The State of Exile. Israel, Europe, the Jews.

But what is the State of Israel? Danny Trom’s book The State of Exile (just released in French) proposes an answer to this apparently simple question: the State of Israel is not, cannot be, the nation-state of the Jewish people but a state “for the Jews”. Proceeding from the political experience of the Jews of Europe, it remains inscribed in the exilic configuration of the Jews, outside of which its very foundation would disappear.


Arthur Szyk , “The State of Israel”, 1947


The nation-state is a project that each people carries out for itself, even if it is intended for all. The invitation to achieve it, formulated in Europe during the era of nationalities, has become widespread. The right of peoples to self-determination is now universal, as an unquestionable principle. Were the Jews invited, like other peoples, to achieve self-determination in a nation-state? This question, formulated from within European political modernity, resonates immediately but strangely in the pre-modern Jewish tradition, which scripts a tension between assignment to the exception and a recurrent desire to escape it. The syntagm “Jew” and galut, exile, arise together. They are intertwined. The Jews – Israel in exile, separated from the nations – form a scattered and dominated people, an accepted condition of exception, but one whose end is expected. And in the biblical narrative – the traditional commentary insists on this – the kingdom of Israel proceeds from a claim of the people who demand a king to the prophet Samuel in order to be, the biblical narrative says, “a nation like all the other nations”. The exception of Israel, often referred to the words of the prophet Isaiah “You shall be the light of the nations”, is thus ambivalent, assumed or claimed and sometimes rejected, like an unjustified burden.

This dialectic of exception and normalisation, embedded in tradition, always takes on a political colouring: to the transgressive request of the people to have a king to lead their wars, Samuel the prophet is indignant and God recalls on this occasion that he alone is the king of Israel. And if God is the king of Israel, no space opens up to designate that sphere of activity that the Greeks call “politics”. If Israel has God as its king, any attempt at autonomy is futile. It follows that the Hebrew language has not coined any term for the notion of politics; modern Hebrew will simply transpose it by politika. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s first dictionary of the modern Hebrew language, published in 1901, suggested translating ‘democracy’ as amonut – the government of the many, of all – but the Greek Hebrew term demokratia prevailed. Despite the efforts, the Hebrew language, even in its modernised form, remained resistant to the European political language inherited from the Greeks. And yet, the State of Israel was born.

Those who today, in the modern context, value the Jewish revolt against the exceptionalisation of Israel often endorse the Zionist credo of the necessity of the return of the Jews, once an ancient nation, on the stage of the Weltgeschichte from which it had withdrawn. Exile is the name of this withdrawal; the end of exile is equivalent to a return. This proposition, at the time it was made, at the end of the nineteenth century, was extravagant. Taken in the sense of the movement of nationalities that has animated Europe since the Spring of the Peoples, the Jews have never aspired to self-determination. Traditionally, they were at the disposal of God, their king, and with the exile, handed over by God to the “nations”, put at the disposal of the territorial sovereigns to whom they are submissive, to whom they sometimes belonged like property and before whom they always defer, while at the same time allowing themselves as much internal autonomy as possible – an autonomy which was conditional on a status separate from the Christian societies in which they were immersed.

The emancipation of the Jews in Europe was then a movement of normalisation at the end of which the Jews, a guest people (Gastvolk) in the European nations, according to the expression of Max Weber, acquired the status of citizens of their states.

Zionism, on the other hand, found its active principle in the desire to normalise the case of the Jews in Europe, whether emancipated or not, by assembling them in a territory and in a State. The Zionist proposal was based on this simple, unforeseen observation: in Europe, even where political modernity has fully delivered its effects, there is persecution despite emancipation. So, since the Jews are always suspected of forming a nation within nations, they will form a nation among nations. Thus, with political Zionism, we moved from the national to the international normalisation of the Jews. From the nationalisation of the Jews in the European states to the nationalisation of the Jews of Europe in a new state dedicated to them.

The State of Israel, to a first approximation, realises this last ambition. It doubly normalises the Jewish condition, since the Jews become not only citizens, but citizens of their own State, a perspective that Jewish tradition excluded by postponing this kind of achievement to the messianic era, to “the end of time”, thus indefinitely. Political Zionism thus permuted the terms of the traditional analysis of the Jewish condition: the ancestral exception became, in the modern context, an anomaly. The anomaly is a re-characterisation of the Jewish exception. The latter derives from Israel’s election, a happy and legitimate deviation from the norm for having been chosen by God (am nivkhar) from among the nations, while the anomaly is an unfortunate and illegitimate deviation from it. Traditionally, exile is a condition of alienation, of dispossession, accepted because it is imposed by God, while its lifting, too, is dependent on divine will. Political Zionism transformed exile into a condition of domination from which the Jews would free themselves on their own initiative; exile was no longer the result of divine intention but of an unfortunate historical trajectory that had to be rectified. The Zionist doctrine thus inverted the valence of the exception.



With the creation of the State of Israel, the Jews, a scattered people with no territorial base, would finally settle on a piece of land and give themselves a state to take their place on the international scene. This apprehension presupposes, on the one hand, that the revolutionary principle of the right of peoples to self-determination, which imposed itself unanimously throughout the nineteenth century in spite of the resistance of reactionary powers, requires this modern update, and on the other hand, that the Jews form a people with a national vocation, a collective that is willing and able to govern itself by endowing itself with a state. As the last risorgimento in Europe, the State of Israel would also be the territorial assembly of the scattered pieces of Israel, of the Jewish communities, under the authority of a State. It would then be a Jewish variation of the modern political form called the nation-state. Never before the publication of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat in 1896 had such a possibility been stated so clearly, provided that Herzl had actually formulated it in this way, which, as we shall see, is open to doubt.

Herzl postulates that there is an unknowing political subject called “the Jews”. This statement, however elementary it may seem, was audacious: never in Western Europe, since the era of emancipation, had it been stated in this way. It was scandalous because it denied that the process of Jewish nationalisation in Europe was irreversible. Herzl’s Der Judenstaat envisaged the creation of a state for the Jews, but this intention was based entirely on the failure of their emancipation, which had been achieved in Western Europe for at least a century:

Everywhere we have sincerely tried to merge into the national communities in which we live, seeking simply to preserve the faith in our fathers. This is not allowed. In vain have we been loyal patriots, sometimes extraordinarily loyal; in vain have we made the same sacrifices of our lives and property as our fellow citizens; in vain have we contributed to the glory of our native countries, through the arts and science, and their prosperity through trade and commerce.

Thus Der Judenstaat reads like a letter of spite against modern Europe; and like a letter of intent to divorce Europe promptly. A properly conducted divorce implies that the party abandoning the family home must find another home in the process. Since an alternative residence was indispensable, Herzl, like a technician, set about thinking about the construction of a state ‘for the Jews’, but without paying the slightest attention to the substance of the collective that would possess it – which made him a very special kind of national entrepreneur. In the language of today’s political science, we would say that Herzl laid the foundations of state-building without nation-building. He wanted the state for a people who were deemed to be inert, whereas the formation of a nation presupposes that the people are active and have a will. The state entrepreneur Herzl wants the state for the people, in the absence of a popular will. It follows that Der Judenstaat does not translate into “Jewish state” but into “state of the Jews”, or rather “state for the Jews” – a state for them and a state they will receive.



If, therefore, with the birth of the State of Israel the Jewish case is moulded into the stato-national form, it is indeed normalised. But it is already clear that it does not fit, or does not fit comfortably, or only partially, so that it remains abnormal. “Normalization” was indeed the watchword of the Zionist movement, of which the State of Israel appears, in retrospect, as the finished or semi-finished product. Much energy has been devoted to supporting the thesis that the State of Israel is a state “like all the others”, a nation-state in every respect. […] But the aspiration to normality comes up against the reality of the State of Israel, the reality of its political life, which is saturated with anomalies, large and small. The greatest of these is the inability to accept the qualification, which is quite commonplace, of the State of Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, and this has been the case to this day. If the syntagm Jewish-State arouses a disturbance that is difficult to dispel, it is because the hyphen that separates and links “State” and “Jew” takes on a minimalist meaning, that of the simple possession of an object: the State of Israel is not the Jewish State, it is the State possessed by Israel. This deflation of the concept of the national state gives rise, as we shall see, to a malaise that touches the heart of the political identity of the State of Israel. In turn, this malaise calls for an exploration of the content of the hyphen that separates and links ‘state’ and ‘nation’ in Europe. It tells us that the nation-state remains a separable syntagm. It reminds us that the formation of the nation-state is a performance and a test, that the history of this form is strewn with failures, without being able to identify precisely its conditions of felicity.

A general proposition about the State of Israel will then be accepted. The failure of its normalisation must be illuminated in the light of a structural cause. What appears to be an effect of the conjuncture and seems to be related to the chaotic circumstances of the birth of this state must be re-examined through a structural scheme that generates an ambivalence towards the state-form itself, including in the Zionist movement that is supposed to be working towards the construction of a state for the Jews. The inability to self-define, which is at the core of the political culture of the State of Israel, stems from this structural hesitation. The perplexity about the state is a legacy of the modern process of politicization of Jews in Europe. It must be correlated with the device that generates a disturbed relationship to sovereignty as a political good, a relationship that continuously distills an ambivalence towards the “State for itself” understood as a State for a “Jewish nation” – a contrariety deeply rooted in the imaginary of exile that permeated the mode of existence of Jewish communities before and beyond the advent of political modernity.

Thus, no one ventured to describe the State of Israel as an ancient Phoenix rising from the ashes. Even if some elements of ancient symbolism are attached to this state, the significant Zionist currents involved in its promotion and construction were not aiming at such a resurrection. It is true that its reputation as a new Sparta was forged during the many conflicts that involved it, but this warlike side does not characterise it per se, it is due to the difficult insertion of the State of Israel in its environment; its Athenian, democratic side appears to be a direct heritage from Europe. From these points of view, the State of Israel does not stand out in any way. Neither the heritage of Jerusalem nor that of Athens allows it to be located. But then, what is the reason for this particularity? It emanates from another sediment, constituted by the experience of the Jews of Europe on which Zionism was formulated and built.

Danny Trom

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