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Being in exile from oneself

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I found myself, this Yom Kippur, reflecting on the exilic condition. With the rift between the State of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora growing wider by the day, could it be that the notion of exile holds the key to understanding what is at stake in the contemporary bifurcated situation of world Jewry?

There is a world of difference between the Latin exilium and the Hebrew galut. The former is, unsurprisingly, negative; its etymology refers to being away (ex-), out of one’s place, and straying or wandering there. The latter, on the other hand, is derived from the verb legalot, meaning “to reveal,” “to expose,” “to uncover.” Its sense brims with positive connotations, even if the exposure in question may refer to vulnerability, being in harm’s way, feeling endangered outside one’s native land.

Bemoaned for large stretches of Jewish history, galut is, at the same time, the prerequisite for truth and for ethics. Without exposure to the world, particularly outside one’s parochial dwelling place, there is neither a meaningful experience nor knowledge of anything whatsover. Before any verification procedures, truth is what is revealed, from the outside, to our senses and ideation thanks to our exposure to exteriority. Now, assuming that this exposure has the dimension of precariousness, whether our own or that of the others, it entails an ethical demand to respond to the needs and plight of those who suffer the most. Before any moral imperatives, ethics is the way we are called to respond to the suffering of others, or to our own.

Disparaging galut is turning a blind eye to the fundamental human condition of vulnerability, openness (or openedness) to the world, and to the other. The Jews’ gathering from the diaspora, the return from exile glorified in the Israeli ideology, connotes a closure of the mind and the body, shielding and protecting a phantasmatic identity from exteriority, including, above all, from the needs and the plight of others. Whereas galut is exposure and revelation, “the return” is hiding from truth and from ethical demands, retreating into a shell of parochial belonging, hardening oneself to the world, becoming deaf to suffering, notably of the Palestinian other. Exiled from others, exiled from exile, one enters a strange state of galut from oneself, celebrated in everything that is associated with the image of sabra (tzabar).  At its highest pitch, alienation from the outside, cultivated in the State of Israel, rules the day.

In his writings, Jewish Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25BCE – 50CE) implicitly distinguished spiritual from physical exiles. The “true galut” for him was not “the political exclusion” from ancestral lands but, rather, “the enforced exclusion” from the prophetic mission. Clearly, Philo-the-Platonist felt that the exile of spirit was worse than that of the body. With regard to present-day Zionism, we witness a mutation in this logic: spiritual exile worsens when physical galut is supposedly overcome. The bodily occupation of the land, from which our ancestors had been exiled, goes hand-in-hand with the oppression of Palestinian people, who have inhabited this very land. What this disjunction itself uncovers are the difficulties of dealing with galut, that is to say, of facing up to ourselves through the attention we pay to the other.

Michael Marder

Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. His most recent monographs include The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (2014), Pyropolitics: When the World Is Ablaze (2015), and Dust (2016). He is now completing a book, co-authored with Luce Irigaray and titled Through Vegetal Being.

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8 Responses

  1. MHughes976 on September 23, 2015, 12:51 pm

    Erich Gruen in his ‘Diaspora’ notes that Philo took pride in the fact that the Jews had established successful colonies, apoikiai, in many parts of the world.

    • echinococcus on September 23, 2015, 2:03 pm

      In Philo’s time there is a certain probability that Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople etc. had true colonies, i.e. emigrants from some main spot like Jerusalem or Babylon, etc. This cannot apply to later communities in the Maghreb+Spain or the Ashkenazi world or Ethiopia, etc., where the origin is probably by conversion.

  2. michelle on September 23, 2015, 3:47 pm

    can one truly be at one with oneself without being at one with every & all
    G-d Bless

  3. John Douglas on September 23, 2015, 3:59 pm

    The first paragraph raises the prospect of something interesting. What assumptions form the basis of the the idea of the Jewish exile or, alternately, the diaspora. Suppose, for the sake of this, that people with red hair and freckles trace back to Ireland. Would we say then that there is a red-haired diaspora? That I, having lived with my red hair and freckles always in the US, live in exile? Hardly. Of course many such people were forced from Ireland by a famine that was the responsibility of the landowners. And many of those who left were persecuted in their new land. Is Ireland mine? My true home? No. A home truer to me than to present inhabitants? No. Of course I could move to Ireland, as Jews mover to, and lived among, the indigenous people of Palestine. But it would be morally ludicrous for me to organize a group of like-minded, red-haired and freckled thugs (see the recent NYRB) and declare Ireland to be the State of Douglas, flag and all. But there was no Irish Holocaust! Why? Did not enough people died at the hands of the landowners? Is Holocaust a matter of degree? Is the Nakba a fraction of a holocaust? Anyway, the ideas of Zionism, exile and diaspora, long preceded the Holocaust as did “Next year in Jerusalem.” This is not likely what Professor Mardor wrote. It’s what I wrote in response to the question I found in the first paragraph.

  4. just on September 23, 2015, 9:45 pm

    Thanks, Professor Marder~ you always shine a bright light in dark places and make me think again! It’s enriching to read your thoughts.

    Here’s an interesting article from Ofri Ilany:

    “Justifying War Crimes in the Name of Judaism

    In contemporary Israel, the idea of the universal mission of the Jewish people has morphed into something else – and all in the name of the Jews’ supposed moral supremacy.

    … Negative moral role

    What is the situation of the universal mission of Jews today, as the Hebrew new year gets under way? Surely it has never been worse. For reasons of its own, for instance, Israel is today one of the most vociferous opponents to the idea of extending the authority of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. It is therefore playing a negative moral role: preventing the spread of international law.

    In addition, Israel is one of the world’s largest arms dealers. And the percentage of thos seeking asylum here who have been granted legal refugee status in the country is one of the lowest in the world. In general, in the eyes of local politicians, international problems are a matter for “the world” to deal with – meaning every country other than Israel. MK Yair Lapid (head of Yesh Atid) expressed this approach well when he recently declared: “The refugee crisis is a European matter, there is no reason for us to be part of it.”

    More than ever before, Israel is scornfully rejecting the demand of the international community that it act according to universal principles. Yet the vision of the Jewish people’s universal mission is thriving in contemporary Israel. It is espoused vigorously in settler circles, who believe that the Jewish people and the State of Israel are entrusted with a special mission vis-a-vis the rest of humanity. They ground this approach in the doctrine of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), who contended that it is the Jews’ purpose to bring salvation to every person on the face of the earth.

    In a similar vein, Rabbi Dov Lior, the former rabbi of the Kiryat Arba settlement in the West Bank, frequently declares that the obligation of the Jewish people is “to stand out in terms of leadership, morality, faith, integrity, love of justice” and so forth. That notion did not prevent Lior from developing a doctrine of his own in regard to the laws of war. During last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, he declared: “In all wars, the nation that is attacked is permitted to fight back forcefully against the nation from which the attackers came.” His conclusion: Israel has the right to raze Gaza to the ground.

    How can that perception be reconciled with the idea of a universal moral mission? The approach of the Israeli right is based on the presupposition that the Jews are the world’s most moral people. Precisely because of that, they are permitted to dissociate themselves from every conventional moral criterion. National-religious rabbis explain, for example, that the relationship between Israel and the rest of humanity is like the relationship between the brain and the rest of the human body. Israel must on no account take into consideration the opinion of the gentiles, certainly not where moral issues are concerned, these rabbis say.

    In this manner, the idea of the Jews’ universalist mission has morphed into sweeping justification for war crimes. It’s not surprising that some are urging Israel to discard the idea of such a mission once and for all. “No, we are not a special nation – we haven’t been for a long time. Nor are we chosen, certainly not above other nations,” Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz a few years ago. And yet the left, too – and actually its most radical wing – also harbors a perception of the Jewish people’s moral exceptionalism. Otherwise it’s hard to explain why left-wing Jews in Israel and elsewhere are so shocked by their nation’s moral deterioration. Many claim that original, traditional Judaism carries a universal message of morality that was vitiated by Zionism – and that, they argue, is one of the great crimes of the occupation. For example, renowned linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, one of Israel’s fiercest critics, says that his political critique is based on the morality of the prophets of Israel, who in his view fought injustice and other wrongs that marred their society.

    Manifestly, then, the belief in the Jewish people’s universal mission is espoused across the whole political spectrum. It is shared by right and left, religious and secular people, Zionists and anti-Zionists. It’s hard to escape it. The story of a small nation that has educated all of humanity from the dawn of history down to our own day is too powerful for us to agree to discard it. It affords meaning to Jewish existence and the fears that are part of that existence. It’s an idea that makes it great to be a Jew. There are some who want to set aside the idea of Jewish singularity, but this perception gets in the way of their doing that – one reason being that non-Jews, too, believe that the Jews are the most special nation in the world.”

    read more:

  5. mijj on September 24, 2015, 7:23 am

    speaking as an Outsider, i would have thought the Diaspora is really about cultural incoherence, rather than a land-incoherence.

    Modern ease of travel and communication means barriers to cultural coherence are frail. There really is no need for everyone to live in the same patch of land for a culture to thrive. But cultural coherence has been hijacked and diverted into the “need” for material locale and mundane political power.

    .. speaking as an Outsider, that is.

  6. eljay on September 24, 2015, 8:04 am

    I found myself, this Yom Kippur, reflecting on the exilic condition. With the rift between the State of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora … ||

    There is no “exilic condition”. The Jewish-by-choice* citizens of countries – of homelands – around the world are not Israeli exiles.
    (*No-one forces, nor should anyone force, a person to be Jewish.)

  7. pabelmont on September 24, 2015, 1:52 pm

    Do I live in exile? I feel American, but also citizen-of-the-world-ish.
    If there are actually (in our day) Jews who are certain beyond doubt that they are Jews and who also feel they need “their own country” then they are not fully assimilated into and comfortable in their place of residence and are thus in exile. All of this is “comfort zone” stuff about place and the neighbors.

    As to being in exile from fulfilling religious duties (or religious possibilities) such as embodying “the prophetic”, well that can happen anywhere and, it might seem, nowhere more so (nowhere more exile from “the prophetic”) than inside Israel.

    I would never go to Israel, not even to visit. The place would be (or so I imagine it) so alien to me. A place of exile for me.

    A place of fear, hatred, malevolence, arrogance, of people strutting around like storm troopers in jackboots, a place of systemic violence, a place people have deliberately gone to in order to be able to live more comfortably in a fulfilling wrap-around of fear, hatred, malevolence, arrogance, all permitted (and encouraged) sort of like the “Old West” of USA cowboy fiction (one doesn’t know what the cowboy actuality was) , everybody toting six-shooters, violence around every corner.

    Of course, the picture I just drew may be the tiniest bit exaggerated. After all, the settlers probably wear sandals rather than jackboots. And Uzis rather than (the so-dangerous) six-shooters.

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