The Dialectic of Negation

Ideological and political thinkers often start out with the task of defining their subjects. It should be assumed that they have come to their conclusions through intellectual processes of deduction and categorical research. Here are some (devastating) quotes that expose what early Zionist ideologists had to say about their brothers, those for whom they were developing a nationalist project based on a philosophy of racial ethnic identity:

“The Jew is a caricature of a normal, natural human being, both physically and spiritually. As an individual in society he revolts and throws off the harness of social obligations, knows no order nor discipline.”1

“The fact is undeniable that the Jews collectively are unhealthy and neurotic. Those professional Jews who, wounded to the quick, indignantly deny this truth are the greatest enemies of their race, for they thereby lead them to search for false solutions, or at most palliatives.”2

“The enterprising spirit of the Jew is irrepressible. He refuses to remain a proletarian. He will grab at the first opportunity to advance to a higher rung in the social ladder.”3

“The emancipated Jew is insecure in his relations with his fellow-beings, timid with strangers, suspicious even toward the secret feeling of his friends. His best powers are exhausted in the suppression, or at least in the difficult concealment of his own real character. For he fears that this character might be recognized as Jewish, and he has never the satisfaction of showing himself as he is in all his thoughts and sentiments. He becomes an inner cripple, and externally unreal, and thereby always ridiculous and hateful to all higher feeling men, as is everything that is unreal. All the better Jews in Western Europe groan under this, or seek for alleviation. They no longer possess the belief which gives the patience necessary to bear sufferings, because it sees in them the will of a punishing but not loving God.4

Early Zionist ideologists were pretty outspoken when it came to their Diaspora Jewish brothers. Ber Borochov eloquently diagnosed the inherent Jewish non-proletarian tendencies. Max Nordau didn’t spare words when confronting the intrinsic post-emancipated Jewish social incompetence he saw. In the eyes of Hashomer Hatzair, the Diaspora Jew is nothing but a caricature and for Ben Frommer, it is nothing less than neurosis, which we are dealing with. Seemingly, early Zionists were rather fearless when elaborating on the social conditions of their brothers. Yet, they were optimistic, they somehow believed that a ‘new beginning’ would cure the emancipated Jew of what seemed to some as an inevitable ‘disgraceful’ fate. They believed in a global Jewish ‘homecoming’, they were convinced that such an endeavour would heal the Jews of their symptoms.5

Being inspired by 19th century ideologies such as Nationalism, Marxism, Early Romanticism, Darwinism and Life Philosophy (Leben Philosophie), early Zionists preached for the emerging of the bond between the Jew and his soil. Naively, they believed that the love of farming, agriculture and nature would turn the Emancipated Jew into an ordinary human being. Early Zionists predicted that Zionism would create a new authentic form of Jewishness in which Jews would be entitled to love themselves for who they are rather than who they claim to be. While the socialists amongst them were talking about a new commitment to working class ideology (Berl Kazanelson, Borochov, A.D. Gordon), those on the right wing (Jabotinsky, Frommer) dreamed of a master race that would emerge and rule the land.

Both right and left truly believed that due to their homecoming, Jews would be able to replace their traditional traits centred on chosenness with aspirations towards sameness. They genuinely believed that Zionism would turn Jews into ‘people like all people’.

As much as early Zionists had never tried to disguise the extent of their prophetic dream, they didn’t make any efforts to conceal their contempt towards their brothers either. In their emerging fantasy of national awakening, Jews were to divorce from their greed and money seeking as well as their cosmopolitan tendencies. In their vision, Zion was there to transform the Jew into an ordinary organic human being. The move to Zion was there to fill the chasm created by emancipation. The settlement in Zion was there to give birth to a new man. A Jew who looks at himself with pride, a Jew who fills Jewishness with meaning. A Jew that is defined by positive qualities rather than by mere negation.

The Dialectic of Negation

As much as things can be defined by what they are, things are just as well defined by what they aren’t. As much as something is defined by positive qualities for being X, Y and Z, it can also be defined by not being V, R and N. As much as my ‘cousin’ can be understood as the child of my uncle or aunt, it can as well be defined by an endless list of things this person fails to be. For instance he or she isn’t my sister, my brother, my grandmother, a potato, an airplane etc. Similarly, as much as a German subject may be defined by being a German national, who may speak the German language and eats Wurst for lunch, the same German subject can be easily defined by the endless list of qualities and characteristics he lacks or fails to be. He isn’t French or English, he doesn’t speak Spanish or Farsi, he doesn’t eat humus for lunch, he is not a potato and he is far from being a red brick house.

When it comes to Jews, things are getting complicated. While observant Jews can easily list more than a few positive qualities they identify with, they for instance follow Judaism, they practice Jewish laws, they follow the Talmud, they follow Kosher dietary restrictions, etc., emancipated secular Jews have very little to offer in terms of positive characteristics to identify with. Once you ask a secular Jew what makes him into a Jew you may hear the following: “I am not a Christian nor am I a Muslim.” OK then, but what is it that makes you into a Jew in particular? You see, he may say, “I am not exactly an American, French or British. I am somehow different.” In fact, emancipated Jews would find it hard to list any positive quality that may identify them as Jews. As it seems, emancipated Jews are identified by negation. They are made of the very many things they are not.

This is exactly where Zionism interfered. It was there to set the Jews in a project that aimed towards an authentic identification. Zionism was there to let the Jew reflect upon himself in terms of positive qualities. Within the Zionist phantasmic reality, the generations of home-comers were there to declare: ‘We are the new Jews, we are Israelis, we are human beings like all other human beings, we live on our land, the land of our fathers. We speak Hebrew, the language of our forefathers, we eat the fruit and vegetables that we, ourselves farmed on our soil.”

Evidently, Zionism has failed completely due to various reasons. Though the Israelis speak Hebrew and dwell on a land they associate with their collective past, the ‘new Jew’ failed in transforming himself into an authentic humanist. Israel is an urban capitalistic society that maintains its existence at the expense of others. The bond to soil and nature didn’t last long. If this is not enough, Israelis didn’t really manage to divorce the dialectic of negation. Israel has never become a state of its citizens. It is still a racist state that employs racially orientated immigration laws.

In fact, Zionism could never have prevailed. It has been entangled with colonial sins from day one. Yet, as much as Zionism has quickly established itself as a criminal practice, some of its criticism of the emancipated Diaspora Jewish identity is worth looking into. At the end of the day, the so-called emancipated Diaspora Jew is still defined by negation and this fact alone has very many grave implications.

The Politics of Negation

‘Dialectic of negation’ is there to throw light over the murderous reality that has been set by the Wolfowitzes, the Perles and other emancipated warmongers such as the AJC (American Jewish Committee) that is currently lobbying for a war against Iran. It is not really surprising that both in America and in Britain it was mainly Zionists lobbies that were lobbying enthusiastically for a war in Iraq. In the name of ‘Democracy’, Coca-Cola and ‘Human Rights’ Israeli lobbies were and still are promoting the whipping of country after country.

As far as the newly emerging Neocon ideology is concerned, we are apparently moving from a discourse of ‘promised land’ into politics of ‘promised planet’.

But is it only the Neocons that are here to take the blame? At the end of the day, the Neocons are not that far off from their Bundist parents.

I suggest that we slow down and to ask ourselves what Jewish Diaspora identity means in the 21st century. We better try to find out whether the notion of emancipated Jewish identity has changed at all since the early Zionists exposed its problematic character more than a century ago. We better ask how for instance does a ‘Jewish Marxist’ refer to his Jewishness after all? During my years in Europe I have come across groups of people who call themselves ‘Jews for Peace’, ‘Jews for Justice in Palestine’, ‘Jews for this’ and ‘Jews for that’. I have recently heard about ‘Jews for Boycott of Israeli Goods’. Occasionally I end up asking myself what stands at the core of this racially orientated separatist peace-loving endeavour. I may as well admit that though I have come across many German peace activists, I have never come across an Aryan Palestinian Solidarity group or even Caucasian Anti-War campaigners. It is somehow Jews and only Jews who engage in racially orientated peace campaigning.

As frightening as it may sound, Borochov and Nordau had provided us with the answer. In the seeking of a ‘political identity’, the emancipated Jew ends up succumbing himself to the dialectic of negation. His political identity is defined by what he isn’t rather than by who he is. United as a group, they aren’t Germans, they aren’t British, they aren’t Aryans, they aren’t Muslims, they aren’t just ordinary proletariats, they aren’t just common working class people. They are Jews because they aren’t anything else. At a first glance it seems as if nothing is wrong in being defined by negation. Yet, a deeper critical glance into the notion of negation may reveal some of the devastating aspects of this form of emancipated dialectic.

Ethical thinking may be the first victim of the dialectic of negation. In order to think ethically, genuine, authentic, organic thinking is of the essence. According to Kant’s categorical imperative, an ethical being acts ‘only according to that maxim by which he can at the same time will that it would become a universal law’. In other words, Kant identifies ethical thinking with a positive, authentic, genuine orientation that sets one at a self-search for universal insight. Clearly, such a process involves thorough self-reflection. Negation, on the other hand, requires the opposite, it involves scouting and searching into others’ praxis. Again, rather than understanding who you are, you are engaging in differentiating yourself from the other. Rather than looking into oneself, the negating subject sets his relationships with his surrounding environment based on pragmatic and practical decision-making. At most, he may present a pretence of ethical thinking but not more than that.

Early Zionists were critical enough to expose the non-ethical characteristics amongst their fellow brothers. Zionism was there to erect a new ethical Jew, a genuine moral being. Yet, the premise was flawed from the very beginning. Zionists wanted to make Jews ‘people like other people’. To a certain extent they wanted Jews to convey the pretense of being people like other people. The failure of the Zionist dream made it clear that even the new Jew, the Zionist, cannot engage in authentic ethical thinking. At most, they look ethical instead of becoming ethically orientated.

As frightening as it may sound, looking at Israeli Hasbara as well as at Ziocon politics around the world and especially in America and the UK, it reveals the bitter truth of the matter. Ziocons and Hasbara always presents an ‘ethical like’ argument. They would employ what seems as a moral excuse in order to introduce destruction and carnage. As we know the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ is also the one that has been starving millions of Palestinians in concentration camps for decades. Similarly, the Wolfowitzes and Perles dragged America and Britain into a futile criminal war in Iraq in the name of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and ‘liberalism’. Clearly the Palestinians and the Iraqis are victims of the politics of negation. But they are not alone. The Western subject who is stained with the crime of genocide is as well a victim of the Western shift towards politics of negation. Rather than defining ourselves by who we are, we get accustomed to our politicians defining us for how we hate (or whom is it we suppose to hate: red, ‘axis of evil’, Islamo-fascists, etc.).

More frightening is the fact that people who succumb to the dialectic of negation cannot engage in peace-making and reconciliation. The reason is simple; the notion of peace may entail a collapse of the mechanism of negation. From the point of view of negation, reconciliation means elimination. Loving your neighbour may lead towards an identity loss. As early Zionists observed, the condition of emancipation set the Western Jew into a complicated identity crisis. Making peace with humanity would mean the loss of the Jewish identity. Needless to say that in the last centuries millions of European and American Jews have chosen peace and assimilation. They have divorced their Jewish identity and disappeared into the crowed. Yet, those who maintain negation as a means of identifying are those who inherently and categorically oppose the notion of peace. Painfully enough, more than often they do just that in the name of peace.

Most interestingly is the fact that emancipated Jewish identity is defined by negation may help us to realise why is it that emancipated Jews are so often settling comfortably in political campaigns and revolutionary movements: They are always against something. It will be the bourgeoisie, capital, colonialism, Islam, human rights abuse, historic revisionism, Zionism and so forth. Seemingly, the journey between ‘dialectic of negation’ and ‘politics of hate’ is rather short.

Negation and the Palestinian Solidarity Discourse

To be an emancipated Jew is to be defined by negation. And it is this fact alone that may explain why it is that the Palestinian solidarity intellectual discourse is saturated with emancipated Jewish contributors. More than a few Jews indeed oppose the Zionist crime. Yet, due to their emancipated secularist enthusiasm, sometimes it looks as if the Palestinian discourse has been transformed into a Jewish internal debate.

The reason is simple, negation of Zionism is a good enough reason to set a powerful Jewish political identity. Though this may explain why Jews are so involved in Palestinian solidarity, it may additionally explain why the Palestinian solidarity movement has never made it into a global mass movement. Apparently, not many people around are that keen to join a liberal synagogue. As it seems, though the battle against Zionism suits some righteous Jews for their personal and political needs, the Palestinian people were the last to benefit from the Jewish moral awakening.

However, I am the last person to argue that Jews should have no say in the Palestinian solidarity movement. As things stand, righteous Jews around the world are highly motivated to help Palestine. Considering the scale of the crimes committed by the Jewish state this may as well make some sense. Yet, emancipated Jews should be aware of their role in the movement. Emancipated Jews should learn to differentiate between their own self-centred political interests and the Palestinian cause that is becoming a very dynamic notion saturated with complexity. I truly believe that Jews would contribute much just by letting the solidarity movement take off and leave the Ghetto.

Saying just that, an old Jewish joke comes to mind:

Q: What is the difference between a dog and a Jewish mother?
A: A dog lets go of the bone sooner or later…

It is time for emancipated peace-loving Jews to follow the dog rather than their mothers, they should just let go. I would suggest that for a Jew to fight Zionism is to turn his back on Jewishness and to make peace with humanity. To fight Zionism is to prove that Nordau, Frommer and Borochov were totally wrong. The Jew is not timid, he is brave enough to face the evil within.

For a Jew to fight Zionism is to move from Jerusalem to Athens, to join humanity and to leave the politics of negation behind.

  1. Our Shomer “Weltanschauung”, Hashomer Hatzair December 1936, p.26. As cited by Lenni Brenner []
  2. Ben Frommer, The Significance of a Jewish State, Jewish Call, Shanghai, May 1935, p.10. As cited by Lenni Brenner []
  3. The Economic Development of the Jewish People, Ber Borochov, 1916 []
  4. Max Nordau (Address at the First Zionist Congress, Max Nordau, 1897) []
  5. In an article published just after the first Zionist Congress (1897) Ahad Ha’Am, probably the prominent polemicist at the time, wrote “…the Congress meant this: that in order to escape from all these troubles (the Jewish anti-social symptoms as described by Nordau) it is necessary to establish a Jewish State.” []

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached at: atz@onetel.net.uk. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.

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  1. Miriam said on May 27th, 2007 at 8:38pm #

    Why should Jews turn their back on their Jewishness in order to make ‘peace with humanity’ ? It’s not necessarily Zionism per se that is the problem. Its the twisted, corrupt , money-grubbing version which demoralizes Jew and non-Jew alike. The left wing approach had it’s problems of course but at least it pretended to ideals of peace, brotherhood and a community which would help each other out instead of tearing at each other and other peoples throats. It isn’t right to ask that people should abandon a major part of their identity and if anything, a request like that will make them more reactive and callous. Instead, you should appeal for the higher ideals within Judaism and within the best parts of Zionism – antisemitism is not increasing because of Judaism or Zionism. It’s because the reality of the current actions are blatant and they are not matching the rhetoric.