The uses of Jewish tradition by the revolutionary left, part I

Dialogue between Ivan Segré & Gérard Bensussan

How can we understand the emergence of a political use of Jewish tradition within a certain radical left? Is this use paradoxical, ideologically overdetermined, or does it proceed from a real interest in certain religious sources, susceptible of reviving a revolutionary messianism? We put the question to philosophers Ivan Segré and Gérard Bensussan, who know both the Jewish tradition and that of the revolutionary left.


Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920


We seize the opportunity of an article devoted to the magazine Tikkun, whose “doctrinal matrix” claims to be based on a radical and revolutionary interpretation of the Lurianic Kabbalah, in order to question the legitimacy of this political use of the Jewish tradition; and ultimately to interrogate the legitimacy of the secular transposition of esotericism conditioned by the search for a meaning of exile, in different political contexts, where it is the overthrow of capitalism which is at stake. What is the meaning of the use of these Jewish elements in the extreme left? Especially when the latter is crossed by anti-Zionism, while Zionism has been nourished by the renewal of a Jewish spirituality committed to the recasting of a utopian/prophetic socialism (e.g., in Martin Buber, and Scholem, despite the differences between these two thinkers), centered on emancipation, autonomy, and the reinvention of the political community? Can revolutionary practice theorize Jewish messianism without extracting it from its specific conditions of existence, and thus without any distortion? One must therefore be vigilant to the violence contained in a revolutionary enterprise, and see to what extent the use of esoteric Jewish elements could orient an apocalyptic perspective of history. In this regard, is there in revolutionary movements an expectation of the collapse of the world, which in turn could signal an evil agonistic world to be destroyed? Whereas Judaism cannot renounce the idea that creation is good, without denying itself. These nihilistic elements, successively underlined by Charles Mopsik[1] and Moshe Idel, are foreign to Jewish texts. Thus, in order to question and discuss the uses of Jewish esotericism by revolutionary thought, we have brought together the philosophers Gérard Bensussan and Ivan Segré, both specialists—through different paths—of these subjects. – Avishag Zafrani


Avishag Zafrani: Was the secularization of elements of the Jewish tradition, most notably prophetism or messianism, a fundamental element in the emergence of a socialism that thought of itself as emancipation, the end of alienation, and the restoration of the world? 

Ivan Segré: It is very difficult to answer this question when one wants to appreciate the part played by the Jewish tradition, in terms of historical causality, in the rise of socialism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some will emphasize the significance of the “Judeo-Bolshevik” phenomenon, others, on the contrary, will stress the “Jewish” workings of international capitalism, especially financial capitalism. Since “the Jews are everywhere,” everyone can see no more than what they want. On the other hand, what seems certain to me is that in the history of ideas, the Jewish tradition has been a “key element” in the thought and practice of human emancipation. Clearly, if philosophy, understood in the sense of speculation informed by mathematical reasoning, comes from a Greek matrix, on the other hand, the systematic critique of alienation and the idea that human emancipation, both metaphysical and social, is the main axis of existential speculation, comes, in my opinion, from an ancient Jewish matrix, which can be summed up in four words: “the exit of Egypt.”

Gérard Bensussan: For a long time I too thought that a certain secularized Jewish tradition, or at least that narrative sequences (aggadoth[2]), a Jewish “spirit” in the vaguest sense of the term, irrigated the great emancipatory currents of the revolutionary workers’ movement, of socialism and communism. Nowadays, however, the question seems to me rather indecisive. This hypothesis is not entirely impossible to hold to, albeit in its “weak” sense, as one might speak of a “weak” epistemology, that is, in the spirit of the beautiful Racinean verse of Athalie: “You hate injustices and would pursue / the promptings that a Jewish heart is sent.” Proust used to talk about the “taste for sacrilege” of the Jews, Habermas about their spirit of transgression. All this is remarkable. But the absence of any determinable causality between the said phenomena seems to me to preclude speaking of a “fundamental element” in the history of the great emancipations of the twentieth century, or of something which would allow us to see in it a resource for thought and action. It is quite difficult to establish that a certain prophetic filiation, and even a certain rabbinic lineage in the case of Marx himself—since the question has also been posed in these terms and in this framework—can effectively mark, in an attested way, the European social democracies of the end of the nineteenth century or the Komintern and other Internationals in the twentieth century. Or else, on a peripheral basis, according to statistics for example, since it is true that many Jews participated in the most diverse revolutionary currents, many were behind the constitution of the communist parties. All this information is both effective, true and real, and vague, as well as noticeable a posteriori. How can one move from prophetic texts or Jewish messianism to communist politics in the broad sense? From deep irritation with injustice, from the “Israelite heart,” to Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism or Anarchism? All this remains indeterminable in a consistent way. I did mention undecidability: it is then up to each one to decide, investigate and follow one or another track, one or another hypothesis.

AZ: What about Marx himself, to whom a so-called secularized messianism is attributed?
GB: Even though some thinkers formerly claimed, sometimes convincingly, that Marxism had in fact constituted a mode of secularization of Jewish messianism, of its eschatology, this opinion no longer seems to me to be tenable, even if it certainly contains “elements” of truth which are difficult to define. The report was further burdened by an anti-Judaism circulating all over the place in the socialist movements. When Hess is called “the communist rabbi,” it is never in a very good way. Marx was both a German Jew very arrogant towards Bauer, Proudhon, Bakunin and other opponents within the International Working Men’s Association; occasionally, he could even pass for an anti-Semitic German. This cross-fertilization further confuses the ultimately untangled question.
Gershom Scholem, archive The National Library of Israel
AZ: It appears, therefore, that, as did Scholem and Benjamin in their correspondence, we must agree on what the Jewish tradition is. Scholem claimed to be searching intensely for an “essence of Judaism,” which would lead him to the study of Jewish esotericism. But he explicitly reproached Benjamin for having found redemption in communism, whereas in Judaism, as in the modern Kabbalist Kafka, redemption cannot be anticipated. Could the success of Benjaminian revolutionary thought in the extreme left of the 1990s and 2000s be seen as an expression of this distortion of the Jewish, messianic tradition?   

IS: I find it hardly possible to identify any “distortion” of Judaism in Benjamin’s work, at least if we are to contrast it with an “essence” of Judaism which Scholem or even Kafka would have been able to approach. More radically, since any “distortion” presupposes agreement on what would be rectitude in this matter, i.e., an undistorted representation of Judaism, one is confronted with the question of orthodoxy. And of course, Jewish orthodoxy itself is the result of successive “distortions” over the centuries. 

Let us consider a particularly fundamental example: the systematic codification of the Talmud undertaken by Maimonides in the 12th century. At the outset, this process was roundly criticized, and for good reason: the Talmud is dialectical from A to Z, “dialectical” in the sense that the law is set out in a contradictory manner. But the codification is based precisely on a “distortion” of the Talmud (in the medical sense of a part of the body that turns or contracts on only one side), since a now one-sided exposition of the law succeeds an initially contradictory exposition. Nevertheless, the process of codification became, in the second millennium of the Common Era, one of the pillars, if not the pillar, of Jewish orthodoxy. A second example: Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (1235-1310), known as Rachbah, one of the great rabbinic authorities of medieval Judaism, fought both, on a rationalist side, against the infatuation with philosophy aroused by Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, and, on an esoteric side, against the kabbalistic radicalism of Abraham Abulafia, without hesitating to resort to excommunication. In the same vein, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), in the 18th century, castigated the popular fervor aroused by Hasidism. Finally, the fact is that from within the work of the Gaon of Vilna Jewish Orthodoxy today favors his legal annotations on the codification over his kabbalistic commentaries on the Book of Proverbs or the Song of Songs. Where is the “essence” of Judaism? This is by definition an open question, unless we can resort to a centralized authority modeled on the Roman Church. The issue, then, is not to oppose a “distortion” to an “essence,” but rather to discern between fruitful and less fruitful, even sterile, approaches. Still, it can be perfectly legitimate, with regard to the exegesis of a text, to consider that such and such a reading is rigorous and intelligent while another is naive, inept, or even twisted. As for agreement on what Jewish tradition is, I believe it could be defined as a thought practice based, in one way or another, on the indisputably essential core of such tradition, namely the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, the so-called written law and the so-called oral law. 

AZ: But then, what about the more “modern” messianism, notably Benjaminian messianism?

IS: It seems to me that Benjaminian messianism has been historically just as fruitful as Scholem’s, if not more so. And as for the question of the relationship between Jewish messianism and emancipatory politics, my position on this subject, to sum it up in two words, is that of Levinas, who affirms, on the one hand, in “La laïcité et la pensée d’Israël” [Secularism and the Thought of Israel]: “No hope of individual salvation (…) can exist, can be thought of, outside of social accomplishment” – and who reminds us, on the other hand, in “Judaïsme et révolution” [Judaism and Revolution]: “The Jewish cause is not only a social cause.” Could we infer from this that Levinas’s position intends to overcome, in the sense of the German Aufhebung, the dispute between Benjamin and Scholem? Here, of course, is a nod of mine to Gérard Bensussan.

GB: I fully agree with Ivan Segré about the distortion point. Distortion is not a bad thing. Appropriating a tradition from outside involves inevitable forcing, sequencing, distortion and twisting. In any case, the issue of the relationship between “Judaism” and “revolution,” or between “Jewish tradition” and the “revolutionary left,” is not one that can be resolved in this way, and this impossibility does not stem from an infidelity between the latter and the former. Benjamin’s reception and popularity on the extreme left, which you mention in passing, Avishag Zafrani, is rather enigmatic, essentially, at least from a theoretical point of view. In his Working Diaries, Brecht discerned in this way of thought, while somehow sympathizing with Benjamin, a “mysticism,” or even an unfortunate tendency to “Jewish fascism,” and I quote him! The question of this relationship between Judaism and revolution, to generically summarize the terms of a much more ramified connection, is a question of substance. Does it make sense to put together corpora, massive bodies of thought, such as, on the one hand, the Jewish tradition—that is to say, the written Torah, the oral Torah put into writing, the midrashim, the Kabbalah, the oceanic rabbinic commentaries – and on the other hand, what forms another tradition, just as real, since Marx, even since Babeuf, up to the contemporary extreme lefts—text against text, practice against practice? I don’t know. I can see elective affinities, I once wrote about these possible alignments of “heart.” But can we look beyond the simple level of description?

Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin playing chess

I would like to revisit two points. First, the codification of the Talmud in the Mishneh Torah and Maimonides’ use of Aristotelian philosophy: this “distortion” gave rise to fierce internal controversies within Judaism, which historians tell us continued unabated, even as the communities were persecuted and expelled. Then there is the question, philosophically ancient but always new, of the essence. For lack of time to return at length to the history of the concept, I will simply say that there is, perhaps, a non-substantial, non-essentializing way of using this notion. Let us say that it allows naming everything that comes out of what I called earlier the descriptive level. Beyond description and formal affinity, “essence,” in the loose, dissociative sense that I am proposing, could designate a certain unstable configuration, certainly not dialectical, without intra-textual relief, since the words of the Wise Men are all “also words of God.” The juxtaposed and counterposed set of positions held by the Sages of the Talmud forms a tradition and an “essence,” an essence silhouette, I would say; not an ousia, nor a Wesen. The mahloqet[3], not the Aufhebung. And I hope that this is what we are now doing. 

AZ: Do you think, like Ivan Segré, that Levinas’ thought seems to overcome this opposition?

GB: I would take up here Ivan Segré’s development point by point: I don’t think that Levinas ever intended to rule on the relation we are trying to circumscribe, in spite of certain remarks of circumstances, and of his time, on Marxism in particular. His questioning, the pathos impregnates his way of doing philosophy, the power of his enunciation in Greek of things completely ignored by the Greek – all theseform an “ethical” questioning, something so original, provided we agree on the words, of course, that the “thing” is perfectly untraceable in the Marxist tradition, nor in the tradition of the Greek ontological or theologico-political. Here again, one can always follow the thread of a “relation,” with benefit perhaps, provided one does not impute its consistency and thickness to Levinas himself. It seems to me that our two points of view on this relationship between Judaism and revolution are fairly divergent, but not entirely exclusive…

AZ: Can you return to the precise link between Judaism and the theme of the Revolution, or of its elements (such as emancipation)? Is it dredged up by the theme of messianism, for instance, or does it arise more contingently from the Jewish historical condition?

GB: From the outset of this discussion, I discern a probable difference between two ways of approaching the question at stake. Either one can distinguish in Judaism a nucleus agglomerated around messianism which could be recuperated in the revolutionary thoughts and practices which have crossed the last two centuries to the point of forming a “fundamental element.” Or one wonders about the status of this “recuperation” without denying some similarities in physiognomy or even some “elective” affinities.

Here, therefore, for reasons of presentational convenience, the revolutionaries were hardly sensitive to the possibility of such a transfer, apart from a few formal allusions to one or another prophet, but much more to the figure of Jesus as the prophet of prophets. It is especially on the Jewish side that this proximity has been noticed. And I do not deny it, “the widow, the orphan and the stranger” – for “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – the jubilee, the social emancipation, the tzedaka, its modalities, the liberation from slavery, and obviously the messianism. I just wonder about the status of this proximity, its theoretical, political, epistemological status, without actually holding a firm position – all I know is that too many assumptions encumber this “relationship” to actually allow for rigorous thought.

AZ: In any event, doesn’t there seem to be a Jewish peculiarity to be noted?

GB: One may notice that the two other monotheisms (not to mention other religions that I don’t know and of which I can’t say a word!) are also claiming subversive virtualities likely to break the social frameworks, the established orders. Islam is presented, with some success nowadays, as the religion of the poor. Liberation theologies in Latin America, and even Che as a quasi-reincarnation of Jesus, are the counterparts on the Christian side. Sorry, but I’m saying things very roughly. My only intention is to raise some doubts about our “relationship,” in its universality including in it the particular, as Hegel would say. Is there such a specificity in Judaism, I mean as regards the matter at hand here, i.e., the relation to the great movements of emancipation, which could be analyzed as a fundamental element of the latter and thus imply the determination of a certain causality, even a “weak” one?

Jewish messianism certainly represents the heart of this movement of possible transfer through secularization; one can say that it is essentially through its reading and its Christian revival that it has come to represent the vector of a “progressism,” of a linear and ascending vection of the movements of history, of its meaning. This is a far cry from what we can read, for example, in the Sanhedrin on the modalities of the coming of the Messiah- unpredictability, vaguely threatening surprise, fortuitous arrival, presence and impresence. I wrote at the time that Jewish messianism could not be considered as the matrix of ontologies of history, from Vico to Hegel, but rather as the matrix of reduced models, of high intensity, of thoughts of the event.

The Jewish particularity, if any, in this relationship to “revolution” is undoubtedly rooted in the European history of the Jews, that is to say, in their global history, or rather in their straightaway globalized history. The Jews have been involved in European history almost from the beginning. They are strange Europeans, both more and less than the average citizen of Europe. Therefore, they had to experience, to participate, since their excentration, in the basic movements of all this history, while at the same time being the excluded thirds, the dissidents, like a margin that would radiate to the “center.” Such a position, possibly endowed them with that “sociological gaze” of which Habermas speaks, and which is conducive to commitment to all the contestations of the mainstream center.

Representation from the theories of Lurianic Kabbalah

IS: It seems to me that we should distinguish between several things: on the one hand, there is the question of knowing whether the Jewish tradition, and especially the messianic tradition, played any role in the emergence of revolutionary movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and as we have said, this is a complex problem which is difficult to untangle. There is also the question of the ethical and political meanings conveyed by the Jewish tradition, regardless of the way in which these meanings may or may not have inspired the revolutionary movement. There is, in addition, the question of the ethical and political meanings conveyed by the Jewish tradition, independent of the way in which these meanings may or may not have inspired this or that historical movement. Finally, there is the question of ascertaining how, in the light of the teachings of the Jewish tradition, to assess such or such historical, philosophical or political movement. 

Let us take an example: the Bible is a political text, at least in the sense that the ethics of human relationships nourish a formidable critique of State power, a critique that seems to me relevant well beyond the paradigm, which is a little dated today, of kingship. And on this subject, in my opinion, the most important issue is not to measure the historical influence that this critique may have had on this or that revolutionary movement- the crucial thing is to appreciate its conceptual relevance. The remark is equally valid for the way in which the ancient Jewish tradition was elaborated against neo-Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek or Roman imperialism. 

More generally, I believe that the Bible and the Talmud deal with what I will call, for the sake of brevity, anthropological invariants, hence the transhistorical, and untimely, fruitfulness of the teachings of this ancient founding corpus. From then on, the various aspects are obviously open to discussion: what reading do we make of this biblical or Talmudic writing? What lessons do we draw from it? How does one assess, in the light of these teachings, this or that movement or doctrine which claims or does not claim to belong to the Jewish tradition? And finally, can we discern an influence of the Jewish tradition in any given historical, political, philosophical or religious phenomenon? For example, does the Islamic valorization of the imperative of social justice have Jewish origins? We know that in the Koran, the motif of the destruction of idols is derived from the rabbinic midrash about Abraham. Therefore, one cannot exclude that the imperative of social justice, so important to the biblical prophets, has historically fertilized the inspiration of the Koran.

To further complicate the matter, and to return from another angle to your first question, one also has to take into consideration the distortions inflicted on the teachings of the Bible that had historical and philosophical implications. For example, interpreting the law given at Sinai as the foundation of a Hebrew State—as Hobbes and Spinoza have done following a long-Christian tradition—amounts, in my view, to a complete misunderstanding of the unfolding of the biblical narrative, since the foundation of the State, strictly speaking, occurs when the Hebrews ask Samuel to establish kingship, exactly “like the nations.” So, there is a squared distortion here, if I may say so: the establishment of kingship is a distortion of the prophetic ideal carried by Samuel following the book of Judges, and the reading of Hobbes and Spinoza makes this distortion more radical, or squared, by interpreting the Mosaic law according to the model of a social contract. (This brings us to the “theologico-political” question.)

AZ: The more general question raised here concerns the shift from theology to politics, in particular through a revolutionary thought meant to revitalize a political praxis. This remains, as you point out, in many ways enigmatic. Again, then, why? Does revolutionary thought need the religious, the transcendent? Perhaps we need to ascertain from within the Jewish tradition whether there is some legitimacy to such a shift, or whether on the contrary religion wants to protect itself from politics. I am also alluding to Benjamin’s theses on the concept of history, in which messianism is in some way bracketed in favor of remembrance- the said messianism, and the anticipation of the future that it implies, being for Benjamin to be suspended at the risk of casting a spell on that future. Are we not faced here with a gap, a caution inserted between the theological and the political here?  

GB: I readily agree with Ivan Segré’s distinctions about “Jewish tradition” and its intrinsic, extrinsic and normative meanings. They are sound, and it is exactly that way of thinking, based on distinguishing/specifying/determining that I have tried to introduce into our discussion as its methodological prerequisite. Moreover, in my opinion, these indispensable clarifications allow us to better grasp the question of the “relationship” which is not a relationship between Judaism and revolution; I will henceforward leave out the quotation marks because the matter is now clear. There are, indeed, in the great texts of Jewish tradition, roughly speaking, written Torah plus Talmud, sequences, let’s say like that, notably prophetic sequences of implacable criticism of power and domination. And it is indeed necessary to consider them in their intrinsic efficiency, before attempting to measure their effects of dilution in Islam, Christianity, revolutionary thought, or even Jewish thought of the political, if we can circumscribe them as such. Here the question of Zionism arises – which can be considered as an exemplary figure, internal to Judaism, of what you define as the “shift” from the theology to the politics. Basically, Zionism constitutes the Jewish aggiornamento of the old question called “theologico-political” as it arose in the seventeenth century, in the context of civil wars and wars of religion that were terribly deadly. Hobbes and Spinoza questioned sovereignty in this context: What constitutes its foundation? Who ultimately has sovereignty, the Church, the State? And can a State survive if it is “subject to two masters” as Hobbes put it, one of whom would secede from the other?

These questions are supposed to have been resolved successively by the classical political philosophy of the 17th century, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in the 18th century, and the social demands of the 19th century. Actually, they are hardly so and Schmitt has shown -in his own way and despite a certain simplism – that we are not done with the theologico-political complex.

AZ: How, in this perspective, does Zionism prolong this issue? 

GB: These questions are indeed at the heart of Zionism as the normalization of the demand for the establishment of the State of Israel and then for its democratic status addressed by the people to Samuel (8:5). In Israel, they are part of a daily jurisprudence, a questioning without end. The blunder that Ivan Segré points out regarding the classical political reading, especially in Spinoza, of the Law of the Hebrews as inaugurating the reign of a theocracy, has become in the twenty-first century a political or politico-theological reality. It is not the first time that a theoretical error is sanctioned by its historical realization. I am thinking here more about political regimes claiming to adhere to political Islam than about the State of Israel, both of which are substantially different. The theologico-political complex continues to spectrally inhabit the democracies themselves, in spite of their effective emancipation from the religious, which we will say at times, in order to express a naive misunderstanding, that it is “coming back.” The democracies, indeed, believe themselves definitively preserved from the “religious” and from its weight, persuaded to be definitively “secular,” as in the Comtian positivism where the theological is only an “age” which precedes the metaphysical and the scientific states. 

Zionism, insofar as it also raises the question of national-state sovereignty and, in hollow or by contrast, that of the status of the religious Law, stirs up and redistributes all the themes relating to the theologico-political. It forces us to take into account a basic fact that constitutes an obligation for his adepts; since the creation of the State of Israel is an intra-historical event, it does not mean the messianic end of the exile, the advent of the messianic era in its universality, and even less the redemption of the Jews, the redemption of men, of all men. Athens is now in Jerusalem, that is the dilemma that Jewish theologico-political, Zionism if I may say so, entails. Zionism is itself exposed to the bifurcation of the religious and the political, of the authority of the Law and the authority of the State, of the Enlightenment and of Orthodoxy. The question of the “two masters” runs right through Zionism and obviously exposes it to many perils, as soon as “the Republic is divided against itself,” to use Hobbes’s words again. As its name indicates, the theologico-political does not cancel out the theological, which continues its path under the domination of the secular authority of political institutions. But how? This is the question that arises in liberal democracies – and Zionism exalts it as such. As Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise [Tractatus theologico-politicus] not unkindly predicted, Zionism leaves only assimilation as an alternative, although the path of “dissimilation” (Rosenzweig) defeats it, without canceling it. Perhaps dissimilation is today the royal road to assimilation, by transforming it from within. This is a complex situation – certainly linked to the ambivalence of all the Jewish critiques of Spinoza, oh his “betrayal”, as part of a modern criticism of modernity, I am thinking in particular of Hermann Cohen.

« May our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion », Engraving by Ephraim Moshe Lilien for the 5th Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901

IS: If I understand correctly, you, Avishag Zafrani, are asking us about the way in which the Jewish tradition conceives the relationship between the “theological” (or the “religious”) and the “political.” Well, if we stick to the founding texts, this relationship is determined, in the Bible, by a set of triangular relations between the priest, the king (who succeeds the judge), and the prophet. Then, after the exile and the destruction of the Temple, kingship is abolished, prophecy is interrupted, and the priests no longer officiate, so that the configuration from then on is as follows: on the one hand, there is the rabbi, the one who teaches the Mosaic law and judges the cases submitted to him, and on the other hand, the one whom the Talmud calls the “rech galuta,” the political leader of the community in exile. Now, while the “rech galuta” of each community, is in some way the offspring of a fallen political sovereignty, the rabbi, on the other hand, is not the offspring of a priesthood that fell with the destruction of the Temple, but the heir of the judge and the prophet. In this sense, in the Jewish tradition, the “theologico-political” question has been rendered obsolete since at least the Roman occupation of Judea. By this I mean that, for two thousand years, it has been a fundamentally non-Jewish question, or more precisely, a Christian question to some extent and an Islamic question to another. For in Judaism, the question posed since the exile and the destruction of the Temple is how can the Jews continue to escape from the religious, ideological, cultural, social, etc., hold of the theologico-political sovereignties under which they live? And as you know, until the “emancipation of the Jews”, the main answer to this question has been the thought practice of Mosaism. And the origin of this political and existential configuration is traditionally located when Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, in the first century of the Common Era, ceded political sovereignty over Judea to the Roman occupiers with one hand, while with the other hand he founded the Talmudic School of Yavne. 

AZ: How does the process of Jewish emancipation emerge in this process?

Then, eighteen centuries later, the so-called emancipation of the Jews took place, a process which combined advancements and setbacks—sometimes abysmal—from the French Revolution until the Second World War. It was in this new historical configuration that Zionism took root at the end of the nineteenth century. It initially involved two main tendencies, one being in favor of an emancipation that was both national and social, in the wake of the revolutionary movements (anarchists, socialists, communists), the other being in favor of an emancipation that was mainly or exclusively national. One can roughly say that the former dominated Zionism until the end of the 1970s, and that with the end of the socialist sequence and the advent of a so-called neoliberal hegemony, the latter has prevailed, so that today Zionism presents a face that is both neoliberal and nationalist or identity-based, and therefore can be described as a localized configuration of a global process. But its local dimension nevertheless retains certain particularities, especially in what concerns the “religious.” Indeed, the so-called religious political and social forces in Israel are mainly divided into two camps: on the one hand, there is religious orthodoxy, which claims to continue, within the State of Israel, the modus vivendi that prevailed in exile, and on the other hand, there is religious nationalism, which has been a minority until now, and which sees the creation of the State of Israel as a return to the biblical configuration, beyond the Talmud and its codification. However, these forces are not static. Things are changing before our eyes. It is clear, for example, that religious orthodoxy tends to politically join the nationalist bloc. But this is, in my view, a contingent development, mainly due to the fact that the Israeli left has, since the advent of neo-liberalism and the failure of Camp David, refounded itself on an anti-religious axiom. After all, the main concern of religious orthodoxy is to maintain its cultural and social autonomy, not to conquer the State. By contrast, the objective of religious nationalism is the conquest of the State. There is, therefore, in short, a secular Zionism which aspires to build a parliamentary democracy similar to the Euro-American model, but whose national substratum would be Jewish rather than French or Spanish; there is an a-Zionist religious orthodoxy, which aspires to pursue a way of life based on the thought practice of Mosaism as interpreted in the Middle Ages by the actors of the codification; and finally, there is a religious Zionism that is convinced that with the creation of the State of Israel, the Davidic kingship is possibly back, although it is not clear how its supporters intend to translate the biblical narrative into policy.

If I now return to the Western problematic of theologico-political, it appears that secular Zionism is the Jewish configuration, in the national sense of the term, of the emancipation of the political from the theological, but from a theological local strand which is therefore Christian: As soon as the State in the West freed itself from the Church, the Jews were able to emancipate themselves politically within the West, and on another level, with the creation of the State of Israel, they were able to emancipate themselves nationally. And as we know, the reason for this national emancipation, if not the necessity for it, is rooted in the fact that a nationalistic, even racial anti-Semitism succeeded religious anti-Judaism in Europe, or that religious anti-Judaism was transformed into anti-Semitism.

My aim is to synthetically expose some fundamental elements of a long history. But the way of articulating them remains, of course, open. I observe that Danny Trom, in a recent book, “Persévérance du fait juif” [Persistence of the Jewish fact] analyzes all this process in an original way, arguing that the creation of the State of Israel is not so much a product of Western modernity as the contemporary form of a Jewish conception of the State, the source of which is to be found in the Midrash, particularly in relation to the Book of Esther. According to this conception, the function of the State in exile is conceived as that of a “custodian” charged with ensuring the survival of the Jews, always threatened by the murderous impulses of a “rabble” whose anti-Jewish resentment would cross ages and places. The State of Israel being a “refuge” one, it would have assumed this function once the non-Jewish State had ceased to perform it. I am critical of the way in which Trom locates the anti-Jewish impulse in the “rabble” and not in the State itself, whereas it seems to me that historically and conceptually this impulse is composed of these two sides, since anti-Judaism is also a way of uniting, in hatred of the Jews, the dominant and the dominated classes. The strength of his thesis, however, is to show how the State of Israel prolongs an essentially exilic configuration of Jewish existence. And so, paradoxically, it is a thesis that profoundly illuminates the viewpoint of Jewish orthodoxy. Thus, Trom’s book can be said to deal with precisely the “theologico-political” question, but captured in its strict Jewish configuration.

Second part next week

Interview conducted by Avishag Zafrani


Translated from French by Bernard Dov Belz


Gérard Bensussan is a philosopher and professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg. He has taught throughout the world and is the author of some twenty books, including the recent “Miroirs dans la nuit. Lumières de Hegel” (Cerf, 2022). In spring 2023 he will publish “La transaction. Démocratie et philosophie” (PUF).

Ivan Segré is a philosopher; his work focuses on Judaism and classical and contemporary philosophy; he is the author of a dozen books including ” Judaism and Revolution ” (La Fabrique, 2014), ” Les Pingouins de l’universel. Antijudaïsme, antisémitisme, antisionisme” (Lignes, 2017) and “La Souveraineté adamique. Une mystique révolutionnaire” (Amsterdam, 2022). Since 2015, he has been a regular contributor to the alternative news website LundiMatin.


1 See Charles Mopsik’s critique of G. Scholem’s use of gnosis, “Observation sur l’œuvre de Gershom Scholem par Charles Mopsik et Eric Smilevitch” in Pardès, vol. 1, 1985, pp. 6-31, Upstream, Hans Jonas has shown the antinomy of Gnostic nihilism and Judaism, notably from the metaphysical anti-Semitism of ancient Gnosis.
2 Non-legislative teachings of the Jewish tradition, including tales, allegories and stories, as collected especially in the Talmud.
3 Ousia is a term of Greek origin meaning the substance or essence of a thing; Wesen is the German translation, and refers to an ontological tradition, the science of being, while Mahloqet is a Hebrew term translated as “debate” or contradictory discussion. The Aufhebung is the movement of overcoming, coming from the German verb Aufheben, typical in particular of the Hegelian dialectic.

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