The Lost Utopia

by Sune Haugbolle.

Last week in Ramallah, while relaxing in between interviews and trips around the West Bank, I had the pleasure of reading the Swedish journalist and author Goran Rosenberg’s L’utopie perdue. Being present on the West Bank with its gruelling checkpoints, its towering Separation Wall, and its tense, tense atmosphere of suffering and mutual hatred – and being present inside Israel too for that matter, with its pervading fear and securitisation – nothing seemed more fitting to describe the situation than that feeling of a lost utopia.

The book, originally written in Swedish, is not yet translated into English, but should be. It is an excellent account of Rosenberg’s departure from post WWII Sweden to Israel in the 1960s, his involvement with youth movements including periods spend in Kibbutzim, and then his eventual disenchantment with Zionism. Intermixed with the personal narrative is the story of Zionism, from the European enlightenment and its Jewish followers who saw universalism as a way to break out of the Ghettos, to the subsequent Romantic turn which left Jews on the margins of European nationalist intellectual currents. In this historical development, Rosenberg emphasises the way in which Jews internalised European anti-Semitism to create the utopia of the strong, unaffected, son-of-the-soil settler who would build the new country through hard labour and be a thousand light years removed from the grey, downcast Ghetto Jew. Rosenberg lived this ideal in the early years of the young country, amidst the fervour of other idealist supporters of “muscular Zionism.”

His realisation of the parallel tragedy of the Palestinian people on which the country was built is one of the things that begin to make Rosenberg away from his ideals.

Being in Ramallah, somehow Rosenberg’s description of lost utopia put things into relief for me: the ideals of strength on which the state of Israel was built; the incredible hopes; the perceived need to create an Iron Wall to protect these hopes from enemies, and the inevitable feeling (for anyone with the slightest sense of reality) that things have gone awry since the 1990s – it all added layers of explanation to the tragedy that is Israel and Palestine.

Rosenberg’s book intersects with one of the latest pieces in the New York Review of Books by Tony Judt, the Jewish American historian who is suffering from near complete paralysis but continues to write remarkable short pieces of memoirs. In it he describes his youth in a kibbutz in the 1960s and the influence of what he calls Labour Zionism. The primary influence of having lived the ideological fervour of those years was to make him, “perhaps a bit prematurely,” suspicious of identity politics in all forms.

It is possible to shed the utopia and critique it and explain it from the outside. Judt has in fact been a longstanding critic of Zionism and written a number of articles which made him a target of Zionist sympathisers in the past, including a majestic 2003 defence of a binational state.

Now, his latest series in NYRB has brought a number of personal attacks on Judt that quite shamelessly link his “self-hating” “anti-Semitism” to his disease. The attacks come from the British Neocon Anthony Julius (in an interview with the Guardian), and Middle East scholar Martin Kramer. The comments are quoted on Mondoweiss blog, and include Martin Kramer ostensibly saying on his Facebook profile that “Tony Judt has become a metaphor for Jewry before Israel: a disembodied amalgam of grand ideas, unable to act in the physical world or move about freely to create or defend, incapable of self-sustenance, and therefore utterly dependent on the good will of others. The loss of muscularity that he wishes upon the Jews as a collective, fate has imposed on him as an individual. As ironic as it is tragic.”

If this is an accurate quote from Kramer, it isn’t just mean, it is despicable. And it brings back the point that the utopian need for of a strong Jewry, the internalised anti-Semitism of modern Zionism, which Rosenberg and Judt historicise, is so deep in the bones with many Jews inside and outside of Israel that for them it seems to justify any means and transgressing any boundaries, be they military or moral.

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