Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Zionism: Gianni Vattimo’s Myth Making and Misreading of Jewishness and Jewish Humor

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The “Yale School,” which included such academic personalities as Paul deMan and Harold Bloom, gave America its first taste of deconstruction. What deMan and Bloom popularized, in particular, was the rhetorical reading of texts.  The point was to find, as deMan once said, their keystone (or it’s “center”). By locating it and taking it out, so to speak, the entire text falls to pieces and is exposed.  But it was Bloom, or rather Freud (his antecedent who he draws on extensively), who came up with the greatest phrase to articulate the task of deconstruction: namely “misreading.”   Bloom taught us that every “misreading” holds a secret.  Namely, that one lies for a reason.   Nonetheless, the lie “acts” as if it is absolute truth and bears no contradictions.  And Bloom, like Freud, wished to cultivate a “hermeneutic of suspicion” so as to expose the contradiction that is at its core. Although criticism does the work of such exposure, Bloom, like Freud and many Jews before him, also understood that one of the best ways to expose contradiction is through the “witz” (through humor).   To be sure, every misreading is ironic.

The irony of Gianni Vattimo’s essay, “How I Become an Anti-Zionist,” which is his contribution to the volume he edited with Michael Marder entitled Deconstructing Zionism, is that Vattimo acts “as if” what he is saying about Jews, Zionism, and the Holocaust is the disclosure of unalloyed truth.  In a rhetorical fashion, he claims that he is not giving a misreading, but “the” reading of Zionism; it’s ugly secret which he, through a process paralleling the post-Zionist Israeli thinker Ilan Pappe, discovered over time: namely, that he had been duped.  He believed in a “myth” about Israel’s purity but now he knows and must spread the gospel of truth.  There is nothing ironic at all in this revelation.  It has the feel of truth.  And that’s the effect he’s after.

What I’d like to do is employ the hermeneutic of suspicion to his text and expose his misreadings and their affect. In addition, I want to stand back and think about what it implies that he, a notable Continental philosopher, identifies with Ahmejenidad, thinks that the threat from Iran is make believe, and that even though the destruction of Israel is desired a better word for it is “transformation.”   To not expose these misreadings would be a travesty.

But my goal is not simply to show that he is not deconstructing Zionism and creating or rephrasing the mythologies of anti-Semitism, but that he is misreading the Jewish joke to accomplish this end. And this misreading shows us how he forces the text and reality to conform to his narrative; something a deconstructionist, as a rule, shouldn’t do.

At the end of his piece, he misreads Jewish humor (as evinced by Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers). The result of that misreading is an account of Zionism that is deadly serious.  By tracing Vattimo’s rhetorical reversals and codings we can better understand his strategy to create an old/new “myth” of Zionism. And in doing so, he gives deconstruction a bad name.

To begin with, Vattimo begins by making a division between a “true” and a “false” Judaism. He argues that true Judaism has nothing to do with Israel!  Those who identify with it are, apparently, missing the true spirit of Judaism (despite the fact that the Torah speaks repeatedly of Israel and Jews have yearned for centuries for a homeland, he makes this statement).  Following this, he exposes an anti-Semitic vein when he argues, by way of citing a Jew (cloaking his opinion in a Jew’s opinion) that “Israel” is “one of the harms produced by Hitler’s politics and the Holocaust” (to this he adds “one can also list the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948”).   In other words, he sees Israel as an evil created by Hitler and the Holocaust rather than as a blessing to those who sought a homeland in the wake of the Holocaust.

The mention of the Holocaust here is key because Vattimo’s goal is to use it as his keystone: like a few anti-Zionist thinkers, he argues that the “myth” of Zionist is given legitimacy by the use of the Holocaust.  And this, in his view, is one of Israel’s gravest sins.  In other words, Israel should, in his view, bear no mention of the Holocaust..as if it’s memory cannot be publicly mentioned, as if it weren’t a part of Jewish history…

But before he gets to this clincher, he provides his personal story of self-discovery (that he is, in his essence, an “anti-Zionist”).   He argues that he, like many Italians, grew up with two myths: the anti-fascist “myth” and the “myth” of Zionism.  He argues that this myth was provided by way of film and media. And, in the process, he likens Israel’s relation to Palestians to what he saw in American Westerns (namely, “the conquering of the West by nineteenth century Yankees”):

The last “cinematographic” reference appears somewhat forced, but it comes to mind for good reason, since no viewer of Westerns, except in recent years, has ever been concerned with the fate of Native Americans exterminated by the advance of white settlers and their cowboys – in a way complete analogous to the absolute forgetting endured by Palestinians in the epic of the birth of Israel.

The analogy also suggests that the Jews exterminated the Palestians (or are trying to).  In fact, this is his point.  But, in a cloaked fashion, he says that a Jew and not a non-Jew makes the discovery of the ugly secret; namely, that Israel is no different from Nazi Germany; it is committed to genocide.   He identifies his epiphany with that of the Jew, Ilan Pappe.  And this makes it “real”:

It was precisely the discovery of the Nakba in his second year of high school – that is, of the “disaster” represented for the Palestinians by the ethnic cleansing exercised by Israel from 1948 onward (and up until today, I must add) – that pushed Ilan Pappe from his initial leftist Zionism to his current, and radical, polemical stance against Israel.

Pappe’s “addition” (or rather additions, in the plural, to Pappe) suggest that he sees everything that Israel does in relation to the Palestinians as genocidal (as if he were watching the Holocaust in the present tense).   He now switches is rhetorical position from an “I” to a “we.”  He basically is saying he is in solidarity with Pappe and other Jews who are against “genocide” and who want to “deconstruct” the myth of Israel’s purity.  But the twist is that he and Pappe are pure. In a few sentences, he gives us a hagiography of sorts when he tells us of the process he has gone through to arrive at his epiphany:

It was, and it is now for many of us, a complex process that involved the whole of our socio-political, and in the end also our ethical, religious, conceptions, such that even our long friendships are put into crisis, along with other aspects of our private lives (starting from a certain ostracism by most official and mainstream mass media).

Here’s the narrative: He has been excluded. He is the other who is banding together with other’s who have been excluded and he is banding together with them to live and die in the name of truth. To do this, one must fight against Zionist mythology which is hiding evil (the genocide of the Palestinian people). This is, if anything, a religious narrative based on “truth.” There is no irony here.

To express his passion for the truth and to provide the map of his pilgrimage, Vattimo discusses how, over history, he was duped. Over time he realized he had been duped and that, in being duped, Israel was allowed to “continue the genocide, in Gaza and elsewhere, and also to reinforce themselves militarily in every way.”

From here, Vattimo expands his rhetorical we to include and “welcome” “Ahmadinejad.” This welcome, says Vattimo, has “emblematic value and goes far beyond the particular significance of his visit” (to Brazil). This “far beyond” suggests something transcendental for Vattimo, a greater truth: “never before was it so evident (at least it seems to us) that what is up for grabs in Palestine is the destiny of oppressed peoples who try to avoid the rule of the new colonialism.” In other words, “we” saw the truth, the “destiny of oppressed peoples” in the Palestinans.  The language is, to be sure, Epic and expresses a kind of meta-narrative which, to be sure, deconstruciton…ought to deconstruct not construct.  But who needs irony when we have Ahmadiniejad as our friend and comrade?

But the irony doesn’t stop there.  To be sure, Vattimo goes out of his way to reread Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel.  And his rereading – or rather misreading – exposes something rotten.  First of all, he says that the threat posed by Iran to erase Israel from the map is a myth by putting the words “disappear” and “threat” in scare quotes.  After doing this, he says that “its sense may not be completely unreasonable”(!).  His rereading is that its really not the destruction of Israel that Ahmadinejad wants so much as it’s “transformation” into one state (not for Jews, of course).  He justifies this rhetorical substitution (or misreading) by way of Ilan Pappe (a Jew-said-it-not-me tactic).    He ends his rhetorical flourish by arguing that all Ahmedinejad does is express “a demand that should be more explicitly shared.”

In other words, disregard everything negative said about Ahmedinijad; he has no hatred, doesn’t support terrorism, and forget about how he treats his people.  Rename him, pace my deconstruction, and call him your friend.  “We” (radical leftists) all share his sentiments.

But the irony of deconstruction doesn’t end there. He goes on to make yet another rhetorical misreading and substitution.  He claims that Israel suffers from an “irredeemable sin” and to say this “is not so excessive.”  In fact, its appropriate, in his view, to impute this as truth. That sin, as I suggestive above, is the “utilization” of the Holocaust.  It has turned the Holocaust into a “permanent weapon” against anyone who questions them.  To begin with, this claim is ridiculous.  I don’t have the space to address how this myth has been appropriate to agitate many left-leaning radical anti-Zionists in the past (and present).  Its simply another myth.  Regardless, for Vattimo it’s a truth that, in his view, is the basis for maintaining the myth of Israel as a Jewish State. And it is an “irredeemable sin.” It cannot be atoned for. Israel is, in other words, evil.

At the end of his essay, Vattimo posits yet another analogy and rereading by claming that Heidegger and deconstruction, like the Palestinians, is being “ethnically cleansed”(!)    After making such a rhetorical association – by way of it making it a self-evident truth that Israel ethically cleanses (after all, it is the basis of his analogy!) – Vattimo let’s his anti-Semitic beast loose.

He claims that the real core of the problem is not the appropriation of the Holocaust to legitimate the myth of Zionism so much as the myth of Jewish exceptionalism.  He states that people have this “suspicion” (himself included) by virtue of Isreal’s use of power. This “mythology,” says Vattimo, includes “divine election, the Covenant, the purity of a race.”  In other words, Zionism is really about the myth of Judaism and this coming from a “scholar” who, at the outset of his essay, separated “true” Jews (who don’t identify with Israel) from false Jews (who do). The suggestion of this rhetorical strategy (the “suspicion” as he says) is that Zionism is based on the mythologies of Judaism!

Vattimo doesn’t end his essay with this misreading. Rather, he ends with a misreading of Jewish humor.  He argues that the Rabbis in Woody Allen and the Coen Brother’s films show us who, at the core of Judaism, is a power that is corrupt and power hungry. This misinterpretation, if anything, totally misses what Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers were after.   To be sure, Allen, in films like Bananas and Annie Hall includes Rabbis in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with showing corruption so much as in insider joke.  The greatest irony is that in Annie Hall, Allen has his girlfriend’s grandmother look at him as an anti-Semite would; namely, as a Hasidic Jew in disguise.

As Freud would note, every misreading discloses some kind of secret.  And that secret, for Freud, is a desire.  For Vattimo, I think it would be fair to say that he wants to see every Rabbi as a co-conspirator in the creation of genocide and the “myth” of Jewish exceptionalism.   This desire is ultimately anti-Semitic.   It’s a shame since, by doing this, he isn’t “ethnically cleansing” deconstruction so much as giving it a bad name; after all, he sees himself as an heir to deconstruction.  But, it seems, he is more an heir to anti-Semitism.  We need better heirs to its legacy. On the other hand, it would also help if Vattimo knew a little about Judaism and Jewish humor. His misreading is not funny.  It’s tragic.

The “Anxiety of Influence” or Giorgio Agamben’s Gloss on Benjamin’s Reading of Kafka’s Pre-Historic Characters

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One of the euphemisms that the literary theorist Harold Bloom is famous for is the “anxiety of influence.”  For Bloom, this term describes the contentious relationship of the contemporary writer to his antecedents.   The anxiety deals with how one relates to these antecedents and the greatness of the modern writer is to “revise” the tradition and overcome past influences.  So, what might seem as a generous interpretation is, in fact, an act of overcoming.  It relates to a temporal issue or what Bloom, citing the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would be the triumph of the “I willed it” over the “it was.”   This Nietzschean gesture is based on the desire to be free from the influence of history and tradition.  In saying “I willed it,” the “strong artist” (Bloom’s term) has a kind of victory over time and history.  He is free, a “great” individual.

We see a kind of “anxiety of influence” between Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin with regards to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and the pre-historic.  In my last two entries on Agamben, I have been making close readings of Agamben’s essay “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.”     In these readings, I have made brief mention of Walter Benjamin’s work but I have not considered the relationship of Giorgio Agamben to Walter Benjamin, that is, with reference to this essay in particular.  The key moment in this essay, to be sure, takes Benjamin’s reading of Kafka’s character’s up and, in effect, “completes” it as the New Testament completes the Old (yet another gesture of the “anxiety of influence”).

As I have been pointing out, for Agamben, the New Testament’s description of the nativity crib was taken up in representational form and these representations mark the “crib” as a “decisive…historical gesture.”  The nativity crib, for Agamben, secularizes the fable and, as I will show, opens us up to the messianic.  But, before he comes to the messianic, he must address his “anxiety of influence” with Walter Benjamin.

Agamben prefaces his reading of Benjamin by noting that in the “fairy tale” all is “ambiguous gesticulation of law and magic, condemning and absolving, prohibiting and permitting, spellbinding and spell breaking.”  For anyone who has read Benjamin’s reading on Kafka, these words will have resonance.  Agamben is, in effect, saying the the “prehistoric” world we find in Kafka is traversed by nomos (law) and magic: it is enchanted and pre-historical.  History is secular; fable is not.

Moreover, his reading of the crib is secular while Benjamin’s reading of Kafka is not.  And this is the point.  Agamben sets this reading up when he notes that, in contrast to the fable, “in the crib man is returned to the univocality and transperancy of his historical gesture”(142).

Following this, Agamben makes a long list of all the simple people who are in the “nativity crib” and to this list he appends a colon.  Following the colon is the meaning that parts with and revises Walter Benjamin.

Tailors and woodcutters, shepherds and peasants, greengrocers and butchers, hunters and innkeepers, roast chestnut and water vendors: this whole profane universe of the market and the street emerges into history in a gesture from the prehistoric depths of that world which Bachofen defined as ‘etheric’, and which had a short-lived revival in Kafka’s stories.  (142-43)

Although Benjamin does not appear in this reference, it is clearly an articulation of the “anxiety of influence.”  Benjamin, to be sure, is the only person to have written in this way about Kafka’s stories and, in fact, he also cites Bachofen.

But now Agamben is the master.  Like the New Testament, he “completes” Benjamin’s project when he reads the “fairy tale” as “the medium between the mysteries of the hierophants and the historical gesture of the crib.”   In effect, had Benjamin known about the “meaning” of the nativity crib, he would have written an entirely different essay on Kafka.  He would have realized that it was the secularizing gesture that Kafka had missed.

Now, to be sure, this rings very odd – especially if anyone is familiar with the metaphors and allegorical figures used by Augustine with regards to the “blindness” of the Jews.   Jill Robbins’ book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas does an exceptional job of showing how that metaphor played itself out in the history of the church and in literature.  The blindness of Benjamin, as Agamben suggests (by way of indirection) is that Benjamin (and Kafka) didn’t recognize the moment of secularization was, in fact, a Christian moment and a Christian gesture: it is the “decisive…historical gesture of the crib.”

After noting this, Agamben takes up the rethinking of the Messianic which is one of Walter Benjamin’s greatest legacies to us today:

For in the Messianic night, the creature’s gesture is loosed of any magical-juridicial-divinatory density, and becomes simply human and profane.

Here, the “naked life” of the creature, which is a major trope in Agamben’s work (a trope which he takes from Hannah Arendt),  is given yet another meaning.  Naked life now relates to the “nativity crib” and is “messianic.”  Secularization is equivalent to seeing man in the nativity crib, as a creature in its “everydayness.”  Kafka and Benjamin’s reading of Kafka are too caught up in fable and mysticism to be taken seriously.  The figures we find there are, for Agamben, too contaminated by myth, mysticism, magic, and law.  They are too pre-historical.

To add to this, there is someone in the crib who may in fact be a figure of the Jew: namely, the sleeper:

The sleeper who, strangely, never fails to appear near the manger can perhaps be seen as a figure from the world of fairy tale, unable to wake on redemption and destined to continue his crepuscular life among children.

Following this, Agamben actually cites the Book of James which does, in fact, align Jews with sleepers, but Agamben doesn’t mention this.

Instead, Agamben notes that the sleeper doesn’t sleep the sleep of the “incubatio, laden with divinatory presages, nor, like Sleeping Beauty, the timeless sleep of bewitchment, but the profane sleep of the living creature”(143).

Would this suggest that the one who awakes from sleep is the person who recognizes the “nativity crib” as a figure of secularization?   Is the sleeper a remnant of the pre-historic which, nonetheless, is disclosed by the “nativity crib” to just be a poor creature who doesn’t get the messianic?

What I’d like to suggest is that the “anxiety of influence” here is not simply between Agamben and Benjamin or Agamben and Kafka; it may also be between Christianity and Judaism.  The suggestion that Jews are pre-historic is not, to be sure, new.  Its been around for a long time and even Hannah Arendt suggests this in her own work on Jewishness.  The historical gesture, for her, however was political.  Jews didn’t know how to live in the political world and a part of Arendt’s project, which was very influenced by her work with Zionism, was to make sure Jews could be “normal.”  For her, Kafka just wanted to be normal; in fact, her reading of Kafka in the “Jew as Pariah” is based on this claim.

Perhaps Agamben would say that Kafka and Benjamin wanted to be secular but, unfortunately, they got caught up in the pre-historic and the magical.  Unlike them, however, he discovered the “nativity crib.”    They were like the sleeper in the nativity crib (or rather, on its margins).

He “woke” up.

(I put this waking in quotation marks for the sole reason that it is based on the “anxiety of influence.”  To be sure, the “gesture” of secularization and the departure from myth are found throughout the Torah and many scholars have pointed this out.  I would add that there are many historical gestures of secularization.  To limit it in this way, to a Christian moment, is odd.  My job is to simply “make it strange.”)