Drawing on their most recent works, philosopher Stéphane Habib invites Delphine Horvilleur and Raphael Zagury-Orly to explore and confront their conceptions of Zionism and contrast their personal experiences in an attempt to map out the issues the term carries today.

© Pascal Monteil, Sono Boccaccio, Laines sur chanvre, 2021, photo par © Célia Pernot

Feature Interview

Stephane Habib
Rereading your books, Le dernier des sionistes (“The last of the Zionists”) and Vivre avec nos morts (“Living with our dead”), it seemed to me there was something at play between the two titles. To start with, there’s obviously a strong resonance between the two because I think the idea of death is unavoidably present in the word “last.” “The last of the Zionists”—leaving aside any ambiguity lent by Derrida’s moniker of “Le dernier des Juifs,” — a French expression which be taken as both “the least of the Jews” and “the last of the Jews”— seems to suggest a framework central to Zionism that is structured around the dead, life and death, and the inextricability of the two. And as well, this idea of “the last” or “living with our dead” is intimately connected to the question of inheritance, how we inherit, what it means to inherit in the context of Zionism. And that’s no accident.

The first words of Raphael’s dedication to his son: “To my son Ilay, with the hope that you will one day know the peaceful country I dream of for you.” 

And Delphine’s final words are also about her son: “Twenty-five years later, I’m watching my children grow up in France, hearing my son speak to me in a language I know so well, which borrows from so many languages and carries the sediments of history within it; he speaks to me of Israel and how he wishes to go and live there one day, and I listen in silence, smiling and thinking about a lost love, traces of which he’s now finding, about a nearly-dead dream that survives in him, and about how what we thought had almost disappeared can be reborn elsewhere. Blessed are You, Lord, who revives the dead.” 

I found that not only were there very powerful echoes between these words, but there was also perhaps something of how your relationships to Israel and Zionism differ. Differences which may also arise from your individual circumstances, that is, Delphine who went to Israel and returned at the particular moment of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and Raphael, who is Israeli.

Delphine Horvilleur
I had no intention of writing about Zionism when I first started working on my book about the dead. I didn’t intend to talk about Israel; it impressed itself on me. I realized that there was something in the impossibility of mourning Rabin that I had to write about. The image that came to mind was how, when you arrive in Jerusalem, you first have to cross the valleys of white graves. Many people come to be buried in Jerusalem, which has always been surprising to me because I saw this when I came as a student to build my life there. And so I wondered if Israel was a place to live, or a place to die while waiting for the Messiah.

The night of Rabin’s death, I realized that my Zionism and the Zionism of Rabin’s assassin could no longer be called by the same name. Your book spoke to me particularly because you begin with this question of name and term. I’m not at all ready to give up the term, even though I realize there are few words in my vocabulary that are subject to as much misunderstanding as the word Zionism.

Raphael Zagury-Orly
I have a very special relationship with Jerusalem, especially because I used to be a director of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, which meant I went to Jerusalem several times a week. I regularly spent nights there. It’s a city I know well, and it’s influenced me very much as a teacher and a citizen. It’s the city of all cities. I’ve always thought Zionism should cultivate a different relationship to Jerusalem, and above all shouldn’t abandon it to the religious. I often say that the left has abandoned religion to the religious—which is a huge mistake—and the people to the nationalists. Today, Jerusalem has become the capital of religious nationalism. Which I see as an essentialisation of place that comes with complex, and politically very problematic, if not disastrous, consequences.

As for Diaspora Jews who come to Israel to die, I was raised in a culture that was Zionist at a very basic, you could say Ben-Gurionist, level, where the ultimate goal was to live and to survive.

You had to be strong. You had to overcome death, in a way; overcome trauma and persevere at all costs. In this cultural context, it was always profoundly incomprehensible that Jews would come to Israel to die. For us, Israel meant exactly the opposite of a place to die. It was a place where you came to live and survive, that is, to build and grow. These days, I have a different relationship with the past, with history and trauma, with the Zionist urge to overcome death and survive at all costs. And so I can see the people who want to come “die in Israel” through a different lens. The desire for Israel to be a final resting place complicates the Zionist discourse. It should oblige, even command Zionism to conceive of death and burial in ways beyond simply mourning, which implies relegating it to the past.

SH This makes me think of Derrida’s profound question: why are we assigned nationality based on the country of our birth rather than that where we die? Because it would mean that throughout our existence, through all the time between life and death, we are never home.

DH It’s eminently biblical, since in the Bible, the only time territory is acquired is when a tomb is purchased; you acquire it to bury your dead. You don’t need property when you’re alive, but you do need it when you die.

SH There’s something fundamentally fatalistic about a homeland that is final, which is what’s implied by a nationality that’s conferred by death. And from another perspective, both of you make the same point about the word Zionism: that a settlement must retain a memory of exile at its core. Even as we are inhabiting a territory, we can’t think of our habitation as existing in freeze-frame; we have to retain that memory of exile which makes it impossible (or a political loss) to believe in a permanent homeland.

If your Zionism, Delphine, can’t be the same as Rabin’s killer’s, it’s undoubtedly also due to this disquiet, this vertigo inside the idea of ownership.

RZO For me, with regard to the word “Zionism,” I prefer not to say my Zionism has nothing to do with that of Rabin’s assassin. It was Zionism that produced Rabin’s assassin.  Obviously, it goes without saying that Zionism takes many forms, just as it goes without saying that Judaism takes many forms. But still, Rabin’s assassin emerged from within my country. And it was a certain political culture within my country that produced this monstrous form of Zionism. But I think that to enter into a political confrontation with Rabin’s assassin, we have to face the history of Zionism in its entirety, the opportunities it has yielded as well as the very worst it has produced.

Secondly—and this comes from a relationship with tradition and history, from the need to constantly return to and take up our past again—I never want to give up our terminology. I don’t think we should never again say modernity, never again say humanism, never again read Heidegger, etc. We should read and reread Zionist texts. I’d like to venture a paradox that we must be able to face and must be able to use as a basis for innovation: we must keep everything from Zionist texts, and we must keep nothing from Zionist texts. This paradox directly informs all my work. On top of that, and because my book is very political and belongs to the singular context of Israel and Israeliness, the term Zionism is and remains relevant and meaningful to me. For better or for worse, Israelis aren’t ready to abandon it. I keep it despite all the ways it’s abused and its current deviation, and despite all the internal accusations of anti-Zionism and treason that we’re seeing more and more of.

DH Accusations of treason are indeed pervasive in Israeli politics.

RZO Pervasive, yes, and I think that in spite of this, we have to keep referring back to the term Zionism, labouring over it, studying it, bending it, reinventing it.

DH I find it extremely interesting that you say that your Israeli Zionism has something in common with Rabin’s assassin’s. But my Zionism isn’t an Israeli Zionism, it’s the Zionism of a child of the Diaspora. When I arrived in Israel, my Zionist dreams were weighted by another language; they weren’t Ben-Gurionist, they didn’t belong to a Zionism of survival, but instead the Zionism of leaving the graves of Europe, leaving the place of death in Europe.

SH This is very important because you’re both discussing the same point: questioning what we might call a Zionism of refuge.

DH What I mean is that mine was the Zionism of the Hatikvah (the Israeli anthem) which says, “my eye looks towards Zion,” which necessarily implies not being there. It’s crazy that Israel chose an anthem that says that the place where we speak of Zion is from outside it. It’s always about putting ourselves in a position that’s not our own. The whole question of Zionism is “where are you speaking from?” You can’t speak about it the same way if you have a diasporic experience or if you’ve acted as though you haven’t.

SH In a recent interview with Libération, Raphael, you said: “I belong to only one country, Israel, but it doesn’t belong only to me.” From the beginning of this interview, both of you have used the expression my Zionism. You use the same word but with different meanings. The fact is that any time you’re talking about Zionism, the idea of belonging—in terms of language but also the thing itself—automatically becomes impossible. It’s clear that ownership, and even possessive language, immediately invites doubt.

RZO I start by saying, “I belong to only one country,” which means I’m declaring the most stable identity possible, the strongest attachment—it’s almost a nationalist position. I have only one country … but this country, which I love, which I’m viscerally attached to, isn’t only mine. This comes back, through the central idea of Zionism, to the internal tension in Judaism between Eretz Israel and exile.

I try to challenge the idea the simple attachment to territory and the fantasies of exile. I always feel very uncomfortable in this debate when it demands I choose between one and the other, between Jews who are focused on exile and those who cling to territory. This is why I try to complicate it, to think of one as being within the other, one relentlessly challenging the other. Even as I assert my own attachment, I always try to introduce complications—particularly from a political perspective. But I do want to say: I have an identity, I have a language; we have a language and a culture. Of course, these are never fixed, and can’t be made to be; they owe themselves to the histories and stories of Jewishness in its many forms, but—and this is also rooted in our history—they are still Zionist. Why do I focus my work on these paradoxes? Why do I try to think of identity and disidentity, so to speak, all at once? Because I maintain that this paradox constitutes the sinews of what is playing out in Israeli politics, and more particularly at the heart of what we hear, what we can still hear, in the name of Zionism. In other words, this paradox is instrumental in everything that comes out of political negotiation or practical accommodation in Israel and between Israel and Palestinians.

Of course, I have the greatest respect for your “Zionism of the Diaspora,” Delphine Horvilleur, but I admit a certain attachment and sympathy for a sometimes crude form of Israeli Zionism. Let me explain. Israel is also the place where you don’t always have to relate to or refer to Judaism. It’s where you can, for a time, set aside, so to speak, the referent “Judaism.” And this is also extremely important. While Israel is today caught up in a kind of Diasporic obsession with Judaism, I have sympathy for that vein of classic Zionism that sought to free itself from Judaism, or in any case to free itself from the obsession of Judaism. This setting aside of Judaism in classical Zionism didn’t mean abandoning it, just the possibility of reinterpreting it, or retranslating it. This movement, this transition, this metamorphosis, is particularly meaningful to me in that it also creates space for diverse political and religious possibilities to blossom.

DH I’m struck by how in your book you compare ultranationalism to the lyricism of exile. I agree with you—the lyricism of exile condemns us to always be the Other in history, and we’ve seen where that leads us. At the same time, my Israeli experience has sometimes given me the impression that some Israelis believe they are “the same.” The danger of having a nation is forgetting the Other and becoming “the same.” Your approach allows us to think of what Israel allows Judaism—to not just be the Other; and what the Diaspora or the memory of exile allows Israel—to not just be “the same.”

RZO I’m with you on the question of same and other, but at the same time, I’m trying to develop the idea of Zionism as deconstruction. Israel, despite its hegemony, despite its determination to assert itself as a nation, is extremely unstable. Israel is also constantly deconstructing itself. And so Israel and Zionism can be improved. Zionism isn’t a hegemonic movement: there is precariousness in the history of Zionism and even within Zionism itself. Does this just stem from the fact of the Diaspora, of Judaism’s history of exile? I’m not sure. I think forms of instability also arise from the desire for affirmation.

DH There is that Israeli expression, “Don’t be a frayer,” that is, a loser, a sucker, the butt of a joke. This expression has always fascinated me because often in the Jewish culture of the Diaspora, we’re the frayer, the one being fooled.

RZO Traumatized people are rarely nice. It’s no surprise that Israel is also sometimes violent and wants to hit and kick. But Diaspora Jews aren’t just nice or frayers. Yes, Levinas says that Israel “risks no longer being the victim,” which is an extremely important statement, but I think there’s also something happening along these lines with Judaism in general after the Shoah. In the Diaspora today, I also notice a sense of, “we’re done being nice,” or “we’ve been nice for long enough …” The question of sovereignty is obviously legitimate.  But it’s sometimes abused, and the abuses today in Israel are a real political issue, even a threat to political democracy.

SH To pick up on the instability of Zionism, it’s a good thing it’s unstable, because it must be in order to be able to discuss it, so that there’s room within it to think, to question—room for the very possibility of questioning it at all. It’s already automatically unstable because the long, long history of Zionism, comes out of radical and irreconcilable oppositions. And if it’s unstable, it’s because these oppositions are preserved. If there’s a point in common between your positions, it’s the desire to preserve the term Zionism for political reasons, because you both recognize that there are many different forms of Zionism within it—that is, there’s a schism. Fundamentally, it comes down to a story of language. The history of Israel is the history of a language divided, occupied and multiform, which can only ever be comprehended as being many languages within one. A Tale of Love and Darkness, that great work on the history of Israel by Amos Oz, devotes a significant number of pages to the history of the language. It’s no coincidence that you cite Scholem’s great letter to Rosenzweig on the plurality of language, the sacred and the secularized. All of this tells us that the instability of Zionism and the necessity to preserve that instability—and at the same time, the impossibility of ownership—means that there will unavoidably also be a fervour for appropriation. So both expropriation and appropriation exist within the same movement.

DH At rabbinical school I had a professor who told us that if someone begins a sentence with “Judaism says …” or “According to the Quran …” or “The Gospels tell us …”, you should immediately interrupt the conversation and ask, “Whose Judaism? In what era? What context?” In fact, Judaism doesn’t “say” anything. And we can ask the same question in the context of Zionism, too. If I’m asked to prove that Judaism is feminist or misogynistic, I could do either just as easily, and back it up with verses. And so it is with many issues.

You were saying earlier that many Israelis have abandoned Judaism, and for me this has been very difficult to experience: the slogans of the Israeli political left, which I was very close to in the nineties, spoke the language of Judaism but didn’t mean it. It’s odd, but often in Zionism, Judaism is left to monologue from a kind of messianic nationalist orthodoxy. And today, it seems that the values of Judaism focus on land appropriation, a biblical land registry, and it’s really hard to make that about-face. I might quote another verse from the Bible (Leviticus 25:23) which says, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” Why has no one in Israel seized on this Jewish legacy of ownership, as a counterpoint to nationalist Judaism? SH Raphael, you say that Israel’s great political error is to have left the nation to the nationalists and religion to the religious?

SH Raphael, you say that Israel’s great political error is to have left the nation to the nationalists and religion to the religious.

RZO Imagine the difficulty we’re facing: Zionism is a European-born movement which, like it or not, is very often focused on the ideals of emancipation, self-determination and the nation state. Zionism reappropriates these European ontological, theological, and political concepts. That’s the context it was born out of. And it’s also the context in which the extreme persecution of Jews took place, in the name of these ideas. In fact, everything happened as if Europe said to the Jews, you are not sovereign, you have no foundation of your own, no soil, no place, no land, and so you’re outside the movement of history. And Zionism, whether secular, left-wing, liberal or even religious, has appropriated these European notions. Religious Zionism has enshrined them in a fixed and strongly defined idea of eschatology and messianism that suspends or even ignores the ambiguity, ambivalence and complexity that the traditional Jewish eschatological and messianistic perspective encompasses. Orthodox Judaism is another matter, because its relationship to Zionism remains as distant as ever, and as distrustful. The Orthodox are now allied to the Israeli nationalist right, but it’s a purely political alliance. But here’s my question: how can we reproach a political movement from the end of the 19th century for trying to emancipate itself, defend itself and establish itself in history through the nation-state? As you can see, reintroducing the notions of diasporic Judaism—without lyricism or naivety—into the relationship to territory, the necessity of having a homeland and, the need to protecting oneself, is complex.

DH What interests me is all the ways this relates to Judaism. Today, my biggest worry is that I see how we are threatened by the cult of Baal, which was a Canaanite cult condemned by the Bible, and was fundamentally a cult of ownership. In the Bible, the first acquisition that takes place is by Abraham, who buys a tomb for his wife; so, we buy land and become owners of it when we bury our dead, not when we’re living. Abraham, to me, is defined in a way that relates strongly to your proposed definition of Zionism: he says to the inhabitants of the land, “Ani ger vetoshav.” Ger has to do with migrancy, the idea of a foreign entity moving in. So, he says “I am a stranger among you,” but he adds toshav which carries the idea of returning. He puts together two irreconcilable words, which is the whole issue for me: how to simultaneously be someone who is aware they come from a foreign place, but who, at the same time, has the right to come back? It’s a semantic impossibility. And it’s what you’re proposing.

RZO It’s an extraordinary paradox. The paradox of Abraham, commanding us to return to the country while always remaining strangers in that country—with all that this entails in terms of the memory of having been a stranger. It’s true that this paradox remains central to Judaism and that Israeli politics could learn something from it that has sometimes been forgotten. But I don’t like to limit myself to this analysis of Israel. Firstly, because we have to honour all the places in Israel, and they are many, where people are thinking differently and are coming back to the text differently, in a way that isn’t solely nationalistic. There are new and innovative political alliances springing up every day, between the religious and the secular, but also between Jews and Arabs, that are forcing decision-makers and political players to work differently too.

Of course, you’ve encountered nationalism in Israel, but there are also an enormous number of Israelis whose relationship to Zionism and territory is much more complicated, sometimes relating to Judaism, and sometimes relating to forms of meaning other than Judaism. And there are also people who are trying to establish other kinds of political alliances with Israeli leaders. I don’t see this as being outside of Zionism; they’re mostly doing this in the name of Zionism. The people who for the last few years have been protesting every day outside the Prime Minister’s residence, are still protesting in the name of Zionism. We have to find ways to cultivate another relationship to Zionism and Judaism. And there’s something else we have to keep in mind, about the issue of post-colonialism. Unlike some so-called left-wing intellectuals in Israel, I think that debate around Zionism in terms of colonialism or post-colonialism totally negates the possibility of a different way of being in politics and in Zionism. This also takes us back to the idea of single narratives, too. I think that when thinking about the Middle East, about the issue of Israel/Palestine, relationship of Jews to the land, we can’t resort to overarching categorizations like this, and we especially can’t calque them onto the Israeli-Palestinian context. We can be radically critical of Israel, and can speak extremely harshly about its current politics and certain aspects of Zionism, but the simple charge of “colonialism” undermines, in the strongest sense of the word, the criticism that we can and should have of Israel, when it doesn’t just serve to cause Israelis to retreat into insularity. There are colonial phenomena in the territories, there is an Israeli far right, there’s what are called “colonies” that today have obvious colonialist tendencies. But I don’t believe Zionism is a colonialist movement. I think the term fails to reflect history, the history of Judaism and its relationship to the West, its necessary struggle against colonialism, and thus the colonialist catastrophe—that is, what the English, the French and the Ottomans have left in the Middle East. If we want to demand more responsibility from the West towards Palestinians and Israel today, we can talk about colonialist history, but not within Zionism. Jews, let’s remember, also arrived as refugees, and so have their own experience of rupture with the colonialist West.

DH We must again return to the problem of the word, the name “Zionism.” The question of whether or not to give up the term resonates powerfully with me, because very often I’ve been told that while the work I was doing in Judaism was good, I should drop the title of rabbi, the term. People would tell me that the rabbinate is patriarchal and misogynistic, that this is just its nature and that to work in Judaism as a woman, as a progressive thinker, I shouldn’t call myself a rabbi.

RZO To which it should be added that the root of rabbi, RAV, means sovereignty. You don’t abandon sovereignty, you have to fold it, unfold it, rework it, share it. Politics, and Zionism is politics, is about engaging in practical transactions.

SH As I listen to you, I’m reminded of that very famous phrase of Freud’s: “If you give up the word, you give up the thing.” What is interesting to me is that, at the same time, we don’t really know what the thing is. And it’s better not to know what the thing is, because if we lose the ambiguity, we lose everything.

Interview conducted and edited
by Stéphane Habib and Antoine Strobel-Dahan

Translated by Emma Roy