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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation XVIII—
Pausing to Regroup—Critique and Future Themes

If the Jewish Deep Nation was missed last week, it was for an I-told-you-so reason: It’s is a retirement project for a non-retired person. Whenever the workload boils over, the submissions take a time-out—as happened last week and as will probably happen on-and-off until mid-October due to the Jewish national, not only religious, festivals, may we enjoy and observe them all.

To maintain some continuity, I’ll recap some of the topics covered and list some topics that should follow, explaining why. I also offer some self-directed criticism.

First, I led off Submission 1 with a mind game in which I contrasted the solid nationhood displayed by the Yishuv in Israel’s War of Independence with the deficient nationhood shown by the country’s Arab population, which now calls itself the Palestinian people. A respected academic criticized subsequent submissions for not following up on the Palestinians.

I do not mean this project to send a truculent, look-at-us-Jews-we’re-better-than-them message. The project aims to demonstrate the rich national contents that are embodied in long-lasting Jewish practices that today are taken to be solely religious. In the course of the project, Jewish national ways are going to be compared with other national ways because that’s an obvious way of judging their strength. I did this briefly in regard to the Hebrew language awakening, comparing it with that of Icelandic.

That said, I note that the 1948-1949 war did put Jewish and Arab nationhoods in Palestine to a do-or-die test. Jewish nationhood passed this test with room to spare. There’s a forthcoming book by a scholar at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev that gives a reason for this that is widely overlooked: the strength of the Jews’ civil society. But why did the Jews have a strong civil society? I think the reason lies in centuries of experience in maintaining such institutions in exile. It is not difficult to describe the evolution of Jewish autonomous institutions in ghettos, mellahs, shtetlakh, the Pale of Settlement, Amsterdam after the expulsion from Spain/Portugal, and so on, directly into the Zionist movement and thence to the State of Israel in the middle of total war.

This ties into another aspect of Jewish nationhood: a supple system of civil and criminal law. It existed throughout the Diaspora, it had common foundations, and those in charge of it communicated with each other (in Hebrew) to keep it consistent and up-to-date. These are not the doings of a “religious group” or of a tribe, an ethnicity, or anything but a nation. The Jewish legal literature is so copious that only true experts go beyond scratching its surface. Its principles are supposed to be incorporated into Israeli law today, and yes, it’s being done, with greater and greater acceptance—so says the scholar who got that ball rolling.

Now for some additional themes that may contribute to the conclusions of the project:

* I hope I shot holes in the idea that Hebrew was a dead language for generations, used “only in prayer.” It was used in many, many ways all along, among the eastern and western exiles. What’s more, there is nothing “only” about Jewish prayer. Before modernity, it was emphatically a national dialogue—a “We-Thou,” not solely an “I–Thou”— and so it remains unless one guts it of its national content.

After stating this confidently, I admit to a flippant error in regard to Yiddish. Twice I referred to the language and its adherents as non-national. I still think so but I have to make a crucial clarification. Yiddish belongs to a large class of Judeo-languages, populated additionally by Ladino and different forms of Judeo-Arabic. So the correction is this: Using Yiddish isn’t a Jewish national trait, but having a Judeo-language is.

* Two weeks ago, I chose “Mizrahim” as a catch-all term for non-Ashkenazim. By doing this, I succumbed to Israel-centrism. Elsewhere, the concept and reality of Sephardim as distinct from Mizrahim exist and have real effects—all the more so in the pre-modern era. And that’s before looking into Jewish autonomism in Ethiopia.

* The line that separates pre-modern from modern has to be defined. For some collectives, it has to do with the Emancipation. For others, it happened before. For yet others, it took until post-1948 or even much later.

* Jewish nationalism and Jewish nationhood: What came first?

Nationhood came first, of course, and where Jews did not self-identify as a national group, Zionism tumbled into a void. Thus, Zionist activists were aware that in order to stimulate nationalism, one must stimulate nationhood first. Cases in point: Morocco, Greece (Salonika), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, mainly in the period between the world wars. Where did nationhood not have to be stimulated? Mainly in Imperial Russia/Poland/Lithuania. Why were the Jews there different? Perhaps it’s because there the (gentile) government defined the Jews as a national minority. The idea of Jewishness as nationhood was part of being Jewish there.)

* Jewish national music, Jewish national cuisine, and Jewish national waste disposal.

* State versus nation, state as nation, state in the service of nation, state in the service of multiple nations.

* Hegemony and nationhood through Jewish lenses.

* Generalizing about the Israeli ingathering of exiles. Is it working? (Yes, very quickly) Among whom is it working best? (Those who have the strongest sense of Jewish nationhood) Among whom is it working least? (Those who have the weakest, and yes, they are American Jews)

* The whole American side of the coin. Not to overlook Canadian, British, French, Austrialian, Scandinavian, Latin American, and other Jewries, but America is Israel’s rival in numbers and in nationhood. Simply put, once you take the Pledge of Allegiance, you’re an American national, not a Jewish one, and what’s left of your Jewishness sinks into a religiosity that itself, being American, survives only by putting up a force field.

The counterfactual. If Jewishness is not nationhood, specific developments in the Jewish world should not be happening. What are these developments, and are they happening?

Which leads to:

* Is the Jewish people hopelessly fractured? (In terms of nationhood, yes; in terms of peoplehood, no.)

Happy New Year!

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