Israel Has a Jewish Problem

Israel Has a Jewish Problem: Self-Determination as Self-Elimination is now available.


Examining the production and assimilation of Jews as “the nation” in the modern state of Israel, this book shows how identity is constrained through myriad struggles over the meanings and practices of being Jewish. Based on years of ethnographic engagement, the book employs Franz Kafka’s writing as a theoretical lens in order to frame the seemingly bizarre and self-contradictory processes it describes. While other scholars have explained Jewish identity conflicts in Israel in terms of a dichotomy between the secular and the religious, this book suggests that such an analysis is inadequate. Instead, it traces these struggles to the definition of “religion” itself. It suggests that the problem lies in the way modern identity categories at once disarticulate “religion” from “nation” and at the same time conflate those categories in the figure of the Jew. The struggles over Jewishness that are part of the process of producing the ethnos for the ethno-national state call into question the notion that self-determination in the form of the nation-state is a liberating process. Modern democratic nation-states are meant to liberate citizens because they are understood to be ruled by “the people” and for “the people.” But if “the people” exists for the state and its projects, then there is little liberating about the formula of sovereign citizenship. Instead, self-determination becomes a form of self-elimination, narrowing the possible forms of Jewishness. The case of Israel demonstrates that the classic “Jewish Question” in Europe has been transformed but not answered by political sovereignty.

Early reviews:

“In Dalsheim’s trademark fashion, this book gets beyond facile dichotomies to juxtapose critical insights about the construction of Israel Jewish identity with ethnographic vignettes about people who, in various ways, are constrained or marginalized by that normative identity. It humanizes the people and historicizes the state, making it one of very few recent volumes to offer genuine new insight into a very old debate.” — Jonathan Boyarin, Paul and Bertha Hendrix Director of Jewish Studies, Cornell University

“Reminding us that we still need a discerning portrait of the settler, Dalsheim brilliantly draws a devastating picture of the strains and pressures at work between Judaism and Zionism. The liberation of the Jews by the self-proclaimed ‘State of the Jewish People’ has created a new Jewish problem. Dalsheim documents that to the question ‘who is a Jew?’ – ‘Not an Arab’ is only the most violent among a terrifying array of quotidian answers, erasures, and eradications.” — Gil Anidjar, author of The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy