New Books Network

In Israel Has a Jewish Problem: Self Determination as Self Elimination (Oxford University Press, 2019), Joyce Dalsheim considers some of the surprising outcomes of the great...

In Israel Has a Jewish Problem: Self Determination as Self Elimination (Oxford University Press, 2019), Joyce Dalsheim considers some of the surprising outcomes of the great Israeli experiment of re-imagining and reconstructing Judaism, Jewishness and the Jewish people as an ethno-national project focused on the state.

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.


Yaacov Yadgar is the Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. His most recent books are Israel’s Jewish Identity Crisis: State and Politics in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism and Judaism (SUNY Press, 2017). You can read more of Yadgar’s work here.