Holy Israel, the supernatural community that, in the theology of Judaism, takes shape at Sinai in accepting the Torah and so lives in God’s kingdom in the here and now, tells the story of its exile in the setting of that theology. By sin, Adam lost Eden; by rebellion against God’s commandments, holy Israel lost the land of Israel, its Eden. These theological convictions intersect with the actualities of the everyday. What this meant in Christian Europe made ample sense: Holy Israel lived its life of exile and awaited its redemption; Christianity understood the biblical sources of that conviction, even though it read the record differently. But when the French Enlightenment forced Christianity out of the center of Western civilization, the secular state found its counterpart in the life of Jewry and in the ethnic group, the Jews.

Then what were the Jews, and the secular nation-states that succeeded the Christian empire, to make of exile? The 19th century gave one answer: The Jews were no longer in exile but accepted the tasks of loyal citizens of the nation-state. That is what the French rabbis told Napoleon in 1812 when he asked, Are you French or Jewish? The question carried its own imperative. The 20th century gave another answer: The Jews are not only an ethnic group and are certainly not a religious community; they constitute a people and should form for themselves a nation-state, like other peoples. In that formulation—the Zionist one, beginning with Theodor Herzl in 1897— the Jews were in exile and should go home to the land of Israel, where they were to found (and in 1947 did found) the state of Israel, The idea of exile took on new life, this time in a secular and political framework. It formed part of the rhetoric of Zionism and today forms a native category of Israeli nationalism, which deems Jews living in states other than Israel to be living in exile and to be citizens of the Jewish state.

What, exactly, can anyone mean by “exile” today? Since the U.S. Senate has nearly a dozen Jewish members and the House of Representatives well over a score, how are the Jews supposed to be “in exile”? The miseries of exile, which holy Israel patiently endured in Christian Europe and which the Jews in 19th and 20th-century Europe denied, but within which nearly six million of them died, hardly form part of the day-to-day existence of Jews in the Western democracies. We see the futility of secularizing a theological structure and system when we realize what, in political terms, “exile” actually means.

In his Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas (1998), Lawrence Weschler, a truly remarkable writer, tells us what exile means in

three tales . . . about basically decent expatriates (the first an Iraqi, the second a Czech, the third an Afrikaner), each of whom tries to do the right thing with regard to the totalitarian regime holding sway over his homeland, to varyingly calamitous effect.

The Iraqi is an architect, son of Saddam Hussein’s court architect; the Afrikaner is a leading South African poet, artist, and essayist who got himself involved with, and used by, the communist African National Congress; and the Czech is an anticommunist who ran an underground operation from London and ended up, when the communists fell, accused of involvement in their secret service.

What Weschler makes clear is the true costs paid by authentic exiles in this world. And he makes one other point:

One might note . . . how in all three of the totalitarian situations surveyed in this text . . . the regime’s dominance depended, paradoxically, on both the atomization and the homogenization of the subjugated population. Dictators want their subjects both to surrender all sense of themselves into the national (or class) mass and, simultaneously, to experience themselves, qua individuals, as utterly alone, cut off both endlessly suspect and unendingly suspicious of everyone else. Pithed, in short, of even the fantasy, let alone the possibility, of any sort of independent agency. In a sense the regime intends that its subjects experience themselves as exiles in their own homes—isolated, ineffectual, and utterly contingent. For the condition of actual exile ordinarily dictates a similar sort of double movement in its victims, toward simultaneous atomization and homogenization and this wearing down of the potential for agency. Edges get shaved away and subjectivity is continously shorn until individuals experience themselves as little more than abject objects, tossed by a cruel and senseless fate.

That is what authentic “exile” means.

In that context, what can the theological construct of “Golah” or “exile” in Judaism possibly mean in a secular framework? Jewry in exile never underwent the kind of experience that Weschler captures. Take the Czech exiles, for example. The authentic exiles from communist Czechoslovakia were the native residents of the country, cut off from one another and suspicious of everyone. The regime attempted to subvert and corrupt the entire population, some with threats of punishment, others with promises of small favors. In the Afrikaner poet’s case, the communist African National Congress sent an untrained, incompetent, and highly visible artist back into the country on a mission to Stephen Biko, as though the bureau of state security were not following the poet’s every movement. The story of Hussein’s corruption of Iraq, his creation of “the Republic of Fear” (the title of Kanan Makiya’s classic work)—this, too, represents the internal exile of a complex and, before Hussein, highly accomplished nation. As Weschler says, “After the Baathists stormed back into power, in 1968, no sphere of Iraqi life was any longer allowed to exist outside politics.”

“Exile” thus stands in the real world for a condition of utter alienation, brought about by state power and institutionalized in enduring form, of persons from one another and from the social order. Exile forms part of the subversion of man, his corruption into something less than the image of God. In the Judaic theological framework, the term bears authentic and heavy meaning. In the secular, political experience of our own time, we are still paying the costs of the corruption and subversion of human autonomy and dignity that communism effected wherever it ruled. How the same theological and political language pertains to the situation of a secular ethnic group is unclear. What I learn from Weschler’s masterpiece of moral analysis is the difference between real and imagined exile, the human meaning and costs of the secular exile brought about by the politics of this calamitous century, and by communism most of all.