Few would deny that modern German identity has had a central role in the formulation of Jewish-Israeli identity, especially in light of the Holocaust and its key impact on the past of the two peoples. Yet the Holocaust, however critical to the fashioning of the two identities, is merely a part of a more complex process, one that began at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, when the correspondence between the construction of the two modern national identities became very conspicuous; it continues in the present, when the Holocaust remains a key component of contemporary Jewish-Israeli identity; it also projects onto the future.
The shaping of German national identity began at a time when there was neither a nation-state nor an appropriate political order to channel and contain nationalist feelings among the people of the various lands of what now constitutes contemporary Germany. Imagination filled the vacuum that existed in reality, and literature (especially poetry) and philosophy, rather than politics, came to the fore.
Several decades after that, toward the end of the 19th century – in a similar context of neither a nation-state nor an appropriate political order existing to channel and contain nationalist feelings – another new national identity began to develop, one that led, eventually, to the creation of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine.
The similarity between the two identities, albeit accidental, is striking; yet, unlike the German identity, which had a strong national focus, the developing Jewish identity revolved around the religious no less than around the national. In fact, the two components have been interlocked from the outset, but the religious one, which had served as the cornerstone of Jewish identity for almost 2,000 years, had become problematic. The search for a substitute led to nationalism.
Initially, it seemed as if the national and religious identities of the “new Jew” could be separated from each other. Moses Mendelssohn contended that nationalism and Judaism belonged to two entirely separate spheres. Judah Leib Gordon succinctly formulated this ideal in his Hebrew poem “Awake, My People” ("Hakitzah Ami"): “Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.” Unfortunately, this very fine solution was doomed to failure, not due to the Jews’ lack of tenacity – they were extremely enthusiastic about the thrilling option of becoming equal citizens in the countries of Western Europe, even at the price of the loss of their Jewish identity – but because of the adamant external resistance they encountered while trying to refashion their identity.
To put it more succinctly: Strong and deep-rooted anti-Semitism throughout Europe vehemently thwarted any initiative of Jewish redefinition. In this context, the Dreyfus affair was a watershed, proving that the vast majority of the French people perceived the Jews primarily as Jews, and only secondarily – if at all – as French; they viewed the Jews as possessing loyalty first and unequivocally to their own tribe, and only then – if at all – to the country in which they were living. Such a view clearly implied that the Jews’ patriotism was dubious and worse, that, at least potentially, all Jews were traitors. The Dreyfus affair was an exception only in terms of its positive outcome: the reopening of the trial and the exposure of all the charges against the Jewish military officer convicted of treason as false. Its anti-Semitic roots were definitely not an exception.
This bitter experience did not, however, deter those who aspired to find a national solution to the problem of Jewish identity; on the contrary, they actually invested greater efforts in their new self-fashioning. Instead of relinquishing the linkage between identity and nationalism, those who molded the “new Jew” aspired to a national identity on a secular rather than on a religious basis. In addition, they envisioned the national realization of this identity in an absolutely new locus: Zion. The new Jews now proposed a future country in Asia as a national substitute for their present home countries in Europe, which had rejected them. Yet a future catastrophe was embedded in this solution.
The main flaw in the strategy of looking to Zion in order to realize the amalgamation of the secular and the national lies in the nature of the act itself, which was much more than a geographical shift. The Enlightenment ideal that served as a beacon for the Zionist forefathers, according to which a new Jewish identity could be created on a secular basis, was premised on an absolute separation between the private and the national realms. This ideal could be realized if, and only if, the national had nothing whatsoever to do with the religious. However, Zionism’s appeal for a new state for the Jews, envisioning a solution to the Jewish problem by means of a Jewish state, implies the exact opposite of the Enlightenment ideal: It is not the amalgamation of the national and the secular but rather the amalgamation of the national and the religious.
No doubt, the Zionist forefathers were well aware of the problematics the Jewish component posed in forming a new secular identity on which they toiled so indefatigably, but they definitely did not ignore the Jewish-religious component. Quite the opposite: Perceiving how constructive that component was for the shaping of the new Jewish identity, they utilized it fruitfully for their own purposes. They adopted two strategies to meet the challenge of the religious component, repressing the strictly religious aspect, on the one hand, and recruiting the messianic component, on the other. A sterling example of this strategy is the name “Bilu,” which was chosen by the proto-Zionist movement whose vision was embodied in the first Jewish wave of settlements (the First Aliyah), in the 1880s. “Bilu” is a Hebrew acronym based on Isaiah 2:5: “Beit Yaakov lekhu venelkha” (O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk). But that isn’t the entire verse, which ends with the words “in the light of the Lord,” serving to contextualize the entire phrase and giving it a religious meaning.
The verses preceding the one that serves as the source for the Bilu acronym constitute what is known as “the vision of the end of days” (Isaiah 2:1-4), in which Zion-Jerusalem is foreseen as a world center of justice, whose geographical and spiritual omphalos is the Temple. When the national ideology was formulated in the 19th century, this biblical vision was conceived as purely messianic: The Temple had been destroyed nearly two millennia earlier, and religious tradition imagined its rebuilding postponed to the end of days – that is, to the Messianic era. The Zionist idea of the reincarnation of the Jewish nation in the near future is therefore based both on its strong link to the Jewish nation of the past and on its equally strong link to the utopian, messianic-religious vision of the Jewish nation at the end of days.
In hindsight, one must admit the ingeniousness of the incorporation of the messianic within the secular Zionist vision: Without the incredible energy generated by the messianic component, there would have been no State of Israel and, to my mind, no real answer to anti-Semitism and its lethal manifestations. This, of course, does not imply that such usage did not exact its price. That price, rather expectedly, has now become one of the greatest dangers to contemporary Israel, threatening to annihilate the Zionist project in its entirety.
From the beginning of the Zionist movement, the employment of the religious-messianic component entailed a twofold problematic. On the one hand, because the religious part of the religious-messianic had to be repressed during the construction of the new Jewish identity, the messianic component of the Zionist movement was presented as a secular one. On the other hand, viewing the founding of the State of Israel as a realization of the messianic implied a transgression of the boundary separating the metaphysical from the physical and, even more perniciously, attributed a positive value to this act. Both of these were potentially explosive from the outset, as each cultivated and nourished the other: The positive value ascribed to transgression relies on religious justification, and the religious-messianic component accrues strength and influence the more it is realized by means of acts of transgression of the boundary separating the metaphysical from the physical.
When the Zionist movement was young, the immense toll to be paid for the messianic transgression seemed to belong to the distant future. That once-remote future, however, is our present, and messianic nationalism has already achieved – and how successfully! – some of its most toxic effects through recalcitrant and uncompromising utilization of religious justifications for evil. Note, the specific combination of evil and religious messianism is anything but accidental. Worse still, it is conceptualized and presented, as it is in Kant, as an ethical categorical imperative. No one proved this point more poignantly than Gershom Scholem who, in his 1936 article “Redemption through Sin,” charted the direct line linking the movement of Sabbatai Zevi to modern Jewish identity from the Enlightenment onward, demonstrating how evil was transformed into a morally justified phenomenon.
Scholem also implied, in a different context, that the convergence of nationalism and the messianic-religious cannot but breed Jewish fundamentalism, which is nothing but a form of barbarism, undertaken seemingly in the name, but actually in the guise, of the Jewish religion. This barbarism has long since become part and parcel of the here and now of contemporary Israel, and its actualization is accompanied by all the obligatory religious justifications: Jewish fundamentalism served as the ethical basis for the kidnapping and burning alive of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in 2014; Jewish fundamentalism also served as the ethical basis for throwing a fire bomb into the house of the Dawabsheh family in Duma, in the West Bank, a year later, burning to death Reham and Saad Dawabsheh and their 18-month-old baby, Ali Saad. No doubt, it is daunting to see how the horrors suffered by the victim of the Holocaust is now channeled toward new evils, which are based on the transformation of the former victim into the present-day perpetrator.
Yet one must admit, it is hardly surprising: A battered child often turns into a battering parent, and what applies on the personal level is also valid on the national one. True, the inhuman use of religion as a moral justification of pure evil is neither new nor rare; its ghastly appearance in a state that was founded as a moral response to the inconceivable evil of Nazism is, nevertheless, deeply alarming. Which brings us back to the parallels between Jewish-Israeli identity and German identity.
As an ideology, Nazism was an atheistic phenomenon, and not without cause. The religious vacuum that the Nazis themselves so violently created served as a tabula rasa on which they could inscribe their own version of pagan myths and their symbolism. This cleared the way for reinforcing the fashioning of German identity on the basis of race, which, in turn, served as a legitimation for the liquidation of anyone outside the racial and racist definition of this particular identity. The case of Jewish-Israeli identity is, of course, different as far as the religious component is concerned, but it is similar regarding the link established here between race and racism. Moreover, in this case, the similarity between the two identities is not an outcome of chance but a transparent example of cause and effect.
Decline into racism
The essence of Jewish-Israeli identity is prone to degenerate into racism mainly because of its deeply rooted basis in racial convictions. To put it unequivocally, Jewish-Israeli identity is essentially and inevitably a racial one. As a response, first to anti-Semitism and then to the Holocaust, it was intentionally formulated on a racial basis in order to include every Jew, on the sole basis of his or her being racially Jewish, within the national Israeli identity. Moreover, this racial Jewish-Israeli identity was consciously devised as the mirror image of the anti-Semitic, and later the Nazi racist, conception of the Jews, which intended to exclude every Jew from any national identity. The Nazis’ enforcement of this exclusion as the first step toward total extermination of the Jews made the need for them to create an opposite and opposing Jewish identity a matter of life and death. This Jewish identity was at once, by necessity, both the complete opposite of and the same as the identity of the Jew created by the Nazis: The complete opposite – for it opened the same door that the Nazis shut, and the same – for it was based on precisely the same foundation, race.
Conceptually speaking, the racist approach is the outcome of a blunt convergence between identity as an essential characterization of a person or a group, and what is called the identity formula: A = A. The phrase “A Jew is a Jew” has become absolutely identical to the identity formula A = A, where instead of “A” one posits the word “Jew.” From a racist point of view, the one word “Jew” symbolizes the Jewish identity in its entirety. Moreover, there is no need for more than one word, for the word “Jew” is totally transparent and absolute at the same time: It succeeds in encompassing the total essence of the person it characterizes. By ignoring the differences among millions of Jews, the racist formula succeeds in reducing them all to something that is not merely inhuman but even less than an object: All Jews are turned into a “Jew,” an abstract component in a mathematical formula, where each component is totally identical to another one. This is precisely the principle according to which racist identification works: The differences are irrelevant, and so much so that they simply do not exist. All that exists is the absolute overlapping between the identity that represents essence: A Jew is a Jew, on the one hand, and the identity formula “A Jew = A Jew,” on the other hand. In short, all Jews are identical to each other in terms of their essence. The ultimate practical implication of this conception was extermination.
As noted, Zionism could not avoid adopting precisely the same overlap between the two definitions of identity – in an attempt to save the lives of the people in the group that was thus targeted for murder. Yet the moral justification for this overlapping does not annul the problematics it entails: namely, the danger that the racial conception will degenerate into racism. This danger always existed and will continue to exist, and not merely due to the fact that identity based on race must contain within it, inherently, this venom. The danger in defining identity on the basis of the overlapping of identity as representing one’s essence and the identity formula stems from a double-edged supposition: on the one hand, whoever is “in” totally belongs, whereas, whoever is not “in” totally does not belong. The definition of Jewish-Israeli identity does not only turn all the Jews into one mass whose component units are all absolutely identical; it also turns whoever is not Jewish-Israeli, namely, whoever is defined as Palestinian-Israeli, into one mass whose particles are absolutely identical.
Here, too, one can detect a clear parallel between Jewish-Israeli identity and the German one – not only regarding the degeneration of them both into fascism, but also regarding the origin and motives of this degeneration. One of the prime formulators of the German national identity was Johann Gottlieb Fichte who, in his book “The Science of Knowledge” (1794), defined one’s identity on a double basis: the “I” and the “Not-I.” Fichte claimed – alas, with great accuracy – that we define ourselves both on the basis of what each of us conceives as his or her “I,” namely, on what characterizes me at the level of essence, yet also on the basis of what we perceive as that which is essentially “Not-I”: namely, what is essentially alien to my being. This conception has far-reaching implications regarding those who belong to the group of the “Not-I,” because whoever does not belong to the category to which I belong, soon becomes an existential risk to my own identity.
Fichte, who conceived his role in history as identical to that of Jesus, had an enormous influence on the development of both German philosophy and German nationalism, and the comparison he made between his own philosophy and the four Gospels found an extremely receptive audience. And not only during the 19th century: Martin Heidegger, in his inaugural lecture as rector at the University of Freiburg – a position he was named to as a member of the Nazi Party under the regime of his beloved fuehrer – referred repeatedly to Fichte in his talk. He also focused repeatedly on concepts such as crisis, nation and leadership, the selfsame concepts Fichte emphasized in his nationalistic text “Addresses to the German Nation.”
The above indicates quite clearly that the degeneration of the German identity into Nazism was neither an accident nor a mistake. The seeds were there from the outset, and one can recognize them already at the inchoate stages of the fashioning of German identity. In light of the essential similarities between German identity and Jewish-Israeli identity along their various stages of construction, we may conclude that we are sliding down the same slope, which leads, for precisely the same reasons, to the same abyss of racism and fascism.
It would be a mistake to see this degeneration as a necessary, let alone inevitable, evil. It is the realization of merely one potential, however central, of identity in a national context. It is neither ordained by heaven nor a divine law. It is a choice, and one that ought to be changed. How to do that is the subject of another article.
Yoav Rinon is an associate professor in the departments of comparative literature and of classics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This article is based on a research project, “Questions of Identity,” which is funded by the Israel Science Foundation.