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Torn between earth and sky: national Jewish homeland.


Israeli poets are among the few to express in recent times what Aviezer Ravitzky describes as the Jewish tradition of dread of the land of Israel. While Zionism has marginalized this tradition in contemporary Jewish life and rendered it somewhat dubious, I suggest that it stimulates sage questions about the burden of modern state nationalism on Jewish life in Israel and abroad. After articulating in summary form this burden for Zionism and other strands of Judaism affected by the nationalizing effects of Zionism, I highlight its weight on Jewish diversity and Jewish ethics, pointing finally to the divisive pressure it applies through one of its key ideological features, the sublimation of the human. In light of this burden, the Jewish tradition of dread of the land of Israel might inform a more critical appropriation of modern nationalism and discern how it tears Jewish life between earth and sky.


"Can a Holy Land also be a homeland?" So begins Aviezer Ravitzky's 2008 essay, "A Land Adored Yet Feared." In it he bemoans the contemporary absence of a striking feature of Jewish tradition regarding the historic Land of Israel--dread. Dread that Jewish presence in the land would not live up to its holiness, for which Jewish sages regard Jews as particularly accountable, and thus result in the catastrophic loss of which Jewish memory is so replete. (1)

But this tradition of dread of the land is of a piece with what early Zionists found so burdensome, if not repulsive, about Rabbinic Judaism. Understandably weary of exilic conditions, along with the apparent rabbinic enabling of those conditions, they hungered for the security and promise of Jewish sovereignty in a national homeland. This is precisely what other, modern Euro-American peoples had been acquiring. (2) Early Zionists could scarcely imagine what the Shoah would do to stoke this hunger among Jews in Europe and beyond, even as it confirmed the error of Zionism among so many ultra-orthodox and other Jews among them. (3) Galvanized by the security imperative issuing from the Shoah, Zionism has forced contemporary Judaism to face squarely the romance of modern state nationalism and to attempt to digest its own, peculiar iteration of it. (4) And Israeli nationalism, vulnerable on so many fronts both domestically and internationally (although not as militarily vulnerable as Israeli administrations have characteristically claimed), has had little room for the dread of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition. Such scruples have hardly seemed fitting, given the stakes. Only the luxury of a relatively stable exile could afford them. But are the acidic pressures of such perceived stakes themselves what that dread of the land is traditionally about, even if not for the more pious reasons given by (fewer and fewer) ultra orthodox Jews?

I wish to consider not so much the challenge of a Jewish homeland, as that of a national Jewish homeland to contemporary Judaism, at least insofar as its life depends on its rabbinic and biblical inheritance. In line with Ravitzky's concern about the loss of Jewish dread of the land of Israel, I am convinced that much Zionism in Israel and North America, religious and otherwise, underestimates the structured ideological influence of modern nationalism. In its Zionist form, this nationalism is often too easily equated with the land commitments of pre-exilic "Judaism" and ancient Israel, or it is otherwise naturalized. A consequence of thus naturalizing or essentializing modern Jewish state nationalism is that its particular burdens are not subject to needed scrutiny, and therefore they go unaddressed. I am inviting scholars of Judaica to apply such scrutiny and address such burdens, and I do so as something of an implicated guest. While I have studied Zionism seriously, including several stints of study in Israel, and I have significant academic training in various strands of Judaism, ancient and modern, I am a non-Jew for whom these remain secondary fields. My primary area of research deals with the Christian religious moorings and liabilities of Western nationalism, which I have found illuminating in the study of the relation between Judaism and Zionism.

Below I will use theorists of modern nationalism, Benedict Anderson and Etienne Balibar, to articulate in summary form its ideological burden for Zionism, and for the rest of contemporary Judaism insofar as it is shaped by the nationalizing effects of Zionism. I will then point to the weight of this burden on Jewish diversity and Jewish ethics, highlighting finally how it is felt as a consequence of a key ideological characteristic of modern nationalism, the sublimation of the human. My hope is that this line of criticism can promote healthy scrutiny of the relationship between Zionist nationalism and Judaism, and signal the relevance of the Jewish tradition of dread of the land of Israel. As manifest in contemporary Israeli poetry (which will set the stage below), such dread can be constructive when it is framed not as a matter of simply legitimizing or delegitimizing Zionism but of crystallizing Jewish questions that Zionism, and other forms of Israeli nationalism, would do well to weigh again and again.

To facilitate the formulation of these questions, the Jewish tradition of dread of the land of Israel requires some conceptual framing. Arguably, Zionism brings to the modern, Western ideology of state nationalism traditional foundations quite unlike those of other nation-state movements, foundations that are at once deep resources and a dragging anchor. Among these foundations, and to be discussed further below, is a relationship to homeland that is explicitly and richly conditional, not absolute: the blessings of the land of Israel depend on how the people of Israel live, not least in that land. Apart from this conditional relationship, the Jewish tradition of dread of the land of Israel is unintelligible. The Shoah and the romantic nature of modern nationalism have together made this conditional understanding extremely difficult to retain, however, even more difficult to nurture. And one can hardly dismiss the force of the Shoah to present the Israeli homeland as an absolute Jewish right.

But it may be that the Jewishness of the State of Israel cannot outgrow the Jewish root of conditional habitation of the promised homeland. Traditionally, the concrete conditions of such habitation constitute the meaning of both exile and the end of it. They thus affect to a degree worthy of consideration the health of Zionism as an expression of Judaism as well as its consequences for Judaism. Moreover, they inform the dread of the land haunting not only rabbinic tradition but also contemporary Israeli poets, who, Ravitzky is keen to point out, are among the few Jews to express it today. (5)

Poetic Disenchantment of the Jewish National Homeland
"Galut," by Balfour Hakak, 1987

   Savi hayu lo bidgei kehunnah shequfim (6)
   veraqmah lo 'immo bedash hakuttonet
   hatekhulah passei zahav yafim
   vehaq'qah lo 'et sh'mo be'oneg
   be'otiyot shel kesef, 'or mezuqqaq.
   Saba' shelli. Morad ben refa'el haqqaq.

   Ve'alah savi ke'avraham me'ur
   Me'otah eretz 'al pi 'oto dibbur.
   'Aloh 'alah 'el 'otah 'admat moledet
   velo' haytah
   lo od hakuttonet hanehmedet.
   Ve'avdah lo serarato
   ve'aval nogah panav
   venishhat hakesef
   venishhat hazahav.

   Uvash'vaqim rakhal savi
   makhar et ozrotav
   begadim balim, markolet 'akhzav
   leshono kevedah, navi' ne'ezav.

   Saba' shelli melekh 'azuv.
   Nolad bevigdei meshi
   veriqmah, bigdci hamudot.
   Vekha'asher galah 'el 'erez
   nishhatu begadav, nishhat hodo
   Raq bemoto hilbishuhu takhrikh ka'ateret
   talit sheqibbel me'aviv talit yerushah
   haquqah tekhelet 'otiyot shel qedushah.

   U'le'orekh ha talit dimmiti lir'ot
   passei zahav yafim. Or mezuqqaq.
   Saba' shelli. Morad ben refa'el haqqaq.

   My grandfather's priestly garments were translucent
   His mother embroidered the hem of his blue robe
   With beautiful gold bands
   She took pleasure etching his name
   In letters of silver, pure light.
   My grandfather, Morad ben Raphael Hakak.

   Like Abraham from Ur, my grandfather came up
   From that same land, in the same manner.
   He came to the same homeland
   No longer did he have
   His gorgeous robe.
   His supremacy was gone
   His face shone with grief
   The silver was tarnished
   And the gold butchered.

   My grandfather was a peddler in the markets, selling his treasures
   Tattered clothing, second-rate merchandise
   Slow of speech, a forsaken prophet.

   My grandfather was a sorrowful king.
   He was born to silken garments, rich embroidery and fine raiment.
   But when he was exiled to the land

   His clothes were spoiled and his splendor ruined.
   When he died they draped him in his shroud like a splendid robe
   The Tallit he received from his father, his inheritance
   Was etched with the blue letters of holiness.

   Along the whole length of the Tallit I thought I could see
   Beautiful bands of gold. Pure light.
   My grandfather. Morad ben Raphael Hakak. (7)

"Exiled to the land," the Iraqi Jew, Balfour Hakak, says of his grandfather, whose decline through aliyah forces into view the limits of a Jewish homeland and the complexity of exile. I do not think the meaning of exile can be purged of geography, given the deep roots of Jewish memory and life in a particular land of promise, and the corresponding testimony of Jewish scripture. But neither can exile be reduced to a matter of geographic location. To state the matter positively, being at home in the promised land must include certain conditions of flourishing there, and life away from a homeland can be qualitatively better in terms of some of those same conditions. What makes exile and home what they are, then, must be described as thickly as possible, specifying the interrelated particulars, geographic and otherwise, that make a Jewish home of the Jewish homeland, and that make exile what the Torah calls "death" (mavet, as in Deut. 30:15).

As Jewish Diaspora nationalist movements have claimed, life away from the land of Israel has not all been death. The patience of thicker description of home and exile may thus provide needed discipline to political romance about living in the land of Israel, and empower Jews to celebrate and nurture how at home they are far from Jerusalem. At the same time, it elicits the critical question of what terms should characterize this thicker description. "Self-determination" and "sovereignty," watchwords of modern state nationalism, are often too thin to be of much help, especially in an age when geopolitical alliances and other forms of global power restrict and eclipse that of modern nation-states. More intricate ways of describing Jews' (e.g., economic) patterns of relating to one another, to land, and to their gentile neighbors are required for naming a life at home in the homeland and differentiating between life and death.
"Stranger Woman," by Elisheva Greenbaum, 2000

   Ever since I learned to tie my shoelaces, (8)
   I've been tailing the human race.
   Once, I even got very close to it.
   We played together. Hide and seek, tag,
   bridge. All sorts of "couple" games.
   We lived together in a rented apartment.
   I have pictures from that time.
   The trip to Jerusalem. Holding
   sunset in our hands.
   Those were the days.
   A refrigerator was a place full of possibilities.
   A child was something to give birth to.
   But I had to step back
   to be able to see it better.
   Without realizing, I turned transparent
   as a telegraph pole.
   Sometimes, he passes by, the human race,
   even quite close. Friday afternoons,
   on the way back from the market.
   Two different hands holding one basket,
   tomatoes bursting with seeds.
   Barely touching, sweating, there are words
   I must look up in the dictionary
   to understand.
   Now he lives right downstairs,
   the human race. Sultry murmurs
   float up from the verandah.
   A confusion of words. A baby crying.
   I listen. I can even
   smell an omelet.
   And to think that once
   the moon was an example
   of a faraway place.

In "Stranger Woman," Elisheva Greenbaum paints a subtler picture than Balfour Hakak, one of outgrowing a childhood romance of life at home with humanity as a Jew, in the country of Israel. Since the time she could plan any pursuit, she has "been tailing the human race," almost at rest with him in the sunset of Jerusalem. But when finally settled in her own house, with humanity living just beneath her, only smells and sounds away, she finds his once exotic words have decayed into confusion; he is farther away than she found the moon as a child. How have such closeness and such estrangement between Jew and humanity converged in the same life and in the same place?

Some will say that to be caught between heaven and earth, between hope and fulfillment, is simply the Jewish condition, maybe even the human condition. That may be true so far as it goes. But I suggest that this estrangement at home, expressed mournfully by Greenbaum, and manifest in Balfour Hakak's grandfather, requires some attention to the recent peculiarity of a national Jewish homeland, which, to allude to an older poem by Lea Goldberg (1955), (9) may have Judaism not suspended, but torn, between earth and sky.

The Burdens of Israeli Nationalism and Nationalization

It might seem puzzling to read my phrase above, "the recent peculiarity of a national Jewish homeland." The promise of the land of Canaan to the people of Israel is obviously an old Jewish tradition. But I am using "national" more technically, not describing a generic collective, because I want to focus on nationalization as a modern phenomenon that arose in Europe and North America and then spread, suggesting here its influence on Zionism, and below, its burdens on Jewish diversity and ethics. (10) It is the tendency of the dubious mythology of this modern nationalism to paint current national claims rather neatly onto an ancient, pre-national past, as if they were a matter of direct inheritance, as if the form of the community had always been the national one. (11) This is partly how the phenomenon of the national has come to be perceived as both ancient and natural, as timeless possibility. But the nationalization of people, political order, and land, among Jews as among others, is in fact a much more recent development, as documented, classically now, by the late Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities. (12)

According to Anderson, the modern nationalization of diverse populations into discrete political entities we now know as nations must be attibuted to at least two significant and simultaneous factors: (1) the somewhat unintentional, common political consciousness fomented by the mass printing and reading of relatively common vernacular languages, especially through the institution of the national (i.e., "public") school, and (2) the consolidating efforts of regional colonial gentry, as well as indigenous elites, who, in pursuit of political independence from distant colonial centers or nearer aristocracies, harnessed prenational state structures to amass popular power in the name of a distinctly national, and territorially total, political identity.

We may think here of the crucial role that modern Hebrew has played in the formation of the Jewish nation-state of Israel. Or the struggle of the Yishuv for Jewish nationalization through venues like the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World's Fair starting in 1939-40. There Yishuv representatives encountered not only fellow Jewish nationalists but also Jews who offered various kinds of resistance to Jewish nationalization: Jews of so-called "indigenous American Zionism," for example, who supported Jewish immigration to Palestine but refused to equate exilic culture with degeneration, as Eastern European Zionism and Yishuv Jewish nationalism tended to do. "Indigenous American Zionists" also tended to reject "Diaspora nationalism" because of how at home they found themselves in the political order of the United States. The Yishuv had to contend with non-Zionist Jews as well, of course, among them Jews who offered various kinds of support for a Jewish presence in Palestine but resented the presentation of Zionist nationalism as the culmination of Jewish history. (13)

What is particularly salient about this complex, nationalizing dynamic for the Jewish Israeli case, and its implications for Judaism and the meaning of exile, is what political philosopher Etienne Balibar identifies as the specific ideological form that has guided the nationalism of modernity, including that of Zionist Jewish nationalism. This ideological form is a model of national unity, or nationalness, that anticipates its political formation and thus regulates and contributes to that formation. The process of national consolidation, or nationalization,
   presupposes the constitution of a specific ideological form. It
   must at one and the same time be a mass phenomenon and a phenomenon
   of individuation, must effect an "interpellation of individuals as
   subjects" (Althusser) which is much more potent than the mere
   inculcation of political values or rather one that integrates this
   inculcation into a more elementary process ... of fixation of the
   affects of love and hate and representation of the "self." That
   ideological form must become an a priori condition of communication
   between individuals (the "citizens") and between social groups--not
   by supressing all differences, but by relativizing them and
   subordinating them to itself in such a way that it is the symbolic
   difference between "ourselves" and "foreigners" which wins out and
   which is lived as irreducible. In other words, to use the
   terminology proposed by Fichte in his Reden an die deutsche Nation
   of 1808, the "external frontiers" of the [national] state have to
   become "internal frontiers" or--which amounts to the same
   thing--external frontiers have to be imagined constantly as a
   projection and protection of an internal collective personality,
   which each of us carries within ourselves and enables us to inhabit
   the space of the [national] state as a place where we have always
   been--and always will be--"at home." (14)

The ideological form of the nation that Balibar describes here ramifies as a powerful, structured influence on national or nationalizing societies in modernity.

Balibar is not trying to theorize the consolidation of political identity more generally but rather that of the particular form of the modern nation.

What is somewhat unique about the Israeli case is that the nation form has exerted its influence on an inherited, already present collective consciousness and shared, community-constituting practices (i.e., those of prenational Jewish life). When Israeli nationalization began, these were arguably more established than the collective consciousness and shared practices of other prenationalized populations. Jews were also distinct in not being a population gathered prenationally in one geographic place, but in dispersed concentrations. Thus, the drama of Israeli nationalism and homeland cannot be understood apart from the particular ways in which the nation form has operated on some kind of complex, prenational Jewish identity, as well as a rich, non-Israeli Jewish identity.

Generally speaking, the structured influence of the ideological form of the nation has often conveyed significant, enfranchising benefits to much of the population it claims as its own. But it has also imposed costly burdens on that population, to say nothing of the losses nationalism has inflicted on other populations, especially indigenous and enslaved ones in the case of modern American nation-states such as the United States. Speaking of the Jewish case in particular, the obvious benefits of a nation-state of Israel in the biblical promised land have often clouded the burdens it has imposed on Jews and Judaism, both in Israel and abroad, not to mention those felt by others, chiefly Palestinians. (15)

I have characterized the influence of the ideological form of the nation as "structured" because its burdens are recognizable as a pattern and sometimes attributable decisively to particular discursive and administrative operations over time. (16) Balibar provides some illuminating terms for naming these burdens. They may be summarized as the weight of the nation form on prenational and non-national Jewish life, both in Israel and abroad, more specifically, the way it has relativized Jewish difference.

Burden on Jewish Diversity

If there is one thing impressed upon gentile students of Jewish life like me, it is the Jewish cultivation and celebration of difference. To be Jewish, one is taught, is to be different from other Jews. The nation form does not bluntly attack this Jewish sensibility, to be sure; it does not work to suppress all differences, as Balibar writes. It works instead to relativize them. It does this by subordinating them to the difference between nationals and others, a difference that, typically, is lived as deep to the point of being irreducible.

The subordination of Jewish differences to a national Jewishness no doubt affects Jewish diversity within Israel, a development to which I will return below. Here I want to draw attention to the immediate and somewhat unique problem of Israeli nationalism for Jewish diversity more broadly: the Israeli national difference is not formally constituted by a distinction between Jews as nationals and non-Jews as non-nationals, since many Jews are not Israeli nationals. (17) Yet, the romance of the nation form, messianic in its Christian inception, (18) will not settle for a shallow national difference so as to accommodate nationals and non-nationals equally, even if both are Jewish. Its consolidating power consists precisely in its being lived as deep, as ultimate, as a matter of life and death. Thus, Israel has difficulty claiming to be simply one more expression of Jewish life, an insurmountable difficulty in light of the traditional prestige of its national territory and its claims to safeguard Jewish security generally. One effect of a Jewish Israeli instantiation of the nation form is therefore to pit national ways of being Jewish against other forms of Jewish life. As is felt by many young Jews through the work of Birthright Israel, the remove of non-Israeli Jews from Israeli Jewish existence must somehow be overcome for the full realization of their Jewishness. (19)

While the irreducibility of the national difference is mitigated in the case of Israel by undeniable, deep Jewish bonds across it, it is hard to deny the gravitational effect of the State of Israel. It draws Jews variously into its orbit, certainly in relation to Jewish security, but not only that. While much of the Jewish migration to Israel of the last 70 years is no doubt due to persecution and justified fear of murder and poverty, especially in the wake of the Shoah, a broader sense of Jewish fulfillment surely represents a significant factor in moving half of world Jewry from high and deep concentrations in 40 to 50 other lands to the country of Israel, where almost half of world Jewry lives today. The prestige of the nation form, along with other considerations, is also responsible for the assumption in many non-Jewish circles, especially Christian ones, that "Jews" or especially "Israel," simply means the people and the state of Israel. I find in my own area of Los Angeles that non-Jews must often be reminded that they have non-Israeli Jewish neighbors in their own neighborhoods or elsewhere in their regions, to say nothing of non-Israeli Jews further afield both in time and space. Perhaps the monopolizing or messianic tendencies of the nation form itself are a factor in diasporic Jews' finding they have to broker all kinds of questions and issues with words about the State of Israel. (20)

The once widely and deeply spread life of Jews and Judaism brings us back to Balibar's formulation of the nation form: that it does not immediately suppress all differences but relativizes them to the national difference. The very riches of Jewish life, both in Israel and abroad, are arguably due to what it has drawn from God and itself in relation to others in the many places where Jews have made a home for millennia. The nurture of these riches is therefore burdened by the relativization of fertile differences among Jews to a national Israeli difference. In short, some ways of being Jewish struggle to feed and thrive when determined by the limits of the national. This is true within Israeli society but also in the Diaspora, insofar as the orbit of Jewish life abroad is variously affected by the reality of the country of Israel.

Burden on Jewish Ethics

The burden of the national relativization of Judaism might be further specified, by way of illustration, in terms of political and ecological violence. Rabbinic Judaism is characterized by what might be called a casuistic ethical commitment to avoid resorting to violence and patterns of escalation. (21) The relative peace among Jews for almost two millennia following Shivah Asar B'Tammuz of 70 CE can hardly be accounted for without it. But one effect of the nation form on Judaism in Israel, and abroad, especially in the wake of the Shoah, has been a kind of systemic escalation. Nuanced Jewish approaches to intricately diverse sources of conflict have tended to give way to the more blunt and generalized terms of national security, where everything is at stake when anything is at stake.

Similarly, the scale of industry characteristic of modern nation-states, with their corresponding domestic and international competition for the domination of resources and markets, applies immense ideological and material pressure to traditional Jewish measures of ecological restraint and care. This is evident, to give one example, in the damage done by Israeli industry and urbanization to Lake Kinneret, the Jordan Valley, and the Dead Sea, with all that the deterioration of these water gifts implies. (22) As determined by the constraints of the national, Jewish political order has a harder time drawing on its non-national sources of wisdom for the patience, learning, and frugality that are required to sustain the abundant life of particular places where human beings live in high concentrations. The nation form has promoted instead a short-sighted mining mentality in service of the all-important nation, whose long-term viability is ironically compromised by its inability to live responsibly and beautifully in its place.

The threat of political and ecological violence on the flourishing, if not the sustainability, of the people of Israel in its homeland is not lost on the Torah, of course. Thus, one additional ethical feature of Judaism that seems relativized by the nation form of Israel deserves mention. The Torah teaches quite clearly that Israel's ability to be at home in the promised land, and by extension to thrive anywhere, depends on the way that it lives where it does. It can live in such a way that, over generations, it finds itself unable to live there at all, much less thrive there. (23) But the nation form tends to arrogate to a nation an absolute kind of habitation, which as national is also territorial. The burden of the nation form on Judaism thus weighs upon its ability to articulate, and attend to, the conditions according to which the people of Israel is blessed with long and abundant life in the promised land and elsewhere, and the conditions according to which it finds itself driven to the curses of death. The tendency of the nation form, against this wisdom, is to insinuate that living in the homeland is itself thriving, and living elsewhere is not living.

Burden of Sublimating the Human

We turn finally to a trait of the nation form that has had a profound influence on Jewish life in Israel and abroad: the nationalist sublimation of the human. As Greenbaum's "Stranger Woman" suggests, the Jewish tradition of dread of the land of Israel may serve to expose and address this aspect of the burden of the nation form more subtly than others. It might express more profoundly how a national Jewish homeland tears Jewish life between earth and sky, and suggest alternative ways of making a home in Israel, where earth and sky come together.

The ideal of the nation, according to which the nation form has served to consolidate diverse populations, depends upon some conception of transcendence. Such a conception functions as the basis of the modern nation's idealization and the regulating terms of nationalization. The first national movements, which were White supremacist and self-consciously Christian, articulated this transcendence in competition with one another as God's election of them as the new Israel. (24) But folded within this peculiar transcendence in the colonial and theological context of these Euro-American political movements was a claim to represent the human in contrast to the supposedly subhuman populations of their colonial mission fields. These populations, as well as the Jews living among the emerging Euro-American nations, it should be added, were typically deemed subnational by nature. (25) They supposedly lacked essential, racially developed ingredients for being national, which in turn was understood as the consummate political and spiritual form of being human. Thus, Euro-American nationalizing movements claimed to constitute politically and violently the fulfillment of the human. (26)

The backlash to the overreach of the Christian tradition has since stripped much of the explicitly Christian and theological skin from the nation form, but its need for an organizing transcendence has retained the humanist claim: in effect, the predicate of "human" or "natural" is substituted for what was previously God-ordained. Much as in the founding document of the United States, this basis is enshrined in the Israeli Proclamation of Independence in terms of the natural right of the Jewish people. Hence, as Balibar contends, modern nationalism has always traded in anthropological universals. (27) In the context of Western modernity, these universals have not been able to avoid racist insinuations, privileging the ways of being human characteristic of a certain essentialized formation of humanity, and policing other ways to the margins or otherwise subordinating them. (28)
   The "visible," institutional national collectivity must regulate
   its transformations by reference to another, invisible
   collectivity, which transcends frontiers and is, by definition,
   transnational.... [The boundaries of such transnational
   collectivity] are the frontiers of an ideal humanity. (29)

According to this sublimation of the human, the nation form has helped to organize the world formally
   into equivalent nation states (each represented in international
   institutions) but traversed by the constantly shifting frontier ...
   between two humanities which seem incommensurable, namely, the
   humanity of destitution and that of "consumption," the humanity of
   underdevelopment and that of overdevelopment. (30)

Like other modern nations, the Israeli instantiation of the nation form has been unable to avoid drawing upon, and thefore policing, these imaginary frontiers of an ideal humanity. Thus, the Israeli Proclamation of Independence claims "the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home" with a Jewish state that will "confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations." (31) Framed in these terms, the nation-state of Israel cannot help but make and police claims about the whole of the Jewish people rather than only Israeli Jews, and it has had the effect of dividing Jews in Israel, as well as abroad, along the lines of the racist hierarchy of humanity generated by Christian colonialism and further refined by Euro-American political liberalism. (32)

This no doubt has something to do with why African Jews, especially sub-Saharan African Jews whose Jewishness itself has been conspicuously subject to interrogation, have had more difficulty than other Jews finding a home in Israel, and why Ashkenazi Jews seem to have found themselves far more at home in Israel than their Sephardic counterparts like Morad ben Raphael Hakak. It also sheds light on why Elisheva Greenbaum, in "Stranger Woman," frolicked so romantically close to humanity growing up in Israel, but found herself many moons from intimacy when living just upstairs from him in the national homeland as an adult, torn between heaven and earth.

Jews had long experienced estrangement from "humanity" in modern exile, as attested by the following potent passage in Gillian Rose's Love's Work, which narrates how she further awoke with pain to the deep difference between the Hasidic Jewish gender relations of her London neighborhood and those of other communities:
   Looking out of the window of the flat, I saw a wedding party arrive
   at a block of flats on the opposite side of the road. Not an
   Hasidic wedding, an ordinary English wedding. What struck me at
   once was the lightness of the vision: slender young bridesmaids in
   short white muslin dresses with loose bare limbs, the adults
   attired in the pastel hues of matrimonial finery, and the
   commingling of the sexes in easy high spirits, all on their way
   from the church ceremony to the jollifications of the reception. My
   disinterested perception of this happy procession was brusquely
   interrupted by the loud irruption of a subhuman howling, the source
   of which was unlocatable. It was howling as if from a dark, dank
   cave, where some deformed brute had been chained and tempted since
   time immemorial. The howling did not cease even after the last of
   the wedding party had disappeared from view.

      It was I who was howling, in utter dissociation from myself, the
   paroxysm provoked by the vivacious contrast between the environing
   Judaism and this ephiphany of protestants, the customary, laborious
   everydayness broken by the moment of marriage, the cloaks of the
   clandestine pious cleaved by the costumes of those weightless,
   redeemed beings. To this day, I cannot go to family weddings. (33)

Rose's choice of words, "a subhuman howling," is telling. This estrangement from humanity is perhaps even more acute for Elisheva Greenbaum, however, because for her, not simply in a homeland but in the national homeland, there is nowhere else to chase the sublimated human, at least no other, more Jewish place.


Subjecting Judaism to the limits of the national, without a radical transformation of the national itself, may have the effect of exiling Jews to the land, while of course delivering notable improvement to the lives of many Jews along the way. Consequently, I wish to sharpen Ravitzky's opening question, "Can a Holy Land also be a homeland?" by pressing this question: "Can a Holy Land also be a national homeland?"

In the present time, Jewish dread of the Holy Land of Israel is easily dismissed as misplaced piety, its rationale a matter of outdated taboo. But two considerations must be kept in mind: (1) the banal but easily forgotten fact that Jews' ability to live sustainably in Israel depends on the way they live there; and (2) because Jewish life is so invested in the land of Israel, perhaps as it is in no other place, the way its life unfolds there has drastic ramifications for all Jews across time. These ramifications are often imperceptible to the current generation but felt as the inheritance of future ones. (34)

Given these two considerations, one might give Jewish dread of the land of Israel more patient consideration and discern in it some crucial insight, especially now that the land has been all but nationalized and so many Jews have concentrated there. Not only must habitation of the Holy Land be undertaken simply with due care. The tradition of Jewish dread may also promote and inform needed critical engagement with the acidic pressures of Israeli nationalization in particular. The romance of modern nationalism can lead to the misapprehension of the stakes of Israel's possession of the Holy Land, forming an ideological bubble that can pop, with severe consequences, whether they are felt suddenly or gradually. What is claimed under the nationalist pressures of today can prove a cancerous inheritance for future generations. Jewish dread of the land of Israel may thus encourage a more searching and truthful discernment of what is at stake in the way Jews are invited to live by the escalated terms of a national Jewish homeland. Passive and pious Jewish waiting for political redemption may have indeed reached the end of its general viability. But must not national territorial activism be disciplined by the concrete constraints according to which the Land of Israel is a gift? (35)

To the extent that Israel demands and polices the limits of the national as conceived in modernity, Judaism may find itself increasingly suffocated, not least because Jewish life has grown historically from its own transnational hospitality. At least in some cases, this transnational hospitality--a peculiar expression of transnational bonds of community--has made beautiful homes for Jews far from Jerusalem. The dilemma is that this hospitality does not seem to exert enough pressure to consolidate a sustainable Jewish nationality, while Jewish nationality seems inimical to that holy, life-giving hospitality. (36)


(1.) Ravitzky, "A Land Adored Yet Feared," 183-210.

(2.) Avineri, The Making of Modern Zionism.

(3.) Segev, The Seventh Million.

(4.) I qualify "nationalism" here as of the "state" variety, because modern non-Zionist Jews developed nonstate forms of nationalism. See, e.g., Goldsmith, Modern Yiddish Culture', Rabinovitch, Jews and Diaspora Nationalism. I learned much on this subject from the fine papers delivered by Efrat Gal-Ed and Ido Harari at Rethinking Exile, Center, and Diaspora in Modern Jewish Culture, Cambridge University, May 2-4, 2016, the same conference at which a previous draft of the present article was delivered as a paper.

(5.) Ravitzky, 184-85.

(6.) Ve'az be'ketz ha'yohasin (Yerushahyim: Shalhevet, 1987), 1. Poem used courtesy of Balfour Hakak. Transliteration of Hebrew printed at author's request.

(7.) Translation provided by the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, January 2015.

(8.) Poem used courtesy of Elisheva Greenbaum's family. Translated by Vivian Eden.

(9.) "Pine," in Rivner, Collected Poems.

(10.) See Spencer and Wollman, Nations and Nationalism.

(11.) Balibar, "The Nation Form."

(12.) Anderson, Imagined Communities.

(13.) See Gelvin, The Israel-Palestine Conflict, 144-64.

(14.) Balibar, "The Nation Form," 94-95.

(15.) For a learned, broad-brush treatment of the influence of the nation form on the State of Israel, an account with which I am in much sympathy, see Mirsky, "What is a Nation State For?"

(16.) Its effects are obviously psychological as well.

(17.) It is striking in this connection that all Jews are claimed as potential Israeli nationals.

(18.) Balibar, "The Nation Form," 87-90. This (heterodox) Christian messianic quality is famously theorized by Hegel in The Philosophy of History. Rosenzweig opposed this kind of Christian messianism with an alternative, Judaeo-Christian messianic politics that resists the hegemony of the nation-state; see Franz Rosenzweig, Hegel und der Staat.

(19.) See, e.g., Feldman, "The Romance of Birthright Israel."

(20.) This burden of brokerage was emphasized by Kahn-Harris in "What Do Diaspora Jews Talk about When They Talk about Israel?"

(21.) See, e.g., Slicker, The Political Culture of Judaism. See also Weiss, "Direct Divine Sanction."

(22.) See Tal, Pollution in a Promised Land, esp. 199-242. See also the publications of EcoPeace Middle East,

(23.) See Novak, The Election of Israel', Wyschogrod, "Judaism and the Land."

(24.) See Smith, Chosen Peoples. See also Givens, We the People.

(25.) Balibar, "Racism and Nationalism," 52-53.

(26.) Ibid., 56-57.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) One variation of this racist use of anthropological universals comes in the guise of "culture" (Ibid.).

(29.) Ibid., 61.

(30.) Ibid., 44.

(31.) Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.

(32.) In addition to the already cited essays by Balibar, see esp. Smith's chapter, "Peoples of the Covenant," 66-94. In this connection see also the complaints in Mizrachi's "Ashkenazi Jews and White Privilege."

(33.) Rose, Love's Work, 39-40, emphasis added.

(34.) Ravitzky highlights sages who follow the logic of R. Meir of Rothenburg (Maharam) in his interpretation of Num. 13:32, "One who rebels against the King within the King's palace is not the same as one who rebels outside it" (186). This concern can be, but need not be, framed in traditional terms of sin and punishment, which are nuanced by the particularities of the investment of Jewish life in the Land of Israel and corresponding messianic hopes. It is why re-exile can be worse than exile (198).

(35.) Lest the reader infer that the tradition of Jewish dread proscribes aliyah, most of the figures Ravitzky cites seek rather to condition Jewish return to the Holy Land, so that their habitation there, and the lives of other Jews affected by it, might be blessed (e.g., R. Yesha'yah HaLevi Horowitz [Shelah], 187-88).

(36.) For much learning relevant to this essay, including stimulating opposition to parts of it, I wish to thank the participants of the conference, Rethinking Exile, Center, and Diaspora in Modern Jewish Culture, at Cambridge University, May 2-4, 2016, my friends and colleagues of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in partnership with the American Jewish Committee for the Christian Leadership Initiative, and my graduate students Sarah Bancroft Lorenzana, Chase Weaver, Chris Romine, and Eric Mulligan.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism 1983. London: Verso, 2006.

Avineri, Shlomo. The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. New York: Basic Books, 1981

Balibar, Etienne. "The Nation Form: History and Ideology." In Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, edited by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1991.

Balibar, Etienne. "Racism and Nationalism." In Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, edited by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1991.

Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, The. Knesset Homepage.

Feldman, Kiera. "The Romance of Birthright Israel." The Nation. June 15, 2011.

Gelvin, James L. The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Givens, Tommy. We the People: Israel and the Catholicity of Jesus. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014.

Goldberg, Leah. "Pine." In Collected Poems, edited by Tuvia Rivner, translated by Rachel Tzvia Back. Tel Aviv: Iachdav/Writers Association, 1970.

Goldsmith, Emmanuel. Modern Yiddish Culture: The Story of the Yiddish Language Movement. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.

Greenbaum, Elisheva. "Stranger Woman." 2000. Translated by Elisheva Greenbaum. Haaretz. March 1, 2005.

Hakak, Balfour. "Galut." Ve'az be'ketz ha'yohasin. Yerushalayim: Shalhevet, 1987.

Hegel. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. B. Sibree. 1956. New York: Dover, 2004.

Kahn-Harris, Keith. "What Do Diaspora Jews Talk about When They Talk about Israel?" Paper presented at Rethinking Exile, Center, and Diaspora in Modern Jewish Culture conference. Cambridge University. May 2-4, 2016.

Mirsky, Yehudah. "What is a Nation State For?" Marginalia: A Los Angeles Review of Books. March 11, 2015.

Mizrachi, Eiron. "Ashkenazi Jews and White Privilege." The Times of Israel. March 25, 2016.

Novak, David. The Election of Israel: The Idea of the Chosen People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Rabinovitch, Simon, ed. Jews and Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States. Lebanon:, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2012.

Ravitzky, Aviezer. "A Land Adored Yet Feared: The Land of Israel in Jewish Tradition." In Homelands and Diasporas: Greeks, Jews and Their Migrations. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.

Rose, Gillian. Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1995.

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Segev, Tom. The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. Translated by Haim Watzman. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.

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Smith, Anthony. Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Spencer, Philip, and Howard Wollman, eds. Nations and Nationalism: A Reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Weiss, Daniel. "Direct Divine Sanction, the Prohibition of Bloodshed, and the Individual as Image of God in Classical Rabbinic Literature." Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 32, no. 2 (2012): 23-38.

Wyschogrod, Michael. "Judaism and the Land." In Abraham's Promise, edited by R. Kendall Soulen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
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Date:Jun 22, 2016
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