This article was published today at YNET and re-posted here with the author’s consent.
Real and False Jewish Identities
In a book published in 1946 on the “Jewish question,” French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre concluded that the non-Jewish world largely determines ‘Who is a Jew.’ He wrote that it was not God who had turned people into Jews. It was rather non-Jewish society which made people into Jews and thus created “the Jewish problem.”
At first glance this may seem absurd. Yet at the time, the Germans had determined who was a Jew and who was not, in the countries they occupied. They used ethnic criteria for their genocidal campaigns. Thus for instance, Christians of Jewish descent were considered Jewish, even if they regarded themselves as Christians. They were also seen as Christians by their co-religionists and many others, including Jews. At that time, how Jews viewed themselves was at best a marginal issue concerning their identity.
The Cambridge online dictionary offers a simple definition of identity: “the qualities of a person or group which make them different from others.” If one looks further into this issue, one realizes that Jewish identities are not only determined by what a person considers himself to be, but also by how other Jews view him and how the non-Jewish world regards him.
The above statement by Sartre illustrates that the relative importance of these three perceptions is not equal in all periods of history. Nowadays, what non-Jews think about ‘who is a Jew’ is becoming increasingly important, as it was before the Second World War.
Distortion of identities is a complex phenomenon which also involves non-Jews. Dutch journalist Elma Drayer said that when she writes pro-Israeli articles, people often say to her: “’Mrs. Drayer, you must be Jewish.’ They think that only Jews can voice positions like I do. I would consider it an honor to be Jewish, but I’m not.”
In 2004, Pasok, the Greek Socialist party lost the parliamentary elections. Outgoing Prime Minister Simitis was referred to pejoratively as “the Jew Simitis” in a derogatory front page article in the pro-Pasok daily Avriani. His ‘being a Jew’ was meant as an insult, as he had no bond, by descent or otherwise to Judaism.
A substantial number of Frenchman regard previous French President Nicolas Sarkozy as Jewish, even though his grandfather, his only Jewish ancestor, converted to Catholicism. In recent years, the expression “Jew” has become a widespread pejorative term in many European countries.
One example: German historian Susanne Urban writes about the curse which is “heard in schools throughout Germany, not only in the lower-class suburbs: ‘You Jew!’ or ‘You victim!’… It is bad and contemptible to be a Jew or a victim. The Jew symbolizes what is deviant and ugly, the antithesis of one’s own group. The Jew is also the evil Israeli.”
Several studies reveal that how Israel is viewed impacts significantly on how Diaspora Jews are seen in their surroundings. Well over 40% of Europeans view Israel as a state which intends to commit genocide of Palestinians. This expresses itself partly by Holocaust inversion which states that Israelis are the “Nazis of today.” Thus how Israelis are seen by many Europeans is radically different from the way Israelis view themselves. Additionally, this view of Israel illustrates that an increasingly ideologically criminal Europe is reemerging.
As genocide is the most heinous crime imaginable, this accusation against Israel — which sometimes includes Jews in general — is indeed a new mutation of the old motif that Jews represent “absolute evil.” In countries where Christianity was dominant in everyday life, Jews were falsely accused of having murdered Jesus. What could be more criminal than killing the alleged Son of God? In more recent periods when extreme nationalism and racism dominated, Jews were accused of being an inferior race which had to be exterminated. Now the mutated motif is that the Jewish State represents Satan.
One may continuously repeat in vain that the only people who claim the wish to commit genocide are a variety of Muslims, including Iran’s leadership and Hamas. Israelis who are the target of the murderous intentions of these criminals have now been presented as the perpetrators.
This threat of false alleged identity of Jews and Israel has increased gradually over the past decades. The notion that crooked perception dominates reality has not made much headway among Israeli and Jewish leadership. It is yet one more aspect of an increasingly dangerous situation for many Diaspora Jews and Israelis. It has sunk into large parts of European subconscious. From there it may burst forth at any time during future political crises in the Middle East.
Can anything be done about this? Not in the short term. These complex problems require studied observation and analysis, the development of detailed strategies to combat them, and the infrastructure to execute this complex task. Yet if Israel’s government and Diaspora Jewish leadership do nothing, these problems will only aggravate further.
1. Jean Paul Sartre Reflexions sur la question Juive. [French]
3. Manfred Gerstenfeld interview with Elma Drayer in Het Verval, joden in een Stuurloos Nederland, (Amsterdam: Van Praag, 2010). [Dutch]
4. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Interview with Moses Altsech, “Anti-Semitism in Greece: Embedded in Society,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 23, 1 August 2004.
5. Susanne Y. Urban, “Representations of the Holocaust in Today’s Germany: Between 6. 6. Justification and Empathy,” Jewish Political Studies Review, 20:1-2, Spring 2008.