Here is why deconstructing Zionism is important

To criticise Zionism means to demand justice for its victims.

"The conflation of Zionism and Judaism is a gross mistake," writes Marder [AFP]

The final sequence of Eran Riklis’ poignant 2008 film Lemon Tree, based on actual events, is symptomatic of the hidden dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s defence minister, who moves with his family to a new house on the occupied West Bank, deems the neighbouring lemon grove of a Palestinian widow Salma Zidane, a security threat. His legal team files a motion to uproot Zidane’s lemon trees in a case that reaches Israel’s Supreme Court.

The Court’s decision is truly Kafkaesque: The trees are to be “pruned” to a height that would not exceed fifty centimetres off the ground in order to allow for an unobstructed view of the territory. In the final sequence, we see the defence minister standing in front of a concrete wall separating his backyard from his Palestinian neighbour’s grove.

As the camera zooms into and sweeps over the wall – in a cinematic transgression of boundaries, “separation fences”, and apartheid lines – it reveals Salma Zidane wistfully walking on the other side, amid the maimed stumps of her trees.

The symbolic identification between the lemon grove and the stateless Palestinian people is obvious. But what does the Supreme Court decision mean in this context? Does it not imply that, whenever they are not altogether uprooted, expelled from their houses, and forcibly removed from their land, Palestinians find themselves in an impossible situation of barely remaining alive, no more than fifty centimetres off the ground? Does it not suggest that, even if they are to keep the roots tethering them to Palestine, their growth will be stunted and they will bear no fruit?

The concrete wall casts everything around it in its own image, rendering the world it divides uninhabitable and hence world-less, lifeless and sterile. And so, the film reconfigures the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a standoff between the inorganic (and deadening) force concentrated in the wall and the vanishing presence of the organic realm condensed in the lemon trees. The Israeli national myth of “having made the desert bloom” reveals the dark underside that has made it possible in the first place: Zionism has turned, and continues to turn, blossoming tree groves into a desert. 

To deconstruct Zionism is, therefore, to demand justice for its victims – not only for the Palestinians, who are suffering from it, but also for the anti-Zionist Jews, ‘erased’ from the officially consecrated account of Zionist history.

Zionism and deconstruction

French philosopher, Jacques Derrida once said that deconstruction is the possibility of justice.

To deconstruct Zionism is, therefore, to demand justice for its victims – not only for the Palestinians, who are suffering from it, but also for the anti-Zionist Jews, “erased” from the officially consecrated account of Zionist history. By deconstructing its ideology, we shed light on the context it strives to repress and on the violence it legitimises with a mix of theological or metaphysical reasoning and affective appeals to historical guilt for the undeniably horrific persecution of Jewish people in Europe and elsewhere.

It is, of course, possible to appeal to justice without evoking deconstruction, which is not, in formal philosophical terms, the necessary condition of possibility for this demand. Why, then, deconstruct Zionism? Why now? And, in the first place, what does such a deconstruction entail?

Let us begin with the meaning of deconstruction as it bears on Zionism.

In its most basic sense, the injunction to deconstruct Zionism entails a radical ideology critique with its careful examination of all the presuppositions hidden in an “-ism”. History matters: Like other ideologies, Zionism was a historical construction, a more or less coherent project that took a vast array of forms, running the gamut from the religious to the secular.

Deconstruction replays the history of Zionism backwards; teasing out its motivations, strategies, and above all the unstated preconditions for what is included in its doctrine (for instance, the dismissal of the pre-1948, of the already existing non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine in the slogan, “A land without a people for a people without a land”).

In a deeper sense, deconstruction means exposing and undoing the claims to an eternal truth that are prevalent in a metaphysical way of thinking. In all its forms, Zionism takes the concept of the Jewish people and its connection to the “Land of Israel” to be trans-historical and unitary, temporary exiles notwithstanding.

Proclaiming Jerusalem to be the “eternal and indivisible” capital of the State of Israel wilfully neglects the city’s historicity, its changing architectural, demographic, and political realities through the centuries. Zionism further presupposes the return of the Jewish people to their “historical homeland” and, thus, a recovery – political and otherwise – of the lost unity of the exiled.

To deconstruct Zionism is to interrogate, at once with rigour and with intense personal and political commitment, the myths of national-religious-ethnic origins, of an Odysseus-like return to the place from which ancestors were exiled, and of the unbreakable unity of a people underlying the diversity of its exilic identities.

Responses to the critics

It is easy to anticipate some of the criticisms that will be addressed to any attempt to deconstruct Zionism. These are likely to fall into three broad categories.

1- A focus on Zionism but not on Palestinian ideologies is one-sided and therefore asymmetrical. It lacks the neutrality that marks scholarly research.

But how can one champion a neutral and symmetrical scholarly approach in situations where conditions on the ground are decidedly asymmetrical and become ever more so day by day? What is symmetrical about a confrontation between a powerful state and a stateless people?

More often than not, scholarly neutrality is but a subterfuge, a cover of neutralisation and depoliticisation (as Carl Schmitt would have it) that creates the desired “every story has at least two sides” effect, allowing injustice to proceed with impunity. This is a textbook case of such a stratagem. The plea for neutrality is itself a part of the metaphysical narrative to be deconstructed.

2- Scrutinising Israeli Zionism, instead of discussing the oppression prevalent in other states in the region, is unfair. Israel is singled out, while many of them are much worse.

Curiously, the proponents of this argument would not have a problem endorsing Israel’s exceptionalism: For instance, when it becomes the first country in the world to refuse the request to appear before the UN Human Rights review. At once a state among others states and a unique state above international law, it is ideally rendered immune to criticism.

Our task is to single it out precisely because it is a state that is quite exceptional, though not in the same sense as those making this claim have in mind. Israel’s exceptionalism hinges on the fact that it was a state created thanks to a massive displacement of Arab populations that inhabited the area under the British Mandate and an equally massive influx of immigrants from war-torn Europe and the Middle East.

First, the biggest threat to the wellbeing and security of Israeli Jews (and, often, by implication of Jews who live elsewhere in the world and are assumed to be the supporters of Israeli policies) is neither Iran nor Syria; it is the State of Israel itself.

A state that was constituted, presumably, to atone for one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th century and that, without delay, perpetrated countless crimes against its Palestinian neighbours.

A state that, to this day, re-founds and legitimises itself based on a mix of millennia-old theodicy and a frozen mould of 19th-century European-type nationalism, which has not survived in this form anywhere in Europe.

A state that proclaims itself to be the only democracy in the Middle East, while systematically treating its Arab members as third-class citizens and keeping the imprisonment of some of its Jewish citizens secret.

3- Critique of Zionism is rooted in contemporary anti-Semitism, practised by dissident Jews and non-Jews alike. To criticise Israel is to hate the Jewish people and to prepare the grounds for a new Shoah.

First, the biggest threat to the wellbeing and security of Israeli Jews (and, often, by implication of Jews who live elsewhere in the world and are assumed to be the supporters of Israeli policies) is neither Iran nor Syria; it is the State of Israel itself.

Aside from Israel’s belligerent behaviour on regional and international arenas, its occupation of Palestine not only makes the lives of people who live under this regime impossible, but is also unsustainable as it drains public resources for the purpose of providing “security” to fanatical settlers. It is imperative to deconstruct Zionism not out of hatred, but out of intense concern for the Jewish Israelis, who are set on a path of self-destruction in oppressing and decimating a neighbouring Palestinian population.

Second, the conflation of Zionism and Judaism is a gross mistake: Many Jews, in Israel and outside its boundaries, are non- or anti-Zionist, while many Zionists are not practising Jews. Even a conflation of Zionism and the current State of Israel is unjustifiable, as many in the history of the Zionist movement considered the possibility of creating a Jewish state elsewhere – for instance, in East Africa.

Third, deconstructing Zionism is not just a critique; it is an exercise in unravelling its philosophical suppositions. Zionism is a metaphysically inflected ideological and political worldview, not a religion, and most definitely, not an ethnicity.

To criticise it is no different from criticising, say, Portuguese imperialism in the period between the 15th century and the end of the Salazarist New State in 1974 (except that Portuguese imperialism is already a thing of the past, while Zionist occupation is still on-going). 

‘If not now, when?’

Finally, why now?

The question echoes that of a Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, who famously asked: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

A question of ethical commitment, “Why now?” receives a response in the form of another question: “If not now, when?” Against the backdrop of the farcical “peace process”, deconstructing Zionism is a matter of urgency, because the past, present, and future victims of Zionist oppression demand justice. Ethically, we must be for them. Only then, can we hope to be anything at all.


Note: For more philosophical analyses of this issue see: Gianni Vattimo & Michael Marder (eds.), Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics (Bloomsbury, 2013). The above text has been adapted from this collection.

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010).