We are a People…. Not a Race

Lately I have noticed in more printed communications many references to Jews as a race. There is no such thing as the Jewish race. We are a people….not a race. And obviously the only race we could belong to is what is called the “human” race…rapidly becoming less human and increasingly more inhuman.

An Israeli writer described the conversation she had with her young daughter. The child told her mother that in her class the children stand to sing Hatikvah (The Hope), our national anthem written ages before the rebirth of the State of Israel by an American Jewish poet, Naftali Herz Imber.

The child asked if the anthem was racist because it refers to “nefesh Yehudi”, the Jewish soul, but does not mention the 20 % of our Arab citizens.

I believe that even if a line was added or a word changed, it would still not be sung or honored by the 20 percent of our Arab population, whether Muslim or Christian. The Arabs live here among us but refer to themselves as Palestinians. And to date there is no Palestinian national anthem, simply because there is no Palestine.

The only change I would consider is to replace “nefesh Yehudi” with “nefesh Yisraeli”. While it is a change of one identifying word the anthem nevertheless reflects the emotions, hopes and dreams of the Jewish people.

The national anthem had a very meaningful change immediately after our independence. The original anthem ended with the line “lashuv l’eretz, eretz avotainu, l’ir ba David, David chana”… to return to our land, the land of our ancestors, to the city of David where David dwelt.

The change in that last line was “lihiyot am chofshi b’artzenu, eretz Tzion v’Yerushalayim”… to live as a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

I hope the writer explained to her young daughter that Israel was the national home of all the Jewish people in the world until it was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

During that long exile from Jerusalem and Zion we sat and we wept when we remembered them. We made a pledge thousands of years ago which we recited over the centuries when we were forced to wander from country to country, always longing for our return to the land of Israel.

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand ,let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember thee…if I do not raise Jerusalem up above all other joys”.

It is recalled by Jewish grooms on their wedding day as they smash a glass, remembering the destruction of Jerusalem and its holy Temple. Joyous as the wedding day is, we must take a moment to remember Jerusalem and Zion, homeland of the Jewish people past and present..

We are not only a religion, we are a way of life. We have our own religion, our own history, our own language which binds us forever as the Jewish people. Not a race, but a peoplehood of commonly shared beliefs and practices. A people of dissenters who fight ferociously among themselves… not physically but orally with bitter words of hate and distrust. Not originally a Jewish disposition.

We are instructed to be followers of King Solomon and the High Priest, Aaron, brother of Moses our law-giver… “ohev shalom v’rodef shalom”  to  love  peace and  to pursue  peace.

On the day of our last national election as I went to my polling place, a neighbor in line asked me for whom I was voting. I replied, “since I am a member of the Likud party, obviously I am voting again for Netanyahu”.

My neighbor was stunned and angrily asked “have you lost your mind? We don’t want him and we don’t need him. He will destroy the country”.

I don’t know who was  the “we” she referred to. I voted for Bibi Netanyahu in spite of his many human failings, because Israel has never been stronger economically, militarily, and even in more cordial relations with several Arab states, since his long series of re-elections.  He must be doing something  right !

We can quarrel with one another, we can disagree with one another but we must learn to respect one another. The Hebrew word “kavod”, honor, is one which many people need to learn and to practice.

Why must we wait until Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur to examine our souls, to look deep within our hearts, to atone, to resolve to change?

In the first prayer which a Jew recites upon arising from bed in the morning,  Modeh Ani.. I give thanks… I give special attention to the words “she hechezarta bi nishmati”.. who has returned my soul unto my body.

The Jewish soul, the “nefesh Yehudi” of Hatikvah, is for me the essence of what Judaism and Jews are.

We are not only a religion. We are not a race. We are a people. A family. Bound together by a common history.

Quarrel we may. Disagree we may.  And respect we must !

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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