Home is where you are? Israel on the edge of Zionism

After the recent Israeli elections, the most right-wing government in the country’s history is expected to emerge. If the result is the effect of a long dynamic, it is nonetheless staggering. The philosopher Bruno Karsenti comes back in this text on what may well be a turning point in the history of Israel, and on the deviation of Zionism that it signals. A deviation that, in order to be avoided, implies re-understanding Zionism from the Diaspora, and particularly from Europe.



Israel is at an uncertain stage in its political history. Some see it as a turn for the worse, others as a way out of the doldrums, and still others as the culmination of an evolution that only the interlude due to Netanyahu’s forced withdrawal had delayed. One thing is certain: the recent elections will likely result in a completely right-wing government which, for the first time, will give a key role to the far right, in this case to the representatives of a coalition of religious Zionists who, although their leader swears that they have changed a lot, have their ideological roots in a party that was condemned and banned in the 80s for racism. This gives a measure of how far we have come, largely under Netanyahu’s opportunistic guidance. Renewed or not, the right wing in power will be in a position to impose a policy that, although difficult to anticipate in some respects, is likely to be the harshest the country has ever seen. Certainly, in Israel, the institutions as they are now, and as long as they are not modified, do not allow this policy to be automatically implemented. Therefore, the reactionary camp is obsessed with getting rid of the Supreme Court, which is a safeguard against the possible excesses of the executive and the legislature. However, the slope has been taken: the progressive forces, which have proved incapable of allying themselves and converging, and whose deficit on the social front has long since given way to the religious parties, have now been defeated in favour of a reactionary bloc whose open radicalism warrants all fears.

From the point of view of the Western liberal democracies’ evolution , there is nothing very original about this event. Illiberalism, in whatever sense one understands it, is on the rise everywhere, against the backdrop of the global crisis of social democracy, which for us has essentially become a crisis of political Europe. It takes the form of identity-based nationalism, which multiplies the strategies of withdrawal, with variations in the mode of expression, the cultural-historical background mobilised and the greater or lesser importance given to religion in order to anchor and consolidate identities. In Eastern Europe, this kind of nationalism is already well established, firmly rooted in the governments of Hungary and Poland. In the West, it has just reached Italy. Everywhere, its progress is such that its access to the State power in the near future is not improbable. The 1980s and 1990s are far behind us. Israel, which is related to Western forms of democracy, is in this sense merely confirming a general trend. But its case is no less singular for several reasons: the geopolitical context that hinders a peaceful co-construction with other states in the region whose democratisation the Israeli left had hoped for, the composite structure of the country’s population, and the fact that being in a state of war or quasi-war since its birth, Israel has been committed since 1967 to a policy of occupation which, following the failure of successive peace processes, has become indefinite. Under these conditions, its nationalist turn risks expressing itself in an attack on the rights of minorities, in the stifling of the will for peace, in increased repression and in ever more assumed colonisation.

All this in the name of what? The security that the winners of the moment keep claiming. It is true that for Israel, this has always been the major issue, undeniable and impossible to dismiss. So much so that as soon as it is mentioned, we think we can spare ourselves from digging deeper. The reality of the murderous terrorist attacks, the regular strikes from Gaza, the armament of the enemy forces that have sworn to eradicate the “Zionist entity”, are all it takes to shut down any discussion, otherwise one is accused of downplaying the danger in a guilty and basically unforgivable manner.  However, in Israel as elsewhere, the question of what exactly one wants to ensure security for is always worth asking, and it is by failing to do so that one leaves the field open to nationalists. For as far as they are concerned, they have a very precise idea. But this idea, from the Zionist point of view itself, is in fact by no means obvious.

No one doubts that the question of security is particularly acute in Israel. But out of this observation, the Israeli nationalists draw the following slogan: “This is our home”. According to them, security comes at the price of a better sense of self, which implies assuming that Jews are “at home” in Israel. This country is a Jewish country, because it is the country whose owners are the Jews, and according to them it is about time to draw all the consequences. The reasoning, if it echoes in a certain way the older Zionist idea of a “home” for the Jews, now comes down to this. A home is something you own. As the majority in their land, the Jews are hegemonic there, and as hegemonic, they are entitled to be exclusively so, to the detriment of minorities, who, as minorities, have no say in the matter. This applies primarily, of course, to the Palestinians. But it also applies to anyone who deviates from the criterion of identity, the definition of which is held with the assurance that only religious law fully confers. Religious nationalism is identity-based in this integralistic sense: the individual and collective identity “Jew” is what is not in question and must be the norm, both for the territorial layout that has been decided and for the social homogenisation that is intended. This is what allows the enclosure of Israel as a ” State of the Jewish people “. From this point of view, the judges of the Supreme Court cannot be real judges, since they do not judge according to this law. And only the Fundamental Law “Nation-State” of 2018 would go in the right direction, by folding the Jewish State back into the Jewish people understood as the people of the true Jews who gather in this expressly and exclusively Jewish land. Law, people and land would overlap for good, the fact that they finally coincide being the only viable solution to Israel’s security, understood as the assurance of being among oneself.

Seen from Europe, where Zionism was born, this version of Zionism is a clear deviation. It corresponds to a closure of Israel, not only to the world and to international relations, but to the Jewish people itself, given the way in which this people have really correlated itself to the State form, since the moment when a modern State like Israel was founded.

As for the Jewish people, it is a fact, they are structurally diasporic. If, for a time, the utopia of gathering all the exiles might have been expressed, Zionism did not make it its fulcrum. The creation of Israel did not put an end to the objective diasporic situation, but rather introduced a modification by establishing a polarity between two modes of Jewish existence, neither of which annuls nor disqualifies the other. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

In fact, Jewish reality must be seen from two viewpoints. On the one hand, an Israeli Jewish centre with consistency and strength is what ensures that Jews all over the world can live with a recourse against anti-Semitism that they did not have before 1948, that of joining a shelter if they want to and if necessity pushes them to it, and of invoking it as a real power that represents them and weighs in their favour whenever their situation worsens in the states of which they are members. It is optional in nature, and representative (‘whether they like it or not’, as Hannah Arendt subtly put it) on the international scene. On the other hand, the Jewish centres in the Diaspora support Israel as the singular State which is always open to them, but whose open character has a general political significance which they emphasise, because they assume that it is likely to be understood by all – that is, by international opinion, regardless of whether it is Jewish or non-Jewish. Indeed, through their own history and the way it has come to be reflected through Zionism, Jews exhibit and make understandable the potential vulnerability of any minority. They do so by making explicit what cannot fail to be a built-in tendency of the modern nation-state form, given its sealing between a state apparatus and a culturally homogenised population (to a varying degree and by varying means) that ultimately legitimises that state. This tendency is oppression, discrimination, even persecution and elimination of minorities, as soon as the majority identity is pushed to the point of exclusivism.

The way that modern nation-states are haunted by nationalisms is something that Europe and the world became more acutely aware of than ever after 1945, given that these nationalisms can indeed go as far as the extermination of an element that they consider foreign and harmful to the life of the national body. Among the political responses to this observation are the supranational Resolutions for the protection of minorities that have followed one another since then, whether they are carried by the UN or the European Union. But there is also an absolutely singular State creation, that of the State of Israel. This means that the State of Israel is the only modern State whose national body, that of the holders of citizenship, is open, since the people of reference exceeds it constitutively, as it is in its diasporic structure, i.e. in its minority being everywhere else than in Israel.

What can “being at home” mean in such a State? From a certain point of view, it is to be at home as one is everywhere: through the enjoyment of citizenship, one is in a position to participate in the conception and elaboration of common laws, which is achieved through public debate and the procedures for the appointment of legislative and governmental bodies. One is at home, to this extent, because one is master in one’ s own home: one is autonomous. The procedures in question are democratic, and they assume that there is indeed an Israeli nation, legitimising an Israeli government. This nation includes Jewish identity in the forefront, but only in one aspect: Jews are in the majority, while other minority populations provide their quota of citizens, endowed with the same rights, i.e., politically, the right to participate to the same degree in the elaboration of the law and in the exercise of representation. All these citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are therefore “at home”.

Are Jewish citizens more “at home” than others, according to the majority clause? No. Because the majority clause applies to them as a whole, and does not invest them with any additional rights individually. However, taken at the global level, it means this: “home” is indeed the home of the Jews, but only as a potential host for every Jew in the Diaspora, i.e. every virtual or optional citizen. In reality, he is the one who has a right of exception, with regard to non-Jews – that is to say, all non-Jews who would like to become Israelis. He is the truly privileged one, to whom the feeling of “home” is attributed and attributable, but only in the mode of potentiality and option, wherever he lives, and even though he feels “at home” there – but might no longer feel so, if his minority condition were attacked.

When one has in mind – and every Jew has in mind, if he is sincere – the bipolarity of Israel and the Diaspora, that is what it is all about. The Israeli nation is not the Jewish people. The Jewish State is only correlated with the Jewish people if the distinction between the Israeli nation and the Jewish people is well understood. This is what makes the religious nationalist leitmotiv “we are at home” an Israeli contradiction, i.e. a position that goes beyond the framework of Zionism.  Or to put it another way: this is what makes it structurally impossible to have a consistent identity-based nationalism in this country. If nationalism is a pathology of Western democracies, in Israel it is more than that: it is simply a contradiction, in the sense that nothing of its own life, as it has been determined since the founding of the state, is truthfully expressed.

Yet nationalism is powerful today. Not only is it in the majority, but it is growing steadily, and is powerful enough to influence the definition of state policy. This present situation corresponds to an evolution which did not start yesterday, and whose coordinates are not only local – how could they be, moreover, if the Jewish sense of politics which is expressed from the diaspora counts as much for Israel as what is expressed from Israel itself? If we want to see clearly this evolution which leads to a contradiction, we must also take a two-fold view. On both sides, we see the same crisis of social democracy, with its aspects of disintegration of the social policies led by the left, of liberal deregulation, of regression in identitarian politics of various types, with, on the flip side, nationalist clenchings that participate in the same game. In the Western democracies, and more particularly in Europe, this disintegration has coincided with a striking rise in anti-Semitism, as a point where the most reactive affects of a politically disoriented opinion today tend to converge.

In that Western democracy, outside the walls that surround Israel, this same disintegration has taken on another facet: it has coincided with the religious thrust that calls itself Zionist, but which in fact is only nationalist, since its nationalism bars it from accessing Zionism, by pitting the Jewish people and the Israeli nation against each other. To describe the way in which the two trends, European and Israeli, have been composed and revived would require us to enter further into a three-term equation: crisis of the left, crisis of European consciousness, crisis of Zionism. It is enough for us here to point out their triangulation. And to conclude that, for us in Europe, the Israeli mirror still works, but over time it reflects very different images. And the one that is now emerging is very singular. It’s not that European Jews no longer recognise themselves in it, when a nationalism that is inappropriate for Israel is very visibly gaining ground. It is rather that what they see in it is only the distorted, inverted representation of what they expect to find. Not a response to antisemitism, that major effect of the identity-based regressions that are currently being illustrated at different points of the European and global political spectrum, but only a version of these very regressions. A so-called defence of the Jews, of course, but a defence that uses precisely the scheme in which their congenital enemy is reproduced under new faces. This is why they, better than anyone else, discern a contradiction.

One cannot live in a contradiction. In this game of reflection, the risk is that the idea of a Jewish “home”, with its irreducible double anchorage, is lost in the memories of the nations.

Bruno Karsenti

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