Derrida’s “appropriation of Jerusalem”

It is hard to find one’s way through the propaganda wars going on now, at this moment, to try to understand the actual wars going on. Is Ukraine ruled by fascists? Is Putin a dictator? Hamas a terrorist organization? Or the state of Israel a cruel occupating power? I just mentioned some of the negative images of parties on some of the different scenes of so many fragmentary wars, and did not mention even so many others, in African countries a.o. going on all at the same time. Derrida – the philosopher who did so much to stimulate reading of events while negotiating between the abstract, universalist language of western modernity, and actual commitments to localized struggles for a place, a place in time of actual groups of people – confronted with the early stages of the conflicts that are dominating the scene now, tried a single denominator for these wars, and subsumed them in the expression “appropriation of Jerusalem”. Can this expression help to analyze what’s going on, or does it make matters worse?

Last year the English translation of a biography of Derrida appeared that tries to explain his developing stance in the post-world-war and postcolonial struggles of the world from his life’s experiences, among which the image his French colonial surroundings in Algeria reflected at him as a child being ‘a little black and very Arab Jew’. The author, Benoit Peeters, as well as the writer of another recent book on Derrida, Africa and the Middle East, Christopher Wise, struggle with the question whether Derrida has shown enough attention for the plight of the Palestinian people, or for islamic (and Christian) experiences, while digging into the interconnectedness of the heritage of the European Enlightenment and the resurging conflicts over religion. I must agree that I did not find any thorough knowledge of islamic sources or traditions in Derrida’s works. In his essay on ‘Faith and Knowledge’, from 1996, one finds a cryptic remark setting Islam apart from the other two ‘monotheisms’ before the question of the local survival of a people attached to God in times of unstoppable globalization (p. 91, in Acts of Religion). Because of remarks like this, and other ones in Specters of Marx, Wise criticized him to represent a soft version of zionism.

I think such criticisms, while focussing on the geo-political aspect of ‘the war for the “appropriation of Jerusalem”‘, leave another aspect of Derrida’s multifaceted analysis in the shadow: that of the interconnectedness of globalization, abstraction, and ‘tele-technology’. As he asks at the beginning of his Capri-lecture on religion (Faith and Knowledge); ‘Should one save oneself by abstraction or save oneself from abstraction?’ He does not choose either of those routes to salvation, but continues to negotiate between them, seeming brave at one moment, and cowardly at another, like his Shakespearian hero Hamlet. Behind the negotiating process lies his assessment that the processes of globalization and technologization do not only physically uproot people from traditional living localities as well as from living local traditions – but unhinge space as such, and make spacialization out of joint. Getting oneself buried on the land of one’s ancestors has become a myth without foundation – which makes the appropriation of a city, a land seem a lost battle, for trying to counter an inescapable current.

So what is to be rescued from the narratives of the so called ‘holy’ city? One could read Derrida thus: nothing but the assessment that human beings, in their longing for some kind of tribal, national, local belonging, actually rise up against the powers of abstraction that they have themselves unleashed. They kill each other out of the impossibility to feel the reality of something like ‘humanity’ apart from an actual place in space. But what is space, which comes before experiencing a place? Space is, according to Derrida, nothing but ‘making place’ – which reveals the higher dreams of humans of ‘hospitality without reserve’ over against someone who comes toward me, a hospitality that does not ask a commitment to ‘family, State, nation, territory, native soil or blood, language, culture in general, even humanity’. Unexpected turns in his texts like this one show a psycho-analytic frame at work: Derrida tries to focus our attention to the fact that all these cruel present wars, in which the warring parties try to surpass each other in atrocities (directing themselves to innocent civilians, mothers, children, unarmed men), can be understood as the frustrated expressions of the existential craving for, actually, a real democracy: for the impossible radical openness towards whoever wants to enter a society.

Missing this openness, which includes non-humans even, we mistake it for being in want of a homeland, a place, a city, where one can welcome the other. In order to heal the present condition of so many wars this one thing is necessary, Derrida seems to suggest: an analysis, a therapy, which makes humans accept the given that their fragile longing for a safe space can only by fulfilled by means of the ‘impossible’ act they should perform without warrant: welcoming aliens in. This can only install the home, the place to be, which can never be attained through war. In the end Derrida is not a revolutionary, nor a traditionalist; neither a coward nor aiming at bravery; he is an ethical thinker – leading his readers to seeing the necessity of making a moral choice. The choice for the only safe or holy city possible: the one which we create ourselves by taking the risk of welcoming the other -appropriation which does not use bombs or rockets but only the psychological mastery of fear.


Jacques Derrida lived from 1930 until 2004. He was born in Algeria, and died in Paris. All works referred to are to be found in the links under their titles in the text.

  1. It seems to me that Derrida offers a plausible general interpretation that appears to make sense. But of what use is it? Take some puzzling aspect of the Ukraine crisis or the conflict in Palestine. Sure, you will be able to give an account in terms of Derrida’s framework. But, will it really solve the puzzle, or will it be just another way of looking at the situation? In other words, does Derrida provide us with a theory from which consequences can be derived? Or, is he just proposing a new framework into which reality can be squeezed, which you can take or leave, depending on whether it appeals to you?

    • Thanks, Fred, for your comment. I appreciate your critical questions. I don’t think that one can take or leave any sound appeal to making life among humans better. I see possible criticism of Derrida however relating to the breadth of his scope. To me things are not about solving a puzzle or ‘just’ looking differently at a situation. One can only look differently if one also practices a different approach to other human beings. Derrida’s approach is not the only sound one. But I see his reading of the human situation of his time (and still our time) as valuable. Especially the elements that come from psycho-analysis and put to work in politics and history: they propose that humans cannot solve conflicts among themselves if they ignore that there is also work to be done to the soul.

      • Dear Angela. The proposal that “humans cannot solve conflicts among themselves if they ignore that there is also work to be done to the soul” sounds good. However, I would want to know just what kind of work needs to be done to the sould, and how Derrida accomplishes this kind of work better than others. From what I know of Derrida, his critique of existing views of knowledge is valuable, but doesn’t lead to a positive alternative.

  2. Hello Fred, it is complicated – I will give it a try. As to the final remark of your commentary: one could defend that D. was not so much concerned with a positive alternative, because we are not yet in a position to ask about that – when you want to repair a condition which is very much out of order and you go ahead to fast, you might reinstall or strengthen faulty conditions that were still left from the old situation. The work to be done: unearthing the interestedness of one’s bright and shiny universalistic ideals and messages to ‘the world’. I see a lot of places where this should be done – in so much talk about ‘humanity’ and ‘freedom’, ‘development’, etcetera. This is work to the soul, as unearthing interestedness (or just say: greed, vanity, lust) never leaves ‘me’ out. There is another reason why for D. the ‘positive alternative’ (e.g. in “Politics of Friendship” always remains ‘to come’ – for there is no ideal situation ever, and we should always keep working for the bettering of our relations.

    As to the Ukrainian crisis, or that in Palestine, which seems a crisis without end, or the IS crisis – I am hesitant to judge on the local parties concerned, for I am not in their shoes and do not know what they know. I am entitled to a certain point to say something about the alliances of which my country is a part, and from which we here benefit. Also there I will not judge about decisions which rest on knowledge that I don’t have. But what I can judge upon is that support for governmental actions is often sought through much ‘white mythology’, that is interested positions being sold to be good for all mankind etcetera. There is certainly work to be done there, and if it is done, we may get into dialogue with ‘the others’ and from that the contours of a positive alternative might arise – but I don’t believe in positive alternatives from the studyroom so to speak, before any real ‘work’ has been done.

    This reply was not just about Derrida, of course, but represents more my own views, including my view of his work.

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