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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

Culture and identity

Galilee Diary #344, July 1, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

What isreally new inZionism isthe territorial-political definitionof Jewish nationalism. Strip Zionism of the territorial principle and you have destroyed its character and erased the distinctions betweenit andthe preceding periods. This is its originality - that Judaism depends on form and not on content. For it the alternatives are clear: Either the Jewish people shall redeem the land and thereby continue to live, even if the spiritual content of Judaism changes radically, or we shall remain in exile and rot awayeven if the spiritual tradition continues to exist.

            -Jacob Klatzkin, 1914

The Zionist revolution originally sought to redefine Judaism as a nationality, so that instead of being Americans or Frenchmen of the “Mosaic persuasion,” our Jewishness would be parallel to American-ness or French-ness. It would no longer be a subject for agonizing, for halachic debates. Our identity would become organic and simple, based on land and language and culture just like any other European nationality. There would be no more talk of “Jewish values;” Jewish identity would become a national framework which could embrace a variety of beliefs and values – freedom of individual conscience. This view was a reflection of the world view prevalent in Europe from the beginning of the 20th century, as the multinational empires broke up into dozens of little ethnically homogeneous nation states. Zionism envisioned the transformation of the Jews from a scattered religious minority into a nation state defined by ethnicity, equivalent and equal to all the others; in this sense it sought the integration of the Jews into the new world order.

Alas, a bloody century later, the world order of homogeneous ethnic states seems to have been a bit of a naïve utopia. It turns out that if it is possible (which it might not be) to attain an ethnically pure state, it seems that the way to do so is called “ethnic cleansing.” And if it is not possible, at a reasonable moral price, to attain a fully homogeneous state, then all ethnic states, large or small, have to decide what do about minorities within their borders: assimilate them? expel them? massacre them? create a constitution guaranteeing specific minority rights? ignore them? abandon the concept of an ethnic state? Except for the last option, that characterizes the US and Canada, Europe has tried all the others, with uneven results.

Already when the first Zionist pioneers arrived in Eretz Yisrael, over a century ago, they had to confront the daunting reality that the slogan, “a people without a land returns to a land without a people,” may have sounded good, but did not correspond to reality on the ground. For over a hundred years, we have been functioning without a clear, consensus vision of the place of the Palestinian Arab minority in the Jewish state – just as we have been functioning without a consensual vision of the definition of a Jewish state altogether.

Perhaps the heart of the matter is our own failure to define ourselves: while the creation of the state was driven by the classical, secular Zionist view articulated in the above passage, there are still large segments of the Jewish population, both in Israel and abroad, who essentially reject that view, refusing to relinquish the belief that Judaism does – and must continue to – have spiritual and/or moral content. Which then reopens the ongoing debate over just what that content is – Ultra-orthodox? Reform? Humanist? Renewal? Messianic?

Recently, at a meeting of the “introduction to Judaism” study group for local imams, we were in the Shorashim synagogue, doing show-and-tell with the Torah. There were lots of questions. Out of nowhere, the imam of the village of Nahaf, a devout Moslem and life-long citizen of the Jewish state, asked, “I don’t get it: is Judaism a religion or a nationality?” What would you have answered?

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