Two types of sovereignty: Zionism and Diaspora

(originally posted on Justice in the City)

There is an important conversation that is not happening about Zionism and the American Jewish community. It is a conversation that is as old as the Zionist enterprise itself. One of the central claims of political (as opposed to Messianic) Zionism is that the solution to the “Jewish question” is sovereignty. The Jewish community was a powerless and dependent community during its almost two thousand year sojourn in Exile and it was this powerlessness which left it vulnerable to the predations of the sovereigns of whatever country offered them a temporary home. Equally important was that this political dependence caused a cultural withering and produced a Jewish culture which was perverted by the influence of other more powerful cultures. A true Jewish culture could not take shape until the Jewish community had achieved sovereignty and shook off the chains of both political and cultural dependence. (Shades/foreshadowing of post-colonial theory.)

This argument had great resonance in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The civil and human rights of Jews in every country in the world were fragile, and the Holocaust seemed to be the final, awful expression of this untenable situation. The only way Jews would assume control over their own destiny was “to be a free people in our land.”

From where we are standing now, however, six plus decades after the end of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel, and after the civil rights movement and the ongoing enshrinement of religious and civil liberties in the United States, the discourse of sovereignty does not look the same. continue reading here, then come back and discuss.

Filed under Israel, USA, Zionism

6 Responses to “Two types of sovereignty: Zionism and Diaspora”

  1. Interesting framing of this conversation. I imagine that this could be compelling for many people. But not me. I actually think, with all due respect, that the two sovereignties you describe are not mutually exclusive. The one that is power based has led to (better) Jewish integration in America and led non-Jews to look at Jews differently that they did before. Yes, Jews were involved in the governance of America even before there was an America, but not to the degree that we do now thanks to a independent state of Israel. To ignore the influence of that state on Jewish integration and power outside of Israel is to willfully suspend disbelief that somehow the Diaspora and Israel are actually two separate and mutually exclusive arenas. They are not and they never have been. Nor should they be. A different relevant question that could be raised by your framing here could be to what extent does each arena still have influence over the other and in what ways. Ask any Jew of patrilineal descent whether the State of Israel has influence and power over them. Similarly ask any Israeli military official whether they think that Jewish influence in America has no bearing on the security and maintenance of the IDF.


    Uri Allen · August 23rd, 2012 at 2:29 pm
  2. Tbis is why I can never be a Zionist. Once you reject the premise – that sovereignty in Palestine is like a magic spice essential to our well being – well then you aren’t a Zionist, no matter if you are Israeli or care about the well being of Jews in Israel.

    What is essential to our well being is a thirst for justice, so strong that the performance of injustice is awkward and impossible, like trying to write with your left hand when you are right handed.

    Israel represents a dramatic alternative: an ongoing effort to have us become just another nation. It has worked, sort of, and it fills many of us with a deep shame.


    Jew Guevara · August 26th, 2012 at 2:37 pm
  3. Jew Guevera,
    Did I say that was my premise?
    What I am saying is that Diaspora and Israel have always been connected and have always influenced one another – for good and for the opposite of that.

    One place that Dr. Cohen’s argument here could lead us to, is the notion that one can lead a full, authentic, meaningful, Jewish life in the Disapora without ever having to consider ones relationship to Israel – be that the land, the people or the State. I am sure that it is possible but I disagree that it is desirable or even good to do so. In fact I am of the view that would suggest that any kind of Judaism that does not take Israel into account as part of its Torah is being intentionally dishonest about the place of Israel in Jewish history and therefore is diminished in its capacity to say something meaningful about it now.

    I believe that one can have a view that inextricably links Israel and the Diaspora without having to suggest the contours of what that relationship means. In other words, just because the relationship has been one thing in the past does not mean that it can’t change in the future. But to deny that such a relationship exists and is dynamic is simply being blind to reality, imho.

    Moreover the creation of the State of Israel, with all of it’s problems in its short history has been a great thing for Jews, and, if I may be so bold, good for the world. What makes someone not a Zionist is not that they reject the notion of Israel as a magic spice, but that they reject the notion that they should be in relationship Israel in the first place.


    Uri Allen · August 26th, 2012 at 6:25 pm
  4. So, if I’m an Israeli living in America, who reads Ha’aretz everyday, talks in Hebrew with parts of my family, cares a great deal about what happens there, and have a strong relationship with Israel – then I’m a Zionist? That’s a strange definition…. and not one I find reflected in the OJC.


    Jew Guevara · August 26th, 2012 at 7:53 pm
  5. I have never met you so I don’t want to be the one to label. I would also want to inquire about your specific views regarding politics and policy generally and then in specific relation to Israel before making any determination. What I am comfortable saying here is that what you describe would at least not make you a non-zionist (follow that?). In other words, I think what you have described are necessary/desirable/laudable traits for Zionists to have but not sufficient to qualify one as a Zionist.

    Perhaps it’s a strange definition because for once someone who cnsiders themselves in the mainstream considers you to be a Zionist, or at least not a non-Zionist. Well, welcome to the big tent that, in my view, Zionism has always been and should continue to be.

    And you’re right that the OJC does not want to endorse a view that sounds like mine. I suspect that if they used more inclusive/expansive language on Israel (and a host of other issues as well), the ‘crisis’ of young Jews distancing theselves from Israel would not even be a conversation. Everyone would see that there is a kind of way to be a pluralistic Zionist without having your own particular views threatened.


    Uri Allen · August 26th, 2012 at 8:57 pm
  6. The tension between homeland and Diaspora has been at work for Millenia, it is nothing new.

    The possibility Uri cites is actually one Neusner has made, that one can have a full Jewish life Chutz L’Aretz. I dont think he took it to the same extreme, but he has basically stated that in many ways, he as a Diaspora Jew has a fuller, richer more meaningful Jewish experience than most Israelis. Take that, negation of the exile.

    Its in contrast to what Ha’am posited, that the spiritual/cultural center of a Hebrew yishuv would reinvigorate the Diaspora communities. While a case can be made that when it comes to educating our youth, excessive attention to the state and its defense rather than its cultural production and the religion that gave rise to its identity have had an adverse effect, in many more important ways, his vision has been prophetic.

    Rawidowicz countered that the relationship is more symbiotic, that in turn Diaspora communities would influence Israel, and they certainly have. The nature of self-determination in the Diaspora has changed, however, with political freedom being largely accomplished. That has benefited Israel, especially in the US.

    This tension can and will continue; it is a dynamic and complimentary relationship. The fact is that unless there is a dramatic change in a Diaspora community’s sense of freedom or safety, its Zionism will largely be from the comfort of an armchair. Only when things get uncomfortable does aliyah become attractive. Idealism gets trumped by practicality and comfort, and I’m fine with that, especially because it translates to domestic political support that results in the defense of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel. That may sound trite, but what can I say… I’m a centrist moderate.


    Adam · August 26th, 2012 at 10:22 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik