I’ve noticed in reading The New Yorker that I almost always discover the ethnicity/religion of a character in a report when that person happens to be Jewish. Often, it seems to me the mention comes casually, at random, without relevance to the topic at hand.
I have sometimes wondered why that is so. Whatever the reason, such a practice serves to reinforce the idea of Jewish peoplehood in the mind of the reader. Maybe that is the reason for doing it.
In other media, especially in the entertainment world, I often come across haphazard introduction of the Jewish identity in the form of the word “Israeli,” which has come to mean “Jew” in common discourse, even though the coinage is deceptive in what it implies about nationality. The parade of Israeli characters and references on TV is clearly meant to normalize and legitimize Israel as a Jewish state. There is no such thing as an Israeli nationality.
To explain: Americans are nationals and citizens of the US, but “Israeli” refers only to citizenship. Under “nationality,” Israeli citizens are defined as belonging to different “ethnic and religious groups.” Palestinian citizens of Israel are classified as “Arab” not as Palestinian by nationality, as if their Arab Muslim heritage negates their multifaith, multicultural and multi-layered identity, which is deeply rooted in the ancient past as lived history on their land.
If the Jewish identity in The New Yorker represents an American or European Jew in the modern world proudly signalling, through Jewish identification, the valuable ideas of ethical monotheism, justice and Messianic hope (ideas to which Judaism gave birth), the Israeli Jew represents the atavistic mythical idea of the restoration, through continued violence, terror and coercion, of the mythical “land of Israel” in some other people’s backyard.
The problem is that, even in The New Yorker, these two Jewish identities weave in and out of each other with no distinction. Worse, both are evoked with the same pride. The result is a situation of smoke and mirrors, making it appear that Jewish peoplehood was an inherent identity.
“Public opinion on the world stage sees the idea of Jewish peoplehood as self-evident and sacrosanct. Paradoxically, there is no currency to the idea that either Christianity or Islam can or should bestow peoplehood on their adherents worldwide except in the sense of spiritual fellowship.”
The “right” of “the Jewish people” to self-determination in Palestine is universally acknowledged in Western popular culture and diplomacy with disastrous consequences to Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, to Arab Jews, as I write in Nationalism, Bi-Nationalism And The Jewish People and elsewhere.
I also notice an insidious inversion of the Jewish/Israeli peoplehood formula as described above when it is applied in reference to the religions Palestinians follow.
To Israeli Jews and others, Palestine’s Christians and Muslims are Arabs and should be absorbed by other Arab countries. After all, Israel has already absorbed Arab or Oriental Jews, so-called Sephardi Jews who originated largely in Arab and Muslim countries and who are now the majority, identifying as Jewish nationals within the state of Israel.
Within Israel, in The New Yorker and worldwide, “the hegemonic Israeli Jew is that of European Jews, the Ashkenazim, while the Sephardi voice has been largely muffled or silenced,” as Ella Shohat points out:
The Zionist denial of the Arab-Moslem and Palestinian East … has as its corollary the denial of the Jewish “Mizrahim” (the “Eastern Ones”) who, like the Palestinians, but by more subtle and less obviously brutal mechanisms, have also been stripped of the right of self- representation.
“Today, many American Jews are beginning to think of their Jewishness as a private matter, an individual religious choice. They are in favor of pluralism and against essentialism.”
In ‘Israel: Where do the Mizrahim fit in?’ Ran Greenstein also comments on the fissures inherent in Israel’s artificial demographics:
The notion of a numerical majority of non-European citizens [in Israel] is a demographic reality but politically problematic, then. It combines people who share no national or religious identification, have radically different political priorities,and rarely cooperate with each other. And yet, this state of affairs was neither inevitable nor immutable. It emerged recently (in historical terms) in the course of struggles over identity formation that involved political manipulations, material processes, cultural adaptations and discursive contestations over meanings and implications of social positions.
Nevertheless, public opinion on the world stage sees the idea of Jewish peoplehood as self-evident and sacrosanct. Paradoxically, there is no currency to the idea that either Christianity or Islam can or should bestow peoplehood on their adherents worldwide except in the sense of spiritual fellowship.
Because news reports consistently bring up her religion whenever she is mentioned, I know Hanan Ashrawi was born to Palestinian Christian parents. Her father’s and grandfather’s names, Daoud and Mikhael, are taken from the Bible. But is another, less internationally prominent Palestinian spokesperson, say Diana Butto, Christian or Muslim? I have no idea and, more importantly, I think of it as beside the point of Palestinian nationalism and self-determination.
Christians in the Levant are “a mixture of ancient Greek settlers and particularly Macedonians, Roman-era Greeks, and Byzantine Greeks (“Rûm”), as well as indigenous Levantines.” It’s not their religion that defines them as Palestinian; it’s their indigeneity.
It was the unfortunate fate of the Levant to be turned into the modern-day Middle East by the secret, hasty and treacherous “negotiations” of the British and the French amidst the turmoil of WWI. An alternative history to the emergence of the Levant from under centuries of Ottoman rule could have theoretically produced one independent geopolitical country across all the Levant. What happened was rough regional geopolitical divisions, all of which eventually achieved their independence with the one exception of Palestine.
“Let’s do the hard work that needs to be done to break down the legal and intellectual frameworks that negate Palestinian rights. Let’s break down Zionism, not “understand and teach it,” validate it or justify its evil consequences.”
The confusions described above are reflected in current discourse among those still strangely baffled as to why Palestine’s Arab population in the 1920s and 1930s rejected Judah Leon Magnes’ “gentler and kinder” Zionism and the idea of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, then still under the British “sphere of influence.”
Magnes, an American rabbi born in San Francisco in 1877, was concerned with the deteriorating situation of Jewry in Europe, and believed Palestinian Arabs should accommodate Jews, not simply as immigrants to Palestine, but rather as “Jewish nationals” in a bi-national state, courtesy of the British. Now why wouldn’t Palestinian Arabs accept such a reasonable offer?
Where is the difficulty in understanding the natural behavior of any people to safeguard their own existence, their own emerging nationalism and political independence on their own land, instead of worrying about accommodating the alien needs of foreign Jews, especially as the Palestinian Jews among them had no complaints?
What is even more maddening is the current discourse, especially on the left, that is pushing bi-nationalism as an alternative to the defunct two-state framework that never was. It begins by validating Zionism as Robert Cohen does in “‘History will judge us’ — Have Progressive Rabbis reached the end of the road on Israel?”:
Zionism has been a national project of self-determination for Jews and an act of brutal settler colonialism for Palestinians. Both experiences are true and valid. One cannot be told without the other.
The world must understand that it is impossible for Palestinians to accept that Zionism’s national project of self-determination for Jews is “true and valid.” But instead of conveying this message to his readers, Cohen goes on to try and persuade “progressive liberal rabbis” to “understand and teach” bi-nationalism rather than the mainstream version of Zionism they hold.
After conceding the “truth and validity” of Jewish peoplehood, Cohen begs for Palestinians’ right for self determination, equality and justice in their own homeland by appealing to the higher values of the Jewish religious movement of “Reform and Liberal rabbis” he is addressing and to their self-interest as Jews:
Progressive Judaism must reclaim its universal principles and apply them to a Jewish understanding of the Holocaust which recognises that our security will always be dependent on promoting a common humanity, based on justice, equality and mutual responsibility.
“Any understanding and teaching of Zionism must embrace the experience of Palestinians,” Cohen exhorts the “progressive” rabbis he is addressing.
To that, I say, let’s instead do the hard work that needs to be done to break down the legal and intellectual frameworks that negate Palestinian rights. Let’s break down Zionism, not “understand and teach it,” validate it or justify its evil consequences.
Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, believed that Jews worldwide could thrive and flourish only as “a nation” separated from other nations. Surely that is no longer the case — if it ever was. Zionism is against Jewish assimilation in the world. Israel has taken the notion of “the Jewish people” and ties it to the state of Israel and to “the land of Israel”. Sivan Tal writes:
In a sense, abandoning Israel and living in the “diaspora” without connection to the state of Israel is a sort of assimilation. So you have the assimilation in the religious sense (losing the faith in God and untying the connection to it) and assimilation in the national sense (leaving the land of Israel and untying the connection to the state of Israel). Secular Jews [Israeli Jews, out of whom 99.99% are Zionist] view the latter type of assimilation as the more problematic one. Like if you live in Israel, you’re already a good Jew.
Today, as indeed in past history of Judaism around the world, there are divisions among Jews with some of these branches not considering the others to be real Jews at all. There are Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. There are Jews who are secular and assimilated, and there are haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews who reject modernity entirely. There are Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews.
All of these groups Israel has “ingathered” as a nation, entitled somehow to expel Palestinians of all other religions ultimately out of all Palestine. That is not something to be understood and taught and validated.
Many American Jews are beginning to think of their Jewishness as a private matter, an individual religious choice or, as is often the case, a non- or anti-Zionist Jewish secular identification with Palestinians and other oppressed people. They are in favor of pluralism and against essentialism — i.e, a religion with immutable, and inherent defining properties. Some of these secular identities, of course, remain susceptible to the myth of “Jewish peoplehood” and binationalism. Palestinians need more of that anti-Zionist thinking from Jews all over the world.
Accepting the idea of “Jewish peoplehood” is a mistake the British, who had introduced, used and propagandized the idea many years before Zionism was even invented, made in the Balfour Declaration — a deliberate mistake in urgent need of debunking. The British definition of Jews as a race (tribe) in previous centuries is a social construction derived both from the self-perceptions of Jews themselves in England as well as a desire on the part of the empire to enforce racial hierarchy, police racial boundaries and block access to the center of political power.
Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank.