What is a jew? The question is more easily posed than responded to, or at least those responses differ in an agree to disagree manner. That could be predicted in avance, given that Jewish history has never conformed to reasonable expectation. The key word being reasonable….
The grafting of traditional Jewish messianic hopes for a return to Zion onto the nineteenth-century concept of the nation state, which produced political Zionism, was a response to anti-Semitism by jews who had little or no, that is nominal interest in the Jewish religion. Today, many jews, both agnostic and assimilated, maintain that with the coming of the state of Israel, there is no loner any reason for the keeping of a separate Jewish identity of the Diaspora. The existence of the jewish people has been ensured; a center from which a jewish culture can be reborn has been provided. Others believe that, Israel or no, total assimilation is both inevitable and desirable; the view by the likes of Arthur Koestler.
Others again hold that Judaism is just a religion and has nothing to do with the larger matters of culture and community, and even less with questions of nationality. And still others return deliberately to the habits of the ghetto.
Yet, there is another point to consider. Zionism was the invention of cultivated European jews who wanted to create in Palestine a modern jewish national state modeled on the emancipatory principles, secularist in nature, of the Enlightenment and liberal democratic ideals. But, the native born Israeli is less and less likely to regard himself as a European and more and more as some sort of new hybrid entity within a middle eastern context. Clearly, the poor-cousin mentality to Western Europeans towards the pverty ridden jews of the eastern Shetls and the Sephardic jews of the Arabian peninsula have little attachment to Voltaire, Kant, and John Stuart Mill, and the particular breed of secular racism they embodied.These latter groups, Russians, Easternsers and Arab jews are in some ways more primitive, more fundamentalist, less complicated people, much more like the original jews than the kind of Westernized Jewish intellectuals who play so important a role in running Israel today, and effectively control the business community and the state apparatus. As these new elements become dominant in Israel through demographic change and social-economic mobility, the links between the Westernized jew and israel will be weakened, as we have seen, or rather polarized between a left-secular liberalism and new strains that risk supplanting the template of traditional Zionism. As this process unfolds, a chunk of jews outside Israel reinforces assimilation and a kind of jew arises in Israel, and to some degree in the Diaspora that develops Jewish culture in quite unexpected ways. But why be surprised or concerned? After all, Jewish history has never conformed to reasonable expectation.
And yet, with the diversity, geographical and ideological that characterizes Judaism, an indefinable sense of unity remains. This unity is certainly not the product of common racial characteristics, nor is it the product of common culture, however widely culture may be defined. It has something to do with persecution and something to do with pride.
It has everything to do with history, with the ability of Judaism to adapt to adversity in the Diaspora, and with the consequent survival of Jewish communities u
conditions of discrimination, persecution and temptation to convert to the majority faith. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning,” exclaimed the psalmist, recalling how in Babylon he had wept for his lost homeland. Jewish unity is a matter of memory, conscious or unconscious. When the memory goes, the unity will go.