Diaspora, Zionism, and the No-State Solution
Daniel B. Schwartz reviews Daniel Boyarin
Daniel Boyarin has made a career out of denaturalizing concepts like Judaism and religion. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that this distinguished scholar of Talmud and early rabbinic Judaism and Christianity is hard to pigeonhole. A quintessential diasporic Jewish thinker sharply critical of cosmopolitanism; a proponent of Jewish cultural and ethnic particularism staunchly opposed to Zionism; an anti-racist advocate of genealogy as a basis for Jewish identity; a profoundly unorthodox Orthodox Jew—Boyarin defies the assumed order of things. Like many of the subjects of his scholarship, he is an inveterate border crosser.
In his latest book, The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto, Boyarin mostly rehashes arguments about diaspora, Zionism, and Judaism (a term he purposely avoids) that he has been making for the better part of thirty years. There is, however, a new wrinkle. Boyarin comes out in this volume for the first time as a Jewish nationalist. Not as a Zionist, to be sure—he remains as implacable in his hostility to the idea of a Jewish nation-state as ever—but as a champion of the “Diaspora Nation” and of “its foundational import as a defining character of Jewish existence, as well as…its cultural and political vitality.” According to Boyarin, even this is a step too far for many on the left. “My insistence on using the word ‘nation’,” he writes, “puzzles—and even repels—many of my associates, colleagues, and friends and very likely many of you, my readers, as well …. No wonder my friends and relations are, almost to a person, appalled by my vaunting of a nationalism, any nationalism.” Boyarin nevertheless believes the term can be purged of its chauvinist connotations and wrested from those who reflexively link nationalism with the nation-state. His goal is “to save the nation by demonstrating the continued vitality (creative energies) and utility (force for good) of this term in thinking about human collective lives.”
Review of Daniel Boyarin, The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023). pp.200 $30 (hardback)
Despite the title, Boyarin devotes little space to fleshing out his vision of a “no-state solution.” The title he claims to have initially proposed—What Is the Jews?—bespeaks the book’s primary aim of understanding “Jewishness,” or such cognate terms as Yiddishkayt (Yiddish), Judéité (French), and Judezmo (Ladino). He disputes the labeling of “Judaism” as a “religion.” Especially in modern usage, the term “religion” is beholden to Protestant conceptions of a “faith” that is “disembedded from other forms of belonging, identity, and practice” (ix). Jewishness is not a set of freely chosen beliefs; it is a thick web of genealogical links, kinship relations, bodily practices, and communal “doings” into which Jews “are thrown” from birth—a “thrownness” epitomized in circumcision, “the powerful symbolic marker of that existential givenness.” In short, Boyarin contends, “We are Jews owing to the fact that we are a family. And you don’t choose your family, nor are you part of it owing to its particular character, for better or worse”. Boyarin denies that this “familial” model of Jewishness—and the metaphor of “blood” that thinkers from the medieval Spanish rabbi Judah Ha-Levi to the twentieth-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig have invoked to illustrate it—bears any traces of racism. “Insistence on family intimacy and shared interest,” he avers, “does not imply anything essentialistic about the particular family, just that it is a family, and certainly not that it is superior in essence to all other families”).
Boyarin has developed this view of Jewishness across several articles and books, including Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993), Powers of Diaspora (2002, co-written with his brother Jonathan), and Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion (2018). It is not the genealogical concept itself that is new, but his use of the term “nation” to designate it. The decision seems to emanate more from a process of elimination than a genuine affirmation of nationalism per se. If the question “what is the Jews?” is usually reduced to options such as “religion,” “race,” “people,” or “nation,” then Boyarin, with caveats, regards the last as the best. “What, then,” Boyarin asks, “shall we call a collective that shares language forms, historical memories, ancient and modern literatures, practices of time and space, stories and customs? I believe that such a human grouping is best called a ‘nation’….”. Or, as he states a few lines later, in what hardly reads like a ringing endorsement, “I can think of nothing but ‘nation.’”
Yet this definition works only so long as the idea of the Jewish “nation” is de-territorialized. “The idea of a Jewish state,” Boyarin continues to insist, “altogether appalls me.” It is not simply genealogy, but just as importantly “diaspora” that is the ground of Jewishness. On one hand, the Jewish “Diaspora Nation” is a perennial thorn in a cosmopolitan outlook that, in celebrating the transcendence of ethnic and national solidarities, bears traces of Pauline universalism (“There is neither Jew nor Greek…in Christ Jesus”) and Christian supersessionism. On the other hand, it avoids the xenophobia and egocentrism of state-based nationalism. Finding common ground with a range of postcolonial thinkers who have also rejected the homogenizing logic of Western European thought, Boyarin cites the Martiniquan writer and politician Aimé Césaire’s statement, “I’m not going to confine myself to some narrow particularism. But I do not intend either to become lost in a disembodied universalism.” Diasporism entails “taking care of your nation and working hard at some aspects(s) of its continuing cultural vitality and at the same time taking care of and with your neighbors in the here and now (especially oppressed neighbors) and striving for the productive and just life for both collectives.” It functions as a kind of “third way” that resists both the dissolution and the calcification of difference.
The title “no-state solution” is apt to mislead. Boyarin is not so far as I can tell an anarchist. He opposes not the state as such but the existence of a Jewish state, including a Jewish state within the 1949 armistice borders. The “no-state solution” is specifically a rejection of the ethnonational Jewish state as an answer to the so-called Jewish Question. In fact, Boyarin appears to favor a one-state model rooted in binationalism, wherein both Jews and Palestinian Arabs would enjoy substantial cultural autonomy and perhaps some measure of power-sharing. But the details of how this would play out in practice are incredibly sparse. Such particulars may be tangential to Boyarin’s chief aim of identifying “Diaspora Nation” as the answer to the question, “what is the Jews?” Yet the dodging of them is symptomatic of what Boyarin and many of the new Jewish diasporists lack—namely, a cogent and coherent vision of how, amidst the assimilatory pressures of modern society, a diaspora Jewish nationalism is to be strengthened and sustained.
In the preface, Boyarin states that he will be “offering, explaining, and defending a newish proposition…that the Jews are a diaspora nation.” There is nothing “newish,” let alone new, about this claim. Though marginalized in the wake of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, Diaspora Jewish nationalism is nearly as old as Zionism and has a long and diverse history. With reservations about Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state on the rise since the turn of the millennium, scholarly as well as lay interest in Diaspora Jewish nationalism has soared, and Boyarin is hardly the first to rediscover it. Today, one can even read selected texts from this important strand of Jewish thought in an anthology, edited by Simon Rabinovitch, entitled Jews and Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe & the United States. None of the excerpted thinkers in this volume—from the Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, generally regarded as the founder of Diaspora Jewish nationalism, to other leading figures in this tradition such as Chaim Zhitlowsky, Vladimir Medem, and Mordecai Kaplan—merit so much as a footnote in Boyarin’s book.
Boyarin is undoubtedly aware of this history. Perhaps its near complete omission (minus a few stray references to the Yiddish socialist Bund, the most influential of all Diaspora Jewish nationalist parties) stems from the fact the book purports to be a “manifesto” and not any kind of tracing of the concept of a Jewish “Diaspora Nation.” But its elision is nonetheless problematic. At its inception, Diaspora Jewish nationalism was a form of modern Jewish politics. Drawing on the ideas of contemporary social theorists (e.g., the Austro-Marxist school) who sought to distinguish between state and nationality and to permit non-territorial autonomy to the myriad nationalities within multinational states and empires, Dubnov propounded a Jewish “autonomism” where Jews would possess national minority rights in addition to complete civic equality in the states where they lived. Dubnov famously anchored his vision of the “Diaspora Nation” in the corporatist legacy of pre-emancipation Jewish communal self-government (or the kahal). The “autonomous community,” Dubnov argued, was “a token (surrogate) for the state, a miniature state.” A modern, secular, and democratic version of the kahal could assure the perpetuation of Jewish nationality while avoiding the intellectual and physical closure (not to mention the seemingly unrealistic utopia) of a separate Jewish territorial homeland.
At moments, Boyarin intimates that his concept of the Diaspora Nation is likewise political. “I am thinking,” he writes, “of an autonomy that allows for a collective to retain its collective existence, identity, representations, and practices (not, to be sure, with no limits) within a context of sovereignty shared by others”. Yet there is next to no discussion of this political dimension. In place of the real if permeable borders of the semi-autonomous Jewish community, Boyarin offers the Talmud as a template for the “Diaspora Nation”—an idea explored at considerably greater length in his earlier book A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora (2015). The Talmud, he claims, has not only provided dispersed Jewish communities with “shared narratives, forms of speech and writing, practices, proverbs, and the like.” From the singsong cadence of Talmud study to its answer-a-question-with-another-question idiom, it has created the very “music of Jewish existence, the lullaby of Jewland.”
The exposition of the “melodies and rhythms” of the Talmud (“Jewish jazz”) and their role in shaping Jewish culture showcases Boyarin at his virtuosic best. But as a model for a diaspora nationalism that might serve as a serious counterweight to Zionism and Jewish statehood it is lacking. Early in his book, Boyarin explains that he is “interested…in ‘real Jews,’ Jews who live and breathe, eat and make love and get pregnant (or don’t), get sick and die and, on the way, behave in various ways: singing, dancing, writing books, reading books, speaking quaint languages, and arguing constantly”. The main problem with Boyarin and other contemporary Jewish diasporic thinkers like him is their failure to deal with the reality that many of these “real Jews”—at this point, quite possibly a plurality of world Jewry—value the kind of immersive membership in a Jewish collective that living in a Jewish state affords and that, in all frankness, is more difficult to achieve outside its borders. Any serious diasporic critique of Zionism, however legitimate its ethical criticisms of ethnonational states, must reckon with this fact. The old Jewish diaspora nationalists understood this desire for a robust sense of belonging and proposed a serious, if ultimately doomed alternative. Boyarin and his fellow Jewish diasporists have yet to do so.
Daniel B. Schwartz specializes in modern European and American Jewish intellectual, cultural, and urban history. He is the author of Ghetto: The History of a Word, which traces the various and contested meanings of the word "ghetto" from sixteenth-century Venice to the present. His other books include Spinoza's Challenge to Jewish Thought: Writings on His Life, Philosophy, and Legacy and The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, which was co-winner of the 2012 American Academy for Jewish Research's Salo W. Baron Prize for best first book in Jewish studies and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in history. He is currently working on a history of the modern Jewish intellectual in Europe and the United States as a social and cultural type, from the Dreyfus Affair in France at the turn of the nineteenth century to the present.