Book Review: Baron, Obligation in Exile: The Jewish Diaspora, Israel and Critique

Ilan Baron’s ambitious book centres on a controversial and highly topical research question: how can one best understand the relationship between the Jewish diaspora and the Israeli state, and the attitudes and responsibilities of the former towards the latter? Baron argues against both the statist paradigm, according to which political obligation only exists within the boundaries of the state, and against Zionist orthodoxy, which maintains that diaspora Jews owe unconditional loyalty to the state of Israel. As an alternative, he develops a theory of transnational political obligation, which builds on the constitution of collective identity by diaspora Jews and the importance of their relationship with Israel as part of that identity. This does not mean, however, that Jews have to be loyal to the Jewish state; on the contrary, the possibility of critique is central to the concept of transnational political obligation, and being critical of the Israeli state does not make one a ‘bad’ Jew. Along the way, the book presents an impressive multidisciplinary approach which includes, among others, a critical reading of the philosophical literature on political obligation, an analysis of Arendt and Foucault on power and identity, an engagement with the burgeoning transnationalism literature in IR, and ethnographic interviews with Jews in North America, Europe and Israel.

As impressive as Baron’s command of these different fields of knowledge is, however, the book’s multidisciplinary approach ultimately undermines the coherence of his argument. In particular, the first two chapters (discussing the implicit statism of theories of political obligation, and discussing the relevance of Arendt and Foucault, respectively) are very dense and their relation to the rest of the book is unclear. In the process, Baron’s distinct theoretical contribution remains underdeveloped: for example, his discussion of political obligation relies on works by analytical liberal philosophers such as Rawls, Klosko, Horton, and Gilbert, but he does not explain why their conception of political obligation as the obligation to obey the law is relevant to his own thicker conception. Baron’s normative conclusion, while certainly not disagreeable, does not seem to rely on this theoretical discussion. More generally, the book could have benefited from more careful editing. While Baron’s prose is compelling, there are too many instances of repetitions, unexplained acronyms and digressions that make the general thesis difficult to follow. That it is not to say that there are not many points in the book which would be of great interest to those interested in Jewish politics. As a more general theoretical contribution, however, it unfortunately falls short.

Obligation in Exile: The Jewish Diaspora, Israel and Critique by Ilan Zvi Baron. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015. 295pp., £75.00 (h/b), ISBN 9780748692309

Note: The definitive version of this review is forthcoming Political Studies Review

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