Liberal Zionism (Social Contract & Limited Sovereign Right)


About liberal Zionism. that much maligned thing, I posted the other day a little note that went unappreciated by some. By way of apology, the note was meant only as a note. Here I’m posting below thoughts I’ve published elsewhere that touch in more depth my own thinking about Zionism. These thoughts are meant to reflect a liberal conception of Zionism, based, for the most part, on contract theory and limited sovereign right.  As liberal, the thinking reflects the thought of Herzl and Leo Pinsker more so than the theoretical formulations advanced  by Ahad Ha’am or the socialists. But they also bear the influence of pragmatism, postmodernism and discourse theory. As a plastic ideological formation, Zionism and the warrants for it remain unstable and artificial,  but not arbitrary.

Reduced to its most basic form, Zionism is an ideological formation based upon the theory that “the Jews are a people with a right to constitute itself in its own national home; in the Land of Israel.” Mixing elements drawn from all the competing strands of late nineteenth and early twentieth century European political culture (liberalism, nationalism, colonialism, and socialism, and, at the margin, racialism and fascism), Zionism demonstrates the constructive and destructive creativity that constitutes the creation of a people and its culture on a new, modern basis. With the passage of time, what once seemed simply self-evident proves in actuality unstable. Every phrase presumed by the basic definition of Zionism—e.g. “people,” “Land of Israel,” “right”—is now correctly seen as ambiguous. That such empirical-theoretical data are not self-evident does not, however, make ideological formulations about them meaningless, arbitrary, or make-believe. Once it is presumed that no single point, person, place, or concept constitutes a theologically or naturally pre-determined essence, each key term comes into view as a complicated and carefully crafted artifice. Combining real and imaginary elements, its emergence is conditioned by the formative force of ideas, history, politics, and power.

What is a “people” and did it ever make sense to (re)constitute the Jews as such? That “the Jews” are not a “nation” defined by a single land occupied over time or by a single vernacular language and law does not mean that they are not a people. It just makes them abnormal, the very abnormality that classical Zionist theory sought to annul. But if the Jews are not a people, then what are they? Also a product of the nineteenth century, the notion that Judaism is a “religion” is even more tenuously constructed than the idea of a Jewish “people.” Hard to identify in the abstract, the Jews are not exactly a nation but not just a creed. From a Zionist perspective, a national home was the primary place to sort this out, providing greater space and demographic base for non-religious forms of Jewish identity than are possible in the modern Diaspora and the models of “community” upon which it depends. In contrast, more recent critics of Zionism who reject the construct of “peoplehood” have proposed no better rubric with which to convey and create a broad sense of Jewish social identity beyond “religion.”

Where is “the Land of Israel” and what is its relation to the State of Israel and to Palestine? Both real and imagined, Israel and Palestine are superimposed one on top of another, subject to the ebb and flow of Israelite, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, European, and Zionist conquest. Does it stop at the Jordan River or at the Euphrates? Clearly, the State of Israel within the Green Line (the armistice lines of 1949) is not the entire Land of Israel, but the state has left undefined the border between itself and Palestine. Israel/Palestine is one distinct geographical unit for both those on the radical right who once sought a Greater Land of Israel and who now want to hold on to as much territory as possible, and for those on the radical left who support the creation of a “bi-national state composed of all its citizens” (which is itself a work of imagination and an ideological construct). The former seek to extend Jewish hegemony throughout the entire Land of Israel. The latter seek to undermine Jewish sovereignty throughout all of historical Palestine, once seen as an inseparable part of “southern Syria.” Both “Palestine” and “the Land of Israel” are imaginary and therefore contested constructs. In refusing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neither extreme seems to see that names and borders are fluid lines drawn and redrawn by divergent political facts and purposes.

“Right” constitutes the most slippery Zionist datum of all. Without any recourse to divine right, most secular forms of classical Zionism are unlike the Palestinian Arab claim to Palestine. The Palestinian-Arab claim builds upon a religious and cultural notion of divine right (Palestine as Waqf, an inalienable Muslim trust) and upon natural rights of possession and self-preservation. Autochthonous, these claims proved static vis-à-vis the historical flux impelling the movement of populations. In contrast, secular Jewish claims to the Land of Israel were carried precisely by that very force of historical change. Setting religious motives to the side, these claims were modern, not ancient. At its origin at the turn of the twentieth century, the sole basis of Zionism in natural right was political need in the face of European anti-Semitism. From this position in natural right follows a completely contingent set of rights involving historical-cultural-religious ties, geographical-historical circumstance, labor, and pragmatics. Secular claims to a Jewish right to Palestine are largely contractual, which made them both unstable and dynamic.

  1. Even a non-Zionist and critic of Zionism such as Daniel Boyarin rejects political Zionism “except insofar as it represented an emergency and temporary rescue operation.” As a historical form, Zionism enjoys no firm claim to moral right except on the basis of political need, assuming what social contract theorists going back to Spinoza and Hobbes would recognize as a group’s natural right to self-preservation. Cultural questions such as those pertaining to the urgency of the cultural problem in Europe after the rupture of ghetto Judaism, or to the failure of Emancipation to stem assimilation, are corollary to the material crises and political dangers facing the Jews between 1880 and 1948. If anything, the history of Jewish immigration to Palestine shows that large numbers of people move from one country to another country (especially to a less economically developed one) only because of duress. With immigration to the United States effectively closed in 1924, Jews began moving en masse to Palestine from Poland and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Without these mass immigrations, the Zionist settlement would have either developed or foundered as a small Jewish colony in Arab Palestine.

2. The practical question of place is raised once one presumes in the abstract the right to collective self-preservation and political self-determination in the face of dire threat. No matter how “constructed” and imaginary, there is no other place in the world with which the Jews have as significant a historical, cultural connection. Prior to the advent of Zionism, the Land of Israel (the name Palestine is not indigenous to Judaism) did not serve as an active Jewish political space for most Jewish people. It was, however, the memory and dream space of Judaism par excellence. The Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the (memory of the) Temple are central to Hebrew Scripture, Jewish liturgy, and Jewish messianic hope, despite the adjuration in the Babylonian Talmud not to go up collectively to the Land before the coming of the messiah. Once the die was cast to establish a sovereign national presence, anywhere else would have violated the historical sense of place and spatial orientation articulated in diverse, contradictory ways in Jewish religious-cultural traditions. In contrast to Palestine, the Jews would have settled Uganda or Argentina with just as much need but with no historical or cultural right.

3. For the Jews, the right to settle in Palestine and transform it into a Jewish space owed itself to the dumb luck of historical-geographical circumstance. As observed by Antonius and Khalidi, up until the 1920s the Arabs of Palestine rarely saw themselves or were seen by others as constituting a discrete national entity. Identity formed around the local village, which in turn formed part of larger Syrian, Arab, or Ottoman political frameworks. At the start of the century, was it unconscionable for one to think that the Jews might find a legitimately agreed upon place of their own within a part of this larger territorial unit? Given Jewish minority status in Palestine, Gavison concedes there was no right to create a Jewish state there in 1900. She asserts instead a right to try to create conditions that would then justify the creation of such a state.  Zionists came to Palestine and could refer to themselves as Palestinian Jews because Palestine was an open territorial identity, because they could do so under Ottoman and then British auspices, and because no local national force effectively impeded their way. The 1936-1939 Arab Revolt led the British to cap Jewish immigration in the period just prior to the outbreak of World War II and in its immediate aftermath, but by this time the Yishuv was impossible to uproot.

  1. Labor formed an additional, contractual component to the Jewish claim to Palestine. Up until 1948, the Jewish claim to a part of Palestine was based on the legal purchase of lands and on the labor put into those lands. While Herzl and Jabotinsky made free use of the terms “colony” and “colonization” and sought to align Zionism with imperial interests, Zionism was not a form of colonialism in the narrow sense. The Jewish national project was never meant to extend the empire of an already extant great power, or to seize access to raw materials and exploit indigenous labor. In the form of state-building institutions, agricultural settlements, and para-governmental agencies, Jewish labor was a proud creation and a central plank of the Zionist movement and of the early state. In spirit, its founders’ intent was to build up a land and to rebuild a people. Indeed, the expropriation of lands in the West Bank and Gaza, the exploitation of cheap Palestinian labor from 1967 until the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 did more to undermine the moral legitimacy of the Jewish state than did the social and political exclusions tarnishing the principles and practice of Labor Zionism in its heyday.
  2. A pragmatic basis of right is the willingness to come to agreements with other people. If the first moral trump card of the Zionist movement was the basic right to self-preservation, its final trump card has been the real and perceived willingness to secure international agreements and to accept partition arrangements at key junctures in the conflict’s history (1936, 1947, and 2000). No right is absolute or simply natural. In this respect, Zionism enjoys no moral right to the degree that the State of Israel simply dominates their neighbors and occupies territory beyond internationally agreed upon lines, to the degree that the State does not integrate into the Middle East, its cultures and its future. Like any social group, Zionism secures both a political and moral right to its own border and to its own free self-definition only to the degree that the state founded on its basis seeks to make a genuine, viable space for others both outside and inside the state, to make do with minimal political needs, while forfeiting ideologically and religiously inspired surplus goods and privileges, the demand for which necessarily comes at the expense of another people.

 What constitutes minimal need?  The degree to which the majority civic culture in Israel is Jewish might one day make its formal definition as a “Jewish state” not undemocratic per se, only practically redundant. One way or the other, the Supreme Court will most likely be the official organ that determines how much of the classical Zionist and early State institutional apparatus is actually preserved and how much dismantled (for example, the unequal distribution of state budgets, the exclusive earmarking of state lands to the Jewish people via the Jewish Agency, state support for religious councils and educational institutions, the law of return, the use of state symbols, and the monopoly and control enjoyed by an orthodox rabbinate). One day, the state may look more like the one proposed by Gavison in her support of a weak Jewish sovereignty, seen simply as a consequence of majority status with  as yet to be determined cultural and political implications. 

Does political sovereignty constitute such a minimal need? In his 2003 article against Zionism and against the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, historian Tony Judt argued that the modern nation state is obsolete. With his eye on Europe, he posited “a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism.” Two years after these words were penned a proposed European constitution was rejected in French and Dutch referenda amidst growing concerns about national sovereignty. Add to this Muslim and African immigrant communities that Europe has proved unwilling and unable to assimilate and the still unsettled question about the inclusion of Turkey into the EU indicate is enough to suggest that perhaps the nation-state and “Christian Europe” are not the “dead letter” critics claim them to be. While events more recent than Judt’s article do not necessarily refute the long-term future of Europe or his prognosis for Israel/Palestine, they suggest how a theory always awaits articulation in practice; and then re-articulation. 

Much of the current theorizing against sovereignty touches upon the “political theology” of ultra-conservative political theorist Carl Schmitt, whose thought emerged in Germany in the decade leading up to the Nazi period. For Schmitt, political sovereignty is the power of the sovereign, whose power is presented by him as absolute as God’s omnipotence in Protestant theism. Sovereign power is based on the ability to declare a state of exception, which it must do always in relation to an enemy for it to be political. Schmitt now enjoys a curious vogue among left-leaning theorists today because he allows them to conflate even liberal forms of sovereignty with fascist conceptions. Jacques Derrida, for instance, does this in order to invoke a “certain unconditional renunciation of sovereignty,” the end of the state, a force without power, and the coming of the other. The danger observed is that all claims to sovereignty either slide or risk sliding into fascism.

Which leaves our discussion where? Perhaps the critics of sovereignty highlight Schmitt and ignore the limited, conditional forms of sovereignty in liberal democratic theory either because, like Schmitt himself, they do not trust liberal democracy or because a more transcendental attempt to condition sovereignty on a program of radical democracy is at work in these deliberations. My own view in this essay is aligned against the utopian hope that a national majority would agree to transform itself into a minority in a bi-national entity. One might point instead to more pressing, political tasks: the need to fix internationally and regionally accepted borders, and to establish conditions, rules, and limits to the fair exercise of power. As’ad Ghanem is of course right to insist that what he considers the “merely” procedural aspects of Israeli democracy (separation of powers, free elections, free press, and so on) have yet to translate into the more basic, constitutional reality of democracy as equal citizenship. Like any democratic project, the State of Israel, insofar as it remains democratic, is a passage in space and time between multiple principles and impulses: national, ethnic, religious, and democratic. Never self-identical, they are sometimes complimentary and sometimes in conflict.

Apart from the question of right and no matter its future constitution, Israeli society by dint of sheer demography remains a unique laboratory for the proliferation of modern and contemporary Jewish subjectivities and new Jewish expression. To make use of comments made by Gilles Deleuze about the foundational act of creating art, Zionism began with “the animal that carves out a territory and constructs a house,” Such acts generate  “the emergence of pure sensory qualities, of sensibilia that cease to be merely functional and become expressive features, making possible a transformation of functions.” Rather than stabilize and simplify “the Jewish condition” as originally intended, Zionism has had opposite, volatizing effects. For Jewish philosophy, it creates what Deleuze called a “plane of immanence,” a pre-philosophical foundation for the territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritoritilization of figures and concepts upon which to build up worlds of Jewish life and thought.

“Religion” and “secularism” constitute two examples of concepts volatized by Zionism. As found in a 1993 sociological study of Israeli Jewish belief and practice, Jewish identity in Israel is empirically more complex than the simplistic contrast between a secular majority and religious minority. In their study, the authors found relatively small populations of strictly observant Jews and anti-religious secularists, a smattering of Reform and Conservative (largely Anglo) Jews, and a large moderate center observing some to many traditional mitzvot (e.g. Friday night candle-lighting with or without the traditional blessing over wine, and widespread observance of Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Passover, and lifecycle events, accompanied by sparse weekly synagogue attendance).[x]  Which Israeli Jews observe Jewish practice because they believe that God commands them or which do so as part of a national/ethnic culture and which do so for reasons that are vaguely “spiritual”? With Buber we have already seen above that “the Jews” represent a hybrid national and spiritual formation. This means there is no way to solve this riddle for the vast majority in the middle. Insofar as it projects culture and cultural subjectivities out onto a larger social screen, Israel more than the Diaspora allows one to see how Judaism and Jewish identity look past the narrow choice between religion or secular culture.

This has nothing to do with that old Zionist talisman, the negation of the Diaspora. Indeed, Zionism is itself “originally” a Diaspora discourse. As origin, the Diaspora in Zionist discourse is more than simply a historical geographical place to be left behind. Origin is an ongoing determining force or “ground” “from and by which something arises and springs forth” and “from which something is what it is and as it is.” For a constitutional model of a democratic state and for models of Judaism and Jewish culture that look less towards the state, those who care about Israeli democracy might have to look not just exclusively inside Israel, but also outside to American liberal democracy (where church and state are formally separated, but where civic culture is simultaneously Christian, post Christian, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious). Without overlooking the immense differences dividing national life and religion in Israel and the United States, it may nevertheless be the case that in the future Israel might one day have to “return” to the Diaspora and Diaspora concepts in order to restructure itself.

While identity formations in the State of Israel remain fundamentally complex and dynamic, discourse for and against Zionism have tended to harden into reified theoretical oppositions: Israel or Palestine, Israel or Diaspora, Jew or Arab, Zionism or liberal democracy, collective or individual identity, secularism or religion, nationalism or internationalism, differentiation or integration. The choices demanded are almost always false because they depends upon an either/or positional logic instead of passage. Phenomena are unruly. Ideological formations mutate. Temporal passage and spatial pressure force a multitude to move between one position and its other as both fold into and out of each other. Insofar as movement across contradictions constitutes phenomena, no single such position can ever stand for long prior to another in any absolute way. As for the particular positionings of a Jewish “polity” and Jewish “culture” in “Israel,” they are dominated by overlapping and competing “national,” “ethnic,” and “religious” claims and realities in which “sovereign right” is made possible and justified by the very limits constraining its exercise. At stake is whether these formations remain open or closed to the drawing and redrawing of political, moral, and affective lines contributing to the dynamics of Jewish life in the State of Israel.

[[These paragraphs were published as the conclusion to the chapter on “Zionism” that I wrote for The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era, which I co-edited with Martin Kavka and David Novak. The chapter includes an introductory style survey to  the varieties of historical Zionism, some thoughts on post-Zionism and Herzl, and a section on Palestine. The concluding remarks on Right appear on pp.627-33. You can read the whole thing here:  Zionism. I have removed the footnotes from this post]]


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.
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2 Responses to Liberal Zionism (Social Contract & Limited Sovereign Right)

  1. Kidon Benavramchaim says:

    Shalom, Please be advised that Jews as a people really cannot be as of yet defined. The reality of every day life, its circumstances as well as the ability for one to making a living, anotherwords to to do the things necesary to get the money to pay for every day life suggests in the view of any form of Jewish observances as different social contracted course of life in agreement with those who are not Jewish. What has not been really focused is that in the nature of observances, such as being kosher is inheritantly and deliberately defines oneself as being a distinct human behavior, and this in combination with other observances of distinct human behaviors immediately defines the collection of others individuals into a community of similar observances as a peoples. It is in the nature of those who live adjacent of such communities where additional behaviors are likewise necessary to conduct oneself and as member of such an obserances to which its defense may or may not be likewise necessary; the cornerstone of the vision of Zionism-though its histroic importance immediately achived its end with the establishment of the State of Israel. it is in the resultant of the behaviors of such obseravnces, as well as all the ethical behaviors which flows out of such behaviorism that a peoples and nation rises from the very pages its very own inception; The Torah. It is by such deliberate actions which were so envisioned by the codifications therewithin the The Torah and all the various individual human interpretations, whether they are spiritual or atheistic that the emergences of the Jewish Peoples were first and to it ends were pre-dedicated not only as a peoples but also a nation. The utimate ends of which are not known as the greater part of Jewish tradition does not exist what has happened in the past but what as of yet what will happen in the future.

    Lets stop the debate and get own with life.

    Kidon ben Avramchaim

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