Exile and Sovereignty (Political Theology)

(Domenico Peterlini, Dante in Exile)

My problem with the diasporism-exilism-nomadism that gets touted around as an alternative to Zionism, especially these days, is that I still take seriously the classic Zionist critique of Galut and Galut Judaism; not in whole but certainly in part. It’s too easy to romanticize exile, and to see in it a kind of innocence, or solution to political problems surrounding sovereignty.

In high school, I think it was, I took to Virginia Woolfe’s “Room of One’s Own.” I was a very serious Labor Zionist back then, which today can no longer be the case. I still tend to think that exiles are unhappy places, and I think it a very serious indictment of exile as to how badly the Jews wanted to end it, going back to Shabbtai Zvi. I still find appealing, as rhetoric, Brenner’s complete scorn for Galut and Galut Judaism.

It is beside the point, the claim made by Strauss and Arendt that poltical Zionism could not solve the Jewish problem, when, in the 1940s, there was no “solution” to the problem of anti-Semitism. I see the appeal of cosmopolitanism in the image of Zweig and Benjamin and all that glittering German-Austrian stuff. I just don’t think it worked out well, and not just because of the obvious reasons.  You didn’t need Hitler to already suspect that “exile” is intricately or at least historically interconnected with the meanness, smallness, and pettiness that Brenner and the classical Zionists, political and cultural, rightly despised about Galut. As for my paternal grandfather William Braiterman, according to family lore, he became a Zionist after the 1915 Leo Frank lynching in Atlanta. Born in 1900, my grandfather had been in the United States just some two years.

I’m not sure I’m bothered by the nation-state, not these days at least. I think it’s a pretty interesting form, when and only when integrated into cosmopolitan conceptions and constructs. Herzl, for instance, no less than anti-Zionist Hermann Cohen, was cosmopolitan, committed to liberal forms of international order. I think this often gets forgotten about Herzl today by both supporters and critics of Zionism and Israel.

As I see it, part of the problem in Israel has something to do with nationalism and the nation state, but not just with nationalism or the nation state per se as much, actually, as with the withering of the State and its institutions (mamlachtiyut), the privatization of the economy, religious resurgence and radicalization, and the domination of the state by non-state actors who subsume the rule of law, and re-shape it according to their own narrow, private interest. About “the atrophy of government and the weakness of the public sphere,” Ari Shavit writes in regard to a different context, which seems apropos here.

Personally, I don’t find persuasive the end-run around sovereignty attempted by Derrida and Agamben or the romance with placelessness in contemporary theory. What always appealed to me about historical Zionism and modern Israel is the pronounced sense of place and materiality integral to both. While Zionism interests me less and less as a contemporary form, Israel continues to interest me a lot. Place is one of those risks about politics and “the space of appearance” about which Arendt wrote in The Human Condition. The question, then, is which set of risks are you going to risk, the risk of nation-statehood or the risk of exile, and at what historical moments, and under what political conditions.

Theoretically, my problem with exilism-nomadism (ala certain orthodox readings of Deleuze) is that in putting such a strong emphasis on the de-territoritialization of political life leads one to neglect the movement of re-territorialization that Deleuze thought was just as basic. The fact that Judaism in the State of Israel looks more and more like a wild, metastatic Deleuzian rhizome, or a body without organs, should be a major alarm to all.

Look, I like it here in the United States, and I thank my lucky stars I don’t live in Israel today. But then again, I’m not sure I could stand living in Syracuse or San Francisco, Tallahassee or Bloomington. These places strike me as too small, Jewish life there too minoritarian. I like NYC, its large Jewish social mass, and the imbrications of that mass into a still larger cosmos. I only wish the same for Israel. I’ll be sad to see the Jews of NY go the way of Mea Shearim –or Kiryas Joel— and slip back into exile.

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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10 Responses to Exile and Sovereignty (Political Theology)

  1. Shaul Magid says:

    Really nice essay Zak (except for the crack about Bloomington). I would only say that I think you may be simplifying the exile mentality of Derrida and company. But that is for another day.

  2. zjb says:

    thanks for the pushback, Shaul. please feel free to let me know, here or elsewhere, what i’m missing about Derrida and company. short blog posts are funny that way, as if structured to simplify and synthesize. about Bloomington, you’ve given me to understand better, the crack notwithstanding, which was, of course, for you.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    its not that i oppose territory per se. it is that i oppose territory which is not and cannot be common. or, lets put it this way: if from the standpoint of the jewish-state the citizen, any citizen, regardless of his religious, historical, national etc. background is “jewish” then I have no objections to the jewish state. meaning, if to be “jewish” there is as it is to be “american” here, then its just a matter of semantics; it would simply mean “citizen”. that the institutions of state be influenced by jewish history/law etc. just as american theories of citizenship emerge from a theoretical and religious tradition of their own is not of concern to me; any practice will inevitably be informed by a tradition, is inevitably particular.

    (i do not say these things because i oppose traditional jewish notions of identity, i just think they have no legitimate place in the state.)

    but this is no longer nationalism, no longer zionism, and the state would no longer serve the purpose for which it was founded. it would not be anyone’s homeland.

    if what you mean by “not being in exile” is living in NYC in a large and historically established jewish community then this is a totally different sort of “territorialization” than the one we have been discussing. you are a member of a single community within a larger body politic which is not claimed by any one community. your community is not the body politic itself.

    also, for the record, i am not any more anti-israel than i am anti-palestine. i am against nationalism in general and i think that palestinian nationalism is just as problematic as jewish nationalism. in my opinion it is beyond idiotic when people naively stand in support of the palestinian cause without calling its political vision to task in the same manner that the zionist political vision is called to task.

    i don’t think that the “cancerous” role of judaism in contemporary israeli society is indicative of an inherent defect in judaism (although i think there are inherent defects in haredi judaism – this, because it is reactionary, not authentic) but, rather, a defect in application. it may be true that at one time jewish law functioned as a law of state as spinoza claims (though i know you question this on many levels), but the history of its development for the past 2000 years has been outside of the state. jewish tradition as it stands is simply not designed to be applied on a statewide scale. if it is so applied, the defect lies not in the system but in its application. its as if I said that tylenol is defective because it is unable to ward off the pain of a surgery when it was formulated to ward off the pain of a headache.

    • zjb says:

      i guess my only critical pushback is to suspect that the claim that “judaism isn’t the problem, it’s the application” is kind of apologetic. in principle, i tend not to think that anything is inherently defective; but in practice and for the sake of conversation, i’m willing to entertain the counter-point, that yes, maybe there is an inherent defect or two at the heart of any human phenomenon, including Judaism.

  4. hayyim rothman says:

    no argument on the defectiveness of human creations. i am the last to claim that judaism is perfect. what i mean to say is that if it is to be criticized i think that this should happen on fair terms. to judge judaism on the basis of criteria actually external to it is not fair. there is ample room for criticizing it in light of relevant categories.

  5. Aryeh Cohen says:

    I want to argue that you need to problematize your binary, and if that isn’t banal enough, I want to argue that America is different. So before I’m laughed out of the room… The Exile/Diaspora vs. Zionism binary is a relic of the twentieth century, during most of which living outside of Israel was a severe challenge materially and even physically. During that time however, the American experiment matured in surprising ways. The great and flawed American experiment in democracy presents a third way—committing oneself to an experiment in creating a just society which crosses ethnic and racial lines. The challenge is to participate to the greater good and here the pitfalls are very similar to the pitfalls in Israel—Jews are no longer victims, the Jewish community wields significant power, can we throw in with others and add our particular voice to the spectrum of particularities which could create a more perfect union. This option was not available in the 20’s and is not the same as being a loyal German, etc. This is the option that is competitive with Zionism now—it does not evade sovereignty, rather it takes responsibility for sovereignty together with everybody else in a democratic union.

    • zjb says:

      no argument, here aryeh. the home/exile binary almost completely collapses in the united states, which is why the altenrative discourse to zionism is “diasporist,” the governing assumption of which is that diaspora is not exile.

      i’m not sure, though, that the establishment of Israel, for good and for ill, does not actually contribute to a more robust diaspora. the sheer, endless yak about israel to which we all submit ourselves on facebook would be a case in point.

      about the binary’s collapse, Arnold Eisen already wrote many years back in Galut, his second book. Arnie’s take away is to talk about home in the diaspora and the feeling of placelessness and alienation in Israel (for a brief moment in the 90s, Arnie was almost a deconstructionist (i say this with affection).

      the only part of the binary that still holds has to do with majoritarianism, minoritarianism, and the entire spectrum between. i still think demographic mass is an important cultural driver, and that the more people you have in a concentrated place, the more interesting things can happen. in that respect, israel remains a more interesting Jewish place than NY or LA, and NY and LA are more interesting than, let’s say Bloomington. in the same way, Berlin is and was always a more interesting Jewish place than Bremen. about Poland, i’m not prepared to comment.

      of course you recognize that by interesting i don’t mean “good,” “moral,” or even “decent.” i tend to think that place is beyond good and evil.

  6. hayyim rothman says:

    good points. i don’t think i was arguing against the taking responsibility for sovereignty in the way you (aryeh) describe. i think i was arguing for it. but i concede that both of you are right in criticizing my use of home/exile language to describe it as inappropriate. that binary really does speak to a totally different set of circumstances. in my defense, however, i would simply say that i am coming from a chabad background which would still look at things this way even if the content of discourse diverges from it. I appreciate the push to develop a more adequate set of terms to describe the ideas and experiences i am trying to gesture towards.

  7. Leo Frank says:

    The most horrendous thing going on these days is that people are trying to use the Leo Frank trial brief of evidence from 1913 and Georgia Supreme Court files about Leo Frank to manipulate the public into thinking Leo Frank was guilty. Is there anyone out there willing to expose this web site http://www.LeoFrank.org and show the world that Leo Frank was innocent. It was his janitor that killed her not Leo!

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