Politics & Imagination (Nissim Rejwan: Israel’s Place in the Middle East)

Last week, I finished Nissim Rejwan’s Israel’s Place in the Middle East. For me, Rejwan and the other mizrachi neo-Levantines writing in the 1990s read so fresh, what with so much debate today about Israel tasting so stale and being beside the point. It’s not that I think any of this is “realistic.” But I think these text indicate a place for “utopianism” as a topos of the political imagination.

Rejwan in effect wants to do two thing: [1] shift Jewish identity in Israel from a national one to a religious-ethnic-cultural one, [2] de-link Israeli citizenship from (Jewish) religion. If this sounds “radical,” I’d point back to Ahad Ha’am and Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

The problem with Rejwan’s project, of course, is that Jewish identity in Israel is national and Muslim identity in the Middle East is pan-Arab. I’m not sure anyone will be able to unravel this knot, which is the conundrum of bi-nationalism, especially today when Arab national identity and identities are now so much under the influence of religion (Islam). I’m not un-alert to that.

I don’t know how this shakes out in the real-time and real-place of culture and politics. But,  as I think I posted in my last post about Rejwan, there’s an interesting American connection. Much of his argument hinges on the notion of a hyphenated identity, and this takes us back to Horace Kallen and Mordecai Kaplan. The novelist A.B. Yehoshua says over and over that only in Israel can a Jew be complete and “un-hyphenated.” I’m willing to bet that Rejwan is probably going to get the last word on this, eventually. For Rejwan, Jewishness and Judaism are not limited to Europe, not self-contained and not self-sufficient. One wants to think that “Islam” is and will prove diverse and adaptive. It might be the case that Israel too could remain Jewish and democratic by becoming Jewish and Middle Eastern, .

Much of Rejwan’s book surveys well-trodden ground: the historical interaction between Jews and Arabs and the legacy of anti-semitism in Europe. For this you don’t need Rejwan (or Alcalay). I been recommending Marc Cohen’s Under Crescent and Cross, and do so again. With Rejwan, go straight to part II, “Israel as a Middle Eastern  Country”

Rejwan’s claim that “Israel is a Middle Eastern country” precedes and is dated by the last and large Russian immigration, that has done so much to reconfigure the Israeli cultural and political scene. But I think there’s something right in the effort to try to understand how it might or should be to see Israel as part of the Middle East and not alongside or against it (as cribbed from an essay by Buber in 1929).

There are five pivots to Israel’s Place in the Middle East:  [1] to place discussions about Jews and Arabs and Israel and Islam in a historical arc that is broader than this 100 year old conflict. [2] to establish commonalities between Jews and Arabs,, [3] to highlight the fungible nature of identity, and [3] shift the argument away from nationalism and other collectivist ideologies towards democracy and shared citizenship.

Hostile critics will surely harp about the utopian character of Rejwan’s scheme, and not without cause. But I’m willing to bet that politics has as much to do with the imagination as it does with realpolitik. Maimonides and Spinoza understood this, and so too did those most hard bitten realists, Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion.

About Israel and Israel/Palestine and Israel and the Middle East, I want to keep both eyes open to dystopic reality. But also to watch how political realities can shift on a dime, and not to close off that third eye, the political imagination, which I think has happened to too much discourse about Israel and Zionism, especially on the right. It’s the utter lack of imagination and larger realism that makes so much Israel advocacy in the United States so dispiriting, and so irrelevant.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to Politics & Imagination (Nissim Rejwan: Israel’s Place in the Middle East)

  1. Pingback: Israel and the Middle East | A Jewish Voice

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    i would say that politics, especially in the middle east, has far MORE to do with political imagination than realpolitic. in fact, i wonder if very much at all has to do with realpolitic. this is an interesting thing that richard kearney is all about. on the one hand i have a deep seated skepticism and whenever he talks about mending rifts with narrative imagination and such, i cant help but think that its just one more discussion that cant actually have meaningful/large scale political impact. on the other hand, all the major ideological shifts that have, in fact, made such an impact have begun with in just this way. so, i also cant help but believe he could be right

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