The Unmaking of Israel’s Soul and the Making of Israel’s Dead Soul

Steven Salaita, author of Israel’s Dead Soul explains why he chose such a provocative subject–and such a provocative title.

I am, of course, often asked about the title.  I cannot complain about the inquiries, though.  When one chooses to title a book Israel’s Dead Soul, he or she can’t rightly expect polite nodding or painfully feigned interest when that title is uttered. 

It is good to give a book a title that provokes reaction, though in this case the reaction has a decent probability of being negative.  But I relish the opportunity to discuss Israel’s dead soul, which is why I named my book Israel’s Dead Soul.  There needs to be discussion, much more discussion, of the role a mythologized Israel plays in American political and intellectual life. 

The best way to understand what I mean by the title is to read the book, but I offer some thoughts on it here.  There is no false advertising in the title:  I have no affinity for Israel or Zionism, and I wanted to make that clear for anybody picking up the book, no matter his or her politics.  The adjective “dead” intimates finality and thus my belief that Zionist settler colonization is unsustainable.  The title also illuminates a profound skepticism I have about the propensity of people to imagine nation-states as anthropomorphic entities. 

This happens in lots of ways:  by referring to nation-states by the pronoun “she,” by conceptualizing their bureaucracies and policing mechanisms as living organisms, and by endowing those nation-states with souls.  Nation-states, however, do not exist to do humane things; they are invented replicas of elite societies that steadfastly facilitate their enrichment.  I don’t believe that Israel is unique among nation-states in being soulless.  All of them share this distinction. 

I do believe Israel is unique in the level of anguish its citizens and supporters express about its soul.  My book quotes a wide variety of writers and politicians who wring their hands about Israel’s declining soul or the potential Israel has, if its behavior doesn’t improve, to lose its soul altogether.  The point is that Israel once stood for something noble and compassionate and that its foolishness or arrogance or shortsightedness has separated it from its better self. 

I find this type of reasoning unappealing and unconvincing.  It belongs to the same rhetorical tradition we see in the United States, where commentators and politicians lament actions such as torture or extrajudicial killing and implore our leaders to restore the true spirit of America.  The founding of the United States, of course, was accompanied by chattel slavery and the dispossession of indigenous peoples.  Israel likewise has no noble or compassionate origin:  it was founded on the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians and immediately consecrated juridical racism that would exclude Palestinians from the full rights of nationality. 

By acknowledging the violence central to the founding of Israel (and other nation-states) we can question the moral commonplaces of jingoism that usually accompany nationalistic celebration.  If Israel has a corrupted soul, then it can presumably vanquish corruption and restore its endemic purity.  This would be possible, however, only if Israel ceased to exist as an ethnocentric nation-state.  Such is the irony of any desire to restore the nation-state to honor.  The only way to vanquish the impurities of the nation-state is to vanquish the nation-state.

I reject, in all their manifestations, the ideological vocabularies of exclusionary belonging so fundamental to discourses of Zionism.  To mourn Israel’s dilapidated soul is essentially to accommodate the logic of ethnonationalism.  In any case, as long as that dilapidated soul belongs to Israel it has no chance of resurrection.

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