History offers many differing versions of Jewish identity

Our relationship to both national and cultural identities has changed according to time and place

August 05, 2021 15:19

In the years before and during the Holocaust, many European Jews searched for camouflage in a desperate, mostly futile, struggle for survival when their Jewish identity, even if long abandoned and forgotten, was wrenched from the past and presented to them as a death warrant.

Historically, Jews have been susceptible to multiple identities which could strengthen or weaken Jewish unity. Even during centuries of Jewish statehood, but especially as exiles from the Land of Israel, Jews lived among many peoples and cultures and were open to difference and change.

Though not a missionary religion, ancient Judaism attracted converts. There have been Jews of all races and most nationalities and cultures. Principles of Judaism enshrined in the biblical and rabbinic tradition — justice, righteousness, charity, kindness, adherence to and respect for the law — are universal. Judaism teaches love of the stranger and the equality of all in the eyes of God. In rabbinic literature, Adam, ancestor of all humanity, was created first and alone so that no one can say, “My father is greater than yours”. Yet the tolerance of Judaism, its potential for diversity and expansion, the historian Salo Baron wrote, made it vulnerable to sectarian and political divisions, and the threat of national extinction.

After the destruction of the Jewish state by the Romans in 70 CE, Rabbinic Judaism was fiercely opposed to national disunity. From then until the French Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789, Jewish identity both in Christian Europe and in Islamic countries was defined by strict religious observance of the Torah. Conversion both to Judaism and from Judaism was rare. The emancipation movement which followed the 18th century French Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789 brought equality and civil rights to most Jews in Western and Central Europe, and opened many previously-closed professions, occupations, and identities. For the first time, many Jews rejected rabbinic authority, welcomed secular education and sought assimilation in states which gave them citizenship.

At the same time, emancipation split Jews along national lines so that German Jews tended to identify with Germany, French Jews with France, Italian Jews with Italy, and so on. Emancipation triggered widespread popular anti-Jewish opposition. Nationalists who accepted that national identity was constructed and defined in cultural terms could, in theory, accept Jews as part of the Nation; but those who believed in an ineradicable core of authentic national identity persisted in seeing Jews as aliens: the notion of a ‘German Jew’ or a ‘French Jew’ seemed a contradiction in term.

Emancipated Jews were torn between grateful identification with their Nation and its culture — often expressed in a determination to be “more French than the French” or “more German than the Germans” — and anxiety to assimilate to shield themselves and their children from the poison of antisemitism.

Social and religious barriers to full acceptance were clear in Germany where statehood and emancipation came relatively late (both in 1871): Could Heinrich Heine be a ‘German’ poet? Could Felix Mendelssohn be a ‘German’ composer? Could Berthold Auerbach, author of the famous Black Forest Village Stories, be the great German Volksschriftsteller? Could Walther Rathenau be a ‘German’ statesman? Could Albert Einstein be a ‘German’ scientist?

Similar questions were asked of Jews throughout Europe, in their extraordinary mimesis and metamorphoses. Rapid Jewish assimilation into a host of national identities roused hostility in part as it undermined the idea of an exclusive ineradicable ‘national’ identity.

Benjamin Disraeli, a baptized Jew, created the modern Conservative Party and twice became Prime Minister (1868, 1874–80). He transformed himself into what Isaiah Berlin describes as “a Pied Piper leading a bemused collection of dukes, earls, solid country gentlemen, and burly farmers, one of the oddest and most fantastic phenomena of the entire nineteenth century … Unable to function in his proper person, as a man of dubious pedigree in a highly class-conscious society, Disraeli invented a splendid fairy tale, bound its spell upon the mind of England, and thereby influenced men and events to a considerable extent”.

Yet Disraeli was dogged by antisemitism throughout his career. Thomas Carlyle, for example, objected to Disraeli’s becoming Prime Minister. When Disraeli offered him the Grand Cross of Bath in 1876, Carlyle refused: “How could a ‘real Jew’ try to be a representative or citizen of any country ‘except his own wretched Palestine?’”

Similarly jaundiced attitudes toward assimilated Jews were common in France. The novelist André Gide, in a journal entry of 1914 after meeting Léon Blum, the future Jewish Prime Minister of France, decried the growing Jewish influence on French culture. Jews were malappris (uncouth), not French: better, he added, for the French to vanish rather than let Jews infiltrate their culture.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought emancipation to the Russian Jews, opened up a similar variety of new identities — and new expressions of antisemitism as Jewish culture was banned by the Soviet regime. In the Russian civil war following the Revolution, the writer Isaac Babel rode with the Cossacks, notorious for their hatred and massacres of Jews. “A Jew in a Cossack regiment was more than an anomaly,” observed the American critic, Lionel Trilling, “it was a Joke, for between Cossack and Jew there existed not merely hatred but a polar opposition. Yet here was a Jew riding as a Cossack and trying to come to terms with the Cossack ethos.”

Emancipation sometimes caused assimilation to go haywire. Trebitsch Lincoln was born a Jew in Hungary in 1879, converted to Christianity then to Buddhism and was at various times a missionary, a member of the British House of Commons, an official of sorts in the failed Kapp putsch in Berlin in 1920, a Buddhist monk and a German spy in both world wars. Pathological though such transformations might appear to be, they can also be seen as a “microcosm of global lunacy” as the historian Bernard Wasserstein describes it; and they throw light on the quandary of highly adaptable Jews seeking a new life outside the protection of Judaism and the consolation of Jewish communal life, yet still threatened with prejudice and hatred. Many minority groups face similar dilemmas and opportunities.

In World War I Jews fought as loyal citizens and died in practically every army, often firing on each other; but in the interwar years and during the Holocaust, their precious national identities were lost and emancipation was rescinded even in previously progressive liberal states such as France and Germany, Italy and Holland.

In an antisemitic Europe with borders closing, Jews frantically sought safe identities. Hannah Arendt, who as a Zionist Organization official had worked with refugees in France in the 1930s before escaping to America, described bitterly in 1943 the tragic-comic patriotic transformations of an imaginary “Mr Cohn” from Berlin, “a 150 percent German” who in 1933 found refuge in Prague where he became “a convinced Czech patriot”; then, in 1937, when the Czech government expelled its Jewish refugees, he fled to Vienna where “a definite Austrian patriotism” was required; but the Anschluss forced him to flee again, to Paris where, though he could not get a residence permit, he nevertheless prepared himself for assimilation as a Frenchman by “identifying himself with ‘our’ ancestor Vercingétorix”.

Merging with the nation was ultimately denied to most European Jews: “France to the French, England to the English, America to the Americans, and Germany to the Germans” — this was how Adolf Hitler led up to his prophecy of the annihilation of the European Jews in his speech to the Reichstag on January 30 1939.

Betrayal, homelessness and mass murder drove many Jews to sympathy with Zionism, hope of return to the land of Israel, and a healing of the sickness of unrequited national devotion. Within the broad spectrum of Jewish national identity, the staggering variety of cultural identities gathered to Israel from all over the world has been a source of strength and hope.


David Aberbach is professor of

Hebrew and Comparative Literature

at McGill University

August 05, 2021 15:19

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