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The Jewish Deep Nation XV—
Jewish National Borders: Blurry, Null, and Nil

For new readers: This series aims to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood. It deconstructs elements of Jewishness that people consider purely religious and finds in them national characteristics that Jewry sustained en bloc until its Western branch, and it alone, abandoned them. It brings lots of contemporary Jewish phenomena into new focus.

Last week, I took issue with the late celebrated Benedict Anderson on the question of Jewish-Israelite borders in antiquity. Anderson (Imagined Communities, p. 104) depicted ancient borders as fluid and vague relative to the modern construct, in which national sovereignty extends fully to precisely drawn territorial limits. I find the Jewish borders specific, explicit, and unchanging from antiquity -- at least as presented in the preeminent Jewish ancient source, the Torah. That is, if you asked Jews in the mellah, the ghetto, or the shtetl where their national borders lie, they’d mention features that they had learned from the Biblical account, the prayer book, and/or community traditions: the Jordan River and not the Wistula, Lake Kinneret and not Lake Baikal, the lip of the Sinai desert and not the Sahara. Jews more thoroughly versed in the literature would elaborate by describing topographical and climatic characteristics of the Land of Israel on the basis of these sources.

I used these examples to demonstrate Jewish nationhood, which is what this project is about. Nationhood needs to transcend religion, ethnicity, and continent of exile. So if you define the Jewish border as being somewhere near a given quarter of Marrakesh or along the Gowanus Canal, you have transitioned from Jewish nationhood to Moroccan or American nationhood. Moroccan nationhood among Jews is, let’s say, passé, but American nationhood features prominently in today’s Jewry.

I will offer much more comment on this later in the project. Suffice it to say here that no one, least of all a Jew, has put forward Marrakesh or the Gowanus as the site of a Jewish national border. But history offers two counterfactuals on the Jewish border question that actually appeared: the Gilead and the Territorialist Movement.

The Gilead is a good demonstration of Anderson’s point. The Biblical Gilead is an Israelite afterthought, a wedge of land on the *east* side of the Jordan River, bracketed by the Golan Heights / Hauran to the north / northeast and by the Amman Plateau to the east and south -- all today in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Numbers 32 tells the story. The Israelites encamped just across the Jordan from Jericho, ready to cross. Just then, the Gadites, Reubenites, and the half-tribe Manasseh asked to renounce their portion in the promised Land of Israel in favor of a tract on the east side (“Transjordan”), foremost the Gilead. The reason: the eastern territories were great for livestock-raising and they had lots of livestock. Moses assented, provided these tribes lead the way in conquering the truly promised land. They acceded.

A done deal, but not a national one.

My source for what ensued, for now, is Omer Sergi, “The Gilead between Aram and Israel: Political Borders, Cultural Interaction, and the Question of Jacob and Israelite Identity,” Oriental Religions in Antiquity Egypt, Israel, Ancient Near East, pp. 333-354. Sorry about including these details in what ought to be a footnote; the Jewish Examiner platform doesn’t allow for footnotes.

“Obviously,” Sergi begins, “borders were not a line drawn in the sand that created a clear geographical distinction between diverse political, cultural, ethnic or even administrational entities.” Sergi’s sources for this “obvious” finding do not include Anderson, but the idea is identical. In the Gilead, Syrian-Aramaic (Mesopotamian), and Egyptian national influences intermingled with faint Israelite ones. Even the Israelite names mentioned in the Bible as being associated with the Gilead show Aramaic input.

How different, how nearly absolute, was the Israelite hegemony that solidified on the west side of the Jordan, the “promised” side, the one with the explicit borders laid out in Numbers 34. What happened to the Israelite inhabitants of the salient with the vague borders: When it came time for Assyria to exile the Ten Tribes, it plucked first those in the Gilead area. One could easily explain this in terms of low-hanging fruit: those tribes were the closest to Assyria. A Jewish tradition, however, interprets “closest” in an additional, spiritual sense: These tribes were devotionally, nationally, the farthest from the core.

What remains of Israelite Gilead in the modern Western mind? Probably nothing, but the toponym (place name) sometimes arises in two contexts, both faint and both by way of negation. One is a potent healing balm produced in Gilead in antiquity (Genesis 37). It is mentioned as lacking in Jeremiah’s time (Jeremiah 8:22) and missing again some 2200 years later in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic “The Raven.” The other expresses the original territorial claim of 1920s Revisionist Zionism, captured in the anthem of that movement, written by its founder, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in 1929: "Two banks has the Jordan -- This is ours and, that is as well,” “that” meaning the Gilead. No audible voice in Jewish nationalism, including that of the Revisionists’ heirs, has asserted a claim to “that” in decades. “That,” after all, had no precise historical borders apart from those drawn by Britain several years earlier -- lines that had no Jewish national validity.

Now for territorialism. Capital-T Territorialism was Zionism’s sibling, pursued by the Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO), which seceded from the Zionist Organization in 1905 and lasted until 1925, of which the best-known luminary is the novelist Israel Zangwill, and a daughter organization from the mid- 1930s to the early 1940s. But there’s also small- t territorialism, denoting many ventures that sought to assure Jewish physical safety by obtaining a piece of territory wherever and establishing there some form of Jewish autonomy.

Territorialists of both brands scoured a vast geography. The ITO is famous for championing Jewish settlement in “Uganda,” in fact part of Kenya, but it also looked into venues as close to the Land of Israel as the Sinai Peninsula and as far-flung as Mesopotamia, Libya, Angola, Honduras, Argentina, Australia, and the vicinity of Galveston, Texas.

Small-t territorialism was also plenty flung, especially in terms of time: “Such settlement enterprises regularly came up in the history of the Jewish people. […] Starting with the second half of the seventeenth century up until the 1880s, various suggestions for Jewish settlement were constantly put on the table, including the Caribbean island of Curaçao; Suriname; Cayenne, French Guiana; Novorossiya; Crimea; Buffalo, New York; Texas; areas around the Tennessee, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers; Illinois, Ohio, Nebraska, Kansas, and Cypress” (Gur Alroey, A Land for a People, Not a People for a Land / The Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO), 1905–1925). (I reckon that “Cypress” had something to do with Cyprus.)

They got nowhere. The small-t ventures “were usually local, individual initiatives that disappeared as soon as they sprung up, without being followed by genuine activity” (Alroey). The ITO’s initiatives entailed appeals and arrangements with colonial powers, precisely as colonialism began its downslide. The failures of both kinds of territorialism had a crucial commonality: the non-participation of their intended beneficiaries, the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, which were cringing under pogroms and lesser forms of antisemitism. For them, it was either ‘aliya -- Jewish national repatriation to the Land of Israel -- or emigration to America, where they would re-nationalize as Americans, leaving Jewishness to a religious domain that also narrowed steadily.

Alroey concludes: “The Territorialists saw themselves first and foremost as a rescue organization […] and therefore dedicated most of their time for searching after a territory suitable for immediate, mass settlement. Zionists […] saw their movement primarily as a national one, centered around the Land of Israel, which was not simply regarded as a sanctuary for masses of Jews seeking an answer to their woes.”

The power of nationhood.

I add a footnote of my own: Territorialists of both kinds (small t, large T) failed an additional test of Jewish nationhood by seeking the deliverance of one branch of the Jewish exile only: that of Eastern Europe. The Zionist alternative initially had the same flaw. I hypothesize that when, and only when, Zionism broadened its target population to include all branches (specifically the “eastern” ones), it became nationally valid and, therefore, nationally viable. Again, this is a hypothesis that requires evidence, and through Facebook of all places I may have found a powerful source for it.

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