Identity as pathology

Middle East
on 18 Comments

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion…

Robert Burns

Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver in 1950 said Jews would better proclaim Torah now that they were not a stateless people any more:

Exile made the mission of Israel impossible because the mission of a defeated people is automatically discredited. Exile was defeat for God as well as for Israel. …The god of a defeated and conquered people has little to recommend Him.

Notable Zionist leader Silver, a classical Reform rabbi, saw in Judaism a gift for the world, rather than a retreat from others — a rational ethical system rather than primarily a system of worship of a tribal deity.

Could Rabbi Silver have imagined that an expression of Jewish ethical monotheism would be spewing excrement water on villages as collective punishment, when Palestinians are the target of the rage to enforce Jewish authority?

Or the latest grotesque moment of Israeli history, when the IDF took a boy, with part of his skull removed after being shot, into custody in a night raid and got him to “confess” that his injury was from a bicycle accident?

Night raids of Arab villages began with Orde Wingate and Jewish militia in the 1930s. Unusually, this story was covered by a “major” American news source, not just the usual suspects.

Because of the inherent instability of Jewish political identity, when it is expressed with the authority of a state it can only become cruel and frantic, to fight against its contradictions.

When replacement of the Jewish state by a Palestine state representing all its Christian, Muslim and Jewish people is proposed, it is annihilation of distinction, unique Jewish identity, that is feared, and fiercely fought, as much by American Zionists as by Israeli Zionists more close to the prospect.

To dispense with that terror (and pride) is unlikely, before more trauma.  The anti-Zionist is a “terrorist” with or without bomb or knife, because the anti-Zionist threatens to kill the nationalist Jew as a category.

Thinking of the situation in Palestine as a competition between national groups is one of the symptoms of the problem that has been created (“Israel’s sports minister posts video with genocidal chants by fans”).

While any group has variation, the Jewish identity is notable in both its flexibility and persistence. Adaptability may be its irreducible character. The wide variations within its persistence fuels identity anxiety among Jews.

A third-generation secularist and a child in a haredi family are both examples of a “Jew.” Both are members of the “tribe.” The membership in the tribe has a paradoxical core — “not gentile.”​

The story of transition from an ethno-religious group spread through much of the world, to a self-actualized transnational “nation” with a nation-state homeland in Palestine, is best understood by remembering the reason that treason always has the fiercest punishments: fury at betraying membership in the group.

In Eastern Europe in the 19th Century, ways of being Jewish were shaken by the rise of secular nationalism, recrudescent anti-semitic persecution, revolution against monarchies, the communications and industrial revolution. The idea of Jewish statehood, as a solution to both oppression and the anxiety of “assimilation,” took hold.

Once the ideology of a unitary Jewish people was accepted — in the Zionist framing — it became impermeable to reason. The cause of Zionism became a madness, filling some Jewish people with a short-cut to self-regard.

The madness is not an organic disease. It’s the result of trying to ignore the contradictory but essential premises of both Jewish uniqueness and Jewish equal citizenship.

“Land without a people for a people without a land” was a twofold lie. Not merely that the land was empty — but in the 2nd half of the tautology, the lie that Jews exist as “a people” in a primary, uncontested sense.

This lie lived with Christian proto-Zionists years before the first Zionist Congress in 1897. George Eliot’s hero in the novel Daniel Deronda announces in 1876,

The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national centre… I am resolved to devote my life to it.

In Abraham Cahan’s 1919 novel The Rise of David Levinsky, a pious yeshiva bocher from Europe takes the first step out of greenhorn status in New York by cutting his beard and sidelocks. The narrator reflects that taking American clothes and style changed him inside.

The very clothes I wore and the very food I ate had a fatal effect on my religious habits. A whole book could be written on the influence of a starched collar and a necktie on a man who was brought up as I was. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, I should let a barber shave my sprouting beard.

The Cahan novel, and the insights he had about transforming himself in the process of transporting from the old world to Manhattan, shows ways that Jews cope with freedom. Strategies for modulating assimilation are strategies for identity preservation.

In America, and the modern world, freedom is freedom from having to live as a Jew as much as freedom to live as a Jew. Or, to make choices of how much of each to do.

Sociologist Nathan Glazer in 1957 predicted “American” would overwhelm “Judaism” in “American Judaism”; overwhelm requirements in Judaism of endogamy, to live as a people apart, and the “need to consider Diaspora as Exile.”

In a 1940 essay, psychologist Kurt Lewin may have hinted at the “royal road” out of  uncertainty that Zionism may serve for Jews, and explained the tenacious grip on  otherwise indifferent Jews of the concept of having “a country.”

Especially since religion has become a less important social matter, it is rather difficult to describe positively the character of  the Jewish group as a whole.  A religious group with many atheists? A Jewish race with a great diversity of racial qualities among its members? A nation without a state or a territory of its own containing the majority of its people? A group combined by one culture and tradition but actually having in most respects the different values and ideals of the nations in which it lives? There are, I think, few chores more bewildering than that of determining positively the character of the Jewish group…. No wonder many Jews are uncertain about what it means to belong to the Jewish group…

The genius of Herzl, Silver, Stephen S. Wise, etc., was to take the identity to an extreme, discounting all the other coexisting identities in the same people. In 1938, the New York Herald Tribune quoted Rabbi Wise making contemptuous reference to German Jews and gloating that they were being taught a lesson about believing they were Germans:

Any Jew who speaks of “Americans who are Jews” is going back to the cowardice of the German Jews who spoke of themselves as German citizens of the Jewish faith, Dr. Wise continued, and the German Jews were woefully and tragically punished for their error.

The Israeli regime of cruelty and domination over non-Jews in Palestine is not a secret. It’s difficult not to see Zionist behavior now as driven, frantic, a pathology. ​ Sociologist Ran Greenstein recently wrote,

What remains of ‘Jewish values’ in the Israeli context is one thing only: survival as a ‘people that dwells alone’ at any cost, regardless and at the expense of anything and anyone that stands in the way of this hellish vision, including internal dissidents. All Jewish traditions that contradict that have been relegated to the margins by the rise of ethno-religious tribalism.

Dr Greenstein’s comment remarkably tracks an American Jewish Committee memo of January 1948, 70 years before, commenting on the Zionist insistence on a partition of Palestine to create a Jewish state:

Whether these extreme Zionists realize it or not, the fact remains that behind their  mentality and program there is no less monstrosity than the idol of the State as an absolute totalitarian substance in itself, the State which is complete master not only over its own immediate subjects but also over every living Jewish body and soul the world over, beyond any consideration of good or evil.

The ideological Jewish identity creates an Israeli nationality with contradictions, based on being not-gentile, and a shared national purpose of locking out formerly-resident Arabs.

Michael Sfard recently ​wrote​, “The occupation is an Israeli project, not only the project of those [in Israel] who support it.”

We should say, in the same sense, “The State of Israel is a Jewish project, not only the project of Jews who support it.”

The concomitant of unitary identity is collective responsibility. Organized Jewry will have to confront their complicity with Zionism.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented about American involvement in Vietnam, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

The circularity and intractability of discussions of Zionism and Jews lead to a yearning for some resolution or exit. To plumb the depths of Jewish consciousness may be too much to ask, but it could be productive.

About Abba Solomon

Abba A. Solomon is the author of “The Speech, and Its Context: Jacob Blaustein's Speech ‘The Meaning of Palestine Partition to American Jews.’” His website is

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18 Responses

  1. Citizen
    March 6, 2018, 4:42 am

    Astute article, Mr. Solomon. I know a notorious musician who agrees with you.

    • Yonah Fredman
      March 6, 2018, 10:18 am

      Abba solomon,
      Jew is a complex ball of wax especially when confronted with the heat of modernity and the durability of jew hatred. Reading about young bolshevik and menshevik Jews rebelling against religion, eventually taking part in the communist enterprise, a discredited enterprise, in terms of belief in freedom and human realities, but an enterprise that was a worthy opponent of western capitalism, certainly as an ideal.

      (Once we condemn communism, the only lasting diaspora contribution is American jewry. And then the metrics seem silly: Progress of Jews to be measured by the Americanization reflected by the tendency of the generations towards “disappearance”.)

      But to refer to nazism and its trauma only back handedly seems intentionally blind.

      How I wish that zionism was more informed by the inherent confusion of a scattered people with an ancient text (a text viewed in the west as the seminal but incomplete text as the basis of society, a text that both fueled various rebellions and inspired “erase the infamy” rebellions against itself)… how the secularization of society would interact with the identity, yes, a thorny time was had by all.

      Whatever… indeed the inherent conflict is my daily bread.

      But the swastika. I know this only adds to the traumatic interpretation of post war Judaism and zionism, and normalcy is the course of life that is a human yearning, also by the millions of Israeli jews.

      Yes, daily viewing of the photo of the misshaped skull of the Palestinian youth, symbol of the occupation, causes one to scoff at the normalcy sought, but taking part even one month a year in Israeli society has the consequence of accepting Israeli Jewish humanity.

      Judah magnes predicted a long war and he was right. War is not conducive to normalcy. That the journey away from exile, dispersion, confusion, in the post faith era, led to a state at constant war, is thornier than one might wish.

      My viewpoint is not global geopolitical, nuclear small surrounded state, source of added global instability. It is cultural. Identity in and of itself is thorny, not pathology. But adding the swastika in history and constant war in the current scene, turns thorns even thornier.

      • eljay
        March 6, 2018, 12:18 pm

        || Yonah Fredman: … Jew is a complex ball of wax especially when confronted with the heat of modernity and the durability of jew hatred. … ||

        – modernity makes Jews squishy and vulnerable to deformity by durable “Jew hatred”; so,
        – the solution is to keep Jews safely isolated away from both modernity and “Jew hatred”.

        Does the solution work well for self-loathing Jews who cannot be isolated from their own “Jew hatred”? Will isolation from modernity sufficiently firm them up against deformation?

        || … Whatever… indeed the inherent conflict is my daily bread. … ||

        Just so long as there’s no mayonnaise involved.

        || … War is not conducive to normalcy. That the journey away from exile, dispersion, confusion, in the post faith era, led to a state at constant war, is thornier than one might wish. … ||

        Yeah, things can get thorny when people with a shared, religion-based identity living in homelands all over the world decide to commit terrorism, ethnic cleansing, colonialism and sundry (war) crimes in order to establish a religion-supremacist state for themselves.

      • Mooser
        March 6, 2018, 1:04 pm

        “Judah magnes predicted a long war and he was right.” “Gen. yonah fredman”

        And if there is anything Judaism, and the Jews throughout the world, are ready for, it’s a long war against everybody. Shit, what else do we have to do?
        Better dig in for the duration.

      • Citizen
        March 6, 2018, 2:57 pm

        But adding the swastika in history and constant war in the current scene, turns thorns even thornier. 73 years go U looked up to see the swastika on the Stuka, now U can see the Star of David on the F-16 or F-35. From the ground, maybe they look the same? Just wondering. Both symbols had a prior life in history.

      • Mooser
        March 6, 2018, 5:54 pm

        “the heat of modernity and the durability of jew hatred.” “yonah fredman”

        Okay “the heat of modernity”, you’re talking about global warming. But where is the “durability of Jew hatred ” in evidence, “yonah”?

    • [email protected]
      March 6, 2018, 4:54 pm

      So now I understand the epithet “self-hating Jew” as more than just an attack. Jews who base their personal identity on the creation of Israel don’t understand that that it is possible to love yourself just for being yourself . That we don’t need a Jews-only state with an out-sized military to know who we are.

      • RoHa
        March 7, 2018, 1:03 am

        “That we don’t need a Jews-only state with an out-sized military to know who we are.”

        I’m not Jew, and I can usually remember who I am, but if I forget all I need to do is look at my driving licence or ask my wife. No call for a state and a military.

      • Mooser
        March 7, 2018, 12:53 pm

        “if I forget all I need to do is look at my driving licence”

        Not a reliable source. I did it, and I thought my name was “expired”.


      • eljay
        March 7, 2018, 2:15 pm

        || RoHa: … I’m not Jew, and I can usually remember who I am, but if I forget all I need to do is look at my driving licence or ask my wife. … ||

        Will either of them tell you if you’re Canadian?

      • RoHa
        March 7, 2018, 9:29 pm

        Hang on a minute, and I’ll check.

        No, my licence has name, address, d.o.b., an expiry date (for the licence, I hope), and stuff about Australia and the Queensland Government. Looks as though you are in the clear.

        (Nice to know someone other than YG is reading my lucubrations.)

  2. Joshua Laskin
    March 6, 2018, 9:31 am

    It was the first-generation Americans, the children of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who were both: 1) ashamed of their Yiddish, so didn’t pass it on to their own children, while continuing to speak it themselves with their parents and siblings; and, 2) embraced Jewish Nationalism while remaining Americans, sending their children to study Hebrew in after-school though they themselves neither spoke it, nor intended their kids to become Israelis. American Zionism thus seems to have been all about resolving their status-anxiety as immigrant-raised Americans. Now that their children and grandchildren are secure in American identity, Jewish Nationalism is coming to be recognized as the aberrant reaction it always really was; while planetary evolution is rediscovered as our true heritage.

    • Citizen
      March 6, 2018, 2:59 pm

      Spencer say American nationalism and Jewish Nationalism are kindred spirits. What say you?

  3. Misterioso
    March 6, 2018, 4:32 pm,-2018-Dr-Ashrawi-condemns-the-Israeli-Knesset’s-resolution-to-revoke-residency-of-Palestinian-Jerusalemites-as-“racist-and-dangerous”

    Press Release

    The Palestine Liberation Organization
    Department of Culture & Information

    March 6, 2018:
    “Dr. Ashrawi condemns the Israeli Knesset’s resolution to revoke the residency of Palestinian Jerusalemites as ‘racist and dangerous’”

    “PLO Executive Committee Member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi condemned the passing of a second and third reading of a draft law that allows the Israeli government to withdraw residency rights from Palestinian Jerusalemites it considers to be involved in activities against Israel.

    “Approved by the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation of the Knesset, ‘such a law,” Dr. Ashrawi said, ‘represents an extremely racist piece of legislation and gives full mandate to the Netanyahu government and future Israeli governments to revoke the IDs of Palestinians from Jerusalem at will and without just cause. By unethically stripping the residency of Palestinians from Jerusalem and depriving the rights of those Palestinians to remain in their own city, the Israeli government is acting in defiance of international law and is violating international human rights and humanitarian laws. This latest move is in the context of Israel’s systematic ethnic cleansing plans for Jerusalem and seeks to dispossess the Palestinians who have been the rightful and long-term inhabitants of the occupied city.’

    “Dr. Ashrawi adds, ‘Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency status of more than 14,500 Palestinians from Jerusalem using the pretext of its illegal and draconian laws.’

    “She also denounced Israel’s total disdain for Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states, ‘Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.’”

    “Dr. Ashrawi called on the international community to immediately ‘intervene and exert all efforts to prevent the implementation of this extremist bill that serves to create unjust demographic realities in Jerusalem by illegally importing Jewish settlers while expelling its rightful Palestinian inhabitants.’”

  4. Roger Tucker
    March 6, 2018, 5:45 pm

    The Identity of the Pathology is well known but it doesn’t have a proper name. ‘Identity Politics’ is too broad and bland a term. ‘Fascism’ doesn’t work because that name has been misappropriated to merely signify a political movement that arose in the 20th Century. But, by virtue of etymology and common usage, the usual requirements, fascism would otherwise be the precise word to use. To overcome this linguistic problem, I have suggested the term ‘proto-fascism’ – the prefix ‘proto’ signifying original.

    This is a matter of great importance as a proper understanding of this fundamental political phenomenon, dating back to the beginnings of human society, would clarify a great deal of confusion and provide a solid basis for properly identifying one of humankind’s greatest and most enduring problems.

    The discussion can be found here:
    Us vs. Them: On the Meaning of Fascism

  5. Yonah Fredman
    March 8, 2018, 1:22 am

    Abba solomon: “Because of the inherent instability of Jewish political identity, when it is expressed with the authority of a state it can only become cruel and frantic to fight its contradictions.”

    I disagree. The cause of the cruelty is the war situation of expressing identity through and in a land with other claimants. The desire to express Jewish political identity was not the overriding Jewish zeitgeist in1897, three stronger currents: escape eastern Europe towards the west, America especially. Overthrow the czar and establish a better world. Escape the tyranny of the old: the shtetl and its suffocation. Probably fourth was reaction to that: rabbinical continuity and only fifth: zionism. It was not a strong movement in 1897. It got a boost from the pogroms of 1905 more so than from photos of herzl with world leaders. But really there is nothing to suggest anything momentous until WWI. Balfour. From out of left field. Really very little reason to expect Balfour out of the blue. If not for herzl there would have been no balfour, but still, totally unexpected.
    But this was not an overwhelming movement in1917.
    And its weak point was the need for bayonets.

    But to Abba solomon, the problem is not the need for bayonets, it’s the contradictions of Jewish political identity.
    I disagree.

    • Mooser
      March 8, 2018, 4:32 pm

      “But to Abba solomon, the problem is not the need for bayonets, it’s the contradictions of Jewish political identity. I disagree” “yonah fredman”

      Than go get a bayonet, tough guy.

  6. gamal
    March 10, 2018, 12:27 am

    you know in terms of identity when you check it you don’t know where the fuck you came from, in Buddhism this is “unborn” it’s a good thing,

    so imagine an Indian girl runs across a Tuareg, yes Muste Muste its means nothing…

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