Introduction to the Jewish Deep Nation

May 5, 2018

Israel went about Operation Protective Edge (2014), its enemies abroad climbed aboard the social media and spewed fallacies and falsehoods in the service of hate, by which I don’t mean topical criticism. As an Israeli for nearly forty years at the time, I took it as a personal challenge and tested myself: Whenever I encounter a talking point of hate speech, say, over breakfast, can I refute it within minutes, tellingly and without wasting words? That’s a reasonable thing to expect.

This ushered me into an animus-sphere populated by semi-literates, mostly on the American Right; faux intellectuals, chiefly on the American, European, and (yes) Israeli Left; and the rest of us, trying to make sense where sense dares not tread, with Jews heavily represented in all quarters.

Some refutations came quite easily. Here’s one: Haters turn the national realities of Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949) upside down. You know: a religious group is colonizing a millennia-old nation. Well, a simple mind game helps to put it right-side-up:

It’s 1948. Two sides are contesting one territory. One is indigenous, authentic, rooted. The other is a foreign implant with no legitimate connection to the region. One holds a 2:1 edge in population over the other. One holds the highlands; the other congregates on an exposed coastal plain. One has an ethnically and culturally compatible hinterland; the other has its back to the sea. One is aided by expeditionary forces from surrounding countries; the other faces an arms embargo by the superpowers.

Which side won? Which side lost? What does that say about the authenticity of the two sides’ nationhood?

Well, okay, the arms embargo against Israel at the time was American, not Soviet. But no hater to date has answered the three concluding questions pertinently.

A few weeks ago, Medium began hosting an especially venomous Israel-hater. Her shtick is a combination of intersectionality and repetition. Intersectionality: in each paragraph, she links two talking points — injustice and Jews. Repetition: she writes lots of paragraphs, each pairing injustice with Jews. On first observation, I attacked the factual side of it. On second observation, I realized that this wasn’t the point; it was about technique in the service of falsehood, technique truthifying falsehood. I called her out on it. For that reason or not, she wasn’t on Medium for a week or so.

I’m American-born but I grew up wearing my American cap uneasily. Three things account for that. First, I had survivors for parents: a father from the Holocaust and a mother from the Great Depression. Such different traumas, such a similar survivor syndrome. Second, it was 1950s–1960s New York, meaning that I grew up around immigrants everywhere, including grandparents. Third was Congregation Tifereth Israel in Jackson Heights, Queens. By 1966, when I left the city, its Tu Bishvat parties and youth minyan had Zionized me. It was only a first impression because from there I moved to the Sunbelt and experienced the Reform Movement. But Reform never had a chance. First impressions last.

So in January 1974, I moved to Israel. It was a poorly thought out thing to do; I was barely 20 and halfway through baccalaureate studies. Three years later, after finishing my degree, I made it permanent. My goal was to swallow Israel whole. Forty-one years after my permanent aliya, pieces of Israel remain unswallowed. The biggest piece is the most important one, and it began with my first impression of Israel in 1974: a place concurrently new and old, confident and traumatized, revolutionary and conservative, each characteristic worthy of the intensifier “very.” And the latter trait in each of these pairs seemed much deeper than the former.

The start-up state and the Jewish deep nation.

Being national is like being bourgeois: We do it and we’re somewhat ashamed of it. And if Benedict Anderson, author of the seminal Imagined Communities,is right, we all do it: Everyone on earth today, Anderson says, belongs to and identifies with a nation. Now, Anderson isn’t right about everything. He claims that the concept of national borders didn’t exist in antiquity. Well, for the Israelites — the Jews — they did. They’re delineated in the Book of Numbers and have stood up ever since.

I distinguish between nationhood and nationalism. I view nationalism the way most of us do: truculent, jingoistic, shallow, harmful. I won’t rule on the truth of those characteristics because my concern is not with nationalism but with nationhood, or “nation-ness.” This is a collective state of mind that comprises many things: language, religion, law, culture, even clothing and cuisine, to name only a few. I left out territory. Can nationhood exist without territory? Yes, it can, and the Jews made it work for centuries in their places of exile East and West. The historian Simon Dubnow called this non-territorial nationhood the highest form of nationhood. He foresaw it, hoped for it, as the Jewish people’s future. He was wrong. As he developed his doctrine (which he called Autonomism), the Jews headed in two other national directions. The majority, uniquely among civilizations, renounced Jewish nationhood and downscaled itself to a religious community. The minority headed the other way, reclaiming the national territory and retaining it through the mechanism of secular statehood.

Today, the two branches of the People Israel are roughly equal in size and alienated from each other. The alienation plays out in various disagreements over policy and religious practice but it rests on the broadest of foundations, national ones. Jewry is nationally divided. Individual Jews are not: nationhood comes one to a customer.

What I wish to do in future submissions is put substance behind these statements and subject them to your critique. Substance might mean an anecdote, commentary on current events, or reference to academic research. I don’t promise to meet deadlines; it’s the retirement project of a person who’s far from retirement.

Welcome to the Jewish deep nation.

 

 

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