Frederic Raphael on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’
“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.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.” As a consequence of this a posteriori judgment, the Palestinians have a seemingly inexorable reason to regard themselves as Israel’s Jews. The comedy, in a very cruel sense, is that Sand argues, with conviction, that the Palestinians are at least as likely to be the descendants of the “original” Judeans as the Jews who have come from, for instance, the ex-Soviet Union, of whom more than a few are almost certainly without any ancestral link with the Holy Land, since they are descended from, in particular, the Khazars whose king converted voluntarily to Judaism in the seventh century C.E. The Khazars, however, are not an admitted topic in Israeli historiography. Facts are not the friends of ideologues. In logic, Wittgenstein observed, “there are no surprises”; in life, however, there always are. One of my favorite little-known books is Raymond Boudon’s “La place du desordre” (1984), in which he argues, with solemn brilliance, for the systematic lack of reliable system in all theories of social change, i.e. in all ideological prescriptions.
A 1992 law, passed by the Knesset, decreed that any party which denied the existence (propriety?) of Israel as a Jewish state was barred from elections. Sand concludes that this, in effect, precludes the creation of an Israeli democracy in the full sense: There is no freedom of speech, no right to heterodoxy. Israel is, he says, no better than an “ethnic democracy,” since its non-Jewish inhabitants are denied full rights. Behind the Zionists’ judicial reasoning lies the willful assumption that “the Jews” are all descended from a single exiled people, for centuries dispersed and despised, whose return to their ancient land is an entitlement guaranteed by God and the only means by which they can recover their honor and their dignity.
Sand begins with an account of his own tangled roots and how, by chance, he emerged as an Israeli. The role of contingency in his origins is meant to alert us to the inescapable element of chance that makes us, whoever we may be, who we are. The notion of some innate, unalterable and unalloyed belonging to the same race of which the majority left Palestine, if it did, 2,000 years ago runs counter to all human probability and is, literally, without precedent. There are no “pure” races, nor does the notion of “race” have much scientific utility.
Science, in the wide sense, was one of the ways in which Jews, by devotion to impersonal objectivity, sought to make their own subjectivity irrelevant to their professional lives. This did not, of course, prevent the Nazis from speaking of “Jewish science.” According to Sand, some Israeli scientists’ attempts to isolate a “Jewish gene” appear, alas, to be a sad — because ideologically driven and almost certainly fanciful — deviation from that passion for “disinterested speculation” on which D.H. Lawrence deigned to congratulate “the Jews.”
The obsession with “purity of blood” (and the presumption that it existed in nature) began, in Western Europe at least, in post-reconquista Spain. The expulsion of the Jews and the “Moors” was supposed to have purged Iberia of inferior inhabitants and to have left an untainted Iberian race. The Inquisition was the symptom of the uneasy vanity of Christian Spain. Iberia remained home not only to the converted Jews but also to countless hybrids of various kinds, legitimate or not, and its blood irredeemably enriched, or tainted, by alien transfusions. Who any longer dares to argue that for a Spaniard, or anyone else, to claim to possess “pura sangre” is anything but a fatuous delusion? Blood, one might say, is inherently tolerant: Mongrels are us. Sand argues for the Spanish Jews themselves to be, in some considerable percentage, descended from Berber proselytes who crossed from North Africa with the Moroccan Arabs who made El-Andalus the well-watered place it was until the Christians purged it.
Yet for doctrinaire Zionism to sustain its ideological myth, it remains necessary, if never plausible, for its advocates to argue that all the Jews of the world have a common claim on, and source in, the territory of ancient Palestine and even that their ultimate allegiance is therefore to the state which now occupies most of it. In an inverted syllogism, the consequence is the generator of its alleged cause.
The Right of Return implies, in some minds, the obligation to do so. For this logic to hold, it has to be argued that the whole of the Diaspora can trace its lineage, pretty well directly, back to the population which is said to have been expelled, and certainly dispersed, after the double disasters of 70 C.E., when Jerusalem fell to the besieging Romans, under Titus, and that of some 60 years later, when Bar-Kokhba’s rebellion was savagely repressed by Hadrian. One of Sand’s claims is that, despite many massacres and the ban on circumcised men entering the renamed Jerusalem (it became Aelia Capitolina), there was no mass deportation of Jews from Palestine.
Among the unwanted truths of the past is that, at least by the time of Hadrian’s vindictive war against the rebellious Judeans, Palestine was by no means the home of most Jews. Since 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was said to be Jewish in the first century C.E., many of them were surely proselytes and most of them, including converted slaves, lived outside Judea. There is a strand of Jewish thought (seconded by the great Sephardic poet Yehuda Halevi) which argues for the superiority of “biological Jews,” but this is unworthy of intelligent endorsement. Moses Maimonides was the first to argue against such divine nonsense, but he was vilified for his humane philosophy. A great many Jews had, of course, been reluctant to return even from Babylon, where, as Jeremiah himself had recommended, they had prospered and multiplied. Baghdad remained a great center of Jewish life and scholarly wisdom for many centuries. Only in 1941 did the British garrison stand aside while insurgent Arabs massacred most of the Jews still living there.The (Jewish) historian Sir Lewis Namier observed that we study history in order to see how things don’t happen. What has happened, however, goes to prove men’s inability to arrive at a stable and just accommodation with each other. Plato’s vision of an Ideal Republic, in which stability would be institutionalized, was an ideological response to what he had seen in the recent Peloponnesian War. Athenian democracy had been crushed by the Spartan oligarchy. Plato’s conclusion was that democracy was inherently fractious and that imitation of the victors’ style was the logical answer. Plato was not inhibited from writing “The Republic” by the fact that his uncle, Critias, had already attempted to impose a Spartan-style oligarchy on Athens and had failed.
It could be argued (and has been) that Critias had acted without due subtlety. Ideologists, of whatever stripe, regularly insist that there is nothing wrong with their blueprint, whatever it is, but that men have failed to honor its provisions and spirit. Renovated Marxists make this claim today: It is not Marxism that failed, but “capitalism,” because it lacked the common humanity to concede the argument and so deprived mankind of the medicine that would be good for it, if only it would swallow the stuff. To change the image, ideologists spend their time trying to straighten what Immanuel Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity” to fit their rectilinear theories. Wishing whole races or classes out of the equation would, many still suppose, balance humanity’s books.
Namier (who died in 1953) was a Jew, and a gentleman Zionist, so to speak, who spent years analyzing in detail the personal interests and structure in political life in England at the time of the accession of King George III. As if, incidentally, this work deconstructed the mythology of the English ruling class and its allegedly patriotic solidarity. Namier’s purpose, in “unpacking” the greeds and vanities of ancient Whigs and Tories, was not overtly polemical or tendentious. Like so many academics, he found an unexcavated field and began to dig. In doing so, he uncovered the various motives of antique gentlemen. His own, he might have said, were the pursuit of truth and the vindication of the specific instance against the pious generalization.
Namier’s Jewishness was manifest in his support for Zionism, but when asked why he did not write about the Jews and their past, he retorted that the Jews did not have a history, but only a “martyrology”: They were the victims of what happened to them during most of the last 2,000 years and thus an unrewarding, depressing topic. One of the strongest claims which Zionism has on Jews today is that, thanks almost entirely to the creation of the state of Israel, Jewish pride has been restored and “the Jews” have a positive history, complete, it seems, with the ingredients which made English history so attractive to Namier: triumph against overwhelming odds, military victories, an energetic culture and economic expansion.
If Israel were a neat island, rather than a sliver of land surrounded on three sides by hostile neighbors and containing a substantial minority of second-class citizens, its future might be secure. As things are, another of Namier’s titles, “Vanished Supremacies,” serves as a warning that how things are does not promise how things will be. It is, to some degree at least, in response to the fear that Israel has contrived its own unreliable isolation and may one day lose the protection of the West, on which it has chosen to rely, that Shlomo Sand, an Israeli historian, has written this book.
The fundamental fallacy on which the Zionist myth depends is, he argues, that the “Jewish people” constitute a body of men (and women) whose origins can, and must, be traced back, as directly as may be, to the population of ancient Israel and Judea. “To promote a homogeneous collective in modern times [required] … a connection in time and space between the fathers and the ‘forefathers’ of all members of the present community. The agents of memory worked hard to invent it . … From this surgically improved past emerged the proud and handsome portrait of the nation.” It can be guessed from the straight-faced sarcasm of his introduction that Sand’s book will, in somewhat Namieresque style, investigate in detail the motives, follies and ambitions of historians, beginning with Heinrich Graetz, in the mid-19th century, who interpreted or refashioned what had happened to “the Jews” in order to validate a preconceived notion of how “the Jewish problem” should, or might, be resolved.
Sand’s text has excited virulent denunciation in some quarters. My lack of expertise in its original Hebrew and in the detailed context of many of Sand’s quotations inhibits me from making any reliable judgment. I can say only that common sense supports much of his narrative and that its content, where I am qualified to assess it, is admirably and candidly presented. It may be that this book comes too late to help men arrive at a sane and rational compromise in the Middle East. Some situations are beyond repair, however much we wish it otherwise. Ideology and religion provide the basic framework of human thought and also supply the often antique racks on which we are all stretched. As Genet observed, “Nous ne sortirons jamais de ce bordel” — i.e., there is, to put it chastely, no way out of this mess.
Frederic Raphael is the author of several novels (“A Double Life,” “The Glittering Prizes,” “Coast to Coast”), screenplays (“Two for the Road,” “Darling,” “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Eyes Wide Shut”) and works of nonfiction (“Popper: The Great Philosophers,” “The Necessity of Anti-Semitism,” “Some Talk of Alexander: A Journey Through Space and Time in the Greek World”). Born in Chicago, he has for many years divided his time between London and the south of France. He is writing a book for Pantheon tentatively titled “The Outcast Jew: From Flavius Josephus to Hannah Arendt.” His latest novel, “Final Demands,” will be published in London in early March.
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