The State and the state of Israel

December 1, 2004
Share:email print

Nancy Levene

THE S TATE OF I SRAEL — or is it the state of Israel? — occupies a great deal of mental space in the North American Diaspora and has done so for the past half-century. In Aryeh Cohen’s “Diaspora Manifesto,” we (North American Jews and presumably other interested parties) are encouraged to begin to rethink this state of affairs — to clear some space for a Diaspora based on something other than the “magical,” “boisterous,” and finally “militant” Zionism with which Cohen, and many other Jews, were raised. For Cohen, this is not because the Diaspora — for so long the only site of Jewish life and culture — threatens to languish in the presence of a displaced core; it is because “the myth” of Zionism is crumbling. With Israel now revealed as a state like other states — not any more or less virtuous or complex than other struggling modern states — Jews can now return, sobered, to the demands of Jewish life, where home is Torah and Jerusalem a beloved hope, “a quiet habitation, an immovable tent.” ( Isaiah 33:20)

But as Cohen’s personal experience clearly attests, the way home is neither simple nor straight for someone raised to think of Israel as the logical and existential outcome of a committed Judaism. To be sure, this is a recent phenomenon, this notion that place (and not just law) could speak to the demands of covenant, and this only makes Cohen’s loss more deeply ambivalent. The modern state of Israel was an eruption — an interruption — and the question since that fateful moment in the middle of the last century has simply, yet agonizingly, been: an interruption of what sort?

What Cohen helps us to see is that Israel’s existence for Diaspora Jews is truly paradoxical: a change that is no change, an interruption that connects back up with what was thereby stalled. Israel was, is, and will be the change that returns Jews to their homes just as much as it was, is, and will be, for some, the new home that changes the very notion of return (the home to which one can return without ever having been there). That is to say, Israel changed — changes — everything, but the change is not so much it but us . Cohen was ineradicably changed by his experience as an Israeli. Indeed, what stands out in his essay is not so much his disillusionment with the “myth”, but his acceptance of the real, concrete difference Israel makes. Speaking to his children in Modern Hebrew, Cohen knows that he is thereby tying them into that myth as much as he is unraveling it and its consequences for himself. For, as he well knows, there is not one myth of Zion and never will be. If magical, boisterous, and militant have run aground, there is still prophetic and peace-loving, self-critical and tolerant, quiet and humble. To paraphrase Jonathan Z. Smith, “myths (like maps) are not territory — but myths are all we possess.” Insofar as they no longer provide orientation, we need to reach for new ones.

Hence, “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you…” is an exile that takes on new mythical coloration by the fact of its being a return. There has always been Diaspora, Cohen reminds us, from Persia, to Spain, to Poland, and beyond. But like any return, the return to Diaspora — the return from Israel — brings a new vision of what was always there. Perhaps Cohen learned above all that the State of Israel depends on the state of Israel — on the willingness of the people Israel to seek the welfare of the city to which they are exiled. In this light, our question is not “what is the State of Israel?” but “what is the state of Israel? Is it just, engaged, interested in the welfare of others?” Perhaps, too, though, this question can, tentatively, be turned around. Perhaps the state of Israel — the people’s relationship to the Torah of justice — depends, in some as yet not fully articulated way, on the State of Israel — on the fact that, in one moment and at one place, Diaspora Jews were interrupted in their absorption in Judaism, and became for a time actively and creatively committed to the welfare of the city to which they had returned. That this return, this interruption, now points in many directions and to many cities does not change its significance. Cohen’s fragile truce is its own testament to this fact.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Nancy Levene is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Jewish Studies at Indiana University.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>