The Tanak and other sources of Judaism reveal certain ideas concerning The Land that reflect, or are parallel to, primitive Semitic, other Near Eastern, and, indeed, widespread conceptions about the significance of their land to a particular people. Israel is represented as the centre of the Earth.…The religious man desires to live as near to this sacred space as possible and comes to regard it, the place of his abode, his own land, as the centre of the world.
There are two diametrically opposed moments in the Jewish discourse of the Land. On the one hand, it is crucial to recognize that the Jewish conception of the Land of Israel is absolutely and essentially similar and contiguous to the discourse of the Land of many (if not nearly all) “indigenous” peoples of the world. Somehow, the Jews have managed to retain a sense of being rooted somewhere in the world through twenty centuries of exile from that someplace, and organicist metaphors are not out of place in this discourse, for they are used within the tradition itself.
There is accordingly something profoundly disturbing about Jewish attachment to the Land being decried as regressive in the same discursive situations in which the attachment of Native Americans or Australians to their particular rocks, trees, and deserts is celebrated as an organic connection to the Earth which “we” have lost. Recently at a conference an aboriginal speaker from Australia began her lecture with greetings from her people to the indigenous people of the United States, of whom there were two representatives at the conference, whom she addressed by name. Much of her lecture consisted of a critique of the rootlessness of Europeans. I had a sense of being trapped in a double bind, for if the Jews are the indigenous people of the Land of Israel, as Zionism claims, then the Palestinians are indigenous nowhere, but if the Palestinians are the indigenous people of Palestine, then Jews are indigenous nowhere (J. Boyarin 1992b, 119; Rabi 1979). I have painfully renounced the possibility of realizing my very strong feeling of connection to the Land (or rather, deferred it to some Messianic redemption, when all will be clarified) in favor of what I take to be the only possible end to violence and movement toward justice. Am I now to be condemned as a person who has lost his roots? I think that the uncritical valorization of indigenousness (and particularly the confusion between political indigeneity and mystified autochthony) must come under critique, without wishing, however, to deny the rights of Native Americans, Australians, and Palestinians to their lands precisely on the basis of real and not mystified political claims. Thus I find the arguments of some Palestinians that they are the direct descendants of the Jebusites and therefore exclusively entitled to the Land frightening in their implications, for the same reason that I find such claims frightening in the mouths of Jews. If Jews are to give up hegemony over the Land, this does not mean that the profundity of our attachment to that Land and the crucial cultural significance of a large grouping of Jews in one place, speaking, writing, and creating in Hebrew, can be denied; these also must have a political expression in the present. The cultural rights of a Jewish collective or collectives must be protected in any future Palestine as well.
The biblical story is not one of autochthony but one of always already coming from somewhere else. As Davies has so very well understood, the concept of a Divine Promise to give this land, which is the land of Others, to His People Israel is a marker and sign of a bad conscience at having deprived the others of their Land (Davies 1992, 11–12). Thus, at the same time that one vitally important strain of expression within biblical religion promotes a sense of organicistic “natural” connectedness between this People and this Land, a settlement in the Land, in another sense or in a counter-strain, Israelite and Jewish religion is perpetually an unsettlement of the very notion of autochthony.
Traditional Jewish attachment to the Land, whether biblical or post-biblical, thus provides a self-critique as well as a critique of identities based on notions of autochthony. One Jewish narrative of the Land has the power of insisting on the powerful connection without myths of autochthony, while other narratives, including the Zionist one, have repressed memories of coming from somewhere else. These very repressions are complicitous with a set of mystifications within which nationalist ideologies subsist. We have two alternative modes in the Bible itself for the construction of Jewish identity, one based on genealogy and one on autochthony. Paul leveled his primary attack on the former, while I am suggesting that it is the latter that is primarily responsible for racist effects in Jewish cultures. As Harry Berger argues, “The alienation of social constructions of divinity and cosmos by conquest groups resembles the alienation of socially constructed kinship and status terms from domestic kin groups to corporate descent groups—in anthropological jargon, from the ego-centered kinship system of families to the more patently fictional ancestor-centered system of lineages” (Berger 1989, 121). Distinguishing between forms of “weak transcendence” and “strong transcendence,” Berger argues that “family membership illustrates weak kinship; tribal membership, strong kinship” (121). Strong transcendence is that which is more aggressive, because it is more embattled and doing more ideological work in the service of, according to Berger, land control: “Status that depends on land is generally more precarious and alienable than status inscribed on the body; mobile subsistence economies tend to conceptualize status in terms of the signifying indices of the body—indices of gender, age, and kinship—rather than of more conspicuously artificial constructions, and are closer to the weak end of the weak-to-strong scale.” Thus Berger, following Brueggemann, contrasts two covenants, one the Mosaic, which rejects “the imperial gods of a totalitarian and hierarchic social order,” and one the Davidic, which enthrones precisely those gods as the one God. I could similarly contrast the two trajectories, the one toward autochthony and the one against it in the same way: the former promotes status that depends on land while the latter provides for status “in terms of the signifying indices of the body.” The first would serve to support the rule of Israelite kings over territory, while the second would serve to oppose it: “The dialectical struggle between antiroyalism and royalism persists throughout the course and formative career of the Old Testament as its structuring force. It sets the tent against the house, nomadism against agriculture, the wilderness against Canaan, wandering and exile against settlement, diaspora against the political integrity of a settled state” (123). My argument, then, is that a vision of Jewish history and identity that valorizes the second half of each of these binaries and sees the first as only a disease constitutes not a continuation of Jewish culture but its subversion.
What, however, of the fact that Berger has also implicated “ancestor-centered systems of lineages” as ideological mystifications in the service of state-power of conquest groups—seeming to agree with Paul that claims of status according to the flesh are retrograde—, while I have held such an organization up as the alternative and counter to statism? Empirically, tribal organization with its concomitant myths of the eponymous ancestor, e.g., Abraham, is nearly emblematic of nomadic peoples, not of states. Berger's own discourse, moreover, is inconsistent here, for only a page later, he refers to the pre-monarchic period of Israel (“roughly 1250 to 1000 B.C. ”) as a social experiment in “the rejection of strong transcendence in favor of a less coercive and somewhat weaker alternative, the tribal system that cuts across both local allegiances and stratificational discontinuities” (123). Thus Berger puts tribalism first on the side of “strong transcendence” and then on the side of “weak.” Against Berger's first claim on this point and in favor of his second, I would argue that talk of the eponymous ancestors, of the Patriarchs, is conspicuously less prominent in the “Davidic” texts of the settlement than in the “Mosaic” texts of the wandering. As Berger himself writes, “[David] tried to displace the loyalties and solidarity of kinship ties from clans and tribes to the national dynasty” (124). I would suggest that descent from a common ancestor is rather an extension of family kinship and not its antithesis and thus on the side of wilderness and not on the side of Canaan. Even the myth of descent from common ancestry belongs rather to the semantic field of status through the body and not to the semantic field of status through land. Diaspora, in historical Judaism, can be interpreted then as the analog in a later set of material conditions of nomadism in the earlier, and thus as a continuation of the “sociological experiment” which the Davidic monarchy symbolically overturns. With the “invention” of Diaspora, the “radical experiment of Moses” was advanced. The forms of identification typical of nomads, those marks of status in the body, remained, then, crucial to this formation. Race is here on the side of the radicals; space, on the other hand, belongs to the despots. Paul has, on my view, like many of his followers even of good will, misread the promises and possibilities of the Jewish discourse of deterritorialized, genealogical identity. But then, in my view, so has Zionism.
One modernist story of Israel—the Israeli Declaration of Independence—begins with an imaginary autochthony: “In the Land of Israel this people came into existence,” and ends with the triumphant return of the People to their natural Land, making them re-autochthonized, “like all of the nations.” Israeli state-power, deprived of the option of self-legitimation through appeal to divine king, discovered autochthony as a powerful replacement. An alternative story of Israel begins with a people forever unconnected with a particular land, a people that calls into question the idea that a people must have a land in order to be a people:
For this reading, the stories of Israel's conquest of the Land, whether under Abraham, Joshua or even more prominently, David, are always stories that are more compromised with a sense of failure of mission than they are imbued with the accomplishment of mission, and the internal critique within the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) itself, the dissident voice which is nearly always present, does not let us forget this either. Davies also brings into absolutely clear focus a prophetic discourse of preference for “Exile” over rootedness in the Land (together with a persistent hope of eschatological restoration), a prophetic discourse which has been, of course, totally occluded in modern Zionist ideological representations of the Bible and of Jewish history but was pivotal in the rabbinic ideology (15–19). Ultimately, I would argue, then, that Israel is indeed a product of European colonialism and cultural imperialism but in a sense that the other nation-states of the postcolonial world are as well. The ultimate product of western imperialism is the extension of the very system of nation-states over the entire world, and it is this that must be resisted. As Balibar has put it:
The Land of Israel was not the birthplace of the Jewish people, which did not emerge there (as most peoples have on their own soil). On the contrary it had to enter its own Land from without; there is a sense in which Israel was born in exile. Abraham had to leave his own land to go to the Promised Land: the father of Jewry was deterritorialized. (Davies 1992, 63)
The Rabbis produced their cultural formation within conditions of Diaspora—that is, in a situation within which Jews did not hold power over others—, and I would argue that their particular discourse of ethnocentricity is ethically appropriate only when the cultural identity is that of a minority, embattled or, at any rate, non-hegemonic. The point is not that the Land was devalued by the Rabbis but that they renounced it until the final Redemption, because in an unredeemed world, temporal dominion and ethnic particularity are, as I have argued in the last section, impossibly compromised. I think that Davies phrases the position just right when he says, “It was its ability to detach its loyalty from ‘place,’ while nonetheless retaining ‘place’ in its memory, that enabled Pharisaism to transcend the loss of its Land” (1992, 69). My only addition would be to argue that this displacement of loyalty from place to memory of place was a necessary one, not only to transcend the loss of the Land but to enable the loss of the Land. It was political possession of the Land which most threatened the possibility of continued Jewish cultural practice and difference. Given the choice between an ethnocentricity which would not seek domination over others or a seeking of political domination that would necessarily have led either to a dilution of distinctiveness, tribal warfare, or fascism, the Rabbis de facto chose the former. Secular Zionism has unsuccessfully sought the first choice, dilution of distinctiveness; religious Zionism has unfortunately (but almost inevitably) led to the second and third choices. Either way, Zionism leads to the ruination of rabbinic Judaism, founded on intense, concrete “tribal” intimacy, and it is no wonder that until World War II Zionism was a secular movement claiming very few adherents among religious Jews, who saw it as a human arrogation of a work that only God should or could perform. This is, moreover, the basis for the anti-Zionist ideology of such groups as Natorei Karta until this day. It was the renunciation of sovereignty over the Land that allowed Jewish memory to persist.
There is indeed an institution which the world bourgeoisie shares and which tends to confer concrete existence upon it, above and beyond its internal conflicts (even when these take the violent form of military conflicts) and particularly above and beyond the quite different conditions of its hegemony over the dominated populations! That institution is the system of states itself, the vitality of which has become particularly evident since, in the wake of revolutions and counter-revolutions, colonizations and decolonizations, the form of the nation-state has been formally extended to the whole of humanity. (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 5; cf. Basil Davidson 1992)
The dialectic between Paul and the Rabbis can be recuperated for cultural critique. When Christianity is the hegemonic power in Europe and the United States, then the resistance of Jews to being universalized can be a critical force and model for the resistance of all peoples to being Europeanized out of particular bodily existence. When, however, an ethnocentric Judaism becomes a temporal, hegemonic political force, it becomes absolutely, vitally necessary to accept Paul's critical challenge—although not his universalizing, disembodying solution—and develop an equally passionate concern for all human beings. We, including religious Jews—perhaps especially religious Jews—must take the theological dimension of Paul's challenge seriously. How could the God of all the world have such a disproportionate care and concern for only a small part of His world?! And yet, obviously, I cannot even conceive of accepting Paul's solution of dissolving into a universal human essence, even one that would not be Christian but truly humanist and universal, even if such an entity could really exist. If, on the one hand, rabbinic Judaism seems to imply that Israel is the true humanity, a potentially vicious doctrine of separation and hierarchy, Paul argues that humanity is the true Israel, an equally vicious doctrine of coerced sameness and exclusion.
Somewhere in this dialectic a synthesis must be found, one that will allow for stubborn hanging on to ethnic, cultural specificity but in a context of deeply felt and enacted human solidarity. For that synthesis, Diaspora provides the model, and only in conditions of Diaspora can such a resolution even be attempted. Within the conditions of Diaspora, many Jews discovered that their well-being was absolutely dependent on principles of respect for difference, indeed “that no one is free until all are free.” Complete devotion to the maintenance of Jewish culture and the historical memory were not inconsistent with devotion to radical causes of human liberation; there were Yiddish-speaking and Judeo-Arabic-speaking groups of marxists and anarchists, and a fair number of such Jews even retained a commitment to historical Jewish religious practice. The “chosenness” of the Jews becomes, when seen in this light, not a warrant for racism but precisely an antidote to racism. This is a Judaism which mobilizes the critical forces within the Bible and the Jewish tradition rather than mobilizing the repressive and racist forces that also subsist there.
The alternative story I would tell of Jewish history has three stages. In the first stage, we find a people—call it a tribe—not very different in certain respects from peoples in similar material conditions all over the world, a people like most others that regards itself as special among humanity, indeed as The People, and its land as preeminently wonderful among lands, indeed as The Land. This is, of course, an oversimplification, because this “tribe” never quite dwelled alone and never regarded itself as autochthonous in its Land. In the second stage, this form of life increasingly becomes untenable, morally and politically, because the “tribe” no longer dwells alone, as it were. This is, roughly speaking, the Hellenistic period, culminating in the crises of the first century, of which I have read Paul as an integral part. Various solutions to this problem were eventually adopted. Pauline Christianity is one; so, perhaps, is the retreat to Qumran, while the Pharisaic Rabbis “invented” Diaspora, even in the Land, as the solution to this cultural dilemma.
The rabbinic answer to Paul's challenge was, therefore, to renounce any possibility of dominion over Others by being perpetually out of power:
As before, my impulse is only to slightly change the nuance of Davies's marvelously precise reading. The renunciation of temporal power (not merely “recognition of powerlessness”) was to my mind precisely the most powerful mode of preservation of difference and, therefore, the most effective kind of resistance. The story of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai being spirited out of besieged Jerusalem to set up the Academy at Yavneh rather than staying and fighting for Jewish sovereignty is emblematic of this stance. The Natorei Karta, to this day, refuse to visit the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism, without PLO “visas,” because it was taken by violence. And, I would argue: This response has much to teach us. I want to propose a privileging of Diaspora, a dissociation of ethnicities and political hegemonies, as the only social structure which even begins to make possible a maintenance of cultural identity in a world grown thoroughly and inextricably interdependent. Indeed, I would suggest that Diaspora, and not monotheism, may be the important contribution that Judaism has to make to the world, although I would not deny the positive role that monotheism has played in making Diaspora possible. The very current example of eastern Europe should provide much food for thought, where the lesson of Diaspora, namely, that peoples and lands are not naturally and organically connected, were it taken to heart, could prevent much bloodshed. Diaspora can teach us that it is possible for a people to maintain its distinctive culture, its difference, without controlling land, a fortiori without controlling other people or developing a need to dispossess them of their lands. Thus the response of rabbinic Judaism to the challenge of universalism, which Paul, among others, raised against what was becoming in the end of the millennium and the beginning of the next, an increasingly inappropriate doctrine of specialness in an already interdependent world, may provide some, by no means all, of the pieces to the solution to the puzzle of how humanity can survive now as another millennium draws to its close with no Messiah yet on the horizon. I would argue, therefore, that only a precise reversal of the synthesis of domination and racism could provide any answer to the question of how humanity might continue to survive. Renunciation of sovereignty, autochthony, indigeneity (as embodied politically in the notion of self-determination), on the one hand, combined with a fierce tenacity in holding onto cultural identity, on the other, might yet have something to offer. For we live in a world in which the combination of these two kills thousands daily, yet where the renunciation of difference seems both an impoverishment of human life and an inevitable harbinger of oppression.
Just as with seeing the return in terms of the restoration of political rights, seeing it in terms of redemption has certain consequences. If the return were an act of divine intervention, it could not be engineered or forced by political or any other human means: to do so would be impious. That coming was best served by waiting in obedience for it: men of violence would not avail to bring it in. The rabbinic aloofness to messianic claimants sprang not only from the history of disillusionment with such, but from this underlying, deeply ingrained attitude. It can be claimed that under the main rabbinic tradition Judaism condemned itself to powerlessness. But recognition of powerlessness (rather than a frustrating, futile, and tragic resistance) was effective in preserving Judaism in a very hostile Christendom, and therefore had its own brand of “power.” (Davies 1992, 82)