February 21, 2019
Interview with Julie Cooper
Hannah Mayne: What are you currently working on right now?
Julie Cooper: The larger book project that I’m working on at the moment concerns Jewish nationalism in the interwar period. Specifically, I study debates among activists and intellectuals surrounding the implications of Jewish political history and the kind of political regime that might allow Jews to achieve national self-determination in the modern period. In this period, there was no consensus regarding the kind of political regime that Jews should adopt or pursue (e.g., sovereign state vs. federation vs. local autonomy). Rather, there is an intense debate regarding the set of political institutions and arrangements best suited to advance Jewish self-determination. It is only with the partition plan (first proposed in 1937) that the nation-state becomes the dominant political model. Retrospectively, with the partition plan, the Jewish nation-state starts to seem like the “obvious” solution to the Jewish question. If the Jews’ plight stems from their anomalous position as a stateless people in a world of nation-states, many would argue, then the “obvious” solution is to grant the Jews a nation-state of their own. Many people today share this view: to solve “the Jewish question,” the nation-state is the only viable answer.
In my current project, I hope to challenge the seeming “obviousness” of state sovereignty as the hegemonic political model. To do so, I go back to an earlier historical period in which it didn’t seem so obvious that the nation-state constitutes the telos of Jewish history or the conclusive solution to “the Jewish question.” I am going back to this earlier historical period in order to study the debates taking place regarding sovereign and non-sovereign versions of politics (e.g., nation-state vs. local autonomy), to try to recover that sense of political openness and imagination.
Julie Cooper: When I was in graduate school, I did a PhD in Berkeley’s Rhetoric department, a non-traditional interdisciplinary department where we had to design our own plan of study and define our own fields. At that point my plan was to write a dissertation comparing Western political thought and Jewish political thought, but this proved to be impossible to execute because it was too much, too hard. I did write about Spinoza in the dissertation, but in the end the work I did about Spinoza was more focused on the Christian reception of Spinoza (rather than his position within canons of Jewish thought). My plan all along was to work simultaneously on Jewish thought. In the end, I guess, the work became segmented into two separate projects. But there are thematic continuities between the projects.
For example, part of the argument in my first book criticized the idea that the modern individual is a stereotypical “sovereign subject,” obsessed with power and mastery. Focusing on 17th century political theory, I sought to challenge the common view that sees secularization as a project of human self-deification, in which humans get rid of God in order to usurp God’s power and prerogatives. Essentially, I argued that the development of secular modes of individualism required a new reckoning or coming to terms with human finitude, with the limits to human power (as well as a celebration of its extent). We can see as much if we trace the different conceptions of humility and pride that emerge in seventeenth century philosophy: in these texts, humility is not just an Augustinian, Christian virtue, it also becomes a new kind of secular virtue. In short, I examined the development of new understandings of humility as a political virtue in an effort to tell an altogether different story about the emergence of secularity. In my first book I explored sovereignty at the level of the individual: is the modern individual a sovereign individual, a stereotypical “sovereign subject”? Or, as I argued, does the modern subject exhibit new forms of modesty and humility? In my current project, I study sovereignty at the level of the state or political collective. Both of these projects also engage the relationship between religion and politics.
Hannah Mayne: If they are both about religion and politics, does sanctity mean anything in these projects?
Julie Cooper: Well, in my current project, I certainly encounter claims regarding the sanctity of the land of Israel. But I am not a big fan of Carl Schmitt, so I am not especially interested in theories that define secularization as the transfer of religious concepts and models onto secular politics, or that consider the secular individual (or the secular state) as a stand-in for God. So I myself have not devoted much time or energy to what many consider the standard questions of “political theology.”
“Sanctity” is not an analytical category that I have used in my own work, but it does come up frequently in the Zionist texts that I study, given the many Jewish traditions that ascribe sanctity to the land of Israel. For example, in Ben Gurion’s writing, in a lot of Zionist writing, there is an aspiration to redefine the Jews’ relationship to the land and the soil, to create an organic attachment to soil. The assumption being that, in diaspora, Jews are disconnected from the land and forced to work in “unhealthy” forms of commerce. When I encounter claims such as, “in the diaspora, there is no land under our [the Jews’] feet,” I am often somewhat puzzled, it is hard for me to understand exactly what they mean. However, it is clear that Zionist thinkers impute political and spiritual value to landed-ness, to being rooted in the soil (especially the soil of the land of Israel). So I am trying to figure out what political work the notion of soil performs for these thinkers and writers. There is a political-theoretical claim being made that cultivating the proper relationship to land is a precondition for political self-determination (or may even be a substitute for political institutions?), that this kind of relationship to the land may enable a communal holistic experience.
I certainly am not someone who thinks that it is “dangerous” to believe that there is inherent sanctity to the land of Israel. As an empirical matter, I don’t think it is necessarily dangerous or inevitably leads to expansionism or political intransigence. Like Rabbi Froman, there are people who believe in the inherent sanctity of the land yet are eager to make political compromises and enter into dialogue with Palestinians. So I don’t think that disabusing Jews of their attachment to the land, or trying to de-sanctify the land, is an imperative political task. I would be more inclined to seek ways to suggest to Jews who are attached to the land that belief in its sanctity need not translate into claims for exclusive sovereignty over that territory. Although I am certainly interested in figures like Froman and am intrigued by projects for religious peace-making, it is not the central focus of my research. I am less interested in theology, more interested in the history of mundane institutions and concrete political regimes. Historically, what kinds of institutions did Jews develop in the diaspora that allowed them to achieve self-determination in the absence of sovereign power? What were the concrete worldly institutions that Jews built that made them feel that they were autonomous… Although diasporic Jews lacked sovereignty in the strict sense, they did enjoy certain forms of limited autonomy. I am interested in the theory and practice of these diasporic political institutions.
Getting back to sanctity, then, I am less interested in theological concepts and more interested in political history. What kind of political theory is implicit in institution building? In the interwar period, Jewish political activists were too busy grappling with everyday life to theorize, but there are political concepts implicit in their practices. For example, there is a 1926 essay by Ben Gurion, a speech that he delivered to the Workers Council. The speech is so interesting because we tend to think of Ben Gurion as the archetypical promoter of the nation-state – and it is certainly true that he became a staunch advocate of state sovereignty with the establishment of the State of Israel. But in 1926, at least, he adopts this diasporic stance. Without citing Simon Dubnow by name, Ben Gurion essentially adopts Dubnow’s master narrative of Jewish history, saying that Jews were always autonomous throughout Jewish history – in Turkey, in Poland. In other words, Ben Gurion classifies the diasporic Jewish community as a bona fide political community. Moreover, Ben Gurion says, “What we want to do in Israel is the same thing that Jews have always done in the diaspora.” He positions himself within a diaspora lineage and embraces diasporic political concepts, such as autonomy – but there is an exception: While diasporic Jews enjoyed personal autonomy, Ben Gurion envisions a new form of landed autonomy, connected to soil. That’s the primary difference between diasporic existence and the political existence that he is anticipating for Jews in the land of Israel. In 1926, at least, Ben Gurion does not advocate the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state. Rather, the political aspiration is for an updated, territorially based, version of the autonomy that Jews have historically enjoyed in diaspora.
Reading this essay, I sometimes suspect that the reliance on soil can inhibit sophisticated political thinking. There is a magical quality imputed to soil: once you are on the land and touching the land, everything will fall into place, suddenly the Jews will be independent and self-determining. In these texts, soil is a shortcut that allows you to avoid the more mundane work of envisioning and building political institutions: the near-mystical quality that is ascribed to the land serves as a shortcut for the arduous work of establishing laws and engaging in everyday political practices. So I worry that this relationship with soil can be in tension with political values (understood in terms of deliberation, legislation, and institution building). The values of agricultural settlement (or landedness) and the values of democratic politics are not always the same. So while I do not think that, say, a belief in the inherent sanctity of the land of Israel invariably breeds political intransigence, I do think that, historically, certain fantasies about the political work that the land ostensibly performs may have inhibited more robust forms of political thinking.
Hannah Mayne: Are soil and territory interchangeable concepts in your work?
Julie Cooper: Not necessarily. Territory is associated with classical Western political theory. Territory is limited space, sovereign space. For example, for Hobbes, sovereignty requires territory. Absolute authority has to be exercised over discrete pieces of land, land divided up into discrete parcels. Soil, on the other hand, as a concept, feels much more organic and mystical: rather than dividing land up into discrete parcels so as to facilitate the establishment of a sovereign regime, there is an emphasis on the spiritual benefit that comes from working the land and from an agricultural lifestyle. There are many strands within Zionism that seek to rehabilitate Jewish economic life through agricultural labour on the land.
Hannah Mayne: This is all very specific to a Jewish context. In what ways is it relevant for broader political theory?
Julie Cooper: With the European Union for example: Minority nations that do not have a state but seek national expression (e.g., Basques, Catalans) face a lot of the same theoretical questions that diasporic Jews faced. Is it possible to create political institutions and achieve national self-determination without the power of a sovereign state? Minority nationalities in Europe are demanding representation and expression, asking questions about what kinds of political institutions could enable national expression, especially within the supranational framework of the EU. These are questions that Jews have been struggling with for a long time. So Jewish texts may be of interest to a broader audience at this point in time.
Hannah Mayne: You are talking about forms of autonomy, but autonomy and sovereignty are not the same. Some people might say that autonomy isn’t enough…
Julie Cooper: If someone wanted to object to my project, they could say that autonomy – essentially, anything short of a nation-state – is insufficient, it can’t offer the kinds of protection and independence that minority nations seek. Because a sub-state autonomy does not have an army or conduct its own foreign policy. But the objection presumes (incorrectly, I believe) that foreign policy can only be conducted by sovereign nation-states. History would suggest otherwise. For example, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility to rethink the way that armies are organized. In WWII, for example, there were proposals for a Jewish army, for Jewish brigades. Thus, as both a historical and a conceptual matter, it is possible to detach the organization and implementation of military force from sovereignty and from the nation-state.
What lessons do we learn from Jewish history? For example, synagogues, federations, even organizations like AIPAC or J Street – these are forms of Jewish political solidarity. These groups are national in the sense that they are working in the US, addressing the US congress, inside the sovereign state of America. But their conception of the people on whose behalf they are lobbying is a transnational body, the Jewish people, which is globally dispersed. Arguably, these groups practice political solidarity across national lines. When the World Jewish Congress was founded, around the end of the First World War, it really was conceived as a “world Jewish congress” – an attempt to create a transnational parliament for a globally dispersed people lacking the international standing that comes with state sovereignty. This is just one more example of non-state modes of political solidarity.
Hannah Mayne: A final question. One of the terms that Simon and Valentina are thinking with in their project is theo-politics. Do you use this term?
Julie Cooper: In Jewish political thought, religion and politics are intertwined in very complicated ways, and certainly a lot of the texts that I’m interested in reject the very separation of religion and politics, or religion and nation. They reject the attempt to turn Judaism into a mere “religion,” separate from its national and political roots. So I am certainly interested in the nexus between religion and politics. I don’t presume that they’re separate. Prior to the Emancipation, most Jews did not presume that they’re separate; it is only when Jews are enfranchised as equal citizens in the centralized modern state that the possibility of separating religion from politics emerges within Judaism (with the result that one then has to work to reattach them, as in the term “theo-politics”). Personally, I do not use the term “theo-politics” because I worry that it may be too closely associated with Carl Schmitt. But the term could be useful to think about this nexus of religion and politics, to get beyond the construction of this hybrid or binary.
 Secular Powers: Humility in Modern Political Thought. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
 Menachem Froman (1945-2013) was an Israeli orthodox rabbi, peace activist, and leader in interfaith dialogue. He served as the chief rabbi of a settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank and participated in peacemaking negotiations with Palestinian and Muslim leaders.
 David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was a key Zionist figure and the first Prime Minister of Israel.
 Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) was a Russian-Jewish historian and intellectual, and a major proponent of Jewish diasporism.