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…
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?
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.