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Jewish Identity and the Diaspora

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  • AMI
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    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 27, 2011
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      In several essays in his book “Achizat Moledet” (‘Homeland Grasp; Hebrew only Hakibbutz Hameuhad, Tel Aviv, 2008), A.B. Yehoshua examines the problem of Jewish identity and offers several useful and original, if flawed, insights.

      As Yehoshua points out, no people or group seem to be concerned with their identity as much as the Jews, and the concept is elusive and “virtual” (See What is “Jewish?” 5. Jewish peoplehood in America,What is “Jewish?” 4. Zionism and the Jewish people, What is “Jewish?”: 3. The Jewish religion in modern society, What is “Jewish?” 2. The evolution of “Jewish, What is “Jewish?” 1. Is it a religion?).

      Peoples who live in their own territories, such as Frenchman, Germans and Italians, do not have the identity problems of the Jews, as Yehoshua points out. The language, culture, history and traditions define who they are. This is increasingly true of Israeli Jews as well.

      The existence of the Diaspora, Yehoshua argues, is not an accident of history. He points out that some Jews never returned from the Babylonian exile, and claims that most Jews were not exiled by the Romans but left the homeland voluntarily. Jews wandered to the four corners of the earth, suffering persecution and poverty, but very few returned to or lived in their own land, even when the could. Finally, as he notes, very few Jews came to Mandate Palestine in the 1920s, though the gates of the homeland were open to immigration. He quote and repeats the slogan of Jabotinsky, “Liquidate the Diaspora before it liquidates you.”

      According to Yehoshua, Judaism was unique in that it was both a national identity and a religious identity. The two could only coexist in the Diaspora, where the national and secular element had no political power. He quotes the description of the Jews supposedly given by Haman in Chapter 3 Verse 8 of Megillath Esther, a text that was no doubt composed by Jews and describes the Jewish view of themselves as he points out:

      … There is a certain nation [or people, "ahm" in the original] scattered abroad and separated between the nations in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws["Dahteyhem" in the original - "their religions"] are different from all people and they do not do the law [Hebrew - "Daht"- religion in literal translation] of the king…

      Yehoshua claims that Haman “spoke clearly” of both a “nation” and a “religion.” He believes that the insistence of the Jews on maintaining a separate nation and religious identity within other countries is the source of anti-Semitism.

      Yehoshua’s arguments are tendentious and contain numerous obvious fallacies. In support of his views we can also point out the exile community in Alexandria that was formed after the conquest of Alexander was not liquidated in the period of the Hasmonean kings. The Jews of Alexandria, like those of Babylon, preferred to live in exile.

      But Yehoshua must surely be aware of the physical and political barriers that discouraged Jewish settlement in Israel. The Romans killed and expelled a large number of Jews after the Bar Kochba revolt. The remainder were expelled by the Crusaders. The Turkish Sultans were aware of the political significance of Jewish settlement in Israel. The Sultan offered hospitality within the Ottoman Empire to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, but allowed Jews to settle in Tiberias only after difficult and arduous pleading. As Yehoshua notes, large numbers of Jews emigrated to the land of Israel in the Middle ages and thereafter. Only a small number were left by 1900; the rest had left or “assimilated.” This was not due to lack of motivation, but to failure to adapt to extremely an extremely harsh and inhospitable environment.

      Even in the early part of the twentieth century, Palestine or “the land of Israel” offered a harsh environment. Members of the Second Aliyah died of malaria, overwork and malnutrition. They did not simply leave because they were spoiled and students as some accounts would have us believe.

      After the First World War, there was no employment to be had in a country that had been ravaged by influenza, typhus and cholera. At British insistence, the Jewish Agency admitted only “capitalists” who had a significant sum to invest. Many of the Eastern European countries had limitations on currency export, making it difficult to raise this sum. The doors of the Soviet Union were closed. Zionists are understandably bitter that the Jews of Europe did not flee while they could, but we must understand that conditions here were arduous. In 1925, only eccentrics and fanatics would leave a comfortable home and invest their life savings in the Utopian idea of a “Jewish homeland.” On the contrary, many of the idealists of the Second Aliyah left Mandate Palestine in the early 1920s.

      The British refused to invest any money in Palestine development. The Zionist movement was unable to get capital needed for land purchase because the Jewish philanthropists on whose largesse the Zionists had counted were not interested in investing in Palestine and were not Zionists. It is not necessary to resort to complex theories to explain their behavior. A few were ideological anti-Zionists, but most must have thought of themselves simply as realists. The proposition they were offered probably sounded to British or German-Jewish financiers in 1925 about the same as investing in Martian real-estate in order to settle Jews there would sound to you, assuming you knew that the Martians did not like Jews.

      As for the description of Haman, it is probably not as clear as Yehoshua pretends. Until modern times, religion and national or ethnic identities were totally confounded. The Jews were similar in that respect to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Romans. Christianity began its real importance as the state religion of Rome. The word Ahm means nation in modern Hebrew and the word Daht means religion, but these words did not necessarily have the same meanings in Megillat Esther. “Ahm” did not refer to a separate national entity necessarily, since there were many such separate “ahmim” each with its own customs and gods in the Kingdom of Persia and Medea. The description of the Jews of Persia supposedly given by Haman applied equally to the Medes, Babylonians and others; the situation would seem more exceptional to someone writing at a later date, such as someone who was familiar with the critique of Apion. Likewise the word “Daht,” which means “religion” in modern Hebrew, is usually translated as “law” in that sentence from the Megillah. It would not make sense to say “Dateyhem” of the “religions” of the Jews.

      The thesis that the Jews excite anti-Semitism because we are different and separate may explain some outbreaks of anti-Semitism. It is probably not a thesis that Herzl would have adopted for example. Herzl was an assimilated Austrian Jew who was inspired to Zionism by the wave of anti-Semitism that accompanied the Dreyfus Affair. The Holocaust, the most ferocious and vicious outbreak of Anti-Semitism in history, was initiated in Germany and directed equally at Zionists and at Jews who insisted that were Germans, and that Judaism is not a nationality, but a religion. It was also directed at people who were totally assimilated and denied that they were Jewish, and in some instances were not even aware of their Jewish ancestry.

      Similarly, Austrian, French, and Nazi anti-Semitism targeted Jews who had no desire to be different.  In the USSR,  anti-Semitism was directed at Jewish communists who insisted they were part of an international proletariat and put their allegiance to the Communist Party first.

      Yehoshua makes some important points, inaccuracies notwithstanding. The problems of Jewish identity, especially outside Israel, are undeniable, and the persistence of the Diaspora today is an incontrovertible fact. We need to account for the persistence of the Diaspora, even in countries with the most adverse conditions such as Afghanistan. Despite continuous complaints about European anti-Semitism, Jews are not leaving Europe and certainly not leaving the USA.

      Yehoshua is right to point out that there are increasing numbers of secular Jews. This is true in Diaspora as well as Israel. Whereas in Israel a secular Jew almost always has a national Jewish identity, this is not necessarily true in the Diaspora. The notion of “Jewish peoplehood” attracted a great deal of attention in America, but it quickly became apparent that different enthusiasts had different ideas of what this concept or slogan means (See What is “Jewish?” 5. Jewish peoplehood in America)

      Yehoshua is also right that we cannot demand or expect of Diaspora Jews an allegiance and commitment to national identity that we expect of Israelis. British Jews are firstly British nationals and American Jews are firstly Americans. They might be Senators and one day there might be an American Jewish President, as he points out. The allegiance of American Jews to America and their loyalty must never be put in doubt or compromised.

      The separation between the spiritual and the practical political allegiances of Diaspora Jews was described many years ago in a speech of David Ben-Gurion in 1950. He said:

      … To my mind, the position is perfectly clear. The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel.

      That must always be true. Diaspora Jews will not vote in Israeli elections or pay Israeli income tax. They will not, for the most part, fight in our wars. If only for those reasons, the “national identification” of a Jew living in the United States or France cannot be the same as that of an Israeli.

      On the other hand, we can also question whether there is any unifying factor in the Jewish religion in the United States. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Recontructionist Neturei Karteh and Jewish Renewal Jews each believe and practice differently about God, the Bible, prayers, customs and Zionism. Orthodox Jews do not accept the conversions done by Reform rabbis; they may not accept them as rabbis. The religion of the Orthodox Union is very different from that of Rabbi Michael Lerner, and their ideas of Judaism, with which they identify, are also quite different.

      Yehoshua’s solution, if I understand it rightly, is unworkable and objectionable. It also is not a solution. He wants to create a separate Jewish (or Israeli?) national identity in which he will include Christians, Muslims and Israeli “Palestinian” Arabs. This identity would be separate from the Jewish identity of Diaspora Jews. The solution is objectionable because we know instinctively that the bond between Israeli and Diaspora Jews must not be broken. Israel was created when there were only Diaspora Jews, and supposedly exists because it is the state of the “Jewish people,” including all those in the Diaspora.

      The solution is unworkable because very few of the prospective “Jews” want to be Jews. If “Israeli Palestinians” as Yehoshua calls Israeli Arabs, wanted to be Jews or Israelis, they would not insist on calling themselves “Palestinians.” Those Israeli Arabs who do so are making a political statement about their nationality. If the Arabs really wanted to be Jews, there would be no conflict.

      Yehoshua’s idea is also unworkable because in the main, the Christian and Muslim religions exclude and negate the Jewish religion, and may also exclude Jewish national claims. The Reverend Sizer certainly believes that Christianity invalidates Jewish national claims. We cannot accept as Jews groups who believe that the Jews (as a people or a religion?) killed the Messiah or that Jews are at fault because we do not accept Jesus as the savior of Israel or believe in virgin birth or a triune god.

      The Islamists insist that Islam invalidates Jewish national claims. Whatever our notion of Jewish identity might be, it cannot exclude the Jewish religion or Jewish national claims to the land of Israel. It is hard to imagine accepting groups of Jews who insist that King Solomon was a Muslim or that Jerusalem belongs as of right to the Muslim Ouma.

      Yehoshua’s proposal is not a solution to the identity problem, and confuses the identity problem with the political and legal definition of “Jew” in Israel. The question is related, but separate. Passing a law can give a person a new label. No law and no label will change the identification of an Arab MK who gives aid to the Hezbollah. He is not and never will be a Jew. Conversely, a rabbinical court may decide that the son of a Jewish father and Russian mother who serves in the IDF and speaks Hebrew is not Jewish. This may be annoying, insulting and unjust, but it does not change his self-identification.

      Israeli secular national law has already determined that this person is a Jew and eligible to be an immigrant under the law of return. Making another law will not change his status or identity. He is a Jew in fact if he so declares, whatever the law may decide, but the Orthodox rabbis do not consider that he is Jewish whatever he or the government may believe. Some Orthodox rabbis do not even accept the conversions done by other Orthodox rabbis. It is impossible to believe that A. B. Yehoshua can devise a way to make the same rabbis accept a Muslim as a Jew. At the same time, Yehoshua should realize that his Jewish identity is not solely determined by the fact of his living in Israel. He does not have the same identity as Arab-Israeli MK Zuabi or Massalha or as Arab Israeli writers Zuhair Andreus or Sayed Kashua. No law will change that.

      Yet Yehoshua’s idea has some anchor in reality. Christian Arabs and Russians serve in the IDF, as do Druze and Muslim Bedouin. They all speak Hebrew. They cannot be excluded from Israeli nationality, and perhaps from Jewish “peoplehood,” if they so desire.

      We should not neglect the problem posed by the increasingly strident voices of those Jews who reject both Jewish religious identity and Jewish national identity. In his speech, Ben Gurion rightly pointed out:

      the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country.

      Indeed it would be unthinkable for anyone to assert otherwise. But it should also be unthinkable for a member of “Jewish Voice for Peace,” a Norman Finkelstein, a pro-Palestinian Jewish rabbi or a Holocaust-denying anti-Zionist Neturei Karteh rabbi to pretend to speak for the Jewish people or to be a “True Torah Jew” who speaks for the “real” Jewish religion or “Jewish values.” These people, regardless of their costumes or names, probably should not be considered as Jews, but there is nobody to decide that at present, and no agreed criteria on which to base that decision.

      We need to recognize the importance and legitimacy of the problems that Yehoshua raises, even though we reject his solutions. The persistence of the Jewish Diaspora is a fact that must not be ignored by Zionists and Israelis. The existence, vitality and persistence of the “Jewish people” is also a fact that must not be ignored by Jews in the Diaspora.

      Both in the Diaspora and in Israel, Jews and Zionists need to agree on a workable definition of Jewish identity that will both ensure the continuity of the Jewish people and will not unjustly or arbitrarily exclude anyone who acts as a Jew and identifies with the Jewish people. No definition will satisfy everyone. It probably is equally impossible to get unanimous agreement about the definition of who is an American among Americans (and what is un-American) but some criteria and definition may be better than none at all or the present situation, in which only religious criteria seem to be accepted outside Israel. Different people may feel themselves to be Jewish for different reasons, just as different Americans may describe their American identity differently.

      Identity is necessarily voluntary; there will always be those who opt out of being Jewish by religion, Jewish by nationality or Jewish by any other criterion. More difficult to envision, we need to decide on a recognized body that will enforce these criteria.

      Ami Isseroff


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