The Zionist objet petit a
The Lacanian objet petit a has been defined by Slavoj Žižek as “the leftover which embodies the fundamental, constitutive lack;” “the chimerical object of fantasy, the object causing our desire and at the same time—this is its paradox—posed retroactively by this desire;” and “a pure void which functions as the object-cause of desire.” Lacan himself defines the objet petit a in Seminar XI as “this privileged object, discovered by analysis…that object whose very reality is purely topological…that object around which the drive moves…that object that rises in a bump, like the wooden darning egg in the material which, in analysis, you are darning—the objet a.” The objet a is the lack underlying desire that allows desire to persist, without which—in other words, when our desire is fulfilled and we no longer lack—desire would die. How, then, can we explain the survival of Zionism, defined as the Jewish national movement, almost 60 years after the founding of Israel, on the surface fulfilling the Zionist desire for the Jewish state it lacked? How does the actual state of Israel fail to fulfill the Zionist fantasy, or, put another way, what do Zionists (still) lack? What is the Zionist objet petit a?
The modern Zionist movement was born in 1897 as essentially a messianic movement, projecting a “revival from the dead” for the ghettoized and oppressed European Jew in his Biblical homeland of Israel/Palestine. The Zionist socialist Moses Hess described the Jewish contribution to world culture as “the moment of the eternal quest, the element of permanent ferment ”—almost a messianic jouissance beyond not only the ghetto walls but the pleasure principle, or a messianic pre-1917 translation of Trotsky’s “permanent revolution.” Similarly, Jacqueline Rose has noted that the fictional creation of Israel in Zionist founder Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel Altneuland (Old-New Land) occurs between chapters of the novel rather than within the novel itself, making it “something unrepresentable, which the human brain cannot grasp and the eyes cannot see,” underscoring early Zionism’s reliance on the fantastic. “Precisely because Zionism had to make itself out of nothing—create a unity, a language, a homeland where there was none before—it knows itself as a child of the psyche, a dream, a figment of the brain…Zionism was a conjuring act,” she concludes.
Despite the shared interest among its adherents in conjuring such a Jewish homeland, officially located in Palestine by the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate in 1917, the Zionist movement was in fact many often opposed Zionisms, most notably on the question of the Palestinians and other non-Jews who were already occupying Palestine. Israel Zangwill, who had previously attempted to create a Jewish state in Canada, Australia, and Uganda, among other countries, coined the Zionist slogan “a land without a people for a people without a land,” but other dissident Zionists such as Martin Buber cautioned that the disregard for and eventual expulsion of Palestinian Arabs would eventually hurt not only the displaced but the Israeli Jews themselves: “[U]nruliness directed outwards inevitably brings on unruliness directed inwards.”(1) Buber’s words of warning were of course unheeded, as the same Lord Balfour whose proclamation awarded the Jews a state under the condition that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” would later write in a 1919 memorandum:
…Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.
The mass extermination of European Jews in the Holocaust was arguably one of many factors that underwrote a widespread support for the Jewish people that culminated in the creation of modern Israel in 1948, celebrated by Jews worldwide but equally mourned by Palestinians as a nakba (catastrophe). The UN commissioners who recommended the partition of Palestine in 1947 had previously visited refugee camps in Europe. “[T]he visible horrors of the Holocaust would do much to reduce [the UN’s] choice when it came to decide on the question of Palestine,” writes Ilan Pappe. Tariq Ali notes the obvious paradox: “The only State that the survivors of the Holocaust could construct contained inbuilt discriminations against the native Arabs and was based on the displacement of the Palestinians.” Isaac Deutscher reacts similarly to Israel’s “miracle victory” in 1967’s Six Day War:
The responsibility for the tragedy of European Jews, for Auschwitz, Majdanek, and the slaughters in the ghetto, rests entirely on our western bourgeois ‘civilization,’ of which Nazism was the legitimate, even though degenerate, offspring. Yet it was the Arabs who were made to pay the price for the crimes the West committed towards the Jews.(2)
We of course need look no further than the recent intifada (uprising) with its bloody suicide bombs and its bloodier “retaliations,” the belated and prolonged withdrawal of illegal Israeli settlements from the West Bank, and the construction of a “security wall” along the length of Israel’s 425-mile border with the Palestinian puppet-state to confirm that Buber’s worst fears have been actualized and exceeded and that Tariq Ali’s paradox is still not obvious to all.
What, though, if the obvious paradox is not in fact a paradox at all, if those who were expelled or exterminated were instead compelled to repeat the expulsion or extermination of an other? In his introduction to Edward Said’s Freud and the Non-European, Christopher Bollas offers a psychoanalytic critique of the continued Israeli oppression of its Palestinian population:
[W]e must not only look at what the oppressors project into the oppressed (for example, Israeli violence projected into the Palestinian people), but we must also take into account a refusal to recognize the actual existence of this other (in this case Israel’s reluctance to recognize the existence of Palestinians). It is this combination of positive and negative hallucination which makes this object relation, as we would call it in psychoanalysis, not only toxic but psychotic. The oppressed exists, in this respect, to contain unwanted destructiveness in the oppressor who insists at the same time that the oppressed be like a fecal entity that is so odious that it cannot be recognized, except if and when it is out of sight, and finally eliminated…The stone-throwing Palestinian is symbolically returning that Israeli violence that has used stones to build the settlements. The horror of the suicide bomber returns the violence of Israeli guns, tanks and warplanes. The aim of such resistance is not to overcome Israel, it is to return Israel to itself, for better and for worse. Palestinian violence seeks to maintain sanity for its people through the insistence that the self exists even as the oppressors seek to deny it, something that, of course, the Jewish people know only too well through the catastrophe that was the Holocaust.
Bollas’s conclusion echoes that of many related critiques of Israel in its invocation of what Žižek has wryly referred to as the “secret recognition of the special higher ethical standards of the Jews: how can, of all the people, YOU behave like them?” Having collectively survived what has in our culture become the almost archetypal violent negation, reduction to feces and vermin, and state-sponsored terror courtesy of the Nazis, shouldn’t the Jews (of all the people) know better? Would not such a question presuppose a moral imperative that would survive the traumatic event unaffected? Would not those traumatized by the Nazis in fact be least likely to know better? As Rose notes in her response to Said in Freud and the Non-European, “we have an unrealistic expectation of how traumatized peoples will behave…the most historically attested response to trauma is to repeat it.” The fact that the Jewish people “know all too well through the catastrophe that was the Holocaust” would therefore sanction, not proscribe, its repetition, with the Palestinians becoming the “Jews among-of the Arabs” or the excluded other.
In Trauma: A Genealogy, Ruth Leys describes Charcot’s concept of trauma, which she terms mimesis, as follows:
Trauma was defined as a situation of dissociation or “absence” from the self in which the victim unconsciously imitated, or identified with, the aggressor or traumatic scene in a condition that was likened to a state of heightened suggestibility or hypnotic trance. Trauma was therefore understood as an experience of hypnotic imitation or identification—what I call mimesis—an experience that, because it appeared to shatter the victim’s cognitive-perceptual capacities, made the traumatic scene unavailable for a certain kind of recollection.
We can understand through a mimetic theory of trauma why for example the Holocaust was rarely mentioned in Israel before the Six Day War, where it was linked to pre-state “times of shame, when Jews were weak and passive, inferior and unworthy, deserving not of our respect but our disdain,” according to Sara Roy. Yet as Deutscher noted, the triumph of the Six Day War displaced blame for the Holocaust whose memory it recovered from the bourgeois West onto the Arabs and facilitated the militarization of Israeli trauma. As Leys summarizes Freud’s argument from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
Freud posited the existence of a protective shield or “stimulus barrier” designed to defend the organism against the upsurge of large quantities of stimuli from the external world that threatened to destroy the psychic organization. Trauma was thus defined in quasi-military terms as a widespread rupture or breach in the ego’s protective shield, one that set in motion every possible attempt at defense even as the pleasure principle itself was put out of action. “There is no longer any possibility of preventing the mental apparatus from being flooded with large amounts of stimulus,” Freud wrote, “and another problem arises instead—the problem of mastering the amounts of stimulus which have broken in and of binding them, in the psychical sense, so that they can be disposed of.”
What happens when trauma is repeated and displaced, we can ask rhetorically, and the racial or religious other becomes a “threatening stimulus” who not only can but must be “disposed of”? Worse, what if the other in question is historically linked to the traumatized aggressor? Leys explains:
Moreover, according to Freud violence is inherent in the imitative-identificatory process, which he describes as a cannibalistic, devouring, incorporative identification that readily turns into the hostile desire to rid oneself of the other, or enemy, with whom one has just merged. “Identification, in fact, is ambivalent from the very first,” he states; “it can turn into an expression of tenderness as easily as into a wish for someone’s removal.”
And what was the relationship between the influx of European Jews to Israel and the Arabs who were already living there if not a “merger”?(3)
Dori Laub has argued that the survivors of concentration camps cannot fulfill the historical imperative to “bear witness” because of what he describes as “the very circumstance of being inside the event.” Any attempts to represent the traumatic event will fail from both remembering too much and knowing too little of what actually happened. “[T]he subject’s not-knowing of the trauma—his inability to speak or represent his experience—is what guarantees the return of the truth in the patient’s traumatic repetitions,” Leys explains. “[F]undamentally victims of trauma cannot witness or testify in the sense of narrate and represent it to themselves and others: all they can do is perform the experience as if it were literally happening all over again.” The violence of identification meets the inability of the trauma victim to bear witness in the reenactment of the traumatic event displaced onto the other, a reenactment that is then disavowed as it is perpetuated.(4)
In his 2003 essay “The Iraqi MacGuffin,” Žižek traces the origin of the most recent violence in Israel to the previously cited messianic Zionist fantasy of a return to the Biblical homeland and the inevitable disconnect between the overdetermined “lost object” that will complete the Zionist and any version of this reclaimed Israel that can actually be inhabited:
If ever there was a passionate attachment to the lost object, a refusal to come to terms with its loss, it is the Jewish attachment to their land and Jerusalem…And, are the present troubles not the supreme proof of the catastrophic consequences of such a radical fidelity, when it is taken literally?..When Jews lost their land and elevated it into the mythical lost object, Jerusalem became much more than a piece of land: it became the metaphor for the coming of the Messiah, for a metaphysical existence. The mechanism is well-known: after an object is lost, it turns into a stand-in for much more, for all that we miss in our terrestrial lives. When a thousand-year-old dream is finally close to realization, such a realization HAS to turn into a nightmare.
However, despite the debate over control of Jerusalem that he considers paradigmatic of both Jewish and Palestinian “attachment to their land” while simultaneously utterly political, Žižek argues that we should not “renounce the impossible dream of a binational secular state” rather than two violently opposed religious states:
In the long term, the true utopia is not that of [a] binational state, but that of the Wall clearly separating the two communities…The illusion of this new Wall is that it will serve as the demarcation line separating “normal” rule of law and social life from the permanent state of emergency—that it will contain the state of emergency to the domain “out there.” This would have been another true EVENT in the Middle East, the explosion of true political universality in the Paulinian sense of there are for us no Jews and no Palestinians—each of the two sides would have to realize that this renunciation of the ethnically “clean” Nation-State is the liberation for themselves, not only a sacrifice to be made for the other.
In other words, the wall would only reinforce the so-called logic of the count, where one either belongs (Jew) or does not belong (non-Jew/Palestinian), in the guise of a concession to the autonomy of the other—but wouldn’t we really therefore be returning to Nazism, the originary “ethnic cleansing” to the collective mind of post-1967 Israel? Opposing the walled Israel, where in the words of Judith Butler “the ‘universal’ loses its empty status and comes to represent an ethnically restrictive conception of community and citizenship,” Žižek demands a truly universal Israel for Jew and non-Jew alike—an Israel that modern Zionists would oppose even more vehemently than they would oppose a Palestinian state. We can therefore conclude that the Zionist objet petit a is not the Jewish homeland made manifest by the actual state of Israel nor the fantastically unrepresentable state of Altneuland’s Israel but an “ethnically clean” Israel free not only of Palestinians but of non-Zionists—an Israel enclosed by a “stimulus barrier” that defends the Zionists inside against every Nazi and proto-Nazi projected, repeated, and identified with outside by perpetually obliterating the other that so closely mirrors itself.
(1) We must here note Buber’s reversal of cause and effect: rather than oppression towards the Arabs causing the Arabs somehow to oppress the Jews, as we shall observe what is foreclosed in the symbolic (the Jew who wishes to oppress himself) in fact returns in the real (the oppression of the Arab).
(2) The title essay also criticizes Jewish endorsement of western norms implicitly linked to the Holocaust, stating, “[T]he decay of bourgeois Europe has compelled the Jew to embrace the nation state. This is the paradoxical consummation of the Jewish tragedy.”
(3) We can recall the 2001incident of the manuscript removed from the journal Human Immunology that argued Jews were not genetically distinct from other peoples in the Middle East and that Jews and Palestinians share a gene pool. The manuscript was allegedly withdrawn for inflammatory language about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, e.g. referring to Israelis as colonists and Palestinian refugee camps as concentration camps, yet manuscripts can always be edited or errata can always be added. What however could be more traumatic to the already traumatized Zionist than the scientific evidence that the one he wishes to expel is in fact his brother?
(4) Leys cites Freud’s thesis in Moses and Monotheism that Moses was an Egyptian who converted to monotheism and led the Israelites out of Egypt, only to be murdered by them, as underscoring Freud’s belief that Judaism is “founded on an act of violence, a rebellious slaying of a stranger” and that the historical experience of the Jews is not merely a “traumatic experience” but a “crime.”
Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (Seminar XI), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
Jacqueline Rose, The Question of Zion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & the Palestinians. Boston: South End Press, 1983
Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years. London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1987.
Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Edward W. Said, Freud and the Non-European. New York: Verso, 2003.
Slavoj Žižek, “The Iraqi MacGuffin,” http://lacan.com/iraq1.htm, 11/04/2003.
Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. New York: Verso, 2000.