was the Fatah movement. When they started to negotiate about the Oslo agreement, after the First Intifada, I moved to PFLP because I did not like the Oslo agreement.

So by the time they signed the Oslo agreement you were already in PFLP.

Yes. I was arrested three months after the Oslo agreement, but I joined PFLP before I was arrested. I got a scholarship to study in Baghdad before I was arrested. But after I was registered for the scholarship, while I was preparing my documents to go to Baghdad, I was arrested the next week. So the army and Shin Bet were at my home, it was like after 2 in the morning, they arrived, knocked on the door, and we opened the door. Then they were asking my father about the names of my family, my father named the names, and the man stopped him and said ‘We need Badia.’ So I woke up, my father came to wake me up because I was sleeping. I was young, I was 19 at the time. So my father woke me up, I was still in my pajamas. And then I saw sodliers and Shin Bet with them- its easy to recognize the Shin Bet because he speaks Arabic, and wears civilian clothing. He started talking to me, he asked me about the Quran text, about the Bakra sura, and how many lines were in the Bakra sura. I said I didn’t know, I didn’t care about religious issues. He said there were 286 lines in the Bakra sura. He surprised me with this question because he wants to convince you that he knows everything, even the Quran. That is the idea.

But you weren’t religious, you didnt care.

In the beginning of my life i was super religious! I was praying all the time in the mosque, before my father was arrested and even after he was arrested, I was praying all the time, but I did not have good knowledge about Islam, about the religion and about the life in general. So I wanted just to pray and to practice, so I didnt care if i knew what I was practicing or not, i just wanted to be with the culture. The change happened with me when I joined PFLP, and especially in the jail. Because even when I was in PFLP before I was arrested I was still praying. I continued praying for a year and a half in jail and then I stopped.

Why? Because PFLP is a secular movement?

Yes, PFLP is a secular movement. I was young at the time and it affected me. I grew up in a religious place, religion effects Hebron so strong, it is a very religious place, and a lot of tradition. Sometimes the tradition is even more powerful than the religion here. It took time for me to change what is in my mind, and PFLP is about communism. Communism is an ideology, and so to tell someone there is no god, when he grew up in a situation where there was god, it will be a shock for him, it will take time for him.

So the army and Shin Bet took you away that night?

When they came to my father’s home and arrested me, my mother asked ‘where are you taking him?’ They said they just needed me five minutes. Those five minutes took up three years of my life. My first holding cell was a tiny room 60 centimeters by 60 centimeters. They kept me there for two nights but those two nights felt like a year. I could not sleep, to sleep I had to put my head on the floor and move my legs up to the ceiling. I had to go to the toilet, I would knock on the door and say ‘please I have to go to the toilet!’ They pretended not to hear me, there were two soldiers outside but they did not listen to me. Eventually I went to the toilet in my cell, and then I had to sleep in it, I put my head next to it on the ground and my feet up to the ceiling.
In the First intifada there were 12,000 people in Israeli jails. In Al-Naqab prison there were 8,000 people. Al-Naqab jail is completely a desert. You cannot see any green thing around you, you cannot see any trees, you cannot see any homes, only desert and soldiers around you and the barbed wires. It is a big jail, there are many different small jails inside it. When you are there, you will see tents, and around the tents there are a lot of barbed wires. Behind the barbed wires there are long blocks, like the [separation] wall. And also there are dogs, and also there are many soldiers in military watchtowers, and the army is also driving by in jeeps with 250 caliber bullet guns. And the food is very miserable, very bad food. When they put you there, you are isolated, without anything you need for your life. When you are a prisoner, sometimes you will be happy just to see a bird! If you see a bird this is some luck coming to you! Really I wished to see a bird in the jail there, because you are already with your same prisoners such a long time. They want to break your psychology, and there is just sand around you, just tent and soldiers and sand. And it was a very big jail, even  when your family wants to visit they get there at 5 in the morning, and they do not get to see you until 5 pm.

Was there a library in that jail?

It was very small. There are two types of jails- jails under the military and jails under the police administration. The police administration jails are better condition than the military. Naqab jail was a military jail, so it was not good. But eventually, through my three years in many jails, I started to read Communist Ideology, about Marx, Hegel, about all of these people who wrote about Communism and all about the dialectic.

In jail!

Yes.

How did you get access to those texts in jail?

This is a story of the resistance of prisoners inside the jail. Each thing we have in jail, we do not get it by nothing, we do alot of resistance until we acheive points through our resistance. There are many things we have now in jail which we did not used to have. But because we are here, because we need these things in our life, the Israelis refused to give it to us in an easy way, so we decided to do resistance. Part of this resistance is to open a hunger strike. We wrote our needs down in a list, and then we tried to negotiate with the Israelis about our needs. These negotiations took many different steps and stages, it took long negotiations and conversations, and we put our efforts into trying to convince them that these things are very important for us to survive. But the occupation policy is to control you however they can. They do not care if you are kept alive in dignity or not in dignity. But we are in jail, we lost everything in our lives, so what do we have to be scared from them?
So after that they refused the list of requests, so we started our resistance. Part of our resistance was to pass messages outside of the jail to parents, to families and relatives, to human rights organizations to tell them the situation, and update about the negotiations, and tell them about the future, the next steps. And we asked them to stand behind us and to support us in our resistance, if we decide to do a hunger strike. And we asked them to build advocacy outside of the jail, all over the world. And after that we started to negotiate between each other, we had inside conversations, about who would like to join with us in the hunger strike, and if there is anyone who would not like to join, it is better for him to tell us before we start the strike. And we asked the ill people not to join us in our hunger strike, even if they wanted to join us, because we were concerned about their health. A hunger strike is not easy. You cannot have anything except water and salt, no smoking even! No coffee, no tea, no food, no fruit, no anything.

Were you a smoker at the time?

I used to be a smoker. I am not anymore, but sometimes socially.

So you did a hunger strike to gain the right to education.

Yes, this was one of our requests, to allow us to receive books from outside, from our parents, from our visitors and from the radicals. So we succeeded-

You succeeded!

Yes, it worked. There were many things that were acheived in the jail. For example, in Hebron prison, before the Palestinian Authority, there was a library for us, with 4,000 books. Before the PA, it was an Israeli jail- I think the PA started here in 1996, and I was in jail until 1995. There were around 1,200 prisoners, and the library had 4,000 books. But it started with a very complicated hunger strike, before we were allowed to read books. And they checked the books for messages before they came in- when they received books from the Red Cross, or from lawyers, or parents, or organizations. To see if there are hidden messages or something, or information. But we had different ways to exchange information!

Oh yeah?

We called it a capsule. It’s a very small, thin paper, and we wrote in very small writing, but you can read it. We rolled it up, but carefully, it takes careful and well organized work. And then all this big paper- like 40 centimeters- you make it into 1 and a half centimeters. Then you eat it. But before that you bring nylon, and wrap it with plastic nylon, and after that you burn the side to seal it, and make sure there’s not even a very small hole, even a pinhole. And then some of the people who were going to be released soon, we give him not just one, maybe 30 or 40 capsules. When I used to visit my parents, I was like the Colonel of my party in the Hebron jail, because we had good connections with organizations of people here, and when we needed to exchange information i sent them information with this capsule. We would exchange it by kissing, during visiting. And you can keep it in your stomach for two days. You swallow it completely.

And then how do you get it up again?

Through the toilet! Then you clean it, and after that you open the papers, but the papers wil be ok. It’s very careful and well organized! (laughter) This is the way we exchange information.

So what books did you read?

Different books talking about ideological things, like Communism for example, about history like Vietnam, Cuba, Soviet states. Poetry, books about languages, French, English, Arabic literature…and also many philosophers, Aristotle, Plato, Heraclitus, and modern Western thinkers like Malthuse, and Hegel, Marx, Engels, Faeurbach, and also Arabic philosophy like Ibn Rushd, and Fukuyama- we studied about all these things, it’s not limited.

How did the Communism help you?

There used to be people who were in jail for a long time, and people who had been in and out of jail five times, they had alot of time in jail. Some of them used to study in Soviet states, for example, and some of them were in many different courses, and they explained for us about Communism and about the dialectic.

Did learning about Communist theory help you as prisoners to gain resolve and understand your situation?

For me not all the Communism helped me. Communism was a stage in my life. I am not a Communist right now, i would maybe say a Socialist. If you ask me is there god or no god, I will not deny that god exists, but it is not very important to waste my time with these stupid questions, to ask if god exists or not, or which is first, the material or the god before. I live in the land, so I discuss my life in this land, not something outside of my power. So this is not my ideology, so it was good for me be a member of PFLP because there were people who cared very much about this culture. They pushed and encouraged their members to study, and to learn as much as they could. For example I was one who was part of the Culture Committee. If I moved from jail to jail they sent with me a note- put Badia in the Culture Committee. So for example I was reading four of six books a month, I was reading regularly. I am not reading as much now, because I can not find the time. But I was in jail, I had the time, and more than that I had the determination to educate myself.
So I was reading about all sorts of resistance over the world, Cuba, Vietnam, Ghandi, other kinds of resistance. And I did not just accept everything I read, I was critical. I examined everything I read, and I thought, I compared what I believed to what I was reading. I did not just accept everytihng I read. Now I have good information in my mind, I can analyse many things around all the world. But I have background about many things in the world now, so because of it I can analyse many things. I succeeded to educate myself, it gave me a way for another stage in my life when I got out of the jail, to continue with the people and with society. Also, the PFLP helped me with many things that are complicated for others to understand. For example this was the first time I started to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists. Before this everything was the same. But I started to educate myself, and also the PFLP cared about these things, we talked about these things at meetings.
We had in a day at least three meetings. The prisoners were like a government inside a government! There was the Israeli jail, which was run by the government, and then within that, our organizations and committees- we would divide ourselves into different committees. Some were in the security committee, some were in the culture committee, some were in the health committee, some in the organization committee, some in the financial committee. So everyone had a role-

How would you meet for these committees?

We used to meet, but at first it was not allowed. It came through resistance! Right before the Israeli occupation [of the West Bank] started in 1967 the revolution started in 1965. Israel occupied Palestine in 1948, and after that the movement for revolution started in 1965. After that they occupied the West Bank in 1967, and with the struggle against the Israeli occupation there were prisoners. So we tried to do meetings, many times the Israeli jail people were blocking and beating us. So there is a long resistance, and it started when Israel occupied the west bank. It was not allowed for the prisoners to have meetings together and talk about points and subjects- meeting itself was forbidden in the beginning, and it was a big challenge for the prisoners to break these laws, and we succeeded through a long resistance. Hunger striking was one strategy, it was a weapon of resistance in the jail. You cannot eat, until they will listen to your needs. This is the most difficult and dangerous strategy. Everything we get in jail, we did not get in a golden platter! We had to resist, and to deal with the resistance until we achieved these things.
We had three meetings in the day- political meetings, and organization meetings, and cultural meetings. The political meetings, we would discuss the political issues not only about Palestine, but all over the world. Because we are a part of the world, and we are affected by the world! We are one of the people most affected directly by the events of the world! Like the balance between America and the Soviet states used to be good for us, but after the Soviet states were over we got more pressure from Israelis. And after the Gulf War, we got more pressure from Israel. This was the beginning of the permit policy. Before the Iraq war we did not need a permit for Palestinians to come to Israel. After 1991 we needed a permit, we could not drive to Tel Aviv or Haifa with our car.

So when you learned about history and other resistance movements, did you also gain a consciousness of the fact that your resistance was connected to other resistance movements all around the world?

Yes, I believed and I still believe that our resistance struggle is part of humanity’s resistance struggle all over the world. Because maybe we are suffering from occupation, from losing our dignity and justice, but there are many people around the world suffering because of injustice. There are many people suffering from capitalism, capitalism effects the majority of people all around the world, which is an injustice. We here are also effected very directly and strongly by capitalism. This is why I believe that all of us are a part of the resistance struggle for justice all over the world. And this is one of the methods- we can work together. This is why there are internationals here, this is why there are people who come here because they believe that humanity is one, that we are not divided, so they take responsibility for what goes on here, and come to share with Palestinians the resistance, and to show solidarity.

In prison, were you reading about capitalism and other systems of oppression?

The people who were in jail were not stupid people. Some of them were teachers at university, medical doctors, some of them students. Israel would arrange the jail to be a place to kill you psychologically, they can kill you daily many times by making you see the same things all your life- when you see the same people, the same routine, the same food, it makes you feel disgusting inside and you feel very bad about it. That is the Israeli policy, to try to create death in the Palestinian heart and mind. We turned upside down this image and made the jails as schools and universities. Whereas the Israelis planned for the jails to be aplace to kill your soul and harm your psychology, we turned everything upside down and created jails to be like schools, to make educated people.

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Archeo-(il)logical Imperialism, Political Theology, and Linguistic Fascism

Within the ideological innards of both camps of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and connecting the two inextricably, there quivers a web wedding religious aspiration and political action, very tangled and dense, but not impenetrable.  On the side of the oppressor (Israel), the religious idea of a ‘return to the homeland’ is the whole reason Zionism has chosen this patch of land over all others, and its process of colonization and displacement of the 1000-year native Palestinian population relies completely on the idea that Jews were ‘here before’, and so have returned to ‘resurrect’ their innate, divine claim to the land. Zionism colonizes this land through remembrance- it fleshes out the past and uses it to usurp and cover over the present Palestinian presence. The past is its sword and shield.

On the side of the oppressed (Palestinians), a religious rejection of modernity, and a deep-seated desire for the revitalization of the Golden Age of Islam, have taken in their stride, in the land of Palestine, a protracted anti-colonialist struggle to throw off the yoke of oppression. These spiritual  desires in the Islamic world are part of a much larger religious and social movement that spans the last several hundred years; nonetheless, through radical, political Islam, they have taken shape, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as a struggle to liberate the Palestinian people ‘from the river to the sea’, and to establish a self-determining Muslim state with Jerusalem as its capital.

We must remember that, among Jews and Palestinians, those motivated chiefly by such religious worldviews represent but a small fraction of the total population. Not all Jews yearn for a Greater Israel, and not all Palestinians yearn for a new Caliphate. In his 2009 booklet  Obstacles to Peace, Israeli human rights activist Jeff Halper writes that “Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other Palestinian “rejectionist” groups that reject peace with Israel and have turned to violent means of resistance represent about the same proportion of Palestinian society in the Occupied Territories – say 15-20% – that extreme settler and other right-wing rejectionist groups represent in Israeli society.” (28) Nonetheless, this small minority polarizes both sides of the conflict, paints the conflict with an air of divine irreconcilability, and grafts onto the conflict an irreducibly religious dimension in the sphere of ideology, that vast stomping ground of fantasy and mirage where humans manage to develop very confused ideas of what they are doing to themselves and to each other.

I will attempt here to tentatively explore the complex, interdependent relationship between the spiritual-religious beliefs of Zionism, and its national-political aspirations, focusing on the twin lenses of the Zionist revival of the Hebrew language in the early 1900s, and the archeological excavations in modern-day Palestine, in particular the 1967 transformation of the Western Wall into a vast secular spectacle. Looking at the deliberate revivification of ancient Hebrew in the 1900s as a modern, secular language for (what portrayed itself as) a modern, democratic nation-state, I will examine the intense Zionist drive to unleash and channel this religious well-spring for its own secular, nationalist purposes, to fashion a new beast out of old clay, at the expense of the day-to-day language of the Diaspora that, for a vast amount of time in between, separated the Hebrew of the past from the site of its purported rebirth- Yiddish.

This double movement within Zionism, at once remembrance of Hebrew and suppression of Yiddish, has as its parallel the colonization of Palestine, where the ground was literally dug up from under the feet of the 1000-year indigenous  Palestinian population through the archeological recovery and recollection of an ancient Israelite presence, so that colonization appears as recolonization, settlement as resettlement, occupation as return. This is a peculiar  sort of imperialism, which summons to life a new cultural and political beast clothed in remembrance of the dead letter, which calls on the skeletons of its ancestors to spiritually finance a deadly occupation, and draws all the power and might of Western arms and capital in its wake.

In ‘The Eyes of Language’, Jacques Derrida speaks of a 1926 letter from Gershom Scholem, a cultural-turned-political Zionist who was teaching Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew University in Palestine, to Franz Rosenzweig, an anti-Zionist, pro-diaspora Jewish writer who was then paralyzed on his deathbed in Germany. Though there had long been a friendship-rending disagreement between the two over the question of Zionism’s fidelity to (Scholem) or betrayal of (Rosenzweig) the messianic core of Judaism, Scholem, though he defends the validity of Zionism, confesses to Rosenzweig in this letter his startling and discomforting recognition of an evil that may lurk, unbeknownst even to its host, within the very essence of Zionism. In Derrida’s words, “It is a confession before Rosenzweig the anti-Zionist, because Scholem is a Zionist- that is what he wants to be, that is what he remains and confirms being. Yet, he cannot but recognize in Zionism an evil, an inner evil, an evil that is anything but accidental. More precisely, one cannot but recognize that the accident that befalls Zionism or that lies in wait for it threatens it essentially, in its closest proximity- in its language, and as soon as a Zionist opens its mouth….It is a matter of what used to be called then, in Palestine, the “actualization (Aktualisierung)” of the Hebrew language, its modernization, the transformation undertaken since the beginning of the century (Ben Yehuda) and pursued systematically toward adapting biblical Hebrew to the needs of everyday communication, be it technical and national, but also, for a modern nation, international and interstate communication.” (Acts of Religion, 194)

From the 2nd century CE, until the latter half of the 1800s, Hebrew was a language that for the Jewish people had virtually vanished from literary or spoken expression, and was reserved only for prayer, theological writing, and books of law. In the late 1800s, Hebrew enjoyed a somewhat obscure literary revival  among Ashkenazi Jewry in Eastern Europe; at the same time, the spark of Zionism was struck among  Eastern European Jews, as part of a wider European wave of nationalism and in response to growing anti-Semitism. Says Ghil’ad Zuckerman in his linguistic study Hybridity Versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns, “At the time, although territory and language were at the heart of European nationalism, the Jews possessed neither a national territory nor a national language.” (43) http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/Hybridity_versus_Revivability.pdf  In the soil of the Hebrew language, this spark of Zionism burst into a flame, propelling a fireball of cultural pride into a political movement  that used the revival of Hebrew to foster a new national self-consciousness, a new Jewish identity that, in typical Enlightenment spirit, considered itself a soul birthed anew out of its past, and sought for itself a body in a new land- Palestine.

The glorification of Hebrew in the 1900s by Ben-Yehuda and others went hand in hand with the proliferation of Zionist Jews in the land of Palestine; the transformation of a language went hand in hand with the political expansion of a people. According to Wikipedia, “the process of Hebrew’s return to regular usage is unique; there are no other examples of a language without any native speakers subsequently acquiring several million such native speakers, and no other examples of a sacred language becoming a national language with millions of first language speakers.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revival_of_the_Hebrew_language

Scholem confesses his fear that Zionism, by transforming the sacred language of Hebrew, charged as it is with (what to him appeared as) holy potentialities, into an everyday secular tongue, thereby unleashed into the national-political scene of the 1900s an ancient monster beyond anyone’s control.  “This country is a volcano”, says Scholem, “it houses language…if we transmit to our children the language that has been transmitted to us, if we-the generation of transition- resuscitate the language of the ancient books so that it can reveal itself anew to them, must then not the religious violence of this language one day break out against those who speak it? And on the day this eruption occurs, which generation will suffer its effects?…Hebrew is pregnant with catastrophes.”

Scholem senses that the Zionism in which he places his faith, the Zionism which has revitalized Jewish culture, is nonetheless also the Zionism which, by secularizing, modernizing and normalizing the Messianic forces that dwell in the holy Hebrew tongue, has injected a divine, schizophrenic and unpredictable energy into a national populace that, in 1926, was still working to birth itself into the political world as a nation-state among nation-states. This did not just occur on the abstract plane of language, rather, it took place as a process in history that began in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and, by 1948, solidified into a political Event, the consecration of a new nation-state. Alongside this guided (forced) evolution of Hebrew, from sacred tongue to national-secular dialect, was a transformation of cultural Zionism, which sought to revitalize Jewish culture and identity in face of the threats of assimilation and anti-Semitism, into political Zionism, which took this cultural drive for renewal and turned it into a national-political agenda to conquer a land and form a militarized nation-state.

Today, as we look back upon and form the narrative of the past that has led us to this 21st century present, we must guard against a tendency to mythologize the past, to summarize it with the broad strokes of abstract historical ‘forces’. There is a deification of the force of language, in Scholem’s worldview and in Derrida’s interpretation of it, that leads to a reification of an immaterial essence- Hebrew and its holy potentialities- as the driving Spirit behind the history of Zionism. For according to Scholem’s narrative, the transformation in question here, from Hebrew as holy tongue to secular dialect, and from cultural Zionism as Judaic revitalization to political Zionism as nationalist project, is a transformation that occurs first and foremost in the former field of language, and only then trickles down to transform the latter field of ideology.

Or, if the two transformations in truth occur as a single evolution, they unfold, in ‘The Eyes of Language’, upon a field that, true to Derrida’s entire project (which, for all its beauty, is not Marxist), is not the concrete, immanent socio-economic field of politics and history, but is rather the semi-transcendent, partly-ineffable, infinitely-open play of interpretation and the letter. “There is a power of language”, Derrida claims, “at once a dynamis, an enveloped virtuality, a potentiality that can be brought or not to actuality; it is hidden, buried, dormant. This potentiality is also a power, a particular efficacy that acts on its own, in a quasi- autonomous manner, without the initiative and beyond the control of speaking subjects.” (213-14) If we wish to actually reconstruct the chain of events that constitute the history of Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict from which it cannot be disassociated, we are left with little time to leave our reasoning power at the door, slip off our slippers, remove our thinking caps and kneel before the altar of the Hidden Potentiality of Language. Derrida tries to account for all concrete political history by enveloping it within his Play of the Letter- “this catastrophe of language will not only be linguistic. From the beginning of the letter, the political and national dimension is staged.” Nonetheless, the latter two dimensions of politics and national identity are framed within, and bow before, the former dimension of the letter, so that the catastrophe of Zionism can be seen as ultimately a catastrophe of language, and so that the political-historical events which constitute Zionism’s unfolding become the playing-out of supra-natural, transhistorical essences.

As good materialists, we cannot rest easy with Scholem’s worldview that explains historical phenomena as the surface effects of ghostly, ephemeral, spiritual-Biblical processes that play themselves out behind the given socio-economic-political reality. Nor can we be satisfied with a Derridean picture that leads our eyes away from historical fact, towards a pseudo-theological play of signifiers (however tempting speculation regarding the latter may be). The danger in this is clear- throughout the 1900s, it was precisely the Zionist mythology that viewed its concrete imperialist project as a spiritual process, as God’s will manifesting itself on Earth. Zionism used this spiritual meta-narrative to justify and to cloak the oppression of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land. In addition, it is easy today to look at the Old City, where Al-Aqsa mosque sits so close to the Western Wall, and to become convinced that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a cosmic clash between divine forces, a Battle of the Monotheisms, in which the human narrative is mere puppet play. The radical factions within Judaism and Islam inflame and obfuscate this conflict by painting it with precisely these transcendent, passionate colors.  Today, to dispel the tangled, illusory and confusing clouds of religious passion and tribal ideology that drive everyone into a deeper mess, we must see the historical facts of the Israel-Palestine conflict for what they are- historical facts, composed of the concrete interplay of  social, economic and political relationships.

Though we must guard against romanticizing and mythologizing the stark reality of the conflict, we can nonetheless draw from Derrida and Scholem’s discourses on language important insights regarding the relationship between religious mythologies, national orientations, and political affiliations. We can see the intrinsic relationship between the Zionism which bends the sacred language of Hebrew for its secular nationalistic purposes, and the Zionism which twists and channels the Biblical passions of Judaism into a concrete political agenda. For while spiritual-metaphysical concepts do not possess any transcendental reality, and in themselves have no immanent causal effect in the realm of social-political configurations, they are used, within these latter configurations, as signifiers of extreme force and violence, so that, as elements of language and pawns of ideology, the forces embedded in religious ideas come to play a major role in world politics and history. As critical secular thinkers, we must affirm that there is no Judaic ‘God’ or divinely mandated ‘ingathering of the exiles’, we must affirm that there is no ‘Allah’ and no divinely mandated ‘jihad’; nonetheless, we cannot fail to recognize how these ideas play such a crucial role in inflaming political agendas and social movements. In the thought, word and deed of humans, these ideas seem to take on a life of their own.

This is the sphere of political theology- the study of how religious and theological concepts play themselves out in, and influence, the political patterns by which humans navigate and organize their shared social reality. For “those who believed that they secularized the sacred language did not do so in order to desacralize. They believed, thoughtlessly, that they were going to ‘resuscitate’, to reanimate the language of origin in a modern world and in a modern state.” (Acts of Religion, 206) Throughout the 1900s, the actors of political and cultural Zionism, as they pushed for the creation and sustenance of the State of Israel, believed either that they were fulfilling, in earthly politics, God’s will as written in the Torah, or that they were protecting and strengthening the Jewish people, as a nation and a culture. Be it cultural or political Zionism, be it in the practical atheist nationalism of Theodore Hertzl or in the all-Jews-to-the-Holy Land unification theology of Abraham Isaac Kook, we see one and the same drive to unify and uplift a people. Both camps sought to glorify the given, and so, consciously and unconsciously, they translated theological emotions into political motivations. They tapped into deeply-embedded cultural motifs of collective exile and redemption, not to ‘desacralize’ concepts previously only whispered in prayer or eyed in fantasy and longing, but to ‘resuscitate’ a scattered and battered people threatened by diaspora, assimilation and anti-Semitism, to raise this confused and secularized mass closer towards what they perceived to be a new state of sacred Becoming.

In this nexus of political theology that in the 1900s animated the Zionist project, we see the violence of a double inscription, carved atop a double erasure- first, on the surface of Zionism’s body, the land of Palestine, we see the forced settlement of the Jewish population, coincident with the forced suppression of the indigenous Palestinian presence; second, within the borders of Zionism’s self-identity, we see the forced revitalization of Hebrew, coincident with the forced forgetting of Yiddish. The parallels are clear as day- in Palestine, Jews had for centuries been a tiny minority among Arabs; in Diaspora Judaism, Hebrew had been for centuries the language of a tiny minority, spoken only in prayer, while the vast majority of Jews spoke Yiddish. As part of the national-political Zionist project, the former element was dragged out of obscurity and forced atop the latter in a deliberate, unnatural gesture of dominance. The movement which scarred the Palestinian people had also to scar itself; the mark of difference had to wedge itself between Jew-Arab on the outside, and between Hebrew-Yiddish, and in a larger sense Israel-Diaspora, on the inside; Zionism had to cover over both scars with the same brazenness, the same masculine over-assertion, the same all-encompassing cultural and political upsurge of nationalism and pride.

In the early 1900s, the Legion of the Defenders of the Language was established in Tel Aviv to harass Yiddish theater performances, ban and hinder the spread of Yiddish publications, and otherwise forcibly promote the development of Hebrew as the only acceptable language for what would become the Jewish nation. Zuckerman, cited above- “In the 1920s and 1930s, gdud meginéy hasafá, ‘the language defendants regiment’, whose motto was ivrí, dabér ivrít ‘Hebrew [i.e. Jew], speak Hebrew!’, used to tear down signs written in ‘foreign’ languages and disturb Yiddish theatre gatherings.” (48) As Sue Wright says in her book Language and the State- Revitalization and Revival in Israel and Eire, “The struggle with Yiddish continued even after Hebrew was firmly established. It was seen as a continuing threat during the immigration of the early days of independence in the 1950s. Yiddish was the prototype enemy of Hebrew. It was the language associated with the Diaspora, and so with the rejected identity of Diaspora Jew. It was the language of the religious anti-Zionists, a group seen as a constant reminder of another rejected identity. And it was the language espoused by an identity that rejected territorialism and the return to Zion.” (19) Or as Benjamin Harshav points out in Language in Time of Revolution, “The revulsion from [the Yiddish language]…[was] a recoil from Diaspora existence… [from] the mother tongue, intimate and hated at the same time, from the parental home of the shtetl, corroded by idleness and Jewish trading, and from the world of prayer, steeped in the scholastic and irrelevant study of Talmud, and the irrational and primitive behavior of the Hasidim.” (157)

The Committee of the Hebrew Language, late 1800s, with chief proponent of the revitalization of Hebrew, Eliezer ben-Yehuda, first on right

Yiddish was rejected, and Hebrew was enforced, in the same Zionist stubbornness which spit out, like a bad memory, the thought of the Diasporic Jewish community, dependent on the bricks of another’s house, guests in a foreign land, too weak to determine itself like the rest of Europe. For the newly-forming Zionist consciousness, wrenching itself away from this reality meant violently shoving it into the past. This was accomplished in a double motion- on the one hand, breaking into and creating a new future, in a new land, with a new identity; and, on the other hand, digging up, as in an excavation, the comforting pretense of an ancient past, and clothing the forward march in the shreds of this past, thrusting the name of this past ahead as justification for the advance.  The land of Palestine combined perfectly this motif of Enlightenment futurity with the trace of an anarchic, irretrievable, Biblical past.

To reconcile Zion the imaginary with the Real patch of land on the coast of the Mediterranean, required an immensely surreal, novel and traumatizing leap of forced familiarity. Writing of Gershom Scholem in 1926 Palestine, Derrida asks us to imagine “the paradigmatic scene of this Berliner intellectual from the diaspora, living two cultures, familiar, as are so many others, with sacred nonspoken texts reserved for study and liturgy, and who all at once hears, in the Palestine of the 1 920s, these sacred names in the street, on the bus, at the corner store, in the newspapers that every day publish lists of new words to be inscribed in the code of secular Hebrew. One must imagine the desire and the terror in the face of this outpouring, this prodigious, unbridled prodigality that flooded everyday life with sacred names, language giving itself out…”  (209) He continues- ‘The  demonic horror of these sorcerers’ apprentices gifted with an unconscious courage  that pushes them to manipulate forces which surpass them-here is this horror commensurate with a kind of death, the death of the living dead…as if the return to life were only a simulacrum for which one was going to disguise the dead as a caricature of itself for the funeral home, a nonlanguage, the frozen grin of a semiotics, a disincarnated, fleshless, and formally universal exchange value, an instrument in the commerce of signs,  without a proper place, without a proper name, a false return to life, a shoddy resurrection.” (209-10)

A perfect example of the Zionist drive to ‘disguise the dead as a caricature of itself for the funeral home’, to fix the past in a ‘frozen grin’, is what is now known as the Western Wall.

For 2030 years, this wall has stood; for nearly 2000 years, it has been the only remnant of the structure of the Jews’ Second Temple; for at least 1000 years, the wall itself has been for the Jews a supreme object of religious fixation.

Only for the last 44 years, however, has a magnificent open-air synagogue plaza paved the way to the wall for the Jews- paved, as it were, over the remains of 135 houses, a mosque, a school, and the 800-year history of the Moroccan or Mughrabi Quarter.

The Moroccan Quarter sometime between 1898 and 1946- virtually everything in the lower half of the picture was demolished to make way for the Western Wall Plaza

from Wikipedia-

“Three days after Israel seized the Old City during the Six Day War, on the evening of June 10, 1967, 650 inhabitants of the Moroccan Quarter were told to vacate their homes on a few hours notice. Workers under the guard of soldiers then proceeded to demolish the quarter, consisting of 135 houses, the al-Buraq mosque, the Bou Medyan zaouia and other sites, with the exception of a mosque and a zaouia which were demolished two years later. According to Etan Ben Moshe, the officer in charge, several persons died following their refusal to leave their homes; one woman from the quarter who did not hear the calls to vacate was buried beneath the rubble, her body found the next morning under the ruins of her home. In the following days all of the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter were also evicted…Almost a year later, on April 18, 1968, the Israeli Ministry of the Treasury officially expropriated the land of the quarter for public use, along with the Jewish Quarter, and offered 200 Jordanian dinars to each family which had been displaced.  After the destruction, the section of the Wall dedicated to prayers was extended southwards to double its original length from 28 to 60 meters, while the original facing open area of some four meters grew to 40 meters: the small 120 square meter area in front of the wall became the vast Western Wall Plaza, covering 20,000 square meters over the ruins of the Moghrabi Quarter.The site of the Moroccan Quarter is now a large open plaza leading up to Western Wall, in use as an open-air synagogue.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moroccan_Quarter

The Western Wall has always been for the Jews a present symbol of an irretrievable past, the living remnant of a dead temple, the trace which persists in time to announce that which has passed, the visible sign of an invisible promise. It is the only remaining segment of the guard wall that once surrounded their Second Temple, destroyed almost 2000 years ago. Like any other religious site, the wall has been imbued over the years with what we can refer to as a ‘holiness’, not (for us seculars) by the will of God, but through the intense devotion of generations of human hands, hearts, words, and tears. To forcibly inscribe a new conquest and to markedly denote a new era, the Zionist movement bathed this living symbol in blood and artificially grafted a new limb onto it. Just as the Hebrew language persisted in a similar holiness for thousands of years, and then was hijacked, magnified and warped by the Zionist movement, so did this wall exist as a holy site for thousands of years before the Zionist project covered it with the flood lights of a nationalist spectacle. It is not that the holy presence has totally withdrawn from this wall because of Zionism; just as Yiddish today has seeped back into the Hebrew language, exists alongside it and has gained a new strength of its own- just as the Palestinian people have mounted a steadily increasing resistance since the occupation, illuminating and elaborating the cracks in the Zionist edifice- so the inherited holiness of the wall now coincides awkwardly with, hides itself as a trace behind, persists uncomfortably in spite of the ‘frozen grin’ of the occupation which has hijacked and transmogrified it for purposes which, were we religious, we would rightly call idolatrous. That which is suppressed cannot be forgotten, but inevitably returns again, first as a specter to haunt the oppressor, then as the ominous cracks in the edifice of oppression, and finally as a full-on revolution which tears down the wall and liberates the enslaved. We are reminded of the famous passage from Marx’s Capital, which describes how capitalist oppression cyclically spirals towards its own breaking point and creates its own self-supersession and the liberation of the proletariat- “Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital [read: Zionist oppressors], who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class [read: Palestinian people], a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production [read: Zionist exploitation] itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (Capital Volume I, Chapter 32)

The alternative archeology association Emek Shaveh has this to say about another Old City site (the City of David, currently excavated under/pasted over the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan), but it applies just as well to the Western Wall- “[The] incorporation of this site into the Jewish-Israeli narrative is multifaceted — mixing religious nationalism with theme- park tourism. The past is, of course, a palpable presence, used both to shore up the new Jewish settlers’ claim for primacy and to attract Bible-oriented tourism. As a result, conflict with local Palestinians occurs at the very basic level of existence, where the past is used to disenfranchise and displace people in the present.”  http://www.alt-arch.org/silwan.php

In the West Bank city of Hebron (al Khalil in Arabic), we find a blatant example of how archeological excavation goes hand in hand with Jewish settlement, and thus betrays its underlying ideological motivations. At the site of Tel Rumeida, about a two minute walk from where I am currently sitting, seven Israeli families moved in with caravans in 1984, as part of a broader wave of settlement starting in 1980. In the face of mounting violent resistance, the Israeli government agreed to construct permanent housing for these settlers. This description, taken from a Zionist website, shows how the excavation, which unearthed 4,000 years of fascinating history, was undertaken explicitly for the purpose of settlement. Though this is an atypical example, framed in a context that unusually and dramatically weds excavation and settlement, it is still worth mentioning, if for no other reason than that it holds special significance for me right now, as I walk right past the settlement home every day.

http://www.gamla.org.il/english/article/1999/july/h1.htm

“The archeological work was licensed two weeks before the Israeli general election in May as a “rescue excavation” to research the site before permanent homes are built there for the settlers…Dr Hamdan Taha, director-general of the Palestinian ministry for archeology, said the excavation had been politically motivated. “We think the site should be protected as an archeological site without any ideological attempt to threaten and endanger a cultural heritage that represents the ancient history of Hebron,” he said. Officials at the Israeli antiquities authority privately agree. “If such a significant site were inside Israel proper, the law would prohibit anything being built on it,” a senior Israeli archeologist said. Persuading the settlers to go, however, will be difficult. David Wilder, spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, said the excavation proved their right to live there. “We always knew this was the site of the ancient city; now these excavations have found positive proof of Jewish presence from the time of the patriarchs,” said Wilder. “In terms of Jewish roots and heritage, what more do you need?”

 In most instances of Israeli archeological imperialism, the old is excavated gradually, as a groundbreaking first step that paves the way for the eventual new colonial settlement which, all along, was the implicit purpose of excavation. At Tel Rumeida, the old was excavated after the new was already set to be established; the fact of settlement explicitly caused the necessity of excavation; the structural order was inverted, allowing the overarching ideological motivation, teleologically oriented towards the establishment of the new, to emerge even clearer into the clear light of day.

David Wilder, mentioned above, had this to say, on the Jewish Community of Hebron web site, about the Tel Rumeida site, called by the settlers Beit Menachem-

“To me, this site could be called Tel Aviv. Why? Today’s Israeli metropolis is named after Theodore Herzl’s book, Altneuland, which literally means ‘old — new land,’ with ‘Tel’ [the name for a hill containing the remains of an ancient city-ed] representing the old and ‘Aviv’ (which means spring in Hebrew), representing the new. However, the authentic ‘old’ is here in Hebron, the roots of our existence, at the site called Tel Hebron. And the new is directly above the old — a beautiful new apartment complex, the buds of the rebirth of the Jewish People in the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.” http://www.hebron.com/english/article.php?id=241#Hebron,%20the%20Real%20Tel%20Aviv

To repeat, what is unique to this Zionist colonization is that, like Hebrew in relation to Yiddish, what is newly asserted is both excavated under and pasted over that which it replaces- a Jewish presence in Palestine 3000 years ago is used as justification to butt out the Palestinians who have been living here for at least 1000 years; Hebrew’s presence as an ancient holy tongue is cited as a reason to elevate it and to suppress Yiddish; the Western Wall’s longevity is an excuse to turn it into a spectacle over the ruins of the Moroccan quarter. In each case, the former element is brutally enlarged and magnified, while the latter element is crushed to a pulp; but, like a parasite, the former element emerges from within the skin of the latter element, and empties itself out from within the host it has devoured. To conquer the given, the new posits the old as its ground, and then, rising up from this posited precedent, it breaks through the given and projects its unprecedented dominance upon the present and into the future. ‘We were here before in Palestine’ becomes ‘we shall now drive out the Palestinians’; ‘we have always been Hebrews’ becomes ‘we must now all speak Hebrew’; ‘this wall has always been holy to us’ becomes ‘it is now justified for us to decimate a community that has lived here for 800 years’. Most Western imperial projects of the last two centuries have approached a land from the outside, and conquered its native population as an external invasive force. To dominate its object, Zionism discovers itself already there before or beneath the object; it rises itself up from the depths of the ground upon which the object rests, and thus posits itself as always-already the hidden truth of the object.

Speaking again of the City of David, itself an archetypal example of archeological colonization, Emek Shavek writes- “Archaeology provides physical and symbolic capital for [Zionism’s] settlement project, in the form of a narrative emphasizing Jewish continuity and eliding other cultures, and of relics that testify to such continuity…The sanctity of the City of David is newly manufactured, and is a crude amalgam of history, nationalism, and quasi-religious pilgrimage. As such, it curiously incorporates many of the qualities used, according to Ben Israel (1998), by nationalist movements in the creation of hallowed land: a revised and selective history, cased in religious terminology (‘holiness’ imparted by the Bible, the kings and the prophets), with mystical overtones (invoking the ‘energy’ of the place; stating that ‘the wall is not just a wall’).” Throughout the short history of Israel, archeological excavations are not performed for the simple cultural Zionist purpose of learning more about the history of the Jewish people- the ideological subtext of excavation claims that Jews have God-given and historically verified ownership of the land, and the practical consequences of excavation are the Palestinian house demolitions and Israeli settlements that invariably follow the discovery of Jewish ruins.

There may have been a time in the early 1900s when it was possible to distinguish between a cultural Zionism which merely sought to revivify Jewish culture, and a political Zionism which coveted a militarized nation-state in Palestine; in today’s Israel, however, they are one and the same package. The celebration of Jewish culture leads directly to the glorification of Israel, and is thus always-already the oppression of Palestinian culture. Mainstream Jewish pride carries with it a clear Us-vs-Them mindset, and whereas in all previous Jewish history the ‘Them’ may have been ‘the goyim (non-Jews) who do not worship our God, who rule this state and social structure, and who at any time may deny us our right to worship, oppress us as second-class citizens, kick us out of this  country, or worse’, today’s ‘Them’ is a single enemy, a single people who are either reviled and spat upon as sub-human by the extremists, or who are consciously feared and unconsciously demonized by the rest of the population. The modern excavation of Biblical ruins, like the adaptation of Hebrew as secular tongue, services cultural and political Zionism alike, and delineates the point where the two meet, where the harmless Judaic pride of the former is twisted into Fascist domination by the latter.

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