Vashti editor Matt Gordon explores the potential of non-statist forms of Jewish life, influenced by his decade of living and researching in Somaliland.
Evan Robins introduction to this issue of The Pickle
Last night – the 61st since 7 October – marked the beginning of Chanukah. For Palestinians in Gaza, the occasion brought not only the horrors of Israel’s genocidal bombing campaign – to which the Israeli state eagerly returned earlier this week – but the grotesque and deeply disturbing appearance of a 13-metre tall Chanukiah, constructed by Israeli soldiers in the Gazan neighbourhood of Shejaiya. This is the same neighbourhood in which, five days earlier, Israel had flattened 50 apartment buildings in the name of targeting a single Hamas commander. The bombardment killed hundreds of Palestinians in what was possibly the single deadliest bombing of these horrific two months.
It is unsurprising that Chanukah – a festival formative to, and in turn shaped by, the Zionist movement – has become a narrative through which Israel and its allied communal institutions celebrate and mythologise efforts to inflict indiscriminate violence on Palestinians. This destructive instrumentalisation of Jewish tradition, however, is not specific to Chanukah. Rather, it has become a fact of Jewish life seen year-round and entrenched in the politics of the institutions which purport to represent and define our communal existence.
In these circumstances, creating a Jewish politics beyond Zionism feels both more difficult and more necessary than ever. In this week’s Pickle, Vashti editor Matt Gordon draws on his decade of research in Somaliland to examine the fractured state of Jewish community and the possibility for new, non-statist forms of political life ▼
Matt Gordon writes
A more recent confrontation with such political alternatives was on offer at the intergenerational teach-in “Jewish Solidarity with Palestinians: Antizionism, Activism and Liberation for All,” held virtually on 29 November (which Vashti co-sponsored). Across a rich and far-reaching discussion moderated by Hana Morgenstern, activists and scholars Emily Hilton, Julia Bard, Haim Bresheeth-Zabner and Barnaby Raine explored the ways in which Zionism has redirected Judaism’s affiliations and ideologies to place them increasingly on the side of colonialism and racial supremacy. More than that, however, they decried the lasting ruinous impact of these distortions on the building blocks of Jewish life, sapping our totems, ethics and self-understandings of their potency as sources of peaceful, plural and worldly coexistence. The “instrumentalisation of Jewishness” by political forces acting against the collective interest of world Jewry was seen as especially destructive.
Over the course of the teach-in, there emerged several leftwing responses to this instrumentalisation. The first was a call to depoliticise Judaism, putting it back into a box of private practice and civil association, and reinforcing the secular basis of political life. Another was a call to challenge Zionism’s monolithic construction of “the Jew” by engaging Jewish countercultures, as in the revival of Yiddish language and culture, and in explorations of the diverse gender, racial, and ideological makeup of the Jewish community.
Third, and most prominent, was the desire to position Jewish politics as one thread in a larger socialist, anticolonial tapestry – as one member of a universal coalition of the oppressed. In this, speakers drew inspiration from the traditions of the Bund and antifascist diaspora organising (through examples as diverse as the Battle of Cable Street and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), while also reckoning with the fact that, in the case of present-day Jewish life, the division between oppressor and oppressed is not nearly as straightforward.
Each response is laden with complications. As Boyarin argues, any religion that does not butt up against issues of governance and political principle is not only shorn of much of its collective mobilising power, but stands vulnerable to manipulation from external political forces. And though the deconstruction of the normative Jew is necessary – with such efforts representing the green shoots of a post-Zionist future – these initiatives must grapple with how countercultural movements transition from the margins to situations of power and politics without losing their radical potential.
Finally, the formula that Jewish politics equals universalist socialism or anticolonialism with Jewish characteristics is insufficient, as it treats Jewishness as a subsidiary affiliation, one predicated on conforming our history, our teachings, our “essence” to mere plot points in a struggle determined elsewhere. In this view, leftwing Jews become the vanguard, working to either pull our kin from the dark side through persuasion and shame, or acting on “their behalf”, changing the world in ways they would not agree with while telling them we do it in their name. It means treating a sizeable portion of Jews (those who are not socialist, let alone anti-Zionist) as either lost causes or people in need of enlightenment, with the leftwing vanguard legitimised to assume power to protect them from themselves.
To bake such a fundamental moral hierarchy into the core of a Jewish future merely maintains a divided Jewish people, in which both sides at best tolerate each other while hoping ultimately, and in vain, that the other side will concede to their view. In other words, we have not solved the problem of political instrumentalisation, but simply replaced the agent leading it.
This leaves us, then, with two options of Jewish life that shirk from questions of politics and power, finding refuge in the margins and the individual, and another based in a Judaism effectively coterminous with politics and power, sacrificing its autonomy to the needs of a grand revolutionary imperative wherein Jewishness becomes merely a brand or surface-level marker, ultimately beholden to priorities outside itself.
With this in mind, I would like to propose a different way to combat the political instrumentalisation of Jewishness. Rather than rely on shifting the Jewish community’s political content or orientation to conform with certain secular or revolutionary ideals, we must first seek to transform the way we socially relate to the collective Jewish body, so that our ideas are met under conditions of familial generosity rather than orchestrated hostility. This will only occur when the power to represent and judge what is legitimate or illegitimate is not concentrated within a few centralised bodies – such as the Israeli government and diaspora political organisations like the Board of Deputies and AIPAC – but diffused throughout the collective body. Only through returning ownership of Jewish coexistence to all stakeholders can Jewish self-determination be shorn of private interest and be returned to questions of collective flourishing.
The Somaliland non-state alternative
To flesh out what this might mean, I draw inspiration from Somaliland, a political community in which I have spent a decade living and conducting research. This former British protectorate, which became part of a larger Somali state upon decolonisation, suffered at the hands of Somalia’s post-independence leadership, eventually enduring state-sponsored conflict and genocide as the cold war came to a close. When the Somali state collapsed in 1991, the Somaliland region’s clans – a loose, multilayered form of socio-economic cooperation organised around lineage ties passed down patrilineally – set about the task of constructing a new political community, separate from the rest of the former territory.
Over the course of a decade, this patchwork of clans managed to create peace and order not through the gun, but through painstaking negotiation and bottom-up reconciliation led by clan intermediaries. This was possible thanks to a recognition from all sides that they could not dominate each other through force, but instead needed to cooperate with their former adversaries in order to prevent future destructive conflict. This collective awareness of mutual dependence set the stage for a series of peace assemblies, during which face-to-face encounters, shared histories and ancestrally-inherited practices served as common ground for a painful process of forgiveness and self-reflection. The goal was not to arrive at some middle ground, but to initiate a process of creating a new political configuration, collectively, in which groups would relate to each other through semi-voluntary association, consensus-based decision-making and a non-hierarchical, federated distribution of power and resources.
However, Somaliland’s more recent attempt to safeguard these achievements by integrating them into a nation-state project only served to undermine them. In fact, the emergence of top-down governance and centralised authority — filtered through a winner-takes-all democratic electoral process — led to new opportunities for power and wealth acquisition, fostering the formation of an upstart political and economic elite. Lineage ties and other cultural artefacts that had previously served to facilitate cooperation and equity among communities – such as the mediating role of traditional elders – were henceforth turned against the broader population. Such elders were transformed into instruments of elite power struggle, mobilising votes and legitimising domination.
This is the situation the Jewish community has found itself in for much of the post-Holocaust era: grappling with a form of Jewishness not collectively-determined and co-constituted, but dictated from on high. What’s more, those claiming the mantle as self-appointed guardians of the faith are becoming ever more absurd. It is no longer just Israeli authorities and an array of diaspora religious networks and special interest groups that are setting the agenda for Judaism, but a proliferating cacophony of evangelical networks, foreign governments, and right-wing nationalists. These past weeks, we have reached the terminal point of lunacy where the question “who is a real Jew?” is no longer a matter for the Jewish community alone to work out, but is increasingly determined in Christian-dominated legislatures across the world.
While Somaliland is currently suffering the ill-effects of statehood, its earlier founding peace agreement lives on. It functions not only as a reminder of an alternative mode of governance, but as a set of ad-hoc practices that are still resurrected at moments of crisis, whether of intercommunal conflict or government overreach. In such moments, cultural authority and kin relations are reawakened to bracket and shield communities against power and politics, through opening up a deliberative space – the peace assembly – where the power of the state is pressured to submit to decisions made between the warring parties and the committee. This enables social schisms and injustices to be worked out among those directly affected by them, without external interference in proceedings.
In such a system, cultural inheritance and genealogical affinity (i.e. clan-based justice or xeer) serve as the shared normative framework and moral universe within which issues of justice and equality are negotiated. When culture and religion become collective property rather than a tool of the powerful, then its most ethical and life-affirming dimensions shine forth.
Judaism’s Somaliland moment?
What relevance might all this, which seems far removed from the politics of Israel and the western diaspora, have for Jewish life? It compels us to think hard about how to envision new ways for Jews to relate to each other – even those we don’t politically agree with – no longer mediated by concentrated authority. It means both diminishing and desacralising these established powers, while also exploring new, non-hierarchical forms of Jewish representation, whether rabbinic or involving lay practices.
What this would look like is an open question. It might involve initiatives such as Haim Bresheeth-Zabner’s suggestion of a new Convivencia – fraught as that term may be – between Jews, Muslims, Christians, and other faiths, which would offer a new way of relating to the non-Jewish world beyond groups like the Board of Deputies. It might involve reflecting upon Daniel Boyarin’s “diaspora nationalism“, and the ways that the duality and in-betweenness of diasporism unsettle traditional notions of authority. It might include experimenting with avant-garde methods for divesting religious authority of political power, including by enhancing the mediating, consensus-building roles of rabbinical authorities at the expense of their decision-making and credal functions. We might also rediscover past models of decentralised Jewish organisational life, or to Martin Buber’s emphasis on talmudic study as a pluralistic, iterative mode of religious knowledge production. Whereas Zionism closes down political options, participatory, communally-determined Jewish belonging seeks to open them up.
By fostering mutual dependencies that force those divided by enmity and ideological difference to the table out of mutual self-interest and survival, over and against the nihilistic forces of self-interest and chaos, we are granted a chance to expose the recklessness and ineffectiveness of power to create something new. The impotency of the Israeli security establishment and the nihilistic recklessness of the messianic zealots on display following 7 October provides one such opening where false idols are exposed, and new modes of being might be explored. In the short term, these false idols have pooled all their resources to set a very violent agenda. Our task now is to make sure that they do not have the final say, by strengthening a different kind of (nonviolent) social power: that of cultural and political revival through collective healing.
This does not mean abandoning socialist ideals or solidarity with others. These are needed now more than ever. But it is a call to recognise that neither of these are sufficient answers to the question of what a Jewish politics in its fullness looks like. Any Jewish politics that violates the moral imperative against human rights abuses, racial supremacy and genocidal harm is a non-starter, which is why Zionism can never serve us. But, for the left, a mere faith in our conviction is not enough; we must also work towards changing our relations to our ideological adversaries so that we can create something new together. It is only when we are no longer alienated from our faith and our practice, and are empowered to engage with each other as moral and practical equals, that those better angels of our nature will be given a chance to flourish▼
Dr Matthew Gordon is an academic and international development practitioner with over a decade of experience working in the Horn of Africa, and an editor at Vashti.
Source: The Pickle