The Enigma of Jewish Identity

Who or what, exactly, is a Jew?

Like many Jews of a largely secular persuasion, or like those who oscillate between doubt and belief, I have often wondered what I had to do with other “flavors” of Jewish communicants. Strolling along the streets of Montreal’s Outremont borough, home to a substantial Orthodox society, I feel absolutely no connection to the black-coated, earlocked, fur-hatted inhabitants who hasten by me without so much as a glance, immured in their own sequestered worlds. They may be bent on the preservation of Halachic Judaism and the maintenance of a sacramental community, but they have little interest in the world beyond their exclusionary domain and certainly none in the lives of individuals like me. “Ghetto orthodoxy,” writes James Parkes in A History of the Jewish People, “has no understanding of the moral problems of a modern and independent state.” Or, he might have continued, of modern and independent people.

At the same time, encountering Reformist and Reconstructionist Jews at local events, I feel no affinity with such nominal adherents to a faith they have re-interpreted as little more than a cultural tradition, that is, a set of mores and usages without serious reference to the God of the Hebrew scripture, the Mosaic and Noahide commandments, the poetry of David and Solomon, or the magnificent fulminations of the great prophets. How would they respond if angels appeared at their doors, as before Abraham (Genesis 18), or a divine command resonated in their ears, as in the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Jonah, or a latter-day Elijah descended upon their complacency? Heaven forfend!

Between these two constellations of Jewish postulants, the gap appears unbridgeable. In what way can they be regarded as members of the same extended family? Observing common holidays to which they attribute different meanings on the level of spiritual gravity is not a binding agent but merely a fugitive exercise in consanguinity. I am reminded of a Jewish joke that underlines the problem. An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi find themselves seated side by side at a religious conference. In the process of getting to know one another, the Orthodox rabbi recounts that he has recently officiated at a Bar Mitzvah in which he was informed that the celebrant received the gift of a Harley. Puzzled, he asks his Reform neighbour, “But what is a Harley?” “It’s a motorcycle,” comes the reply, “but what’s a Bar Mitzvah?”

And then, of course, there is the swarm of Jewish antisemites and anti-Zionists (which amounts pretty well to the same thing these days) whose names swell the roll-call of Judaism’s treacherous sons and daughters—a prime example of how a historical community can attack itself like an immune system gone haywire. The prophet Isaiah correctly foretold the future: “Thy destroyers…shall go forth of thee” (49:17). The so-called Jewish S.H.I.T. list (Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening Jews) furnishes the names of nearly 8000 contemporary Jewish tergiversators. These are people who casually court disaster in the remorseless anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist posture they affect, aiming their execrations and weaponizing their prose against their fellows. Living in what I’ve elsewhere called a latter-day Iberian delusion—if one recalls the eventual fate of the Spanish conversos—their only consolation in the ever-possible event of a resurgent and maniacal anti-Jewish national movement is that, like the Jewish Councils in Nazi Europe, they would be among the last to go, once their revisionist services were no longer needed by the demons they have agreed to traffic with.

What is it, then, that ultimately brings us together, that presumably unifies us as a people, and that, in effect, paints the bulls-eye on our backs? The answer should be obvious: it is precisely that which sews the yellow badge upon our lapels. As the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl came to believe, the Jew is defined by his enemies. However else he may understand himself, a Jew is also a Jew by default, in the same way that Hans Meyer (a.k.a. Jean Améry), as he recounts in At The Mind’s Limits, discovered he was a Jew with the passing of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935. A Jew remains a Jew even without positive determinants.

What many Jews do not seem to understand about antisemitism is that it is both a ubiquitous and an equal-opportunity pathology. As former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler said recently at the signing of the Ottawa Protocol, a welcome if belated attempt to codify and affirm resistance to this malignant phenomenon, antisemitism is not only the longest known form of hatred in the history of humanity, it is the only form of hatred that is truly global. However we may describe it—as an irrational revulsion, or the need to scapegoat a convenient group for supposedly inexplicable miseries and reverses of which that group is innocent, or classic projection, or, to cite Ruth Wisse writing in The Weekly Standard, “the organization of politics against the Jews” in order to “win rather than assume the allegiance of subjects or citizens”—it eventually strikes Jews everywhere and indiscriminately. For the antisemite, all Jews are alike regardless of their politics, their professions, the degrees of their faith or lack of such, or even their rebellious and venomous denunciations of their own brethren.

There is a passage in Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness that makes this collapsing of distinctions painfully clear. Referring to the Nazi “cleansing operations” in the Polish town of Rovno, he writes: “the Germans opened fire and slaughtered on the edge of pits, in two days, some twenty-five thousand souls…well-to-do and proletarian, pious, assimilated, and baptized, communal leaders, synagogue functionaries, pedlars and drawers of water, Communists and Zionists, intellectuals, artists, and village idiots, and some four thousand babies.”

The message is that we’re all incriminated. As I wrote in The Big Lie, “Warm Jews, lukewarm Jews and cold Jews are equally at risk. At the end of the day, the antisemite never stopped to take their temperature.” Similarly, as the Jerusalem Post commented after the Mumbai massacre in November 2008 in which Chabad House was attacked and its occupants murdered, “the terrorists did not inquire whether their victims were haredi, Orthodox, traditional or secular.” If Noam Chomsky or Jennifer Lowenstein had happened to be on the premises, they, too, would have been tortured and killed. In the minds of Jew-haters, being Jewish is sufficient warrant to disqualify a person from remaining a member of the human race.

It is this perennial hatred, I submit, that forms the peculiar ethnic or historical collagen that binds the Jew to his community, even should he repudiate his people with his whole soul or turn against them with the rancor of the benighted. This vicious odium is the force or substance that constitutes his or her identity. Jewishness obviously has nothing to do with race, as the Nazis believed, since there are Jews of every hue and physical type. To define a Jew according to rabbinic law as someone born to a Jewish mother only begs the question and involves us in a regressus—what makes a Jewish mother Jewish, apart from excessive nagging and the artful manipulation of guilt? Is Jewish identity a function of following the thirteen articles of faith articulated by Maimonides? But not all Jews are capable of abiding by every one of these, and the last article asserting belief in the resurrection of the dead is hardly substantiated in the Old Testament, in which there are, depending on how one counts, only six references to the afterlife. Rabbi Akiva proposed that knowledge of the Torah is the essential touchstone of Jewishness, in which case the majority of the world’s Jews are not really Jewish at all and a certain number of Gentiles are.

Here and there a rare and tenuous bloodline may connect a given individual to incorrigible Habiru ancestors even the patriarchs and the prophets despaired of ever civilizing. They cannot be more than a handful and must remain undetectable. And it is far from clear whether even these originals may be considered “Jews,” a designation which came appreciably later. As the Koran rightly suggests, neither Abraham nor Moses were Jews; it appears that Mordecai of the Book of Esther was the first to be called a Jew.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate may not have been far off the mark when he said “a Jew is someone who is called a Jew” and “it is the anti-semite who creates the Jew.” This may not be the whole story but, counter-intuitive or even flippant as it may sound to some, it is an important chapter—perhaps the most important chapter. Jews who happen to have escaped the stigma are either exceedingly fortunate or blindly oblivious.

Jews should take their cue from the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the electoral program of its Egyptian parent. The crowd assembled at the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo chant: “one day we shall kill all the Jews.” Their primary quarry is Israel, of course, but Jews in the Diaspora are also targeted for extinction. As Joseph Klein writes, “The rally was co-sponsored by the Al-Azhar University, which President Obama had referred to as a ‘beacon of learning.’ ” But this presumptive beacon has diffused its scarifying light not only through the Middle East; it has sent its leprous influence into the chanceries and public squares of the non-Muslim West as well. Much of Europe has already become a danger zone for Jews. Acts of anti-Jewish vandalism and instances of hostility to the Jewish state and its supporters are clearly on the rise in America. And both the European and American governments are conspicuously sympathetic to the Brotherhood, whose gradual ascendance to power they have facilitated.

The Brotherhood of hatred, however, is plainly not only Muslim in origin. It is a Brotherhood with a lengthy past in the blood-soaked abattoirs of Europe and also in the realm of public and official sentiment in North America, in particular among the camarilla of the Left—which is, rather perversely, the home of a plurality of Jewish voters as well. Nonetheless, the meeting of poisoned minds grows more intimate by the day—a confluence that makes little distinction between the diverse forms of Judaism, including its secular and revisionist varieties.

Some Jews may drive BMWs, but their near ancestors were transported in cattle cars. Some Jews live in decent or luxurious houses, but their relatives were brutalized in the mellah. Some Jews may pride themselves on their elegance and sophistication, but they remain apes and pigs for the Muslim world. Others believe that political calculation will work to their advantage. One remembers Rabbi Stephen Wise, Co-Chair of the American Zionist Emergency Council during World War II, who downplayed the horror of the Holocaust and even obstructed relief efforts in order, according to his lights, not to vex or offend the Roosevelt administration. Such reasoning would not have cut much ice with the millions who died in the Shoah or its survivors.

As Matthew Hausman points out in a seminal essay, many Jewish organizations in the U.S., such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as many secular Jewish leaders, “have been addled by their slavish devotion to an ideological agenda that in the name of tolerance has excused hateful rhetoric masquerading as political discourse – particularly when that rhetoric comes from the Left.” Their disposition “to deny their history, or to accept as fact the national and religious myths of those who wish to subjugate and destroy them,” reveals that they are simply a more nebulous version of nominal Jews. Hausman concludes, rightly: “Community leaders lose all credibility when they advocate or excuse policies that compromise the safety of Israel or threaten Jewish survival.” Such leaders are the tactical connivers among the Jewish public who elevate a political or electoral priority—in this case, the re-election of Barack Obama—above  whatever might be said to constitute the corpus of Jewish values. They, too, in any worst case scenario, would go the way of their congeners.

Others still are convinced that assimilation or recreancy has served to render them impervious to the black winds of history, but political weather is unpredictable and they may yet find themselves facing the blast. As for a significant portion of the Jewish cognitive class, their credentials are no antidote to intellectual seizure and no remedy for the discomfiture or reprisals they may one day be made to feel. The antisemite is not impressed by probity, achievement, like-mindedness, secularity or the inevitable social and professional disparities. Differences tend to be scrubbed out, for the truth is that Jews remain Jews by negative definition, despite claims to the contrary or the assertion of some mysterious entelechy that accounts for their chronicled essence.

There are some things that cannot be evaded. Mortality is one. Antisemitism is another. And the Jew is subject to both. The former establishes his common humanity. But the latter fixes his decisive and unappealable identity.

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