Two types of sovereignty: Zionism and Diaspora

There is an important conversation that is not happening about Zionism and the American Jewish community. It is a conversation that is as old as the Zionist enterprise itself. One of the central claims of political (as opposed to Messianic) Zionism is that the solution to the “Jewish question” is sovereignty. The Jewish community was a powerless and dependent community during its almost two thousand year sojourn in Exile and it was this powerlessness which left it vulnerable to the predations of the sovereigns of whatever country offered them a temporary home. Equally important was that this political dependence caused a cultural withering and produced a Jewish culture which was perverted by the influence of other more powerful cultures. A true Jewish culture could not take shape until the Jewish community had achieved sovereignty and shook off the chains of both political and cultural dependence. (Shades/foreshadowing of post-colonial theory.)

This argument had great resonance in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The civil and human rights of Jews in every country in the world were fragile, and the Holocaust seemed to be the final, awful expression of this untenable situation. The only way Jews would assume control over their own destiny was “to be a free people in our land.”

From where we are standing now, however, six plus decades after the end of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel, and after the civil rights movement and the ongoing enshrinement of religious and civil liberties in the United States, the discourse of sovereignty does not look the same. There are two ways in which sovereignty (either mamlakhtiyut or ribonut) can be understood. First is the sovereignty of ultimate power. (OED: “The position, rank, or power of a supreme ruler or monarch; royal authority or dominion.”) Translated to the Zionist argument this would be the claim that there is a need for Jewish power, Jewish control of all the levers of government and the judiciary. Only in this way is the future of the Jewish people guaranteed. This understanding of sovereignty demands a Jewish State with a Jewish prime minister, a Jewish legislative body, etc. That is, in some way, (or in every way) the polis must be Jewish.

A different understanding of sovereignty is participation in the governance of the country. (OED: Sovereignty is “the supreme controlling power in communities not under monarchical government; absolute and independent authority.”) This latter form of sovereignty does not require a Jewish supreme ruler, but rather the unfettered equal access of Jews to the levers of power and institutions of government—together with, though not subordinate to, other communities. In other words, what is necessary for this type of sovereignty is a working democracy in which (to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel) “some are guilty but all are responsible.”

This latter understanding of sovereignty should be the understanding of the Jewish community that has decided to reside in the Diaspora. In a democracy, the argument should go, the Jewish community has control over its destiny, not in an autonomous or separatist way, but in necessary collaboration with other communities. It is in this political process of dialogue, disagreement, compromise and collaboration that the country will flourish to the benefit of all the communities therein. This is then a Jewish return to sovereignty with others, in which the sovereignty of others is complementary to Jewish sovereignty. In other words, the existence of the Jewish community within the permeable boundaries of a working democracy.

10 thoughts on “Two types of sovereignty: Zionism and Diaspora

  1. Jews have been members of the british parliament since the 1840s, the foreign minister of the weimar republic was Jewish, political leaders in france have been jewish since the 1900s and of course the leadership of the russian revolution were heavily Jewish. Jewish access to the tools of sovereignity is not new…not to mention the court jews dating all the way from the middle ages to the shah in the non democratic world . As for Eric Cantor, Joe Lieberman and Chuck Schumer as representatives of some historically different relationship of jews to power with a flourishing debate as to how jews qua jews relate to power….I’ll take a pass on that one,
    Your aspirations are quite admirable the evidence to support your argument less convincing.
    kol tuv and keep writing

  2. What you say is true, but only partially so. There have always been court Jews (going back to the middle ages), but the community still lived at the pleasure of the sovereign. When there were Jews in the British Parliament, there were still many doors bolted before Jews (Oxford and Cambridge for example). Further, the status of Jews in Europe both East and West was a subject of debate. At most the Jewish community had an uneasy accomodation which every once in a while was destroyed by pogroms in Czarist Russia or the Dreyfuss afair, or the lynching of Leo Frank in the US. What is different now is that there is a situation where Jews as individuals and as a community (the latter being important) have greater access than ever before to power. Access does not mean that those who attain to power will be on the side of the angels (your examples of Cantor, Lieberman, Schumer and there are many others). Power corrupts. However, one can no longer claim that Jews are barred from power, or more to the power, that Jews don’t share in sovereignty.

  3. That blablabla is quite the same as the Messianic one…Crazy foolish Utopic, and this will happen when chicken get teeth…
    What is a Democracy as described here ? Ask Amerindians or a blacks from deep south, if it is working in the USA?
    When Jews don’t want a Homeland they can prepare themselves to fight with guns their last hours of life….Anywhere.

    • Actually, it seems to be the Jews with a sovereign “Homeland” that endlessly prepare themselves to fight with guns.

  4. I find your conception of sovereignty ironic, in that the Jewish community, by and large, is assimilating at a rapid rate. Sovereignty without a constituency, what’s the point?

  5. Pingback: Two types of sovereignty: Zionism and Diaspora | Jewschool

  6. A nice way of presenting the problem of Jewish (political) modernity and one that deserves better comments than it has received–and better than this one, I’m afraid. It might come down to the amidah’s blessing of Jewish difference, how we read the fact that we are not like the other nations of the world. One could argue that Jews fell into the trap of the 19th century–uneasily integrated into (or expelled from) the states of Europe, we figured that having our own would make things different. Jews have their own state and still have to protect themselves with guns in fortress Israel, so the 19th century dream that the nation-state would provide security is at best troubled and partial. And policies that that state has had to pursue might seem necessary to some, but are hard to defend ethically. You might not like Eric Cantor (and I don’t) but that doesn’t mean he is any worse than Netanyahu. Getting our own country has made us precisely like the other nations of the world and the Jewish culture that Israel has produced has not been as influential in the Diaspora as the Jewish culture that the Diaspora has produced. Truth is, the nation-state is an interestingly vulnerable construct–threatened from the inside by the internal divisions of religion, ethnicity and faction and rendered obsolete on the outside by the realities of global capital flows. My argument, I guess, is that the kind of Zionism that people propose as the essence of Jewish survival, is a 19th-century solution to what are 21st-century problems. I’m with Heschel.

  7. It’s an easy debate to have while a Jewish state exists. If there was no Jewish state, I don’t think this conversation would be happening. I can live in America because Israel exists.

    Ask the Kurds or the Czechs and Slovaks if having a state is 19th century solution to 21st century problems. It is the multi-national corporations that are currently doing the most damage to the state.

    • So you/we can live in America b/c Israel exists? Sorry, but all my family came over to this country between 1867-1917. If Israel never existed, ALL of my family would be in America and I could live here. Israel plays no part in Jews being able to live in America but America and the influence of American Jews play a part in Jews being able to live there currently.

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