RDBook: Is Zionism Anti-Semitic?: Zizek’s Violence

Sever Plocker was having a bad day.

The columnist for Israel’s widest-circulating newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, had decided in December 2006 that it was time to out Slavoj Zizek as an enemy of the Jews. Plocker attacked the philosopher’s then-latest work, The Parallax View, for its distinction between Israel-criticism and anti-Semitism.

“(Zizek) has freed himself from the chains of anti-anti-Semitism,” Plocker wrote, indulging, however temporarily, Zizek’s penchant for irony. “In his book we can find the following declarations: Modern-day Zionism, as manifested by the State of Israel’s policy, is already anti-Semitic; that is, premised on anti-Semitic ideological fundamentals.”

Clearly Zizek had touched a nerve. This influential European philosopher was arguing a line that is now an integral feature of his writings on Israel. Oddly enough, he seemed to have assimilated the conservative theological position on Jewish statehood—that Judaism and Zionism are incompatible—and given it a secular, newly-leftist makeover.

Fearful of Zizek’s influence, given his status as the high priest of “post-postmodernism,” Plocker was eager to shut him down.

If only Zizek could be reduced so easily, let alone constitute the threat to Israeli statehood that the Israeli journalist feared him to be. But Zizek’s views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are so finely attuned to inter-Jewish debate that his opinions read like those of an insider, and reviews of his books often land in Israeli tabloids.

Such will surely be the case with Zizek’s restatement of his critique of “anti-anti-Semitism” in his latest book, Violence (Picador, 2008). In it, he takes up the case of historian David Irving, who was sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for a 1989 interview doubting the existence of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Zizek attacks Irving’s imprisonment on the grounds that criminalizing his doubt of the Shoah is “the most refined and perverted version of Holocaust denial.”

Logic like this cannot fail to confound the uninitiated reader. What is “anti-anti-Semitism,” anyway? And how could the punishment of Holocaust deniers possibly be a form of denial? Rather than dismissing him outright, or submitting to the vague feeling that Zizek might be somehow kidding, the frustrated reader would do well to sit down and try to untangle the philosopher’s arguments.

For example, legislation that criminalizes Holocaust denial has the unintended consequence of rendering the tragedy, to use the author’s words, “untouchable.” It chills discussion. This makes it difficult to do such basic things as conceptualize the Shoah’s meaning and debate why genocide ought to be forbidden. Banishing deniers unfortunately buries the original event, leaving denial, sadly, the only way to talk about it.

That it would take a Holocaust denier’s denial to reveal to the world that, in typically psychoanalytic terms, the world itself was in denial, is classic Zizek. Unfortunately, it rings true. When genocide has become routinized (Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Darfur), it becomes necessary to find ways to criticize European “anti-anti-Semitism”—to point out that this posture actually ends up restraining debate about state-sanctioned discrimination, even mass murder.

What makes pundits like Plocker so uncomfortable is that anti-anti-Semitism should be up for question at all, let alone critiqued—even in the service of something larger. Something that continues to protect what’s left of Austria’s remaining Jews, though of continued benefit, is now someone else’s ideology. To his credit, even Zizek appears to find this paradox unsettling. One can infer as much when the philosopher insists on stating that the Holocaust remains “an incomparably greater crime” than most of the events it is compared to.

Yet, the Shoah is not such an abstraction that it prohibits itself from being abused in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To make this point, Zizek notes how often the Holocaust is appealed to when progressives issue standard platitudes concerning Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Stating that the plight of the Palestinians cannot be compared to that of the Jews under Hitler, Zizek nevertheless indicts those who use the Shoah as a means of exonerating Israel for what it has done:

It is as if the very need to evoke the Holocaust in defense of Israeli acts secretly implies that only the absolute trump card of the Holocaust can redeem them.

Even though it is impossible to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism the way that Zizek does, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Jewish nationalism indulges reflexes that ultimately promote the figure of anti-Semitism. Not in the conventional sense we have become familiar with from the Left—that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians inevitably stokes hatred of Jews—but because so many apologists for this policy remain willing to find some kind of residual value in the Nazi genocide.

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