The History of Political Melancholy as an Alternative History of Zionism

Nitzan Lebovic. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 30, Issue 3. 2018.

Our time proves susceptible to modes of political thought born in the 1920s, especially that of absolute crisis and its attendant melancholy. A broader consideration of the Weimar Republic as “the crisis of classical modernity” and its sense of “melancholy dialectics” have increasingly become a standard point of reference in both historical and contemporary political thought (Pensky 1993; Peukert 1992). Understanding political melancholy as central to the crisis of modernity and democracy implies a growing realization that melancholy teaches us something essential about different forms of political crisis and their affective modes. This essay contends that the relationship between political melancholy in Weimar Germany and its repurposing by German Jews for Zionist thought shows the way political melancholy was and remains at the heart of Zionism. The essay offers both a historical and theoretical consideration of political melancholy. My purpose is to question how a political affect of melancholy (defined below) helps us grasp Zionism, possibly offering a new way to think through its pathologies. I do so not by tracing the theoretical footprints of the “other” (e.g., Palestinians, Mizrahi women, or Marxist anti-Zionists), which may have turned this analysis into an affirmative reading of identity, but by depicting the discourse of left-wing Zionism and its failure.

In the following, I use the growing attention paid to “left -wing melancholy,” both critical and affirmative, to examine a general sense of loss and crisis in the West and the more concrete expression of this sense in the history of Zionism. The roots of political melancholy lie in Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) short essay “Left-Wing Melancholy,” written in 1931 In his critique of the social-democratic author Erich Kästner (1889-1974), the German Jewish theoretician characterized “left-wing melancholy” as “political meaning [that] exhausts itself in the reversal of all revolutionary reflexes” (Benjamin 1999, 424). Benjamin identified this reversal as a sign of caving to materialistic temptations, or that which “has been made available for consumption” (424). During the last decade of the twentieth century the political thinker Wendy Brown followed this early critical depiction of a self-serving Left and added another biting critique of her own. Brown (1999, 26) took Benjamin’s depiction of “left-wing melancholy” from the 1920s and 1930s to characterize the Left of the present: “It is a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness … [it is] caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a strain of its own dead past.” Benjamin’s and Brown’s hypotheses of an inherent melancholic failing at the heart of the liberal or social-democratic Left clarifies a key challenge confronting every project of radical political reform.

Before the language of political melancholy arose, the idea of public melancholy had already begun among intellectuals reflecting on the aftermath of World War I. Sigmund Freud’s essay “Trauer und Melancholie” (“Mourning and Melancholy”), written from 1915-7, defined this melancholy as a “reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an idea, and so on” (Freud 1957, 243). Of course, Freud did not invent melancholy as a symptom. As art historians Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl have shown, melancholy had been connected to physiological pathologies since ancient times: for example, to “black bile” and “the look of a mad dog”; to “the impression of the night” during the Middle Ages; to “divine madness” during the baroque period; and more recently, melancholy had been psychologized and personified (Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl 1964, 219). In his postdoctoral thesis, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin (1998a) analyzed Panofsky and Saxl’s 1923 Dürers “Melencolia I” as a foundation for the discussion of modern sovereignty and its self-presentation. As will be shown below, Benjamin’s argument was a discursive and critical analysis of political melancholy; he used political melancholy as a critical weapon against all forms of affirmative communal association, including his own German Jewish identity. A discursive analysis of melancholy is necessary for the understanding of Zionism.

Among Jews, it was common to identify melancholy with the time of Jewish exile circa AD 70, with the destruction of the Second Temple and the forced exile. The rise of Zionist ideology gave this melancholy a distinctly negative political tone. As the late historian Boaz Neumann (2011, 76) has argued, “The [Jewish] exile is a space of endless, purposeless movement.” While exile implied a sense of loss and aimlessness, the aliyah emigration to Zion—“ascending”—was supposed to cure the settlers of all historical ills. Instead, many Zionist pioneers suffered from “chronic melancholy,” and the suicide rate among Zionist pioneers was exceptionally high. Between 1910 and 1923, the suicide rate reached epidemic proportions, making up some 10 percent of all deaths among the pioneers (Rolnik 2012, 45). Melancholy could be used, then, to shed some light on the hidden core of the life and political consciousness of Zionist pioneers.

Interestingly, during the late 1910s and early 1920s, melancholy also arose as a topos among left-wing intellectuals who were engaged with Zionist ideology. In 1917, the same year as Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” Gershom Scholem (2014) wrote “On Lament and Lamentation,” an introduction to his translation of the book of Lamentations into German. Scholem’s study prepared the ground for both “cultural Zionism” and emigration to Palestine. Scholem saw this move as a solution to exilic lament, which he came to identify with a cosmic “breaking of the vessels”: “Nothing remains in its proper place. Everything is somewhere else. But a being that is not in its proper place is in exile … everything is in some way broken, everything has a flaw, everything is unfinished” (Scholem 1969, 112). That is, until one moves back to Zion.

If Benjamin identified melancholy as an obstacle on the path to revolutionary politics, for Scholem melancholy was an obvious prerequisite to the fulfillment of messianic politics and thus was politically productive. If we follow this logic, melancholy was for Zionist pioneers a psychic and social—though not political—symptom of collective pressure that was supposed to have a political and cultural remedy in Zion.

Despite their competing interpretations of melancholy, Benjamin, Scholem, and the Zionist pioneers were reacting to the same historical circumstances: the deep crisis of democracy and the attempt of social democrats to cope with the growing power of radical nationalism and anti-Semitism. Benjamin’s and Scholem’s arguments can thus serve as a historical and theoretical anchor next to three present approaches that understand melancholy as a voice of discursive and political dissent (melancholy as a critique pour la critique); as a call for historical hope (melancholy as a positive signifier of change); and as a form of philosophical negation (melancholy is close to the negation of community and hence is its only possible coming together).

First, however, a brief introduction to the idea of political melancholy.

What Is Political Melancholy?

Political melancholy is a seminal realization of collective loss that hinders a given group’s ability to effect change. As such, political melancholy is related to individual melancholy but concerns the larger political body, in relation not to the ego but to the sovereign. Hermeneutically and historically, political melancholy is a modern phenomenon; it was born of the realization that nineteenth-century universal ideals could not find correlates in reality. The death of God led, expectedly or unexpectedly, to a lacking sense of order and sovereignty in the world.

Freud’s was the first depiction of melancholy as an integral part of the structure of the universal “self,” a sentiment both related to and contrasted with therapeutic mourning. According to Freud, “The melancholic displays something … which is lacking in mourning—an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself” (Freud 1957, 246). Freud distinguished between imagined and real forms of loss. Melancholy is born of an imaginary loss characterized by a narcissistic identification with the lost object. It is experienced over a longer duration than mourning and is obsessive and unconscious (Moglen 2007, 13).

Judith Butler (1997, 172) has pointed out that, for Freud, melancholia signals the failure of the ego to find a substitute for the lost object it has mourned. This failure often results in a turn toward narcissism and fetishization, which “exposes the fault lines in its own tenuous foundations.” Butler, with an eye to the political implications of melancholy, notes the function of melancholy as a discourse, or a “fabrication of conscience,” that has enabled the “institutionalization” of melancholy. In other words, Freud assumed that melancholia (along with mourning) helps to shape our normative sense of right and wrong. Butler interprets Freud’s study as “a portrait of melancholia that continually blurs into his view of mourning,” or as a “psychic articulation of ambivalence as ‘a conflict between one part of the ego and the critical agency’ … [in] the formation of the super-ego” (172, 174). As Butler shows, Freud’s understanding of melancholy was grounded in both spatial and institutional terms: “Turning back on itself … the ego itself is produced as a psychic object; in fact, the very articulation of this psychic space, sometimes figured as ‘internal,’ depends on this melancholic turn” (168). In contrast, she argues, Walter Benjamin insisted that melancholy is solely spatial due to its normative and fetishizing effect: According to her reading of Benjamin (quoted in Butler 1997, 168), “Melancholia spatializes” and “its effort to reverse or suspend time produces ‘landscapes’ as its signature effect.” In short, if Freud’s motivation is one of mapping the ego and its “psychic space”—including its relation to institutions and norms as part of its internal structure—Benjamin’s political understanding of melancholy “turn[s] back on itself” for the sake of a critical examination of ego and/or its drive to communal and consensual self-fulfillment. Melancholy disturbs the idealist call for realization, be it personal or political.

If Freud’s position is built on a psychological and structural opposition between melancholy and mourning in the ego, Benjamin’s interpretation of melancholy is grounded in a historico-political analysis that blurs the lines between therapeutic mourning and pathological melancholy, stressing temporality rather than spatiality, dissent rather than normativity, hybridity rather than a structural opposition.

As mentioned above, melancholy was a major political trope in Benjamin’s 1928 habilitation on the baroque tragic drama (Trauerspiel) and in his critique of Kästner four years later. Indeed, melancholy is found throughout his oeuvre, from the early 1910s to his death in 1940, and it is always discussed in the context of a political crisis. Ilit Ferber (2013, 28) has argued that, for Benjamin, melancholy is a response to historical conditions such as “the loss of eschatological narrative … echoing Freud’s mourner who sees the world as empty after experiencing the loss of a loved object.” Such changes in the basic cosmology or metaphysics implies not only a change of human language and fundamental conditions of being and expression but also a new landscape and an opportunity for a new political order. Hence, Benjamin’s discussions of the Trauerspiel, Kästner’s prose and poetry, and melancholy in Proust, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Péguy, among others, always culminated in the language of critique, political dissent, and rebellion. Accordingly, melancholy signified to Benjamin a means of betrayal of normative and consensual ways of thinking.

Why betrayal and not simply alteration or change? For Benjamin (1998a, 56) the only move forward was always from within an existing form—history, metaphysics, philosophy, or theology—turned against itself: “All essential decisions in relation to men can offend against loyalty; they are subject to higher laws.” In other words, for Benjamin, ideological or methodological loyalty is always an expression of affirmation and complacency. As a result, Benjamin recommends melancholy as a form of self-critique and autoimmunization; when used appropriately, melancholy is political and turned against the self. In the context of the left wing, it should be used to expose how the struggle against injustice has become “an object of consumption.” The ego of the critic is not a free and an independent entity but could easily turn to an affirmative weapon of (bourgeois) self-justification and feed a sense of self-grandeur. A “left-wing melancholy” is a particular kind of political melancholy; as Benjamin noted, it marks the form of a moderate and universalist critique that would not risk its own position in the hierarchy or power relation of the state.

The notion of discursive betrayal became Benjamin’s guiding principle for all political analysis, whether on the sovereign in the baroque era or on the social democrats of the 1920s and 1930s, and melancholy was the discourse he used to get there. Discursive betrayal brought the principle of dissent to its logical end. The melancholic point of view aligned with a politics of the creaturely, the nonhuman, at the point where human speech betrays itself and its kind. In his habilitation Benjamin anchored his understanding of melancholy as the dissent drive par excellence in an analysis of the baroque, contrasting the melancholic Trauerspiel and its primordial obsession with loss from the stress on mourning in tragedy. If tragedy is the genre of humanism and the reasoning of the polis, melancholy returns to a Kafkaesque world of swamps and creatures: “The baroque … had a clear vision of the misery of mankind in its creaturely estate … melancholy emerges from the depths of the creaturely realm” (Benjamin 1998a, 146). Melancholy, with its inherent relation to the creaturely, is helpful in exposing the delusion of a never-ending growth of self and the illusion of a surrounding material world without gaps or class. A commitment to dissent and critique, Benjamin proposes, is a commitment to political melancholy, which he contrasts with a “left-wing melancholy.” If we recall the gaze of the Angel of History, its back turned to the rising “pile of debris,” it is the unnostalgic gaze of political melancholiacs who cannot (and will not) use melancholy to defend their positions of power, if only because that power is buried under the rubble, together with every other memorabilia of their pasts.

Three Comments about Political Melancholy: Brown (Critique), Traverso (Hope), and Esposito (Negative Philosophy)

The contrast between melancholia and mourning cannot be complete without an accompanying dialectical twist, so typical of Benjamin: in modern times, melancholy has become a useful attitude for good liberals who cannot admit to and mourn the loss of their ideal, universal, enlightened world. This illusion, “humanist” and “universalist,” is the sin of the “left-wing melancholist.” As Wendy Brown (1999, 19) explains it, “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 to the failure of that idea—than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present.” A melancholic affect is thus both the ultimate language of dissent and the preferred method of expression of the moderate Left, apparently critical but ultimately self-centered or narcissistic. Politically speaking, the effect is the confusion of radical and moderate left-wing critique. Leaving the somewhat misleading language of “left-wing” behind, the actual confusion is between radical and transformative change on one hand and the consolidating affective language of the status quo presented in the idiom of transformation on the other.

Brown (2010, 21) reads Benjamin’s plea for a dissenting Left as a commitment strong enough to move beyond an imagined (melancholic) loss. Her reading, whose conclusions she extends in her Walled States and Undoing the Demos, adapts Benjamin’s critique of the bourgeois Left to a post-Marxist, post-Communist, transnational, post-Westphalian world. The only possible approach to our current neoliberal world, according to Brown, is to rebel against a world Benjamin did not know but anticipated. Following Benjamin, she uses political melancholy (the Angel of History whose gaze is as melancholic as it is revolutionary) to examine the limits of social democracy and analyze its moving desire—that is, its relation to market forces: “The primary focus has been on the grammar and terms of this rationality and on the mechanisms of its dissemination and interpelletive power. Of course, these are buttressed by concrete policies that dismantle social infrastructure, privatize public goods, deregulate commerce, destroy social solidarities, and responsibilize subjects” (Brown 2015, 201).

In Brown, Benjamin’s plea for an explicit discursive betrayal is not only updated for the needs of our time but is also transformed into the opposite of fetish, or what Rebecca Comay (2005, 92) calls the “mnemonic registration of a loss.” Betraying one’s own language and methods requires either opposing their affirmative ritualization or else a narcissistic positioning of objects in relation to the self. Accordingly, Benjamin’s understanding of social-democratic complacency exposes the “structure of the fetish” (a double loss, in that forgetting why we mourn the person we once loved ultimately results in the fetishization of them, as Freud noted). Brown (2010, 126), like Benjamin, identifies this structure of the fetish with the forces of normalization or the defeatist stance of “I know they don’t really work, but still, they satisfy.” For Brown such rhetoric “poses the question of what desire the fetish is harboring” (114).

Brown is not the only contemporary theoretician to pay tribute to Benjamin’s analysis of political melancholy or his critique of “left-wing melancholy.” In his recent Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory, Enzo Traverso (2017, xv) relies on Benjamin’s interpretation of the phenomenon but transforms melancholy into a positive force: “Neither regressive nor impotent, this left-wing melancholia should not evade the burden of the past. It is a melancholy criticism that, while being open to the struggles in the present, does not avoid self-criticism about its own past failures; it is the melancholy criticism of a left that is not resigned to the world order sketched by neoliberalism but that cannot refurbish its intellectual armory without identifying empathetically with the vanquished of history.”

Traverso’s plea to return a utopian dimension to present politics relies on an alternative history of the Left that refuses to acknowledge its defeat by the neoliberal state after the fall of Communism. In that respect, left-wing melancholy “does not mean to abandon the idea of socialism or the hope for a better future; it means to rethink socialism in a time in which its memory is lost, hidden, and forgotten and needs to be redeemed” (Traverso 2016, 20).

While Traverso’s reconstructive project aims to revitalize the Left via its melancholic means of expression, Roberto Esposito has a darker, more paradoxical vision. Esposito (2009, 45-6) interprets melancholy as a principle of “destructive passions” that “if left unchecked, risks leading men into civil war.” Melancholy in this sense is not an “individual pathology” but “a sickness of the political body in its entirety.” Like Traverso, Esposito (2013, 28) identifies melancholy primarily as a collective phenomenon rather than an individual, psychological one: it is “the originary melancholic, lacerated, and fractured character of community.” And yet, like Benjamin, Esposito’s melancholy extends the political framework beyond a simple individual-communal dichotomy and views both from the perspective of the creaturely: “For much of the interpretative tradition … melancholic man has been defined precisely by his opposition to communal life. He has been defined insofar as he is not in common: sick, abnormal, even ingenious, but, because of this, outside of the community, if not against it. He may resemble a beast or a god … but resembles neither humankind in general nor the common generality of men” (27; emphasis added).

Esposito’s negative emphasis on melancholy is not based on a historical discourse. Rather, it belongs to a posthumanist and post-Enlightenment era. In contrast to Traverso, melancholy enables him to see the present as a break rather than a continuity. The break is complete, but it is precisely the power of a thoroughgoing negativity that enables him to make a Nietzschean move: the self-harming thanato-political character of political melancholy enables it to move beyond the limitations of nineteenth-century universalism and idealism.

As will be shown below, the difference between these three thinkers is crucial to the understanding of left-wing melancholy in the Zionist context. It is not only a distinction in the understanding of past and present political crises—crises for which the German 1920s have become a primal traumatic moment—but also between different philosophies of history and visions of belongingness.

The History of (Leftist) Zionism

The state of Israel was established in 1948 by a social-democratic party with deep socialist roots. As Zeev Sternhell has shown, its declaration of independence—still the country’s principle constitutional document—was grounded in Eastern and Central European national movements wherein labor and socialist movements were expected to align themselves with national interests. “The concept of the nation’s primacy,” Sternhell (1998, 147) writes, “was basic to the ideology of the labor movement.” Sternhell shows that a careful history of the labor movement would demonstrate how socialism was used as “a myth that mobilized the masses” by “placing the universal values of socialism at the service of the particularistic values of nationalism” (147). That way, the individual was subordinated to the collective language of the nation and was required to accept the authority of the party.

In other words, the role that the Social Democratic Labor Party of the 1920s-40s played in the establishment of the state shows how socialism and universal values were used to unite the different parts of the nation around the party and its leader, David Ben-Gurion. Sternhell’s pioneering work pointed to the political mechanism which allowed “the Left” to become identified with “the state,” but what Sternhell takes to be a simple form of ideological co-optation, others see as a deeper act of self-negation. David N. Myers (2008, 108) has written about Ben-Gurion’s attempt “to set in place a collective memory that rested on Israel’s position both as the center of Jewish life and as the logical culmination of Jewish history. In this emerging narrative, the State of Israel was … the antidote to the vulnerability of Jewish life in exile.” Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin (2017, 394) has argued that the sources of Zionism are anchored by a fundamental attitude of loss, emptiness, and the negation of exile; for the key representatives of Zionism, exile “was in and of itself meaningless, a condition of deficient existence, partial and abnormal—a time in which the ‘spirit of the nation’ could not find expression due to the external bounds that prevented its realization. The Land itself did not know a meaningful history … an empty land.” The gap between the promise and its realization was papered over by socialist, universalist, and nationalist rhetoric in the first generation of the state, but a deeper and more troubling state of emptiness could not be overcome.

Thinking about Zionism—as a national and left-wing movement—from the perspective of political melancholy begins with a reconsideration of the narrative of the Jewish settlement in Palestine as a failure. Viewed with political melancholy in mind, Zionism is seen as a movement that started with the mindset of transformative change and the willingness to see an old past as a sad but inevitable “pile of debris” necessary to open new political horizons. However, in contrast to the triumphalist story, a left-wing melancholic reading would stumble on a broken narrative full of gaps—above all between the promise and its realization. What started with “political melancholy” ended up as a model for “left-wing melancholy”: if a utopian narrative is based on the discovery of new lands, a left-wing melancholic story is more interested in the shipwrecks on the way there. Several historians and political thinkers explore the dialectics of melancholy and utopia, the promise and the failure, in the context of the Zionist Heilsgeschichte. Without mentioning melancholy, they portray the mechanism of a melancholic myth that is particular to the Zionist story. Yael Zerubavel (1995) and Idith Zertal (2005, 167) focus on the coercive nationalist narrative of the Zionist story in which the creation of the modern state is connected with the heroic biblical times while skipping two thousand years of exilic history as well as more recent historical events that did not quite follow “the great narrative of Israeli redemption, until it became the narrative itself.” Ron Kuzar (2001) writes on the coercive normalization of the Hebrew language in the 1940s-50s after its “revival”; Eyal Chowers (2012, 136) explains how Zionism forced a coercive temporality, or what “became a movement defined by continuous action, as if the lack of it threatened its identity”; during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tom Segev (2000), Joseph Massad (2006), Joel Beinin (in Beinin and Stein 2006), and Anita Shapira (1992) wrote about how Zionist institutions espoused the myth of a Jewish nation while denying the existence of Palestinians or a national Palestinian movement. In another vein, David Biale’s (1997, 4) Eros and the Jews interprets the story of modern Zionism as a failure of an erotic or sexual promise and revolution: “Zionism … is not just a political and cultural movement of liberation, it is also the sexual revolution of the Jewish people. Yet Portnoy cannot escape his Diaspora fate: the Promised Land brings not Eros, but impotence.”

Biale’s interpretation touches on a particular strain that is crucial for the understanding of a melancholic Zionism. The sexual frustration he depicts puts its finger on the moment of failure not as a failure of big ideological schemes but as a failure to supply the male pioneers with the power to dominate “the female,” whether an actual woman, other feminine men, or their own feminine tendencies. Still, it is interesting to note that the aforementioned critics and historians have not recognized melancholy as the core of the Zionist story. True, affect and actual politics do not always agree. However, a serious consideration of Zionist rhetoric has to pay close attention to questions of discourse, which are always questions of political melancholy for the generation of socialist immigrants; the cleavage that opens between the promise of revival and its realization opens most clearly as a question of ideology on the one hand and individual experience on the other. Yet individuals use the same rhetoric of the collective in order to reflect about their own individual experiences, which leads to a dissonance between the triumphant national rhetoric and individuals’ experiences of failure.

Zerubavel, Zertal, Myers, Raz-Karkotzkin, and Biale chose cultural history as a method of analysis that brought the collective and the individual together. But melancholy, especially as a left-wing melancholy, requires a discursive discussion. Though established through the revolutionary socialist rhetoric of the 1910s and 1920s, David Ben-Gurion’s Labor Party gradually evolved into a centrist institutional power. With this evolution, a melancholic gap opened up between the Party’s desire to erase the “dead past” of exilic Judaism and its attendant feminine Diasporic Jew, on the one hand, and its fetishization of the European “New Man,” on the other. The relevance of political melancholy to the story of the state extends beyond the cultural history of a “return to the land” or the political establishment of the state.

Looking back at the history of Zionism as the history of “left-wing melancholia” exposes how misleading left-wing universalist claims were unable to admit their own past or translate a traumatic experience to present and future expectation. After all, the social-democratic Left supported the same revivalist language as the Right and, for the most part, similar demographic and territorialist conclusions. The moderate Zionist left wing followed the same melancholic structure as the right wing of negating exile with a revivalist discourse of the land of Zion. From this perspective—one that historians have missed for the most part—it is no coincidence that melancholia was co-opted by the 1967 generation, in the language of the young socialist Kibbutz movement, or by soldiers returning from the war.

In the next two sections I hope to show how the implicit melancholy of the 1948 generation led to the shaping of an institutional revivalist discourse shared by moderate and so-called “radical” left-wing Zionists and that, finally, this led to the explicit, militant melancholy of the post-Six-Day War generation, which, once again, was shared by left-wing melancholiacs.

The Discourse of Revival; or, What’s the Difference Between Left and Right?

Zion stood in sharp contrast to Jewish exile; new life revolved around the figure of the New Man; a revival of the Hebrew language would be based on a return to the biblical idiom and rejection of the later rabbinic idiom. All of this seems clear enough when considering political Zionists or right-wing revisionism, but how relevant is it to the left wing?

The theorist Jacqueline Rose made a courageous attempt to answer this question by separating political Zionism from cultural Zionism. In The Question of Zion, she revives the first peacenik organization, Brit Shalom (1925-32), as an alternative to a centrist and nationalist form of Zionism. Tracing the 1920s-30s history of German Jewish intellectuals who emigrated to Palestine, including Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber, Rose (2005, 70) sees their cultural Zionism as a missed opportunity for a binational Zionism whose failure has led to increasing melancholy over the years: “Imagine how hard it must have been to pull against the drift, to have been anything other than euphoric in 1948. Today [that position] is the still resonant, melancholic counternarrative to the birth of a nation-state.” In contrast to the secularized political messianism of Ben-Gurion and Haim Weizmann, Gershom Scholem and his comrades in Brit Shalom distanced themselves from “the messianic phraseology of Zionism” and its unconcsious Sabbateanism in favor of a spiritual revivalist tone (41).

Rose’s nostalgia for cultural Zionism is shared by many leading scholars. Judith Butler is more careful than Rose in distinguishing a variety of positions within Brit Shalom, pointing out Scholem’s willingness to cooperate with Ben-Gurion’s political Zionism, for instance, or Martin Buber’s growing revulsion at the need to align academic appointments and political loyalties. Yet even Butler expresses clear nostalgia for the days when binationalism was considered a legitimate topic of discussion, while ignoring the revivalist discourse that supported it. As Larisa Reznik (2015, 385) points out, “Butler offers no sites of institutional inscription for her ethics,” especially where it concerns the institutional inscription of the “melancholy [that] keeps Jews attached to a certain symbolization and narration of loss (exile, shoah, anti-Semitism, and other experiences of victimization) … [a narration that] keeps Jews unable to admit to that loss and thus to make the negativity productive—a space for imagining a future rather than constant recurrence to a now fetishized violence and subordination of the past.”

Simply put, the political divisions between Right and Left, or between political Zionism and Brit Shalom’s left-wing binationalism, do not suffice from a discursive perspective. The key focus should be on supporters and critics of the revivalist discourse itself and its institutional realization.

Let me explain: Historians and theoreticians have largely overlooked the discursive contribution by melancholy to all those of the right and left wing, to labor centrists, and to critical binationalists, and how close melancholy has brought them to their supposed political rivals. Take, for example, Joseph Klausner (1874-1958), great uncle to Amos Oz and a bitter rival of Gershom Scholem and Brit Shalom at the Hebrew University. Klausner immigrated to Palestine in 1919; there he developed a theory of Hebrew not only as a historical and literary language but also as a messianic one. A self-declared supporter of the revisionist right wing, fiercely anti-Arab, and in favor of Zionist political messianism, Klausner called for a profoundly political-theological movement. According to Klausner, modern secular Zionism was a realization of “the messianic idea in Israel.” This was also the title of his dissertation, submitted at the University of Heidelberg in 1902 and published in 1908. He continued to develop this utopian text until its publication in Hebrew in 1950, by which time it had become a full-fledged manifesto that moved messianic time from the vague future to its immediate realization in political power. Despite deep political disagreement, the heart of Klausner’s (messianic) argument on the Hebrew language was shared by his ideological rivals in Brit Shalom. Both believed, as Klausner (1940, 291) put it, that “the politico-spiritual Messianic ideal of Israel will be realized in all its fullness, and the Jewish people will dwell in the land historically theirs, and will speak the language historically theirs, and Judaism in the form of ethico-prophetic monotheism will spread over all the world.”

Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem’s enthusiastic predictions during the 1920s were not much different. The difference was mostly one of style: where Scholem saw danger, Klausner saw potential. Where Scholem (along with Buber and Magnes) strove for a conciliatory, peaceful, scholarly realization of communal ideals, Klausner and his close friend Uri-Zvi Greenberg saw a powerful push toward the end time. Klausner’s new edition of The Messianic Idea in Israel in 1950 was a demand for militant realization of political messianism and an occupation of the land as described in the Bible. Klausner placed messianism at the heart of political Judaism across history and identified the core of Zionist ideology with the notion of an end-of-time return to Palestine.

Concurring with Carl Schmitt’s (1922) Political Theology, Klausner held that modern sovereignty depended on the secularization of theological concepts. He believed that the secular aspects of messianism naturally promoted a national ideal, and he ignored any evidence to the contrary: “How is it possible to explain this wonderful phenomenon: the marvelous development of the Messianic idea in the midst of a unique people, Israel, to such a degree that there is nothing like it in any other nation? The answer to this question is to be sought in the ancient history of the Israelite people. The Messianic expectation is the Golden Age in the future” (Klausner 1940, 11).

If, in Hannan Hever’s (1994, 148) words, Klausner and Greenberg proposed “a messianic-mystical solution” to the issue of revival and return, then “the aspiration to establish a Jewish state became for them an irrational hope to revive the kingdom of Israel in the present,” and the legacy of this vision could still be seen in the post-1967 settlers’ movement. This form of decisionist messianism is the opposite of Benjamin’s view of melancholy as a form of antidecisionism. If revivalists of the Hebrew language—a group that included patriots from both Klausner’s and Scholem’s ends of the political map—argued in favor of a fetishized relation to a lost language and its land of origin, Benjamin’s call for “discursive betrayal” requires a more skeptical approach to one’s own words, to the relationship between language and borders and the way both shape our world.

Klausner’s book was dedicated to the memory of his rival, the first president of the Hebrew University, Yehuda Leib (Leon) Magnes (1877-1948), one of the leaders of cultural Zionism alongside Scholem and Buber.

In contrast to Ben-Gurion’s political Zionism and Klausner’s reactionary revisionism, Scholem, Buber, and Magnes thought nothing more detestable than a literal political-theological application of messianism. For them, following Ahad Ha’am’s (see Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927) stress on the spiritual mission of Judaism went hand in hand with Judaism’s revival as a people in Zion. Seeking an alternative to the happy, messianic, and future-oriented nationalist discourse, left-wing intellectuals like Scholem foregrounded expressive modes such as melancholy and depression and collective forms of “Klage” (lament). As Moshe Idel (2011, 91) observes, “All roads now led—so Scholem declared in 1933—to ‘Melancholy’ rather than to God.” This leads Idel to warn his readers to

pay particular attention to the substitution of God with Scholem’s “Melancholy,” coming as it does from the pen of one of the most acute observers of all things to do with Judaism and its theology. Such a radical statement about melancholy as a form of hypostasis is, at the same time, a melancholic statement in itself. However, as towering a figure as Scholem undoubtedly was … he was not alone in his sharp discernment of the reign of melancholy at that time. In fact, a variety of other creative geniuses among the Jews in that period were also interested in melancholy, or considered themselves as Saturnine and as belonging to the realm of the profane. (91)

Idel’s reading, as Vivian Liska (2017, 117) has shown, is a conservative critique of cultural Zionism. Yet Idel is not mistaken in his understanding of Scholem, Benjamin, Magnes, and Bergmann as “melancholics” or as “saturnine.” What Idel reads from a conservative perspective—and therefore without separating every melancholy from a left-wing melancholy—I would like to read from a progressive one: while Idel (2011, 105) believed the cultural Zionists’ melancholy saw history as “a constant failure,” I would like to identify this melancholic affect as the recognition of a gap between the revivalist promise and its realization. In a poem Scholem (2007, 68-9) wrote in his diary in 1926, translated as “Melancholy Redemption” (Traurige Erlösung), he gave voice to this melancholic gap:

The Light of Zion is seen no more,
The real now has won the day:
Will its still untarnished ray
Attain the world’s inmost core?

But rather than following his doubts, as he did in his theoretical work, he ended the poem with the possibility of redemption: in a sentiment for which Scholem would have rebuked Klausner, he writes

God never comes closer
Than when despair bursts into shards:
In Zion’s self-engulfing light.

As David Myers (1995) has shown, Scholem and other figures of cultural Zionism had been ideological and institutional rivals of Klausner since the early days of the Hebrew University. Scholem was among those who mocked Klausner’s “publicist” style and his overt messianism. Scholem did his best to undermine Klausner’s nomination for a professorship at the university in the history department, but his nomination was rescued by an unexpected source: Scholem’s colleague at the Hebrew University and fellow cultural Zionist, Yehuda Magnes, along with one of the fathers of the Labor Party, Menahem Ussishkin; both supported Klausner’s application to the literature department at the Hebrew University (Engel 2017, 122-3).

But the ideological differences between the camps did not prevent them from cooperating along similar discursive and institutional lines. In time, Scholem came to cooperate with and even rely on Klausner as a close colleague. As the historian of education Uri Cohen (2002, 363) has shown, the “negation of exile” and the revival of Hebrew stood at the heart of the Hebrew University’s mission: “The directors of the university kept stressing that the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was the only university that the Jewish people established for itself.” The two political camps were united by a shared understanding of territory, stressing the unity of land and language; they cooperated to form a coherent discourse of revival and political control in spite of their differences in style. In more general terms that echo the positions of Brown, Traverso, and Esposito discussed above, an affirmative approach to melancholy—identified here with “left-wing melancholy”—overcame the negative or critical understanding identified with “political melancholy” in this essay.

The Afterlife of Left-Wing Melancholia

The internal conflicts of the Hebrew University, or those between revisionists, labor centrists, and cultural Zionists, would have been nothing more than a historical footnote had these conflicts not persisted in Zionist historiography since 1948. Amos Oz (2005, 14) described the ideological situation of his family during his childhood:

My parents were attracted to the intelligentsia of Rehavia, but the pacifist ideals of Martin Buber’s Brit Shalom—sentimental kinship between Jews and Arabs, total abandonment of the dream of a Hebrew state so that the Arabs would take pity on us and kindly allow us to live here at their feet—such ideals appeared to my parents as spineless appeasement, craven defeatism of the type that had characterized the centuries of Jewish Diaspora life.

In contrast, Oz depicts “Uncle Joseph” (Klausner) in carefully ironic terms that reflect the “bold pioneer of the renewal of the Hebrew spirit” (242), distancing Klausner from actual melancholy in favor of the sheer imposition of authority: “A framed photograph of Uncle Joseph, looking authoritative and magnificent, almost prophetic … [represented] the historical condition of the Jewish nation or the hopes of generations” (121). Distaste for Uncle Joseph’s messianic enthusiasm, on the one hand, and the Arab-loving pacifists of Hebrew University, on the other, left only one option: Ben-Gurion’s socialist, nationalist party. But of course, as Oz explains through the voice of his father, reality on the ground was more complicated than any ideological choices: “Here, in Jerusalem, everything was ambiguous. Not topsy-turvy, like in communist Russia, but simply ambiguous” (15). Oz does not frame the issue in terms of melancholia, but the sense of melancholy gradually overtakes his whole autobiographical story. It is therefore unsurprising to find him—the best-known voice of the post-Six-Days War generation—identifying his own moral, political, and intellectual voice with a left-wing melancholy. As Itzhak Laor (2006) depicts it, Oz’s critique of his nationalist uncle, Joseph Klausner, came to be identified either with an idiomatic “shooting and crying”—a left-wing melancholy—or with a “narcissistic back and forth with its own sublimation: Creating an Ideal Self.” Oz and his generation came to call their version of melancholy Siach Lochamim (the discourse of combatants), which is, as Alon Gan (2008, 285) explains, a kind of “stutter” that shows the as-if difficulty of telling the hard truth while ignoring the fetish of the self and obsession with the revived and reviving language.

Viewing the story of Zionism from the perspective of left-wing melancholy reveals how political melancholy was utilized against itself for the sake of furthering the national language. A negation of exile and a revivalist mode became political melancholy’s modus vivendi, a symptom of “the sickness of the political body,” as Esposito called it. From this perspective, a sad and troubling line connects the early signs of melancholy discussed by Scholem already in 1917, the post-1948 implicit “melancholy of sovereignty,” and the melancholy that became identified with the Israeli colonialist regime in the West Bank since 1967.

The internal conflict in Zionist ideology and in academic institutions as described above reveals a continuity from the prestate days to the present, centered on the utopian discourse of revival and the New Man. But utopia’s dark side of the moon is melancholy. This hope for saving the Jews from their own feminized, exilic selves entailed a high cost in melancholic (self-)alienation as the pioneers were forced to erase their own sense of the past and reject any trace of their own background. Utopia, in other words, was coupled with melancholy, depression, and even death. The result was an unacknowledged incorporation of loss into the structure of the national ego, or what Freud called an “incorporation [that] both extends the ego’s narcissism and is the site of a ‘painful wound’” (Freud 1961, 28).

Looking at the history of Zionism from the perspective of 1920s political melancholy implies a need to acknowledge the loss “of the tradition of the moment upon which is superimposed the recognition of loss” (Meltzer 1996, 148). It is the loss of the Jewish exilic past; a loss of innocence after two millennia of Jewish existence that knew no forceful occupation of others; the loss of the prestate hope for a socialist society; the loss of hope for a peaceful and unbloodied solution to the Jewish-Arab problem; a loss of the ethical grounds by which the pre-1967 generation of Ashkenazi Jews justified the settlement in Palestine; and finally, the loss of melancholy itself for the sake of a fetishized and reactionary celebration of power. The messianism of “Uncle Joseph” occupied the central stage of Zionist rhetoric and was enabled by left-wing melancholy. It is only when the loss of earlier hopes is acknowledged that the Left can admit its responsibility and offer new ground for sustainable social and political transformation.