The most violent practice that rabbinic Judaism ever developed vis-à-vis its Others was playing cards on Christmas Eve or walking around the block to avoid passing a pagan or Christian place of worship. Something else was needed for the potential racist implications of genealogical particularism to become actualized. That necessity is power over others. This idea was already predicted by the medieval Jewish philosopher, Yehuda Halevi, who in his Kuzari has God say to the Jews: Your modesty is a function of your powerlessness; when you have power you will be as cruel as any other people.
Etienne Balibar has been willing, at least initially, to grant the progressive value of “anthropological culturalism,” the insistence on the value of maintaining cultural differences (1991a, 21). He remarks: “Its value had been confirmed by the contribution it made to the struggle against the hegemony of certain standardizing imperialisms and against the elimination of minority or dominated civilizations—‘ethnocide’” (21–22). He argues, however, citing the example of Claude Lévi-Strauss's “Race and Culture,” that the latter ends up embroiling himself in rightist arguments against the mixing of cultures and the danger to humanity from ignoring the “spontaneous” [read “natural”] human tendency to preserve their traditions. And Balibar remarks: “What we see here is that biological or genetic naturalism is not the only means of naturalizing human behaviour and social affinities.…Culture can also function like a nature, and it can in particular function as a way of locking individuals and groups a priori into a genealogy, into a determination that is immutable” (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 2). Moreover, it also can serve as a rational justification for arguments that, purporting to be preventives against racism, propose that
Balibar has thus exposed critical flaws in discourses of “differential racism” as an antidote to racism. The question is whether, then, all discourses of strong cultural identity will necessarily produce such negative effects.
to avoid racism, you have to avoid that “abstract” anti-racism which fails to grasp the psychological and sociological laws of human population movements; you have to respect the “tolerance thresholds,” maintain “cultural distances” or, in other words, in accordance with the postulate that individuals are the exclusive heirs and bearers of a single culture, segregate collectivities (the best barrier in this regard still being national frontiers). (Balibar 1991a, 23)
Diaspora culture and identity can, I think, move us beyond this dilemma, for it allows (and has historically allowed in the best circumstances, such as Muslim Spain), for a complex continuation of Jewish cultural creativity and identity at the same time that the same people participate fully in the common cultural life of their surroundings. The same figure, a Nagid, Ibn Gabirol, or Maimonides can be at one and the same time a vehicle of the preservation of traditions and of the mixing of cultures. Nor was this only the case in Muslim Spain, nor even only outside of the Land. The Rabbis in Diaspora in their own Land also produced a phenomenon of renewal of Jewish traditional culture at the same time that they were very well acquainted indeed and an integral part of the circumambient late-antique culture. Diasporic cultural identity teaches us that cultures are not preserved by being protected from “mixing” but probably can only continue to exist as a product of such mixing. All cultures, and identities, are constantly being remade. Diasporic Jewish culture, however, lays this process bare, because of the impossibility of a natural association between this people and a particular land, thus the impossibility of seeing Jewish culture as a self-enclosed, bounded phenomenon. The critical force of this dissociation between people, language, culture, and land has, I think, been an enormous threat to cultural nativisms and integrisms, a threat that is one of the sources of anti-Semitism, and perhaps one of the reasons that Europe has been much more prey to this evil than the Middle East. In other words, diasporic identity is a disaggregated identity.
I am a Jew, I would claim, and it is both right and good (for me and for humanity) that I continue to maintain my cultural practice and cultural identity—the very fact of difference is positive—, but at the same time that does not form an “immutable determination.” The truth of my being Jewish is not compromised by the fact that I am also American, very profoundly so, that in the morning I may go to the synagogue and in the evening to hear Emmylou Harris, and both practices are of very great importance to me. Lest this point get lost, let me emphasize that the first practice is not only, nor often even primarily, a religious practice but rather a cultural practice. When, for instance, I have the prayer for the sick said in synagogue, this is not because my skeptical self believes—much as I would like to—in the efficacy of petitionary prayer, but because this is the way that Jews express solidarity with sick people. Furthermore, as the example chosen—Emmylou Harris—should make clear, this is not an opposition between a particular and a universal identity—i.e., not a version of “be a Jew at home and a human being abroad”—but a concatenation of two equally particular identities in the same polysystem. I am not contrasting the Jewish to the American as the particular to the universal, nor certainly as the private to the public, as expected of Jews in Napoleonic France—which would completely undermine my point—but as two particularities.
Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension with one another. When liberal Arabs and some Jews claim that the Jews of the Middle East are Arab Jews, I concur with them and think that Zionist ideology occludes something very significant when it seeks to obscure this point. Maxime Rodinson has articulated this somewhat differently when he wrote, “Jewish nationalism has special peculiarities. For one thing, it applies to a very disparate human group, whose members have possibilities of self-understanding and action other than those afforded by the ideology of the nation. The best proof of this is the persistent, recurrent, and obstinate effort of Jewish nationalists to rally the mass of their potential adherents behind them, often by dubious means” (Rodinson 1983, 11). The promulgation of a nationalist ideology of a pure Jewish cultural essence that has been debased by Diaspora seems precisely such a dubious means to me. I am proud to hear that in the Cairo University, Rabbi Sa‘adya Gaon is being studied as an important Arab and Egyptian philosopher. On the other hand, the very fact that this makes me, an American Ashkenazi Jew, feel proud shows that identifying the rabbi as an Egyptian Arab of the Jewish faith is not the answer either. To continue the personal tone, I feel deeply injured when I hear certain leftist anti-Zionist compatriots deny the very existence or significance of my connection with the eighth-century Egyptian rabbi or with a modern Egyptian Jew, or hers with Rashi or with me. Statist nationalisms seem to require that we choose one or the other. Diasporized, that is, disaggregated identity, allows for Rabbi Sa‘adya to be an Egyptian Arab who happens to be Jewish and also a Jew who happens to be an Egyptian Arab. Both of these contradictory propositions must be held together. Similarly, for gender, I think that a diasporization of identity is possible and positive. Being a woman is some kind of special being, and there are aspects of life and practice that insist on and celebrate that speciality. But this does not imply a fixing or freezing of all practice and performance of gender identity into one set of parameters. Human beings are divided into men and women—sometimes—but that does not tell the whole story of their bodily identity. Rather than the dualism of gendered bodies and universal souls, or Jewish/Greek bodies and universal souls—the dualism that, as I have argued throughout this book, is offered by Paul—we can substitute partially Jewish, partially Greek bodies, bodies that are sometimes gendered and sometimes not. It is this idea that I am calling diasporized identity.
Paradoxically, however, I would also insist that genealogy as a shared historical memory, most fully (but not exhaustively) represented in the actual, physical identity of child of one's parents is crucial to the maintenance of cultural identity. It is the analog for Jews of possession of the womb for women. It is that which produces some sense of reference, of real anchoring, for difference. To be sure, I remark once more, this genealogy has been denaturalized in Judaism for thousands of years through the mechanism of conversion, but as I have indicated such de-naturalization serves at the same time to reinforce the general symbol of genealogical connection through the ascription of it to the convert. Diasporic Jewish identity has been founded on common memory of shared space and on the hope for such a shared space in an infinitely deferred future. Space itself is thus transformed into time. Memory of territory has made deterritorialization possible, and paradoxically, the possession of territory may have made Diaspora Jewishness impossible.
The tragedy of Zionism has been its desperate—and I believe misdirected—attempt to reduce real threats to Jews and Jewishness by concretizing in the present what has been a utopian symbol for the future. Diasporized identities seem threatened ones, and one of the responses to such threats is separatism, an attempt at a social structure that re-aggregates the disaggregated, re-integrizes the non-integral, by closing off the borders, by indeed attempting to prevent mixing, whether biological or cultural. Zionism, like separatist feminism, is such an attempt. Zionism is a particular reading of Jewish culture and especially of the Bible. I do not, and could not, given my hermeneutic theories, argue that it is a wrong reading or that there is a right reading that can be countered to it. I do argue, however, that it is not the only reading.