Indigeneity and secularity:

Questioning territory: A Jewish reflection on holy land*

posted by Menachem Lorberbaum

Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie Peterson*In Rabbinic Hebrew “land of Israel” is the proper name of the holy land and should be distinguished from the modern state of Israel.

Thou mayest not hide thyself. – Deuteronomy 22:3, KJV

Territory is conceptually inherent to the nation-state structure; it is the inverse condition of sovereignty. Territory denotes the area of recognized reach of sovereign claim as law. Retaining its integrity is considered a primal causus belli. A nation-state’s territory is the individuating principle of its identity as sovereign among its peer states.

As integral to the épistème that informs the global state system, territory precedes any given concrete plot of land. Territory is not equal to real estate, it precedes it. In a nation-state system it is territoriality that enables the positing of parcelization within it. Indeed, any parcel of real estate may in principle be subject to the realization of eminent domain. A defined plot would hence recede to what was its background, recalled to an undifferentiated status in the territorial continuum. Territorial integrity, considered internally (vis-a-vis individual holdings) or externally (with regard to other states), is a function of sovereign immanence. (Perhaps then sovereign expropriation of land should better be termed, “immanent domain.”)

Naturalization is another point at hand in pursuing the reach of territory. The process of acquiring citizenship strives to mimic the fact of birth as a primal mode of membership. Through birth, one enters, often inalienably, a civic community. Membership by birth is not an acquisition. Civic identity is often, first and foremost, a claim regarding where one was born and might be at least as important as to whom one was born. A global system of nation-states is that in which no individual can escape territorial location or definition with regard to nationality. A stateless person (or people) is an anomaly in this economy of presence and therefore best rendered transparent or tucked away, invisible. Regarded systemically, territory instances the nation-state system (and parcelization in its turn reflects the logic of the overall system of division of territories, thus reinforcing this logic). It is a system with a totalizing effect that strives to eliminate fissures and hence define statelessness, safe-passage, safe-haven, or ex-territoriality in terms of sovereign decision rather than a-systemic possibility. Burden of proof for entry is on the migrant, thereby defining the migrant’s original position as outcast who must beg at the door.

Thinking of territory as a patrie, a motherland or homeland, makes use of metaphors that hope to capture a primal relationship between territory and citizenship. It is this meeting that founds the very concept of nation as more than merely a linguistic derivative of natio, birth. Pre-modern and pre-statist intuitions of indigeneity undergo a modern schematisim that issue forth in citizenship. Territory thus invigorated is the depth interpretation of the hyphen in the couplet “nation-state.” It is rendered sacral by political theologies that seek to invest it with the status of the divine hearth, consecrating thereby not only the claim to a sovereign right to it but also the demand of sacrifice of life to retain its integrity. In their quest for the aura of majesty we may consider civil religions as the republican version of monarchic divine right theories.

Jerusalem_Dome_of_the_rock_BW_14It is the task of a theological critique of the political to constantly call our attention to the tendency of states to elide the saeculum and to render metaphorical reifications absolute and sacral. Divine otherness calls into question the very modes of presencing that inform the character of the saeculum. From a theological point of view differing epochs of presencing necessitate a hermeneutics that continuously redeploys the distinction between kodesh, sacred, and hol, saeculum. The theological critique does not deny the political; rather it seeks to render political ontology porous. It cultivates the ability to behold the jarring disturbance of suffering and enhance the enveloping of pain. By attenuating the grounding of human structures of rule it makes the excluded, “the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan,” visible, thus contributing to the circumstances of justice and charity.

In Leviticus 25 the Torah famously critiques the human claim to ownership: “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” (KJV Lev. 25:23)

Ownership here becomes a Divine attribute and its practical implication is that human beings may not claim it for themselves. Accepting the land as holy, as a mode of signaling the divine, implies the preclusion of human subjection. It is this insight that leads to the vision of the Sabbatical year cycle and the Jubilee that call for epochal reverting to an original position. Attributing sacredness to the land of Israel means renouncing its conception either as territory or property. It is precisely the hyphenated relation between rule and natality that is severed in the stark declamation “for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” Human presence on holy land is always contingent. The land cannot be both sacred and territory at one and the same time. Faced by the Divine claim we are constantly reverted to an original position and forced to relinquish the hold of territorial, and thereby sovereign, integrity.

On this biblical construal, sovereign territory cannot be considered sacred. Sacrality precludes human sovereignty. Should one wish to live civically within the Holy Land the price would be to consider the land part of the secular order, hol, saeculum. A secular sovereign cannot speak for the holy. Sovereign respect for the holy would necessitate relinquishing of sovereign claims of law-making and war-making and assuming the role of custodianship. To relinquish less would be a desecration. The attempts of national movements to anchor their claims to sovereignty, however just or unjust and however pressing on their own terms in the sacred, as for example Israel and/or Palestine in the walled city of Jerusalem (as signifying the sacred), are equally vacuous from a theological point of view. The sacred does not justify or legitimate the political and its vicissitudes—it calls them into question.

Indigeneity allows precisely for this kind of questioning. Indigeneity is not a release from history; it charts a mode of being that cannot be subsumed by territoriality. It suggests a manner of acknowledging a belonging in space that fractures the very anchoring territory reworked for the state. As such it is analogous to community as a mode of collective life geared to a shared vision of the good that is not immediately translatable to a polity, indeed never captured by it. If the claim to indigeneity is but a preamble to translation to territory, if it is but a subset of identity politics, it has forfeited its critical posture and opted for nationalism. This is possible but should be recognized for what it is. Nascent nationalism should be distinguished from the unique critical role of indigeneity to reconfigure space, to claim spaces away from the polity from within the polity. It thereby also renders territorial integrity porous in a manner parcelization cannot. Parcelization is a way of drawing individual holdings; but communal goods are not holdings.

It should be emphasized that a theological critique of politics is not a call for the precedence of religion over politics. Religion as an institution is in as dire need of deconstruction as politics, and in terms of faith, of attuning a human stance before God, even more so. The civic consciousness of a posture of faith, and in this case, of an individual respecting the land as holy, would attenuate the ontological placement of the political. Sovereignty for such an individual could at most be functional with regard to the chores of attending to the public good. Fractured sovereign structures (e.g. divisions of powers and curtailment of the effective reach of governments) would better suit the questioning stance that faith poses to presence. But in a deeper way, reconfigurations of space, time, and togetherness help question the ontological closure that is the foundational equivalent of institutional centralization. Fractured sovereignties would also promote attenuating the systematicity of the global order and allow indigenous groups, uprooted people, migrant laborers, and the stateless in general to surface to visibility. Worship cultivates service rather than privilege; the abetting of presence brings to focus the acuity of pain and suffering so that the work of tikkun, of rectifying the world and divinity, may commence.

This essay is part of a larger project, publication forthcoming.

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