Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Squaring the Circle

If all that it takes is to believe that your nation is God’s favorite, chosen peoples have always infested the Earth, though their hurrah-for-our-side ideologies have never had much more content or validity than a high-school football cheer. The historical novelty of the Jews is rather different. Like the Greeks, the Hebrews were late comers to a world that already had a long history behind it. They certainly tried to take their place among the ranks of the goyim, an impulse that has never gone away, but promoting legendary or mythical figures such as David or Solomon as local pharaohs didn’t quite come off despite the talk of chariots and mighty men. It was the Book and the tradition of reading it that set the Jews apart and allowed them to persist with a sense of their own identity in the aftermath of the destruction of their insignificant territorial states. Indeed, many of the exiles in Babylon and Egypt chose not to return to Palestine. There was something half-hearted about the rebuilding of the temple, a partially sensed irrelevance that perhaps accounts for the literary dullness of the Books of Nehemiah and Ezra. In any case the gradual establishment of a definitive canon and translation of the Torah into Greek by Jews in Alexandria were far more momentous than priestly squabbles in Jerusalem. To be sure, as I gather from people who actually know about these things, we have next to no reliable information about what actually took place in these crucial centuries. Even so, the salient event was presumably not the resettlement of the West Bank by Judeans of impeccable lineage but something spiritual or at least intellectual.

Being chosen means being set apart, but the terms of this separation are not, or were not, geographical and political so much as ritual and ethical. You some times read that during the Diaspora the Jews reverted to the situation before the monarchy during which the people had rallied around a portable symbol of identity except that in the later age the Torah took the place of the Tabernacle. In this respect, Zionism is a reversion of a reversion, a redefinition of Israel as a territorial unit. Granted the horrors of the last century, it’s easy to understand and sympathize with this desire for a secure homeland, an impulse similar to the frequently expressed wish of Russians and other East Europeans to live in a normal country in the aftermath of the Soviet era. In Israel’s case, unfortunately, the hoped for normalcy is impossible because the new state is not just a place where Jews live among others, but a Jewish state where only Jews have full citizenship. Only the presumption of some sort of special privilege can justify the mass expulsion of the Palestinians back in 1947, the gradual annexation of the West Bank, and the restrictions on intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews; but what’s special about the Jews is precisely that they aren’t just another nation. That’s why the Israeli flag shouldn’t feature the Star of David. The more appropriate emblem would be a square circle on a field of blue.