Israel, 2023 : What We Hold on

Examining the political situation that is inflaming Israel, Bruno Karsenti gives an account of the multiple fractures that deeply divide the populations living in the region. All the sub-groups in turmoil – religious Zionists, Israeli citizens demonstrating in defense of a modern democratic state now in danger, Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories – are brought back to the same question, which touches on the feeling of belonging, which is felt in different ways. For although it is of equal intensity, it does not have the same content or the same meaning according to the perspectives involved. To belong or to possess? Sari Nusseibeh returns in this week’s issue of K. to the tension between these two words. Bruno Karsenti’s text can be read like an introduction to the Palestinian philosopher’s contribution.

>>> Read, « Belonging and Possession », by Sari Nusseibeh.


European Jewish refugees arriving in Haifa after the declaration of Independence of Israel


The crisis in Israel is getting worse by the day. The attacks on the rule of law by the reactionary government and the religious parties, the murderous attacks on the one hand, the repression on the other, and now the also murderous riots by Jewish settlers against the Palestinians in the West Bank, give an unprecedented twist to the period we are living through. It seems that at any moment the situation could tip over into a new era that we can hardly imagine. This is what motivates the unprecedented scale of the demonstrations that are sweeping the country, far beyond the divisions between left and right and between different social classes. It must be said that what unites this mobilisation in its massive opposition to the government is something very general and widely shared: nothing other than a visceral attachment to historical Zionism in all its diversity, to the fact that it refers to the foundation of a modern, democratic and liberal state, in which no minority should be threatened by any legal provision and in which the public authorities rigorously ensure respect for the civil and political rights of all citizens. By sharp contrast, the images of the Hawara rioters present a revolting counter-portrait. They have taken the order of facts and representations to a new level. What we see there, put into action, is precisely what a completely different politics – that is, a completely different state, which would no longer be Israel – could look like.

Essential questions are raised without any possibility of evasion, as if the crack that has opened up suddenly forces us to look at the foundations of the building. What does it mean to belong to this state? And what exactly does belong to its members when they belong to it? Above all, under what conditions does it really make sense to belong to it? This question has its flip side: under what conditions does it lose its meaning, in the sense that what one belongs to is also what one holds on to, and that what one holds on to may very well be substantially transformed, distorted, and no longer the same, so that belonging to it would ipso facto be deprived of its meaning?

Of all the types of state that exist, Israel has a remarkable characteristic that makes up all its complexity. In fact, it is a double characteristic that can be described as follows.

On the one hand, the network of questions we have just asked – what do we belong to, what do we own and what do we hold dear? – coalesce into a Jewish question. What we mean by this is that the question, which echoes on several levels, is born of this decisive event in Jewish history, the creation of a Jewish state, and that it is a question, or a series of questions, that Jews have been asking themselves from the moment they decided to politically reinvest this land, to settle it, to make it their own and to live there. Moreover, the question has its declensions among all Jews, wherever they live, i.e. in the Diaspora – and therefore in other states. As a Jewish question, it takes a different but related turn for Israeli Jews. For the Jews of the Diaspora, it advances and gains ground, not because they belong to the Jewish state, but because this state belongs to them too, in a way, but this time in the optional or potential mode of the state open to their admission.

But that is only one side of the problem. On the other hand, it must also be admitted that the question of belonging, in all its dimensions, is not only a Jewish question, in Israel itself. From the outset, in the consciousness of all the truly consistent protagonists, it is also a Palestinian question. “There is a people without a land, but there is no land without a people,” warned the Zionist Robert Weltsh, close to Martin Buber, at the 14th Zionist Congress in 1925. And in saying this, strange as it may seem, he did not differ, at the other end of the political spectrum, from Zeev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the Likud, when the latter stressed a few years earlier: “The Arabs are as good Zionists as we are”. This is because, in historical Zionism, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Palestinian Arabs belong to this land and hold on to it, i.e. have the right to belong to it and hold on to it. Therefore, in this spirit, and whatever the ideological oppositions, Israel, as a singular State established within its borders – which obviously does not apply to the occupied territories – has no other solution to exist than to find the formula for the composition of these overlapping belongings, which are irreducible to each other but which are destined to be combined.

To commit oneself to the search for this formula is to give oneself a common basis, which is what Israel has done since its creation in a resolutely democratic mode, that is, by granting a single citizenship to each individual established within the borders of the state, while at the same time recognising the “national” sub-groups, and thus the Israeli Arabs, with extensive collective rights. It was within this framework that the different affiliations in terms of affects, identities, feelings of ownership and dispossession had to be composed. Of course, this was not without recurring conflicts, the intensity of which varied over time. A threshold was crossed in 1967. The Arab defeat and the colonisation that followed significantly increased the problem, since from the point of view of the State of Israel, two Palestinian populations were distinguished: an internal one, consisting of Israeli citizens, and an external one, placed under military administration. And this distinction, of course, does not overlap with those made by the Palestinians themselves, wherever they may be, who are aware that they belong to a single people and are therefore not in the position to make the overlap between land and state, as the Jews do. Voices such as Buber’s (who died in 1965), when they sought to resolve the equation of “one land, two peoples”, were certainly already aware of the dangers of thinking of the belonging of land and people in terms of state ownership. But they did not face, as we do, a problem that has been compounded by occupation and colonisation. As for today’s nationalists, on both sides of the political spectrum, they stand out because they break with this general problem. In fact, they are always the quickest to declare that they know how to cut it, without worrying about the arbitrariness that governs their scissors. 

It is clear that the greatest danger now would be to believe them and to stop the work of composition that has relentlessly accompanied the development of historical Zionism. In the history of Israel, the vagaries of this search have widened the political options and their confrontations right up to the present – that is, right up to the threshold where we are now. Each time and in each option, no one has talked about the nature of the difficulty: it is because, however open to each other, it is an illusion to count on a symmetry of positions. We must be clear on this point: from the Zionist point of view, everything takes place against the background of the last great event in Jewish history, namely the project, carried out in 1948, of creating a place where the Jews are in the majority and which represents them politically as a people in the eyes of the world. Buber may have tried to neutralise the argument of the majority, but there is no doubt that he knew that he was coming up against a stumbling block which had to do with the nature of the project itself and the real coordinates of the problem to be resolved. Well, this project includes, at its heart and not at its periphery, the challenge of integrating the Palestinians, insofar as their belonging finds its place and its justification, from their point of view as well as from the point of view of the Israeli political body as a whole. If the word integration has any meaning in a multicultural society like Israel’s, genealogically linked to the dismantling of empire and to a singular dynamic of nationalisation, it can only be this. The Palestinian point of view on the whole of political society must, in a way, create its own space in the State of Israel, this state made for the Jews, this state with a Jewish majority.

This has a consequence. Or rather, two consequences, because the situation after 1967 is subject to new constraints. 

Similarly, but not symmetrically to the Jews, the Palestinians living in Israel face a challenge of their own: to make explicit their own mode of belonging, that is, to state from their point of view as a non-Jewish minority in a Jewish state what it means to cling to this country and its land as constitutive of their own identity as a people. In this work of co-construction, there is no principled equalisation. Nor can there be any balancing and integration at the expense of the Palestinians in Israel, who belong to their people – that is, to their entire people, which since 1967 has included the Palestinians in the territories, who have a different perspective, marked by the military domination of a foreign state, which happens to be the very state in which the integration of the other part of the people is taking place. 

This is where the problem branches out again. In the case of the Palestinians in the territories, the question is not how to adapt the problem of belonging to the fact of being a non-Jewish minority in a Jewish state. Rather, it is about constituting oneself as the political body of a new entity that is supposedly engaged in a movement towards statehood, a proto-state entity in short. As in any such entity, there is the task of defining an internal and an foreign policy. As far as internal policy is concerned, it is clear that the maintenance and strengthening of colonisation is an obstacle to its free development. As far as foreign policy is concerned, this means assuming the coexistence of the State of Israel, i.e. a state with a Jewish majority and a Palestinian minority, in the same geopolitical space – a space in which belonging to the land and to the land is overdetermined by the division of recognised states within their borders. There is no room here for any desire for destruction. In short, the question that arises is that of the Palestinian state as it is projected in the minds of the Palestinians themselves, in a well-defined geopolitical context that must be taken into account. Above all, it is the way in which this desire for a state, with its two internal and external faces, is understood from the Palestinian point of view, as a political form that is really desired, that really corresponds to what is important to them, to what they believe they possess and to which they feel they belong. 

In such an overall configuration, as we can see, the perspectives only partially overlap. It is impossible to hope that the tensions can be resolved all at once. For this reason, the balancing act that we are striving for – and there is no doubt that historical Zionism, in its successes as well as its failures, has never ceased to strive for – cannot be predicted a priori, determined by institutional or legal provisions that would only have to be applied to the different categories of population and their supposed relations. On the contrary, it must be based on concrete political practice, on the analysis of facts and their evolution, in order to draw the consequences for the action to be taken. Above all, a balance can only be achieved by understanding that the land is not the State and the people are not the national community. There is no overlay between these levels, but rather an articulation. A necessary articulation, however, since there is no national community without people(s), possibly in the plural, nor a state without land or territory, necessarily in the singular. All in all, this is what makes the oft-repeated formula “one country, two peoples” less depressing than it seems. But it is also what imposes the inexorable constraints on concrete political practice.

For the State of Israel, this political practice takes place both inside and outside its borders, especially in the territories. Between the two places, it takes on the opposing faces of integration and domination. Let us emphasise that as long as the nationalist demands for annexation remain unfulfilled, the territories are part of the Jewish state’s foreign policy and not of its internal policy; but it must be added immediately that this internal policy is most endangered by any degradation of that particular aspect of its foreign policy, the occupation. For twenty years, this deterioration has not stopped. There is, therefore, no other way out than to take the path of simultaneous progress along two lines: the end of the domination of the occupier and integration within the state. For this to happen, all the perspectives involved must be brought back into the game, without leaving any out. They must do so, not simply to have their respective claims to belonging heard, but so that these expectations can be made explicit and exposed in the light of the desired composition, which is the only legitimate aim.

The scale of the task is clear. However great it may be, we can all agree that today, in order to avoid the risk of falling into a state of affairs that would no longer be Zionist, there is no alternative but to seek this compositional formula with more determination than ever.


This shows the importance, both in itself and in context, of the text we are publishing this week in K. It comes from a great Palestinian voice, from East Jerusalem, and therefore from the Occupied Territories. This voice is that of the philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. Taken from a recent lecture at the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Letters, in a symposium dedicated to Martin Buber – a reference that, as we know, remains one of the most prominent in the effort to restore relations between Jews and Arabs at all costs – Nusseibeh’s text finds its impetus in itself and not in the work to which it pays tribute. It has an inner spring that leads it to meet Buber along the way, as if echoing his own demonstration. This makes its effect all the more powerful, as a lesson for everyone.

The lecture consists of a philosophical analysis of the verb “to belong” and its modulations. It virtuously mixes two methods, conceptual semantics and phenomenology, or at least the description of the affective variations of the phenomenon of belonging in its dimensions of possession and subjective attachment. Moreover, if she crosses paths with Buber at the end of the course, it is by approaching the problem from the point of view of the impasses of the present, those that qualify our current situation. These impasses, made visible by the various and pernicious uses of the verb “to belong”, have their roots in the very existence of the two peoples, that is, in their socio-historical conditions of existence and in the political condition that results for each of them today, within the same space and according to a persistent asymmetry that can only be managed if it is understood in its two distinct orders of reasons, Palestinian and Jewish.  

In this respect, the divergence of the meanings of belonging cannot be minimised. On both sides, Nusseibeh shows, it is woven from the three parameters of people, land and God. But in this weaving, it takes irreducible turns that follow not only the long history, but also and above all the short history of the young country, until its recent precipitation. A short history in which, in less than a century, the two peoples have discovered and built each other in different ways, as if testing each other. A test marked by the first waves of Zionist emigration, the declaration of independence, wars, colonisation, all against a background of uninterrupted violence. A general dilemma emerges, which serves to better adjust the focus of our current situation. While for the Jews the recovery of the land has meant belonging and holding on to oneself by modifying the exilic structure of the people, for the Palestinians it is the dispossession of the land that has reconfigured and stretched identity in a national mode previously unknown to them. On each of these two lines, “belonging” then produced its own hallucinatory regime, the worst effects of which are now unfolding before our eyes. We are dealing with two different vertigoes of belonging, each radicalising its nationalism in ever more resolute ignorance of the vital, objectively founded experience on which the other’s identity is based. To stop this process is to unleash a kind of prophylaxis. To make each person reflect on the fetishistic and fetishising drift of his or her being as a people, projected into a possessive relationship with his or her land and his or her God, to the exclusion of the very people with whom we currently share the world.

This is what the philosopher is asking us to do. So that, as a matter of urgency, the drift can be stopped and a meaningful history can be reformed for the two peoples whose destinies are intertwined.

Bruno Karsenti

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