On November 14, a Ramallah-based research institute call-ed the Arab World for Research and Development released the first reliable survey of Palestinian public opinion in the aftermath of the October 7 massacre. The poll found that 75 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were either “extremely supportive” (59.3 percent) or “somewhat supportive” (15.7 percent) of Hamas’s attack. The poll also found vanishingly little support for peace deals of any kind: 5.4 percent of Palestinian Arabs expressed support for “one state for two peoples,” 17.2 percent backed “two states for two peoples,” while a 74.7 percent majority advocated the creation of a single “Palestinian state from the river to the sea.”

Coincidentally, November 14 also marked the release of the most recent book by Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Harvard Divinity School. In this new collection of essays, The Necessity of Exile, Magid passionately makes the case for rejecting Zionism and any other form of Jewish self-sovereignty. In place of the essentially “illiberal,” “unjust,” and “exhausted” Zionism, The Necessity of Exile invites readers to “reconceive Jewish national and collective identity in a new exilic mode.”

Arriving in the immediate wake of the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, there is a strong temptation to dismiss Magid’s self-described “counter-Zionist” manifesto out of hand. Not only the shocking scale of recent Palestinian violence, but the widespread support for such terrorism—among the Palestinian public and, indeed, among anti-Semites around the world—would suggest to many, if not most, Jews under threat that Zionism has manifestly not “outlived its purpose,” as Magid contends.

However preposterous Magid’s position may seem, it is being taken seriously by Jewish intellectual and media elites. The Necessity of Exile has been positively reviewed by the Forward and Haaretz. It has received praise from liberal academics and American-Jewish thought leaders, including (need I even say it) Peter Beinart. It was the focus of a recent New York Times feature on the rise of progressive, anti-Zionist Jewish politics. In short, Magid’s popularity warrants a serious engagement with his argument alongside a firm, public refutation.

While the question of the Jewish relationship to the Jewish state ostensibly stands at the center of The Necessity of Exile, Magid spends curiously little time spelling out the practical ramifications of his counter-Zionist project for Israel. Only very briefly, in the book’s introduction, does he touch on his actual political proposal. Here, by way of preface, he “fully acknowledge[s] the land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people,” but at the same time, he grounds his objection to Zionism in the movement’s inability to “fully acknowledge the legitimacy of the right to determination for the Palestinian people” within that same land. Thus, Magid outlines his radical plan for Israel’s political future:

To say it plainly, while I am not against the State of Israel, I am not in favor of it functioning as an exclusively “Jewish” state. I am in favor of Israel (or whatever [more representative] name it may choose to adopt) becoming a liberal democracy, a “state of all its citizens” on the land Jews and Palestinians call home.… The state’s character would be both Jewish and Palestinian. It would not be structured on the notion that this land “belongs” to anyone.… It would be the country of all the people who live there, equally.

Nearly identical proposals have existed in some form since 1925, when Jewish members of Brit Shalom began to advocate a binational state in Mandatory Palestine. Magid’s new work adds very little to these earlier proposals and makes absolutely no effort to address, or even acknowledge, the many concerns that have prevented binationalism from gaining mainstream support in the century since it was first suggested. For example, one might ask: Even if the Jews did agree to surrender their nation-state, how could they share sovereignty with a neighboring population that is overwhelmingly opposed to any binational compromise? Similarly, given the long history of broad Palestinian support for anti-Jewish violence, what guarantee would the country’s Jews have for their safety the day after they ceded control of the Israeli state and military?

Magid feels no need to respond to any of these predictable objections to his visionary plan for peace. “As I see it today, there are no viable equitable solutions,” he writes, so “the question of such an idea’s viability at present is not my concern.” He admits that “noble efforts sometimes lead to noble failures,” but such is the risk he is prepared to take. This is perhaps an unsurprising tone for a book that was, in its author’s words, “born on a warm erev Shabbat (Friday afternoon) on the back deck of a house in Seaview, Fire Island, during the summer of 2019.” But it might come as a shock to Israeli readers of the present day, tens of thousands of whom are unable to return to their homes as a result of ongoing Arab terrorism. Indeed, Magid’s flippant disregard for the “question of viability” will strike many of his Jewish readers as a baffling, even damning omission.

Ultimately, the reason The Necessity of Exile so blithely ignores the practical (and almost certainly disastrous) consequences of Magid’s counter-Zionism for Israeli Jews is that the book is not really about Israel. His focus is not on the modern Jewish state per se but on modern Jewish identity. His implicit argument is that until Jewish self-understanding is improved, there is nothing that can meaningfully be done about the moral disaster that is embodied by the very existence of a Jewish state. In other words, Magid’s immediate project is not to end Jewish sovereignty, but to change the Jewish people’s identity by emphasizing the glories of exile over an identity rooted in the quest for or preservation of Jewish power.

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To understand the scope of Magid’s radical project, we must begin by unpacking how he understands the historic role of “exile.” In Magid’s account, rabbinic Judaism’s essence was not realized until the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 c.e., after which, he writes, “the rabbinic sages reconceived the biblical covenant by radically reconceptualizing it, placing exile at its center.” Thus, it was only in the loss of Jewish sovereignty, along with the subsequent dispersion of the Jews, that Judaism properly came into being.

For nearly 2,000 years, Jews lived exclusively in this exilic mode, wandering about the globe as strangers in strange lands. And then this mode of Jewish existence was displaced, as certain Jewish movements began to aspire toward new Jewish identities rooted in the conscious rejection or overcoming of exile. For Magid, the most prominent example of such an ideology is Zionism, a movement that he rightly asserts is grounded in shlilat ha-galut—the negation of exile. He writes that it “shaped Zionist-Israeli culture from its foundation, creating a national archetype that was in stark opposition to a particular image of the diasporic Jews—persecuted, apolitical, pale, and sickly.” For early Zionists, Magid observes, the project of national restoration was not merely a return to the land or a restoration of sovereignty, but a return to physical and spiritual health and wholeness. It would be the undoing of the psychological damage wrought by the loss of Jewish power in 70 c.e. and especially by the Jewish people’s gradual acceptance of the condition of powerlessness in the millennia that followed.

Notably, Magid argues that Zionism’s negation of exile was mirrored by a similar, though non-Zionist movement in America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. While the “diasporists” in America rejected Zionism for various reasons, they did so on the grounds that they had no need for the negation of the exile. If exile was American exile, it was just fine. The Jewish people could live here with unprecedented security, freedom, and prosperity. Magid elaborates:

In this way, what Zionists, anti-Zionists, and diasporists [of the 20th century] all shared was a rejection of “exile” as an operative category in Jewish existence, as it had been for nearly the last two millennia.… The Zionists generally believed exile had ended with the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and thus they believed that aliyah (Jewish immigration to the land) was necessary for all Jews. Diasporists believed exile had ended with the rise of American democracy, which protected the rights of Jews as citizens and as a religious community, which meant that Jews could now live safely in the diaspora—golah [Diaspora], but not galut, exile.

Stunningly, Magid uses as a positive example of Jewish identity the views of ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, according to which “Jews were [and are] still living under the umbrella of the ‘decree of exile’” that began with the destruction of the Temple. Disregarding the aspirations of the Zionists and other modernists, Magid explains, these ultra-Orthodox Jews remain unwaveringly devoted to the ancient belief that the Jewish covenant is “predicated on exile.”

Don’t think for a second, however, that Magid is a supporter of this or any other form of extreme theological conservatism. His case for the return to exile isn’t that it is God’s will but rather that it is spiritually and morally superior to other forms of Jewish life. In his final chapter, Magid approvingly summarizing the position of Isaac Bashevis Singer by arguing that “Jews and Judaism are what they are, in all their beauty, because of exile.” Only when the Jews were freed from the shackles of worldly power and politics, he posits, could they ascend to unparalleled spiritual heights. Why, Magid asks his readers, should the Jews give up such spiritual potency for the sake of worldly gain?

What’s more, Magid adds, this worldliness almost invariably corrupts Jewish values and threatens the Jewish people’s most essential mission as a “light unto the nations.” Here, Magid cites the thought of the largely unknown pacifist rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares in advancing the claim that the Jews’ unique identity is bound up in “living in exile and thus outside the political realm that invariably leads to violence.” The fact that, for nearly 2,000 years, the Jews “were the victims of power and not the perpetrators of power” is essential to this argument. For, “according to Tamares, it is precisely the prophetic ethos mixed with the experience of exile and marginalization from power that enables Judaism to fulfill its destiny” as an instructive model of nonviolent civilization. Jews are good because power is violent and nonviolence is the highest good.

Magid devotes very little attention to why the Jewish people would have abandoned their anti-Zionist posture in the first place, given how gloriously moral and spiritual it was. The closest he gets comes in a chapter titled “On Jews, UnJews, and Anti-Jews.” Here, rather unconvincingly, Magid lays the blame for this historic shift at the feet of “Zionist policing,” “Zionist gatekeepers,” “Zionist enforcers,” and “Zionist hegemonists”—all of whom successfully quashed the many non-Zionist, pro-exilic Jewish voices of the past.

At no point, unfortunately, is it ever explained how the “Zionist enforcers” came to have so much authority among the Jewish public. Magid does not examine or even entertain the possibility that Jewry’s rejection of exilic powerlessness may have been an organic response to the waves of violent anti-Semitism that ravaged the Jewish people during the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor does Magid consider the astounding success of Jewish politics and power—during that very same period—in providing safe shelter to many millions of Jews from all over the world who were fleeing such violence.

Magid’s lack of interest in these alternative, eminently plausible explanations for the shift in the Jewish relationship to exile is particularly appalling in light of his own reading of recent Jewish history. In one chapter, for example, Magid takes up the question: “Are the Jews an oppressed people today?” He concludes that, at least in the U.S. and Israel, they are not. There is quite a bit off about his analysis, but here it is merely worth noting the puzzling amount of success that Magid attributes to the very movements he spends the rest of the book deriding. On the one hand, he explicitly argues that the anti-exilic diasporists and Zionists have succeeded in effectively ending centuries of violent anti-Semitic oppression. But then, immediately, he returns to his passionate advocacy for a return to exile and powerlessness. This isn’t just a contradiction. It’s a giant, glaring abyss.

Ultimately, as with his counter-Zionist vision for the State of Israel, the problem with Magid’s case for exile is that it comes from a position of enormous and reality-distorting privilege. It’s easy to idolize powerlessness when, like Magid and most modern Western progressives, you have no fear of having to endure its consequences. More than easy, it is seductive. Insofar as chosen powerlessness is the surrender of agency, it is also a renunciation of responsibility—and, therefore, a way to avoid committing any sin or suffering any guilt. When you’re confident that you’ll be looked after, why risk getting your hands dirty?

The intellectual crime at the heart of The Necessity of Exile is its refusal to acknowledge that recent generations of Jews have not had the luxury of adopting such a posture. The Jews who fled the pogroms of Europe, only to be met with equally brutal violence in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat in the 1920s, did not have the blessing of American upper-middle-class bohemian liberty. Neither did the Jews who fled the anti-Semitic oppression of the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia, and the Soviet Bloc in the second half of the 20th century. Jewish politics and power may be too messy for Magid’s taste, but it is intellectually and morally unserious not to acknowledge either the many millions of Jewish lives that have been lost because of exilic powerlessness or the millions who have found shelter from oppression in the very places where Jews have done the most to overcome it.

But engaging his argument in this way does him too much credit. Magid’s argument for exilic essentialism fails because of objections and counter examples so obvious that a bar mitzvah boy could spot them. How can it be that the covenant is predicated on exile when the covenant itself was forged as the Israelites were being led out of exile and into the Land of Israel? How can we square the exilic ideals of powerlessness and passivity with the Jewish tradition’s high regard for biblical warriors such as Joshua and King David? Do we not annually celebrate the Hasmonean military victory against the Greeks—and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty—during Hanukkah? Did the great rabbinic sage Rabbi Akiva not endorse Bar Kochba’s revolt against the Romans 250 years later? Did the towering Medieval commentator and mystic Nachmanides not argue that restoring Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel was a timeless religious obligation?

In refusing to engage with any of the many Jewish texts, rituals, and personalities that strongly resist his analysis, Magid becomes guilty of the very crime of which he accuses his Zionist opponents: flattening and distorting Jewish history and experience in a transparent effort to present a favored ideology as the only authentic expression of Jewishness. His book is a scandal.

Photo: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

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