“What happened to the Israeli left?” is a question I hear often, from both critics and supporters of Israeli policies. Certainly the left is in retreat. According to a recent poll published in Haaretz, those who identify explicitly as “left-wing” account for a mere 12% of the Jewish population. In contrast, before the 2019 election 56% self-identified as “right-wing” and 26.5% as “centrist.” It is too early to know the results of the next general election in Israel on September 17, 2019, but even the most optimistic scenario — one that includes replacing Netanyahu with another centrist — does not include a major left-wing component.
Such polls help readers grasp the present situation, but it is more helpful to take a long view, tracing the discursive conditions rather than the colorful ideological wrapping. As acclaimed historians of Zionism, have explained over the last twenty years, early 1900s “socialist Zionism” was never an authentically left-wing movement — its nature was nationalist and populist. “The idea,” wrote Zeev Sternhell in 1996, “that nationalism had to be socialist and that socialism had to be nationalist was widespread in Europe at the beginning of the century, but not in the socialist camp.” David Ben-Gurion, the founding leader of political Zionism, came from a populist Russian “Narodnik” background that pleaded its cause using the vocabulary of socialism but excluded the Arab population from any political claims. A discursive reading of Zionist and Israeli politics leads not only to unexpected links between the left and right, but also to the realization that the exclusion of the Arab is a structural element that defines the very core of “Israeli” identity, and that this exclusion cannot be separated from what I’ll call here “left-wing melancholy.”
In his 1931 essay “Left-Wing Melancholy,” Walter Benjamin had described what he viewed as a widespread vehicle of Social-Democratic and anti-Marxist rhetoric that arose when “political meaning exhausts itself in the reversal of all revolutionary reflexes,” turning critical discussions into “objects of distraction, of amusement, made available for consumption.” Political theorist Wendy Brown explained, three-quarters of a century later, “Left-wing melancholy is Benjamin’s unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary hack who is, finally, attached more to a particular political analysis or idea — even the failure of that idea — than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present.” In the modern Zionist movement, left-wing melancholy became an explicit political discourse, mostly adopted by veteran leaders of Labor.
The close affiliation between left-wing melancholy and the exclusion of Arabs has precedents. In a 1965 ruling, Yeredor v. Chairman of the Central Elections Committee, the Israeli Supreme Court — most of the justices of which were liberal German-Jews at the time — banned the Arab Socialist List (El-Ard), excluding a voice that offered an alternative to the national consensus on Israel as a Jewish liberal state. This structural change signaled the rise of liberals or neoliberals with an expansionist worldview. Ben-Gurion’s anointed successor, Shimon Peres, a favorite of Western liberals, was one of the first to declare the victory of regional free-market solutions (this includes the “New Middle East” vision he promoted during the Oslo Accords) and the defeat of the left. After Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and his own loss to Benyamin Netanyahu in 1996, he declared, “Judea has defeated Israel.” In his testimony to the Winograd Commission in 2007, he stated, “The left is guilty of the international delegitimization of Israel.” In other words, Peres, Labor, and the center-left have adopted the very discursive practices that promote right-wing rule.
Some historians and theoreticians dismayed by the gradual decline of socialism since the energy crisis of the 1970s, the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, and the Third Way of the 1990s have diagnosed “a left-wing melancholy.” A recent book titled Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory (2017) by the historian Enzo Traverso characterizes a post-1989 Left, in the Western hemisphere, in those terms. My generation experienced it as an inherent part of our identity while growing up in the unhappy 1970s and 1980s. The 1973 war (the October War, as it is known among Egyptians and Syrians) cost more than 2,200 Israeli deaths, and in spite of regaining territory and a heavier death toll in Egypt (around 15,000) and Syria (over 3000), disrupted the country’s triumphalist post-1967 euphoria. The Labor party, a juggernaut engineered by Ben-Gurion then Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, showed signs of weakness. A postwar melancholy coincided with the rise of a “shooting and crying” culture: a term coined around the rhetoric of Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira, two of the legendary figures of the Zionist left. The sarcastic slogan mocked the typical rhetoric of war veterans, who committed to defend the state, but then regret the violence, deeming it necessary and harmful at the same time. Stressing an impossible fusion of aggression and regret, Labor representatives advocated complacency, even when the old idealism of socialist Zionism was reconfigured to suit the demands of the neoliberal market, or when the moderate left cooperated with the expansionist aspirations of the right.
As mentioned above, this was not a new cultural or discursive phenomenon: left-wing melancholy had been a typical feature of Zionist rhetoric since the very early days. It resonates in the words of early socialist Zionist thinkers and authors. H.Y. Brenner, H. N. Bialik, and Nathan Alterman, unofficially the national authors and poets of the early and mid-1900s, built their whole poetics around the beauty of fall, sadness, failure, and crisis. As historian of Zionism Anita Shapira showed in her biography of Brenner, the canonical novel Breakdown and Bereavement developed a paradigmatic case of “melancholy, deformity, and tragedy.” Nobel Prize in Literature laureate S. Y. Agnon constructed his narratives around a series of melancholic protagonists, black dogs, and mystical saturnine images.
So where did this melancholy come from, and how has it impacted the political praxis of socialist Zionists?
Rooted in the gap between socialist utopian ideals and the miserable conditions they faced day after day, Zionist settlers never had the opportunity to mourn their lost — mostly European — past. As Sigmund Freud explained in his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholy” (1917), melancholy is a negation of loss, or a double loss that ends up fetishizing the lost object. We fall in love with our own sense of loss or melancholy, turning the lost person or object into the center of our identity. Early 1900s settlers in Palestine are a textbook case: they developed a melancholic response to the past, as so many of them had left behind their parents, youth, and loved ones. Not only did they lose any hope of returning or seeing their families again, they were not allowed to mourn their loss openly; the nationalist and socialist stress on “religion of work” (Dat Ha’avoda) praised action, not affect. Many were clinically depressed; some killed themselves. As the historian of psychology Eran Rolnik showed, between 1910 and 1923 the suicide rate among settlers “reached epidemic proportions,” accounting for 10 percent of all deaths.
In other words, melancholy was always part and parcel of the affective mode of socialist Zionism. It is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it limited to certain groups, whether ethnic, gender, or socio-economic. Instead, left-wing melancholy is built on a logic of exclusion. The history of Jewish settlement in Palestine and Israel suggests that one form of exclusion (exile from the personal, European past) was translated to another (the political exclusion of the Arab and the Arab-Jew). Efforts made during the early years of Israel’s statehood to suppress all open discussion of melancholy and loss recurred during the 1970s, triggered by a postwar melancholy, the rise of right-wing nationalism, and a neoliberal market.
In short, Arab relations are a prime example of the effects of Israel’s current left-wing melancholy. The recent elections reveal a paradox: the right wing, centrists, and the Labor party agreed on the need to exclude Arab parties from the government — a move that serves both the left and the right to prove their loyalty to the state. Any expression of sympathy with the “other” is taboo. The basic discursive conditions created by the fathers of Zionism reduced the likelihood of parliamentary opposition from the left, which might otherwise be inclined to support the provision of some rights to Arab citizens and residents.
A discourse of negation, suppression, and resistance to critique was the vehicle that allowed the disciplining of youths in the 1970s and 80s, ensuring that my generation fetishized loss rather than fighting for radical change.
Nitzan Lebovic is an Associate Professor of History and the Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University. He is the author of Zionism and Melancholy: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi (Indiana University Press, 2019).
Photo above: “Princess” by CL.Baker, CC BY-ND 2.0