‘Hysteria’: Reading the Palestinian Application

November 1, 2011
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Nathaniel Berman

‘‘Hysteria”: This, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is how the diplomatic world has perceived official Israeli responses to the Palestinian application for United Nations membership.1 Israeli statements have wildly oscillated among expressions of fear, supplication, aggression, moralism, negotiation, dismissiveness, and even biblical sermonizing by its secular prime minister. This range may indeed be viewed as symptomatic of “hysteria” in its classical Freudian understanding — in which the ostentatious incoherence of the hysterical performance is analyzed as an enactment of a violent conflict between opposed identities within the hysteric, aggressor, and victim, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual.2 The question for analysts in such cases is to identify the unresolved conflict involving the contradictory expressions with which they are faced.

In this case, a significant clue may be found in one particular contradiction in the Israeli response: between criticizing the Palestinian application as excessively unilateral vs. criticizing it as excessively U.N.-focused — i.e., multilateral. The oscillation between these contradictory criticisms suggests that they say less about the Palestinian application itself than about a deep-rooted ambivalence on the part of the critics.

The tension between unilateral and multilateral strategies, after all, generated some of the fiercest debates in the Zionist movement itself. The unilateralists, those most concerned with “auto-emancipation,” with “Hebrew labor,” with the recreation of Jewish subjectivity, often clashed with those preoccupied with persuading, pressuring, and mobilizing the “great powers” (from Britain to the Ottoman Empire), without regard to their liberal or oppressive character, to support the Zionist cause — a conflict that, among other things, led to the great rupture between Zionist leaders Bernard Lazare and Theodor Herzl.3 At other times, rather than a clash between partisans of the two opposed approaches, the tension has coexisted within the heart of a single thinker or text. A clear, if somewhat domesticated, example of this phenomenon is the Israeli Declaration of Independence, subtly poised between invocations of millennial Jewish claims and contemporary international legitimacy, the latter epitomized by the 1947 Palestine Partition Plan, General Assembly Resolution 181 — a tension that reappears in an uncannily, perhaps deliberately, similar form in the text of the Palestinian application.

In fact, this tension between unilateralism and multilateralism has characterized many, if not most, nationalist movements for nearly two centuries. The tension embodies the paradox that nationalist passions are almost always enacted on an international stage — from the Greek struggle of the early 19th century to those of our own time. At one and the same time, and with the same intensity, nationalists desperately seek international recognition and fiercely reject the notion that it is necessary for their legitimacy.

For example, it was often the same Zionists who celebrated the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into the League of Nations’ Palestine Mandate, or the legitimization of a Jewish state by Resolution 181, who also adopted Ben-Gurion’s famously contemptuous phrase, “Um-Shmum” (Mwmu Mwa, or “UN Shmu-en”). And today’s oscillations among incompatible responses to the Palestinian application — by Israelis and Palestinians — may be seen as hysterical expressions of this perennial nationalist ambivalence about the international community.

This ambivalence has its closely related parallels among internationalists, from Woodrow Wilson to his contemporary homologues. Internationalists have long both embraced nationalist claims as indispensable to world order and sought to discipline nationalism, coercively if necessary, into “reasonable” channels. After World War I, for example, the League of Nations recognized Poland and the other new Central European states on condition of the ratification of treaties securing minority rights; in the 1990s, the U.N. guaranteed Bosnian independence on condition of comprehensive provisions for its ethno-national groups, including territorial autonomy for the three principal groups, minority rights, and extensive U.N. oversight of Bosnian political life. The 1947 Palestine Partition Plan, which included many similar features, was a complex instantiation of this internationalist desire to facilitate the realization of nationalist desires while channeling them into internationally acceptable forms. And all the nationalists upon whom such international forms were imposed both celebrated the international recognition they implied and resented the paternalistic tutelage embodied in requirements to which their imposers would never agree to submit themselves.

The fever surrounding the Palestinian application is only the most recent exemplification of these broader dynamics. While both sides seek the imprimatur of the international community for their positions, they each fear that the turn to the international forum will result in the inflection of any final settlement by specifically internationalist interests and values. This fear goes beyond a general resentment of depending on international endorsement for a cause that each sees as not contingent on outside authorization; rather, it concerns the specific impositions on their present or future sovereignty that might emerge from an international settlement on issues such as land swaps, refugees, settlers, Jerusalem, demilitarization, foreign peacekeepers, international supervision, and so on.

This analysis suggests that periods in which such dynamics intensify may be unpredictably dangerous: the instability inherent in ambivalence may bring wild swings between pacific and bellicose stances on the part of the opposed parties or between obsessive preoccupation and negligent inattention on the part of the international community. It also suggests hidden possibilities: Palestinian invocation of Resolution 181, whose conditions many contemporary Israelis would see as infringements of their sovereignty, implicitly entails acceptance of a maximalist Israeli demand: recognition as a “Jewish state” — since the creation of a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state” was that resolution’s cornerstone.

The hysteria surrounding the Palestinian application could yet be beneficial if all involved learn from it: not to mock their antagonists but to accept the need for an accommodation of all our contradictory values — independence and interdependence, nationalism and internationalism, sovereignty and international supervision … Israel and Palestine.

1 Haaretz, August 30, 2011.

2 Sigmund Freud, Hysterical Phantasies and their Relation to Bisexuality, (1908).

3 Bernard Lazare, Le Congrès Sioniste et le Sultan, (1902).

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