War Memorial (Carrol Park, Brooklyn)

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Maybe I’m getting older, but I don’t find war memorials like this one in Carrol Park, Brooklyn jingoistic. Erected in 1921, now in the middle of a playground and public space, it has a common-man kind of feel. Local, it’s dedicated to soldiers and sailors from the district. I like the over the shoulder look of the sailor in the the last posted photograph.

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Jewish Philosophy New York City Brisket


The good news is that it may just be the case that there’s no need to go to Texas for Texas brisket. You can get it here and maybe even better in New York City, with more creative and lighter sides than the grotesque mayo laden coleslaw and lumpy potato salad that comes standard with the fare. But more to the point, somewhere between serious and semi-serious, this article in the New York Times about the local emergent brisket scene in New York spoke to my Jewish philosophy palette. What’s the ta’am of Jewish philosophy? Why can’t it  write like this work, taste like this, with the same attention to material and process, local style, and an image of perfection, with the same artisanal craft?

Jewish philosophy could look like “smoky meat topped with wobbly, savory fat, rimmed with a lip-numbing crust of coarse black pepper. ‘It’s a small number of things to get right,” he said, “and I am haunted by all of them.’ “”  It needs to start cooking at a lower temperature, coaxing a lighter smoke flavor into the meat, using prime-grade beef“  with “a dash or two of New York experimentalism: Pennsylvania Dutch potato rolls, Vietnamese rice paper, or biodynamic or natural wines.

None of this is easy. Like brisket, Jewish philosophy is “particularly difficult cut to cook, a thick clump of fat, muscle, connective tissue and collagen that, under perfect conditions, combine into supple, beefy perfection. For professionals, the greatest challenge is consistency, making sure that each brisket comes out identically.”

It requires slow cooking, Jewish philosophy is best done “when it hits a certain temperature. Yes, the meat will be cooked through at 180 degrees. It will also be fibrous, and webbed with chewy, sticky collagen. A brisket needs to spend a certain amount of time — just how long depends on the individual cut — at that temperature, as the fat renders into drippiness and the collagen turns to gelatin. Meat that feels tough after 10 hours may be perfect at 12. Be patient...Mr. Laracuente, the Hometown pitmaster, says that cooking meat in the dark of night, stoking the fires and communing with the briskets are surprisingly satisfying compared with other kitchen jobs he’s held. “Cooking is science, but barbecue is magic,” he said.”

To model this kind of thinking, start with Leviticus. Or perhaps one could identify two types of Jewish philosophy, flat-philosophy and point-philosophy, based on two types of muscle that characterize the brisket.  “A whole brisket consists of two distinct muscles, usually separated into what butchers call the flat and the point.” There’s always the one kind of Jewish philosophy. “The flat, or first cut, is too lean to barbecue on its own; braised, it makes a nice pot roast.” I have nothing against pot roast, but I’d rather have a Jewish philosophy that tastes like “The point, or second cut, [which] must be attached for barbecue, along with the sheath of fat that covers the whole cut.



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Palestine & The Question of Israel

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In arguments about Israel, Palestine, the occupation, and the Palestinian Nakba and right of return little attention goes to assessing in a critical way assumptions about Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history that govern “the Palestinian perspective. While I think these assumptions buckle under just a little scrutiny, I continue to maintain that there is no way to understand the history and future prospects of Israel apart from Palestine, or the same about Palestine apart from Israel. That means that each party needs to get the other right. On this, Rashid Khalidi gets the last word. The comments below appeared in a section entitled “Palestine” in the chapter on “Zionism” in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era that I co-edited with Martin Kavka (pp.624-626). They focus on place and population.

Over and under the entire Zionist edifice hangs “the question of Palestine” and the problem of violence. In her book on land and power, historian Anita Shapira follows the emerging tension in pre-state Zionist politics between [1] socialist/humanist principles, which during the Arab uprising between 1936-1939 informed an official policy of restraint, as opposed to indiscriminate acts of counter-terror favored by the revisionists, [2] pragmatic considerations, according to which force was one tool of policy with which to advance Zionist interests  –along with settlement activity and securing international opinion, and [3] an overriding, absolute sense of justice on the part of the pioneers of the second Aliyah who denied the existence of a competing Arab national claim, and on the part of youth born in the Yishuv who saw themselves as the sole masters of the land. Shapira observes the fundamental blindness, the complete inability to see the Arabs of Palestine and their rights to the land. She notes too the self- preoccupation with ideological, practical, and political principles and rifts that were internal to Jewish politics, with establishing and expanding the Yishuv, and with the worsening situation in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

While liberal Israeli Jews in the 1970s and 1980s began to speak about the tragic clash between right and right, for the Palestinians and their supporters the Zionist claim to any part of Palestine has no moral foundation whatsoever, regardless of Jewish suffering in Europe. In stark opposition to Zionism, the moral basis of the Palestinian cause stands out as the natural right of an indigenous people to its own country. Herzl himself anticipated in The Jewish State the “pressure of the native populace” to stop Jewish immigration, as did Ahad Ha‘am, who in his report from the Land of Israel informed his readers that, Zionist propaganda to the contrary, there was no empty land in Palestine. However, the claim to autochthonous, natural right is two-edged. Because of their basic and immediate appeal, claims to such right are likely to blind one to other (contractual) systems of right and the morality of alternative claims. Indeed, the rejection of Zionism, based on unalloyed natural right, implies historical and contemporary assertions, many of them dubious, about Zionism, the direct object of its opposition, as well as seriously flawed claims about the Jews and Judaism writ large.

“There is no room for the Jews in Palestine, argued George Antonius in The Arab Awakening (1938).

In this classic study of the origins of modern Arab nationalism, Antonius captured the pan-Arab nature of Arab nationalism prior to World War I in the midst of its splintering into discrete national forms under the British and French Mandates. Writing against the partition plan presented by the Peel Commission, which would have earmarked one fifth of Palestine for Jewish sovereignty, Antonius based the Arab right to the entirety of Palestine on the natural rights of possession and self-preservation. Willing to concede limited immigration and the creation of a spiritual home envisaged by the cultural Zionists, Antonius argued that relief to the broader problem of European anti-Semitism must be sought elsewhere. In his view, “the logic of facts is inexorable, that it shows that no room can be made in Palestine for a second nation except by dislodging or exterminating the nation in possession.” By 1938, however, five years after the rise of Hitler to power, open immigration was understood by most Zionists as a non-negotiable priority. For the Jews of Europe, with no place else to go, the claim that “no room can be made in Palestine” had its own inexorable logic, completely unintended and unforeseen by Antonius.

“The Jews are not a people and Judaism is just a religion, with no historical or religious connection to Palestine.

Principled opposition to Zionism is based explicitly or implicitly on a theory of Jewish identity. In its resolutions regarding Palestinian national identity and the movement led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, article 20 of the Palestinian National Charter sharply defined its own other in sharp relief to itself.  “Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”  This uncompromising assertion about Jewish “religion” and about the non-relation between the Jews and Palestine would impose a total theory about Jewish identity that does great violence to the historical record, no matter how one might come to read it.

“The Jews are a minority everywhere.

In “My Right of Return,” his interview with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, Edward Said opined in opposition to Zionism. “I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting. The Jews I know – the more interesting Jews I know – are not defined by their Jewishness. I think to confine Jews to their Jewishness is problematic.” (The precise point underlying political Zionism was to turn the Jews into a normal people “defined” but not “confined” by Jewishness.) On the status of the Jews in the bi-national state he tirelessly advocated, Said told Shavit, “But the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.” Regarding the fate of that minority in Arab Palestine, Said conceded, “I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.” In addressing this concern, the critic of imperialism looks to “the larger unit” and recalls another empire. “Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived. I hate to say it, but in a funny sort of way, it worked rather well under the Ottoman Empire, with its millet system.  What they had then seems a lot more humane than what we have now.”

Mimicking the master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the future of Zionism may ironically depend upon some form of agreement with those who have the greatest stake in resisting the disaster it forced upon them, and which they were unable to contain. Agreement was perhaps impossible with those historical actors in the 1930s were unconcerned about the extreme nature of Jewish distress in Europe and saw no reason to make room for it in a corner of Arab Palestine; nor with those pan Arab nationalist ideologues in the 1960s re-wrote Jewish identity and the nature of Judaism on their own terms; nor with the wistful fantasies of bi-nationalism that, in Said’s case, ironically hearkens back to the Ottomans. In contrast, Rashid Khalidi provides an alternative paradigm that is critical of Zionism, while challenging the propensity to see it simply as a “colonial-settler movement” and “therefore as necessarily illegitimate, both in terms of its origins and aims.” Khalidi argues that as Israelis come to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people, the Palestinians can recognize that of “the Israeli people” and consider Zionism “a legitimate national movement.”  In the vicious circle that is Israel/Palestine, the types of identity able to make room for their other necessarily depend upon the type of identity first advanced by that other.


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No “Root Cause” to the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Rhizome)


What’s at the root of the Israel-Palestinian conflict? When people on the left want to talk about Gaza or the larger Israel-Palestine conflict they often say that you can’t solve this or that aspect of the problem, this or that local eruption, without resolving “the root cause.” But what’s the root cause? By this is generally meant not the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but rather 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba. For their part, people on the right, as per Benjamin Netanyahu, see the root cause as the inability of Palestinian political leadership, historically, to accept the establishment of a Jewish majority state in a part of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria) or the smaller territorial unit defined by British Mandate Palestine.

You think you get to the bottom of the conflict when you say you want to get at the root cause, when, in fact, there is no root to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Less like a “root,” it’s more like a rhizome, composed of underground stems that shoot off in this or that unexpected way across a wide terrain. Isolate one part of the system, and the sections simply regenerate. There’s no end to it. The historical tendrils are too complex and decentralized composed of too many heterogeneous directions to tear up “at the root.” A root, you can dig up at a source, whereas a rhizome has no such single source. You can start tearing it up, but there’s no getting at it because its form is too multifaceted.

In the case at hand, the tendrils defining the conflict predate the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This is not to say that the conflict is irresolvable. But there’s no way to “resolve” the root of the problem. One would have to pore over Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, and European maps, tracing out shifting demographics, and the history of religions and empires, all in the plural. If there’s no “root cause” to the conflict that one might hope to eradicate it is because we are looking at a network. Impossible to untangle, in Israel-Palestine the main constituting and re-constituting historical and geographical nodes spread out across ancient Jewish memory, the Arab conquest of Palestine, and European anti-Semitism.

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Americana (Christian New Jersey Turnpike Toxic)

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I was at the Woodrow Wilson rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike where I took these pictures, pretty far up north. I like the the rest stops named after native born American icons, like Wilson, and Walt Whitman, Vince Lombard, Joyce Kilmer, and Clara Burton, and the crucifix hanging in the car window, surrounded by metal and roadside, industrial blight. It might be hard to explain, but my affection for the Turnpike is genuine.

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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]]


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Gawanus Canal

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One of the most polluted places in New York City. Full of typhoid and gonorrhea, it’s now the site of a U.S. superfund. They’re going to clean out the Gawanus Canal and develop the hell out of it.


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