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.