Against self-determination

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Here’s a golden moment from the holiday season: My wife brought me to a big Christmas party hosted by a friend at his ancestral estate in Dutchess County. I was walking amid the ancestral maples when I saw my congressman go in the front door and started after him with a mind to politely buttonhole him about Gaza when a darkhaired woman glided up to me on the porch and said, Didn’t I see you last week at shiva in New York? She had; it was for my father’s aunt. We talked for a while, and I forgot about the congressman. I guess she’s Jewish too. What does it matter?

I am now completely Americanized and can’t really claim to be part of an ethnic subculture anymore. I cooked Christmas Eve dinner for my inlaws and set out a menorah for the eighth night of Hanukkah, my father in law said that the tools he was giving me were my Hanukkah gift, but really I’m indistuingishable from others in his childrens’ generation. They don’t go to church, and they’re angered by Gaza, just like me.

This seems the proper outcome. I grew up in a subculture and didn’t want to be in one as an adult, I wanted to be worldly. I’ve gotten what I wanted, and I would never say that it’s Jewish per se. It’s just American and New York and the countryside. My wife spent the day after Christmas at a prison visiting a friend, I went for a long walk over to the Appalachian Trail 3 miles from my house. I study Jewish issues and I’m in a leftwing camp where everyone talks about the criminal justice system and Gaza, but I have a wide social circle. My closest friend’s son is a cop.

A year or so back when I met Bernard Avishai, he said that I failed to appreciate the Yiddish culture of Eastern European Jewry that was reborn in Israel with Hebrew, and that was a major hole in my worldview, as I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I told Avishai he was right. Well, now I know what I don’t know; but I could never see why I should rearrange my life or anyone else’s to preserve that culture. Hundreds of languages are dying in New Guinea because the world is getting smaller. Those people have chosen/been compelled to choose other cultures. I chose a more influential culture when I left my parents’ academic/scientific/eccentric/urban Jewish world, and of course my parents didn’t want to speak their parents’ Yiddish.

Last week NPR’s Emily Harris did a report on an American rabbi’s daughter who is living in Ramallah and “wrestles” with the idea of one democratic state. Amelia Wolf said:

The idea – like emotionally, not logically – that this first expression of Jewish self-determination in over 2000 years [Israel] would then have to fail for there to be any sort of fairness – like that makes me sick.

I don’t see the sadness there, at all. I’m so American. I don’t feel myself to be part of a Jewish people that needs a state (on other people’s lands) in the Middle East in order to continue. I have a lot of friends from different communities. As the scholar of our imagined identities, Shlomo Sand, writes in his latest book, resorting to the labels Jewish state and Arab state “at this point in the twenty-first century appears to be a questionable and dangerous anachronism.” I think of Gershom Scholem telling Hannah Arendt that she had insufficient love of the Jewish people, and she said:

I have never in my life “loved” some nation or collective — not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love.

I feel the same way. My friends come from a wide range of religious and ethnic backgrounds, but it’s background. Per Sand, the claim of a “secular Jewish culture” refers to “a dead past.” I’m sure a lot of folks on the Upper West Side would disagree with him, but not with this:

“National societies in which religious-communitarian criteria play a dominant role in the dividing lines of identity cannot be described as liberal or democratic.”

As little as I know about international relations theory, I find the idea of self-determination antiquated, part of the era of decolonization and the classic period of nationalism. Really I could not care less about one ethnicity or another having the right to self determination. Every state has minorities in it, and they should all have equal rights. That seems like the challenge in the era of air travel and the internet. More and more of us see the absurdity of traditions and religion; let diversity blossom everyhere.

In large part because of my work on this site, multiculturalism has shaped me. I used to write here that all people are tribal and I am most comfortable with other Jews in the antiZionism world because I know their ways. Today that statement seems quaint. I’m as comfortable with non-Jews as Jews, and the leading Jewish organizations are a real impediment to reaching an understanding of the I/P conflict. One great thing about Jewish Voice for Peace is it welcomes non-Jewish members. Just as NIAC welcomes non Iranian-Americans. I’m embarrassed about stupid stuff I used to write about Muslim women covering themselves. Now I really don’t care.

As a liberal, I think this really is a better way to be, tolerating others, worshiping whoever you want to (right now George Eliot), minding your own business. It’s great that Bernard Avishai gets a lot out of Bialik. That’s no reason to insist on a Jewish democracy. Especially when that Jewish democracy breeds people like Moshe Feiglin and Caroline Glick who believe the bible is a title for the Jews to the land of all of Israel. That’s lunacy. When one of our lunatics Sarah Palin sets out to protect Christmas from the cultural war against it, I don’t feel the least bit threatened. But Feiglin and Glick are truly threatening characters, because theirs is a vital belief system: the government is stealing land and forcing Palestinians out of their homes on that basis.

I used to be afraid of my mother’s best friend, who had escaped Berlin to move to the U.S. and then Jerusalem; it took me a while to come out to her as an anti-Zionist, when she started shouting at me about the Holocaust, and one reason I didn’t is that I had assimilated the idea that Jews in Jerusalem were aliyah, higher, than Jews in the Diaspora, yoredim, lower. It was an old religious idea inside my subculture. Without getting into who’s higher or lower, Zionists sure have propagated some backward ideas. Jewish democracy and the Jewish people’s right to self-determination are out of step with the culture that Jews and others have fashioned in my country over the last 30 or 40 years. Whether that identity is assimilationist or areligious or syncretist or idealistic, I leave to others to sort out. I know it’s where I’m happiest and most fully engaged. If the people of Israel gave up the idea of ethnic-religious self-determination, the Palestinians might give up theirs too, and they might get to the same place. I want to encourage them.

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You are indeed on the right path Phil – a humanist world view for the 3rd millennium. Keep up your good work. This is the future.


Thanks for sharing. I too have sensed a certain change or evolution in your perspective since I first started reading this site. That’s one of the reasons that I, as a non-Jew, finally felt comfortable in participating in the discussions. I appreciate the hard work that you and your colleagues do; I’m sure that many, many others appreciate it too.

Beautifully put Phil.One for the ages.

Highly unlikely the way forward for humanity is via Bronze Palestine. We would be better off if we had grown out of it a long time ago.

Yeah, Phil, I grew up too & figure I’ve come some way since I was a child in upstate NY when the word “jew” was used in my neighborhood as a verb synonymous with “cheat.” Or as in the phrase “Don’t try to jew me down!”

“angered” not just by what has gone and is going on in the Gaza…The West Bank, East Jerusalem.