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Jewish Identity, Eastern Europe and “Goofy Myths About God”

In my opinion, the Ashkenazi Jewish cultural tradition that I and most other North American Jews hail from is a great and noble one, one well-worth celebrating and identifying with, entirely apart from whether or not you want to buy some set of goofy myths about God and so forth. ~Matthew Yglesias

Yglesias makes an interesting statement to the effect that he doesn’t really identify with Israel and its increasingly “Middle Eastern” (I would say Near Eastern, but we get the idea) character and feels a little bit more “at home” in the old lands of the Ashkenazim in eastern Europe. This is like Zionism in reverse: now that the Jews have their own land and their own state, somehow the lands of ghettoes are more appealing as real ancestral lands to which modern Jewish people have a more immediate connection. Zionism as a utopian politics of escape ultimately does not command lasting allegiance for secular Jews from outside of Israel–as escape, it is also alienation, and it cannot be very satisfying over the long haul.

Perhaps with the passing of Sharon’s generation and the deterioration of Sharon himself as a symbol of the old Polish Jewish vanguard of Jabotinskyite Zionism, the connections between the wellspring of Zionism in central and eastern Europe and its modern experience are weakening and perhaps even disappearing for some. Obviously, for many Jewish people there is no question of not identifying in some sense with Israel, but it is curious that it is an issue at all.

This suggests something about the meaning of ancestral homelands and the artificiality of irredentist politics that seems very sensible: to belong somewhere, or at least to feel a sense of belonging somewhere, usually requires more immediate and direct connections to a place than an irredentist program, especially if lacking a religious motive, can provide. The vague awareness that Judaea is the very ancient homeland of the Jews may not be as compelling as the more immediate home of their ancestors only a few generations removed. In a sense, it would be like waves of Greeks “returning” to Antioch (mod. Antakya) or Caesarea (mod. Kayseri) and trying to base an identity on that new place. Without a parallel sense of Christian identity, this identity would quickly assimilate to its Arab and Turkish Muslim surroundings.

What is striking, but not terribly surprising considering the author, is the remark about “goofy myths about God.” He had just agreed (100%) with this statement by one Phoebe Maltz: “Israel and religion, not neurosis and cured meat, will be what hold the Jewish people together.” He then proceeds to tell us that he doesn’t identify with Israel and evidently doesn’t have much to do with the “goofy myths,” which definitely doesn’t leave much hope for “diasporism” or a Jewish identity that is not either intensely religious, intensely Zionist or some mixture of the two. That is, I suppose, more or less as it should be. But if relatively few Jews continue to hold to the “goofy myths” and the Israeli project is subsumed in a demographic tidal wave (as will eventually happen, barring a significant change in the trends), that doesn’t leave much of an alternative for the survival of the Jewish people.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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