Two Paths for Diasporism

Daniel Boyarin’s The No-State Solution seeks to revive the idea of Jews as a “diaspora nation,” but reduces a powerful repository of political templates to a dissident subculture.

Julie E. Cooper
September 28, 2023

A poster urging voters to support the Jewish Folkspartey, from 1918. Image courtesy of YIVO.

Discussed in this essay: The No-State Solution, by Daniel Boyarin, Yale University Press, 2023. 200 pages.

In the 1931 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow contributed the entry on “diaspora,” a concise summary of his pioneering research and influential theory of Jewish national survival. According to Dubnow, after the fall of the ancient Hebrew state, dispersed Jewish communities retained their autonomy and national identity through self-governing institutions such as schools, courts, and social welfare networks. These communities, which he describes as “substitutes for state forms,” remained distinct from the nations in which they were situated, functioning as independent polities: “In most of the eastern Diaspora,” for instance, “the state delegated to such communities wide powers of regulation, taxation, [and] judicial administration (including punishment of crime).” Dubnow makes clear that the degree of independence that Jewish communities enjoyed has varied. Yet he stresses the pervasive continuity of Jewish national independence. Throughout history and across the globe, Dubnow contends, Jews have carved out autonomous zones in which they could administer their own affairs at some remove from the gentile state. These practices of communal self-government generated a distinctive theoretical tradition centered on cultural and political autonomy, rather than territorial sovereignty.

Dubnow, an activist as well as a historian, was deeply inspired by this tradition. In 1907, he co-founded the Folkspartey (Jewish People’s Party), which proposed what became known as a “diaspora nationalist” platform. The party advocated Jewish self-rule and legal recognition of a Jewish nationality within a democratic Russian government, including the establishment of a Russia-wide Jewish national assembly. These measures were necessary, Dubnow argued, to preserve Jewish independence, which was being threatened by the centralizing tendencies of the modern state. The Folkspartey’s demands for Jewish autonomy—far more extensive than those of the socialist Bund, whose vision was limited to education and language rights—were extremely popular across Eastern Europe. By 1917, elements of the party’s platform had been adopted by virtually all Jewish political parties in Russia—even Zionist ones, which demanded minority rights for European Jews in addition to the establishment of a national home in Palestine. In the heyday of diaspora nationalism, Dubnow provided historical and theoretical frameworks to support a widespread political demand: the call for collective rights of self-government within the multinational states of Eastern Europe.

Diaspora nationalism largely faded from the Jewish political lexicon after World War II. The Nazi geno­cide led many to conclude that this multinational vision had been decisively refuted by history, and with the establishment of the State of Israel, Jewish national self-determination was increasingly linked with territorial sovereignty. Yet in the past two decades, as a younger generation of American Jews has wrestled with antisemitism and the dilemmas of whiteness on the one hand, and with Israel’s discriminatory practices on the other, neo-diasporisms of various kinds have pro­liferated. This trend accelerated in the Trump era: Writing in the pages of this magazine in 2018, then-publisher Jacob Plitman celebrated “an emerging diasporism” among artists and activists, organized around the Bund-inspired concept of “doikayt” (“hereness”)—a post-liberal politics of coalition-building that refuses to resolve differences into comfortable consensus. In short, the notion of “diaspora” has been reclaimed and rehabilitated, as leftists seek an au­then­tic Jewish stance from which to oppose white supremacy in the United States and Jewish supremacy in Israel.

But what exactly would it mean to revive diaspor­ism, not only as a philosophical orientation, but as a live political stance in the 21st century? The eminent Talmudist Daniel Boyarin’s new book, The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto, offers one intriguing set of answers. Like Dubnow before him, Boyarin hails diaspora “as foundational to the character of Jewish existence and a source of its cultural and political vitality,” and positions diasporic politics as an alter­native to the territorial, state-centered politics of Zionism. (Boyarin vocally deplores the ideology’s moral outrages, the most egregious of which Dubnow did not live to witness.) Yet Boyarin’s non-Zionist vision is anchored in a markedly different understanding of diaspora, which he defines as a situation marked by “doubled identity as well as doubled loyalties and a doubled cultural location and doubled practices.” Diasporic Jews, as Boyarin understands them, nourish a distinct cultural world while participating enthu­siastically in ambient, non-Jewish cultures. If Dubnow associated diaspora with autonomous existence sustained through schools, courts, community councils, and charities, Boyarin finds it in a diasporic con­sciousness cultivated through “studying Talmud, keep­ing the Sabbath, speaking Yiddish, dancing with Kurdish or Yemenite Jews, and studying their Torah.”

Boyarin’s most audacious move, which he nervously predicts will enrage many readers, is to claim not only diasporism but nationalism as a leftist political stance.

Despite these immense differences in approach, Boyarin retains one key element from Dubnow and his 20th-century peers: an understanding of Jews as a “diaspora nation.” Boyarin’s most audacious move, which he nervously predicts will enrage many readers, is to claim not only diasporism but nationalism as a leftist political stance. In Boyarin’s formulation, the challenge confronting the Jewish people is: “how can we remain a nation—for that is what I believe we are and should continue to be—and retain at the same time our absolute commitment to social justice for all?” By reviving the concept of the diaspora nation, Boyarin seeks to address both pervasive fury at the myriad injustices perpetrated by the State of Israel and dissatisfaction with the thin, attenuated forms of Jewishness prescribed by American liberalism. Boyarin speaks to a generation that rejects the injunction to “be a man in the streets and a Jew at home”—a phrase from the 19th-century poet Y.L. Gordon that became a byword for the costs of emancipation and integration—while also refusing the demand for uncritical allegiance to the Jewish establishment. He invites his readers to cultivate “a different political imagination, one of dual and complex loyalty” in which “Jewish doings, broadly conceived” provide the cultural framework for social justice.

While the promise of a more assertively Jewish political orientation is likely to appeal to readers who understand their leftism as a natural extension of their Jewish commitments, Boyarin’s book does not manage to revive diaspora nationalism as a vital and compelling political position. Indeed, for all its professed boldness, Boyarin’s reclamation is rather hesitant. This timidity is partly a product of the way the political terrain has shifted since Dubnow’s day. While a socialist-inflected Jewish nationalism once fit comfortably, albeit not seamlessly, into left politics, today’s left generally finds Jewish nationalism ideologically suspect given its presumed association with Israel. Boyarin is wary of running afoul of political allies who conflate all forms of particularism with racism, exclusion, and violence—and his manifesto is suffused with an anxiety that he’ll be branded a crypto-Zionist. But convinced as he is of his argument’s boldness, in reality his manifesto reflects a failure of nerve and ambition regarding what diaspora could mean today. By investing political hope not in Dubnow’s traditional concerns (courts and community councils), but in the performance of identity (singing and dancing), he ends up reducing a powerful repository of political templates to a dissident subculture.

While the title of The No-State Solution promises readers an ambitious new way of organizing a polity, its actual prescriptions are much more modest. Boyarin offers an eloquent testimony to the generative power of minority identity, but he never moves beyond the joys of Talmud study to grapple with the legal, institutional, and economic foundations of Jewish community—that is, the specifics of political organ­ization beneath and beyond the state. In this sense, The No-State Solution shares the political naivete of many neo-diasporisms: the inability or unwillingness to envision governance structures, whether in America or Israel, that deviate from the state form. Once a condition in which non-sovereign communities built the in­stitutional infrastructures of self-rule, today diaspora is another name for cultural hybridity. All the same, Boyarin’s manifesto is instructive because, in its omissions and oversights, it challenges readers to explore what it would mean to reclaim a more robustly political diasporism.

By investing political hope not in Dubnow’s traditional concerns (courts and community councils), but in the performance of identity (singing and dancing), Boyarin ends up reducing a powerful repository of political templates to a dissident subculture.

Boyarin’s late-career embrace of nationalism is somewhat unexpected. An emeritus professor of Talmud at the University of California, Berkeley, he has published more than a dozen books since 1989. He was one of the first scholars to analyze rabbinic texts using methods drawn from gender studies, queer theory, and post-structuralism—a theoretical turn that rejuvenated the field. In his 1997 book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Boyarin broke new ground by interpreting the Talmud as a site for the construction of Jewish masculinity, which, he argues, valorizes “sissy”-like traits disparaged in the West.

Boyarin has often aligned his research, which emphasizes feminist and queer frameworks, with left politics, and he has long been a committed anti-Zionist alert to the possibilities of diaspora. In earlier works, he presented diaspora as an antidote to nationalism. His influential 1993 essay “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity”—co-written with his brother Jonathan, an anthropologist of Jewish culture—presents diaspora as “a theoretical and historical model to replace national self-determination.” Boyarin sounds a similar note in the prelude to his 2015 book A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, where he borrows language from the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said to position diaspora between “the extremes of exile, on the one hand, and the often bloody-minded affirmations of nationalism, on the other.” Though Boyarin has always been more interested in delineating the distinctive cultural dynamics of diasporic community than developing a critique of nationalism, his previous work has consistently implied that nationalist ideologies of all kinds con­stitute dangerous, oppressive forms of particularism.

It is especially striking, then, that Boyarin’s manifesto summing up a lifetime of thinking about diaspora proudly reclaims Jewish nationalism. As he explains in The No-State Solution, he ultimately arrived at a nationalist definition of Jewish collectivity because he found the available alternatives unsatisfactory. Boyarin rejects the category of “religion” because, drawing on the work of anthropologists such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, he sees it as a Protestant imposition that distorts signature facets of Jewish existence. In this manifesto as well as in his 2019 book Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Nation, he argues that in modernity, in order to count as a religion, “Judaism” (a word he avoids wherever possible) was cast as an individual, voluntary faith predicated on doctrine and belief, as opposed to law, genealogy, or embodied practice. For Boyarin, Jewishness is not limited to shul on Shabbat morning. Rather, it’s a rich, all-encompassing way of being that manifests through “a shared cultural world” produced by “the holidays, the material culture—melodies for the liturgy, shofar, lulov and esrog for Sukkos, the Sukka itself, matza (but also chulent and lox and bagels).” In his view, “nation” is the category that best fits this holistic vision of Jewishness. However, it’s crucial for Boyarin that the Jewish nation is not one with the firm, exclusionary borders char­acteristic of state nationalism, but rather “subsist[s] alongside of the local cultural world” and “interact[s] with it.” This intertwinement “produces the doubled culture that marks diaspora, in this case the Jewish Diaspora Nation.” The genius of diaspora, as he sees it, is that one can speak a Jewish language, eat Jewish food, study Jewish texts, and observe the rhythms of Jewish time, all while marching with Black Lives Matter and devoting one’s energies to “local activism and solidarity.” Reclaiming nationalism for the diaspora allows Boyarin to celebrate the collective, public, and political dimensions of Jewish practice without compromising on “economic justice, cultural freedom, and equality for all the people and peoples of the world”—reconciling Jewish particularism with a universalist commitment to justice.

Boyarin’s embrace of nationalism is simul­taneously strident and defensive. He claims to have elicited “fury” from interlocutors who decry such assertions of group identity, believing that “the only way to end anti-Semitism is for the Jews effectively to disappear from the earth as a collective.” While these infuriated parties remain mostly unnamed, Boyarin offers an extensive critique of the New York Times ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose 2006 book Cosmo­politanism argues that “special responsibilities” might “make sense within truly thick relations (with lovers, family, friends), but not within the imaginary fraternity of our co-nationals”; in one overheated but not unrepresentative passage, Boyarin declares that the “last chance for powerful and just Jewish identity is being robbed by” cosmopolitans like Appiah. In response to the assimilationist pressures supposedly confronting American Jews, Boyarin suggests taking a cue from the African diaspora theorists of Négritude, such as the writer Aimé Césaire, who cultivated a consciousness of Blackness in opposition to colon­ialism. Boyarin even coins the term “Judaïtude” to capture his own resistance as a Jew “to be­ing disappeared.”

Though Boyarin repeatedly insists that he does not intend to draw any “moral equivalence” between Jewish and Black suffering, the analogy inherently suggests otherwise, reflecting his excessive sense of besiegement. By invoking Négritude and professing profound psychological identification with “the dilemma posed by the desire for decolonized identity”—as diagnosed by the psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon—Boyarin implies that American Jews are at risk of a cultural extinction on the order of those colonialism has wrought. But who or what in contem­porary America really threatens Boyarin’s “commitment to Jewish identity and identification, Torah study, scholarship, practice, literature and liturgy, and modes of speech and thinking”? One begins to suspect that the outsize sense of vulnerability partly reflects Boyarin’s anxiety about the place of Jews on the left. Aware that (Jewish) nationalism is ideologically suspect, Boyarin aligns himself with a mode of particularism (Black radicalism) that currently enjoys greater cachet. Yet, as the caveats attest, Boyarin realizes that the analogy is shaky—or at least that it is liable to alienate the very allies he is trying to court.

Aware that (Jewish) nationalism is ideologically suspect, Boyarin aligns himself with a mode of particularism (Black radicalism) that currently enjoys greater cachet.

If Boyarin believes the threat to Jewish identity is so dire, one would expect his diaspora nationalism to respond with corresponding urgency and specificity. But for a professed nationalist, Boyarin seems curiously disinterested in the question of what it would actually mean for diaspora Jews to identify as a nation, and what exactly would be required—economically, legally, and politically—to give this nation concrete form. This aversion to mundane politics informs his relationship to his historical sources. Oddly for a manifesto that hails “the Diaspora Nation” as “the no-state solution,” Boyarin’s book does not situate itself within historical traditions of diaspora nationalism. Apart from a few throwaway references to the Bund—Boyarin spor­adically invokes doikayt, and the book’s frontis­piece features the oft-reproduced poster bearing the Bundist slogan, “Wherever we live, that’s our home­land”—he does not engage with any of the thinkers who made diaspora nationalism one of the most influential Jewish movements of the 20th century. The text never mentions any Bundists by name, let alone Dubnow or other ideological forebears.

Instead of exploring the resources that Eastern European traditions of diaspora nationalism offer the contemporary Jewish left, Boyarin turns to his area of scholarly expertise, the Talmud. As in previous works, Boyarin presents this text, composed in exile and studied by scattered communities, as both the historical foundation of the diasporic Jewish nation and a paradigm for contemporary political solidarity. “The study of Talmud,” Boyarin writes, “could constitute the Jewish Diaspora both in antiquity and today because it provided a common language.” The Talmud that Boyarin recruits for his nationalist revival is an idiosyncratic, aestheticized version of the rabbinic corpus. In a chapter called “The Lullaby of Jewland,” Boyarin celebrates the musicality of traditional Talmud study and its ability to shape the local Jewish lan­guages spoken by diasporic communities, such as Yiddish and Ladino, as well as a distinctively Jewish style of social being: “Despite its shady reputation in certain circles for belonging only to elites, the Talmud, its melodies and rhythms, its questioning tone—indeed, its querulousness—that is Jewish jazz.” (Here, too, Boyarin draws on Black thought—specifically, theorist Fred Moten’s work on jazz and Black sociality—without sufficiently complicating the analogy.)

But Boyarin’s romanticized view of the Talmud as “the soundscape, the music of Jewish life” ignores its historical function as not only a scholarly and literary text, but a source of law and authority. He glosses over the Talmud’s role as the basis of codification projects such as the Shulchan Aruch, which flattened the rabbinic text’s inconclusive debates into the rules of halacha. Once it was adopted as a binding legal code, the Shulchan Aruch conferred coercive authority on rabbis and communal leaders. It is not merely the “common language” of Talmud study but also this system of law and enforcement that has “constitute[d] the Jewish Diaspora” as a nation, as Dubnow appreciated. Yet Boyarin leaves these complex entanglements entirely unacknowledged, illustrating his disinclination to grapple with the political underpinnings of nationhood. His Talmud, like his diaspora nationalism, ultimately has little to offer those interested in devising new infrastructures for Jewish community—and organizing Jews toward new political ends.

In his enthusiasm for Jewish jazz, Boyarin appears to have missed a central lesson of Eastern European diaspora nationalism. To survive without a state, a nation must build an alternative set of economic, legal, and institutional infrastructures, which can provide the basis for self-rule. But the lists of diasporic “doings” that pepper The No-State Solution conspicuously exclude the work that undergirds self-governance: deliberation, advocacy, lobbying, legislating, fundraising, and institution-building. In fact, Boyarin dismisses these activities out of hand. In the book’s conclusion, he declares, “No more Feder­ations; Councils; Leadership Committees; sociologists who study Jewish continuity by counting babies and checking out their mothers’ ‘identity.’ Just Jews singing, dancing, speaking and writing in Hebrew, Yiddish, Judezmo, learning the Talmud in all sorts of ways, fighting together for justice for Palestinians and Black Lives Matter.” For Boyarin, it seems, institutions are inherently conservative.

Granted, as currently constituted, Jewish fed­erations and other organizations that purport to re­present the “mainstream” are bastions of conservatism. Too often, they confer inordinate power on wealthy donors and impose ideological orthodoxy surrounding Israel. But any constructive discussion about reviving the principles of diaspora nationalism would need to contend with the influence these institutions exert. While these organizations are largely private nonprofits, rather than the autonomous, public institutions for which Dubnow advocated, they play a major role in setting the agenda for contemporary Jewish politics. To counter prevailing orthodoxies and contest for political power, Jews on the left would need to create “councils” of our own—alternative infrastructures robust enough to challenge the existing Jewish establishment. Only such a shift in the organizational landscape could provide activists with sufficient resources to reset the public conversation.

To counter prevailing orthodoxies and contest for political power, Jews on the left would need to create “councils” of our own—alternative infrastructures robust enough to challenge the existing Jewish establishment.

Today’s organizers might draw on the history of diaspora nationalism to inform a range of undertakings. For instance, they might explore the prospects for democratic self-governance through the establishment of a veritable “American Jewish Congress”—one that could square off against the existing advocacy group, which, despite its name, is not a democratically elected, representative body. They might even learn from Haredi Jews, who have established autonomies in New York state. Though these communities are generally undemocratic, both in terms of their internal organ­ization and their relationships with their neighbors, they might still offer a model of sorts to progressive Jews interested in establishing their own networks of schools, social support agencies, and conflict resolution forums. Of course, leftists interested in such alternative institutions might have no desire to locate them specifically in the Jewish community, and there is no reason why they couldn’t derive inspiration from these substatist traditions to establish schools whose orien­tation is, say, secular and socialist rather than Jewish. But the resurgence of diasporism arguably reflects a thirst for increased Jewish autonomy—a belief that Jews constitute a political community and, as such, can act as a powerful coalition partner in campaigns for the common good. No matter how stirring, a paean to cultural creativity like Boyarin’s will never pose a real challenge to the institutions that purport to define the meaning of diasporic Jewishness today.

A diasporism that is understood as a countercultural identity for beleaguered dissenters likewise offers little of substance to advocates for equality in Israel/Palestine, which is currently at a political tipping point. But if diaspora is understood as a distinctive form of polity, it becomes eminently relevant to this moment of crisis. Since January 2023, Israel’s right-wing govern­ment has advanced a plan to subvert the nation’s independent judiciary, destroying its few existing safeguards for human rights. The mass protest movement against the judicial “reform” has successfully reoriented political debate to focus on issues like constitutional design and the separation of powers. Even though few of the Jewish Israelis marching through the streets chanting “democracy” seem willing to acknowledge the blatantly undemocratic features of the status quo, there is a real hunger for new political solutions—early in the protest movement, activists often discussed convening a constitutional convention or otherwise played with the idea of reconfiguring Israel’s governing institutions. Strikingly, since the launch of the judicial “reform,” opponents have repeatedly called for Israel’s division into secular Jewish, Haredi, and Palestinian “autonomies.” It is now common for pundits on the left, perhaps exhausted with the conventional opposition between one and two-state “solutions,” to propose a loose federation of “autonomies” as a program for egalitarian democracy. Many of the commentators using this language are likely unaware of its historical origins in Eastern European diaspora nationalism. But the return of such frameworks in the context of Israel/Palestine attests to the resources they continue to offer for imagining multinational democracy.

While it once seemed that the diaspora nationalist path was foreclosed in 1948, it is now at least conceivable that the Jewish state could give way to a different kind of regime, marked by diasporist conceptions of self-government. This possible future, in which the Jewish nation functions similarly in the Land of Israel as it does elsewhere, would have radical implications for the very meaning of diaspora, since it would undo the opposition between exile and homeland that has structured most accounts of Jewish politics. Such a fundamental reimagining of Jewish life would have profound political implications, challenging the notion that the nation-state is the telos of Jewish modernity. It is hard to predict whether the renewed interest in autonomism in Israel will transcend its current niche, but it’s clear that a repoliticized diaspora nationalism could go beyond simply offering a comforting counternarrative to Zionism. If the diasporic vision of non-sovereign self-determination were picked up as a rallying cry on the left, it might even become a call for new forms of Jewish life across the globe.

Julie E. Cooper is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University.