Following the pogrom

Chaim Soutine, Houses by the Sea, c.1918 – Wikiart


After the events in Israel on October 7, 2023, the coordinates of the Jewish world are no longer the same. They are shifting, recomposing, and rearranging themselves, so that among all the feelings that beset Jews today stands the disorientation provoked by this upheaval. It’s not easy, while gripped by dread and plunged into mourning, to make sense of it. The only way to unravel the new situation is to force ourselves to open our eyes – even if we’d like to keep them closed and look only inside ourselves. 

But we have to. It’s necessary we do so  if the actions that follow are to be governed by our thinking, at least the thinking we’re still capable of. And since thought, purified as far as possible of affect and carried through to the end, is public and does not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews, let’s speak in a way that everyone can hear.

Until the criminal actions of Palestinian Islamists that were unleashed in the south of the country, the State of Israel was an exceptional Jewish place. It is the only one, in the constellation of places where Jews have been scattered since the end of the kingdom. It’s aim is not to overcome the people’s condition of exile (Galut), but to confer upon it a new modality with regard to its traditional conformation: that of a place for all Jews in the world which, while not being their ancient kingdom restored, would guarantee them safety. 

For Jews, the word “safety” sounds strange. It doesn’t have the meaning we usually attribute to it, when we think of its appearance (under the name of “security”) among the human rights referred to the generic individual in the declaration of the United Nations in 1948. Here’s what we generally fail to note: while ” safety ” does indeed mean, for an individual, the preservation of his or her life and physical integrity in the face of aggression from other individuals, groups or powers in place (state or non-state), the same word necessarily takes on a more specific meaning when it refers to defined collectives. For it is then necessarily colored by their particular accumulated historical experiences, refracted into each individual destiny of the members of the collective concerned.

What then does it mean for the Jews? For them, safety means neutralizing the pogrom. It was this very particular form of collective violence to which the Russian Jewish world at the end of the 19th century gave its distinctive name. In doing so, it created a category that could be applied retrospectively. This term “pogrom” adequately captures a type of ordeal that Jews have experienced repeatedly from the 1st century to the modern and contemporary eras in different ways, with varying intensity and frequency.  For every Jew, it has a resonance that a Freudian would call both ontogenetic and phylogenetic.  The collective history of the people and the self-perception of individuals mingle and condense. That’s why the term “pogrom” allows us  to understand what “safety” means in a Jewish sense: the neutralization of its mere possibility. For each and every one of us, feeling safe means not dreading the anti-Jewish riot, whether organized or not, emanating from organized groups or unorganized crowds, with its cohort of murders and exactions of all kinds, dooming to torture, mutilation and death all individuals of the people indiscriminately, in the places where they are tracked down and found, regardless of sex or age, whether women or men, newborns or old people.

In this sense, it’s important to emphasize that the pogrom itself carries with it an exterminating passion on the part of those who commit it, just as it carries with it a dimension of existential threat for the targeted group, reflected in the consciousness of each of its members. Taken in this sense – and taking care to stress that the category is obviously applicable to other peoples as soon as they see themselves placed in similar situations – it is the very name of Jewish persecution and suffering. We can also see that it refers to the violence correlative to Galut: that which is feared by the structurally minority collectives in which the people in exile is geographically scattered. For Jews, “safety” means nothing more than the condition in which this very specific violence is neutralized.

This is precisely what the creation of the State of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust – where violence crossed a new threshold. As from Germany persecution by pogrom escalated into a resolute and rationally implemented extermination policy on a continental scale, and was supposedly put an end to in one and only one place in the world, a territorial exception in this respect. The paradox is worth highlighting: this country provides Jewish collective safety, even as it lowers the level of objective individual safety,  since it is a state situated in a hostile environment made up of powers that desire its destruction or at best are resigned to its factuality, and since attacks and bombings are the continuous weft of everyone’s existence, pauses irregularly succeeding peaks. 

But it is the profound experience of Jews that there is more safety in the Jewish sense in Israel than in the quietest, least anti-Semitic place of the Diaspora. This is what sets in motion a tacit representation that everyone shares. This is what makes the State of Israel, that Jewish place whose status is unique because it is state-run, a sanctuary for every Jew wherever he or she may live, and not the metropolis of a satellite formation that would more or less draw towards itself the flow of Jews unhappily spread out on its periphery. It just stands out as option for any Jew which can always, at any time, take shelter there if he or she so wishes. That makes it an exceptional place among Jewish places all over the world, but does not change the fact that the Jewish world remains a constellation of Jewish places which together make up what we call – in the Jewish sense, here again – the diaspora. 

The Israel-Diaspora polarity is effectively this: Israel is the country of the Jews, representing their vital, or rather existential interests – their existence as a people depends on it – on the international stage. It represents their right to safety in the Jewish sense. This is defined by the fact that it excludes pogroms as a matter of principle. Not only does this polarity not change the fact that the Jews are a people in exile, but it only gains coherence from the fact that they are and remain, a people in exile. To this extent, Israel remains an exilic place. But it is not a diasporic place. It excepts itself from this definition through one characteristic and one characteristic alone: it affirms that not being restored to full sovereignty – which Messianic restoration would be – does not imply that one is forever exposed to pogroms. It arises from the Zionist refusal to place the people’s existence exclusively in the hands of God, just as it arises from the refusal to place it exclusively in the hands of foreign kings, even when they have turned into governments of nation-states of which Jews are citizens.

A necessary human artifice is therefore added, the Jewish state, which must be described as the state of exile[1]. As a state, it has properties that distinguish it from other state formations, because it bears the mark of the fundamental guarantee to ensure safety in the Jewish sense. In this case, this means maintaining a Jewish majority within it – without which the pogrom could not be effectively neutralized – even though the Jews do not cease to experience themselves as a structurally minority people. It follows that the Jewish sense of safety applies to all citizens of this state, whether Jewish or not. For, let us repeat, if the pogrom is the proper name for Jewish suffering, it is insofar as it reveals the exposure to violence of being a minority as such – structural for Jews and conjunctural for others, notably Palestinians in Israel itself. To put it another way: the pogrom designates Jewish suffering, without its neutralization being a privilege granted only to Jews. But it is only through the elucidation of its Jewish meaning that we can perceive what any minority is potentially exposed to in its relationship to social groups that can always threaten it, or to majority powers that can always persecute it.

These are the coordinates of the Jewish world that are currently wavering. They are the result of modern politics reasserted on a Jewish theological-political foundation, the cornerstone of which is Galut[2]. A politics that is the exact opposite of a restored political theology, which some religious Zionists sometimes aim to promote. The Israel-Diaspora polarity includes an exilic place of pogrom neutralization on the one hand, and diasporic places of potential pogrom on the other. The global Jewish experience rearranged itself and found its relative stability after the Holocaust with the help of this polarity. But it was exactly this arrangement that reached its limit on October 7 and 8, 2023. The State of Israel failed at its very cornerstone. The barrier of refuge broke, literally and figuratively. And it is the diasporic background of the Jewish being on which it is standing that has been revealed, in the very place – the only place in the world – where it had been put in limbo. This ineliminable diasporic background, with its accompanying experience of maximum persecution, suddenly rises to the surface.

What happened in a single day can be expressed as follows. The world was reunited and homogenized for Jews; the Israeli place joined the diasporic places. The gap between the exilic and the diasporic place that it had succeeded in introducing into Jewish consciousness was brutally closed. And mechanically, the ultimate test of unity in suffering – the Holocaust – was irrevocably reactivated in all Jewish experiences (in addition to those of non-Jews, who have retained in their minds what the disruption of the Holocaust represented in world history). For the exterminating vocation of the pogrom has resurfaced as a persistent, never-eliminated stratum of Jewish life in all its amplitude, even in the very place where its neutralization was lodged. From that moment on, exile rediscovered its uniformity in the possible death of Jews, everywhere, anywhere.

“Everywhere”… This proposition, from 1948 to 2023, had been denied. The State for the Jews, the one that “fights for him”, in this case for the people and not for God or any of his surrogates, had been this denial – and now it wavered before our eyes. After October 7 and 8, 2023, the proposition became true again; its denial was tragically overturned. It’s true that the Jews never left the Galut by giving themselves a state; but with the modernist polarity of realized Zionism they had managed to alter it. It was this alteration that collapsed. Jews were exterminated in Israel. As for the new coordinates for Jewish existence today and tomorrow, we have yet to detect them. And above all, after this disaster, there is a need to rebuild them so that the world can once again become livable for Jews.

Bruno Karsenti and Danny Trom


1 Danny Trom, L’État de l’exil. Les juifs, l’Europe, Israël, PUF, 2023.
2 Bruno Karsenti, La place de Dieu. Religion et politique chez les modernes, Fayard, 2023. 

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