There Is No Jewish State

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5. 2. 2024 / Joseph Grim Feinberg

čas čtení 26 minut

(Českou verzi tohoto článku jsme vydali ZDE

A Czech version of this article is HERE)

In the Czech Republic, where I’ve been living for the last decade, I often hear in the media about something called “the Jewish State.”] In the Czech media I often hear about something called “the Jewish State.” But I know of no such state deserving of that name.

Yes, I am aware that the Israeli Declaration of Independence announces “the establishment of a Jewish State,” and I know that since 1985 Israel’s Basic Law defines that state as “Jewish and democratic.” I also know that a new Basic Law from 2018 defines Israel as a “nation state of the Jewish people.” None of that makes “Jewish State” into an innocent synonym for “Israel,” a simple substitution to avoid repetition and spice up journalistic prose. The fact that Israel calls itself a Jewish state does not give it authority to fix the meaning of “Jewish,” or the relationship of Jewishness to states.

 The Israeli Declaration of Independence speaks of a “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations [sic!], in their own sovereign State.” The document then declared its state’s national affiliation, announcing that it was a state for the members of a single, predefined nation. By doing so, it closed off the possibility of founding a state that could have been Jewish in a different sense—by expressing the historically developed principles of Jewishness and deciding how best to bring these principles into a new age.

Israel and the Jewish World

There’s a lot in the Israeli Declaration of Independence about where the Jewish people lived long ago and where they dream of returning. There’s nothing in it about what these people, during their long wandering from their point of origin to their destination, have been. In the rhetoric of Israel’s founding document, Jewishness is about Israel, but Israel is not about Jewishness. The Jewish people are characterized solely by their relationship to the land they came from and head toward. The state born on this land is not characterized in relation to the people who for thousands of years lived elsewhere. And thanks to this programmatic overlooking of Jewish existence outside Israel, Israel has failed in its attempt to become a state for the worldwide population of Jews.

Yes, several million Jews eventually moved to the new state, and many others maintain strong personal connections with Israeli society. But about half the world’s Jews maintain still stronger connections to other states. Over 75 years after the founding of the allegedly Jewish state, about half the world’s Jewish life—half the activity cultivating Jewish traditions and developing Jewish history—still takes place in the Diaspora.

This does not have to be a problem for Israel. The Land of Israel could continue to be a symbolic center of Jewish thought, just as it has always been, without needing to become the geographical home of all Jews. The Jewish community in Israel could be one community among many, with political structures that support Jewish communities in the Diaspora, without needing to perpetually suggest their inferiority. Israeli society could be a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, without the Israeli state apparatus claiming the right to speak for global Jewry.

And in fact these ideas for the Jewish community in Israel were historically well represented in Zionism. Take Ber Borochov, for example, a central figure of labor Zionism, the leading tendency among the founders of modern Israel—he not only promoted the renewal of Hebrew as a language of Jewish unity, but also promoted Yiddish as a language of Diaspora, with a great legacy as a language of labor organizing that could continue in a new state (where, he imagined, the national question could be resolved, making national unity no longer necessary). Another Zionist tendency, known as territorialism, emphasized the practical need for a safe haven for Jewish refugees, wherever land for them might be found, and territorialists did not insist that Diaspora Jews living in safe conditions should feel morally obliged to emigrate to an eventual Jewish state.

Or take the so-called cultural Zionists, who measured the success of their project not by the numbers of Jews who might emigrate, but by the cultural accomplishments of the new community that could inspire Jews around the world facing the pressures of assimilation. For Ahad Ha’am, the leading figure of cultural Zionissm, the idea of the “Jewish State” meant not a complete “ingathering of the exiles,” which could be promised only by the “miraculous redemption of religion,” but “the settlement of a small part of our people in Palestine.” He wrote:

Truth is bitter, but with all its bitterness it is better than illusion. We must confess to ourselves that the “ingathering of the exiles” is unattainable by natural means. We may, by natural means, establish a Jewish State one day, and the Jews may increase and multiply in it until the country will hold no more: but even then the greater part of the people will remain scattered in strange lands.

When, at last, the “small part of our people in Palestine” succeeds in raising the level of “our national culture” and spreading “the spirit of Judaism,” then “we may be confident that it will produce men in the country who will be able, on a favourable opportunity, to establish a State…” And then this state can be “a Jewish State, and not merely a State of Jews.”

Here lies the whole problem, in the difference between a “Jewish State” and a “State of Jews.” In Ha’am’s view, the state should be founded only on the condition that it contributes to the main goal, which was the cultivation of Jewish culture and society. And in those days, even Zionists of the more dominant tendencies imagined that their project would result in something more than some ordinary state that just happened to belong to Jews instead of another nation. Yet again and again the leading Zionists sacrificed this vision in the interest of establishing and maintaining the power of a state.

And for this very reason the state they created could not be a state for all Jews. They devalued Israel as a symbolic center of Judaism; they insulted and alienated large segments of the Jewish population outside Israel; and in the end they compromised the possibility of establishing Israel as a safe place for Jews in need. What they created was not a state with which all Jews could identify, but a tendentious state for some Jews, a state for Israeli Jews, who directly participate in its functioning, and a state for that segment of non-Israeli Jews who accept Israel’s specific understanding of Jewishness, that is, for those who accept Jewishness as a national identity that hurries to its own state in its own land and regards tarrying in the Diaspora, among the other nations of the world, as a defect.

Israel grew satisfied with its self-definition as the state of all Jews, and with the idea that all Jews should defend Israel—not because it might be a good state, but because it is a state of Jews, not because it showed what a Jewish state could be, but because it was supposed to be a priori Jewish. And by trying to be a State of Jews, it set out on a path that would soon take it away from the most important thing that could have justified its claim to preeminence in the Jewish world: cultivating Jewish life by continuing, rather than leaping over, Jewish history.

While many earlier Zionists measured the success of their project by the cultural and social strength of the community forming in Palestine, the builders of the Israeli state began to measure their success by the numbers of Jews they could attract to the territory. This Zionism no longer saw itself as a source of strength to be added to global Jewish communities, but as competition with them. The Israeli community grew by subtracting from other Jewish communities, and while it decried the dangers of assimilation in the Diaspora, it placed enormous emphasis on assimilating immigrants into a new, specifically Israeli culture that sharply contrasted with the Jewish cultures of the Diaspora. Social pressures and institutional arrangements (schooling, immigrant immersion programs, population dispersion within the country, cases of children taken from their parents, a partial ban on the Yiddish language) combined to disrupt the cultural life of Sephardic, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Iranian, and so many other kinds of Jews, to ensure that they all lived as Israelis.

The State of Israel can’t bear the chief blame for the conditions that pressured many Jews to emigrate to Israeli (however much one might see post-1948 antisemitism in Arab countries as a response to Israeli practices), but it is clear that Israel did not become a place where Jewish refugees were given the means to preserve and develop the traditions they had chosen or been compelled to leave behind. Israel’s success became the Diaspora’s loss. Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and the literatures and oral cultures that came with them—it is as if they were invited to Israel only to be thrown to the winds upon arrival.

And within the territory of Israel and Palestine, the politics of counting Jews became still more fraught. Because the state measured its Jewishness in numbers rather than content, Israel not only took from Diaspora communities, but felt the need to subtract from the non-Jewish communities in the land it claimed, to make room for immigrants and ensure their majority in the state. To accomplish the goal, Israel built an imposing army, a legendary spy outfit, and a frightening security apparatus; it won wars and increased its territory while being careful not to expand its offers of non-Jewish citizenship as quickly as it expanded its control over land.

And the more powerful Israel grew as a state, the further it departed from the idea that progressive interpreters had given to Jewishness: the idea that Jewish life would develop by participating in global projects of all-human emancipation. As the Israeli state grew more inhumane toward the non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel and Palestine, Israeli leaders grew still more impatient toward those high-minded Jews in the Diaspora who still believed Israel should adhere to universal moral standards—or at least to the moral standards developed by Jewish tradition itself. For the new generations of Israeli leaders, such moral hand-wringing was ignorant and pitiable, and only Israelis themselves could really understand that the brutal necessities of Israeli life required them to contradict every grand humanistic ideal. And the more Israel turned the presumed necessity of violence into a virtue, the less it could be a state of those Jews who reject this necessity.

The State of Jewishness Is Diaspora

What if Israel tried to be not the state of a single, narrowly defined nation, but a state of all people who choose to participate in a certain history, developing principles drawn from a certain experience and a certain tradition of thought? What if Israel acknowledged not only the right of Jews to live in one land, but also the right of all people to live where they are and to return to the lands they consider to be their home?

The Israeli Declaration of Independence writes that the Land of Israel “was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” but this is only half true. In the ancient kingdom whose capital was Jerusalem, there lived Judeans. It was only their descendants who became Jews after the Judean kingdom was conquered and its people scattered from the land. The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Diaspora, and it was only the Diaspora that gave birth to Jews.

When Israel claims that it is a state belonging exclusively to the Jewish nation, this very claim contradicts a key principle of Jewish tradition as it developed in the millennia of life among other, larger nations: the contestation of the exclusivity of nations on the territories to which they lay claim. A Jewish state that develops this principle would not be a state only for a Jews. Its founding principle would be respect for people who live without their own state, which is to say: respect for all people whose supposed states are not really fully theirs. Respect for everyone who lacks full protection of state machinery, for all who are exiled or excluded or exploited and only falsely integrated into the states and societies where they live.

A state that fulfils the Diasporic meaning of being Jewish would, properly speaking, no longer be a state, at least not insofar as it is Jewish. The principle of Jewishness in the Diaspora is the principle of building life outside the state.

Judean worship was a state religion. It was organized around a central Temple and run by high priests under the power and protection of kings. The specifically Jewish practice of worship emerged when the old Judean rituals became independent after their erstwhile state and Temple were destroyed. Judean politics had been monarchistic. Jewish politics emerged when the formerly Judean society reconstituted itself in exile and without its own kings, treating other kings as accidental rulers, secondary in authority to the voices of God and His prophets and, more importantly, to the local community scholars, who came to be known as rabbis, who interpreted those voices. Instead of dying out when removed from its land, the community grew as the emerging worldview was dispersed over land and sea, increasingly emphasizing the universality of the condition of exile and the search for paths of return.

In the Babylonian and Assyrian Exiles (ca. 720–520 BCE), which ended the Judean kingdom and its northern Israelite sister kingdom, the people who were becoming Jews began to edit a collection of texts that we know today as the Bible, celebrating above all the pre-monarchistic period of Israelite history, from the times before the Judean kings, with a narrative centered around a double exile: first from Eden, an exile that will not end before the end of time, and second from Egypt, an exile and ambivalent return that would provide the structure for thinking Jewish history in repeated waves thereafter. When the kings at last come into the Biblical story, they come as secondary figures, legitimate only when they follow the advice of prophets, whose authority outweighs theirs, and who sometimes decry the very institution of kingship. After the kings are swept away, the whole story is told from the perspective of exile, and even though parts of the book reflect the attitude of a later period, when the kingdom was reconstituted and the Temple was rebuilt, the book in its final form would be read with full knowledge that this moment of return was temporary, because the Temple was destroyed again (in 70 CE) and, like Eden, it remains out of reach to this day.

After the Second Temple was destroyed, the community reevaluated its earlier practices. It gave up on the rituals connected to the Temple and the king, and its system of worship came to resemble the decentralized forms of worship that were denounced in the monarchist sections of the book (like the book of Kings): ritual life was spread far and wide among thousands of proxy temples, run by their own congregants instead of priests and kings.

Jerusalem stopped being the political center Judeanism, becoming the symbolic center of Judaism. The dispersion of Jews around the world not only refer to one people’s geographical exile, but took on the existential significance that we are nowhere entirely at home, because the whole world has taken on the character of Exile. The destruction of one particular Temple became a symbol of universal destruction; it could be confronted not by erecting a new building at a single location, but by the right kind of activity anywhere in the world. And the fact that the Temple remained destroyed, despite great spiritual and material effort, was a reminder that the Messiah has not yet come, because in the post-Biblical period only the Messiah would be capable of adequately repairing all the worldly destruction that the Temple now symbolized. And the Messiah would not build a Temple for Jews alone. He would end the exile of all nations—and only then would the Jews truly come home.

The Jerusalem hill known as Zion became a symbol of the desire for return, but return no longer meant primarily physical displacement to the territory of Israel, which was by now (since the times of Roman domination) better known to the world as Palestine. The idea of a physical return became a metaphor for a turn away from the conditions of existential hardship, a redemption of all people from all forms of debt and servitude that were entailed by life under foreign rule (that is, by life under all illegitimate rulers). Jews were expected to desire this return, but not to return prematurely. They were to remain wary of false Messiahs, who promise to save everyone, but who in practice save only a few. Life in Diaspora was meant to remind us not to be become too comfortable as long as we haven’t all returned home and the world remains unredeemed.

Jewish life in the Diaspora was a product of this tension: the desire for return, and caution against premature returns. How to understand this in the secular society toward which most currents of Jewish life in recent centuries have been moving? Perhaps like this: We should struggle against oppression, but not declare victory before it has truly come. We should support the right of people to return to their homes, but we should not think that we ourselves are home before we have all arrived. We can dream of a society where we will all live in harmony, but we should remember that in our actual societies perfect harmony is illusory, because we are not all equally at home. Some of us are where we don’t want to be, while others are in places where societies-hoping-for-harmony don’t want us. And we just might choose to stay where we don’t belong.

Those are principles of Diasporic Jewish thought that Zionism could have developed. Zionists could have asked at every stage whether their own goals were compatible with the goals of all-human emancipation. They could have fought for the ingathering of Jews on the condition that they guard against prematurely feeling completely at home. They could have sought ways to link the safety of Jews in Palestine to the safety of all people who live there. But as long as Zionism failed to do this, it could not form a Jewish state, no matter what the state’s declarations and laws announced and no matter how it identified the people who became its citizens.

Zionism diverged from the principle of Diasporic Jewishness the moment it chose—as Zionists often said—to make Jews into a “normal nation” that would behave—as the Declaration of Independence says—“like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” Jews in the Diaspora have experienced the result of this behavior of normal nations, which have the right to oppress other nations within their borders, and which have a tendency to look on the people of other nations as elements dangerous to their own state. The primary contribution of Jewish thought to the understanding of nations and states consists in its grappling with a national-cultural-political experience that not fit conveniently into the modern model of a nation seeking perfect accord with itself in its own state. Its legacy is not normal. It stands as a warning against what modernity has made too normal. It is a legacy of impropriety in the face of unbearable normality.

This warning against normality does not make Diasporic Jewish thought unusual. It is unique only insofar as every tradition of thought is abnormal in its own way and deserves the chance to work through its own particular abnormalities in the search for something universal.

This principle of Jewishness can join the many voices that remind us of an alternative path to modernity, one closed off by the “normal nations” of the world—which is to say, by the idea of normal nationhood, to which so few nations properly conform. That alternative is a path toward the forming of states that do not belong to one nation, and to the forming of nations that do not lay claim to the domination of any states. A state that reflected this principle of Jewishness would shatter unitary national identity, helping all people return to their lands by working to make all lands the potential home of all people. But Zionism abandoned this principle of Jewishness, in order to found a “normal” nation-state.

A Jewish State or an Israeli State?

Is it too much, on my part, to ask Israel to be better than normal nation-states? At this point, I would be glad if Israel were at least normal. I just wish it wouldn’t confuse its nations. It would not be a Jewish state, but it could at least be consistently Israeli.

States typically declare themselves to belong to entire, long-existing nations, when in practice they are above all specific, newly emerging projects—concrete organizational structures that gather together the groups of people who participate in them. It is a misunderstanding, sometimes harmless and sometimes tragic, when this concrete group of participants is confused with an abstract nation born centuries or millennia before. Israel could be a state of the abstract Jewish nation, but only if its state project were the development of the manifold tendencies that come out of Jewish history. Or it could be a normal state of Israelis—of the concrete participants in its project—if only it stopped insisting that it is the state of the abstract nation of all Jews.

Israel should continue to be open to all Jews who choose to participate in its project—and to all non-Jews who choose to join them. It should try to create and preserve a space where Jews can be safe—which, practically speaking, would mean forming positive, non-violent relations between Jews and non-Jews. And so much the better if it also, finally, becomes a place where Jewish history can unfold as a project mediating between an abstract, generalized conception of exile and concrete attempts at redemption from exile. But to the extent that it is the state of a nation, that nation will not be Jewish. It will be Israeli.

Many Israelis have indeed worked to continue the Jewish history that was begun in the Diaspora, but Zionism as a whole has been more interested in overcoming this history than in continuing it. Early Zionists spoke of “negating the diaspora,” in order to create a society entirely different from the existing, Diasporic societies of Jews. I understand. Life in Diaspora can be too easy and too hard. It can oppress and exterminate some Jews while offering others the cheap pleasures of assimilation and material plenty. I respect the attempt to seek something different. Let us only be aware that what results from such a project will not be Jewish, not in the sense given to Jewishness by Jewish history; it will be something new. Let’s call it Israeli.

This new category does not need to be limited to Jews, or even to Jewish Israelis. It could be open to all people who choose to be a part of Israeli society, whether as enthusiastic supporters of it in its current form, or as its harsh critics. The Israeli Declaration of Independence calls on “Jewish people throughout the Diaspora” to immigrate to the new state and participate in its “upbuilding.” Many of them answered the call. The Declaration also calls on “the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Considering the fact that the same Declaration declared the state to be Jewish and, therefore, not theirs, and the fact that after its founding the state revised its offer and significantly limited the equality of its Arab citizens, while denying citizenship to many other Arabs under its eventual rule, it’s remarkable that not a few non-Jewish citizens of Israel also found various ways to answer this call. If only Israel admitted that it is an Israeli sate, and not a Jewish state, these citizens could feel that they are fully Israeli and not strangers in a strange land, even when it is land on which their ancestors lived long before.

By bringing non-Jewish people into its community as full participants in its project, Israel would become more, not less Jewish. Jews, a nation born in Diaspora, are Jews only in heterogeneous societies, only where they can preserve consciousness of the fact that people still live in exile. Jews in Israel can remain Jews only as long as Israel remains a part of the Diaspora, which is to say, as long as the people of Israel continue to address the problems of exile, whether it be their own alienation from a society that is supposed to be theirs, or the expulsion of other people from lands on which they once lived and the exclusion of other people from lands on which they still live, but which are occupied or besieged by the State of Israel.

Such a state could offer space where Jews and non-Jews, referring to their various pasts and various visions, could debate their shared future, without merging into a monolithic whole. Such a struggle among competing memories, tendencies, and hopes would be a negative dialectic, without a Messiah and without final resolution.

Whether this state will have borders around all of Palestine, and will be compelled to bring in Palestinian history and experience—the Palestinian idea of Diaspora—as an equal part of its self-understanding, or whether it will exist alongside an independent Palestine, which finds its own path forward, I don’t know. Whether it will be called “Israel” or “Palestine” or “Palestine-Israel” or something completely different, I don’t know that either. I only know that without a political project of this type, there is little hope that this state, which has become stuck in a trap of self-negation through the negation of supposed foreigners, can ever move forward.

Jewishness beyond the State

Fortunately, Israel has not resolved all the questions of exile; it has not fully negated the Diaspora or overcome Jewish history in its millennia-long Diasporic sense. Thanks to this, Jews still exist as Jews, and not only as Jews transformed into Israelis. There are even Jews in the State of Israel, precisely because they have not become identical to the Israeli state, which is to say, because Israel is not a Jewish state, thanks be to the Lord. Since Jews can only be Jews where they do not merge with their states, Israeli society can be Jewish to the extent that it contradicts the homogenizing principle of the Israeli state, and Jewish history can continue even in Israeli, to the extent that people in Israel create something independent of the Israeli state. It is up to society, beyond the state, to move forward that history that the state was unable to end.

Diasporic Jewishness finds its home only at the end of history, which probably (and perhaps hopefully) will never end. This does not mean that Jewish tradition ignores the principle of home. It means that it recognizes home not only for Jews. What happens to others who lose their homes happens also to us. The longings of other people for return our also our longings. This view of the world venerates homes, not borders, because it honors places that are open for return. And because existing states, founded on the principle of predefined state-making nations, do not offer homes to all people, this concept of Jewishness maintains a distance from all existing states—including that state that calls itself Jewish.


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