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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation III - Novelty, Importance, Theory, and Scholarship

For new readers: The idea behind these submissions is to show in theory, scholarship, and anecdotes that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood. Nationhood isn’t nationalism. Even people who loathe nationalism have nationhood. Jewry sustained the essentials of nationhood for centuries until its Western branch abandoned them in favor of those of their countries of citizenship. By seeing it this way, we can understand so many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense otherwise.


I wasn’t going to digress into “the conflict” in these submissions. But to honor that principle, some exceptions are needed. Here’s one.


“But isn’t Jewishness a religion—and the Jews a religious group?”

No and maybe. Judaism is a religion. And the Jews are strictly a religious group if they wish it, as most in the Diaspora do. Those in Israel, including (in my opinion) most religious Jews, do not wish it.

The novelty of the arguments here lies in their view of Jewishness as (1) embracing all elements of nationhood and (2) having done so for centuries.

Why is this important? Consider the following:

“Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. [...] What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. [...] If [the Jews] must look to the Palestine of geography as their *national* home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A *religious* act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs.” —Mahatma Gandhi, The Gandhi Reader: A Sourcebook of His Life and Writings, p. 321. Asterisks added.

Gandhi sees the modern Jewish return to Zion as a religious act and as such decries it categorically because it entails violence. In his campaign for India’s independence, he also famously eschewed violence. National liberation acts, however, inhere to violence. Even the liberation of India from colonial rule may never have occurred without violence (

Today’s enemies of Israel and their armchair propagandists take this argument a step further: Jewishness itself, they say, is a purely religious act. For Jews to act nationally on its basis is like, say, the Church of Scientology declaring statehood in Clearwater, Florida.

National violence is as old as Genesis. Judaism rues this. Jacob tries to appease Esau. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, architect of the Judaism-Zionism synthesis, warns (in Ba-midbar shur, written before he repatriated to the Land of Israel): Just because the Bible repeatedly documents wars among nations, don’t imagine that God approves of them. On the contrary. And the secular historian Simon Dubnow, a contemporary of Rabbi Kook’s, implied much the same in the early 20th century by defining non-territorial nationhood as the highest form of nationhood and crediting the Jewish people for attaining it.

Whether Dubnow reconsidered this on December 8, 1941, as he was shot to death in the street in Riga, Latvia—either by a Latvian guard or a German Gestapo operative—is unknowable.

Either way, Israeli Jewry has taken the national path—the all-embracing path, in which religion is essential but not exclusive. I consider this a self-evident path and hold that the alternative will doom Diaspora Jewry, including its staunchly religious component, to wither.

So when I propose to document the millennia-old components of Jewishness as proof of nationhood, I see in it an element of instrumental importance for today.

So much (for the time being) for novelty and importance. What about theory and scholarship?

Much of this project rests on theory that has to be backed by scholarship—at first that of others and later, I hope, mine. An example of a theory is a “mind game” that I ran in my first submission. Here it is again:

“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?”

The task, then, is to demonstrate Jewish indigeneity, authenticity, and rootedness. But there’s more. In economics, a given country’s money supply doesn’t explain much unless account is taken of velocity—how fast the money circulates. I theorize the same in modern Jewish nationhood: To understand the deep Jewish national meaning of Israel, one has to ponder how quickly it all transpired.

It happened too quickly to be termed “national rebirth” or “nation-building.” I theorize that the Jewish nation was long ago born and remained permanently built.

Example: Herzl spoke of a Jewish state’s coming into being in fifty years. In fact, statehood became plausible in less than forty years and the main groundwork took place in less than twenty.

Example: Even into the twentieth century, Hebrew was widely considered a dead language used only for prayer. To understand how by then it had already sprung in full vigor from its ostensible grave, I will show that it had never died, that masses spoke Hebrew daily, and that Jewish prayer is anything but “only.”

Example: Sociologists and political scientists make much today of the concept of “civil society.” Well, the pre-independence Jewish civil society in Mandate Palestine was supple enough to function throughout the 1947–1949 War of Independence amid the withdrawal of one governing authority and the nearly instant emergence of another.

Additional examples emerge from the worlds of law, music, clothing, cuisine, and more. Together they comprise the Jewish deep nation. And the very velocity that they demonstrate is itself circumstantial evidence of indigeneity, authenticity, and rootedness.

What about scholarship? What I do for a living is provide academic and business services in English for non-English-speakers, mainly Israelis, on a scale of nearly a million words per year for the better part of thirty-five years. That, and the research and most of the writing of eleven English-language yearbooks on Israel. I’m done with writing yearbooks but not with the other routine stuff. This means that the “scholarship” I have in mind, for the time being, is mainly that of others.

And it must be real scholarship, not opinionating or cheerleading or speculating. When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda termed his reinvention of vernacular Hebrew a national project, it must be shown that he acted on this and that the results demonstrate the validity of the effort made. When Professor Rubik Rosental says that Hebrew never died, he has to explain where the consensus to the contrary went wrong.

When the project is completed, I hope it will yield a fairly good book that will help to sustain Jewish peoplehood by diagnosing its one schism that won’t be healed.

So from next week on, an end to the digressions and onward into the Jewish deep nation.

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