Lecture at Conference Galut 2000, Berlin 1998, published in Turning the Kaleidoscope, Perspectives on European Jewry (ed Sandra Lustig, Ian Leveson), Berghahn Books 2005
Zion and Diaspora – from Solution to Problem
The question ”What is a Jew?” or ”Who is a Jew?” is not only becoming increasingly impossible to even consider and contemplate, but also increasingly embarrassing, sometimes sounding more like a joke or a provocation than a seriously meant inquiry. This is not because it is an unreasonable question, on the contrary, but because the answers have become so diverse and so random and so self-contradictory and so vested with hidden meanings and agendas, that it now can only be asked by either someone who is not interested in the answer or by someone who knows it – often all-too-well.
The fact that I am invited here tonight to give my view on Jewish identity and culture, albeit with the recognition that we here are dealing with many identities and many cultures, testifies to the amorphous nature of this subject. Anyone, almost, can say just about anything on this subject.
So let me say something about myself.
Or rather ask: in what way am I a Jew? I am surely not practicing any part of the Jewish religion and tradition except going to my mother’s place for Seder and Rosh Hashanah and that has mostly become an occasion for a family reunion. I am not even a member of the Jewish Congregation in Stockholm. I do not participate in any Jewish social activities, except when I am invited to talks and discussions. I am even by some Jews considered anti-Jewish because of my positions on Zionism and on the relation between Israel and Palestine. In addition I am married to a Swedish, non-Jewish, woman, and our three daughters have been brought up well aware of their dual background. If and when and how they wish to identify themselves as Jewish is completely up to them. Of course, in this case the orthodox matrilineal tradition weighs heavily against them. Although this tradition doesn’t weigh too heavily in Stockholm. Not anymore. Patrilinear Jewish heritage has for all practical purposes been accepted by the leading liberal faction of the Jewish congregation. But of course not by everybody. And of course not by the ruling orthodoxy of Israel.
So already within one family, my family, we can see how the question of who and what is a Jew, quickly disintegrates and slips away.
Still I would not hesitate to call myself a Jew. Or rather, if anyone asks, I will answer ”yes”. Well, the obvious criteria of course apply. There are Jews on both my mother’s and father’s side as long as living memory will have it. My mother came from a famous (or perhaps infamous) shtetl in Eastern Poland, Chelm (known for its fools), where she grew up in a large orthodox family of rabbis, craftsmen, merchants and strong women. My father’s family belonged to the aspiring Jewish middle class in Lodz and was more assimilated and secularized than my mother’s. Both families perished in the Holocaust, with the miraculous exception of four youngsters, two from each family.
That two of them, on the same transport from Lodz to Auschwitz, managed to find each other after the war, and eventually make some kind of home in a country called Sweden, and there give birth to a son that was me, is in my eyes more than enough to make me a Jew by default.
Or to be more precise, to make me a Jew by history and heritage. A very specific history and a very specific heritage. I am a Jew of the Holocaust. I am a Jew of Hitler and of genocidal anti-Semitism. I am also a Jew of the survival – of the collective postwar Jewish experience of state-building and nationhood. I am a Jew defined by a recent past and an imminent future.
I am thus a Jew determined by external events and by external definition – not by inner conviction and choice.
It is probably fair to say that Jewish communal life in Europe during the first postwar decades was held together mainly by the trauma of the Shoah and the promise of Israel. Both factors defined in their own way the future limits and options of Jewish life. Neither demanded much of Jewish inner spiritual and cultural renewal. To remain a Jew in Europe was to have escaped Hitler and not yet have fulfilled the Zionist mission. To be a Jew was to engage in an act of solidarity with the annihilated – thus denying Hitler a posthumous victory – and to participate in the birth of a Jewish nation.
Some things in life you don’t choose. They are chosen for you. My Jewishness is such a thing. It makes it both simple – and complicated.
Simple, because it is by default. Complicated, because it has nowhere to go – and nothing to sustain it beyond one generation or two. A Jewish identity defined by the experience of the Shoah and by the obligations of Israel, must weaken when the experience fades – and the obligations loose their moral force.
And I believe this is happening right know; the two pillars of Jewish postwar existence, the Shoah and Israel, are rapidly loosing their ability to define a distinct Jewish existence. As a consequence we are now witnessing a rapid disintegration of common Jewish positions and interests and beliefs and lifestyles and definitions.
In many way we are brought back to that juncture in Jewish history when the question ”Who is a Jew?” and ”What is a Jew?” were raised for the first time, when the option of choosing between different ways of being a Jew originally occurred, in the wake of the European enlightenment, with its revolutionary ideas of national citizenship, religious freedom and individual human rights. Before that, no-one would have had any problem with the question ”Who is Jew?” Jews lived in separate communities, within separate social and religious jurisdiction, within a system of traditions and beliefs that was more or less the same all over Europe. The question ”Who is a Jew?” thus had a very specific and concrete answer.
With the rapid dissolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century of the Western European ghetto – the Jewish kehila – a whole panorama of new Jewish life-styles opened up. Jewishness became a matter of choice. For the first time in millennia Jews had to ask themselves what it meant be a Jew. Did it mean a continued life in the relative seclusion and protection of the Jewish kehila, or did it allow for an exit into the tempting modern secular world of learning, politics, business – and tolerance? Were there many ways of being a Jew? Could one be a good Jew at home and a respected citizen on the street? Could one stop being Jewish by an act of will and/or conversion?
Some tried to reform Judaism, to make it into a modern religion, others resisted, and there were soon as many opinions on how to modernize as there were on how to resist. Many Jews tried to leave Judaism altogether, whether they formally converted or just simply joined in the secular movements and passions of the time. Within a few decades the Jewish community of Western Europe had undergone a radical transformation which completely changed its conditions of existence – and survival.
It did not take long before the answers were as many as the questions, and it did not take much longer to realize that none of the answers did ”solve” the dilemma of modern Jewish existence. On the contrary, the dilemma rapidly turned into depression, despair and delirious utopianism. We all know the problems that ensued; on the one hand an ongoing inner disintegration of Jewish life, on the other a growing external pressure of modern anti-Semitism. We also know how the Jews of Europe eventually tried to respond and react.
Two options seemed at the time more promising to bewildered modern Jews than others; one was communism – the other nationalism.
In that sense were are either better off today. We don’t need to explore again these two answers to the questions of Jewish existence.
They have both been thoroughly tested – and proven wrong.
You might of course also conclude that we are worse off than the Jews twohundred years ago – since we now have less hope of ever finding an answer.
In what way then have the previous answers been proven wrong? Well, about communism we don’t need to argue anymore. About nationalism we need to. The re-nationalization of Jewish existence, which was the goal of Zionism, was and is still a most persistent part of modern Jewish existence.
After the Shoah, nationalization of Judaism became the new defining paradigm of Jewish life. Zionism went almost overnight from a sharply contested ideology and movement to an almost indisputable symbol of postwar Jewry. The little blue-and-white donations box for the Jewish National Fund was prominently displayed in nearly every Jewish home in Europe and the US. Even Jews who had no intention whatsoever to emigrate personally – and that went for most Jews in America, Britain and incidental havens like Sweden – firmly engaged in support for those who so wished and for the Zionist idea as such.
The underlying assumption here was that Jewish postwar life quickly would gravitate towards the new state. Some argued provocatively, like Arthur Koestler, that the option of freely emigrating to Israel was in fact a historically unique, one-time option to remain a Jew or not. The choice of remaining Jewish or not was the choice of Israel. The national dimension of Judaism was the only one remaining. It was still difficult to imagine a rift between the interests of the Jewish state and Jewish interests beyond the state.
Nevertheless, the potential of a rift was obvious. A state is a state, with its own agendas, interests and responsibilities. Its main loyalty must be to the well-being of its voters and taxpayers, not to people and communities outside its legal web of rights and obligations. The interest of Zionism and of Israel was indeed to transform the Jews of the world into a homogeneous collective of national citizens and put an end to the ambiguities of the Diaspora. The nationalization of Judaism tacitly assumed that all Jews either should become citizens of the Jewish state or begin to regard themselves as national exiles in relation to it. Their relation with Israel would then resemble the relation of exiled Greeks or Poles or Turks to their countries of origin. Not a complex and diffuse religious-cultural Diaspora anymore, but a clear-cut ethnic community, albeit with common religious traditions to go with it.
In any case, this was the very solution that held the long awaited promise of Jewish ”normalization”. Only to a Jewish national, to an actual or soon-to-be citizen of the Jewish state, could the perks of the Herzlian utopia be offered in full. The option of a ”secular” Jewish existence, of remaining a Jew while shedding Judaism, was the option of becoming an Israeli Jew, or an Israeli Jew in temporary or permanent exile. For Jews who wished to identify otherwise, who actually, God forbid, would conclude that life in the Diaspora was preferable to life in the Jewish state, or that the values of their particular Judaism could not be accommodated within a national-ethnic framework, that the ethics of Judaism were more important than its ”ethnics”, this solution had more ominous implications.
Most importantly, it created an inevitable rivalry between sharply diverging interpretations of Jewish existence, at first hard to see and admit but after fifty years of Israel increasingly open and obvious. The once self-evident role of the Jewish state in the life of postwar Jewry is far from self-evident anymore. The conflict of interest between an increasingly self-contained and single-minded Jewish nationalism on the one hand and an increasingly independent-minded Jewish Diaspora in USA and Europe on the other, cannot be subdued any longer. It now loudly manifests itself in both the religious and the political sphere, both inside Israel and outside. The national institutions of the Jewish state for instance now claim the right to interpret who is a Jew or who is not, disavowing the legitimacy of large diasporic Jewish communities. The national institutions in Israel, in their daily decisions and actions, tacitly claim to speak for the Jews of the world and not only for the Jews of Israel, which is a position increasingly hard to maintain in face of the deep internal and external controversies surrounding the most crucial of these decisions and actions, some of them concerning the nature of the Jewish state as such.
The nationalization of Judaism is thus proving to be a false or insufficient solution to the Jewish dilemma. Or rather, it has transferred the dilemma from one arena to another, extended considerably the range of Jewish self-interpretation, and thereby has given cause to further conflict and further Jewish disintegration.
Many of the questions once associated with the so-called Jewish problem have vanished – together with the vanished so-called solutions. The seemingly unavoidable accusation – or some times self-reprehension – of having double loyalties for instance, was intimately connected with the rise of the nation-state, with modern citizenship, and the ensuing demand that Jews become loyal Swedes or Frenchmen or Englishmen. It could only occur in an ethnic-national context, not in a confessional-religious.
Whatever specific Jewish loyalties there were, to Jews in other nations, to other historical myths, to other places, to another God, to other values, they soon became the focus of resentment and hatred and self-doubt. This was a historic trap with no escape. Jews, no matter how much they tried to prove their undivided loyalty, could still be singled out as the weed in the national garden, a foreign and harmful element in the pure stock of Swedes or Germans, the carriers of national ambiguity and cosmopolitan ideas.
Later the issue of double loyalties became explicitly connected to Jewish solidarity with Israel. Arthur Koestler, and many Zionists as well, subscribed to this view of things and called for a final choice of loyalties. The loyalty of Jews was to be with the Jewish state of Israel. Or they should not remain Jews at all. In time, this would solve the problem of double loyalties. I still remember asking ourselves, a bunch of Jewish kids in a Jewish summer camp outside Stockholm, whom we would support if Sweden and Israel were to play the final game in the World Cup. I don’t remember our answers, but I vividly remember myself some years later being the only person in the whole stadium of Tel Aviv cheering like a madman when Sweden scored against Israel.
Still I believe that the question – or accusation or problem – of double loyalties belongs to the past. Europe has become a society of migrations and migrants, many of its citizens have open and uninhibited ties with other countries, other religions and other cultures. The Foreigner has moved next-door. The Foreigner is you. The borders of the European nationstate have opened up. The Jew is not the only show in town anymore.
There is a genuine problem – or rather a situation – of double loyalties or multiple loyalties, but that is today a problem (or rather condition) of many people and individuals, not only Jews. It has the advantage of putting this version of the Jewish problem on par with a more general problem of the modern post-nationstate society. The problem on how to combine pluralism and diversity with decency and social order, various loyalties if you so wish, with one binding loyalty.
I addition, the Jews of the world have not accepted a national definition of their Jewishness. They have certainly not heeded Koestler’s call to choose Israel or leave Judaism. Instead they are searching again, for other ways of defining themselves, other ways of being a Jew.
Only to find an endless maze of possibilities, an infinite number of new answers to the question what it means to be a Jew. One could perhaps see this as a natural and healthy pluralism, but the extremes of this spectrum of Jewish existences or cultures are now so distant from each other, that not only does one extreme not recognize the other as Jewish, but it is virtually impossible to find anything in common between them, except that they are made up of people who insist on calling themselves Jewish.
So fifty years after the establishment of a Jewish nation-state the old questions crop up again – at the end of another road traveled. What is a Jewish nation? What is the purpose and character of a Jewish state? What does it mean to be a Jew? These questions have only become more burning as the national route has opened up a maze of side alleys, cul-de-sacs and cross roads. During this journey, the nationalization of Jewish life in Israel has heavily influenced the self-perception of Jews elsewhere, mainly resulting in a conspicuous ethnification of the Jewish Diaspora. Surveys in several Western European countries (i.e. the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain) as well as in the US, affirm that a growing number of Jews define themselves in ethnic terms, as individuals more linked by a common national ancestry and heritage than by common values and life-styles. Their Jewishness then becomes ever more eclectic, incorporating whatever elements that come to mind or seem proper, creating a diversity in beliefs and traditions that transcends all historic limits, united only by the purely coincidental bonds of family. As a religion Judaism is today perhaps becoming the most diverse of all major belief systems, historically lacking any common structure of authority.
This can of course most clearly be observed in the USA, where American Jews nowadays assemble the most unlikely combinations of alleged Jewish ideas and traditions. Between ”Jews for Jesus” in San Francisco and the Chabad in Crown Heights there is a Jewish dish for every taste and caprice. If not content with the first, choose a second, or cook yourself a third. Or choose a non-Jewish identity. Most American Jews today live outside any kind of Jewish congregation, and the number of mixed marriages has increased from nine to fifty per cent over thirty years.
The number people in America and Europe who see themselves as part of a Jewish community is rapidly shrinking. I present trends continue, writes Bernard Wasserstein in his study Vanishing Diaspora, ”the number of Jews in Europe by the year of 2000 would be less than a million – the lowest figure since the Middle Ages.”
The situation is then ripe with paradoxes. Some of the young Swedish Jews that I have met during frequent discussions of my book Das Verlorene Land, almost defiantly demonstrate their Jewishness, but when I ask them what makes them Jewish, their answers fly apart. Many of them proudly claim to be secular and free to make of their Judaism whatever they like. Most of them proclaim an affinity with Israel and the Jewish people, but when asked with what Israel and with what Jewish people, they are irritated.
In part this phenomenon of Jewish revival can be explained by a general search for identity in postmodern society. From this perspective Jewish youngsters are often considered lucky to have an interesting identity waiting for them, a well-furnished tradition to settle in, a ready-made lifestyle to explore. The unexpected revival of Jewish music, literature and theater, even in countries with few Jews like Sweden, often involving people who are not Jewish, shows that this a Jewishness of a new kind. Some Jewish intellectuals have tried to make a virtue out of this new reality, arguing that a modern Jewish identity might be construed from a practical tradition of multiple loyalties, from an ability to transcend national and cultural boundaries, the possibility of being many things at the same time, thus showing the way to a new era of European tolerance and coexistence. However desirable the development of such a postmodern individual identity in general might seem, it will in my opinion lead to the further trivialization of whatever once made up a Jewish civilization in Europe. In addition, this line of discourse tends to obscure the more fundamental and somber aspects of the modern Jewish dilemma.
The hitherto most dramatic effect of the nationalization of Jewish existence has been the late emergence of a rampant, national-messianic interpretation of Judaism. The potential for such an interpretation was perhaps always there, but during almost two millennia it was well checked and balanced by strong internal and external forces. The presently ongoing fusion between the secular power of a modern state and the re-awakened and unchecked fervor of a neo-messianic Judaism, has however brought the internal conflicts and tensions of Judaism to a breaking point. These are not minor differences about how the Jewish state should be run or about the interpretative details of Jewish tradition or about the proper rules of conversion, but a full-blown war about fundamental principles and beliefs, a war paradoxically brought about and aggravated by the very nationalization of the Jewish dilemma that would to put an end to it.
The dilemma of Judaism is then clearly not the dilemma of a single nation but of something larger – perhaps, as the Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt has argued, of a small but distinct civilization, basically facing the same challenges as it did twohundred years ago, when the walls of the ghetto came down. With the decisive difference that the national option, the long-nurtured dream of the all-solving return to Jerusalem now has been tried, explored and – for all real-life purposes – exhausted. The specifically Israeli-Jewish conflict regarding peace, Palestinians and territories, will mainly have to play itself out on the national scene, leaving the Diaspora Jews as anxious but basically powerless spectators.
This does not necessarily mean that the option of discreetly fading into a growing postmodern mosaic of ethnic and cultural pebbles, is a feasible one for the non-Israeli Jews of the world. First of all, the Jewish dilemma is clearly not an ethnic one. What made Judaism resilient and creative during so many centuries was a complicated dynamics involving several other important factors. These factors are not at hand any more. Secondly, the unwritten postwar taboos of Auschwitz might very well once again yield to the revival of old, ingrained, anti-Jewish sentiments, sometimes treacherously linked to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The blatant anti-Semitism of Le Pen in France is an ominous sign, the knee-jerk reactions in Switzerland to Jewish claims for economic compensation seem to be another. Even in Sweden, with few Jews, there appear to be a potential resonance for ideas, openly and skillfully propagated by small but well-organized groups, maintaining that powerful Jews run the country, that they are behind the ”sell-out” to Brussels and that they conspire to overturn the Swedish way of life. This might in turn provoke the Jews of Europe into a new cohesion and new defensive postures.
In a way fifty years of Israel have brought us back to a point where old and difficult European questions must be asked again, on one hand knowing that no immediate answers might be readily available this time, but on the other hand contributing to a timely and necessary discussion on the character and future of European civilization.
There are very few contributions so far to this discussion, one however by Diana Pinto who argues that European Jews can and should become the transnational avant-garde of an emerging European culture. The historically complex identity of the Jews, their unfathomable mixture of religion, nation, culture and ethnicity, their tradition of ”multiple loyalties”, are elements of exactly the kind of identity a democratic and pluralistic Europe must foster in its citizens.
But if that what is specifically Jewish can be reduced to a talent for flexible identities and multiple loyalties, then what we should rather expect is an accelerated dissolution of Jewish bonds and ties, and the increasing convergence with non-Jewish identities. Pinto seems unwilling to grade or evaluate different Jewish identities, but she nevertheless attributes to the ultra-orthodox Jews (whose undemocratic disposition and general intolerance she disapproves of) the important task of anchoring Judaism ”in a living Talmudic faith. Without them, Judaism as a whole would be immeasurably impoverished.” Why would it?
What Pinto actually hopes to formulate is a new Jewish destiny (after the Holocaust and the State of Israel). She energetically attempts to tie it to a secular European venture, but inevitably comes up against the Koestler dilemma: if living Talmudic faith is central to Judaism, should not most Jews somehow be defined by that? And if increasing numbers of the world’s Jews do not allow themselves to be so defined, but on the contrary react with fury to the political and social utterances of ”living Talmudic faith”, to what extent are they then Jews?
Naturally there may be a thousand respectable reasons for wishing to define oneself as a Jew of a more ambivalent and compound variety, but it is reasonable that there should be some connection between being associated with a specific Jewish destiny and the content of such a destiny. At some degree of Jewish dilution, talk of a comprehensive Jewish fellowship and mission becomes either racist or meaningless. If ”Jew” can mean anything, logic demands that Jews cannot be expected to think and act in any particular way.
A common Jewish destiny demands a common Jewish view of the world. To what extent can and should the notion of a specific Jewish destiny be upheld, when the Jewish view of the world has cracked?
Can Judaism then be something else than a mosaic of more or less Jewish sects? Or a purely national-ethnic affiliation? After two hundred years, the question remains more open than ever.
There is a chassid story which goes like this:
” An old chassid profoundly absorbed in prayer and thought lost his way in the forest. After a week of starvation and privation, he met a weather-beaten leather-clad man of the forest making his way through the undergrowth. Radiant with joy, the chassid went over to him to ask him the way. I have good news and bad news, the forester replied. The bad news is that I am also a chassid lost in the forest. The good news is that after ten years I know of a great many ways which do not lead home.”
Let me conclude by saying that although a good many wrong ways have been explored by now, there is no guarantee that the right one eventually will be found. And that we perhaps should settle for the joy of exploring forests.
Jewish existence was for hundreds of year a precarious balance between a moral-religious covenant and a national-ethnic mission, between the book and the people, between the hope for the advent of Messiah and the halachic demands of daily life. This balance was thoroughly upset twohundred years ago, giving raise to that persistent question: What is a Jew?
This question can today be narrowed down to the following: is there room for a specific Jewish mission in the world of today? Have the Jews, as a living collective, a coherent role to play in the world? Or are they at least bound together by the belief that they have one?
If the answers to these questions are mainly negative, which I believe they are, we will see a Jewish existence characterized by ever more division and arbitrariness, by the continued dissipation of common energy and vitality, by the reduction of what was once a resilient Jewish civilization, to on one hand the state of Israel and its project of nationalizing Judaism and on the other hand the continued secularization, ethnification and diversification of diasporic Judaism and Jewishness into a myriad of lifestyles.
This means that the questions of Jewish cultural revival and survival cannot be disconnected from the question of what we mean by being Jewish, and from the question whether the Jews of the world can have more in common than a common history and a not so common future.