Leaving Zion: Shaul Magid's Exilic Redemption

Shaul Magid's book The Necessity of Exile is in search of a Jewish life after Zionism.

Leaving Zion: Shaul Magid's Exilic Redemption

The American Palestine solidarity movement is remarkably Jewish.

Part of what has characterized the massive surge of organizing in response to the Israeli war on Gaza is that so many of the loudest voices demanding a ceasefire are recognizably, visibly, loudly, Jewish. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow nearly doubled their membership since October 7th and became unified in their demands to stop the collective retribution Israel is carrying out, a grisly plan that sees no difference between combatant and civilian. We have seen a major series of splits inside Jewish organizations, a multitude of which have moved to the Right since October 7th and are leaving many young staff, congregants, and members out cold. This has led to high profile resignations, a large petition calling for a ceasefire signed by Jewish staff working at Jewish organizations, and public incidents like a staff person of Jewish Organizing Institute and Network for Justice (JOIN) sending out an unauthorized email asking the organization’s supports to fight to stop the genocide in Palestine.

At these demonstrations sweeping the country we saw kippot and tichel, ten-foot tall menorahs blocking bridges, Magen David’s alongside keffiyeh, and heard the mourners kaddish alongside the names of the dead. On the first night of Hanukkah as I stood surrounded by several synagogues worth of Portland Jews at Chabad’s yearly menorah lighting, the crowd was split when a group of young Jews dragged a banner in front of the stage reading “Hanukkah =  Liberation.” Security was called and they were dragged away, but not before shouting a demand end the genocide in Palestine on the livestream that way being simulcast in Israel. Some were angry that these Jewish activists would politicize a religious celebration, or believed that the protesters were implying all Jews were responsible for Israel’s violence, but those angry reactions mistook what was taking place: these millennial and Gen-Z Jews insisted on having a Jewish debate with their elders about what the meaning of this holiday should be and what moral imperative its lessons demand of us. They were doing Jewish.

What makes this kind of activism so meaningful to so many is that it is not just a political act meant to halt the bloodshed in Palestine (though that is certainly its primary motivation). What these demonstrations have also become are intensely spiritual rituals whereby a new Jewish generation is refashioning Jewish tradition to meet new circumstances, to excise one of the objects, deemed sacred by some, that no longer work for them, namely, Zionism. It is this public display of ritual that makes Shaul Magid’s most recent book, The Necessity of Exile: Essays at a Distance so prescient since it seems to answer the question he poses across its pages: what is Judaism after Zionism?

Part of what makes Magid perhaps the most important American Jewish Studies scholar is not just his work as an accessible public intellectual, but that he insists on treading into contested territory, dragging his kollel with him. His recent book on Meir Kahane is a rather insightful indictment of the mainstream Jewish’s world’s fatalism, particularly in adapting the most pessimistic parts of Kahane’s claims about the gentile soul. The book was divisive, certainly, but what elevated it, what elevates all of Magid’s work, is that the scholarship is impeccable, the writing is fluid and cutting, and the earnestness is genuine. Similar praise could be leveled at his no-less-controversial 2013 book American Post-Judaism where he looked at how to build a Judaism, and Jewishness, once the ethnic constitution that American Jewish identity is built on begins to dissolve. While Magid may disagree, this is where the rabbinate begins to mix with the scholarship, since it is impossible to not walk away from his work without the possibility of a “New Yavneh” in our sites. 

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The rabbi is back at the bima with The Necessity of Exile, where Magid wrestles with Zionism as frankly as he ever has. This is not a new subject for Magid, he has frequently been at the head of these debates while remaining in the Jewish world. In 2017 he contributed perhaps the best essay in On Antisemitism, a book put together by Jewish Voice for Peace and published with the socialist press Haymarket Books. In the backmatter his bio notes that he is not a member of JVP nor does he support BDS, and the reader can only imagine the conversations that took place to secure his essay’s inclusion in the book. The essay is built on incredible principle: he is happy to engage in these critical discussions on Zionism, but he will do so on terms he knows he can defend. This means that Magid’s critique is purely his own, he refuses to simply repeat established tropes since he, more than anything, finds the discourse that exists fundamentally insufficient.

In The Necessity of Exile, Magid draws on a number of competing directions and voices all to try and find what is useful (and useless) within them, writing on the anti-Zionism of Satmar and Neutra Karta, the secular Jewish critiques of people like Judith Butler, and his own experience as Baal Teshuva and living in Jerusalem before falling away from Orthodoxy. While Magid’s research is striking, and this is a book that begs to be cited since it holds a high scholarly standard, it also never attempts to neuter his words of their transformative power: Magid wants us to want something more. 

Magid’s alternative to anti-Zionism is “counter-Zionism,” a kind of retreat from Zionism as a mobilizing ideology for Israel but a desire to see the best for those who continue to live there. What this suggests is a tacit binationalism, one democratic state for all the residents of Israel-Palestine, and there is also a heavy dose of what in the 1990s was called post-Zionism: forging a new path after Zionism has done what it set out to accomplish. When post-Zionism grew in some small corners of Israel it was seeded by an optimism of the moment. The Oslo Accords were promising a type of two-state peace, the Israeli Left might return, and we could move past the aggressive nationalism that established Israel in the first place. A different future transpired instead, where a kind of “neo-Zionism” took over with the revival of Kahanism, the growth of the Religious Zionist movement, the further radicalization of Orthodoxy, and Likud’s rapid shift to the Right. There was not to be any life after Zionism, at least not in the natural course of evolution. 

Magid’s counter-Zionism is, itself, necessarily a break, it is something that we have to choose because there is no reason to believe that given the current state of Israel’s politics that it will ever relinquish the ethnocratic nationalism and demographic supremacy that it hinges its identity on. What counter-Zionism thus becomes is a softer alternative to anti-Zionism, the cessation of Zionism without the baggage of actual anti-Zionists who, themselves, create shock and horror amongst much of the Jewish world. This new language will provide options for those who want to oppose Israel's current course without taking the path drawn by the anti-Zionist left, I have already seen people using this term in Jewish life, but it will prove no less shocking to most of the pro-Israel establishment. Zionism’s hold on our imagination is so strong that I don’t know if “countering” it will end up strong enough to break the grip. 

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While Magid’s debates over Zionism will end up as the most publicly controversial, it was his writing on antisemitism that was, for me, overwhelmingly the most challenging. In the essay “Are Jews an Oppressed People Today” he parses through different understandings of antisemitism, comparing the approaches of Hannah Arendt, Aviva Cantor, and David Baddiel, who each show their own version of “judeo-pessimism,” but who also are not without their interesting observations. Magid strikes a difference between the notion of oppression and modern experiences of antisemitism, particularly in situations like Palestine where Jews could be the subject of antisemitic invective while Palestinians hold literally no power to institute anything looking like oppression (other than attacks like October 7th, whose antisemitic nature is questionable). “Regardless of one’s view of the occupation, if we agree that the Palestinians are oppressed, that their individual and collective existence is limited by Jewish hegemony, and Israel is the source of that oppression, can we define the act of resisting such oppression as ‘antisemitic,’” asks Magid, “especially in light of the complicated ways that oppression and antisemitism implicate each other…” This reminded me of my conversation with Daniel Randall, discussing his recent book on left-wing antisemitism. Randall’s work relies on an unorthodox political position: he is a member of the Trotskyist Workers Liberty party in the U.K., which bucks the trends of his political tendency in taking a “two-state” position on Israel-Palestine (certainly a type of Zionist position) and often discusses antisemitism in the guise of anti-Zionism (such as believing there are inherent problems in the BDS movement). Randall also told me he didn’t think Jews were oppressed, that oppression was not exactly the right word, but it was hard to find an alternative. I have always used the word oppressed to describe Jewish victims of antisemitism because oppression remains a catch all for a type of subjugation, while not commenting on the severity or type of the marginalization. Jews face some type of this, the intensity of which depends on time and place, but the distinction Magid is making is an important one when we consider how to think about Jewish power and whether or not it disallows antisemitism from moving past a “private hatred.”

Magid’s essays work within an intensely rabbinic tradition of commentary and debate, particularly the pulling of past sources into an unbroken conversation. Part of what he offers to the reader is access to a world that is truncated to them by a lack of Jewish education and language skills, so he is able to revive the complicated discourses from people like Rabbi Moishe Teitelbaum to mobilize them in a discussion that most critics of Israel would not have the background to engage in. Perhaps the most interesting of these here is his translation of, and commentary on, an essay by Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, which is shortened in classic Hebraic fashion to Rav Shagar, originally a religious Zionist rabbi popular in the Settlements who went so deep into Jewish nationalism that he came out the other side. What Shagar offers is a form of “religious post-Zionism” built on postmodern philosophical principles that honor both the messianic calling and the reality of the troubling world building happening in the post-67 West Bank. Magid is known for bringing in what some may dismiss as arcane Jewish commentary into fiery debates on our current life, thus ensuring that our contemporary conversations remain a part of a three thousand year history of Jewish discussion. This too is Torah.

The final essay, the book’s namesake, seems familiar to those who read Daniel Boyarin’s recent book, The No-State Solution, which also focuses on the profound meaning of the exilic existence. This is part of how “diasporism” is being revived as a form of meaning making in Jewish life: what have we learned from “exile,” and what can we then bring to others who are likewise in exile? This reminded me of Rav. Arthur Green’s willful repurposing of exile, or the enslavement in Egypt, to talk about the personalized ways we all live in a state of exile, waiting for redemption. Green’s neo-hasidic model is built on that first generation of hasidic masterworks that personalized the grand metaphors of Torah-Talmud, bringing these concepts into the mystical body of the everyday. Magid refuses to stop there, and instead brings it back into the cosmic, the state of the world, its institutions, and the lives of those who depend on them. What does our tradition have to teach us about the state of the conflict, of occupation, of political despotism, and rising body counts? What you discover in Magid’s work is that we are all still in the exile that birthed centuries of Rabbinic writing, still searching for our pathway home. The answer for how to finally seek redemption is fleeting.

We are at a catastrophic moment in the fight for Palestine’s future, a time when righteous anger has soared and we may be at a peak of anger at the Zionist establishment. While Jewish organizations are further entrenching a pro-Israel bias, the political left is even less willing to give these constituencies the benefit of the doubt as a more revolutionary anti-colonial politic is becoming the new standard. Within this, Magid may actually come across as a rather moderate figure, one whose audience is largely liberal Jews who were raised in the Zionist consensus and are willing to question some basic assumptions about their tradition. Even if this work is adapted into the emerging canon of Jewish criticism of Israel, its refutation of Israel’s demographic supremacy started from within Zionism rather than from the outside. This may actually be its own emerging tradition of commentary, similar to the recent work of Peter Beinart and others who have watched their support for Israel fall away across their lifetimes.

It’s fascinating to watch as Magid tears the Jewish Studies world back into a profound state of relevance, not just to the “industry” of Jewish professional life that so many expect these departments to be a funnel to, but to the profound claims our history and tradition make to the human condition. His work sits on the edge of where Jewish life teeters, asking what Jewish future we intend to build and how we intend to pass our covenant between generations. In this way, it seems like Magid never left the yeshiva floor, he insists that there is more to be found in the words, wisdom that screams out from the past, if only we can find it. 

The Jewish world is in the process of building citadels, viewing strangers with an inherent suspicion: after all, who would know if they are for us or for our enemies. But this denies what the mission of the rabbinate is, rebellious teachers meant to debate the demands that hashem has put on his people. This may be why Magid is quickly becoming persona non grata in some sectors of the Jewish right, who feel betrayed that one of the most resourced and educated among them is willing to turn on the institutions that have failed us. Magid’s question is not simply how to confront the legacies of Zionism, the consequences of a brutal Occupation, or the rising body count in Gaza, but what kind of Judaism we can build when we, finally, leave it behind.

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