Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The No-State Solution:
A Jewish Manifesto

by daniel boyarin
yale university, 200 pages, $30

Like a starving zombie, identity politics bites into longstanding left-wing ideas and movements, reforming them in its own image. Anti-Zionists are not immune, as shown by Berkeley’s ­Daniel Boyarin, one of America’s leading Talmudists and Jewish philologists, the author of acclaimed books on Midrash, on sexuality in Jewish culture, and on Judaism’s relation to Christianity. In The No-State ­Solution: A Jewish Manifesto, ­Boyarin “­categorically reject[s] the nation-­state solution to the continuity of Jewish existence and culture.” He prefers “a diasporic nationalism that offers not the promise of security, but rather the highly contingent possibility of an ethical collective existence.”

The Jews are a nation, Boyarin acknowledges, but he denies that they therefore should have a state. “We must sever,” he writes, “the nation from the mononational state with which it has become so thoroughly conflated.” He favors “diaspora as a kind of cultural situation in which a group of people—the Jews, for ­instance—are doubly situated (culturally) at home and abroad.”

Boyarin hopes for a “doubled solidarity” that combines Jewish activism on behalf of locally oppressed Gentiles with what he calls “the continued critical, creative development of Jewish cultural practices.” Israeli Jews would relinquish their Jewish-­majority state in favor of a binational state, which presumably would not have the Jewish-specific mission of saving endangered Jewish communities. The Jews inside and outside this new state would trade their “Jewish pride” for “the intimacies of shared history, languages, practices, songs, holy days, literature, political comradeship (Black Lives Matter),” and “even perhaps the joys of transgression.” Altogether, the Jews would compose what Boyarin terms a “­Diaspora ­Nation”: “an ethical form of vibrant Jewish collective ­continuity” ­striving toward “justice, inclusiveness, and human well-­being for Jews and ­everyone.”

Boyarin assumes that ­Israel’s founding dispossessed the Palestinians, who he thinks can get justice only if Israel ceases to exist as a Jewish state. He extends this standard anti-­Zionist line by proposing that the Jews shouldn’t be in the state-­running business in any case. Jews are a “­diasporic people” united only “culturally and affectively”; they are not politically connected to a physical homeland. Boyarin hopes to show that Zionists wrongly conceive of diaspora life as “an abnormal condition in contrast with the normal state of ‘national’ groups as sovereign occupants of territory.” He tries to discredit this “negative acceptation” on the grounds of its youth (it originated in the nineteenth ­century, with its nationalist proclivities) and its provenance: “the West.”

One might propose that Jewish Zionists didn’t like life in Europe because Gentile mobs—often with the acquiescence or support of Gentile overlords—had abused, expelled, and killed Jews over and over again for centuries. Occasionally, Boyarin concedes that Jewish life before Israel was not all ­peaches and cream. But according to The No-State Solution, the thing most urgently to be remedied is not the misery or precariousness of Jewish life in the diaspora, but that Jews came to associate misery and precariousness with life in the diaspora. Western Gentiles not only made the Jews suffer; they also—the ­devils—confused the Jews into thinking that their suffering was due to their lack of a state with which to defend themselves against their enemies. If only Herzl, Weizmann, and ­Jabotinsky had realized the European imperialist source of their opposition to Jewish statelessness!

Early on, Boyarin asks: “What kind of social identity do we want for the Jews?” Good question. But without an analysis of the current Israeli answer and some thoughts on the likely consequences of other answers, Boyarin should not expect a serious hearing for his own. What Boyarin calls a “question of values” is not analyzed with respect to his progressive values or any other values. He doesn’t assess the costs and benefits of his proposed binational state in Palestine for the “Jews who live and breathe” there. He doesn’t do it for Palestinians, either. He does not explore the roots of the conflict, ponder why the conflict has endured, or ask whether uniting Palestinians and Israelis wouldn’t just concentrate in one polity the violent enmity that now divides two polities. What Boyarin does deliver is, to use his coinage, a “text/ile” stitched together from a few meandering anthropological lectures, three disclaimers that he is in no way comparing “black pain to Jewish pain,” and a bad experience he had this one time at Bund camp.

As Boyarin notes and as every religious Zionist would agree, the Jewish ­diaspora achieved great things: the ­Babylonian Talmud and its reception in the great medieval academies of Spain, Provence, and Ashkenaz; an immense legal tradition addressing all aspects of life; liturgical poetry (piyyut); a wealth of custom; and several languages. But whether the Jews ought to be diasporic today is not a sociological question; it is a normative political question. For Boyarin, Jews need richer conceptual imaginations. If only Israelis and Americans saw that there are “options” for Jewish self-identification besides a religion or a nation-state, the Jews would be more humane, and the Palestinians would get justice. ­Boyarin says that his proposed “revision of the [diaspora] ideal has the consequence of more than one nation sharing the same land . . . and again betimes sharing the same ­government within the life of a diasporic ­nation.”

But the reason for Israel’s existence is not that, after two millennia of exile, Jews could no longer hold together in their minds the upsides of diaspora with their status as a nation. Israel exists because of the diaspora’s very concrete dangers. As the Zionist leader ­Vladimir ­Jabotinsky said to Europe’s endangered Jews in 1935, either they would liquidate the diaspora, or the diaspora would liquidate them. The diaspora had proved ­Jabotinsky’s point fifteen years ear­lier in Ukrainian pogroms that killed 100,000 Jews, and it would prove him righter still in the early 1940s.

Boyarin—an accomplished historian, and not just of ideas—calls the “material” plane “the only plane that I recognize.” But he barely discusses the material conditions that attracted so many Jews to Zionism.

One Jew thus attracted was Theodor Herzl, and the most embarrassing section of The No-State Solution is Boyarin’s attempt to recruit Herzl to the anti-state cause. The “Jewish state envisioned by Herzl,” Boyarin insists, “was a substate autonomous region” to be guarded by a benevolent great power. Boyarin himself would prefer an independent binational state of Jews and Palestinians, but he hopes to persuade readers that pro-state Zionism was a twentieth-century deviation from the movement’s original, nineteenth-century aims.

Not so. Herzl published his 1896 pamphlet Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”) after witnessing the electoral victories of Viennese anti-Semites such as Karl Lueger (whom Hitler dubbed “the greatest German mayor”) and France’s wrongful conviction of the Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus for treason. Because, Herzl writes, “the nations in whose midst the Jews live are either covertly or openly anti­semitic,” Jews ought to establish their independence from all such nations and defend themselves with a military “equipped with every implement of modern warfare.” Herzl proposed that Zionists should seek the “support of great powers”—not that one such power should ­superintend an autonomous Jewish refuge, an arrangement that would only reproduce the conditions that forced Jews to seek refuge in the first place. It’s true that the August 1897 World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, which Herzl chaired, resolved in favor of a “home in Palestine for the Jewish people,” rather than a state. Herzl ­publicly defended that word choice as ­inoffensive to the Ottoman Sultan then governing Palestine. But Herzl’s contemporaneous diary is clear about his intent: “At Basel I founded the Jewish state. . . . In fifty years, everyone will ­perceive it.” Israel was founded fifty years and eight months after Herzl’s writing.

Zionism can be defended on cultural, religious, and historical grounds, but the decisive argument for Jewish statehood, both fully nationalist and fully humanitarian, is that Jews are frequently ­boycotted, blood-libeled, robbed, raped, and slaughtered when they lack a militarily capable Jewish-­majority state. What Boyarin airily calls “the highly contingent possibility of an ethical collective existence” has in fact meant the subjugation of Jews by people who hate them. Human rights for the Jews depend on ­physical security for the Jews, by the Jews. A state with an army on a land. Zionism.

Aside from reflections on post-Talmudic Jewish culture, the main support for Boyarin’s argument consists of an appeal to the black diaspora. The upshot of Boyarin’s discussions of Sartre, Fanon, critical theory, and a whole chapter titled “Judaïtude/Négritude” is that blacks have cultural unity without a physical homeland, so the Jews can, too. Which makes sense.

It is also, by Boyarin’s admission, beside the point. Not because the challenges facing blacks have little to do with the Arab–Israeli conflict (though that is true) but because—Boyarin is always saying—we are not to make analogies between “black pain” and “Jewish pain,” lest we be “complicit with the racist status quo.” But if we aren’t supposed to make the comparison, why does so much of Boyarin’s very short book seem to do just that?

Part of the answer is that all academic politics is local, and blacks are the racial minority most favored by Boyarin’s progressive colleagues. “My practice here is a kind of radicalism,” Boyarin informs us, “a neoradicalism, perhaps, that stands in direct opposition to any form of neoliberalism. In this, I have learned much from the black radical traditions: ‘Black radical praxis [Boyarin is quoting Charisse Burden-Stelly] aims to dismantle structures of domination that sustain racialized dispossession and exploitation and to imagine and bring into being liberatory possibilities for all oppressed people. . . .’” This is what many years of teaching humanities at Berkeley will do to a fellow.

You could write off all of this as leftist signaling meant to excuse historical unseriousness. (Boyarin’s three mentions of Black Lives Matter are three more than he gives to the Balfour Declaration.) But maybe there’s something deeper here.

Boyarin says the Jews should trade “the promise of security” for “the highly contingent possibility of an ethical collective existence.” What might “highly contingent” mean? If the Jews don’t govern themselves, then other nations will govern them. Some of those other nations have oppressed the Jews before and would do so again, given the chance. It’s a dicey business to keep a Jewish militia or a separate Jewish economy in a non-­Jewish state. Jews will need allies who are much stronger than they are ­themselves.

Isn’t this roughly the position that Boyarin thinks blacks are in? Oppressed by a “racist status quo,” plundered by whites of ill will, and ignored by others with the power to help? Boyarin doesn’t want this for blacks. Nobody should want it for anyone. So why is it okay as a contingency for the Jews?

Boyarin seems to entertain a masochistic fantasy of the Jews as a gentle, suffering people, a secularization of the afflicted servant of God depicted in Isaiah 53. Certain exegetes have interpreted the servant—controversially—as the Jews atoning for the sins of the Gentiles. Even if they’re right, it is not therefore the job of Jews to make themselves easy targets for the sins of Gentiles.

In Boyarin’s view, for Jews to keep others safe is the ethical thing, whereas for Jews to do the one thing proven to keep themselves safe is at best the “secure” thing, at worst the “racist” or “fascist” thing. Boyarin prefers the Jews to have “‘nothing,’ no state, no home, no sovereign possession [so that thereby] the people may have everything.”

Everything except the means to fight off whoever comes to take everything away.

Cole S. Aronson is writing a philosophical defense of traditional Judaism.

Image by Pixabay via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift