13 March 2013

In Favor of Imperfect Assertions

The Diaspora is a trauma inflicted not just once but twice; and for each occasion in Jewish history, the Prophets and Sages of Jewish history understood the exile in fundamentally self-referential terms:  "We brought this expulsion upon ourselves."  When the Babylonian Empire destroyed the 1st Temple in 586 BC, the Prophets wrote, "מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו--Because of our sins we were exiled from our land," a statement of radical responsibility for national disaster.  And when the Roman Empire, in 70 AD, destroyed the Second Temple, the Sages decreed that Jerusalem fell because of שינאת חינם--unbridled hatred among Jews.

Not the greatest and mightiest of ancient empires but rather our own sense of responsibility:  We are our own undoing.

Compounding this:  the trauma and dislocation of the Crusades, the Spanish Expulsion, Pogroms, and the incomprehensibly vast destruction, the Shoah.

It's no wonder, then, I suppose, that despite the collective mass-tragedies to befall the Jewish people consistently throughout at three thousand year history, we still have among us those who take a kind of macabre and precious pleasure in questioning the very right of our own territorially actualized national collective consciousness, as in, like, "Why should Israel even exist?"

So mused Professor Joseph Levine, UMass-Amherst philosopher, in the Times this past week.  He could very well have questioned America's right to exist; or a Brit could have questioned the very Britishness of national claims to highlands, lowlands and William Shakespeare's Stratford upon Avon; or a Frenchman could have questioned the legitimacy of territorial, historical and linguistic attachment to national self-determination in the Land of the Brie; but there's nothing quite as titillating as a Jew questioning the very right of *the* Jew to national self-determination.

O' ye Stateless Wanderer!  How dare ye find your way home!

Levine's analysis hinges on his distinction between a hegemonic Jewish culture, which he sees as inherently ethnocentric and problematic and a hegemonic Israeli culture, which, while linked inextricably to historic, territorial and linguistically Jewish antecedents, are somehow more acceptable than those that call themselves primarily Jewish.    One can, Levine argues, be an Israeli Arab but not an Arab Jew or Jewish Arab--or can he?

The nuances of course are the exception that prove the rule.  With any number of caveats, Israel stands as a wildly imperfect but triumphantly fascinating testimony to the insistence on Jewish renewal and self-determination.   (I write this from a country, after all, that has yet to rectify inherently racist foundations of its Constitution, not to mention an incessantly wrong-headed read of the Second Amendment and so, as a result of said imperfections, lo, these centuries later, battles rage on.  Even a non-ethnicated people such as "Americans" struggle with defining their very essence but nevertheless continue to validate the seeking to stake a claim to an essential Americanness, rooted in the values of land, language and the history of ideas along with the events that created them.)

But no one takes seriously the idea that America shouldn't exist.  Or that France shouldn't exist.  Or best yet:  South Africa shouldn't exist, where, sure, whites can be South Africans but everyone knows what we mean when we say South Africa.

Say it ain't so, Joe.  Don't let that comfy Ivory Tower in Amherst protect you from the demands of responsibility your Sacred Tradition demands of you:  To honor the 'stranger,' for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; to do justice, to love, mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.  In your language, in your land, in the complicated mess of democracy that is the successful but imperfect assertion of the Jewish right to self-determination.


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