Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Still Jewish

Excellent post by Tony Judt on Jewish identity:
Some years ago I attended a gala benefit dinner in Manhattan for prominent celebrities in the arts and journalism. Halfway through the ceremonies, a middle-aged man leaned across the table and glared at me: “Are you Tony Judt? You really must stop writing these terrible things about Israel!” Primed for such interrogations, I asked him what was so terrible about what I had written. “I don’t know. You may be right—I’ve never been to Israel. But we Jews must stick together: we may need Israel one day.” The return of eliminationist anti-Semitism was just a matter of time: New York might become unlivable.
[...]
Unlike my table companion, I don’t expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation: to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self-criticism and a retreat into self-pity. I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

Read the whole thing - it's a good argument, well expressed.

8 comments:

worm said...

interesting stuff, especially the quote from the editor of the Jewish Chronical.

Gaw said...

I imagine there haven't been many woman editors of the JC so he's sort of grassed her up!

zmkc said...

Judt talks about Jews never having been so much part of the establishment anywhere or at any time, but I can see why some of his fellows feel insecure - a terrific book called Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare describes very clearly the experience of people who believed they were Austrian but discovered too late that they were Jewish first and foremost, whether they wanted to be or not.
The line that stands out for me in the article is 'Had Hitler never happened.' The trouble is, he did.

zmkc said...

Sorry to bang on (I'm not Jewish, by the way, in case I'm coming across as a raving Zionist), but I do think he's got it wrong when he asks 'Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents?' I think Jews in remembering the Holocaust (or as he rather unfairly puts it 'indulg[ing] their Holocaust obsession') are reminding themselves that it is possible someone will turn against them again, since they have before. I'm not sure they are deluded in doing this - it seems to me that there is quite a lot of anti-semitism about at the moment (which some would argue arises from Israel's behaviour, but that is a whole other impossible argument).

Gaw said...

I sympathise with Judt not wanting Jews to be defined by what Hitler did. It would be a real triumph to transcend the influence of his evil. But I can see how problematic this idea is.

And I think your second comment points why it is so problematic. But to use an analogy, it's like a victim of a terrible crime letting it ruin their entire life. Taking extra steps for their security is one thing but living in constant paranoia and fear, letting it poison your relationships is another. That way you remain defined as a victim and the perpetrator of the crime in continuing to define you has made himself your master.

The analogy breaks down here but, paradoxically, Israel's behaviour might also be making what they fear most more likely. For instance their current belligerence is estranging allies such as Britain, Turkey and even the US.

zmkc said...

I suppose I think they don't see themselves as victims - more as people who recognise 'clear and present danger' (where did that phrase originate pre Harrison Ford?) Are they being belligerent or merely recognising the formidable nature of their opponents? I sound like I'm already persuaded of the second option, but in fact I'm not sure. I am inclined to give the Israelis the benefit of the doubt though, simply because no Israeli has as yet committed an act of terror in a Western city. Of course, perhaps no Muslim ever would have either, if it hadn't been for the Israelis.

Gaw said...

I wouldn't go anywhere near blaming Israelis for Islamism. But they do seem to overdo the belligerence (I exclude the recent assassination, which would have been totally ace if they hadn't used British passports and include the bombardment of Lebanon and the destruction of Gaza.) This despite having the most formidable army in the Middle East, the world's only superpower in their corner, and nuclear weapons.

zmkc said...

I really recommend Last Waltz in Vienna, aside from the rest. It's a really good and moving book.