Didi Remez contacted me yesterday to tell me he really didn't like my post about Bernard Avishai's Post about Silwan. He berated me for various misdemeanors such as not being up to date on my archeological reading, defining Judaism too narrowly for his taste, nationalism too broadly, and enlightenment too wrongly. It was a fun exchange of no lasting value, and I'm not going to try to refute him here.
There was however one memorable moment, when Didi said that he saw no significance one way or the other to the possibility that some "Proto-Jews" may or may not have lived on the small hillock south of today's Old City in the 10th century BCE. When I inquired about the term proto-Jew he implied I was changing the subject, or whatever.
Since identity is at the very heart of the entire Israel-Arab century-old war, as well as a few other wars that come to mind, and some non-war issues such as how women dress in Barcelona (previous post) and various other topics, it occurs to me there may be value in a quick explanation of how I understand Jewish identity.
Jews are not a racial group, although it is interesting and gratifying to learn that the more DNA research done, the more the Jews begin to look like a mildly inbred group that lived near the Eastern Mediterranean some three thousand years ago. Poland, apparently, really isn't "home", nor Iraq. The Palestinians, however, also seem to be of the same stock, and anyway, DNA research has very little contemporary political significance.
Jews are a religious group, of course, a fact which enables people to join, but for the past 250 years or so ever more Jews don't regard themselves as religious, but do define themselves as Jews. Also, while I've never heard of a religious Jew claiming not to be a Jew, and am not certain how that might work, non-religious Jews sometimes do define themselves out, and in the cases where everyone else accepts this, they effectively aren't anymore (though in many cases someone else later decided their children or grandchildren are...).
My personal preference has always been for the story-telling definition. Jews are the group which remembers the story of the Jews as its own story, while continuing the discussion about it.
Did the Jews of the Biblical era live the same way we do? Of course not. But we've taken their story and have been living in its ensuing chapters ever since. We've been reading their recounting of it, but also adding layers to the recounting, ever since. Our Jewish cultural baggage is of course much bulkier than that of earlier generations, since we keep on adding layers and generally don't discard much, but we're part of the same continuum.
The upshot, as I told Didi, is that the Jews living in Jerusalem 3000 years ago aren't proto anything, they're us. Just as the child I grew out of isn't a proto-Yaacov, nor was there ever a proto-Didi. Those ancient folks in Jerusalem may well be our direct ancestors, but the important connection is not of DNA, it's one of storytelling. A few of them wrote the Psalms while sitting on that hillock, and we've been reading those psalms n their original wording, and commenting on them every single day in the interval, from then till now. And onwards, too.