Modernity and ambivalence in Jewish national ideology

Analysis of the jewish nation-building process on basis of Zygmunt Bauman's theory of ambivalence and the 'Stranger' in modern nation states

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 32 Pages

Jewish Studies



1. Introduction

2. Bauman’s Theory of Modernity and Ambivalence
2.1 Zygmunt Bauman and his work
2.2 Theoretical concepts
2.2.1 Modernity
2.2.2 Classification and Categorising
2.2.3 Ambivalence
2.3 The modern nation-state
2.3.1 Power, social structure and the strife for order
2.3.2 The role of minorities in the pre-modern order
2.3.3 The stranger as inner-state ambivalence
2.4 Modern state practice on the example of the Jewish community in Germany
2.4.1 German Jews as the typical strangers
2.4.2 Assimilation and Emancipation as counter-reactions to negative social identity
2.4.3 From the failure of assimilation to Jewish national aspirations
2.5 Some points of critique concerning Zygmunt Bauman’s theory

3. Jewish nationalism as modern state theory
3.1 Modern elements in Jewish nationalist thought
3.1.1 Subject-identity
3.1.2 Territory and landscape
3.1.3 Common culture
3.1.4 Common Jewish history and tradition
3.1.5 Enemies and ambivalent groups
3.2 Realities of Settlement
3.2.1 Jewish settlement in Palestine since 1882 and the question of Jewish labour
3.2.2 The first and the second Aliyah and the development of the ‘conquest of labour’- ideology
3.2.3 Yemenite Jews as second class Jewish labour force
3.3 Defence ideology and the Arab enemy
3.3.1 The dehumanisation of the Arab as legitimisation for the defence-ideology
3.3.2 Constructed historical continuity of anti-Jewish hostility

4. The moral of the story()

5. Conclusion
5.1 The Search for a national identity continues
5.2 Postmodernity as the ‘moral’ solution

6. Sources

1. Introduction

Studies about post-Enlightenment developments for European Jewish communities generally focus on the changes in the Diaspora-situation through new legal regulations, as well as the aspirations of the Jews especially in Western Europe to emancipate themselves and assimilate into the society of their host country as equal citizens. In such studies anti-Semitism is usually seen as the main reason for the failing of the assimilation process and historiography eventually culminates in the Jewish national movement as direct reaction to hostilities. Some scientists put special emphasis on the general developments after the Enlightenment in European societies while others focus on the so-called Jewish “Sonderweg”.

Shulamit Volkov and Michael Meyer are two of the scientists who in recent years tried to combine different perspectives and come to a more “entangled” history. They are aware that important perspectives and important information might be missing if historical research only focuses on either interaction between Jews and non-Jews or only inter-Jewish actions. Both aspects are closely connected with each other and all processes of interaction have to be included to show a more thorough picture of Jewish modern history.[1] Such attempts show the potential that can still be found in the topic and that could be elaborated on from the perspectives of previously not considered sociological and political theories.

The need for additional analysis from new perspectives becomes apparent when older explanations remain unquestioned in the newer examinations. The major failing point for the integration process is still seen in the growing anti-Semitism in society caused by the socio-economic crisis after the founding years albeit combined with the heightened visibility of Jews after their entrance into the broader society. Traditional anti-Judaism became complemented with contemporary race-theory and evolved into a political ideological dimension.[2]

Both Shulamit Volkov and Michael Meyer believe in a specific Jewish method of entering into Modernity. They compare general social and economic developments in Western European society with inner-Jewish processes during the transformation period of modern societies. Still, this would imply certain Jewish advantages which helped to better adapt to challenges of modernity. Meyer and Volkov point out demographic and economic factors but both are aware that those are not enough to come to a definite conclusion.[3]

This leaves questions of the actual relationship of Jewry with modernity. Where Jews really the prototypical modernisers because of their particular social situation and, if so, did they turn to modernity out of different reasons and with special aspirations?

Even though Volkov tries to answer these questions in applying a broad perspective and including various social, economic and political factors, there are still socio-theoretical concepts left which could offer interesting points of view.

One of these concepts is Zygmunt Bauman’s theory about the modern nation state and the ambivalent element of the “stranger”.

In one of her essays, Shulamit Volkov already brought Bauman in context with the failure of Jewish assimilation into Western European societies. She compared his arguments with Hannah Arendt to whom he is positioned diametrically in his judgement of the Jewish aspirations for assimilation.[4] Volkov even goes so far as to speculate about Bauman’s evaluation of the Jewish national state but does neither follow this thought to full consequence nor apply his theory to the processes inside and outside of the Jewish community which led to the development of a national movement after it became obvious at the end of the 19th century that Jews would not be integrated into their host societies anytime soon.[5]

I am going to try and apply Zygmunt Bauman’s theory about Modernity and Ambivalence to the development of the Jewish status in Western European societies during the nation-building process and during the early years of Jewish nation-building in Palestine.

In the first part the theory and its key concepts of modernity, practices of the modern nation state, ambivalence and the stranger will be explained and under-lined with the historical development of Jewish community in Germany since the Enlightenment, although not all aspects of this development will be considered to their full extent.

In the second part an analysis of the Jewish nation-building process in Palestine under the same theoretical aspects will follow to show that as a modern nation-state Israel functioned similar ways to European nation-states and consequently acted the same way towards ambivalent groups and enemies.

2. Bauman’s Theory of Modernity and Ambivalence

In this part Zygmunt Bauman and his theory will be introduced and the key elements modernity, classification and categorisation, as well as ambivalence will be explained. Bauman applied these theoretical elements to the structure and practice of modern nation states. He focuses on similarities between states on a level above ideologies and political systems because he believes there is a fundamental aspect that can be found in the structure of all of them. A particular focus is on the state’s handling of the problem of minority groups. The historical example will show the developing German nation-state under Prussian dominance and the Jewish community in Germany as the second actor in the process.

2.1 Zygmunt Bauman and his work

Zygmunt Bauman (*19.11.1925) is a Jewish sociologist and philosopher with Polish-British origin. Since the 1970s his work is focused on the connection between modernity and totalitarianism which he later complemented with studies about the discourse of post-modernity.

The basis for Bauman’s work about modernity and the modern nation state were the studies of Georg Simmel and Mary Douglas. Douglas’ anthropological study Purity and Danger already focused on the way societies seek to order their environment through the imposition of classification upon the world. Such an order is the basis for social attitudes and behaviour and practices that differentiate between clean and unclean, safe and dangerous and healthy and unhealthy. Elements that threaten the order because they cannot be matched with one classification are surrounded with rituals of purification. Bauman translated these rites into the modern practice of social engineering with Holocaust as its climax.[6]

2.2 Theoretical concepts

2.2.1 Modernity

Bauman’s understanding of modernity is that of a temporary unit, a time of separation of human from natural.[7]

Modern thought and modern science represented in the Enlightenment were born out of the overwhelming ambition to conquer nature and subordinate it to human needs.

Therefore, the main characteristic of modernity is the strife for order. Modernity was the time when the order of the world that had before been perceived as divine was reflected upon. The ability to reflect could only be developed through the focus on rationality in the sciences.[8]

Therefore, modernity can be interpreted as a quasi-totality in which the human need for order became socially accelerated.[9]

2.2.2 Classification and Categorising

To come to any kind of order, it is necessary to classify. To classify means to separate and to segregate distinct entities that are opposed to others and linked in a differential pattern of actions amongst each other. Those entities are than arranged into distinct categories with specific characteristics.[10] Therefore, the central frame of both modern intellect and modern practice is opposition or dichotomy, an illusion of symmetry.[11]

Translated into practice ‘to classify’ also means to give the world a structure, to manipulate its probabilities, to make some events more likely than others. This goes along and is directly related to the human ability to memorise and the capacity of learning. The functionality of the human brain is based on language structure that in itself tries to establish and sustain order. This is only possible through denial and suppression of randomness and contingency.[12]

Additionally, structure and order make it possible to calculate the probability of an event and construct a link between certain situations and the effectiveness of certain behaviour.[13]

2.2.3 Ambivalence

Naming and classifying is also a function of language to prevent ambivalence. Ambivalence is the possibility of assigning an object or event to more than one category. Generally, ambivalence is a language-specific disorder, a failure of naming, a function that language is supposed to perform to keep up the learning process.[14] For Zygmunt Bauman, ambivalence is a key concept for socio-political theory and the central point for his argumentation about the modern nation state and minority groups.

Even though ambivalence is a normal and permanent element of language and thought its expression is that of discomfort, because we feel that we cannot read a situation properly and choose between alternative actions if we cannot name and categorise all relevant elements.

None of our learned patterns of behaviour are useful and the feeling of indecision intensifies itself into a feeling of loss of control when the consequences of our actions become unpredictable.[15]

The human in itself and the system striving for order is therefore not fighting for one definition against another but for determination against ambiguity, for semantic precision against ambivalence, in short, against the “Other”. The “Other” is the uncertainty, incoherence and irrationality. It becomes the representation of the denial of all that order strives to be.[16]

Both parts of this dichotomy are therefore necessary to uphold order in itself even though their struggle is at the same time self-destructive and self-propelling because it creates the same problem over an over again in its course of resolving it.[17]

2.3 The modern nation state

2.3.1 Power, social structure and the strife for order

After identifying modern thought on basis of linguistic theories Bauman translated his ideas into practice by analysing the structure of modern nation states.

In general, modern nation states developed as one possible form of a sovereign agency that held the power to manage and administer existence.[18]

Power is represented in the decision and the capacity to deal with unavoidable contradictions in the relation between action and norms. At the same time, power also means to have the right to define order and lay aside chaos. One could say modern politics are the effort to exterminate ambivalence in the social structure.[19]

The structures of social systems are based on inter-subjective relations that involve social actors in reciprocal responsibility and pre-predicative relations with things and tools. Those relations develop through the mediation of symbolic orders of social representation, for example language, symbols, values. Social order is therefore based on the sharing of meaning, values and norms which provide the necessary reciprocal predictability of action.

But the reflexivity and reductive character of symbolic forms create problems in the social order. The reason for this is that no cultural system can ever succeed in comprehending all different issues of human experience. To name and classify always implies to segregate and to simplify.[20]

This poses an explicit threat for the state. Since the sovereignty of the modern state is the power to define and to sustain the definition, everything that eludes this process is subversive. Resistance to definition implies the limits to the power of the sovereignty.[21]

Ambivalent elements of unordered existence are therefore always faced with intolerance which is the logical inclination of modern practice towards subversion.

On the practical level this expresses itself in taxonomy, classification, inventory and statistics.[22]

As it could already be seen on the linguistic level, order and ambivalence are both products of the same structure of thought and practice. Therefore, both sides depend on each other. This makes the project of ordering an ongoing task because its very practice produces new ambivalence over and over again.[23]

But still the dependence is not symmetrical. The ambivalent side depends on the ordered side for its contrived and enforced isolation while the order depends on ambivalence for its self-assertion.[24]

2.3.2 The role of minorities in the pre-modern order

The term minority is closely connected to the development of modern states. Before the 18th century only certain individuals were seen as socially marginal but the negative evaluation was not extended to whole social groups. In the system of social ranks the notions of unity and equality did not yet exist. With the development of the national state the idea of ethnic homogeneity as basis for citizenship brought up the problem of having to define the status of non-homogeneous groups.[25]

This was the case with the Jewish minority in Western European societies. Bauman chose especially the Jews residing in Germany to show how there status changed in the process of modern nation-building.[26]

In the pre-modern era the distinctiveness of Jews had made them just one case among a wide variety of heterogeneous social groups. They stood outside of social and legal order in the Christian societies of Europe but were more or less tolerated in the feudal society. They had to follow special laws and had to face a general anti-Judaism that was based on Christian prejudice. None the less, Jewish communities held the authority over inner-communal issues. Contact to the non-Jewish environment was mostly limited to economic relations, a situation which was encouraged from both sides. The absolutistic states had primarily economic and fiscal interest in their Jewish residents.[27]

With the transition from a feudal system of social ranks to a bourgeois-capitalist system the ‘Jewish Question’ developed.[28] With the process of homogenising the society the peculiar legal status of minority groups had to give way to new universal codes which recognised no group prerogative.[29]

2.3.3 The stranger as inner-state ambivalence

The concept of ambivalence becomes particularly important in Bauman’s theory with the introduction of the category ‘stranger’.

Like other orders based on territory and power, nation states apply the categories ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. Enemies are the negative outside. They are absent while friends are either residing in the territory of the state or are allowed to enter it. Enemies are the result of the dominant narration of friends and both sides are necessary to keep up the symmetrical world order.[30]

The stranger like the enemy belongs to the spectrum of the ‘other’ but he is neither enemy nor friend. He does not fit in either category, he is ambivalent. The criterion of space does not apply to him because he cannot be fitted into territorial segregation. He is not on the outside but on the inside and therein lays his original sin. He entered the realm of the life-world at a later point in time. He did not originally belong there and his entry is a historical event and not natural order.[31]

For modern nation-states that define themselves through the ethnic homogeneity of their inhabitants the presence of strangers poses a threat to the legitimisation of the state-given order. The historicality of the stranger’s existence implies continuity which means his existence can have an end. He can be forced to leave without violating the order of things.[32]

The stranger is such per definition because of his social closeness or lack thereof. Even when he has been residing in the territory of the state for a long period of time and has transformed for himself the concept of a temporal abode into a home territory, his loyalty cannot be trusted. He remains physically close but spiritually remote.[33]

Nation states extend their rule over territory first before they claim the obedience of the resident people. Therefore, the collectivisation of friends and enemies is part of the process of self-segregation. At the same time the definition of friend- and enemy-categories is also an attempt to eliminate the stranger out of the need to make sense of the complex social and political arrangements. The state therefore sets the stranger apart from its other inhabitants and refuses him access to primarily modes of identification in the state order.[34]

The state needs to generate loyalty in its subjects. To achieve that, it redefines friends as natives and extends the right of citizenship to friends only. Nationality becomes the core element of the identity of the subject of the modern state while loyalties that stand in the way of national unity are eliminated. That includes all kinds of group identity which are replaced by constructed joined historical memories as the new common heritage.[35]

In the process of establishing nationalism practices of social engineering[36] are deployed. In this process the ambivalence of the stranger becomes more and more apparent because the attempt to exclude him from the order is a dialectic process. He remains forever indeterminate and the impossibility of categorising him grows with the intensity of the dichotomising efforts.[37]

The state uses different strategies to implement the categorisation in response to the ongoing threat the stranger poses to the order.

The core problem is his presence in the state territory. Therefore, exiling him could be an option. Other than that, confining him to a separate space, social isolation and preventive stigmatisation are used to construct a cultural fence.[38]

Discrediting the stranger is necessary for the legitimisation of the separation. Certain features of the person classified as a stranger are made salient by bringing them to public attention and interpreting them as visible flaws. Through ascribing such a virtual social identity the person and his community become easily recognisable as inferior because the stigma emphasises the difference and the not-belonging to the order. At the same time it reduces the ambiguity and keeps the stranger in the identity as the excluded ‘other’.[39]


[1] See Volkov (a), 1994: x, see Meyer, 1992: 9.

[2] See Volkov (a) 1994: ix.

[3] See Meyer, 1992: 7f, see Volkov (a), 1994: xviii.

[4] Bauman believes that assimilation is the reason for the destruction of the community and the Jewish identity and caused regression in the Jewish development, something which the despotic modern state has attempted in his false offer of integration. In his eyes the strife for homogeneity is the biggest sin of modernity. In contrary Hannah Arendt sees the clinging to a separate group identity as anachronistic behaviour which prevents the opening of Jewry into modernity with its principles of equality and universalism. It becomes apparent, that Bauman and Arendt follow completely opposite interpretations of modernity (See Volkov (b), 2001: 21-24).

[5] See Volkov (b), 2001: 24.

[6] See Tester, 2004: 119f.

[7] See Tester, 2004: 115.

[8] See Bauman, 1991: 4-5.

[9] See Beilharz, 2000: 107.

[10] See Bauman, 1991: 1; also see Tester, 2004: 117f.

[11] See Bauman, 1991: 14.

[12] See Bauman, 1991: 1.

[13] See Bauman, 1991: 1.

[14] See Bauman, 1991: 1.

[15] See Bauman, 1991: 1-2.

[16] See Bauman, 1991: 7.

[17] See Bauman, 1991: 3.

[18] See Bauman, 1991: 7.

[19] See Crespi, 1992: 95.

[20] See Crespi, 1992: 96-98.

[21] See Bauman, 1991: 8-9.

[22] See Bauman, 1991: 15.

[23] See Tester, 2004: 119.

[24] See Bauman, 1991: 14.

[25] See Volkov (b), 2001: 13.

[26] He argues that the German Jews were for some time the richest, most comfortably settled and culturally most advanced community in the Diaspora. The German Jewish community was the source of important theoretical marriages between Judaism and Enlightenment and between Jewishness and modern nationalism. Additionally, he believes that the modernisation process in Germany was lived by the Jews as a consciously motivated process, with awareness of its ultimate destination and guided by publicly discussed and purposefully selected strategies. Therefore the experience of modernisation was, unmatched in similar cases, self-monitored, reflected upon and theorised (See Bauman, 1991: 108f).

[27] See Rahe, 1988: 38.

[28] See Rahe, 1988: 39.

[29] See Bauman, 1991: 110.

[30] See Bauman, 1991: 53.

[31] See Bauman, 1991: 54-59.

[32] See Bauman, 1991: 60.

[33] See Bauman, 1991: 60.

[34] See Bauman, 1991: 63.

[35] See Bauman, 1991: 64.

[36] The desire to come to the ultimate stable perfection in form of the artificial order in the modern state is connected to the necessity to construct not only the psychological identity of the subject but also its physical form. Therefore, hygiene, race-breeding and eugenics become practices ubiquitous in the rational planning of order. (See Beilharz, 2000: 109.)

[37] See Kron, 2001: 150.

[38] See Kron, 2001: 150.

[39] See Bauman, 1991: 65-68.


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Title: Modernity and ambivalence in Jewish national ideology