The Neces­si­ty of Exile: Essays from a Dis­tance (Polit­i­cal Imagination)

  • Review
By – March 24, 2024

Writ­ten large­ly before the recent events in Israel, Shaul Magid’s essays raise some prob­ing ques­tions about the nature of Zion­ism and its future. Magid, a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at Dart­mouth, aligns him­self with a near­ly van­ished strain of Jew­ish thought that con­sid­ers the polit­i­cal goal of Zion­ism — to estab­lish a Jew­ish and demo­c­ra­t­ic state — as an impos­si­ble con­tra­dic­tion. A nation-state ground­ed in eth­nore­li­gion, Magid argues, was bound to become less demo­c­ra­t­ic. He explains that this has been the case from the begin­ning of Israel’s exis­tence, but it has been exac­er­bat­ed by the fifty-year stale­mate over the sta­tus of the Pales­tin­ian state and the dom­i­nance of right-wing par­ties in recent Israeli gov­ern­ments. In Magid’s view, the hope for a two-state solu­tion has reced­ed almost to a van­ish­ing point. This has left those who iden­ti­fy as lib­er­al Zion­ists as lone­ly voic­es in the crowd. Can there even be any hope for a lib­er­al solution? 

Magid explores this ques­tion through a num­ber of lens­es. The first is his­tor­i­cal: he recounts some of the ear­ly debates with­in the Zion­ist move­ment. In these sec­tions, he recalls the voic­es of such lumi­nar­ies as Mar­tin Buber, Franz Rosen­zweig, and Han­nah Arendt. Their argu­ment for a Jew­ish home­land with­in Pales­tine, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly apart from the Arab pop­u­la­tion, lost the his­tor­i­cal bat­tle against the pro­po­nents of state­hood (David Ben-Guri­on and Chaim Weiz­mann). In the years fol­low­ing Israel’s found­ing, the lib­er­al Zion­ism” of Ben-Guri­on and his fol­low­ers gave way to the rise of a max­i­mal­ist strain of Zion­ism that stemmed from Zvi Jabotin­sky and was com­pound­ed by the zealotry of settlers.

Anoth­er of Magid’s lens­es is per­son­al. He devotes a lengthy sec­tion to what he describes as his trag­ic love affair with Zion­ism.” It’s not clear why he deems his tra­jec­to­ry trag­ic,” but he pro­vides a mov­ing account of how he — the son of assim­i­lat­ed, non-reli­gious, and non-Zion­ist Jews — grav­i­tat­ed toward ultra-Ortho­dox (Hare­di) Judaism, dab­bled in the set­tler move­ment, and end­ed up with his cur­rent stance, which he calls counter-Zion­ist.” He’s not anti-Israel, he asserts sev­er­al times, but seeks a form of Israel’s exis­tence that would come close to ful­fill­ing its found­ing ideals as a place for all people.

A third lens is philosophical/​religious and explores the var­i­ous debates over Who Owns the Holy Land.” The max­i­mal­ist Zion­ist posi­tion, which alludes to God’s covenant with the Jews, holds that We own Eretz Israel and we can dis­pose of it as we will.” In Magid’s view, the true answer is that God owns it, and we occu­py it on His sufferance.

A final major theme appears in the title itself. One of Zionism’s chief claims, as Magid puts it, is to super­sede exile and the dias­po­ra. Many Zion­ists believe that, because of the found­ing of the State of Israel, the dias­po­ra has no rai­son d’être, and Jews remain­ing out­side Israel are some­how not ful­ly Jews. Magid rejects this line of think­ing. In his view, it makes light of the gen­er­a­tions of tra­di­tions that have devel­oped through­out the dias­po­ra. For many sec­u­lar Israelis and non-Israeli Jews in the dias­po­ra, Israel is all there is to define what it is to be a Jew. How­ev­er, Magid aligns him­self with those who see val­ue in a per­ma­nent state of exile, one that can spark con­tin­ued creativity.

In the indi­vid­ual essays, Magid writes pas­sion­ate­ly and per­sua­sive­ly, rais­ing more ques­tions than answers. As a whole, the col­lec­tion doesn’t always cohere, and sev­er­al chap­ters dilute some of the focus. And, giv­en the major change in cir­cum­stance result­ing from the events of Octo­ber 7 and fol­low­ing, one won­ders whether the kind of counter-Zion­ism Magid wish­es to see — in effect one state for all Israelis and Pales­tini­ans — has any more via­bil­i­ty than a two-state solu­tion. Nonethe­less, this is a vol­ume that will stir reflec­tion and debate. 

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions