search

Jacob Rogozinski on the Question of Inhospitality

Jacob Rogozinski is a philosopher. He published Inhospitality, Cerf, in 2024.

Moïse l’insurgé (Moses the insurgent, Cerf, 2022) offered a new interpretation of the Exodus narrative, concerning the meaning of a people (‘am), its distinction from the nation understood as a body (goy), and the universal character of the Covenant. Can you tell us more?

Jacob Rogozinski : In my book, I relied on the most recent work of historians and archaeologists to search for what Freud referred to as the “kernel of historical truth” in the biblical narrative. In my view, the Book of Exodus retains the memory of a real event, albeit distorted. This event is a rebellion of the people of Canaan – particularly its marginalized elements known as the Habirou – against their kings and against the Egyptians who had occupied the land for centuries. If this “Israelite revolution” ultimately succeeded, it’s because it was based on a new god who doesn’t sanctify the power of kings but listens to the grievances of the oppressed and calls them to fight for justice. This new belief was introduced into Canaan by an inspired figure whom we have every reason to call “Moses.” If this analysis is correct, the Hebrews would not be a people from outside coming to conquer Canaan; they are Canaanites, descendants of the insurgent Habirou, and thus “brothers” or at least the distant cousins of these other Canaanites from whom the Palestinians might descend. The fanatics who today rely on the Book of Joshua to justify the occupation of the West Bank are relying on a fake, a later narrative that distorts history entirely.

The Torah has two distinct words, ‘am and goy, to refer to what we call “the people.” For example, in the prophecy of Balaam, it refers to Israel as “a ‘am apart that is not counted among the goyim.” The word ‘am is probably from the same root as ‘im, “with”: it describes those who are together because they have made a covenant with their God, and this implies no hierarchy, no borders, no territory. We are dealing with an open, inclusive multitude, and the Sinai Covenant testifies to this openness since, according to Deuteronomy, it also addresses women and gerim, foreign servants. This is not the case with the people as goy. As Martin Buber notes, the word goy is from the same root as gviyah, “the body.” The goy-people is above all the people as a political body, founded in a hereditary “nature” that excludes foreigners, subject to the domination of its head, namely the sovereign of the state, and possessing a territory where it is “at home.” When the elders of the people went to see the prophet Samuel, they claimed to be subject to a king “like all the other goyim.” This “becoming-goy” of the people of Israel occurs as soon as the people-‘am consents to be incorporated into a nation-state. This is what happened again in our time with the creation of the State of Israel. Of course, I do not question it. When surrounded by dangerous enemies, it is necessary to build a state, with its army, its police, its borders. But there is a risk that the people-with will entirely transform into a people-body by enclosing itself in a national-ethnic conception of “the people.” This means losing the universalist and emancipatory dimension of the Covenant. I believe that Israel, like in the time of Samuel, is confronted with this question.

You address the issue of the great replacement and hospitality in your latest work, Inhospitality (Cerf, 2024), on the question of the Body politic and Terror in the French Revolution. Can you elaborate on that?

Jacob Rogozinski : I wrote this book to try to understand the current increase in xenophobia in Western countries. I first notice that this contradicts the teachings of the Gospels, but also those of the Torah which prescribe welcoming the stranger “as if he were from here” and “loving him as ourselves.” One of the main slogans of xenophobic movements is to denounce a supposed “migratory invasion” that would lead immigrants to “replace” the so-called “native” peoples. The widespread adherence to this belief is an enigmatic phenomenon, given that the increase in the number of immigrants in Europe remains very low: only 65,000 per year in France. Where does such a disconnect between the reality of the facts and their perception by public opinion come from? And where does the attachment of so many people to their nation, to their “national identity,” to the borders that draw a rigid demarcation between what is “national” and what is foreign, come from? National sentiment is so intense that it has led millions of men to die – and also to kill – in the name of their nation.

To try to explain it, I analyzed the founding moment when the word “nation” takes on its modern meaning, that of a principle that establishes the sovereignty of a people over a territory. This moment is that of the French Revolution, when the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 states that “the principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.” At first, the affirmation of national sovereignty did not lead to any hostility towards foreigners. On the contrary, it was in line with the call of some revolutionaries to create a “universal Republic of mankind.” But very quickly, its meaning is reversed: Robespierre and the Jacobins will denounce a so-called “foreign conspiracy” that would have “penetrated the entrails of the Republic.” During the Terror, their discourse is filled with bodily metaphors, such as cancer, gangrene, purge, or the necessary amputation of “sick members,” for example when a Jacobin leader calls for “eradicating political gangrene down to its smallest ramifications.” I had already analyzed in a previous book (1) this inversion of an emancipation device into a terror device and the bodily schemes that accompany it.

This representation of the collective as a collective body plays a decisive role in many human societies. It is found in ancient Greece and India, or in medieval Europe where the kingdom was presented as a “mystical body” with the king as the “head.” There are two very different types of images of the collective Body, one of a healthy body where each member contributes harmoniously to the life of the organism, and the other of a sick body, penetrated and infected by external elements. It is this schema of the endangered body that is at work in phases of persecution and terror, and it is this that motivates the rejection and hatred of the foreigner. Do all human societies necessarily represent themselves in the form of a Great Body? I don’t think so. The distinction I mentioned between the people as ‘am and the people as goy shows that the ancient Israelites did not consider themselves, at least initially, as a people-body.

This demarcation reappears in modern times, but in a very different context. A contemporary political thinker, Claude Lefort, indeed asserts that modern democracy is characterized by a process of social disembodiment. Therefore, all modern democratic nations tend, so to speak, to become ‘aamim and no longer goyim… When society represented itself as a body, its “members” were subordinate to the “head.” When this hierarchical order dissolves, the relations of domination and the demarcations it legitimized will fade away. The border belongs to this representation of the collective Body: it is the one that plays the role of the skin, the barrier that delimits the body and protects it from the outside. That’s why the process of disembodiment also affects the borders of nations. It does not abolish them but tends to democratize them, to make them places of passage open to the outside. The tendency to merge the nation and the territory by enclosing it behind watertight borders is characteristic of the goy-people. Will Israel manage to disembodied itself to regain the plasticity, the openness of the people-‘am? This question is inseparable from that of democracy. Millions of Israelis demonstrated last year to defend democracy. This struggle has no future if it does not join the fight against nationalism, against the illegitimate occupation of the West Bank, and for the sharing of the land between two sovereign states.

Notes:

(1) Cf. Ils m’ont haï sans raison, Cerf, 2015, traduction en anglais : The Logic of Hatred, Fordham University Press, 2024.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.