global politics, relationally

On Writing ‘These Days of Shoah’: History and Fear, Then and Now


This is a post in the series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. This post is by Daniel Levine, Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama, discussing his contribution. A response will be posted on Wednesday. 

How did these soft people, with no word for military tactic, start bulldozing Palestinian houses?

Sarah Schulman: Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, 12.

This paper emerged as I started working through the archival sources for my current book project, tentatively entitled Israel, Palestine, and the Politics of Jewish Fear (PJF).  Over the past two years, I have been reading the early issues of a Hebrew-language strategic studies journal called Ma’arakhot (“mih-ah-rah-KHOT” – ‘campaigns/operations,’ in the military sense).  Later to become the in-house journal of Israel’s Armed Forces – the rough equivalent of publications like Parameters or Infantry JournalMa’arakhot first appeared in September 1939 as a quasi-underground publication for the Haganah, the largest of the Zionist paramilitaries then operating in mandatory Palestine.

Ma’arakhot’s timing was propitious, and not merely because its first issue coincided with Germany’s invasion of Poland. The rise of European anti-Semitism, and tightened immigration quotas in the US and Western Europe, had produced a sharp spike in Jewish migration to Palestine.  Between 1922 and 1939, its Jewish community – the Yishuv – had grown more than fivefold, from 84,000 to almost 450,000.  Though still very much a minority, the Yishuv looked increasingly like a polity, one capable of sovereign self-determination.

In the face of such rapid growth – and in no small measure because of it – Palestine’s Arab population had by 1939 been in open revolt for some three years.  To suppress that revolt, British counterinsurgency forces would at their height include two full army divisions (some 25,000 servicemen) as well as expanded police and Jewish supernumerary forces.  Some 5,000 Palestinian Arabs (and by most counts, several hundred Jews) would be killed in clashes with British and Zionist forces, and in intra-communal violence as well.  In 1917, and again in 1922, Britain had promised to develop Palestine for the joint benefit of both Jews and Arabs. That policy, called ‘dual obligation’, was now plainly in tatters. London found itself facing the prospect of a costly, unpopular, and open-ended occupation; and this just as political tensions in Europe reached their peak.  In May 1939 – some four months before the first issue of Ma’arakhot went to press – Britain announced that it would quit Palestine within ten years, and sharply curtailed both Jewish immigration and land transfers between Palestinian Jews and Arabs.

In this context, Ma’arakhot’s aim was broadly discursive and constitutive.  Without the British to enforce the terms of the mandate, the Yishuv would be obliged to undertake its own national defense.  That in turn would necessitate a dramatic upgrading of the Haganah’s organizational, doctrinal, and operational capabilities.  To that end, the journal sought to foster a ‘middle range’ lingua franca that could serve its diverse body of experts, volunteers, and practitioners.  These included ex-Austro-Hungarian, Czarist, and Red Army officers (as well as the the odd imposter); as well as homegrown field commanders, intelligence operatives, and students of diplomatic, military, and Near Eastern history.

My aim is to explore the complex understanding of history, time, myth, and disenchantment that underlies this work.  In the present context, these congeal into a particular notion of Jewish subjectivity, which Ma’arakhot’s editors and contributors self-consciously idealize and seek to disseminate. Cynthia Weber’s recent reworking of the concept of ‘mancraft’ hits this squarely: “those practices that attempt to craft an agent in whose name a political community governs.”

The present essay traces out these historical-doctrinal-practical questions through a close reading of two public addresses published by the journal in late 1942/early 1943.  The speaker is Zalman Rubashov (he would later Hebraize his last name to Shazar), a well-known Zionist public intellectual.  His addresses come at a very particular time.  First, as the Yishuv confronts the possibility of a German invasion of Palestine.  Then, shortly after that danger passes, as the full extent of the Nazis’ extermination campaign in Poland becomes widely known.

Rather than reproduce the argument I make in the paper, it makes sense to use the interactive nature of an online forum to ‘come clean’ with regard to my own normative, intellectual, and political sensibilities – all the more so, given the contested nature of the subject matter.

There’s no denying that Zionism undertakes a particular appropriation of Jewish history.  This certainly bears critique.  Indeed, critique is obligatory, given the harms to which that appropriation contributes, and the way in which such harms are ignored or placed under erasure.  As I try to show in the paper, however, such appropriations are not unique to Zionism; they are part and parcel of thinking politically in any context.

Meanwhile, for many Jews – including myself, sometimes – national sovereignty feels historically necessary for reasons that are not altogether unlike the ones Rubashov evinces.  That feeling persists, even as I am also deeply shamed and shaken by the price others have paid for it, and are paying for it now.  I’m not happy about that feeling; nor am I recommending it to others; nor do I wish to be congratulated for having the decency to feel badly about it.  I am simply reporting that feeling, which sits stubbornly at the center of my being.  It has resisted both critical-demystificatory interventions, and attempts to dissolve it into new forms of political solidarity or worldly community.  I suspect I am not alone in much of this.

I admire visions of identity akin to the one Edward Said offers in After the Last Sky – open-ended ways of being in the world which retain plenty of room for others, which attempt radical decenterings.  I feel drawn to them.  And yet I find that I cannot quite have faith in them.  I note – without rancor – that those on whom diaspora is imposed often speak such terms, until they don’t have to anymore.  I know this, because many of those closest to me once spoke that way.  Some did so, when they did so, with great inner conviction.  Many of them no longer do.

Why all these confessions?  Because in unpacking Jewish fear, I am not trying to apologize or make excuses for the harms that are produced and reproduced under its sign.  It is rather that until the depth of that fear can be sounded – until I can drop a rock down the proverbial well and hear where it hits bottom – I fear I will be unable to take part in creating something better, or trusting the creations of others. I won’t know how to comport myself prudently and judiciously; to arrive at a sense of my own interests; or to consider how, and with whom, I might seek to remake or rethink my own self.

And so this project must sound the depths of something, explain it and make it understandable, without engaging in prevarication or apologetics.  That’s what I’m after.  I’m reminded of a line from the preface to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics: “to the best of his ability the author means to put his cards on the table—which is by no means the same as playing the game.”