Answers to the 'Jewish Question'

What will remain of the Jewish identity Yehoshua describes if the conjunction of religion and tribal nationalism become anachronistic?

The latest issue of the multidisciplinary journal Alpayim is of interest to anyone who cares not only about our past, but also, and mainly, about the future of our children and grandchildren. The subject of the issue is "the Jewish question." It opens with author A.B. Yehoshua's thrilling article, "An Attempt to Identify and Understand the Foundations of Anti-Semitism," and ends with literary scholar Dan Miron's great essay "In the City of Slaughter," published on the 100th anniversary of Haim Nahman Bialik's famous poem by the same name. Between the opening and closing articles appear 15 direct responses to Yehoshua's essay, written by (in order of appearance) Shlomo Avineri, Yehuda Bauer, Shlomo Breznitz, Israel Bartal, Shulamit Volkov, Robert Wistrich, Yirmiyahu Yovel, Dina Porat, B.Z. Kedar, Amnon Rubinstein, Peter Schaefer and Chaim Schatzker. Two additional essays, by Ora Limor and Gershon Shaked, address the same issue indirectly.

It is only natural that Yehoshua's claims should spark controversy. It is also natural that one might admire his contribution and courage, while at the same time thinking his claims entirely mistaken. First, Yehoshua seeks to make a daring leap and, based on an observation that is at once rational and intuitive, to come up with a single, comprehensive answer to a riddle that has stumped generations of scholars and thinkers. Imagination is a welcome and highly important component in historical thought, as long as it is restrained by a respect for facts.

Second, Yehoshua does not hesitate to adopt the same explanation for the unbroken and enduring existence of the Jewish people that classic anti-Semites have offered since the mid-19th century. In that sense, he follows in the path of several pioneers of leftist Zionism, including Yosef Chaim Brenner and A. D. Gordon. Indeed, modern anti-Semitism is based on the idea that culture represents the inner life of a people and expresses its spiritual, moral, religious and philosophical values. To nationalists of all stripes, Judaism was not just a religion, but a national culture with ethnic and biological roots. Therefore, they argued, European society could not absorb the members of this strange and alien tribe, and it should not make them citizens of equal standing.

Johann Gottfried von Herder is considered a great philo-Semite because he loved the Bible; he had, however, much less fondness for living Jews. The Jews, he wrote then, were parasites living off the bodies of all European nations. The Jewish mental structure was foreign to the Europeans, and the Jews could never be considered German or French, even if they lived in their home countries for centuries, contributed to the local culture - like Heinrich Heine - or rose to the social and political elite, like Leon Blum. Their knowledge of the language was purely technical; they would never grasp its spirit because they had no share in the German or French culture that the language expressed. Not all classic anti-Semites considered Jews an inferior entity, and some even consented to view them as an ancient aristocracy. But they were always people who since antiquity had zealously preserved their uniqueness and refused to become assimilated; even after the walls of the ghetto fell, they continued to retain the Jewish soul.

Yehoshua does not use the same terminology, but his meaning is not different. The essay's point of departure is that "If we boast of the Jews' historical continuity over millennia, and essentially see today's modern Jew as linked, at the foundations of his identity, to the Jew who lived hundreds and even thousands of years ago, it would not be far-fetched to try and determine whether the anti-Semitism that has accompanied the Jew so persistently does not also have some kind of fixed foundation."

The entire essay rests on the assumption that such a "foundation" exists, and therefore that "there is indeed a single, eternal and fixed root" for the hatred of Jews from the Babylonian exile to our own day. This was the "basic Jewish conception" that Yehoshua embraces; based on it, and in contrast to the "romantic evasions" of historians like Jacob Talmon and Salo Baron, he wishes to come up with a rational explanation for anti-Semitism. The explanation is to be sought in the Jewish identity, in the unique conjunction of "a specific religion and a specific nationality" dating back to the Babylonian exile, in "distinct virtual elements that render [Jewish] identity flexible, fluid, with boundaries that are unclear and hard to identify..."

Modern phenomenonThe Jew's identity is unclear, Yehoshua believes, because it lacks the traditional components of national identity, such as territory and language; therefore, it arouses and taps hostility and fear. Within the Jewish identity lies an imaginative component that dialectically stimulates the mind of the non-Jew, who then projects all of his fears onto the Jew to the point of murderous frenzy. As Yehoshua claims in his opening, this foundation is what links Seneca and Tacitus to Richard Wagner and Ferdinand Celine. Still, it is doubtful whether fear of the Jews can even be spoken of in the context of the ancient world. The Christian world was also easily willing to accommodate the Jews, as long as they acknowledged the truth encompassed in the triumph of the Church. The Church was not, and still is not, afraid of the amorphous Jewish "identity," or, as it was called from the 18th century onward, of the Jewish mind or soul. The Inquisition had only one demand for the Jews: that they become Christian.

The phenomenon Yehoshua describes is therefore part of the modern world. From 1789 on, the Jewish problem became one of the core questions of 19th- and 20th-century European culture. The universalism of human rights was supposed to replace the universalism of Christianity. But resistance to the Enlightenment's universalism and rationalism gave rise to the cult of national-cultural distinction. The source of nationalism was not the French Revolution, but the rejection of Enlightenment universalism. From that moment on, the Jews' existence in Europe became a problem. Jews could exist in the society of the old regime, and they could also exist in a liberal society, where human beings are conceived as individuals endowed with universal, and therefore equal, rights. But they could not exist in a society that thinks of itself as a tribe, in a society of blood and land terms found not only in German, but in French as well.

This common denominator of radical French nationalism and German folk nationalism is of vital importance for understanding Europe in the last two centuries. By 1900 it was already clear that one tribal society could not absorb or tolerate the presence of another. How could the French "identity" which nationalists and anti-Semites viewed as an equally wondrous product of Christianity and nationalism, of God's mysterious workings in history accept as equal citizens the members of a desert tribe scattered all over Europe? Lethal anti-Semitism is not the product of Jewish "identity," but of the cultural revolution that took place in Europe. Once the center of gravity shifted from what people had in common to what separated them - national genius, history, culture, religion, language the Jews were at risk; they were already at risk 150 years before the Holocaust. Anyone studying the Jewish question through the perspective of European history from the 18th century on cannot help but see that the sources of anti-Semitism lay primarily outside the Jews themselves.

And indeed, anti-Semitism was borne on the wings of the anti-Enlightenment revolution the revolution that gave birth to folk nationalism, which spread through Europe like a brushfire. As a historical force, liberal nationalism never progressed beyond the phase it was in during the first years of the French Revolution, when the nation was defined in legal and political terms. The Jews were emancipated then, as were the black slaves, and made citizens of equal rights. From the first years of the 19th century, liberal nationalism did not exist except as an abstract construction, without a real historical being; it was a hope for the future that shattered, completely and finally, in the century's latter half. Perhaps today, and only in Western Europe, we might be witnessing the first glimmers of meta-nationalism the beginning of the end for the nation-state in its familiar 20th-century form, and a return to those early days of the French Revolution when Thomas Paine, newly arrived from America, was elected to the legislature of a remote constituency in northwestern France and took office without speaking any French.

Continental catastropheThe rise of cultural nationalism and its immediate translation into political terms in the early 19th century inaugurated Europe's age of balkanization. Dozens of nations - all proud of their uniqueness and past, all bound at the "foundation of their identity" to distant, often imaginary ancestors - clutched at each other's throats. It was a catastrophe for the continent, and a much greater one for the Jews. Once each human community is conceived not as a collection of individuals, but as a natural phenomenon, or as an enclosed, unique cultural-historical phenomenon from which the individual derives his existence from that point on, the amorphous, ill-defined but invasive Jewish identity that Yehoshua describes so well comes to evoke resistance and fear. Naturally, if the Jew is perceived as an entity that has endured unchanged for millennia, he is the absolute foreigner, and in the war for survival he is the absolute enemy: The Jew threatens the organic wholeness of the nation. The deeper the sense of uniqueness, the more intense the hostility toward the idea of a unified humanity, and the greater the danger to the Jews. Nationalism is by definition antagonistic to liberalism, while the Jews' ability to survive depends on liberalism's ability to exist.

From the moment the idea of human rights became a fiction, the fate of the Jews was sealed; they became hated by all the enemies of liberalism and Marxism. In the Roman world there was no such thing as a cultural "identity"; that is why the first nationalists preferred the Greek polis over Rome, which recognized only the political and legal concept of citizenship. Anyone could be a Roman citizen, until finally the idea of citizenship was extended over the whole empire. From this another conclusion might be drawn: that it is impossible to discuss only structure, as Yehoshua would like to do, without also addressing content, just as it is impossible to examine facts independently of values.

The Zionist movement, except for its fringes, also rejected liberalism and Marxism, nationalism's two great foes. The founding fathers of Zionism truly believed that anti-Semitism could only be ended when Jews enjoyed all the attributes of independent national existence and were gathered into Eretz Israel. To the founders, the Jews carried the anti-Semitic germ with them as they wandered. Once their belongings were set down, under Mount Gilboa, on the bank of the Jordan, there would be no more cause for anti-Semitism. But the fathers never considered the possibility that the Jews' actions in Eretz Israel might eventually contribute to perpetuating the hatred. Arthur Koestler once wrote that a bit of salt improves food, but a tablespoon poured into a bowl of soup makes it inedible. No one can doubt anymore that the Jewish state's conduct has a destructive effect on the treatment of Jews elsewhere in the world.

Ultimately, Yehoshua rightly holds that Zionism redefines Jewish identity, making it transparent and normal: No one has a reason any longer to fear the Jew living beside him or to project onto the Jew his fictions and fears. The purpose of Zionism is therefore to take apart the ancient amalgam. But there is no reason to assume that the act of deconstruction itself will guarantee the demise of anti-Semitism; the experience of the last two centuries does not bode well.

More likely, the real chance of ending the hatred lies in a slow transition to meta-national frameworks and to the creation of societies of citizens - but only if the Jewish state is not swept to the margins of the free world and ceases to harbor religious and national bigotry, as it still does today. What exactly will remain of the Jewish identity that Yehoshua describes, should the conjunction of religion and tribal nationalism truly become anachronistic? That is the most intriguing question of all, and one for which, unfortunately, we have no answer.