Unearthing the past for the sake of Zion

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Photo: Assaf Peretz / IAA

Generally speaking, ancient artifacts tell a particular story of a particular people. Tellingly, there are no archaeological Palestinian Arab sites – but there are plenty of Jewish ones. By unearthing and reconstructing meaning from a fragmentary past, the Israeli state is secured. Zion is very literally embedded in the mud and clay, in the strata of rock and soil.

By Richard Mather

Shortly before attempting to escape from Vichy France in 1940, the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which has been described as one of the most insightful analyses of the failure of Marxism ever produced. Benjamin, who described himself as a cultural Zionist, claimed that every generation is endowed with a “weak messianic power,” which is the power to fulfill the messianic hopes of previous generations. His vision is best represented by thesis IX, which employs Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (1920) as the “Angel of History,” with his back turned against the future. Where humans see history as a linear chain of events, the Angel of History sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble.

The liberal view of history that the full meaning of freedom can be found only progressively has been a cruel illusion, especially for the Jews of Europe. The Enlightenment idea that the human condition can be improved by advances in technology, science, and social organization surely died in the gas chambers. And if Marxists see history as a class struggle that will one day culminate in a classless society, Zionists, on the other hand, tend to see history as a catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage: the Babylonian exile, the Sacking of Jerusalem, the Holocaust, and all the disasters in-between.

This is not to say that the future doesn’t matter. But it does mean that we ought to be more sceptical of progress and human perfectibility, which after the horrors of the twentieth century, are no longer tenable. Benjamin writes, “It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future.” He adds, “The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance.” By engaging in ritualized memory – that is, redeeming history through acts of remembrance – the future is stripped of its idolatrous magic. And the “soothsayers” who promise enlightenment inevitably lose their power to enchant the gullible.

The existence of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulags ought to be enough to make us incredulous towards the grand narratives of progress, enlightenment, universal reason and emancipation. Benjamin’s solution is to break with any faith in the imminence of political salvation, preferring instead to redeem fragments of the past. He offers ‘messianic time’ as an alternative temporal model to so-called historical progress. Past events are given their historical meaning retrospectively, in messianic moments. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” says Benjamin, he also comes as the “subduer” of the enemy whose historical processes crush minorities such as the Jews. The task of the (Jewish) historian, then, is to engage in a kind of tikkun olam – repairing the world by “fanning the spark of hope in the past” (to quote Benjamin), of rekindling the fragments of light buried in the wreckage. For unless the past is recognised and saved, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy.”

This is why acts of remembering are so important in Israel. Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are two examples. And it is also why archaeology is so crucial. The metaphor of the past as an artifact that can be recovered out of the ground and recontextualized in the living present is essential to the Zionist project. Generally speaking, ancient artifacts tell a particular story of a particular people. Tellingly, there are no archaeological Palestinian Arab sites – but there are plenty of Jewish ones. By unearthing and reconstructing meaning from a fragmentary past, the Israeli state is secured. Zion is very literally embedded in the mud and clay, in the strata of rock and soil.

I started out with Benjamin’s claim that every generation is endowed with a “weak messianic power,” which is the power to fulfill the messianic hopes of previous generations. Today’s Zionists are doing just that, by uncovering artifacts in the Land of Israel. Not so long ago, a rare document mentioning the name of Jerusalem from the time of the First Temple was discovered when the Israel Antiquities Authority took action against a band of antiquities robbers who had plundered the papyrus from the Judean Desert. It is the earliest extra-biblical source to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing. And it is 2,700 years old.

Zionism has always been associated with redemption of the land, and the very existence of Israel (that ‘old-new land’ to quote Theodor Herzl) goes some way in rectifying the damage done to Jews by the “storm” of progress. As Benjamin states, “For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim.” 

 

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