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1867Independence and Jewishness

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  • AMI
    May 11, 2011
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      Jew” has always had a unique definition, which could never be verbalized but was always understood.

      Jew” does not necessarily designate a religious affiliation. Developments in the modern era showed that the quality of “Jewishness” persists even in those who renounced their religion or converted: Disraeli, Einstein and Spinoza all announced their Jewishness though they were not members of the Jewish faith. They were identified by others as Jewish. Zionism supposedly solved the problem by noting that the Jews are a “people.” Yet the existence and persistence of self-proclaimed Jews such as professional Holocaust minimizer Norman Finkelstein, professional Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein and a variety of non-religious anti-Zionist Jews such as Phillip Weiss, the very vocal members of the Jewish Voice For Peace and others shows that the concept of “Jewish Peoplehood” is not necessarily a more adequate tool for understanding “Jewishness” than religion.

      A few years ago, “peoplehood” was rediscovered by American Jewish organizations. However, it failed to achieve popularity, despite brave attempts to make “peoplehood” acceptable in the Diaspora by redefining it so that every vestige and hint of nationalist connotation was completely leeched from it. (See Jewish Peoplehood in America)

      An optimist commented:

      Softening the harder edges of “nationalism,” steering clear of questions of theology and belief…. peoplehood” bespeaks a commitment to agree on some things and disagree on others within a framework of fundamental solidarity.

      The various definitions of peoplehood and the bitter reality of acrimonious criticism of Israel showed that there is no agreement on anything. A Jewish charity staged a reading of the anti-Semitic play “Seven Jewish Children” and an organization (J Street) that portrays itself as “pro-Israel” praised it. Campus anti-Israel events in the USA regularly feature Jewish and Jewish Israeli “activists.” There is clearly no “framework of fundamental solidarity.”

      The concept and reality of “Jewishness” that held sway until 1948 were those appropriate to a stateless group of wanderers, somewhat like the “gypsies” or Bedouin. Being “Jewish” constrained one to a given set of occupations and defined one’s attitude to nationalism, military service, and all other unpleasant manifestations of national responsibilities. “Jewishness” implied a worldview in which decisions of the society and government were the responsibility of someone else – “them,” and were to be avoided and disowned, rather than obeyed.

      In any political discussion, there were always a few individuals who identified themselves as “citizens of the world.” Almost invariably, they were Jews.  The world, however, did not issue any citizenship papers.

      Jewish culture, which had kept alive the memories of national life, had evolved values that precluded nationalism. Jewish Diaspora society had evolved to be a barrier to national organization, Wealthy Jewish leaders were wealthy and respected because they had succeeded in German, French or American societies. Jewish intellectuals won recognition only to the extent that they were important in non-Jewish society.

      All this should have changed as the Jewish people moved from exile to independence. In part, it did. Most of the Jews who moved to Israel learned to speak their own language and govern themselves. Jews were no longer only lawyers, doctors and students speaking a variety of languages. The land was peopled with Jewish workers and peasants, Jewish carpenters and smiths, Jewish policemen and soldiers, Jewish mechanics and combat pilots. The definition of Jewishness changed, at least for Israeli or Palestinian Jews.

      In the Diaspora, according to the Zionist vision, there should have been the beginnings of a parallel transformation. Jews should have returned to the study of Hebrew and revitalized Jewish culture. They should have evolved some national institutions perhaps and prepared for emigration to Palestine. Such must have been the Utopian vision of the founders of Zionism. The vision was not realized. The Jews did not transform themselves into an active national entity for the most part.

      The beginnings of Jewish national transformation may have flourished for a time in pre-revolutionary Russia and pre-war Poland and Romania. The Jews created organizations and institutions there, learned Hebrew and prepared for emigration. But by 1948 those Jews had been annihilated or escaped to Israel. For most Jews, it is probably true that while Israel became independent, they did not. No Diaspora Jewish communities became independent of course, and the concept of Jewishness held by individuals was not affected by independence.

      The Zionists had not reckoned with the functional autonomy of Diaspora societal organization, which created a leadership lobby against Jewish national organization. The biggest fear of Diaspora Jewish leadership, of Jews who had succeeded in becoming prominent Americans, British or Germans, was that Zionism would rob them of their places in non-Jewish society. The threat was clearly recognized by leaders such as Sir Edwin Montagu in Britain, who lobbied against the Balfour declaration. The challenge was also met by American Jews, who were anxious to ensure that Israeli independence had no implications for their own status, but are paradoxically eager for the American government to control Israeli policy.

      The Zionists had also not reckoned with the functional autonomy of Jewish Diaspora culture, which persisted in the “Jewishness” concepts held by both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews. In Israel, as in the Diaspora of old, a large segment of the Jewish population studies Talmud and avoids both military service and participation in national life, just as they did in Tsarist Russia and other parts of the Diaspora.

      The failure to integrate national independence into the concept of Jewishness has had a variety of consequences, not all of the kind one might expect. There is a tendency among Zionists to view all enemies of Israel as anti-Semites, and all criticism as motivated by anti-Semitism. While anti-Semitic culture and ideas may have a functional autonomy of their own, anti-Semitism is a meaningful description only when it applies to the actions or beliefs of a non-Jewish majority within a state, against members of the Jewish minority. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may use the rhetoric of anti-Semitism, but Iran is a state confronting Israel as a state. The Jewish victims of Hitler were organized “enemies” only in his imagination. It is certainly inappropriate to deal with the opposition of foreign states as though they are all part of the racist government. Much of the criticism of Israeli actions and policies may be unfair, but, outside of Muslim and Arab countries  it cannot usually be attributed to racism and a lot of it is originated and disseminated by Jews.

      When Israel is involved in one of the necessary and less edifying tasks of national struggle and war, Israeli actions always elicit protests from numbers of Israelis and other Jews who insist that “Jews don’t do things like that.” Attempts to maintain unity are greeted by the admonition that dissent is quintessentially Jewish. Both assertions are true. Jews have not done “things like that” in almost two millennia. Jews have not fought wars or united against an enemy in almost 2,000 years. Independence requires many adjustments of self-image, cultural norms and norms of group behavior.

      Nobody is arguing that every action of Israel is correct, or that any misdeed can be tolerated in the name of “independence.” But no nation could survive and function if every error, every excess in law enforcement or war conduct, was used as “evidence” that the state itself is not legitimate because it violates national values. Despite harsh criticism, few have suggested that the United States should be disbanded because of the Mai lai massacre, torture in the abu-Ghraib detention compound, or the targeted extrajudicial killing of Che Guevara or Osama bin Laden.

      The required transformation in self-perception  cannot be achieved by changing one’s place of residence alone, or by some legal act. A slave is not freed by legal emancipation or manumission alone. These are hardly meaningful unless the legal act also changes the self-concept and the actions of the slave accordingly. The conceptual exile of the Jewish people has continued beyond the end of the physical exile because independence has not yet brought about a corresponding change in the concept of “Jewishness.” The exile that exists in our minds will end only when we choose to end it.

      Ami Isseroff


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