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The size of longing
Sudeep Dasgupta
09 April 2024
published in Issue Five

On Jacob Israël de Haan’s Palestine and Arnold Zweig’s novel of post‑Zionist disillusionment

Carved into the pink granite stone of Amsterdam’s Homomonument, opened in 1987, are the words Naar vriendschap zulk een mateloos verlangen: « To friendship, oh such a limitless longing ». The words are taken from the poem « To a Young Fisherman », by the Dutch poet Jacob Israël de Haan, published posthumously in 1924. The Homomonument is a triangle that juts out into the Herengracht canal in the city center, a stone’s throw from the Anne Frank House. It is a ready site for ceremonies: every 1 December there is a memorial for those felled by AIDS; every 4 May, for the homosexual victims of Nazism.

Jacob Israël de Haan was a Dutch lawyer, born in the town of Smilde in the Netherlands in 1881. He was also a writer, a scholar of Jewish texts, and a human rights activist avant la lettre. From Amsterdam, he documented, among other horrors, the violation of prisoners’ rights in Tsarist Russia. In 1919, antisemitism in Europe drove him to Palestine with the hope — ill-fated — of helping establish a humane form of Zionism. Soon after his arrival there, De Haan was repulsed by the violent repression of the native Arab Muslim population, and he became an ardent anti-Zionist, even as he continued to teach and practice law in Jerusalem.

De Haan was also homosexual, and his poetry reached defiantly and exuberantly across the Arab/Jewish divide. One glimpses it in these lines from the poem « Doubt », for instance:

     Wat wacht ik in dit avonduur,
     De Stad beslopen door de slaap,
     Gezeten bij den Tempelmuur:
     God of den Marokkaanschen Knaap?

     What is it I await as evening falls,
     The city snuck upon by sleep,
     Sitting near the Western Wall:
     God, or a Moroccan boy?

That poem was published in 1924, the year De Haan was shot in Jerusalem. He was killed on the orders of the Zionist group Haganah, forerunner of what is now the Israeli Defence Forces, whose senior leader, Izhak ben-Zvi, would become the second President of Israel. De Haan’s desire was, we might say, both political and sexual: it could obey neither the violent dynamic of state formation, nor the holy strictures of the religion he studied.

It takes a leap of the imagination, today, to think through De Haan’s multiple affiliations, confronted as we are by Jew/Arab, self/other distinctions. In ways I have found newly potent now, the psychic and the social, the erotic and the political coalesce in De Haan. He figured an intimate conjoining of political anti-Zionism by a Jew, a deep-seated love of the holy texts of Judaism, and a sexual longing — both acted on and aestheticized — for Arab youth. The Homomonument, certainly, does not register this conjunction of desires, for it does not lend itself to monumentalization.

But it does lend itself to novelization. The German Jewish writer Arnold Zweig, writing to Sigmund Freud in 1932, called De Haan’s fate « Israel’s first political murder ».


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Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Robert B. Louden (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 101.

Lital Levy, « Historicizing the Concept of the Arab Jews in the ‘Mashriq’ », The Jewish Quarterly Review 98:4 (Fall 2008), 460-461.

Salim Tamari, « Ishaq al-Shami and the Predicament of the Arab Jew in Palestine », Jerusalem Quarterly 21 (2004), 14-15. See Yehouda Shenhav, « Jews from Arab Countries and the Palestinian Right for Return: An Ethnic Community in the Realms of National Memory », The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 29:1 (2002), 27-56.

Cited in Yehoshua Porath, The Emergence of the Pales tinian Arab National Movement, 1918-1929 (Frank Cass, 1974), 60-61.

Ammiel Alcalay, After Arabs and Jews: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minneapolis Press, 1993).

Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 (University of California Press, 1996), 7-8.

Amos Oz, Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land (Chatto and Windus, 2017), 9.

Edward Said, « Arabic Prose and Prose Fiction after 1948 », in Reflections on Exile, and other essays (Harvard University Press, 2003), 47.

Edward Said, « My Right of Return: An Interview with Ari Shavit », Haaretz (18 August 2000).

« The exile is so strong within me, perhaps I will bring it home », Mahmoud Darwish, interview by Helith Yeshurun, Hadarim 12 (1996).

Wadad Cortas Makdisi, A World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman (New York: Nation Books, 2009). The memoir was first published in Arabic in the 1960s.

Darwish, The Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books, 2011), 35.

Jacob Israël de Haan, Kwatrijnen (P.N. van Kampen en Zoon, 1924), 77. My translation from the Dutch.

Nathan Witt, « Jacob Israël de Haan A Queer and Lapsed Zionist in Mandate Palestine », Jerusalem Quarterly 87 (Autumn 2021), 102.

This essay’s print version includes the sentence, « Arnold Zweig, writing to Sigmund Freud in 1932, called De Haan’s fate ‘Israel’s first political murder’ », quoting Nathan Witt (cited above). Witt attributed the line to Zweig, but the published English translation of Zweig’s letter does not include the full phrase. Zweig recounted the revelation that « de Haan was not murdered by Arabs at all, as I had believed for seven years, but by a Jew, a political opponent, a radical Zionist ». That revelation, he wrote, « compelled me to see things accurately without pro-Jewish prejudice and to examine the political murder of one Jew by another exactly as though it were a political murder in Germany; it compelled me to tread the path of disillusionment yet further, as far as necessary, or possible — further than was good for me. » See The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Zweig, ed. Ernest L. Freud, trans. Elaine and William Robson-Scott (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970), 41-42.

Arnold Zweig, De Vriendt keert terug (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Cossee, 2020), 149, 98. All extracts translated by me from the Dutch.

Laurel Plapp, Zionism and Revolution in European Jewish Literature (Routledge, 2008), 80-81.

Deborah Vietor-Engländer, « Arnold Zweig in Palästina », Études Germaniques 2008/4 (n° 252), 909.

Quoted in Nathan Witt, « Jacob Israël de Haan », 95, from The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Zweig, edited by Ernest L. Freud (Hogarth Press, 1970), 108.

Quoted in Witt, 98, from The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Zweig, 42.