Wednesday, January 13, 2010

israel's ethnic myth

Financial Times | What exactly is “Zionism”? Its core claim was always that Jews represent a common and single people; that their millennia-long dispersion and suffering has done nothing to diminish their distinctive, collective attributes; and that the only way they can live freely as Jews – in the same way that, say, Swedes live freely as Swedes – is to dwell in a Jewish state.

Thus religion ceased in Zionist eyes to be the primary measure of Jewish identity. In the course of the late-19th century, as more and more young Jews were legally or culturally emancipated from the world of the ghetto or the shtetl, Zionism began to look to an influential minority like the only alternative to persecution, assimilation or cultural dilution. Paradoxically then, as religious separatism and practice began to retreat, a secular version of it was actively promoted.

I can certainly confirm, from personal experience, that anti-religious sentiment – often of an intensity that I found discomforting – was widespread in left-leaning Israeli circles of the 1960s. Religion, I was informed, was for the haredim and the “crazies” of Jerusalem’s Mea Sharim quarter. “We” are modern and rational and “western”, it was explained to me by my Zionist teachers. But what they did not say was that the Israel they wished me to join was therefore grounded, and could only be grounded, in an ethnically rigid view of Jews and Jewishness.

The story went like this. Jews, until the destruction of the Second Temple (in the First century), had been farmers in what is now Israel/Palestine. They had then been forced yet again into exile by the Romans and wandered the earth: homeless, rootless and outcast. Now at last “they” were “returning” and would once again farm the soil of their ancestors.

It is this narrative that the historian Shlomo Sand seeks to deconstruct in his controversial book The Invention of the Jewish People. His contribution, critics assert, is at best redundant. For the last century, specialists have been perfectly familiar with the sources he cites and the arguments he makes. From a purely scholarly perspective, I have no quarrel with this. Even I, dependent for the most part on second-hand information about the earlier millennia of Jewish history, can see that Prof Sand – for example in his emphasis upon the conversions and ethnic mixing that characterise the Jews in earlier times – is telling us nothing we do not already know.

The question is, who are “we”? Certainly in the US, the overwhelming majority of Jews (and perhaps non-Jews) have absolutely no acquaintance with the story Prof Sand tells. They will never have heard of most of his protagonists, but they are all too approvingly familiar with the caricatured version of Jewish history that he is seeking to discredit. If Prof Sand’s popularising work does nothing more than provoke reflection and further reading among such a constituency, it will have been worthwhile.

But there is more to it than that. While there were other justifications for the state of Israel, and still are – it was not by chance that David Ben-Gurion sought, planned and choreographed the trial of Adolf Eichmann – it is clear that Prof Sand has undermined the conventional case for a Jewish state. Once we agree, in short, that Israel’s uniquely “Jewish” quality is an imagined or elective affinity, how are we to proceed?