Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jewish is a Nationality, not a religion?

Recently I watched "The Cafe" a program on AlJezeera TV, that features a moderator sitting at a cafe table with various guests who hold forth on topics of the day. The episode I saw was" The Cafe in Tel Aviv." The guests included Palestinian MK (Member of the Knesset), Haneen Zoabi, Schlomo Sands, the Israeli historian who wrote "The Invention of the Jewish People," and most recently, "The Invention of the Jewish Homeland," and three others whose names I didn't catch. They were the mayor of an Israeli town, a West Bank settler and a young person who participated in the now forgettable occupy Wall Street-style action against the high cost of living (for Israeli Jews)in Tel Aviv.

Whatever the case, they were going at it hammer and tongs not agreeing on much of anything with Zoabi and Sands loosely on one side criticizing Israel, while the others supported what Israel was doing vis a vis settlements, occupation and differences in treatment of Jews and "the Arabs," claiming it was all just and fair.

At one point the settler attacked Sands bitterly for the sin of having the nerve to claim that Judaism is merely a religion and not a nationality. The Jewish State was, the settler maintained, the nation of the Jews, intended for Jews only.

In the give and take of five people all trying to make their points at once and the attempt of the moderator to keep some kind of orderly discussion, this point wasn't addressed. This is understandable you can't cover everything in a one hour show and I thought Zoabi and Sands did well in articulating their point of view.

But it got me thinking (this occasionally happens)...being Jewish is a nationality, not a religion? does that play out in real life?

I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to Jewish parents. Their parents were Jewish...and so on over how many generations I don't know, but a lot. I was properly circumcised, went to religions school on Sundays, then Hebrew school, was Bar Mitzvaed, confirmed, went to Friday night services at our Conservative Temple (the middle of the road one: not too orthodox or too reformed)-- the works!

I didn't realize that all that time I was practicing my nationality. I could have sworn that I was an America citizen! Like most children who went to public school and were exposed to popular media I was very patriotic: I drew pictures of US Saber Jets shooting down Russian Migs in Korea, saluted the flag and, to my parents irritation, marched around the house holding up a picture of Eisenhower from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post during election night of 1952 (I was 8 and my parents were for Adali Stevenson). After all, he was a war hero and children like me loved playing war.

I would have been very upset if someone told me that my nationality was really Jewish,not American. I didn't know much about Israel, or was it Palestine? I knew enough that I wasn't supposed to steal coins from those little blue and white cans at the Jewish Community Center and the Temple.

to me being Jewish was getting exempt from going to the Christmas and Easter assemblies at grade school, eating blintzes and borscht and generally being sort of different. Israel, I had barely heard of the place and it was supposed to be my country. No, I was all-American and a loyal Hoosier too. I didn't know then, as I now do, that the people who were actually born there were not considered part of that country.

So, Jews born in the USA or Europe or where ever, whose native language is English, French, Polish. etc. not Hebrew (a previously ritualistic dead language that had been revived by the modern Zionist movement...Aramaic was the commonly spoken language of the region for many centuries...remember Mel Gibson's movie?...) are citizens of Israel. But they not only are members of the Jewish nation where ever they are born, they also get to have their nation as a religion and worship it too...a bonus!

We aren't just talking about people who are extremely nationalistic...worshiping the flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner in the Temple. By virtue of our Jewish nationality we get a package deal, nation and Yahweh and Purim et al and have to say all those prayers...zzzzzzzz.

If the USA is a Christian nation, do all Christians around the world get the right of return and become automatic citizens upon arrival? No way! Is Swedish a religion? What about Ecuador? Is there a god of the Ecuadorian nation to worship? Well, Sweden is a nation, you can say, so anybody who is born in Minnesota named Johannson is actually a Swedish citizen, and they can worship at IKEA (watch out for the meatballs).

How about Israeli-born Jews who decide to become Buddists? Do they lose their nationality/religion?

It's possible to go on in a reducto ad absurdum vein, but some final thoughts.

How did members of a single small nation in the ancient Middle East end up with its nationals being born all over the world, not speaking their putative native language, and having a largely European cultural and genetic heritage for about the last 1000 years?

Read Israeli historian Schlomo Sand's book, "The Invention of the Jewish People," it addresses a real history which shows that ancient Judaism was a proselytizing religion and that Jews emigrated (from 300 BC onward, long before any supposed "diaspora," or national expulsion) and intermarried with other peoples throughout Europe, and their consistent thread of existence has been as a religious culture that adapted the language and many of the mores of various nations (the once widely-spoken Yiddish is a dialect of German).

Final question:

What kind of a country defines itself as a place that is exclusively for only one kind of people? That is not a definition of a real nation. It's an ingrown tribe. And it's a tribe with nuclear weapons, unconditional backing from the US government and it has no regard for the rights of anyone but its own members.

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