“There where I live, there is my homeland”

On The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto

illustratie door Primo Gill
illustratie: Primo Gill

What is more Jewish than the figure of the Jewish heretic? Are we not named after someone who wrestled with the divine? Then why do we vilify and not celebrate those who doubt, resist, defy, and question? 

Perhaps because Jewish heretics tend to come in two deliciously forbidden flavors, the charlatan (Sabbati Tzvi) and the saint (Spinoza), and the authorities would have us believe that they are the same, or at least equally suspect. 

Both conversion and excommunication are already, it seems, the fate of Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic Culture and Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley, whose fearless and restless intellect has ranged across a vast range of Jewish studies, from psychoanalysis to sex and sexuality in the Talmud to Judaism in early Christianity.  

Ethical and practical status of Israel 

The general reader might not be aware that starting with the First Intifada, his doubts about the ethical and practical status of Israel and Zionism became an obsession. With The No-State Solution he has finally come out of the closet as a shomer shabbos anti-Zionist (though there are plenty of those from Brooklyn to Berkeley to Beersheva), and a supporter of the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel for crimes against the Palestinians. He even rejects the modern Hebrew place names like Hebron, even if they were in use long before Islam, Arabic, or the Palestinian people existed. Then again, when Avraham bought Machpelah to bury his wife, the Jewish people didn’t exist either. Ain’t history a bitch?

Early prominent Zionists never promoted the idea of a Jewish nation state that was a monocultural, sovereign, political entity

Daniel Boyarin, 1946, USA / Israel. Current position: Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley

Boyarin’s anti-Zionist manifesto revels in the shock of the obvious, or what should be obvious: Most of the early prominent Zionists, among them Ahad Ha’am and Theodor Herzl, never promoted the idea of a Jewish nation state that was a monocultural, sovereign, political entity. Even during the euphoric window between the founding of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that turned Israel into a murderous occupying force, long before the New Historicists uncovered the appalling facts of what the founding of Israel entailed – what the founding of any nation has always entailed – there were Jews who doubted the notion of a Jewish state, there or anywhere. 

Indeed, in some pockets of the Jewish world, ‘Zionism’ is a term of insult. Boyarin’s version of this position is considerably more principled: “How can we remain a nation and retain at the same time our absolute dedication to social justice for all?” Boyarin’s answer is: We can’t, not if we continue to define Israel and Jews, nations and religions, the way we have done for so long. 

Nation or a religion or neither?

The ‘Jewish Question’ in Europe for the past few centuries was “What are we to do with them?” Boyarin poses a new “Jewish Question,” one that cleverly uses an ungrammatical formulation: ”What is the Jews?”

If the answer in the past might have had something to do with the always problematic concept of race, which looks more and more like social science fiction, the answer today is another question: A nation or a religion? 

Babylonian homecoming

Redefining both requires rethinking the concept of diaspora, according to Boyarin. It’s a tall order, selling the Babylonian exile as a time and place of Jewish renewal, as opposed to loss and longing. It requires us to lean on a moment in the Talmud that argues that the Babylonian exile was effectively a homecoming, because Abraham originally came from somewhere in that direction. True, diaspora is not synonymous with exile, but etymology is not destiny. So too, it’s a stretch to say that the scattering of the Jews made them more safe because they couldn’t be targeted en masse. 

Has he forgotten that the Final Solution had global ambitions, that genocide doesn’t stop at national borders? Indeed, Boyarin at times seems tone-deaf to that history, as when he calls Israel “a final solution to the diaspora.” 

Heym as source of cultural and political vitality

Boyarin convincingly argues for “diaspora as foundational to the character of Jewish existence and a source of its cultural and political vitality,” but his claim that diaspora is not so much a tragic necessity as an essential condition for the thriving and surviving of Jews, that diaspora Jews are not the “un-Jews” of Natan Sharansky’s notorious formulation but the real Jews, doesn’t quite convince. And here a significant quibble with Boyarin’s otherwise formidable linguistic authority: The title page of this manifesto reproduces the old Bundist slogan Dort vo ikh leb; dort is mayn Heym, which he reproduces as “There where I live, there is my homeland.” Of course, heym means both “home” and “homeland.” It is, one suspects, less an error in translation than a bit of linguistic opportunism.  

Nationalism as the bitch’s bitch

It is hardly the job of Boyarin to make the case from scratch for rejecting the moral or practical validity of the concept of the nation and nationalism – that’s been done convincingly, by figures as varied as Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Tagore, Lenin, Orwell, and Benedict Anderson. Boyarin extends and post-modernizes their critique to see nations as inevitably exclusionary, toxic, and racist – in other words, human – but he does helpfully remind us that the term “nation” wasn’t always a political term, and doesn’t have to be. What’s good for the gandz is good for the bijea, though we never see Boyarin objecting to a Palestinian state. Perhaps the problem is not so much that the Palestinians will never achieve their full measure of justice in a Jewish state, but that no one will ever receive their full measure of justice in a thing called a nation. In other words, if history is a bitch, nationalism is a bitch’s bitch.  

Religion as a Christian phenomenon

Boyarin reminds us that “religion” has meant something different since Luther. Being connected to a belief or faith system, without reference to political, economic, and cultural or ethnic modes of identity and affiliation is an early-modern, European, Christian phenomenon, with no real correlate in Jewish tradition. There is of course no word in Biblical Hebrew for “religion.” This suggests that whatever ancient Jewish practices or beliefs we choose, they are contextually alien to what we know as modern Judaism. It is wrong-headed and wrong-hearted to see Judaism as just another “faith” – which is why it is so repugnant, at least to these ears, to speak of a Dutch-Jewish kerkgenootschap. The phrase makes Jews, in Franz Rosenzweig’s terms “guests at our own table.”

Fanatical Zionist Socialist

Boyarin himself was as a young man a fanatical Zionist Socialist, an impossible ideological beast if there ever was one. He seems to be attracted to such impossible beasts, including the “diaspora nation,” which is a non-sovereign and trans-territorial entity, one in which Jewish collectivity is not a matter of space-based but time-based rootedness. But we have to do more than simply point to the experience of the Kurds or the Roma or Americans of African descent (Boyarin’s comparison of Yiddishkeit and Negritude, demonstrating how the latter sought to participate in a “liberal” universalism without denying particularity, is most enlightening). We have to ask: Has it worked for them?

This is not, Boyarin makes clear, the old argument for cosmopolitanism, whose necessarily top-down form of universalism inevitably leads to assimilation, sacrificing Jewish particularity – embarrassing features like circumcision – into an unacceptable form of neoliberal “secularity.” But he indulges in the same kind of ethical demands and categorical imperatives that he finds so objectionable in cosmopolitans. Boyarin is troubled by the aporia, or intellectual dead end, that his conflicting love of Jewish particularity and justice for all left him in. But shifting into reverse isn’t the only way out of a dead end. 

Boyarin is troubled by his conflicting love of Jewish particularity and justice for all 

Franz Kafka famously – infamously – wrote that he admired Zionism and was appalled by it. And that’s where he left it, or where it left him. If The No-State Solution offers little to those who see Israel as the last safe place, if Boyarin rejects a Jewishness that is secular because it is private and individualistic as opposed to public and communal, if he answers fewer questions than he asks, it says less about the quality of a somehow non-exclusionary ahavat Yisrael that bursts forth from every page of this manifesto than his commitment to the “cultural hybridity [that] is the very life blood of Jewish learning.” 

Israel as the best of all impossible worlds

Diaspora as the best of all possible Jewish worlds? Better to say that Israel, whatever its flaws, perhaps even because of those flaws, is the best of all impossible worlds.

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

illustrations: books by Daniel Boyarin,

cover illustration by Primo Gill

Over Jonathan Gill 12 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

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