June 20, 2013
Frederic Raphael on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’
Posted on Feb 19, 2010
“I am a Jew” sounds like a straightforward declaration. But how such an assertion or confession (as it was taken to be in many situations down the ages) then “unpacks” can vary according to circumstance. Declarations of orthodox faith or unambiguous allegiance are high on a scale of certainty which descends to sympathetic attachment or even to diluted indifference. It reaches its nadir with the apostate who changes his name and yet fears that he may be found out. Negative territory is reached with the man who, like Petrus Alfonsi in medieval Spain, deserts his faith perhaps for reasons of conviction, and converts to its enemy. St. Paul is the supposedly divinely transfigured paradigm.
The half-Jew, of whom Reinhard Heydrich may be the vilest instance, can become the persecutor who, by his zeal, seeks to amputate something of his own self, and make himself wholly other in the process. “Is he a Jew?” becomes the question such men dread to hear. The journalist Walter Lippmann was a case of what might be called “lofty apostasy”: His practice of “public philosophy” discounted personal allegiance and allowed him to be high-minded in his apparent indifference to the Holocaust, to which he made scant reference in his many columns of “objective,” but self-important, newsprint. Impartiality too can have its hidden bias.
In the last 60 years, the measure of a man’s Jewishness has become more political than religious: The more we support Israel, the more loyal we supposedly are to what is said to be our ancestral faith or race. Today’s Jew can be forgiven for eating a crab salad, but never for wishing that Israel would withdraw from the West Bank “territories,” still less for favoring the dissolution of the Jewish state, as Tony Judt, Harold Pinter and other well-placed Diasporites have appeared to do. In less enlightened eyes, the least that an absentee who calls him/herself a Jew can do is to be a supporter of the Jewish state. My Zion right or wrong; where would we be without it? There is, in truth, no knowing.
“Am I a Jew?” sounds like a question to which an answer, except for an amnesiac, requires no probing introspection. If one knows anything about oneself, surely one must know that much. Yet, as Shlomo Sand, an Israeli professor of history, spells out, in the later pages of his book, “The Invention of the Jewish People,” its answer can turn out, in modern Israel at least, to be a matter first for the courts and then, when decision proves awkward, for the rabbis whose commanding influence on the state is maintained by their definitive, not to say divining, skills. Who I am, or can legally claim to be, has become subject to, and determined by, first raison d’etat and then, since the issue defies reason, clerical fiat.
Sand seems to be an honest opponent of a priori postures. His bibliography is evidence of his thoroughness. I could wish that he had not pulled professorial rank when he derived the word nation from what, I am pretty sure, is the nonexistent Latin verb nascere. He claims that it means “to beget.” My large Latin dictionary acknowledges no such word, although nasci, to be born, is widely cited. Does it matter?
However assimilated, in terms of language, education or social embeddedness, no Diaspora Jew has failed to benefit, in more or less calculable ways, from the existence of the state of Israel. Those who grew up after 1948 can have little idea of the sense of isolation, of habitual anxiety to which Jews, even in the most allegedly enlightened or tolerant countries, were frequently subject. Of course there were some who, by virtue of their wealth, excellence or muscle, had no such nervous unease, but the Holocaust was the culmination of the manifest malice and, in the Nazi case, of the murderous hostility of the Gentile world. The German Jews were the most assimilated, culturally and, it seemed, socially, but they were swept away along with the Ostjuden from whom they had made every effort to distinguish themselves.
The myth of Jewish solidarity (all for one and one for all) has been eagerly propounded and repeated, but what Jean-Paul Sartre called “serialisation” has often led one group to imagine itself exempt from what is happening to another. The arrogance of the ostentatiously anti-Israel Diasporites, Jacqueline Rose and Noam Chomsky en tete, suggests that the delusion of the Good Jew, who makes no waves, still has its eager tenants. Sartre argued, in a thesis which has been oddly persistent, that “the Jew” should not resist the identity wished upon him but rather —in the French sense of the word—“assume” the character he is alleged to have and so render it sublime. This view ignores Jewish history and lends anti-Semitism definitive authority. Sand’s patient account of the ins and outs of the fate of distinct Jews down the centuries renders Sartre’s prescription both condescending and irrelevant. Rose and Chomsky and their like rely, as Communist fellow travelers did, on the good will of those who, when it comes to it, if it does, will regard them as dispensable dupes. Even Hitler had his Jewish admirers; they still went to the camps, albeit in first-class coaches.
Zionism was never a popular cause among the Jews of Western Europe or of the United States until the rise of Hitler. To be a Jew might sometimes lead to humiliations (when seeking to join golf clubs or applying for classy academic jobs), but it rarely impelled people to pack up and leave for the Middle East. My British father, whose family had arrived in England at the end of the 18th century, warned me that a Jew had to work twice as hard to get half as far, but that it was still possible to make one’s way in the “Christian” world and to deserve a place in it. He never denied his Jewishness (though others of our family did), but, apart from an occasional visit to synagogue, in pious honor of his father, it played no positive part in his life. To call oneself a Jew was one thing; to be called one, on the other hand, merited the use of the good old British punch on the nose.
Assimilation was never any sort of dishonorable option, least of all in England and France and Italy, until the rise of Nazism. Mussolini’s Fascism was, for many years, particularly attractive to not a few Italian Jews (Alexander Stille’s “Benevolence and Betrayal” is the key source). Education in the humanities was, in truth, a long program of assimilation, whether for Jews or anyone else. The study of Greece and Rome was, for those who studied the Classics, a prolonged program of deliberate imitation: One sought, as closely as possible, to match great models and to acquire the culture of civility. Lesser breeds (in Kipling’s phrase) advanced themselves by climbing the ordained rungs to the common citizenship which, on the Roman model, was available to all those worthy of it. English Jews, whatever their individual fortunes, had reason to be glad to be where they were.
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