Exile and its Discontents: The Diasporic Politics of Return
Talking about Palestinian-Israeli affairs is very uncomfortable. It is a practical matter of grave significance for contemporary foreign affairs and a historical malaise of maddening perplexity; the lack of peace has tragically grave consequences as we all learned this last July when escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza led to the deaths of over 2000 Palestinians in Gaza and 71 Israelis. The historical complexity of the political reality is redoubled when the issues therein are discussed as political-theological matters, mostly because political theology itself is inherently awkward. Political theology forces us to discuss topics that are gauche, uncouth, and imprudent: violence, sovereignty, God, rights, and money. And so, one can be forgiven for thinking that, if it is taken up as a political-theological matter, any further discussion of the distance between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives (not to mention the multiplicities therein) about how to organize and arrange—that is, to map—their collective futures, only promises to deepen the distrust, pain, and dispossession.
But Mapping Exile and Return argues that there is nothing more ‘political-theological’ than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The conflict over sovereignty, reparations, claims to land and rights of return, and the ethno-religious organization of Jerusalem, is organized and regulated by an exclusionary theo-logic of the nation-state, unwelcoming to the religious multiplicity or ethnic heterogeneity of the region and its history. Alain Epp Epp Weaver argues forcefully that the political theology of exile can help map a shared, demilitarized, confederational future that brings an end to ‘Zionist’ occupation and exclusion. This argument comes not from the strength of ideational arguments, but rather the political force of his ethnographic research on the unique role that certain mapping practices (interpreted as liturgies, perhaps incorrectly, as Rachel Havrelock suggests) play in the efforts of Palestinian communities to reimagine their political arrangements and social attachments in the context of diaspora and exile. The end result is a theopolitical arrangement that is “shaped by the Jeremian call to seek the shalom of the city to which one has been dispersed.” In this way, exile is not negated by return, and return is not necessarily a repossession of one’s homeland, but a remapping of what ‘homeland’ means when galut is viewed as a theological vocation.
While the conflict is sometimes construed along Jewish-Muslim lines (even more problematically, along Israeli-Arab lines, a troublesome formation of the problem that Melanie Duguid-May traces out well) it also strikes at the theological heart of the Christian imaginary because of the sordid history between Christianity and its political appropriation of what Epp Weaver calls the “Zionist nationalist ideology.” This ideology calls for the erasure of ‘the Palestinian’ from a land they calls their own, an ethnocratic gesture that is politically enacted, but cartographically represented. This makes any sort of meaningful Palestinian return an impossibility, given that it cannot be interpreted in anything else other than a outright violation of Israeli sovereignty. The politics of displacement, enacted through estrangement of diasporic exile, is given a theological backing through its negation in “Zionist political theology,” a theme often celebrated by Christian treatments of the subject. If we are left with no recourse beyond crudely competing claims to land rights and sovereignty based on the binary of exile and return (‘one’s return is another’s exile’), peaceful return, like forgiveness, is impossible. As Melanie Duguid-May reminds, in the choice between “love or death,” death seems to win out every time. Duguid-May helpfully theologizes a solidaristic way beyond this false choice through a common belief in the sacrality of human being, but one is left wondering if it affords us any real political force.
To counter this, Epp Weaver argues that we must reimagine the future of displacement along the lines of a shared future, rather than the exclusionary maps of erasure that often accompany calls for return. The alternative ‘maps’ of exile and return that Epp Weaver envisions are both liturgical and political, theopoetic and arboreal. These maps are both theoretical and cartographical, acting as what Pierre Bourdieu calls a habitus, a socio-symbolic practice that embodies the structure of how one is to live and so is enacted into the lives of those who share in it. This habitus is pedagogical: it teaches actors and their communities – Palestinian and Israeli alike—how to think and live exilicly about return and landedness without abandoning the possibilities brought forth by mutuality, sharing, and cohabitation. This means both that the Palestinian maps of return involve and include a reimagining of exile as a landed modality, and so requires positive interpretations of exile: a way of life that Epp Weaver calls “accepting galut as vocation.” His reading of John Howard Yoder as a celebrated advocate of just such an idea leads him to conclude that exile must remain a primary theological category for a Palestinian political theology of return. Return cannot mean the negation of exile because if it does all that is left for us politically is volley after volley of mutually exclusive claims to land rights and rights of return for the sake of establishing discrete nation-states that necessarily involve the displacement, partition, and exclusion of the other. Epp Weaver’s liturgical counter-politics aims to reconfigure exile and return as mutually informing, rather opposed, ways of being connected to land that clears space for multiple belongings and attachments,
One question raised by this symposium is whether or not the Palestinian-Israeli affair calls for political-theological resolution. As our panelists note, at times, it appears as if political theology only make rapprochement harder to imagine. Can theology, or as Havrelock calls it, “appeals to transcendent reality”, offer more possibilities for binationalism than it does obstacles to shared success? Do the politics of theology really afford us ways of thinking exilic identity and the ‘returning dream’ that lead us out of identitarian or nationalist dynamics? Isn’t exile a theological problem at its core—that is, the theology of the nation-state as conceived by what Epp Weaver calls the “Zionist nationalist ideology”? Joshua Ralston is quick to point out that exile is having its own little moment, but mostly by those who do not actually suffer from it. He troubled by the theological attempt to refuse the negation of exile undermines the critical need to point out how deeply painful exile is.
With this emphasis, Najib George Awad reminds us, we risk missing the critical position that exile presents to us. It is not to be celebrated as a vocation, a theological reading that Havrelock rightly claims, risks becoming “yet another Christian figuration in which a Jewish form is hypothesized and then emptied of meaning.” For Awad, religion, not just demographic or political identity, matters. It matters whether one is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, for they all draw upon distinct imaginaries for thinking “the returning dream.” For many Palestinian Christians, their diasporic existence affords them a critical vantage which shows that “return” to their land may not be such a dream after all, especially when it comes to how one expects to be treated upon one’s return – and what kind of return is available to them. Melanie Duguid-May traces a history of solidarity between Jews and Muslims (on account of their shared history of being targeted by the genocidal Christian Europe), but recognizes that at the dawn of the Israeli state, any real alliance was made impossible by nationalist identity. All lasting solidarity and alliance must transcend borders, identities, and shared interests; it must be rooted in our common humanity. We are left with a stark political choice: love or death.
This same link between a broad humanism and a post-nationalist spirit is take up persuasively by Rachel Havrelock, who challenges or questions Epp Weaver’s insistence that the counter-cartographic efforts described in his book are indeed theological, liturgical even. Concerned about how Epp Weaver’s theological construal of binationalism seems to participate in a trend within theology whereby Jewish ideas are stripped of their particularity and repurposed for Christian ends—even if such ideas actively intend to avoid supersesssionist tendencies. Joshua Ralston is dubious whether Epp Weaver’s thesis is helpful for theorizing a shared future organized along the lines of heterogeneous space and multiple belongings for the city of Jerusalem. For many Palestinian Christians Ralston has encountered, exile is not what is celebrated in their political practices, but rather sumud: resilience, rootedness, and endurance. He points to examples of liturgies that symbolically refuse to submit to exile, rather than try to reimagine or remap it, and so creatively practice and enact forms of bodily arrangement that resists exilic orders, and stubbornly insists that they belong, that exile is indeed wrong, and the apparatus that enforces and police their bodies and the practice of their faith (checkpoints, barriers, fences) are the forces of exile.