Are Jews a people?

I don’t go out of my way to think about my (irreligious, outside a community and without strong social ties) Jewish identity because when I do it gives me a bit of a headache. I have this headache in common with many secular Jews. After an early induction to Judaism against considerable odds (I come from a part of my home town where everybody was from somewhere different but where there were hardly two Jews to rub together) failed to ‘take’, I was content to let my Jewish background slip into exactly that – the background. Before the campaign for a total boycott against Israel began to interfere with my sense of security in Britain, the only thing that would have induced me to try to pin it down would have been finding out that I was pregnant.

The reason I have to think about it now is because the boycott campaign is playing havoc in my trade union and also in Britain’s fourth political party. Now I want to stick up for Jews. The call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is, whether boycotters realise or not, a call for Israel’s end because the criteria it imposes for lifting the boycott are criteria Israel cannot meet while remaining the Jewish state approved by a majority of countries, for good reasons, in the United Nations partition plan of 1947.

The thing is, the connection Jews have with the Jewish state are complicated and the difficulties I have locating myself in Jewishness are related to the anomalies with Jewishness that the boycott theorists are exploiting and relating to the existence of a Jewish state. To tackle boycotters, it is necessary to tackle this question of Jewishness and what it comprehends.

To gain an overview of the anomalies and make a dent in the ignorance, listen to this highly engrossing MP3 of a lecture by Michael Walzer, titled “Are We A People?” (direct link to MP3 – right-click or apple-click if you want to download to your filespace rather than listening in a browser). If you want to see him delivering the lecture, there is also a video on the site of the Institute for Jewish Research, the organisation which hosted it.

I have always been comfortable with the idea of anomalies and after listening to Walzer I still am. I credit the BDS boycotters in the organisations of which I’m a part for making me feel more Jewish already – although I doubt it is in any way they would approve of. Oona King had the same kind of experience after being politically molested by Galloway supporters.

Philip Weiss, who is a critic of Zionism, has an overview and some reservations about the Walzer presentation. Weiss, as is common among Jewish anti-Zionists, is a compassionate person who seems to assume responsibility for Israel’s conduct as a Jew and, as is also so common, fails to acknowledge responsibility for peace on the part of the Palestinians. I would speculate that he, as a Jew, considers Israel to be a stain on his conscience. My response – which I hope does not sound too glib – would be to support political process and the anti-occupation movement, support human rights for all, and also support an Israeli Arab advocacy organisation of the calibre of The Abraham Fund.

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