If nihilism is a largely misunderstood concept, it is on account of both its ambivalence and its affirmative horizon. Drawing on these aspects, this article reactivates the concept of nihilism in rereading one of the most influential moments in the history of modern Hebrew literature: Y.H. Brenner’s novel From Here and There and his subsequent essay on ‘the genre of Eretz Israel.’ Indeed, in a central episode in the novel the limits of legitimate political critique are traced along the lines of nihilism; but, as Nietzschean-inspired theories of nihilism emphasize, nihilism, taken to the point of its own overcoming, can be completed into a moment of creative affirmation. Following the philosophy of ‘weak thought,’ I read this moment in Brenner as a moment of weak affirmation. Through it, I argue, Brenner proposes a weak political and literary paradigm as an affirmative continuation of the nihilistic, post-Zionist critique. Surprisingly, then, Brenner, one of the central figures in Zionist history, turns out to be a weak thinker: he thus allows for a rethinking of the relations between nationalism, literature, and historiography. Or, in other words, for a weakening of national politics, literature, and literary historiography.
Gershom Scholem, the pioneering historian of Jewish mysticism, was fascinated throughout his career by the mystical sources of nihilism in the Jewish tradition, sources which ultimately produced the antinomian Sabbatian movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But in his own political philosophy, he eschewed nihilism for a more moderate religious anarchism, identifying the right-wing Revisionists with the Sabbatians. The relationship between Scholem’s history of the Kabbalah, his anarchistic religious philosophy and his political activism can be traced in his published writings as well as his letters and other private writings.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline is considered one of the most pro-Nazi, antisemitic writers in Europe. In 1994, an intense controversy arose in Israel after the decision to translate into Hebrew and publish his novel, Journey to the End of the Night. The heated debate soon went beyond the question of the book’s publication. This essay analyzes Céline’s reception in Israel, and more specifically, the controversy that erupted over the translation of Journey. It argues that while this debate was relatively minor in the context of the heated polemics on the Holocaust, it nevertheless has significant implications on both contemporary public discourse on the Holocaust and the limits of political criticism in Israel. Israeli intellectual discourse is framed, to a large extent, I contend, within the borders of Auschwitz, a metaphor for the borders of consciousness of many Jewish-Israelis, from both the left and the right. To this day, the trauma of the Holocaust is still present in Israeli society in a way that determines what is legitimate to read, discuss, and disagree with. Furthermore, by examining the different voices in this controversy, I demonstrate how the Israeli ‘Céline affair’ in the mid-1990s moves us away from the overstated positions of the major debates, and sheds new light on the specter of the Holocaust in Israel in seemingly non-political discussions of culture, art, and leisure. The political underpinnings of the Céline controversy, I conclude, are not clear or clear cut, and are not defined by the traditional political camps in Israel. The implication is that public Holocaust debates represent an autonomous field, subordinated to no political party dictates, and yet are still political. The public debate that followed the translation of Journey serves as a watershed. It shows us how at the end of every political–cultural divide in Israeli society, we arrive at ‘Auschwitz’ as a metaphor for the existential threat.