RSS Feeds
The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil,    but because of the people who don't do anything about it    
Occupation magazine - Commentary

Home page  back Print  Send To friend

In search of the Jewish People (part II)
In Search of the Jewish People, part II | Shmuel Amir
Date: Thursday, April 01, 2010
Topic: ::: Left Forum :::

In my previous article (`In Search of the Jewish People, Part I`*), I discussed the legend according to which Jewish prayers that express a longing for Zion are proof of the existence of a Jewish people with a national consciousness.

The classic Zionist claim is that the Jews are “a people without a country,” expelled from their land 2000 years ago, ever since which it has lived in exile. The purpose of Zionism was to restore them to the “land without a people,” the Land of their Fathers, the ancient Land of Israel. Nowadays, Israeli politicians declare Israel to be the state of the Jewish people. What they mean is that Israel is in fact the state of all the Jews in the world who are, subsequently, obliged to rally round the flag at times of crisis.

Zionist historians like Prof. Anita Shapira, one of Israel`s elite establishment historians, clothe this assumption in theoretical and historical apparel. In an article recently published against Shlomo Sand’s book (The Invention of the Jewish People), Prof. Shapira begins with the claim that there is a “special tie between religion and nationality in Judaism.” Again the Jewish religion is invoked to prove the existence of a Jewish people.

She also states that after the French Revolution “most Jews considered themselves part of Klal Yisrael, that amorphous commonality of Jews who profess to belong to the Jewish people, bear its burdens and share its joys, and identify with the fate of the Jews all over the world.”

Let us examine the link between the Jewish religion and Jewish nationality. Let us compare flesh-and-blood Jews and the imagined Jews of Shapira and Zionist ideology. The Jews of Germany up to the 1930s provide us with a good example. Germany was home to one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Europe, a community which was also very much aware of its Jewishness. That community was among the first – alongside the Jews of France and England – that contended with modernity and with the nationalist wave that swept Europe in the 19th century.

My description is drawn mainly from the book of R. J. Evans, one of the foremost historians of Nazi Germany today (R. J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin Books, 2003).

Evans relates that in the 19th and early 20th centuries the Jewish community in Germany was a successful and acculturated group. The Jews “differed from other Germans mainly in religion.” In the 19th century, he writes, civil equality for non-Christians was realized to a great extent, and with the unification of Germany in 1871 the remnants of civil inequality were eliminated. And as civil marriage was then introduced, the number of marriages between Jews and Christians rapidly increased. In 1904 19% of Jewish men and 13% of Jewish women in Berlin married Christians. As the First World War approached (1914), the number of inter-religious marriages reached 38 for every 100 Jewish marriages within the faith. In Hamburg the number their number reached 78 per 100. Jews also converted to Christianity at an increasing rate. The “success” of the Jewish community, Evans continues, “slowly dismantled the identity of the Jewish society as a closed religious group.”

The Jews in Germany constituted no more than one percent (600,000) of the total population. For hundreds of years they had been discriminated against and kept away from sources of influence and the practice of many professions. They were forbidden to acquire land, they were forbidden to serve in the army, the number of Jewish students in the universities was restricted, and so on. In the 19th century, in response to discrimination, about 100,000 German Jews immigrated, mainly to the USA. But most of them remained in Germany, not the least because of the economic development of the country at the end of the 19th century.

Evans describes how the Jews slowly turned from being an ostracized minority to one ethnic group among many in a multi-cultural society that included Poles (the largest minority amounting to millions), Danes, Alsatians, Sorbs and others. Like the other minorities the Jews had representation that became more secular with the passage of time, namely, the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (established in 1890). The Jews did not establish a separate Jewish political party but joined the existing parties, and often occupied key positions in them. For the most, they joined parties of the left and centre. Evans points out that most of the Jews identified with German nationalism, and especially with the liberal parties, because they supported the establishment of a German nation-state even before the unification of Germany. Evans concludes his survey by saying that the “Jewish story in the 19th century was a success story; they were connected with all the modern and progressive developments in society, in culture and in the economy.” Testimony to that are the names of Einstein, Freud, Marx, Lassalle, , Rathenau the Mendelssohns and a great many others, including about 20 German Jews who won Nobel Prizes before 1933.

It appears, therefore, that the Jewish religion, in complete contradistinction to what Anita Shapira writes, by no means prevented Jews from embracing German nationality, and sometimes even nationalism. What better evidence of that than their self-definition as “German Citizens of Jewish Faith” – or as “Germans of the Mosaic Religion.”

They did not see themselves as members of the Jewish people or as “belonging to Klal Yisrael. And they did not join – in Anita Shapira’s pathos-laden words – “those who bore the burdens and shared in the joys and identified with the fate of the Jews all over the world.”

In the First World War 100,000 of them joined the German army and about 12,000 of them fell in battle. German Jews and French Jews along with English Jews and Austrian Jews fought in that war, some on one side, some on the other, and none of them considered that they all belonged to a single Jewish people.

A short personal digression

As a Jewish child in Berlin in the 1930s I was forced to transfer to a Jewish school. The history teacher was a hero of the First World War, in which he had lost a hand. He taught us about that war and explained with pride how Germany had heroically stood its ground before the Great Powers. Only some mistakes in the Schlieffen Plan (the German war plan named after the general who drafted it) were responsible for Germany`s defeat.. Thus in a Jewish school during the Nazi era we were taught to retain German patriotism.

In Europe nationality largely replaced religion. Zionism too saw itself as a national movement and at first distanced itself from religion. But Zionists soon learned, as did proponents of other national movements, how to use religion for their own purposes. With the passage of time Zionism discovered religion and fell in love with it to a certain extent. For after all, in addition to a rich mythology, religion also supplied the alleged proof of the existence of a Jewish People by positing the equation: Jewish religion = Jewish people.

But it was not religion that created nationality; nationality created a religion that identified with it. And in our day too, it is not religion that created the settlers, rather it is Zionism that created the settlers. The settlers’ fundamentalism is not religious in essence, but Zionist-nationalist. Accordingly, Jewish religious fundamentalists (Haredim) are not Zionists, and Zionist fundamentalists for their part are not necessarily religious.

Zionism is today the religion of the State of Israel. The myth of the global Jewish people plays an important role in it. Essentially this ideology seeks to prove to the world, and no less importantly to the Israelis themselves, that the State of Israel belongs to that same Jewish people. Zionism endeavours to prove that this is the Land of our Fathers: in other words, that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is justified.

The Jewish religion, steeped in eternal mythology as it was, also adapted itself quite easily to non-Jewish nationalisms! That is mainly what the German-Jewish rabbi, Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), did when he changed the Jewish religion and established Reform Judaism, which resembled the dominant Protestant religion in Germany to a great extent. His intention was by no means hidden. Enlightened people declared that they wanted to bring the Jewish religion closer to the dominant religion. So men and women now began to sit together in prayer and the synagogue was called a temple. Organs and choirs were introduced, the rabbis’ garb came to resemble the robes of Protestant ministers, the references to Zion were largely removed from prayers, and the prayers themselves were even said in German. And the religious philosophy itself began to emphasize universalist foundations.

The objective of the reform was to make it easier for the German Jews to blend into their surroundings.

Naftali Friedlander, one of the leaders of the Jewish emancipation and a friend of Moses Mendelssohn, declared that prayers for the coming of the Messiah were no longer necessary because the Jews of Germany now had a homeland and their natural language was German.

Like the German Jews, American Jewry too changed the Jewish religion to suit the community’s needs. Isaac Harby, one of the early leaders of Reform Judaism in the USA, thought the religious rites should be more American, that is, more similar to those in Christian churches.

The story of the Jews of Germany has been given here as an example. Their transformation into Germans with the appearance of nationalism in Europe is no different from the story of the Jews of the USA and the other European countries. In all places they became loyal subjects of the countries in which they were living – their homelands.

The Jewish religion did not stop secularization nor the national identification of the German, American and European Jews with the countries in which they lived. The Jewish religion, like every other religion, can easily serve different nationalities.

The `Jewish People` is a basic construct of Zionist ideology. Without it there is no Zionist movement, no Klal Yisrael, in Anita Shapira`s words, including the Jews from all over the world. Nobody has yet asked American Jewry, for example, if they agree to this characterization. Should they be giving up their American citizenship and nationality in order to join the Jewish People? As things stand today, it looks the other way around. Since the establishment of the `Jewish State` a few American Jews have come to Israel but close to a million Israeli Jews have migrated from Israel to the US and are quite eager to obtain American citizenship and nationality. Ask Rahm Emanuel`s father, for one.

The `Jewish State` is used today for many reasons, among them to put pressure on the Palestinians. They are constantly reminded that Israel is a Jewish State and they should behave accordingly. In his speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu added a little adjunct to his grudging agreement to two states, namely, that Israel be recognized as a `Jewish State. He knew full well that no Palestinian could possibly agree to such a demand as it implicitly admits that they themselves have no right to the country.

It is high time to discard the Zionist myths in order to clear the way to understanding and peace between Palestinians and Israelis. This must be based on an end to the occupation and a willingness to live side by side in independent countries.


Translated from Hebrew by George Malent

Links to the latest articles in this section

The US and nuclear programs in the Middle East
How can Israel, Palestine return to a two-state solution?
A matter of concrete debate