Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's the Story, Stupid, and Its Telling

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.


Anonymous said...

oh Yaacov

here is Didi, again honouring/elevating/crowning you, by treating you, as if you were an intellectual by his standards ;-))

and what do you do? You show a deplorable lack of humility and gratitude that he for your benefit has apparently refrained from mudslinging once again.

poor poor misunderstood Didi.


Anonymous said...

I understand a Jew can stop being a Jew by converting to whatever. Can he/she stop being a Jew by converting to atheism? I mean is there an authority, a legal way for it?

Because the only way I can think of right now how a Jew can stop being a Jew without converting would be to move physically to somewhere unknown and then tell nobody about it (or only? amazon like Fake Ibrahim has done;)


4infidels said...

Jews are a nation/people with a shared history, a national religion and language both unique to us (even if we don't all speak or practice), and a single national homeland. Those elements have been part of our identity for thousands of years. Up until recent generations Jews everywhere and by almost everyone were viewed as a separate nation, living in separate communities following our own laws, customs and religious observances.

Anonymous said...


I enjoy your rare blend of accurate observation and tempered Yiddishkeit moderated by a historian´s grasp of affairs and obviously Anglo- American upbringing ( I am guessing). But with Silwan surely there has to be a common sense approach (Sekhel), I mean, based on Tanakh accounts, we could make many more claims. and someone did say; it does not matter what the goyim say,its all about what the Jews do.....
I am not a bleeding heart at all, not a lefty -sic--- but what about those ejected families? and what about our PR image?


4infidels said...

We don't need to find archeological evidence to prove our right to a nation-state in our historic homeland. It is a fact...and those who don't want Israel to exist or want her to give up Jerusalem will never be convinced. But we do have the same right to explore, preserve and honor our history that any other national not only is granted, but celebrated for. And no one asks the Australians to justify their rights based on thousands of years of history in their country or proof of common and ancient regional genetic links.

4infidels said...


Were the homes in the area in question acquired by their Arab inhabitants legally? Or do they pay rent?

It seems to me that a fair compromise would be to build housing for those families elsewhere and compensate them by making that housing superior to their current residences.

My guess is that those families will be under major pressure to stay for political purposes. If the situation were reversed...

Anonymous said...

Elder of Ziyon has a post on the history of the place.

I restrain myself from quipping that refugee status seems to be heritable only to some for totally unexplicable reasons at least to somebody far away.
Instead I assume that the courts have sifted through all available documentation on property versus state rights and that the matter has now reached the point where as a last resort the bleedings hearts are on their usual rampage yelling outrage at the top of their voices trusting that the Israelis health system will take care of their ruined blood pressures.

I saw that Haaretz has a headline by Baroness Ashton with one of her usual toxic robotic proclamations
- it seems to be on the same subject, but even if it should be some other housing she rhabarbers about it suggests to me that the peace process has degenerated into a pretext for foreign powers grabbing the right to interfere/colonise/usurp/nanny/supervise inner Israeli matters. Maybe she is aspiring to grab another paid by her employer trip to the Tel Aviv Beach that way


Rabbi Tony Jutner said...

I would maintain that Didi is an adherent of NewJudaism, that elevates international brotherhood over the selfish tribal obsession with a Jewish state. As I have stated repeatedly before, all references to Jerusalem are metaphorical, therefore our Jerusalem is anywhere where we choose. On the other hands, the Palestinians have only one Jerusalem, and that is why Jews need to relinquish not only Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan and the Old City, but Baqa, Talpiot and all of west Jerusalem as well. Why do you think there are no embassies in West Jersualem, which is part of pre-1967 israel? It is because the world expects better behavior from the Jewish people and to paraphrase famed scholar Yeshiahu Leibowitz, to legitimize a land fetish

4infidels said...


I believe you are on to the truth of the matter. If it wasn't this issue, then it would be something else for the Palestinians and their amen-corner in the West to scream at Israel about. For the Western powers and Western elites, it would be an unthinkable act of imperialism, colonialism and racism to interfere in any other nation in Asia or Africa exploring its history and excavating/revitalizing historic areas of its capital.

When the Muslims in Iraq or the Palestinians claim another Jewish holy site as holy to Muslims and build a mosque there, the NY Times and other media treat those claims, even if made literally yesterday, as having as much or more validity as Jewish claims.

Jews asserting their historic or religious connection to these places is seen as a provocation or a move to solidify political claims. When Palestinian/Arab/Muslim do the same, at places they often started venerating recently because of their importance to Jews, the NY Times treats those Muslim claims as something that deserves the utmost respect, lest we find ourselves insensitive to the religious devotion and passions of Muslims, which always and everywhere good taste means we must indulge and admire.

Anonymous said...

congrats Toni
this time around you made me chuckle while bristling


AKUS said...

Well, we now see the next step in delgitimizing israel and the Jewish connection to Israel.

So we weren't really Jews.

We were only "proto-Jews".

But its strange that even though there were actually no Palestinians before Arafat invented the Palestinian myth in 1967, no doubt Didi Remez would probably be happy to use the term "proto-Palestinian" to "prove" that today's recently created Palestinians were actually always really Palestinians, even when they were actually just a group of people occupying a part of the old Ottoman empire, then Egyptian Gaza and Jordanian West Bank, and, of course, those in Jordan were "proto-Jordanians".