Saturday, August 28, 2010

An Unorthodox Jew

Excerpts from one of the late historian Tony Judt's last essays, on the meaning of Jewishness:

"I reject the authority of the rabbis - all of them (and for this I have rabbinical authority on my side). I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I don't make a point of socialising with Jews in particular - and for the most part I haven't married them. I am not a lapsed Jew, having never conformed to requirements in the first place. I don't 'love Israel' (either in the modern sense or in the original generic meaning of loving the Jewish people), and I don't care if the sentiment is reciprocated. But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise."

"Some years ago I attended a gala benefit dinner in Manhattan for prominent celebrities in the arts and journalism. Half-way 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. I find it odd - and told him so - that American Jews should have taken out a territorial insurance policy in the Middle East lest we find ourselves back in Poland in 1942. But even more curious was the setting for this exchange: the overwhelming majority of the awardees that evening were Jewish. Jews in America are more successful, integrated, respected and influential than at any place or time in the history of the community. Why then is contemporary Jewish identity in the US so obsessively attached to the recollection - and anticipation - of its own disappearance?"

"[W]hat can it mean - following the decline of faith, the abatement of persecution and the fragmentation of community - to insist upon one's Jewishness? A 'Jewish' state where one has no intention of living and whose intolerant clerisy exclude ever more Jews from official recognition? An ethnic membership criterion that one would be embarrassed to invoke for any other purpose? There was a time when being Jewish was a lived condition, but today this is true only of an isolated minority of 'old believers'. Modern-day Jews live on preserved memory: being Jewish largely consists of remembering what it once meant to be Jewish... Memory is a notoriously unsteady basis for any collective enterprise. The authority of historical injunction, in the absence of contemporary reinforcement, recedes into ritualised liturgy and thence into obscurantism. In this sense American Jews are instinctively correct to indulge their Holocaust obsession: it provides reference, liturgy, example and moral instruction - as well as historical proximity. And yet they are making a terrible mistake: they have confused a means of remembering with a reason to do so. Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents? If we fail to rise above this consideration, our grandchildren will have little cause to identify with us. In Israel today, the Holocaust is officially invoked as a reminder of how hateful non-Jews can be. Its commemoration in the diaspora is doubly exploited: to justify uncompromising Israelophilia and to service lachrymose self-regard. This seems to me a vicious abuse of memory. But what if the Holocaust served instead to bring us closer, so far as possible, to a truer understanding of the tradition we purport to evoke? Here, remembering becomes part of a broader social obligation by no means confined to Jews."

"Unlike my New York 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." (History's lesson for tomorrow, New York Review of Books/The Australian Financial Review, 27/8/10)


Anonymous said...

If I had forgone almost everything about my cultural identity, like Judt says he has about his Jewishness (and I have, btw), it wouldn't be a matter of making the most out of what remained and thinking of that as my "Anglo-ness", it would rather be like the first day of the rest of my life, where I was free to explore my human-ness, and my earthbounded-ness, no longer having to carry the burden so generously placed upon my shoulders by the society I grew up in. So really, I guess I have to disagree with Tony Judt. If he was trying to encourage other Jews to think outside of the box they find themselves in, then he was encouraging them in precisely the wrong direction. For why should he speak specifically about Jews having admirable qualities such as "collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling"? Why should he bother attributing these admirable qualities to the fact of being Jewish, when it's all-too obvious that these admirable qualities are human qualities, and labelling them as "Jewish" is liable only to contribute to and perpetuate a distorted self-image?

Peter D.

MERC said...

Peter, re self-questioning & truth-telling, I don't think he's saying they're specifically 'Jewish'. That would be absurd. I think he's talking more about reviving the tradition of critical and ethical thinking for which European and American Jewish intellectuals were once known but which now seems largely to have given way to tribal Zionist groupthink.