What’s the Solution for Jews and Palestine in the Face of Apartheid Zionism?

21 August, 2023
Conductor and writer Jonathan Ofir reviews the latest book by Daniel Boyarin on Jewish identity, and asks how Jews can have their identity and meanwhile “free Palestine from the Zionist assault on its indigenous population.”


The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto, by Daniel Boyarin
Yale University Press 2023
ISBN 9780300251289


Jonathan Ofir


Daniel Boyarin’s newest book, The No-State Solution, is quite the departure from his usual work. A well-known historian of Judaism and early Christianity, Boyarin has written a “Jewish manifesto” — as his book’s subtitle puts it — for Jews today. He very much seeks to encourage “continued Jewish existence” and “vitality,” but not within the framework of a Jewish nation-state.

Long known for his criticism of Israel, Boyarin recounts how and why he turned against the Jewish state, which he had embraced in his teen years. Given that, in today’s world, a majority of Jews consider Zionism — Jewish-state-nationalism — a major element of Jewish identity, this component of Boyarin’s manifesto is somewhat radical. Yet the author does not argue that those Jews who consider themselves a nation are incorrect. If anything, he wants to strengthen the belief in Jewish nationhood at the expense of the sometimes-competing claim that Jews are members of a religion.

The No-State Solution is published by Yale.

For Boyarin, nationhood — and not religion — should be the uniting element among otherwise disparate Jews. This is for historical reasons as well as the fact that the nation is more inclusive than faith. In the chapter “The New Jewish Question,” he argues that “the name religion seems not to entail any particular historical, linguistic, or cultural indices or identifications, but rather a set of beliefs and practices conditioned by those beliefs.” As we shall see, Boyarin considers nationhood much more capacious.

Crucially, however, he wishes to sever Jewish nationhood from what many would consider its logical outcome: a nation-state. For Boyarin, the Jews are a diasporic and scattered nation, and should perceive themselves as such. Paradoxically, however, the Jewish relationship to a land is very strong in his conceptualization, and very romantic. “The name ‘nation,’” he writes, “seems to imply a shared history, material culture, language and literature, and, above all else, sovereignty, a land to call one’s own, whether existing now or merely aspired to and longed for.” Thus, the land aspect is central to Boyarin’s belief in the “Jewish nation,” even if he does not give it a practical application as an exclusive Jewish nation-state.

The idea of Jews as a nation without a specific state — let alone a Jewish one — is not new; it was the essence of the Bund, a Jewish socialist movement in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia that existed from the end of the 19th century until its near-total eradication in the Nazi Holocaust. The Bund’s central motto appears in a Yiddish-language poster reproduced on one of the first pages of Boyarin’s book. It reads: “Where we live — that is our homeland.” This is known as Doikayt, or “here and now.” It is clearly a strong inspiration to Boyarin, although he seeks new ways to apply it in today’s world.

Boyarin is also inspired by another aspect of the Bund and its cultural milieu: Yiddish, the Hebrew-influenced German language that, in its heyday, was spoken by millions of Russian and Eastern European Jews. The author pointedly reminds readers that “Yiddish” means “Jewish” — including the many who immigrated to the United States. Analyzing the Yiddish-language poem “May Ko mashme-lon” by Avrom Reyzen over some six pages, Boyarin shows how the title phrase is borrowed from the (Aramaic-language) Talmud and put to use in modern poetry. The author cites this as “an excellent example in literary form of what Sarah Bunin Benor calls ‘the transfer of Hebrew and Aramaic loanwords from rabbinic texts to the study of those texts and then to everyday speech.’” For Boyarin, the poem is an exercise in modernization and new practical application, and also a “stand against nostalgia, idealization, and romanticization.”

I feel, though, that it is precisely such nostalgia, idealization, and romanticization that animate Boyarin’s advocacy for a particular kind of Jewish belonging. And, speaking of the Talmud, the author’s entire argument concerning Jewish identity is, to me, too “Talmudic” for its own good. Sometimes it is so convoluted and hermetic that it comes across as little more than navel-gazing. Consider this passage:

I have striven to recover here some measure — problematic and partial as it will be — of knowledge of Jews, not “Jews,” of some historical possibilities for the ways that Jews have lived their collective lives and imagined them and some future historical possibilities for the continuation of the Jews, not “the Jews” or “the jews,” but the Jews.

Well, this Jew (me) has read the above passage several times and failed to grasp it. It’s just too intricate.

Nevertheless, it is instructive to compare Boyarin’s take on Jewish identity with that of historian Shlomo Sand in his book The Invention of the Jewish People. For Sand, Judaism is an ancient religion that continues to exist today, whereas the idea of a “Jewish people” (or nation) is a modern invention, one that revives ancient tribal concepts of “peoplehood” in order to justify the creation of the self-declared Jewish nation-state — Israel. Boyarin, on the other hand, forcefully rejects the idea that “Jews are a religion,” so much so that one of his early chapters is titled “Bad Faith: Why the Jews Aren’t a Religion.” He claims that religion is a concept formed by the Enlightenment, and thus both newfangled and Western. As a result, for Boyarin, “it becomes very difficult to imagine how a Jewish religion could possibly exist as such before any religion did.”

This argument strikes me as unconvincing. First, its main ideological frame is Jewish nationhood, even though the concept of a nation is, as Sand and countless historians have shown, itself a product of modernity. Second, if Judaism cannot rightfully be regarded as a religion because the latter is a recent construct, hardly any religion could be called such. Finally, Boyarin’s rejection of Judaism as a religion is rather muddled, if not outright self-contradictory. For example, his definition of a Jew as someone born of a Jewish mother is derived from Halacha, or Jewish law; it is a religious belief.

Boyarin’s attachment to Jewish law does not end there. Consider, for example, his wading into the increasingly charged subject of male circumcision, and his tendentious characterization of those who wish to place restrictions on the practice. This occurs in the subchapter “‘Freedom of Religion’ and the Offense of Circumcision” — note Boyarin’s mockery of the concept of freedom of religion in his use of quotation marks around the term.

Boyarin’s main argument for circumcision consists of rebuffing those arguments against it as undue interventions. He cites the example of a court in Cologne, Germany that banned involuntary circumcision, and claims that its decision was informed by the idea that “by circumcising the child, he is allegedly prevented from choosing to be or to become a Christian or an unbeliever when he grows up.” As though that weren’t enough, he resorts to outright hyperbole:

That is, according to the Cologne court — explicitly — the wicked Jewish parents of their male infant are allegedly depriving this monad individual of his freedom to choose freely to believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection because, after all, this poor child has been circumcised — as Jesus and Paul both were.

Boyarin is suggesting that the court is motivated by Christian anti-Semitism. This is quite an outrageous exaggeration. The court based its ruling not on allowing the child to choose Christianity, but to choose in general, including whether to have his foreskin cut off once he is older and capable of making an informed decision. “This change,” the court stated, referring to circumcision, “contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs.”

The freedom to choose is important, and I think all Jews as well as others who practice ritual circumcision should ponder it in good faith. For Boyarin, however, Judaism is not a choice. “There’s no way to stop being Jewish, no escape from Jewishness. No one born Jewish is given a choice not to be Jewish.” And in Boyarin’s book, if you’re a male, being born Jewish has to come with circumcision.

Perhaps The No-State Solution’s strongest suit is its general stance against Zionism as manifested today in a Jewish nation-state. Boyarin, who was born in 1946, recounts his upbringing as a teenager in a “Zionist socialist group” that gave him a deep and thrilling absorption in Jewish history and culture, together with a passionate desire that they continue, and an equal enthrallment with the idea of social justice for everyone. Support for Israel was very much part of the package. Despite certain reservations, Boyarin clung to Zionism well into his 40s. He received a rude awakening when, during the First Intifada (1987-1993), news reports circulated that Israel’s then-defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had stated that “the breaking of the arms and legs of children throwing stones was necessary to preserve the state.” That’s when Boyarin decided he had had enough of Israel and its founding ideology.

Today, and in this book, the author claims that Zionism wasn’t at first conceived of as necessarily resulting in a nation-state such as Israel, not even by the movement’s founder, Theodor Herzl. He maintains that the early Zionists saw in their minds a kind of Jewish autonomy that didn’t have to lead to an exclusivist nation-state or discrimination against Palestinian Arabs or anyone else. (He doesn’t cite Herzl’s favored solution to the presence of Palestinians, which was to “spirit the penniless population across the border”). But Zionism became what it became, and Boyarin sees the rot. He advocates creating a future beyond Zionism by re-forging a national Jewish awareness that is diasporic in nature — even, seemingly, for Jews in Israel/Palestine, who would be part of the diaspora. In this context, Boyarin returns to the Doikayt concept, stating, “Doikayt signals or indexes another vital moment: stewardship of the land, not the Land of Israel (although that too), but the planet.”

Intriguingly, though he maintains that Jews (or Judaism) are not a religion, he never once mentions a major, and very famous, antithesis to his claim of Jewish nationhood. I’m referring to “The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government,” a memorandum issued by Edwin Montagu in response to the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised the Jews of the world a “national home” in Palestine. Montagu, the British government’s Secretary of State for India at the time, and a Jew himself, vehemently disputed the notion that Jews are a nation:

I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries — through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.

Montagu went further. He provided sound reasoning as to why endorsing Zionism could be dangerous. “When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home,” he maintained, “every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country.”

The first scenario Montagu envisaged (worldwide pressure on Jews to leave their countries for the Jewish homeland or state) occurred only in some extreme scenarios, such as the Nazi-Zionist Transfer Agreement of 1933 and the 1950 collaboration between the Iraqi government and newly created Israel, but the second is an accurate description of what is happening today. Israel operates an Apartheid regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, as the prominent Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem articulated it a couple of years ago. Several international human rights organizations have independently reached the same conclusion. Victimization of Palestinians is by far the main problem with Zionism. Secondarily, this victimization is a problem for those Jews who are Zionists — although many of them seem to fail to see it — as they have turned themselves into aggressive supremacist colonizers, or enablers of colonization, in the name of their religion or perceived ethnicity (or both).

Is a redefinition of the term nation or nationhood, at least as it pertains to Jews, the solution? Personally, I have argued elsewhere that the “Jewish nation” is the main myth of Zionism that needs to be refuted. Israel applies the “Jewish nation” idea in an extremely discriminatory way. It even reaches the almost unfathomable level of there being no recognized Israeli nationality as far as Israel is concerned. As made clear by the Jewish Nation-State Basic Law of 2018 (Israel does not have a constitution and its Basic Laws are quasi-constitutional), this is so that Israel may remain the nation-state of the “Jewish people” — and theirs alone.

I understand that it is not wise to be merely reactive and negate the idea of a Jewish nation just because Israel applies it in such a discriminatory way. Also, I recognize that the millions of people of Jewish origin in Israel/Palestine — whether religious, moderately observant, or atheist — can be said to have forged a Hebrew-speaking nation with its own ethos. But it is not a Jewish nation, if not simply because its members are not all believers, and also because it does not include all the Jews of the world. Finally, I am convinced that the way forward is for us to see Jewish identity for what it is: a religious faith revolving around Judaism. Like other religions, Judaism can have its place in any and all parts of the world, including Israel/Palestine.

Boyarin has not convinced me that Jews, with whatever kind of attachment they have to terms such as Jews and Judaism, deserve another kind of definition for their identity. Before we discuss how Jews define themselves, we must discuss how to free Palestine from the Zionist assault on its indigenous population. Until then, I am wary of Jews putting even more focus upon their own collectivity and discussing whether they should be considered Jews, “Jews,” “jews,” or The Jews.


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