Firstly may I apologise for not writing another piece since I wrote my first blog article. “How an encounter with the holocaust changed a young boy’s life” which I started writing on Yom HaShoah last year. I’ve just not been inspired until today. Writing doesn’t come as easily to me as it does for my friends who blog here.
I bet you’re wondering what a guy without a single ounce of Jewish heritage is doing writing an article on Jewish identity. You’re probably thinking “Hey this is the Times of Israel, I know exactly what Jewish Identity is!” if that’s the case then this article is not really aimed at you. But if you’re one of those young adult diaspora Jews reading this who’s maybe studying at a western university with an inherent Israel issue then this really might be useful for you. But this article is pointing primarily at those Israel bashers who think “Religions shouldn’t run countries” Something that is definitely not the case in the secular liberal democratic Jewish state no matter how hard you want to believe the theocracy claim. And it’s a bizarre claim to make anyway since those same Israel bashers ignore the fact that there are over fifty Islamic countries in the world and many countries that describe themselves loosely as Christian.
But why is a gentile writing about Jewish Identity? I keep asking myself that too. Why Paul why? Well it came to me a while back that many folks who aren’t Jewish assume Jews are a race or alternatively, like the inferred suggestion above, just followers of a religion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I kind of got it a while back after talking to several Jewish people and they explained to me that they are a nation, a people, a multi-racial ethnicity with that interesting and all important uniqueness that other indigenous groups have. Culture, food, language, religion, lineage, tradition, even their own form of currency. After talking to Ryan Bellerose, the Metis Canadian Indian indigenous rights activist, regarding the indigenous aspect of ‘Am Yisrael’ I then started understanding indigenous status a little better. The fact Jews, like other indigenous peoples belong to the land. Not the other way around. The fact the Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Arab countries returned home after two thousand years in exile and drained the swamps and made the desert bloom is the success story and human rights miracle that is Israel today. The fact some dissenters don’t want the Jewish people to be in their homeland and feel it’s ok to burn the trees and destroy the land or alternatively throw ridiculous UN resolutions in their path is testament to those Jew haters not belonging to the land themselves not the other way around. However that’s not within the scope of this article.
From my initial discussions with my Jewish friends I went further afield to other Jews I met on social media and more conversations with Jews peaked my curiosity and eventually I felt I had to do this article for the benefit of those who have an opinion of Jewishness that is completely off base.
I also asked for the opinions of a small segment of the non-Jewish Zionists who I know as to why they feel moved to support Israel and the Jewish people’s right to self determination.
After speaking to Fred Maroun, TOI blogger, Lebanese Canadian Arab and generally great guy he had the following to say as to why he offers his support:
I am a liberal Arab who supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. I see Jews as a people for the simple reason that they say that they are a people. I consider Palestinians to be a people as well and for the same reason. Sadly these two peoples are engaged in a seemingly endless conflict. Many individuals around the world have taken sides without understanding the issues, and all they have achieved is to encourage each side to dig deeper and to make the conflict more intractable. At the core of the conflict is the Arabs’ unwillingness to accept the fact that Jews are a people, but a minority of Jews also do not accept that Palestinians are a people. Each side will have to come to the realization that the other has a right to exist. These two peoples need each other because their lives are closely intertwined, and they will have to resolve their own conflict because no one else can resolve it for them.
A conversation with Jonathan Hoffman, a British Jew and former member of the defence division of the Board of Deputies had this to say about his Jewish identity:
Mine is the first generation to have been born after the Second World War and the first to be able to confront the horrors of the Holocaust. For those who survived it, it was simply too awful to contemplate.
Judaism means a moral code, acts of worship, music, literature and a vast culture. But vitally it also means Israel. There are those who try to break the link between Zionism and Judaism but they cannot. More Jews live in Israel than anywhere else and it is the only Jewish State.
I chose to remain in the UK rather than make Aliya. But I try to defend Israel from those who harbour hatred for it. It is my obligation – and it is the debt that all who survived and were born after the War owe to the six million.
I agree that the UK should apologise for the Balfour Declaration. It should apologise for not implementing it ten years earlier, when millions of Jews might have been saved.
Closer to home, your home not mine, I spoke to peace and coexistence activist Michal Reznic in Haifa about her Jewish identity. She gave me this very moving example of why her identity is so important to her:
Jewish identity is all I have ever known.
It is my overly anxious grandmother Rosa, who fed us loads of food every day and told us that sugar and fat are good for the heart, just because she wanted to make sure that we had enough fat stored in our bodies in case a hunger such as the one she had experienced in Transnistria camp, happens again.
A Jewish identity is not throwing away bread because bread is the most basic food that deserves our longest grace/blessing after meal.
A Jewish identity is many years of waiting in exile and longing to go back to the land of Israel, the land that we read about in the Torah.
A Jewish identity is the Magen David pendant I started wearing when I was a kid, after my grandmother had bought me one, and never taking it off.
There’s a pattern emerging here, one of persecution but there is also the evidence of pride, not the negative “no I’m not going to say sorry!” type of pride but a pride in the incredible achievements the Jewish people have made in their homeland in such a short space of time with terrorism on their front door almost every day. My friend in Canada, Lynne Teperman explained it:
Why Israel the Jewish state is important to me, a proud secular Jew?
As the descendent of Jews who fled to Canada from systematic discrimination and worse in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, it is simply our homeland, the location of most of our built and archeological heritage and at its best, a triumphant expression of what a fractious and difficult bunch of human beings, the majority recently returned after 2,000 years of dispersal over the globe, can do when united in a common cause.
We often hear of people mainly on the extremist fringes of politics, right and left, that would accuse Israel of many things unbecoming of a liberal democracy, accusations that would make the blood libel from the medieval church look tame. That Israel and Zionism are inherently racist and that Israel is an Apartheid colonialist state. Indigenous Jewish rights aside those people have never read the Declaration of Independence of Israel but Mery Nickey explained to me that Israel’s declaration of Independence simply says it all:
Israel, for me, is much more than a country I admire. Israel’s declaration of Independence they’ve upheld with highest regards. While others have destroyed holy sites, Israel preserves it.
— THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions. …WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East. —
Israel had rescued many from persecution. They’ve been first in humanitarian aid to many countries. They’ve contributed much to the world in solving environmental and agricultural problems. They’ve healed many from illness and created technology to assist everyone
But, this nation, I admire, I consider my identity. It is my homeland. It is an indescribable yearning I feel. Every ounce of faith I have, is built around Israel. When we pray, we pray towards Israel. Many of our cyclical holidays, revolve around our many exiles from our homeland. It is truly the only comfort I feel in a world of turmoil. (Ironically even with the daily terrorism in Israel.) Israel is that feeling of returning home from the holidays and smelling your mother’s cooking. It is that overall comfort, love, and peace, in a place that I know will be the only country to truly protect me.
I have no other words to describe it but it is a burning flame within us.
One of those vocal anti-Israel voices was a young Swedish activist named Daniel Borg. Daniel was a member of an organisation that used to demonise Israel until he saw the country for himself. He is left wing to the core but in many ways open minded. Let him explain his story in brief:
I was a leader in the Social Democratic youth organisation in Sweden and a fervent pro Palestinian who went to the International Solidarity Movement in Hebron. That’s where everything changed when I saw what the real goal was of the organisation I believed in and it got me questioning my allegiance.
I began being more pro Israel after travelling there and talking to Israeli Arabs. I always asked them questions about racism, apartheid, if its difficult being a Palestinian or Arab in Israel. They all answered me more or less the same way: Ridiculing the question. By laughing. They said the depiction of Israel and Israelis as apartheid and racist is false. After several of these encounters with random Palestinians I started to question the mainstream narrative about Israel.
I was enhanced by my encounters with Israelis, both regular Israelis, Police officers and IDF soldiers, all those I spoke to were in fact much more tolerant and humanistic than I thought.
The most important reason why I started to call myself pro Israel was listening to the lectures by Calev Myers of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, who diligently explained the human rights case for Israel, and how supporting the Palestinian cause blindly is detrimental to human rights and peace, both for Israelis and Palestinians. It was an eye opener, because this is never told in the mainstream press. I felt extremely duped and lied to by my left political family and by the so called serious media, I started to do research and found that JIJ was right. This together with my own experiences with Israelis and Palestinians made me Pro Israel.
But what about the charge of Israel being some sort of theocracy? That the Jews are followers of a religion, not a people. I hear this all the time by those on the far left, almost as much as the charge that Jews are a race by the far right. It’s time I let Rudy Rochman, former IDF Paratrooper in the Tzanchanim Brigade explain exactly what Judaism and it’s relationship with the Land of Israel is:
Judaism is not a religion but a 2,000 year old portable suitcase of a native people’s identity and way of life.
All indigenous peoples are rooted to a piece of land that is sacred to their core. The Tibetans are from Tibet, the Native Americans are from the Americas, the Aboriginals from Australia, and the Jews are from Judea.
While in exile, it is often difficult for one to embrace their identity and to resist the temptation of assimilation. I was born in France, but let me tell you, I am no Frenchman. The land upon which arose the flag of Jeanne D’arc is not my land, and the people of France, not my people.
I grew up in America for a big portion of my life, but I am no American. The land of Native Americans, later claimed by George Washington, does not belong to me and the reason I speak now in a foreign tongue and not in Hebrew, is due to the crimes committed by the Roman Empire which displaced my people. The Romans may have hoped that we would forget Jerusalem, but our right hands are stronger than ever. I am the descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the living continuation of a 4,000 year old people. No physical birth place, temporary residence or piece of processed tree will rob me of my identity. My real name is ‘Israel ben Meir HaLevi’. I am just one puzzle piece that has returned to complete the Nation of Israel.
There is this incredibly strong set of emotions that takes over people when talking about Israel. It’s like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it and if you have no real opinion then you just haven’t discovered it yet. Those who really know the country love it and those who do not have a clue seem to seeth with hatred the likes of which would compete heavily with some of the biggest haters and racists in history. Setting the record straight and dressing the balance by explaining (Hasbara) is a second job for many Jews and other supporters of Israel the only difference is we don’t get paid. But it’s worth the effort if we can only convince one person each as to the ignorance they have listened to and explain the true nature of Israel and the Jewish people.
Someone I follow (and admire) on Quora question/answer site Noam Kaiser spends so much of his free time battling antisemites posing as anti-Zionists and is a personal testament to the country’s diversity and the fact the Jews are a people, but he starts off with what some readers may find a surprise:
Yes I’m an atheist. You’re surprised?
Not at all uncommon in Israel, which is a free country.
Sure, state and synagogue separation leaves much to be desired here but there is no problem with being an Israeli atheist.
Life is the only thing I hold sacred and what I do know is that the people who I am one of, the Jewish “tribe” so to speak, are connected to this land for thousands of years, and that the state of Israel is the 4th incarnation of a Jewish national home in this land, after 5 kingdoms that predated Israel.
I also know for a fact what would have happened to my nation had it not had its own land, sovereignty and military.
Zionist Jews are Patriots (not nationalists), Secular and respectful of our heritage.
Zionism from inception, was and is a secular, national movement based on democratic values.
If you are not an Israeli, a narrative advocating your country’s eradication is not common but uniquely to Israel that destructive narrative is common and bizarrely seen as acceptable up to a point. Whole international symposiums are devoted to this narrative worldwide.
51 countries in the world are joint in a policy of not recognizing Israel’s right to exist.
Some of these countries develop capabilities as well as fund, train and support armed terrorist organizations right at our country’s borders aimed at a hopeless aspiration to carry out our country’s eradication.
But my country exists, it is strong and it’s not going anywhere.
No other country has had so many U.N Institutions hijacked to do almost nothing other than bash it constantly and automatically.
It is the most discriminated against country in the world, while humanity disregards true atrocities happening in North Korea, China, Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria, You know what? right next door – Syria!
No other country has to face advocates of its destruction being regarded as “peace activists”;
Not a single performing artist can come visit our country without being bullied by those “peace activists”.
The stupid mindless crowds burning Israeli flags are not a threat.
It’s those well dressed pseudo intellectuals with mind blowing titles siting calmly at a panel explaining why you “should not cooperate with the Tel Aviv university, because well, Tel Aviv shouldn’t exist” – They are the dangerous ones.
THIS IS WHY ZIONISM HASN’T COMPLETED ITS MISSION YET.
Personally I don’t see what the fuss is all about. They can’t Destroy Israel now.
Does that mean I, as a Zionist, a Grandchild of Holocaust survivors, an Israeli and an IDF Reserve officer need to abandon the debate scene, and leave it to those who proliferate my state’s de-legitimization?
If I’m not heard, only the people who scream loud enough get heard.
If I don’t get my message across, only their hateful folly gets across.
I will not stand by and leave the fighting ring for those who poison the minds of the uninformed against my right to exist.
Two families, whom from their ashes in the grounds of Poland and Germany I emerged, were all but destroyed because – NOT TOO LONG AGO – everybody said “Don’t mind that rubbish” when somebody else started to spread another version of exactly the same thing that’s echoing worldwide, right now.
And when he started it was just talk.
Granted – things changed: Jews – Not so easy to mess with any more
But I’ll be damned if I let haters get the stage without a fight.
Noam hit the nail on the head regarding the attempted de-ligitimisation of his country and we see it come in spades from MP’s in the UK to my next door but one neighbour and especially people on the extreme left but as Daniel Borg proved that not all people on the left of the political spectrum are anti-Israel, some, who are clued up about the facts just want to support both the Israelis and Palestinians toward a state of normalisation and peace. One of those people here in the UK is my friend Bryn Hoyle. A liberal who is vocal about things he sees unfair here in Britain. He gives me moral support and has proven to me that he’s a man of the world and understands that many on the left have oversimplified the Arab/Israeli conflict. I asked him for his comment and he gave me a simple statement that I believe most Israelis and many ordinary Palestinians would agree with:
Jews and Arabs have the right to live safely and without persecution in both their own homelands and in all the countries around the world they inhabit and enrich. At this time more than any I think we in the UK need to remember this, and to try and follow the example of all those struggling to live together in peaceful unity.
By now you’re probably thinking Jewish Identity is something really deep, well let me tell you this. Most Jews know what their Jewish identity means to them but this 4000+ year old culture is so complex we haven’t even scratched the surface as to what being Jewish means to every Jew even if we studied it for a lifetime.
Jewish identity to some is not always an overtly deep thing, it can also be something even a non-Jewish person can kind of understand. A feeling even. Someone who loves Jewish humour can appreciate some of what Jewish outward identity is by following amazing personalities like Mel Brooks or the late Gene Wilder:
Scott Seltzer, An American-Israeli Jewish juggler and genuinely funny guy explained what his Jewish identity meant to him in only a few lines:
Jewish identity to me is the food, the culture, Woody Allen jokes (and other Jewish humor), the holidays (not in a religious way necessarily), Zionism, but mostly it’s a mentality.
But as you can see from Scott, humour is important when you are Jewish. Managing to keep one’s spirits up through centuries of persecution is simply a natural defensive strategy that Jews understand more than anyone. A sort of ‘Gallows Humour’ if you will.
Sian Wolchover in London put it beautifully as to why her Jewish identity means so much to her and her people in very few words which show the self critical side of a Jew and their desperate need for their identity and their eternal indelible bond with the land of Israel:
Being Jewish means I am short, round and have a lot of hair (on my head). I love the food and the humour and of course the Homeland. Jewish identity means one is in no doubt about their history and connection to Israel.
Even though I was brought up to be a Zionist, I was unavoidably an atheist.
It all made perfect sense when I first saw the Western Wall, an overwhelming undeniable certainty of what being Jewish means.
What does Jewish Identity and Zionism mean to me, Paul Randall, a non-Jew from the UK? It means my friends will never again be forced to live only by the permission of others. It means a strong Israel Defence Forces that protects all the citizens of Israel with dignity, honour, valour and compassion for the people that want to destroy the Jewish state. It means diversity and religious tolerance which comes through in every fibre of the Jewish homeland and it’s a light and a beacon of democracy in a very dark Middle East. It means Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!
I hope this article finally refutes the myth that the Jewish people are not just followers of a religion or a race. They are a people, another nation among the many nations of the world with an equal right to survive and thrive. They are a huge part of world history and I hope this article, created with the help of many of my friends finally refutes these myths.
To quote Theodor Hertzl one of the founding fathers of Zionism
If you will it it is no dream.
Jews are a people, deal with it already!