chapter  2
8 Pages

The State of Israel and the Negation of the Exile BY MICHAELWALZER

Given the way that Israel is embattled in the world today, this is probably an occasion when one ought to say good things about it. One ought to respond to efforts by European intellectuals, and others too, to deny legitimacy to the Jewish state. And there are many good things to say, and easy arguments to make in defense of Israel’s legitimacy. In a world of failed states, tyrannical states, terrorist states, and morally bankrupt states that lend support to the tyrants and terrorists, Israel is a model of democracy. Even those of us who strongly oppose its policies in the occupied territories can recognize the difference between this state and most of the others. But I come out of a Jewish tradition of anxiety and self-criticism (which is

not the same as anger and self-hatred), and so I am going to worry with you, or at least in front of you, about some features of Jewish history that have made statehood harder and more problematic than it might have been. These are Zionist worries, and they serve to explain why the project of “negating the exile” was and still is an absolutely necessary project-though I will also worry, in a characteristically Jewish way, that negation can sometimes be too successful, can sometimes be carried too far. Let me begin with a central issue of political life: the necessity, if you have

a state, of ruling over others, over strangers, resident aliens, new immigrants, national and religious minorities, conquered peoples. This isn’t an issue only in imperial states like the old Soviet Union or the British Empire, but in all states, including the Jewish state. The US rules over Indian tribes. The Norwegians rule over the Lapps and now over Macedonians and Turks. The Italians rule over immigrant Albanians, the French over immigrant Algerians, the Egyptians over Copts, the Turks over Kurds, the Chinese over Muslim tribesmen, and so on. In the long centuries of the exile, in all of the Diaspora, the Jews ruled only

over themselves; we ruled only over ourselves-when we ruled at all. The autonomous or semi-autonomous communities, the kehillot of Ashkenaz and of Spain and North Africa and the Ottoman empire and Poland, Hungary, and Russia, were radically homogeneous; they consisted only of Jews. Good Jews and bad Jews, no doubt-but, as Rashi said (citing Tractate Sanhedrin), bad Jews are still Jews; they do not become “other.”1 Even the herem (ostracism or excommunication) did not create otherness in the kahal, since its point was

to force compliance with communal norms, to bring people back, not to exclude them permanently. So the Jews were responsible only for the well-being of the Jews, while our

gentile rulers were responsible for all the people they ruled, including the Jews. They were never reliably responsible-we all know the history-but we often turned to them for protection (against populist preachers and murderous mobs in the Middle Ages, for example), and sometimes, at least, we were protected. In many of the exilic communities, we counted on the gentile rulers to protect us even from our own criminals: they took charge of corporal and capital punishment-and we were not unhappy to surrender that ugly work. Jewish writers sometimes claimed that we were too good to exercise political power, even for our own protection-you can find the twentiethcentury philosophical version of this idea in Franz Rosenzweig and the religious version in Abraham Isaac Kook.2 We weren’t brutal enough, so we looked for protection to the people who were brutal enough. (But I should remind you of Judah Halevi’s comment on this question. In his Kuzari, the Rabbi tells the Khazar king that the Jews have a closer relation to God than do the nations that “flog and slay, whose power and might are great, whose walls are strong, and whose chariots are terrible.” The king responds: “This might be so if your humility were voluntary, but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would [flog and] slay.” And the Rabbi responds: “You have touched our weak spot.”)3

But what is most important for my argument today is that no one, no group of “others,” looked to us, to our power and might, for protection. Though Jews are enjoined in the Talmud to visit the gentile sick and help the gentile poor, that is for the sake of peace, not because we were in any political sense responsible for their sick or poor; nor did they ever count on our help or argue that they were entitled to it. Think of that as part of what it means to be stateless. We were never

without communal institutions, but these were radically our own; they gave us some power, to collect taxes and to organize welfare services, for example, but only for ourselves. States have a wider reach. This is obvious in the case of autocratic regimes, where the autocrat is responsible for all his subjects (not just for his relatives, though most autocratic rulers privilege their relatives). But even in democratic regimes, where the citizens are collectively responsible for themselves, they are not responsible only for themselves. They have obligations with regard to everyone who lives within the borders of the state. In the US, the Supreme Court has made itself the protector of powerless minorities among American citizens and also, very importantly, of foreign residents, insisting that aliens have rights and monitoring how officials of the executive branch deal with them. Today, the issues that the Court addresses arise everywhere; all states are radically pluralist, and all governments are responsible for some set of “others.” As I’ve suggested, Jews counted on responsible rulers, though we were more

often in the position of begging for protection than of claiming it as our due. Thus, the ancient prayer for the king, adapted in some orthodox congregations

in the US into a prayer for the president, which expresses the hope that he “will deal kindly with us.”4 An odd thing to be asking of a president who has to ask us for our votes, but it is evidence of the exilic state of mind. I want to stress, again, that, in the years of the exile, no one ever asked us to deal kindly with them. Being responsible for the common good of a pluralist society, for the well-

being of strangers, for all the “others,” takes getting used to. It is a feature of political life, not of personal or familial or communal life. We may contribute, privately, personally, to charitable organizations (like the American Jewish World Service) that help people whom we don’t know, in near or faraway places, but we aren’t responsible for them. We hope that they do well; we hope that our contribution is of some use to them. But if not, not-and then we will say that there is nothing more that we can do. When we answer “yes” to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we usually have in mind a parochial notion of the brethren whom we have to keep. In politics, however, the people we have to keep are not only our brethren. Though the reach of the state isn’t universal, it extends well beyond family and ethnic kin. In late 1947, when the Jews of Palestine were about to enter the society of states,

David Ben-Gurion spoke to ameeting ofMapai (the ancestor of the Labor Party) about the responsibilities that came with statehood. This is what he said:

We must think in terms of a state, in terms of independence, in terms of full responsibility for ourselves-and for others. In our state there will be non-Jews as well, and all of them will be equal citizens, equal in everything without any exception; that is, the state will be their state as well. The attitude of the Jewish State to its Arab citizens will be an important factorthough not the only one-in building good neighborly relations with the Arab States. The striving for a Jewish-Arab alliance requires us to fulfill several obligations [this is Ben-Gurion’s invocation of “the ways of peace,” but he then goes on], which we are obliged to do in any event: full and real equality, de jure and de facto, of all the state’s citizens, gradual equalization of the economic, social, and cultural standard of living of the Arab community with the Jewish community; recognition of the Arabic language as the language of the Arab citizens in the administration, courts of justice, and above all in schools; municipal autonomy in villages and cities, and so on.5