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Sunday, January 2, 2011

[By Vic Rosenthal, crossposted from FresnoZionism.]

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I am always surprised at the lack of understanding of the idea of Zionism. It's really simple: it's the movement for national self-determination of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. Unlike some national movements, it does not declare that the Jewish people is superior to other peoples.

The concept of a 'people' carries a lot of baggage. Some think that there should be no such artificial separations. "We're all human beings," they say. But I think part of the evolutionary construct that embodies the human species is the need to divide ourselves into families, clans and peoples. It's not going to go away, and attempts to ignore it make it impossible to understand our behavior.

Others think that the concept is unacceptably vague because there's no list of characteristics that clearly include or exclude a person from membership in a people. But there are lots of perfectly meaningful concepts that are like this: Wittgenstein discussed the idea of a 'game', which could include everything from football or chess to children running around in circles. There will be borderline cases for which it is hard to determine whether or not they belong, but that doesn't make the concept meaningless.

In my view, membership in a people is determined by a list of characteristics. To be a member, someone does not have to have all of the characteristics, but he/she must have some of them. The more that apply, the more certain it is that the person is a member. Here is a list of what I have in mind, in no particular order:

  1. Common ancestry
  2. Language
  3. Religion
  4. Self-identification
  5. Identification by others
  6. Acceptance of a particular ideology or ideologies
  7. Common history, especially of trauma
  8. Geographical location
  9. Historical persistence

No deep thought went into the above, but you get the idea. Fill in the blanks for any particular people.

Arabs and Iranians are fond of saying "there isn't a Jewish people, just a religion" (of course they insist that there is a 'Palestinian people'). Shlomo Zand claims that there isn't a Jewish people because he believes that it can't be proven that present-day Jews are descended from the inhabitants of 1st-century Judea. Both of these arguments show a lack of understanding of what a people is.

There is no doubt that there has been a Jewish people for millennia, and there is probably a 'Palestinian' people by now, although it has not been in existence as a people for more than a few years.

By the way, there is nothing illegitimate about consciously trying to create peoplehood, as the Palestinian Arabs are doing -- what I object to is their invention of a false historical narrative that purports to give them exclusive possession of the land, and their embrace of a culture of murder and death. But that's another article.

One of the ideologies of the Jewish people is Zionism. No magic, no devils -- and no racism. Just self-determination.



1 Comment

Personally, I think the idea of a 'people' has more to do (regrettably) with what divides us, not with what unites us. This is where, for example, Canadians are united in declaring that they're not Americans, the Belgians insist that they're not French, and so on. This extends, in my humble opinion, to the Palestinians, who don't have a specific history or culture going back more than 100 years at most (but who nonetheless insist that they're not Jordanians, not Egyptians, not Syrians, and so on).

One might even argue that this is how a people defines itself, with a large number of people saying (a) "we're all a single people together", and (b) "we don't belong to any of those other groups".

As such, the Palestinians can certainly call themselves a people if they want to. On the other hand, for them to do so, while denying that the Jews are a people, is ludicrous. The Jewish people have more claim to such a title than most; we had a common language, a common history, a common cultural heritage, common customs and traditions -- and, yes, a common religion -- going back to the Babylonian dispersion, circa 586 BCE. We could have lost that connection and faded away into history, as many now-forgotten peoples did; the point is that we didn't.


On that subject, by the way: my wife has an interesting response to the claim that the modern Jews might not be the descendants of the biblical Jews.

Her father is a Cohen, meaning that he's entitled to be called first during a synagogue's Torah service. This is a title that is passed from father to son; it cannot be acquired any other way. This has been true since the days when priesthood in Jerusalem's High Temple was passed from a priest (cohen) to his son, all the way back to Aaron and his sons.

In other words, when asked if the modern-day Jews are descended from the Jews of biblical times, my wife can respond: don't know about you, but I am.

respectfully,
Daniel in Brookline

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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