(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.