Disraeli was baptized in childhood, but never hid his Jewish ancestry. Disraeli would identify as “Jewish” in a survey such as that conducted by Brandeis University or the NJPS (see How many Jews in America and does it matter?) . In either survey, though, he would be excluded as a Jew, because he had changed his religion.
The question of “Who is a Jew” is not just of historic interest. Representative Nancy Giffords has a Jewish father but supposedly decided she was Jewish only after a 2001 visit to Israel. Orthodox Rabbis may not consider her Jewish, but most Americans, including her attacker, probably do, and her disputed Jewishness helped to provide a motive for the attack on her.
Zionism (see What is Zionism? ) solved the problem of Jewish identity by declaring that the Jews are a people as opposed to, or in addition to, a religion. “People” can have many meanings, but in nineteenth century Europe “people” could only refer to a national grouping, such as the Italians, Greeks or Germans, the Poles and Tatars, whether or not they had achieved national independence. That is the meaning of the term “people” as used by Zionists. It also follows as closely as possible the meaning of “ahm” in “ahm Yisrael.” Remember that reform Jews of the United States had explicitly rejected the nationhood and the peoplehood of the Jews as no longer applicable in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.
“People”was useful as a designation, because it signaled a definite agenda for action. A declaration of “Peoplehood” in the classic, national sense, meant that the group in question considered itself worthy of self-government and demanded unification across existing national boundaries. “Peoplehood” in the nationality sense probably could probably not be categorized precisely, since each nation and cultural grouping that demanded or had independence was characterized somewhat differently. Bilingual Belgium and Canada cannot claim that their respective peoples are held together by a common language or culture. The Germans quickly developed “volkisch” racial theories of common ancestry and affinity to the soil. These came to be expressed, or rather vulgarized, in the “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil) of Nazi ideology, but they only fit Germans and then only after much manipulation of history and myth.
The identification of Jews as a (national) people has much to be said for it, both as descriptive analysis and as a prescriptive program for action. It legitimized Jewish collective political action and thought outside the framework of religion. It legitimized the flourishing of Jewish culture that was not concerned with religion. It explained the paradox of “non-Jewish” Jews such as Spinoza. It predicted accurately that the “Jewish problem” could not be solved by assimilation and that the anti-Semitism of modern times would not be based on religious beliefs. Politically, it allowed Zionists to argue for a “national home” and then for statehood as the right of every people. and made possible the creation of the Jewish state, the return to Zion for which religious Judaism could only offer prayers. Zionism did not prevent the Holocaust, but nothing else did either. Zionism provided the manpower and the ideological framework for Jewish self-defense during the Holocaust, and was responsible for the organization and leadership of ghetto revolts such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the Vilnius ghetto revolt. The definition of Jewishness as an attribute of a people provided a way to be “Jewish” and to perpetuate and generate Jewish culture in the modern world.
The declaration that Jews are a people (in the Zionist, national sense) had two other important consequences. It legitimized a non-religious Jewish national leadership, and it provided a way to be Jewish outside the framework of religion. Those who insist on the establishment of Judaism as a religion in Israel, or pretend that Zionism made religious claims about the land and about Jewish rights, need to remember that statehood is a secular and national project. Historically, Zionism was the enemy of established religion, and the target of rabbinic wrath (See Parallels Meet, by Ehud Luz, Jewish Publication Soc. Phil. 1988).
In the Diaspora, Zionist, non-religious, Judaism was transformed into the Cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am. The goal of Cultural Zionism was to prepare Jews to be a nation by filling “Jewishness” with language and secular content, by reviving Hebrew as a spoken language and though an education program that would replace the traditional rabbinical Heder schools. This program too, challenged the rabbinical monopoly and aroused a great deal of opposition early in the history of Zionism. In Israel, of course, secular Hebrew education was a success. Outside Israel, the Hebrew education movement was rapidly coopted by religious organizations. and institution. Today, there are hardly any Jews who understand Hebrew outside Israel.
With the establishment of the state, the secular Zionist leadership made a pragmatic but uneasy pact with Orthodox (religious) Judaism. The problem of religious versus secular Jewishness remains a divisive issue in Israel as well, and religious parties in Israel insist that they and only the are the keepers of “yahadut” (Jewishness).
Despite is successes and advantages, the Zionist definition of Jewishness in terms of national aspirations – the statement that “Jews are a people” – had evident faults. Jews could not be a people like any other; Within three generations. descendants of German or Swedes whose ancestors had come to the United States were Americans in every respect. So called Volksdeutsch who had migrated to Poland or Russia were Russians. Descendants of Jews who settled in Poland or the United States would remain “Jewish” even after a dozen generations.
The “peoplehood” definition was threatening and anxiety-producing to large numbers of Jews. Orthodox Jewish authorities saw Zionism as a threat to their supremacy and formed societies such as the Agudat Yisrael and groups such as the Neturei Karteh, in fantastic hope that were it not for Mr Herzl and the tiny bands of Zionist pioneers, Jews would all don the ultra-orthodox garb and follow the rabbis. Jews like Edwin Montagu opposed Zionist nationalism because it raised the specter of “dual loyalty” – a concern and an accusation that have been with Jewry since the rise of European Nationalism. Montagu needn’t have worried. The tsarist police forged the Protocols of the Elders of Zion long before the first Zionist congress. Hitler’s wrath was directed at an imaginary conspiracy of “international finance Jewry” and “Jew-Bolsheviks,” not against nationalist Jews in particular. Jewish communists clung to the false God of “internationalism” until Stalin liquidated the last of them. Denial of Jewishness did not protect against anti-Semitism.
The success of Zionism established a way to be Jewish outside religion. “Jewish” could be a nationality. The declaration of Zionism, that the Jews are a nationality or people may have been prescriptive, but it became descriptive. The creation and survival of Israel proved that Jews are a viable political grouping. It sowed That there can be is a viable Jewish society, a culture that is uniquely Israeli Jewish and not simply a pastiche of different Diasporas. But it also proved that not all “Jews” would ever belong to a Jewish people in the nationalist sense. Jews could not be expected to come voluntarily in large number to a beleaguered community under British rule, or even to a nascent and poverty stricken state. But then Israel became reasonably wealthy, and it became obvious that some Jews were never coming, and among them a vocal minority denied any connection between themselves and the Jewish state. Jewish nationhood was not for them.
Zionists had to learn the hard way that substantial numbers of Jews will remain in various Diaspora communities. The last Jew in Afghanistan cannot leave Kabul because of his very important career. He is sexton of the now abandoned synagogue. About once a year a Jew from Israel or America wants to see the synagogue, and he shows it to them. He lives in abject poverty. His wife and daughter live in Israel.
National identities can normally only be supported over time in a nation-state or national home. However liberal, no state will long tolerate a second national entity in its midst, and the members of that nation would not have much of a path to national development. It is possible to be Irish or Italian or Polish outside Ireland or Italy or Poland. Such ethnic-national loyalties are usually dimmed over generations by ignorance of language and customs, which are not usually transmitted to children, by the attrition of the first generation immigrant community, and by free intermarriage. The American Hispanic community may be an important exception, but American Jews have not developed a parallel sub-society and are not really recognized as a minority in the same way.
Like every other national identity, and unlike Jewish identity in the Diaspora, Jewish Israeli identity is not very portable. The grandchildren of a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to New York might still be Jewish, though they lost every vestige of religion and culture. What made Representative Giffords Jewish? Only her own self-identification. The grandchildren of an Israeli Jew in New York will either be back in Israel. or they will have become observant (religious) Jews or they will be in one or another stage of opting out of Jewishness. They cannot be the Israeli kind of “Jewish” outside Israel over generations. In the USA, they would have nothing more or less to do with their Israeli Jewishness than Irish or Italian people have to do with the ethnicity. There is no reason for such identities to last beyond the third generation, when the language and ties to the old country are at most a distant memory. The Israeli-Jewish experience abroad is unlike that of other Jews, and somewhat like that of Italian, Irish, Polish or other immigrants. Jews, except for Israelis, usually have no “old country.” A Polish Jew in the U.S. probably had better not go down to the local Polish Dom and announce himself.
The identification of “Jewishness” as religion may be undefinable and unsupportable. Who are the authorities od this religion and what are its beliefs? Over half of American Jews say they do not believe in God. Most of them claim they feel no special ties to Israel. They opted out of nationalist peoplehood. Some did so loudly and actively.
The Israeli national model of “Jewishness” is not applicable to these American Jews, but the religious concept is not either. They declare that they are Jewish, but there is no organizational and conceptual framework to support their identification.
A variety of Jewish “peoplehood” has been revived in the United States. It is careful not to have anything to do with the nationality kind of peoplehood, as I shall discuss in the next article, and it has an elusive definition.