Daniel Boyarin's Argument for a Non-Zionist Jewish NationalismHistorians in the News
tags: Jewish history, Israel, religion, Zionism
Joshua Abramson Cohen is a PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard.
The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto
Yale University Press
“Ihave never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in a 1963 letter to Gersom Scholem, embracing Scholem’s accusation that she was a daughter of the Jews who failed to love the Jewish family as a whole. Besides the circularity and the meanness entailed in such self-love, Arendt made clear, the love of an abstraction made no sense to her: “I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” Daniel Boyarin’s latest book, The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto, can be read as the reply that Scholem, who stopped talking to Arendt, never sent—an attempt to describe a Jewish love of the Jewish people that somehow turns on the love of persons.
“Putting it somewhat crassly,” Boyarin explains, “I am interested here in ‘real Jews,’ Jews who live and breathe, eat and make love and get pregnant (or don’t), get sick and die, and on the way, behave in various ways: singing, dancing, writing books, reading books, speaking quaint languages, and arguing constantly.” “Real Jews” might be crass, but it is a term of art in Jewish Studies, usually used to cordon off living, breathing Jews from the Jew of non-Jewish imaginations. In The No-State Solution, though, Boyarin is interested in the Jew of Jewish imaginations—and in giving that figure flesh and bones. Above all, his manifesto sets itself against the mode of self-attention that Boyarin calls “Jewish pride.” So many Jews today seem to be fixated only on the emptiest projection of the Jew, Boyarin observes, eager for the pleasures of identity without labor. (American Jews provide his main example.) Put in traditionally Jewish terms, Jewish pride counts among the worst forms of ahavat Yisrael—the love of one’s fellow Jews as variously imagined by rabbinic culture.
Pride practices nothing, Boyarin argues, and loves even less, filling unoppressed Jews with a sense of self always one breath from supremacy. And were he to end the argument there, he would remain with Arendt entirely. But where Arendt refused to believe that ahavat Yisrael (or anything like it) could ever be real love, Boyarin wants nothing more than to save ahavat Yisrael from its prideful counterfeits. To do that he has to assume that Yisrael—“the thing called the Jews,” Boyarin happily badly translates—remains concretely in the world. This is the beginning of Boyarin’s proposal in The No-State Solution: however fleshly different, differently busy, and scattered across not only space but time, Jews living and dead generate one equally real entity, a whole beyond the sum of its parts, which can be held and known like any one of us.
That is not the only part of Boyarin’s argument that is going to alienate some readers. As his title suggests, Boyarin’s manifesto starts not with Yisrael, but with the state of Israel—and the ethnic cleansing that gave and gives it life. Jews who find every form of Zionism intolerable, as Boyarin does, will already be doubtful that Jews everywhere and all at once can be the object of an actually practiced love. But there is a proposal within Boyarin’s proposal, and this second one risks sounding like even deeper nonsense to the readers closest to his heart: the thing called the Jews needs to be newly defined, not as a religion or race, but as a nation (“I can think of nothing but ‘nation’,” Boyarin insists), because Jewish nationalism is the best way to end Zionism.
Boyarin, seventy-six, is a prolific scholar of religion and historian of Judaism. His work has tended to thrive on dissolving its organizing objects. In Imagine No Religion (2016), written with Carlin A. Barton, he argues that the English word “religion” needs to be dropped from the study of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, in favor of native words like religio and threskeia, unless scholars want to continue studying an abstraction of their own invention instead of actual ancient practices; in Judaism (2018), he argues that Judaism was invented by ancient Christians to serve as Christianity’s false double, and that “Judaism” only became a Jewish name for the Jewish religion at the end of the nineteenth century, when certain German-speaking Jews found themselves compelled to reduce their form of life to a church. Besides genealogizing, Boyarin’s favorite way of doing the history of Judaism has always been to dance across Christian anti-Semitism, turning its claims upside down as he goes: the Jews are obsessed by fleshly things, he thus agrees in Carnal Israel (1993), rendering an accusation made famous by Augustine into the highest compliment.
In The No-State Solution, Boyarin reprises this strategy in order to claim that the thing called “the Jews” is a real object in the world. The anti-Semitic intuition is right, Boyarin insists—the Jews are definitely out there—but it badly misunderstands the gift of its own knowledge. Anti-anti-Semitism only worsens the misunderstanding. As Boyarin observes, closely following philosopher Elad Lapidot, key thinkers in the anti-anti-Semitic mode—post-Holocaust writers including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Jean-Paul Sartre—insist that every statement about the Jews as a whole, in fact, points to little more than a projection of anti-Semitism’s sick mind, having no living referent: for the sake of real Jews, nobody should be allowed to talk about the Jews. “In contrast to the thinkers of anti-anti-Semitism,” Boyarin explains his anti-anti-anti-Semitism—thinking of the Latin root of manifesto—“this manifesto is dedicated to making the Jews appear.”