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The Undivided Past

In the West, most Jews that non-Jews encounter are not particularly committed to being Jewish.
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Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90

There are several words used in the Bible to describe the Jewish people. At one stage we were simply tribal. Then we became an “Am”, a people, a “Goy”, a nation, a “Mamlacha”, a kingdom. Post-Biblically, if the gentiles called us Jews, Judeans, Israelites, Hebrews, Yids, or whatever, we used “Yisrael” as the name of choice, in the main, which meant a people, a culture, a religion, a relationship with God and a land, all of that in varying and amorphous degrees. We knew what it meant, even if others were confused or bemused. It takes one to know one.

Under pagan empires religion was not a factor, just loyalty to an overarching regime or royal family. If you were a serf it was loyalty to your lord and village. Neither the Persian, nor the Greek, nor the Roman Empires cared how you worshipped or behaved, so long as you professed loyalty to the empire. Then Christianity emerged as the religion of the Roman Empire and other religions were marginalized. Ironically the bloodiest battles were within Christianity, between one theological variation and another. The same thing happened under Islam. Ideals soon got perverted by politics and as today, Muslims of different sects killed more Muslims than all their enemies put together and doubled. Freud memorably described this internal divisiveness as “the narcissism of minor differences”.

In the West, most Jews that non-Jews encounter are not particularly committed to being Jewish. For Jews like a Soros or a Zuckerberg, it’s an accident of birth, a minor casual affiliation, like belonging to the Church of England. And this explains why most of those in the West who think about the matter reckon that the Jews are not really too concerned about having a land of their own and that it was only the accidental intervention of imperialist powers that explains the Jewish presence in the Middle East. It was a misjudged adventure. And really the Jews ought to pick up and leave and stop being nasty to the indigenous population.

It takes an objective observer to notice that for millennia Jews have shared a powerful core identity, even if in almost every situation except when they were given a choice, most Jews actually abandoned the community of Jews. But it took a determined minority within a minority to fight hard, relentlessly, and ultimately victoriously for its Jewish identity.

In his book The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences, David Cannadine writes:

“Egypt under the Pharaohs may have resembled a nation…but there was no accompanying sense of public culture or collective identity. As for the ancient Greeks, their limited pan Hellenic aspirations embodied in their shared language, Homeric epics and Olympic games foundered on the disputatious reality of their fiercely independent city-states. Similar objections have been made to claims that the Sumerians, the Persians, the Phoenicians, the Arameans, the Philistines, the Hittites and the Elamites were ancient nations, or that the Sinhalese, the Japanese or the Koreans might be so described during the first millennium of the common era. Only in the case of Israel does it seem plausible to discern a recognizable ancient nation with its precise though disputed territoriality, its ancient myths, its shared historical memories of the Exodus, the Conquest and wars with the Philistines, its strong sense of exceptionalism and providential destiny and its self-definition against a hostile “other” and its common laws and cultures. These were and are the essential themes in the unfinished history of the Jews this example has also furnished ever since a developed model of what it means to be a nation.” (p. 58)

Throughout exile we somehow did preserve a sense of belonging to a people, to a tradition, to a land, a sense of community, Klal Yisrael. This is why the problem of Israel in the Middle East, the Jewish problem, is so intractable. The overwhelming majority of Jews now living in Israel or the West Bank are committed to the notion of a Jewish people. It is not to be compared as ignorant opponents of Israel try, to a few British or white imperialists imposing themselves on a vast majority “other”. Some may try to delegitimize us by overturning a decision of the United Nations, but they cannot delegitimize or wish away the Jewish people.

As we start to read Genesis again, I am always amazed by the commentator Rashi’s famous question, a thousand years ago. Why did the Bible start with Genesis with its stories, instead of Exodus with its laws? Cannadine would say because any nation needs its myths and its epics. But Rashi says it’s because other people will always be telling us we have no right to the land. That’s why the Bible starts off with God creating the world, to let us know that there are greater forces than mankind that decide how things are going to be.

There’s a good series you can find on YouTube, Simon Schama on the history of the Jews. Now he’s Jewish in his fashion, but hardly a poster boy for Jewish continuity; yet he concludes that it is the Torah that has kept us going. And the Torah is the origin of our peoplehood and the connection with our land.

Way back we took on a mission to mankind in general and to a geographical location specifically. We have always had our delegitimizers. But no matter what others may say, enough Jews have the strength to defy the odds, to stand up and to fight for what is as much historically theirs for far longer than anyone else’s.

So here we go again, another year, another cycle, more threats, more hatred, and yet we are not only still around but, if anything, demographically and ideologically getting stronger despite laughable statistics, telephone surveys and prophets of doom. We are and have been a nation longer than anyone else. Although that has not always guaranteed victory, it has ensured survival.

About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.


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