May 23, 2013
Frederic Raphael on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’
Posted on Feb 19, 2010
When I was 6 years old, my father was transferred from New York to London. As we crossed the Atlantic, in the M.V. Britannic, he comforted me by saying, “Now you can be an English gentleman instead of an American Jew.” Whether or not I achieved this transformation is not for me to say, nor do I greatly care: Hybridization can be a happy condition: for a novelist at least, it is more a privilege than an inconvenience to entertain contradictory elements.
How much of a Jew have I remained, despite my Anglicized accent? In terms of faith, I am (like many) lost to orthodoxy: I eat shellfish, do not read Hebrew, scarcely notice whether I am in Jewish company or not. I do not believe in the literal veracity of the Torah nor do I have any desire to live in a Jewish community, here, there or anywhere. In certain company, such a near-Jew can be accused of betraying his people or—a charge typically unsheathed by some militant brethren—of “self-hatred.” The topic has been copiously covered, but I doubt the accuracy of the charge and even, except in extreme cases such as Otto Weininger, the terminology.
It is not entirely disreputable (though it may be comic) for a man to resent the label others tie on him, or the expectations they then have of his character and duties. The comedy arises from the tenacity of what Shlomo Sand argues are as often “national” as Jewish characteristics. Jewish humor, for instance, is essentially Eastern European. There are not many jokes in the Bible. Jesus wept; but is not reported to have laughed. Spinoza was a great (Sephardic) philosopher, but no marked humorist.
There is an old Jewish story, which it would be politically incorrect to tell in full, that has the punch line (from a rabbi’s lips) “Look who wants to be nobody!” The revised version is less funny, but more ludicrous: In today’s Israel, if Sand is to be believed, it is not a matter of conscience or even, in some cases, of lineage whether or not a man is a Jew, but of authoritarian decision. Somewhere behind all this is the ghost of the 19th century Viennese anti-Semitic Mayor Lueger, who boasted that he decided who was or was not a Jew. It is no great scandal, still less a surprise, to find that the routines of his and other anti-Semitic discourse, rough or smooth, have generated reciprocal responses, not least of more or less aggressive nationalism and self-enchantment, in Jewish apologists. In the same way, Bismarckian nationalism, to which no one at the time took great exception, encouraged (to put it mildly) men such as Heinrich Graetz to propound a history of “the Jews” which would entitle his people to belong to the nascent, and expanding, new Germany.
By the same token, turned abruptly on its head, it is unlikely that Zionism would ever have achieved its measure of paramountcy if it had not been for Nazi racism (and what Lucy Davidowicz called “the Abandonment of the Jews” by the Allies). In that sense, there is some truth in the malevolent assertion, which George Steiner put in the mouth of his fictitious Hitler, in “The Portage of A.H. to San Cristobal,” that without Adolf there would have been no Jewish state. Zionism was as unpopular among emancipated Western Jewry (only some 2 percent endorsed it) in the 1930s as Nazism itself had been in Germany until the disaster of the Depression. It does not follow that the state of Israel should not, for that reason, be allowed to exist, still less that its founders endorsed or conspired with the Nazis.
Konrad Adenauer’s payment of reparations to Israel, rather than (as later happened, in some cases at least) to individual sufferers, was probably well intentioned. Symbolically, however, it can be read as standing for Germany’s (and the West’s?) paying off of all its debts to “the Jews.” Europe’s conclusive goodbye was wrapped in cash. Israel, it has further been argued (not entirely implausibly), was established so that Europe’s evicted Jews should have somewhere to go which was not either the United States or Britain. The victors did not want the despoiled. The British, unsurprisingly, used the Jews to enable them to divide and rule Palestine and then, in accordance with Foreign Office tradition, left them to face the angry Arabs in a war which, if the British had rightly calculated (and fixed) the odds, would lead to their elimination. Pontius Pilate has never lacked emulation in London.
None of this, however keenly asserted, validates the existence of Israel, nor yet does its devious creation, as a kind of noble dump for unwanted persons, invalidate it. It happened as it did, not because “the Jews” were or were not a single people, but in consequence of events over which no Jews, of any political persuasion, had effective control. Israel is, in that sense at least, a reactionary state. So what? It is a common phenomenon, as Zionists have proved, for the defeated to adopt, in whatever modified or supposedly sublime form, the tactics of those who humiliated them.
Ben-Gurion, for eminent instance, admired European culture, but wanted the Jews to become, once more, a “fighting people” (in truth, the Philistines had more often defeated the Jews than modernized myth found convenient to admit). The baggage Ben-Gurion wanted left behind, in old Europe, were the weapons of inferiority: He now wished the sword to be mightier than the pen.
George Steiner has also observed that “Jewishness, in the twentieth century, is a club from which there can be no resignations.” In the 21st, however, it is a club to which entry is vigilantly scrutinized in the state which, at the same time, is said to incorporate the eternal aspiration of all Jews. The vexedness of the question of Jewish identity has been modernized by the existence of Israel and by its leaders’ claim that it is the (exclusive) nation-state of the Jewish people rather than of those who live within its borders and are subject to its laws. For this reason, Sand tells us, at least one of its leading judges, Shimon Agranat, has maintained that “there is a Jewish nation, but not an Israeli one.”
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