There is no doubt that the issue of Judaism’s inextricable interplay with Zionism and the State of Israel, has become a politically polarized one. I will seek to address the very idea of Jewish “specialness”, what it means for various parties – and how it plays out in both the pros and the cons, within the paradigm of Zionism and Israel.
Being “special” as an ethnicity, in our modern day and age, is something that we have collectively come to note as a potentially dangerous issue.
The Oxford Dictionary notes two prime definitions for racism:
1) “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” (…)
2) “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races” (…)
The belief that Jews indeed are “special”, is one that goes all the way back to the biblical idea of “the chosen ones”. And this “choice” is not merely a faith matter per se – it regards THE SEED of Abraham – thus a matter which is inherently ethnic.
Yet the idea that Jews are an ethnically homogeneous lot descending directly from that biblical receiver of the “promise” is highly contested, to say the least. It disregards the element of proselytization, which has been and still is a very active element in Judaism. Even if we were to assume, for argument’s sake, that the Jews ARE ethnically homogeneous, the logical link to the “special” element would inevitably have to incorporate an idea of some genetic blessing by divine decree.
Anyone believing in this “specialness” might be assumed by an outsider (non-Jew) to be a devout religious person. Yet I may surprise some here, by saying that this awareness exists strongly and in no uncertain terms amongst “secular”, “liberal” Jews. I have myself had a conversation with one of these, where it went:
(Her): “Jews are special”.
(Me): “Well, all people are special you know”.
(Her): “All people are special, but Jews are even more special”.
Anyone can be forgiven for having associations to Orwell’s Animal Farm arise in them when reading the last phrase.
So this “specialness”, it is a certain, kind of mystical awareness in the minds of many Jews. The problem is, that the same element that serves as a boosting of one’s own stature in comparison to others, is also the element which serves what is commonly known as Anti-Semitism – that is, that Jews possess an inherently ethnic characteristic which separates them, and will always separate them, from the world around them, thereby never really allowing them integration into the world – and that since their perception of themselves in relation to the world is inherently supremacist, they will always seek to compete with the world over the issue of who dominates whom.
Zionism adopted the idea that Jews will never be able to integrate and assimilate in the world, and that they therefore are bound to be persecuted, eternally. It has made this into a nationalist awareness, generated strongly into the “secular” Jewish constituency as well, accentuating the notion that this was not a matter that Jews could do anything about, as it was essentially an issue outside their control – the gentiles’ pathological anti-Semitism. Thus the argument became ostensibly relevant for all Jews, religious and secular; Zionism was about their very survival.
Zionism thus managed to take the Jewish victimhood idea, and translate it into a nationalist victimhood, considering the Jews a “Jewish nation”. Persecution events of the late 19th century and first half of 20th century seemed to confirm, for those who wished to believe it, that the Jews indeed were special; their persecution and genocide were supposedly the ultimate proof for that. But the conclusion that Jews are special because of their persecution, once again placed the onus of the argument upon external events. If a child is bullied because someone doesn’t like them, for whatever reason, that doesn’t make the child any more or less special. The case of bullying may require attention, it may be regarded as a “special case”, but it’s the case that may be special, not the child victim.
So the victimhood became a part of the “special” case for Jews integrated into Zionism. The victimhood didn’t start there, it goes all the way back to the dawn of Judaism, where it wasn’t even called that. In the celebration of Passover, one of the texts, chanted by religious and secular Jews alike, is, “How is it, that in each generation, they rise upon us to destroy us, and the Lord blessed be his name saves us from their hand”.
But now, with Zionism, this “rescue operation”, which for religious Jews would historically be a matter handled by God, became a manmade act involving military might. Jews would take their own fate into their own hands.
This symbiosis of religious and secular-nationalist convictions would transfer the idea of Jews being “special”, or a “special case”, into the Jewish State – the State of Israel – itself being regarded as “special”, a “special case”.
The conundrum became, how do you make a state have “a place among the nations” (to borrow Benjamin Netanyahu’s book title), whilst continuously reserving it a “special” place, which inevitably calls for special exceptions from the rules that guide the modern collectivity of nations, namely international law? The task became to secure the exception, by advocacy accentuating the victimhood paradigm, so that Israel would be able to manifest its “special needs”, which involve “special” exemptions from compliance with UN resolutions and international treaties. These “exceptions” would be facilitated by the patronage of “special friends” like the USA, who are able to block implementation of such international demands, by their veto power, typically calling for support to ‘Israel’s right to self defense’. The needs and the case of Israel is so “special” that Israel is even allowed to evade scrutiny and treaties regarding nuclear weaponry, which Israel and USA share a common “special” status quo about: “ambiguity.” Israel is allowed to neither confirm nor deny its possession of them.
The conundrum on the political scene regarding Israel is similar to the conundrum having faced Jews before the establishment of the State of Israel, and is one that still faces Jews around the world today:
How do you maintain your “specialness”, whilst not becoming exclusivist?
The answer appears to be very simple, at least to me. Every person wants to be special. Every person has special traits and talents, and the process of developing those talents is one that people benefit personally from, as they apply themselves in society for the inspiration and enlightenment of others. It’s actually a process of positive integration in society. The problem arrives when one begins to build walls to contain the “specialness” and keep others out. To a certain degree, we all need boundaries to keep ourselves safe and contained, but in Israel’s case, its history is actually a robbing of the land and lives of others, denying that they too are special – indeed sometimes denying they even exist. When one does this on behalf of one’s “specialness”, one has to be a very good trick-artist to avoid the backlash that will come when people begin recognizing that this is not that special, that it’s a bullying of others for the sake of one’s own exclusivity. For many decades, Israel has managed to keep at bay the reaction to this violence, and regard the backlash as an expression of the pathological Anti-Semitism, thus turning the reaction around in a propaganda boomerang, to garner further support for its continuing subjugation. But there are signs that indicate that the “anti-Semitism” cry is becoming worn out in its effect, as it has been used so many times and so reflexively. It is not “special” to feel anger, or even hate, towards a bully. This is a very natural reaction, especially if you are one of those being bullied, or, mark this, if you happen to have the emotional capacity to feel empathy with them.
The case of Israel is showing us, in our very age and times, how the response of Jews, informed by their own self-generated self-perception of being “special”, in its extreme of “self-protection”, brings a people to a state of collective madness, where the normal self-regulating mechanisms of questioning the rationality of the collective self-view are rendered useless, as the self-congratulatory and self-protective responses gain a life of their own, and the perceiver is not able to see beyond the mirror of self-deception.
This is a lesson for all Jews, as well as all others. We are not special. Any human can be brought to the abyss of nationalist absolutism and totalitarianism. Any religion can be applied in a way that accentuates the exclusivist ideological stream. Any nation can sink into the nadir of human existence, namely the ideological destruction of other humans. If Nazis were special in that sense, then we must conclude that there is some special ethnic element in Germans, which would thus prohibit Germany from becoming a decent nation. But history proves that no such thing exists. What conditions us most importantly is not our genes, but our societal upbringing, the culture we experience as we grow up and live our lives.
Jews are not bound to be persecuted eternally because of their genes. But if they let that thought haunt them to the degree of uncontrolled survivalist frenzy, they will no doubt be undermining their own future and fulfilling the next doom prophecy by their next lashing out against it.
We need another culture altogether. One that is peaceful, and that means first and foremost not exclusive. The elements and potential of that culture do exist in Judaism, but they have been overwhelmed by the militant element, which has formed a Sparta cult. We need a culture that can really integrate and contribute to peace in a modern world. You can’t do that by pretending you’re a developed nation with a boot on the head of a Palestinian.