Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

What’s It Mean to Be Jew?: Notes on the Politics of a Confusing Jewish Identity

I’ve been having a rather long conversation with an Egyptian friend who is Muslim and a French friend who defines himself as a non-religious Jew about Jewish identity—is Jewishness a religious, political, cultural historical or ethnic identity? Jewish identity is confusing, because among other things, Jews live in different places, have different customs and lifestyles and even speak different languages. There was even a recent New York Times article on proving your Jewishness in Israel. While we could any number of ways in terms of how we ourselves and humans in general define their identity, it must be admitted that discussions of Jewish identity take on a different tone depending on the context. Specifically, there is a sizable difference in the consequences of Jews and their Jewish identity in the United States or somewhere else and the consequences of Jews and their Jewish identity in the Middle-East. Equally confusing is the definition, meaning and identification of Jews.

Who are the Jews? Superficially, being Jewish is defined as having a Jewish mother. But this doesn’t really get us very far.

Historically, Jews who had lived in Egypt went on to possess a territory or a homeland (a promised land) in Judah. Subsequently, events led to the destruction of the temple and of the Judaic state and to several diffusions and diasporas of Jews across the world. Jews as a religious and ethnic group became consequently stateless and, in turn, joined in with different communities, states and countries around Europe, Africa and the Middle-East. Even Judaism as a religion, which once represented the very core of Jewishness or of being Jewish, has lost its place as the sole defining criteria of Jewish identity.

Many Jews today define themselves as Jewish in spite of the fact that they are not religious at all, in spite of the fact that they many not even believe in God. These non-religious or secular Jews represent an important portion of Jews today. These secular Jews were the principal leaders of the Zionist movement for a Jewish nation, which would one day lead to the creation and carving out of the (Jewish) state of Israel. In any case, there is a strong idea that identity for (secular) Jews is connected to not only religion or a religious past but also to a shared history, suffering, traditions, humor, heritage, culture, etc.

Jewish “identity” becomes further complicated by who we include, where they live, and their views on Zionism and Israel. Let’s try to break religious Jews into different (perhaps contradictory) groups:

(1.) orthodox, religious Jews around the world who are Pro-Israel or Zionist
these include various derivatives in Russia, the U.S., etc. but excluding Israel****

(2.) orthodox, religious Jews around the world who are Anti-Israel or non-Zionist (check out this interesting example of protesting orthodox Jews and rabbis who embrace the idea of Jews living amongst other groups and who are anti-Zionist and, consequently, anti-Israel.)
in Israel)

(3.) orthodox, religious Jews in Israel who are Pro-Israel or Zionist

(4.) orthodox, religious Jews living in and around Israel who are Anti-Israel, non-Zionist, or against the Jewish state of Israel******

Let’s now look at non-religious or secular Jews:

(5.) secular Jews around the world who are Pro-Israel or Zionist

(It seems like equally logically that we can eliminate secular Jews in Israel who are Anti-Israel or non-Zionist) **

(6.) secular Jews in Israel who are Pro-Israel or Zionist

(7.) secular Jews around the world who are Anti-Israel or non-Zionist

Admittedly this breakdown lacks in much specificity. (One possible addition could be the convergence and divergence amongst Jews in relation to “modernism.”) But it hopefully gets to the heart of the strangeness of being Jewish.

For Muslims and Christians, you can’t really be a Christian or a Muslim if you are non-religious or a non-believer. You might say that you had a Christian upbringing or you were a convert, believer and participant in a Christian community, but due to a personal conflict, you had a falling out with the faith and you are no longer Christian; you no longer identify yourself as a Christian (believer). Oddly enough, Jews, on the other hand, can remain Jewish without even being religious. This adds much confusion about the nature of their nation. Is Israel a laic or secular Jewish state or a religious Jewish state?

Christianity confronted this difficulty as theologically-founded Christian states transformed into constitutional and political nations. While much of the law and government of these countries remain heavily influenced by the religious traditions, it would be a mistake in today’s world to consider France or Italy or the United States as Christian states. Israel represents a complex fork in the road because it is a confusingly laic and religious Jewish state.

Moreover, for Christians at least, there is no such thing in today’s world as a Christian state where Christians find their home or their origins. Christianity began in the Middle-East but subsequently has been dispersed across the world, leaving a few, selectively important, sacred sites. Jews have a long historical memory that retained the idea of a return to their homeland or Promised Land, and specifically a return to the temple in Jerusalem.

What’s strange is a mixing up of religious and non-religious “Jew” according to their identity and their views on a Jewish state. For religious Jews, being Jews would seem to mean something like cultural and religious belief, actions and participation in the religious community. Religious Jews can, nevertheless, take on conflicting views as to the need for a religious state. Some may feel closer to a dispersed or diasporic conception of Jewishness, while other many connect to the idea of their being something like a Jewish place. This was clearly the state of affairs when the idea of creating Jewish states was under discussion between those who supported and those who rejected the idea of a Jewish state.

For non-religious Jews, identity is a cultural connection with the past in terms of history, suffering , humor and even trust. Their views in relation to Israel represent not a religious return to a promised land or a sacred dwelling place but a sort of nationalism, namely the idea that the Jews as a real group deserve their own place somewhere in the world.

In reality, Israel represents a mixing of religious and secular Jews, such that many conflicts continue to exist between these ways of living and seeing the world.

All of these confusions about being Jewish I think reveal how complicated understanding the Israeli state becomes.

See follow-up: Mapping It Out: Israel’s historical, geographic and demographic place and role in the Middle-East