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Elaborating on the Jewish Deep Nation--"Thursday Naftali Scared the Rabbi"



It starts with us as individuals. It escalates to the family, the clan, the tribe, and then the nation. Above that is only one thing: all of humankind. So those who fault the nation as an instrument of evil might pause for a moment and remember that the nation is the next-to- highest form that we’ve got. Again, Benedict Anderson says we all belong to a nation; everyone in the world affiliates with a nation. I find him convincing on this, although not on everything, as I’ll make really clear later on.

So all Jews are national. Let me add: they’re uni-national. There are no dual loyalties to nations. Dual loyalty between states is conceivable. Dual nationalities, for sure. But not dual nationhoods.

There’s some confusion to clear up in reference to nation. Lots of us describe Israel as a nation-building project, with Zionism as the contractor. No. That’s the case in state-building, but not in nation-building. This entails a digression for Americans and others who live in federated or confederated countries. For Americans, “nation” is a political structure laid atop “states.” For most others, it’s the other way around. State is supreme; nation lives within or subordinate to it. You can have multiple nations within a state or one nation divided among multiple states.

For the Jews, there’s the Jewish nation, the deep nation. Until seventy years ago, it lacked the protective shell of statehood. But it was there all along, in every respect.

The respects I have in mind are enunciated by Simon Dubnow:

territory and […] political freedom. […] and if both are lost, […] language, culture, literature, education and religion, self-administration, particular institutions, and in general everything which strengthens the inner association of [the nation’s] members.

I would add law (this is crucial) and even music, clothing, and cuisine. Perhaps internal elites and hegemony, too. What about territory? There was territory, too.

Until, say, 1791—yesterday in Jewish time—Jews practiced all of these en bloc. Then, within a few decades, most of them did something no other nation did before or since. They forfeited their nationhood.

Dubnow, writing in 1897, explains why they did so and then describes the outcome:

The Jew of the Middle Ages bent only his back before his oppressors, but he never dealt falsely against himself nor did he ever renounce one iota of his national rights. The modern Jew, however, who had been given the opportunity to become a proud member of the society of peoples, bartered away his soul and perverted his own national type so that he could be like the ruling nationality. This is nothing but a change in the form of servitude, the substitution of inner for external humiliation. […]

We gave up autonomy, the vital artery of every national body, and exchanged for it the principle of heteronomy, an alien law of development. We lost the center of our inner life, we transferred it to an alien environment, and we thus lost our balance. […]

The emancipated, […] who attached to Judaism the unhappy label of a "religious group,” retained only the symbols of the former autonomy: the synagogue, the rabbinate and, to a small degree, the welfare fund; everything else they assigned to the control of the state. For many, membership in the community was merely a fiction, since by conviction they were distant from religious service; others severed this link as well and proclaimed themselves to be without any religious affiliation.

Easily he could have applied these words to the Western Jewries of today.

Baking this dough half-way, several months ago I scared an Orthodox rabbi on the social medium Quora. Someone posted a question about Jews being a mere “religious group,” to which I responded that no, we’re a nation, and have been such throughout our centuries in exile. We had autonomous communities in the East and the West, I continued, and by implication, our “religious” practices are really national ones.

No, no, no, protested a respondent, a rabbi in an Anglo-Saxon community. We never had autonomy; we always lived under gentiles’ heels and clinged exclusively to religion. And by calling purely religious practice a reflection of nationhood, he charged, you’re making a case for dual loyalty and justifying antisemitism. You scare me. Walk it back.

Oy. As though it is rational and understandable that practicing circumcision, singing Biblical verses in cantillation, speaking Hebrew, and learning and applying Jewish law should rightly be countered by the depredations of antisemitism!

But I vacillated about Jewish practice in, say, Los Angeles today. Maybe, as Dubnow says, it’s purely religious and in no way national.

So I visited Los Angeles (and Phoenix and Las Vegas) and listened in on Jews as they spoke of their Jewishness. No, it’s national, too. Almost as national as Israel, but American-national.

Anecdotes to follow; then it’s on to the ingredients of the Jewisn deep nation.


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