On Israeli identity, Jewish democracy and oxymorons – A response to Carlo Strenger

Clinging to a dangerous oxymoron, Israel claims to be both a democracy and at the same time belong to “world Jewry.’ The consequences of this fallacy are severe.

By Shlomo Sand Jun.01, 2013 | HAARETZ ISRAEL

It is my desire to respond in this short article to the main claims made by Carlo Strenger about my new book, “Matai V’aikh Hadalti L’hiyot Yehudi” (“When and How I Stopped Being Jewish”). And I will begin by emphasizing that I never ventured to imagine, as claimed by Strenger, that “Zionism invented the concept of the Jewish People,” or that “secular Jewish identity doesn’t exist,” (“A letter to Shlomo Sand,” May 29).

The “Jewish people” or the “Chosen people” are theological concepts that existed before the birth of Zionism and, it appears, will survive after it exits the historical stage. Before the modern era, the concepts of “Christendom” or “People of God” were common within the Christian heritage, but today they are barely ever used.

Zionism took the religious and ambiguous concept of “people” and injected it with national meaning, much as it did with other terms and symbols from the Jewish heritage. Originality and deception were both concealed within this linguistic process. If today we frequently apply the term “people” to a human group that shares a secular public culture, such as language, music or food, it would indeed be strange to use this term to refer to world Jewry, especially while keeping in mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s principle of family resemblance.

It appears odd to me that anyone who uses the terms the “French people” or the “Vietnamese people” – human groups that live under shared national sovereignty – would apply the same term to Jews. It’s impossible to call all cats cats, and all dogs dogs, but then to view a certain cat as a dog. Judaism always had an important and steadfast religious culture- but it never offered a cohesive national culture. Zionism thus failed to create a Jewish nation, but did succeed in sculpting an Israeli people- a people which, like Strenger, it isn’t willing to recognize to this day.

Secular Jewish identity exists due to the mere fact that there are people who define themselves as secular Jews. In the ’30s of the previous century, an Aryan culture existed because there were those who defined themselves as Aryans. At the same period, identities of the “descendants of the Gauls” and the “descendants of the Romans” and others flourished. What all these identities shared in common was that they were based on fictional ethnicities. What separates the first from the latter two is the fact it was born from persecution, while the latter cases were generated by the needs of nation-manufacturing. The secular Jewish identity was cast as a response to persecution and anti-Semitism, and it is still being preserved today thanks to the power of painful memories, among other reasons.

However, just as an Aryan culture didn’t exist in the past, so too a secular Jewish culture shared by “world Jewry” cannot be found; only fading, endangered remnants of a post-Jewish culture. Secular culture isn’t created only through the structuring of memory, but rather primarily through daily experience, struggles, shared problems, and of course linguistic codes, all diverse but related to each other. Every national culture always has a pre-modern background, religious or secular- however, just as we wouldn’t label today’s British culture as Protestant and the culture of France as Catholic, so too it would be ridiculous to call Israeli culture Jewish.

I understand Strenger’s desire to place himself culturally and in terms of identity somewhere between René Cassin and Hannah Arendt, between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. This is a rather fashionable tendency among contemporary left-wing Israeli intellectuals. But whether we like it or not, in our day-to-day cultural and linguistic realities we both are actually located more in between authors A.B. Yehoshua and Sami Michael, between singers Eyal Golan and Arik Einstein (and of course, between Israeli Arab author and journalist Sayed Kashua and Israeli Arab politician Ahmed Tibi). While it is true that this may be an anthropological fact and not necessarily one of identification, that’s the way it is. Cultural globalization still hasn’t erased this lively and colorful local organism.

Moreover, as Strenger knows full well, neither Freud, nor Einstein, nor Arendt wished to live among “secular Jews” or under Jewish sovereignty. They would have preferred to continue to live within German culture were it not for the evil history that tore them away from it.

And now for the more important argument: Strenger suggests that Israel should be more Jewish, when, like all secular Israelis, he is incapable of even defining who is Jewish without resorting to religious criteria. As far as he is concerned, Jewish humanism is an open and generous cosmopolitan phenomenon. But he can’t explain to us how one can join this secular Jewish identity- as one can join into the French, American or Israeli identity- without being born to a Jewish mother.

How does Strenger, who is quite knowledgeable of the West’s political culture, not know that liberal democracy isn’t just a mechanism for regulating social power relations but also a focal point for collective identification and a vehicle for molding imagined political cohesiveness?

Israel, which insists on defining itself as a Jewish state and not as an Israeli republic, alienates and discriminates against 25 percent of its citizens who, to their misfortune, aren’t registered by the Interior Ministry as Jews. A normal democracy always sees itself as an expression of its citizenry and doesn’t make note of its residents’ ethnic origin or religion (imagine the uproar if in a Western country the population registry would mark the descendants of Jews as such, like is done in Israel, without asking or consulting with them).

In view of the 20th century’s history of persecution and suffering, Israel can continue to serve as a place of refuge for descendants of Jews persecuted due to their ethnic origin or religious faith; but it cannot be both a democracy and at the same time belong to “world Jewry.” This is an oxymoron that has severe consequences: it creates injustice; it leads to exclusion of native locals, and it may bring destruction upon us all.

Prof. Sand teaches at Tel Aviv University’s Department of History. His is the author of the book “The Invention of the Jewish People” and the recently published “Matai V’aikh Hadalti L’hiyot Yehudi” (“When and How I Stopped Being Jewish”).

Read More at Haaretz

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