Identity

In general I find there are two kinds of Jews in the world: Jewish professionals and professional Jews.  To be sure, there are many Jews who are neither, and there are some Jews who are both.  Still and all, a high percentage of Jews seem to be one or the other.

 

Professional Jews are Jews whose life is built around being Jewish.  Anyone who observes all the mitzvot of the orthodox Jewish religion has to be a professional Jew because of the amount of time and energy that goes into this observance.  And there are many who may not be completely orthodox in their religious practice but who nonetheless devote a similar amount of time and energy to their conception of being Jewish.  Indeed, it is perfectly possible to be a secular Jew, like many Israelis, and still be so steeped in Jewish culture and tradition as to be a professional Jew.  What counts is not so much religious observance or the lack thereof but the degree of dedication to being Jewish which every professional Jew must feel.

 

Jewish professionals, on the other hand, are Jews whose identity is closely bound up with their career as doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics, journalists, social workers, scientists and all the other professions for which a certain degree of education is a must.  My point is that for such Jews dedication to their profession is frequently their way of being Jewish.  Even more than non-Jewish professionals they tend to conceive of their profession not just as a means of earning a living but as a path to achieving some important social goal.  The same ambition to serve as a light unto the nations which professional Jews find in Jewish tradition is translated by many Jewish professionals into a universalist ideology of social service in the name of human rights.  Hence they come across as liberals, while the professional Jews are perceived as right wingers.

 

In a perfect world these two ways of being Jewish would reinforce and complement one another.  But in the world in which we live, being Jewish in any way, shape or form is considered a problematic enterprise.  To win acceptance for their way of being Jewish, both professional Jews and Jewish professionals have all too often found it necessary to denounce one another.  Drawing on the rich stock of anti-Semitic stereotypes supplied by the surrounding environment, professional Jews are portrayed as heartless ritualists, while Jewish professionals are stigmatized as hypocritical assimilationists.  By disassociating themselves from those other, reprehensible Jews, both professional Jews and Jewish professionals hope to win acceptance from a world permeated with anti-Semitism on all levels of society.  But needless to say, this strategy is self defeating, since the long range effect of mutual denigration is to bring all Jews into disrepute.

 

Obviously there is a need for a conception of Jewishness which embraces both the Jewish professional and the professional Jew yet transcends both.  That conception is well known: it is Zionism.  Zionism is the logical outgrowth of the orthodox Jewish religion with its “next year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Passover seder.  And Zionism is also the direct expression of the Jewish search for justice, for what could be more just than the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel after enduring 2000 years of persecution in exile?  At the same time Zionism also contains within itself the potential for a new form of Jewish identity, neither liberal nor orthodox but simply Israeli.  But in order for this potential to be realized, both the professional Jew and the Jewish professional must accept a diminished role in Israeli life.

 

What seems to be happening in Israel today is just the opposite.  Jewish identity is being defined as adherence to the Jewish religion, and Jewish morality is being defined as concern for the rights of others.  There is nothing specifically Israeli about these definitions.  They both represent the application to Israeli conditions of doctrines and beliefs that were long established in the Diaspora.  It was in the Diaspora that Jews learned to package the memory of the vanished nation of Judah in a religious form, and it was also in the Diaspora that Jews learned to struggle for the rights of every group except their own.  The Zionist movement was intended to transcend this history, and it did so to a considerable extent, but in hard times people fall back on what they know best.  The constant pressure to which Israel is exposed has gradually eroded the sense of a unique Israeli identity and replaced it with the familiar categories of the religious right and liberal left.

 

Just what might a conception of Israeli identity over and above these categories look like?  From a juridical point of view an Israeli is a citizen of the state of Israel.  But for all practical purposes an Israeli is someone who speaks Hebrew, shows respect for Jewish tradition and supports the state of Israel.  This means that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a real Israeli, but you do have to have a positive attitude towards the Jewish people.  From the start the main purpose of the state of Israel was to provide the Jewish people with a homeland and a refuge from persecution.  This remains the main purpose of the state of Israel today.  It follows that no matter what they might say, anyone who denigrates and opposes the state of Israel is thereby also opposing and denigrating the Jewish people.  Conversely, anyone who supports the state of Israel is also supporting the Jewish people.

 

To put it another way, Israel validates Jewish history and Jewish history validates Israel.  For 3000 years, the Jewish people has acted as a powerful force for a more rational, egalitarian and humane way of life.  Both professional Jews and Jewish professionals, each in their own way, continue to uphold this tradition today.  But the lesson of the Holocaust is that in order to survive, the Jewish people needs to be able to defend itself against anti-Semitic persecution.  Israel is the collective expression of this ability, and an Israeli is someone who forms a part of this collective expression.  An Israeli identity and a Jewish identity are not the same thing, but you can’t have one without the other..

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