Who is a Jew?
Who cares – why shouldn’t people identify however they like?
Ah, well, quite a few people have an answer to that.
The Israeli religious, expansionist right, for one – they want to make a historical case for owning the land of Israel on grounds of prior Hebrew occupation. They have a marginal view in Israel, and they are utterly wrong to base a claim on religious right or spurious ancestral right disregarding the rights of the people who live there currently, but like our BNP they’re on the rise. They do things like undermine foundations of Palestinian villages in desperate, politically-motivated archeological investigations for evidence.
A proportion of the Israel negationists – the ones who want Israel cancelled – also care about this. They make the case that the Jews are a pseudo-ethnicity posing as an authentic one. Arthur Koestler’s Thirteenth Tribe is a kind of debunk of Jews as fake Hebrews. Lenin, Abram Leon, Karl Kautsky, and even Marx himself thought of Jews as a kind of people-class, cleaving together only because antisemitism had narrowed their prospects and aspirations.
And some people take a political interest disguised as an academic interest. Most recently I got talking to the man next to me at a gig (trying to think how the hell this would have come up – I think he told me he was a Syrian-Lebanese rapper and asked me if I was English English – now to the question “Are you English?” I reply that yes I am English, but “English English” is getting at something else and so if I’m feeling cooperative I briefly say where my family is from and why I came to be here – I did that on this occasion and he immediately asked me if I knew much about Jewish history and volunteered the following information). He said that Jews were not actually descended from Israelites or Hebrews. He told me about a Levantine kingdom in the in the early years of Islam. It was mostly inhabited by business people. The authorities stipulated a tax on the business people – Christians authorities had the right to levy a tax on Christian businesses and Muslim authorities had the right to levy a tax on Muslim businesses. The only group which wasn’t levying taxes was the Jewish authorities. The business people of this kingdom wished to avoid paying taxes and so they converted to Judaism. I can’t find this account in the usual places – moreover embodied in this harmless account from a very charming man we have the seeds of charges made frequently and historically against Jews – acquisitiveness, unscrupulousness, illegitimacy and deceit.
Others actually have a stake. See for example this week’s BBC Radio 4 Start the Week (Monday 7th July, 09:03), where there was a discussion about how genetic testing is revolutionising our sense of identity. Masha Gessen shared a mutated gene for particularly aggressive forms of cancer with her mother. She found herself in new territory where people make decisions based on genetic knowledge. Her particular mutation in that particular gene is particularly prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews. Over half the Ashkenazi (central European) Jews alive today are descendents of four women who lived 1,500 years ago. Her book, Blood Matters: A Journey Along the Genetic Frontier , is a significant departure from the way we have thought about ethnicity. This woman is a journalist and I can’t vouch for her, but I quote her below because she speaks with humility and caution. She notes, as a result of genetic research, the revival of an almost medieval way of thinking about blood:
“You start thinking about blood in completely different ways. It does matter an awful lot, as it turns out, and of course it completely destroys any attempt to think about people as being Jewish as a religion, or choice, because you’ve started thinking about it as an ethnicity, which is a way in which the Western world hasn’t thought about being Jewish in quite a while.”
Andrew Marr then asks:
“You talk about ‘biobabble’, as opposed to ‘psychobabble’. I suppose we’ve been in a world where for the last forty or fify or sixty years, a lot of people have said “Well it’s not my fault” – because of Freudianism – what Freud taught, i.e. “It’s because of the way I was potty trained” or “I didn’t like my mother”, or “I didn’t like my dad and I had a terrible time” therefore “This is not my fault”. Are we moving into a world where people’s behaviour – in all sorts of ways – criminality … is going to be blamed on “It’s not my fault, it’s my genes – it’s my genetic destiny”.
I think what Andrew Marr is getting at is:
Masha Gessen replies
“One of the things I found most fascinating when researching the book is behavioural genetics. It’s very much at the beginning of this particular science – people who are doing this research are the first to give you a million disclaimers – that these are not causative relationships, that these are correlations, etcetera. But there do seem to be particular genes that heavily affect behaviour, and there are particular genes, or particular variants, that seem to be linked to various mental conditions… so yes I think we’re quickly moving into an era where we think about behaviour and psychological makeup as being genetically determined and I think one of the fascinating things about it is that it’s happening faster than we realise … before we can say “I have this mutation and therefore I need to sleep 12 hours a night” and “I have this mutation and therefore I can never meet a deadline” – it’s actually seeped into the language – I did this very sort of surface analysis of articles in the New York Times as I was finishing the book … and then I looked at articles published ten years ago and the number of times that genetics is mentioned is …
This one of many examples you can find of the gathering entry of the physical sciences into the social world which has for decades been the preserve of sociology, anthropology and psychology. At this stage its growth seems inevitable and it represents an enormous challenge to the dominant approach on the Left to tackling disadvantage, which is a fundamentally materialist one of insisting on equal opportunities as the major pre-requisite to equality.
It’s my impression that The Left has consistently resisted acknowledging any biological or physiological effects on our mental capabilities and consequently its approach to tackling inequality, while correct (see Ben Shlomo and Kuh on the effects of maternal nutrition for example) and to be defended , also omits some inconvenient truths and will consequently fail the people it sets out to help. I’m all for exploring genes but that is going to bring about the most enormous shake-up in civil rights, and we’ll need to rethink a few things, not least how you fight for the rights of fundamentally unequal humans without prejudice.