The Ego and the Yid

by Leon Wieseltier | April 7, 2003

A few years ago, Edward Said was invited to give a lecture at the Freud Society in Vienna, at Berggasse 19 no less, on the subject of "Freud and the Non-European." Then he chose to enact his vocation as an intellectual by gayly throwing a rock at an Israeli guardhouse across the Lebanese border, and the Freud Society withdrew its invitation. "Freud was hounded out of Vienna because he was a Jew," Said explained to The New York Times. "Now I'm hounded out because I'm a Palestinian." It was one of the more extreme expressions of Said's compassion for himself. It put me in mind of an autobiographical lecture that he delivered at the New York Public Library in 1998, in which he preceded his recollections of his many ordeals ("When I graduated [boarding school in Massachusetts], the rank of valedictorian or salutatorian was withheld from me") with an account of the shipwrecked sailor in Conrad's story "Amy Foster," one of the most truly unfortunate figures in all of literature. Anyway, having discovered what it feels like to be a Jew on the run, Said eventually delivered his lecture at the Freud Museum of London. It has now appeared as a book, and its aim is the correction, and in a way the annulment, of Jewish identity.

Said admires Freud for two reasons. The first reason is that "Freud mobilized the non-European past in order to undermine any doctrinal attempt that might be made to put Jewish identity on a sound foundational basis, whether religious or secular." This dissolution of Jewish identity Freud is alleged to have accomplished in Moses and Monotheism, the late work in which he proposed, as Said put it, that "the founder of Jewish identity was himself a non-European Egyptian," and that "Judaism begins in the realm of Egyptian, non-Jewish monotheism." In this way Freud "undercuts Judaic originality" and "restores to their place components of the origin of Judaism that had been forgotten or denied." The second reason is that Freud displayed an admirable alienation from his own people, and exemplified "thediasporic, wandering, unresolved, cosmopolitan consciousness of someone who is both inside and outside his or her community." Said concludes his book with a paean to "the non-Jewish Jew," Isaac Deutscher's ancient slogan of Jewish self-erasure.

All this is intellectual violence, and nothing else. It is an assault upon the Jewish Jew, an exercise in the coercive figuration of theother that Said has made a career out of piously lamenting. I have seen nothing like it since Arthur Koestler's ridiculous attempt to relieve himself of his Jewishness by insisting upon its Khazar origins. But Koestler's coarse notion of the historical inauthenticity of the Jews had at least a certain spiritual authenticity: He was not the only Jew in modernity who was keen to be rid of the weight. Said, by contrast, is here to tell us who we really are. And his ignorance is as perfect as his temerity. He seems to know nothing about anything Jewish. He relies heavily upon Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's remarkable book Freud's Moses, which appeared in 1991, though he amusingly refers to its author as "Josef" instead of "Yosef." "Josef" has a fine exilic ring, whereas "Yosef" is so Hebrew, so housed. Said grossly simplifies Yerushalmi's account of Freud's attitude to Zionism, which was much more favorable than Said's hating mind can allow. Freud's withering rationalism did not at all wither his solidarity with his people. Yet the really risible thing about Said's construction is that it is based entirely on a fiction. Freud conceived of his work as "ein historischer Roman," a historical novel. There is no basis in Biblical scholarship or in historical scholarship for his notion that Moses was an Egyptian, or that he was murdered by the Israelites in the desert (that was the particular hallucination of a German writer named Ernst Sellin), or that Judaism was guiltily established as a "return of the repressed," and so on. Said remarks that "so much of the material [Freud] is dealing with as he chronicles the aftermath of Moses' legacy is uneven," but it is really quite even. It is evenly spurious. Freud's discussion in Moses and Monotheism is nothing like a "demonstration," as Said calls it. Freud himself concedes in his book--Said does not cite these passages--that "[o]bjective evidence … has not been obtainable," and that he is "accepting what seems to us serviceable in the material presented to us and rejecting what does not suit us," and that "I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way." Freud is not restoring anything. He is inventing everything. And Said has a political use for his inventions.

Jews are not Europeans and they are not non-Europeans. They are Jews, an autonomous people with an autonomous history that has directed them, in different times and in different places, against their will and according to their will, toward certain peoples and away from certain peoples. The autonomy of the Jews, moreover, is not the same thing as the exclusivity of the Jews. The idea that Jewish religion and Jewish culture was influenced by non-Jewish religions and non-Jewish cultures is not exactly a bolt of revisionist lightning. Jewish sameness is riddled with otherness. In the Jewish tradition, it was Abraham, and not Moses, who discovered monotheism, and Abraham was famously a Chaldean, a man who came from across the river and was therefore an ivri, a crosser, a Hebrew. The impact of the religious practices of the Egyptians upon the religious practices of the Israelites was meticulously analyzed by Maimonides in the twelfth century. Sothe story of the Jewish understanding of Jewish hybridity is rich and long, and it is in no way ruinous of Jewish identity. What matters, after all, is what a culture does with its heterogeneous materials. Provenance is not the measure of substance. Said assails Yerushalmi for "impl[ying] that it was the genius of Judaism to have elaborated the religion well beyond anything the Egyptians knew about," but that is precisely the point. Origins have almost nothing to do with originality.

And if the non-Jewish Jew, then why not the non-Palestinian Palestinian? Surely the blessing of cosmopolitanism, of all blessings, must be a universal one. If the Jews have been raised up by the spiritual blandishments of statelessness, then the Palestinians, too, should aspire to them. But Said likes it both ways. He enjoys the glamour of diasporism and the rectitude of nationalism. The only interesting disclosure in this insulting little volume is that its author opposes any partition of the disputed land and supports the establishment of "a bi-national state in which Israel and Palestine are parts." He knows, of course, that a bi-national state is a method of abolishing the Jewish state by demographic means. But if the Jews come to feel homeless at home, well, homelessness is what they do best, and who are they to interfere with Edward Said's representation of them?

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/the-ego-and-the-yid