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30/1/2018 Derrida and the Palestinian question.

Derrida and the Palestinian question.

Author: Wise, Christopher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date: Jan 1, 2002
Words: 8085
Publication: Arena Journal
ISSN: 1320-6567

In the aftermath of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the world has once again turned its
attention to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. (1) The recent Aqaba Summit, underwritten by George W.
Bush's so-called 'Road Map to Peace', has re-awakened regional hopes that a fair settlement of this
debilitating conflict might be found. It might therefore be timely to review the work of some key
theorists who have addressed this problem. Although largely ignored, Jacques Derrida's Specters of
Marx offered a thought-provoking response to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the early 1990s. (2)
Derrida's analysis also introduced the concept of 'messianicity', an alleged universal structure of
consciousness (3)--or a 'groundless ground' of interlocutory exchange. (4) During the 2001-2 and
2002-3 academic years, I taught courses in US foreign policy and cultural studies at the University of
Jordan, Amman. The majority of my students were of Palestinian origin--as is true of most residents
of Amman today--and so our inquiry into Derrida's Specters of Marx was framed by concerns that are
specific to this region and its citizens--the children of the three major Palestinian 'transfers'. (5) This
article was written during the terrible months of the Spring of 2002 as Israelis conducted military
operations in Ramallah, Jenin, Gaza and elsewhere in the Occupied Territories. In this context,
Derrida's often nebulous, when not downright evasive, remarks on the 'war for the appropriation of
Jerusalem' were seldom greeted with enthusiasm. While my students at the University of Jordan
attempted to be fair to Derrida, as well as to Francis Fukuyama, Noam Chomsky and other theorists
whom we studied, our often spirited and contentious discussions of Specters of Marx did not take
place in a political vacuum. Although the conclusions in this article are mine, they were deeply
affected by the concerns and personal histories of my students.

My initial enthusiasm for Specters of Marx began to erode in this highly charged environment. In fact,
it was possible to hear raucous protests, marches, flag-burnings (of US and Israeli flags) from the
seminar room where we met. Though I do not claim to speak for anyone but myself, it is safe to say
that some consensus was achieved in our analysis of Specters of Marx, especially in the following
ways. First, Derrida's critique of Fukuyama seemed disingenuous to all of us, or at least highly
problematic, especially insofar as the latter was used by Derrida to emblematize liberal humanism in
all its multifarious and complex forms. Whatever the shortcomings of liberalism and humanism in
history, from the standpoint of dispossessed Palestinians, the deconstructive posture towards them
was highly suspect. Second, from the Christian and Muslim perspectives of those Arabs who share
this history, Derrida's 'universal' concept of messianicity appeared to be obviously and indefensibly
ethnocentric, a crass positioning of Judaism as master-code. Finally, Derrida's analysis of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict seemed to most of us to offer a religious solution to an emphatically
secular problem, an actual struggle for land rather than the playing out of a figurative eschatology
(the Zionist 'war for Jerusalem'). (6) In this article I develop my own views about Derrida's approach
to the Palestinian question in these key areas. However, I hope too that an echo of my students'
voices may be heard by all those who read it, especially those seeking a just resolution to more than
fifty years of armed conflict in this region.

Varieties of Realism

Whatever its virtues, Derrida's critique of Fukuyama's humanism fails to identify the central 1/14
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contradiction inherent in the 'transhistorical standard' Fukuyama proposes in The End of History and
The Last Man. (7) Of course, Derrida does not believe in the value of adhering to any such standard.
That he does not, not even as a 'necessary fiction', is perhaps the most obvious reason why Specters
of Marx (1994) offers practically nothing to readers seeking a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. Derrida's attempt to displace the Kantian subject in favour of a concept of the human as a
'living-dead' artefact is not only inadvisable in this setting, it is also a dangerous diversion from more
pressing historical crises.

His analysis of Fukuyama's 'transhistorical standard' is misleading in at least two ways. First, Derrida
implies that the 'idealistic logic' that informs Fukuyama's work is fully representative of those who
affirm the priority of an inclusive concept of the human, especially as a basis for establishing
international ethics. Second, Derrida exploits Fukuyama's incoherent and imperialistic articulation of
this concept as an opportunity to suggest that documents like the UN Declaration of Human Rights
are vitiated by ethnocentric bias. (The obvious ethnocentricity of the messianic, however, is merely
shrugged off as unavoidable. (8)) I will argue, however, that the concept of the human presented in
the 'UN Declaration of Human Rights' must be differentiated from Fukuyama's, which bifurcates the
human into the opposing categories of 'historical' and 'post-historical' man. Fukuyama's obvious bad
faith effectively serves Derrida's theses regarding the necessity of adopting an 'adjusted' concept of
man. It provides him with an opportunity to install himself upon the throne of Kant, but it does so at an
enormous price. As we will see, Derrida's inquiry into the ethnocentricity of the concept of the human
is an unhelpful distraction in the Palestinian-Israeli context.

In Specters of Marx, Derrida begins by rejecting Fukuyama's 'optimistic' description of the 'new world
order' by emphasizing a Mosaic of ten 'plagues' that presently beset the world; but he also seems to
heed Perry Anderson's suggestion that '[n]o reply to Fukuyama is of any avail ... if it contents itself
with pointing out problems that remain within the world he predicts'. (9) For Anderson, who unlike
Derrida respects the 'disturbing force' of Fukuyama's argument, the only coherent alternative to
Fukuyama's proposals seems to be a re-invigorated socialism, especially one that is attentive to
environmental and women's issues: 'For Fukuyama's case to fail ...', Anderson insists, 'it must be
possible to indicate a credible alternative to it'. (10) Derrida will reject Anderson's suggestion that
socialism offers us such an alternative, proposing instead that 'the idealist logic of Fukuyama' be
rejected in favour of what he calls an interpretation that 'obey[s] another logic'. (11) Despite Derrida's
pretensions to the contrary, the reader is thus presented with a false dilemma, or urged to choose
between Fukuyama's patently illiberal and anti-democratic vision and Derrida's wish to 'put into
question' both the concepts of the democratic and the human subject. Derrida argues that the reader
must not be forced to choose between the 'idealist logic of Fukuyama' and his own messianic
ideality, but that the two interpretations be 'intertwined'. (12) The logic of each system 'must be
implicated with each other in the course of a complex and constantly re-evaluated strategy'. (13) In
this way, no future concept of the democratic or the human will be imaginable unless it is first revised
in terms of the concept of 'messianicity'--which Derrida insists must be distinguished from 'law or right
and even from human rights--and an idea of democracy ...' (14)

Briefly stated, Derrida articulates two distinct definitions of the messianic in Specters of Marx and
related texts like Deconstruction in a Nutshell and 'Marx & Sons'. In its figurative or 'universal' guise,
the messianic structure may roughly be translated as 'expectation', or 'awaiting the truthful word of
the other'. For Derrida, every interlocutory act is predicated upon the hope that the other will speak
the truth to us, even if we know that he or she lies. The experience of anticipating the truth is the pre-
condition or 'ground' of the word's utterance. Derrida calls messianicity a 'groundless ground'
because the word which ushers from our lungs is 'spirit', or aspirated breath, matter that cannot be
seen by the human eye (only heard by the ear). Heidegger's observation that silence is the pre-
condition of the emergence of the logos (or word) anticipates the concept of messianicity, as Derrida
himself acknowledges. In Derrida (as in Levinas), however, the Biblical fable of Abraham, who
warmly welcomes three strangers into his tent--and is thereby promised the birth of a son--
emblematizes the importance of hospitality, the necessity of welcoming the other. Abraham only
receives God's blessing (for the strangers transmogrify into angels) after he proves to be a good host. 2/14
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By contrast, when the angels proceed to visit his nephew Lot, they are greeted with scandalous
abuse by the men of Sodom; consequently, the God of Abraham destroys the 'cities of the plain' in a
hailstorm of fire. In its literal or historical guise, the messianic in Derrida refers to the experience of
the revelation of this structure in the religions of Abraham, specifically Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam. Messianism in this sense unavoidably gives rise to dogmas, institutions, corporate religions.
Derrida acknowledges that religion or messianism in its historical sense can and even must be
deconstructed. However, he also suggests that messianism in its universal sense might never have
been known without revealed Abrahamic religion, or the historical religions of the Book.

Derrida revises the concepts of the democratic and the human in light of the messianic structure,
which he suggests is more open-ended than all previous articulations of these hegemonic concepts.
What Derrida will not ask is if more authentically future-oriented concepts of the democratic and the
human are not already embedded within what he calls 'the first interpretation', by which he means the
discourse of liberal democratic idealism, and which I argue is a far more complex and contested
political tradition than he allows. In other words, democratic ideality may not require the 'quasi-
atheistic' or messianic adjustment that Derrida urges so much as greater fidelity to its previous
articulations. I am not saying, however, that Derrida's proposal is merely redundant, but that his
desire to 'intertwine' democratic and messianic ideality risks cancelling the democratic by
transforming it into Jewish religion.

Fukuyama's Post-Historical Man

To make this case, it will be necessary to briefly turn our attention to Fukuyama's The End of History
and The Last Man to demonstrate why this text can hardly be considered emblematic of the liberal
democratic tradition. Indeed, it is a right-wing hijacking of this tradition. Fukuyama champions what
he calls a 'transhistorical standard against which to measure democratic society', (15) maintaining
that we need a concept of 'man', or that 'rights spring from an understanding of what man is'. (16)
Taking issue with animal rights activists, Fukuyama argues,
[I]f there is no agreement on the nature of man, or a belief
that such an understanding is in principle possible, then any
attempt to define rights or to prevent the creation of new and
possibly spurious ones will be unavailing. (17)

By contrast, Derrida affirms the deconstruction of man, rejecting the term 'reconstruction' which itself
implies a foundation that does not for him exist. However, Derrida ignores the most obvious problem
with Fukuyama's 'man', who is not one or indivisible as Derrida implies, but is already at least two--
and not merely with respect to gender bias. Far from adequately defining a legitimate or just concept
of a 'transhistorical standard', Fukuyama insures its ultimate failure when he divides humanity into
two spheres: those who inhabit the 'historical' world, where conflict, war and devastation still prevail;
and those who inhabit the 'post-historical' world, which is made up of those nations safely installed in
the 'Promised Land' of liberal democracy.

From the perspective of those committed to a concept of human rights, there can be little doubt about
the appalling nature of Fukuyama's prescriptions for managing the inevitable conflicts between
'historical' and 'post-historical' worlds. In Fukuyama's vision of the future, it is not only the historical
world that will find itself locked in struggle. Liberal democratic nations occasionally will also be
dragged back into history, for three specific reasons: first, management of the world's oil resources,
which he argues must remain in the grip of the post-historical subject; second, problems of
immigration, or the need to exclude the historical subject from entry to the post-historical world; and
third, control of nuclear technology, which must not proliferate in the historical world. As Anderson
has already pointed out, Fukuyama's suggestions for managing future crises between 'historical' and
'post-historical' worlds finally amount to 'a set of border patrols' that are as unrealistic as they are
unjust. (18) 3/14
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In effect, Fukuyama articulates two distinct concepts of human subjectivity, 'historical' and 'post-
historical' man. He also rationalizes the ongoing subjugation of 'historical' man to 'post-historical'
man, thereby revealing his 'transhistorical standard' as a sham humanism aimed at insuring unequal
access to rights along a North-South axis. This would be bad enough, but Fukuyama goes much
further, effectively throwing out the United Nations and its charters, suggesting that an organization
that 'looks more like' NATO, but might be the US military complex, must be installed to insure the
protection of this 'transhistorical standard' on a global basis. (19) Fukuyama rationalizes his
disregard of the United Nations and its laws on the basis that many of the nations that belong to it are
not liberal democracies with republican constitutions. (20) That is, the United Nations need not be
respected until all its members have effectively arrived in the Promised Land of post-history. In the
meantime, the rule of force must prevail in the historical realm, or in other words, the post-historical
nations may freely plunder those nations still mired in history.

It is for this reason that Fukuyama's ideas about foreign policy do not, in the end, look terribly different
from the 'realist' prescriptions of Henry Kissinger, any more than the foreign policies of the 'liberal
democrat' Bill Clinton's differed from those of his conservative predecessors. In fact, Fukuyama
states bluntly that '[t]he historical half of the world persists in operating according to realist principles,
and the posthistorical half must make use of realist principles when dealing with the part still in
history'. (21) The military interventions of the post-historical world occur with some reluctance, largely
because the incorrigible historical world 'persists' in adhering to the vicious logic of power politics.
For these reasons, Fukuyama understandably concludes that '[t]he relationship between
democracies and non-democracies will still be characterized by mutual distrust and fear, despite a
growing degree of economic interdependence'. (22) However 'optimistic' his assessment of the
triumph of liberal democracy, Fukuyama maintains that force will continue to be the 'true coin of the
realm' in ongoing relations between the developed and developing worlds.

After criticizing the historical myopia of realism, or the Kissinger school of foreign policy, Fukuyama
scarcely departs from its most basic precepts. He militates for greater co-operation between the
developed nations of the world so that the resources of the undeveloped nations may be more
efficiently pirated. The only other adjustment Fukuyama applies to Kissinger realism consists in his
admission that liberal democratic states 'that choose their friends and enemies by ideological
considerations--that is, whether they are democratic--are likely to have stronger and more durable
allies in the long run [Fukuyama's emphasis]'. (23) Until then, the UN charter may be disregarded,
just as the sheer force of military power may be relied upon to subordinate the undeveloped world to
serve the needs of the great economic powers.

Although Fukuyama defends a concept of the human as the basis for a transhistorical ethical
standard, it should be clear that his approach violates many of the most basic concepts and
principles of liberal democratic idealism and rational humanism, most obvious in his anti-egalitarian
bias towards a few wealthy men. For those who remain committed to more authentic ideals of liberal
democracy and the human subject, it is worth asking whether Fukuyama can be considered a fair
representative of what Derrida calls 'the idealist hypothesis' (24) or, rather, if Fukuyama
systematically distorts 'the idealist hypothesis' so that it may serve only very narrow and patently anti-
democratic ends.

Chomsky's Irreducible Human Subject

If this is so, to stay within 'the first interpretation', as Derrida calls it, would lead us to 'draw other
consequences' than those proposed by the 'idealist logic of Fukuyama'. (25) The interventions of
Noam Chomsky, especially in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, present us with perhaps
the most striking example of this possibility. In Chomsky's fact-driven discourse, one is immediately
struck by his respect for 'truth', or by his reliance upon 'fact' to offset the abuse of language that
characterizes US foreign policy rhetoric. Although Chomsky occasionally indulges in a kind of dry
irony that borders upon sarcasm, the most obvious appeal of his approach consists in his respect for 4/14
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his readers' rational faculties, or their ability to form fair and reasonable judgements based upon
verifiable evidence. Does Chomsky give his readers too much credit, one wonders, when reading his
books? This rather old-fashioned faith in human reason is echoed in Chomsky's careful analyses of
human rights abuses in the Middle East, which he sees as carried out in the interest of what he calls
'the rule of rich men'. (26) Chomsky does not defend the human subject in the face of attacks by
poststructuralists such as Derrida, Foucault or Barthes, (27) but rather speaks to us with the voice of
urgency, assuming the centrality of the human subject in assessing the current situation in the Middle
East, for obvious historical reasons.

At the same time, Chomsky has no illusions about any inherent goodness of the human being: 'the
United States is [not] unique in its contempt for international law and institutions,' Chomsky writes.
'Rather it is more powerful and therefore more free to do what it wishes.' (28) Chomsky will go even
further than this by asserting that 'it is difficult to imagine the world would be a better place if some
other country were to have had a comparable position of power'. (29) Chomsky's 'realistic' evaluation
of the human proclivity to dominate and perpetuate injustice does not, however, lead him to cynical
conclusions regarding the necessity of the rule of force in foreign policy. And it certainly does not
lead him to rationalize the use of force on behalf of preserving human rights for only a small portion of
the world's population. In all Chomsky's books on US foreign policy, he measures its successes and
failures on the basis of a fundamental respect for the individual, without which his analyses would be
incoherent. Another way to say this is that Chomsky defines his idealism not according to the unreal
'reality' of fatalists like Fukuyama and Kissinger, but rather, according to a concept of the democratic
that nurtures human desire within it.

One of the most telling examples of this tendency is implicit in Chomsky's defence of 'the right of
return' for displaced Palestinians, which US and Israeli 'rejectionists' have consistently refused.
Chomsky defines 'rejectionism' as 'denial of the right to national self-determination of one of the two
contending parties in the former Palestine'. (30) UN Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal
from conquered territories in exchange for peace, remains 'rejectionist' for Chomsky because it
'accords no rights to one of the contending parties, the Palestinians, apart from a reference to "just
settlement of the refugee problem"'. (31) Like UN Resolution 242, media and diplomatic terms such
as 'land for peace', 'the Saudi plan', and 'territorial compromise' fail to respect the concept of the
human in that each avoids the proper question of the right of repatriation for the many Palestinians
who lost their homes as a result of Israeli military operations. Chomsky's critique of rejectionism
hinges upon one crucial fact: its denial of basic human rights to Palestinians, as set forth in the
United Nations' 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights', specifically Article 13, which affirms that
'everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country'.

Chomsky's richly supported argument regarding US disregard for Article 13, and also other key
articles that do not suit its foreign policy interests, does not merely reveal inconsistencies in the US
record abroad. It also implies a fundamental respect for what he calls 'the process of expansion of
freedom, justice, and democracy that is now being aborted'. (32) Chomsky also urges the
'dismantling of [the] evolving structures of violence and domination' that have shaped the rule of force
in US foreign policy, especially in Israeli- Palestinian lands.

Of course, it is only possible to imagine why such structures should be dismantled if there is some
kind of transhistorical standard of the human subject. In contrast to Derrida, Chomsky does not
question the value of the human individual as a valid universal standard in measuring the legitimacy
of US foreign policy claims. Instead, he carefully isolates the misnomers and linguistic abuses in a
wide array of discursive fields, including the popular media, Western scholarship and foreign policy
rhetoric about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In his scrupulously documented case studies, his
'comparison with the facts' reveals the enormous disparity between official US foreign policy
discourse and the historical realities of its implementation outside the United States. In effect,
Chomsky 'deconstructs' the discursive logic of the 'rich rulers' by showing their contempt for
individuals whom they treat as a mob under their management--what he calls 'population control'.
(33) The goal of this neo-liberal and neohumanist 'deconstruction' is to reduce the appalling gap 5/14
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between the ideals of the liberal democratic state and the historical realities of its actions.

The Messianic Death Wish

If Chomsky does not indulge in metaphysical speculation about the human soul, his approach
implies a depth hermeneutics that is, of course, vulnerable to deconstruction. Fukuyama's
reconstruction of the Platonic Soul more frankly affirms an 'inward' and pre-linguistic dimension of
man, implying that the human subject may transcend its historical experience. Before bifurcating the
subject into 'historical' and 'post-historical' man, Fukuyama affirms a concept of 'natural' man, which
Derrida rejects as philosophically preposterous and 'naive'--and therefore not worthy of his attention.
(34) Derrida can hardly be blamed for describing Fukuyama's 'natural' subject as 'inconsistent' and
'insubstantial', mirroring Anderson's criticism of Fukuyama's wedding of 'Platonic substance and
Hegelian spirit'. (35) However, once it is clear that Fukuyama's concept of the human cannot stand
up to critical scrutiny, he ignores the more general question of the subject's persistence as a
historical structure. Nor does he ask if more valid concepts of the human might exist, for instance,
Chomsky's, Edward Said's or Theodor Adorno's, whose positions are neither more nor less 'fatalist'
than his own admitted fatalism, as evidenced in his 'taste' for the messianic. (36) In other words,
Derrida deliberately authorizes a hypostasizing of the messianic, a term he exempts from
deconstructive analysis. He allows this word to become a transcendental signifier (or even
'idolatrous' god-term), knowing very well that he herein enacts an arbitrary exercise of power.
Escaping erasure, the messianic signifies a will-to-death, the foreclosure of interpretive wrestling.
Derrida literally gives up the ghost.

In Specters of Marx, Derrida asks 'Why keep the name [of the messianic]?' (37) His answer is
Some, and I do not exclude myself, will find this despairing
'messianism' has a curious taste, a taste of death. It is true
that this taste is above all a taste, a foretaste, and in essence
it is curious. Curious of the very thing that it conjures--and
that leaves something to be desired. (38) (my emphasis)

Although he is aware of the arbitrary nature of his 'curious' and moribund affinity for the messianic,
Derrida is reduced to the baldest use of force in defending this bloated religious signifier. 'What we
are saying here will not please anyone,' Derrida admits. 'But whoever said that someone ever had to
speak, think, or write in order to please someone else?' (39) Far from soliciting the voice of the other,
Derrida forecloses the possibility of further dialogue by authorizing a calculated 'annihilation' of the
spirits of the other. In contrast to the living-dead messiah, certain irrelevant ghosts may safely be
forgotten. But if the transcendent subject of liberal humanism amounts to little more than a convenient
legal fiction, even a bogus figure of universality, at least it has one advantage over Derrida's
messianic 'man': liberal man has always been an emblem of the desire to escape the theocratic
state. However crude the earliest articulations, he was forged from a collective will to establish a
political space emptied of the religious. Although liberal man does not escape his basis in religion,
he nevertheless does not surrender to it, nor does he tolerate the use of specific religious references
in official documents of state.

In the arena of political discourse, Derrida's anti-liberalism may ultimately pose more problems than
his anti-humanism, although they are closely related, for Derrida's recuperative employment of
messianic terminology in Specters of Marx lays the foundations for a concept of the democratic that
erodes the separation of religion and state. Indeed, Derrida seeks to install a highly problematic
variety of religious ideality in the place of more authentically secular--albeit imperfect--concepts of
the democratic that prevail in the West. One might agree with Derrida that the facts of history reveal
significant failings in the implementation of democratic idealism while still rejecting the messianic
ideality that Derrida proposes. In opposition to both Derrida and Fukuyama, one can assert the 6/14
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priority of a deliberately secular concept of democratic idealism that is unapologetically vigilant

against the dangers of the religious, especially in messianic form.

Although Derrida admits that the messianic signals a will to death, an admission that implies the
largely private nature of this obsession, he also hints that it may not be possible to speak about the
'religious' without reference to actual religions. (40) The retention of the word 'messiah' and the
postponement of deciding whether the 'universal' structure exists independently of religion are
equivalent gestures. If it is not feasible to speak of the religious without reference to specific religions,
as Derrida hints, this 'neutral' structure cannot be understood without the historical terminology of
Abrahamic religions; that is, the Hebraic-Aramaic word 'messiah' would be essential in
understanding the messianic. Should the opposite possibility be true (that is, that the 'universal'
structure of messianicity may be conceptualized without reference to Abrahamic religion), Derrida
may have discovered a transcendental structure of consciousness, a truly universal basis for cross-
cultural dialogue. He does not claim to go quite this far. In fact, he retreats from a fully blown 'quasi-
atheism' into simple agnosticism, leaving open the possibility that messianicity may be dependent
upon the 'absolute events' of prophetic revelation in Middle Eastern religions--but then again, it may
not. (41)

A related problem is the homogeneity of Derrida's concept of Abrahamic religion. If particular

prophetic revelations did constitute 'absolute events', founding distinct religious traditions, they are
conflated in Specters of Marx. Their unique histories are ignored. The Genesis theophany of
Abraham and his angelic guests becomes the master-code that unlocks the hidden meaning of
Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a manoeuvre that co-ordinates very well with Jewish beliefs that
revelation is more about the anticipation of the word than its arrival. In other words, Abrahamic
messianism tends to mean Jewish messianism. The suspension of judgement regarding
messianicity's ability to transcend historical religion seems to amount to a decision to suspend
judgement about the absolute character of Judaism. In the setting of what Derrida calls 'the war for
the appropriation of Jerusalem', this deferral inevitably serves a political function.

The majority of Derrida's readers in the West are largely ignorant of the debate raging in Israel today
about its future as a liberal democratic or ethno-democratic society. By 'liberal' I do not necessarily
mean 'capitalist'. I am referring primarily to the kind of state that defines its eligible members
according to a secular concept of citizenship, rather than according to religion or ethnic identity. The
Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell puts it this way: 'Those who wish Israel to be a truly liberal state or
Israeli society to be open must recognize the fact that liberalism derives from the initial attempt in the
seventeenth century to separate religion from politics'. (42) Like most liberal Israelis, Sternhell
criticizes the attempts of orthodox Jews to merge politics and religion, insisting that 'a liberal state
can only be a secular state, a state in which the concept of citizenship lies at the center of collective
existence [my emphasis]'. (43) Chomsky similarly comments that, 'citizens of France are French, but
citizens of the Jewish state may be non-Jews, either by ethnic or religious origin, or simply by choice
... To the extent that Israel is a Jewish state, it cannot be a democratic state'. (44)

This context is missing from Derrida's discussion of 'the war for Jerusalem': his anti-liberal
adjustments to the concepts of the human and the democratic, as well as his decision to forestall
judgement about messianicity's historical basis in religion, may better serve the needs of messianic
Zionists (that is, fundamentalist settlers in the West Bank) than those committed to building an
authentically egalitarian society in Israel. In Israel and Israeli-occupied territories, this deferral does
not so much undermine liberal capitalist ideology as postpone the establishment of an inclusive,
non-religious and non-ethnic concept of the Israeli citizen. In the language of foreign policy realism,
Derrida advocates a 'stalemate', but a stalemate that tends to serve particular interests.

The Ethnocentrism of Messianicity

In his mosaic of plagues that beset the contemporary world, Derrida criticizes international law and
its institutions. The foremost problem consists in their ethnocentric basis in Western culture, or 'the 7/14
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fact that their norms, their charter, [and] the definition of their mission depend upon a certain historical
culture'. (45) In other words, concepts like the 'human' and the 'democratic' within documents like
'The UN Declaration of Human Rights' tend to favour the Christian West. The defining 'norms' of
these allegedly 'neutral' documents 'cannot be dissociated from certain European philosophical
concepts, notably from a concept of State or national sovereignty ...' (46) For Derrida, one proof of
this, which is the second problem inherent in international legal institutions today, is the fact that the
United Naitons is dominated by certain nation-states. It is interesting to note that Derrida's critique of
the United Nations mirrors Fukuyama's in two ways: both agree that the United Nations is rendered
powerless insofar as it is manipulated by 'certain' hegemonic national powers, and both decline to
specify exactly who these national powers are, much less why they tend to ignore the will of the
majority. This leads Fukuyama to conclude that the United Nations may simply be disregarded in
favour of developing a strong 'post-historical' military alliance to police the 'new' world order. It leads
Derrida, on the other hand, to authorize the deconstruction of the 'unfairly' biased historical concepts
of the United Nations' charter documents. However, neither Derrida nor Fukuyama have anything to
say about the 'special relationship' between Israel and the United States, the key factor in eroding the
United Nations' credibility as a neutral adjudicating agent.

The historical abuses of 'certain' unnamed states validates Derrida's argument that the concept of the
state must be deconstructed. The furthest that Derrida will go in affirming a concept of the human is
that he will 'pay tribute' to those, like Chomsky, who work towards the 'perfectibility and emancipation'
of international legal institutions like the United Nations:
However insufficient, confused, or equivocal such signs may still
be, we should salute what is heralded today, in the reflection on
the right of interference or intervention in the name of what is
obscurely and sometimes hypocritically called the humanitarian,
thereby limiting the sovereignty of the State in certain
conditions. (Derrida's emphasis) (47)

Derrida's 'tribute' is grudging at best, insulting at worst--at least for those whose conservatism
regarding the human subject may result from more than philosophical incompetence. It is also as
vague as his critique of the abuse of the United Nations by 'particular nations', for one can only
wonder which nations are implied and what these 'conditions' might be. For instance, do they pertain
to the state of Israel and Israeli-occupied territories where full access to human rights is determined
on the basis of one's ethnic and religious identity? The answer to this question would seem to be
'no'. In fact, Derrida articulates a defence of what he calls 'the archaic' or 'primitive conceptual
phantasm of community, the nation-State, sovereignty, borders, native soil and blood [my emphasis]'.
(48) Each of these separate manifestations of 'the archaic phantasm' is 'not a bad thing in itself',
Derrida assures us, '[because] it doubtless keeps some irreducible resource'. (49) Rather than
critically analyse the 'archaic phantasm' that drives the inter-ethnic conflicts, Derrida insists that the
process of dislocation that it inaugurates is 'the positive condition of the stabilization that it constantly
relaunches [my emphasis]'. (50) It may not seem this way if one is Palestinian, but Derrida does not
overtax his readers by applying this proposition to any specific historical contexts. Instead, he
supports his argument by the mystifying assertion that 'all stability in a place [is] but a stabilization ...

Whatever its implications in other contexts, Derrida's discussion of the eighth plague of 'inter-ethnic
wars' that are 'driven by an archaic phantasm' evades a number of important factors specific to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, the fight to achieve independence along nationalist lines, especially
when its goal is the installation of a liberal democratic form of government, is not 'archaic' or
'outdated' in the same way that messianic Zionism--or, the 'archaic phantasm of native soil and
blood'--is obviously, dangerously and indefensibly 'archaic'. In other words, there is an enormous
difference between a struggle for national self-determination which affirms an inclusive and
democratic concept of citizenship and a struggle to expand an exclusive theocratic state which 8/14
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defines its members according to their race or religion. Second, Derrida's description of a
'relaunched stabilization', which he affirms as a 'positive condition', is profoundly insensitive to the
human lives which may be affected by the 'dislodgement' of their own 'archaism' (in the Palestinian
case, presumably the 'mythical' claim to centuries of territorial occupation). Finally, many liberal
Israelis today have concluded that the 'archaism' of messianic Zionism is indeed 'a bad thing in
itself', whatever Derrida's claims to the contrary. Shahak and Mezvinsky state:
An intellectual compromise with Jewish orthodoxy is no more
possible than is an intellectual compromise with any other
totalitarian state. An apologetic approach to the Jewish past ...
only increases the dangers of a developing Jewish 'Khomeinism'.

The Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling similarly observes that '[t]he values of the [Jewish] religion,
at least in its Orthodox and nationalistic form that prevails in Israel, cannot be squared with
democratic values'. (53) In contrast, Derrida is compelled to defend the 'archaic phantasm' for its
ability to preserve 'some irreducible resource'. (54) One can only wonder about the exact
composition of this 'resource' and the actual site of its preservation.

In the West Bank, the majority of Jewish settlers have similarly argued that the West's idea of the
human is biased or 'Hellenic', maintaining that democracy is simply inappropriate for Jews. 'Jews are
not and cannot be a normal people,' the Messianic Zionists insist. 'Their eternal uniqueness ... [is] the
result of the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai' (55) ; or, as Rabbi Aviner of Gush Emunim
put it, '[w]hile God requires other normal nations to abide by abstract codes of justice and
righteousness, such laws do not apply to Jews'. (56) Belief in the special status of the Jews as a
chosen people has led some settlers in the West Bank to conclude that it is not a sin for a Jew to kill
a non-Jew since 'a non-Jewish soul comes from three satanic spheres, while the Jewish soul stems
from holiness'. (57) In fact, many Messianic Zionists assert that 'Jews have a right and a duty to kill
Gentiles who live in the land of Israel'. (58) Refracted through the lens of these religious extremists,
Derrida's suggestion that the ethnocentric concept of the human be rethought in light of the
'messianic structure' loses a great deal of its moral force. In fact, the Gush Emunim seem to be at one
completely with Derrida in their hostility towards Hellenic man. 'For years the settlers have prepared
for an out-and-out war against what they call the second Hellenization of the people of Israel,' Zeev
Sternhell remarks, 'a process of cultural assimilation of far greater seriousness in their view than the
one the Jewish people experienced in antiquity'. (59)

In antiquity, it will be remembered, Palestinian Jews suffered grossly inhumane treatment in the
separate periods of Greek and Roman imperialism. The High Priesthood of Jason in 175 BCE, who
forced Jews to conform to the Greek way of life and oversaw the first real pogroms in Jewish history,
remains a black moment in Jewish memory. Among other forms of sacrilege, the Temple at
Jerusalem was dedicated to Zeus before whom human sacrifices were offered (2 Maccabees 6:1-7).
More than two millennia later, Jews today celebrate Hanukka to commemorate the restoration of the
Temple after this horrible desecration. However, messianic Zionists have maintained that the more
recent 'Hellenization' of the Jews, a threat that is signified by the rise of liberal democratic ideology in
Israel, is actually worse than the experiences of days past. On the other hand, many secular and
liberal Israelis have recognized the dangers of this ethnocentric animosity against Hellenic culture.
Sternhell states, 'In effect, the secular Israeli Jew, looking toward the West and receptive to its values,
has begun, in recent years, to forge for himself an "independent" identity detached from the mystical
ramifications of his religion and the irrational side of his history'. (60)

In this light, Derrida's hostility for the liberal democratic subject might even be interpreted as an effort
to forestall the development of a truly egalitarian society in Israel, or to preserve archaic religious
values that many Israelis themselves realize are unjust, and dangerous. Sternhell himself mourns the
assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which he describes as 'an act of resistance against that process of 9/14
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passage to normalcy [my emphasis]'. (61) By 'normalcy', Sternhell means the implementation of
liberal democratic values in Israeli society; whereas Derrida insists that the very idea of normality--
because it unavoidably implies a Hellenic norm--cannot serve as a valid common measure of a
transcultural ethics, except perhaps in the most 'insufficient, confused, or equivocal' ways. (62)

Derrida refuses to consider the implications of his valorization of 'messianicity' for non-Jews,
especially in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Most obviously, few Arabs will be happy with the use of
this 'arbitrary' and 'universal' signifier, given the fact that Jewish settlers in the West Bank commonly
describe themselves as messianic Zionists. How many Israeli Jews would happily accept
descriptions of themselves that employed terms like 'Hamas', 'Islamic Jihad', 'Hezbollah' or 'Fatah' in
place of, or complimentary to, a concept of the human and the democratic? The word 'messianic'
means 'the annointed one' or 'king of the Jews', a word that for Jews and non-Jews alike implies a
concept of blood election. The mythology of pure blood lineage--the historical need to preserve a
spotless 'remnant'--was partly to insure that the Messiah would indeed come, but from a specifically
Jewish blood line. In fact, the expression 'the Son of David' is historically synonymous with the word

Can the messianic be conceptualized apart from its relation to an ideology of blood election?
Derrida's valorization of what he calls 'an aristocracy without distinction' in no way undermines
Zionist ideologies of blood election; (63) in fact, it seems to co-ordinate quite well with recent efforts
by Israeli Jews to conceptualize Jewish identity in a multicultural context wherein a Jew today may
be black (or African), Asiatic, Oriental (or Sephardic), European (or Ashkanazi), etcetera. Derrida
himself alludes to his own 'blackness' or 'Arab' identity in 'Circumfession' on a number of occasions.
In Israel today, belief in the mystical power of blood is similarly evoked to resolve the contradictions
that are posed by the wide ethnic diversity of Jewish peoples. For instance, the immigration of
thousands of black Ethiopians to Israel sparked a national debate about the true nature of Jewish
identity, especially when Ethiopians were prevented from donating blood to national blood banks. If
Israeli Jews today are racially diverse, most affirm that they are nonetheless 'united by one blood'.
The ideology of blood identity, however, cannot address the status of Israeli Arabs who lack in this
common blood, whatever the colour of their skin. It is not necessarily contradictory, then, to describe
oneself as 'Arab' or 'black' while preserving one's belief in a mystical blood identity. Derrida's
sentimental obsession with blood, and the relation of the messianic to the Jewish doctrine of blood
election, are therefore not inappropriate areas of inquiry in determining the universality of the
concepts that Derrida proposes, especially in favour of the concepts of the human and the


In opposition to Derrida's efforts to counter liberal democratic ideology with what are specifically
Jewish concepts, I have argued that he does not sufficiently demonstrate the shoddiness of the
concepts of the human or the democratic, merely the shoddiness of Fukuyama's version of them.
Derrida precipitously dismisses the idea of a transhistorical standard as 'inconsistent and
insubstantial', scarcely worth mentioning. (64) For Derrida, the figures that circulate in 'autonomous'
political discourse are not manufactured cliches that can be subjected to rational analysis, they are
fabulous ghosts that we summon in 'exorc-analysis', largely to reveal our collective impotence. (65)
The messiah is therefore a marker of despair, a craving for death. Derrida sides with this despairing
Jewish messiah against man, whom he dismisses as an ethno-lackey of Zeus. The proposed
concept of messianicity in Derrida's allegedly 'open' system will do little to insure equal human rights
and greater human happiness, especially for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. This is so because
no case for Palestinian rights that dispenses with the concept of the human, as established in the
'UN Declaration of Human Rights', can hope to succeed. In fact, Derrida seeks a kind of religious
settlement to an essentially political or secular dispute. In the Palestinian context, affirmation of the
concept of the human serves as an effective strategy in securing Palestinian rights and autonomy. In
this setting, the real value of deconstruction may lie in its ability to interrogate US and Israeli foreign
policy discourse, that is, in ascertaining the legitimacy of its claims to be advancing human justice. 10/14
30/1/2018 Derrida and the Palestinian question.

Deconstruction could be useful if it were employed to help dismantle anti-democratic laws in Israel,
or to examine Western foreign policy discourse. Subordinated to some concept of the human, it might
facilitate understanding across hidebound ideological divides to help bring about an equitable and
lasting peace in the Middle East.

(1.) An earlier version of this paper was delivered at Hashemite University in Zarqa, Jordan on 13
May 2002.

(2.) J. Derrida, Specters of Marx : The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New
International, New York, Routledge, 1994, For an example of such commentary, see M. Sprinker's
Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida's 'Specters of Marx', London, Verso, 1999,
which is silent on the question of the Middle East. This omission is particularly striking in a volume of
marxist responses to Derrida's deconstruction of Marx and marxism. My essay 'Deconstruction and
Zionism: Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx', focuses upon related concerns, especially the
syllepsis, or figural-literal doubling, of the terms messianicity and Abrahamic messianism in Specters
of Marx. See C. Wise, 'Deconstruction and Zionism: Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx,' diacritics,
vol. 31, no. 1, 2001, pp. 56-71.

(3.) J. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, New York,
Fordham University Press, 1997, pp. 22-4

(4.) Caputo, p. 23.

(5.) The history of Amman, Jordan has been uniquely shaped by three main historical events leading
to the enormous influxes of Palestinian refugees: first, immediately following the formation of the
Israel in 1948, when more than 900,000 Palestinians poured into Jordan; second, during the Six-Day
War of 1967 when another 150,000 Palestinians sought refuge in Jordan; and, third, following the
first Gulf War, which led to the expulsion of some 300,000 Jordanians and Palestinians from Kuwait.
At the time of the founding of Israel, the indigenous Jordanian population of Amman numbered
around 25,000. Today there are more than 1.6 million residents in Amman. Official estimates vary
according to the political climate. However, the population of Amman is probably somewhere
between seventy and eighty-five per cent Palestinian.

(6.) It should be noted that a small number of students, particularly those whose interpretations of
Islam were more extreme in character, did accept Derrida's proposition that the 'war for Jerusalem'
was largely religious in character.

(7.) F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, The Free Press, 1992.

(8.) Derrida, pp. 87-8.

(9.) P. Anderson, A Zone of Engagement, New York/London, Verso Press, 1992, p. 336.

(10.) Anderson, p. 357-8.

(11.) Derrida, p. 86.

(12.) Derrida, p. 87.

(13.) Derrida, p. 87.

(14.) Derrida, p. 59. It should be noted in passing that messianic doctrines are not fully developed in
ancient Palestine until the era of the Babylonian Captivity and the return from exile. Both Christians
and Muslims affirm the messianic vocation of Jesus of Nazareth although the messianic status of
Jesus does not imply doctrines of incarnation or the divinity of Christ in Islam; that is, for Muslims, 11/14
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Jesus is Messiah but not God. In Islam, messianism is not a key theological concept, as it is in
Christianity or Judaism. Jews, on the other hand, have affirmed belief in the coming Messiah while
rejecting the suggestion that he already appeared in the personage of Jesus Christ. The Essenes of
Qumran, however, believed that there were two messiahs who had already come (neither of whom
was Jesus). The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the complexity of this doctrine in extant literature of this

(15.) Fukuyama, p. 288.

(16.) Fukuyama, p. 296.

(17.) Fukuyama, p. 296.

(18.) Anderson, p. 355.

(19.) Fukuyama, p. 283.

(20.) Fukuyama, p. 281.

(21.) Fukuyama, p. 279.

(22.) Fukuyama, p. 279.

(23.) Fukuyama, p. 280.

(24.) Derrida, p. 86.

(25.) Derrida, p. 86.

(26.) N. Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New, New York, Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 14.

(27.) For more in this regard, see Christopher Norris's informative discussion of Chomsky and
poststructualism in Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals, and the Gulf War, Amherst,
Massachusetts, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992, pp. 100-21.

(28.) Chomsky, p. 221.

(29.) Chomsky, p. 221.

(30.) Chomsky, p. 207.

(31.) Chomsky, p. 272.

(32.) Chomsky, p. 188.

(33.) Chomksy, pp. 1-3.

(34.) Derrida, p. 68.

(35.) Anderson, p. 348.

(36.) Derrida, p. 169.

(37.) Derrida, p. 167. 12/14
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(38.) Derrida, p. 169.

(39.) Derrida, pp. 87-8.

(40.) Caputo, pp. 23-4.

(41.) Caputo, p. 24.

(42.) Z. Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press,
1998, p. xiii.

(43.) Sternhell, p. xiii.

(44.) N. Chomsky, 'Foreword', The Arabs and Israel, London, Bodley Head, 1968, p. 9.

(45.) Derrida, p. 83.

(46.) Derrida, p. 83.

(47.) Derrida, p. 84.

(48.) Derrida, p. 82. The concept of the 'archaic phantasm' is related to the maternal, which--like the
concept of the messianic--is a syllepsis or doubled-trope: the mother in Specters of Marx is 'on the
one hand' a revolutionary and figurative resource to inspire praxis, and, 'on the other hand' a literal
complex or 'problematic' like any other (such as the Hamlet complex, the Horatio complex, etc.)
However, the mother appears exclusively as a figurative resource in Specters of Marx. In daily
revolutionary struggle, the mother would seem to have no place. What Derrida means by 'resource' is
apparently linked to his definition of the mother as a kind of blood donor (in his essay
'Circumfession'). If this is so, the archaic phantasm within the Israeli context may point to Jewish
doctrines of blood election of maternal descent.

(49.) Derrida, p. 82.

(50.) Derrida, p. 82.

(51.) Derrida, p. 82.

(52.) I. Shahak and N. Mezvinksky, Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel, London/Sterling, Virginia, Pluto
Press, 1999, p. 132.

(53.) Shahak and Mezvinsky, p. viii.

(54.) Derrida, p. 82.

(55.) Shahak and Mezvinsky, p. 71.

(56.) Shahak and Mezvinsky, p. 71.

(57.) Shahak and Mezvinsky, p. 60.

(58.) Shahak and Mezvinsky, p. 110.

(59.) Sternhell, p. 344.

(60.) Sternhell, p. 342. 13/14
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(61.) Sternhell, p. 340.

(62.) Derrida, p. 84.

(63.) J. Derrida, 'Circumfession', in G. Bennington's Jacques Derrida, Chicago/London, University of

Chicago Press, 1993, p. 63.

(64.) Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 47.

(65.) Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 47.

Christopher Wise teaches cultural studies at Western Washington University.

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