Commentary Magazine


The Future of the Jews, by David Vital

David Vital brings to this extended essay on Jewish national identity the virtues of clarity and cogent analysis that have made him a distinguished historian of Zionism and a highly regarded authority on international relations. The Future of the Jews may indeed bring to bear excessive clarity on a subject clouded with stubborn ambiguities. In any case, it is a challenging book that raises important, troubling questions which need to be confronted.

Vital sets the grounds for his prognosis with an initial chapter devoted to the impact on Jewish peoplehood of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. This fateful entry of the Jews into secular modernity entailed a new profession of primary allegiance to the nation-state rather than to a community of faith or to any transnational ideal of a Jewish people. He cites instructive contemporary documents that announce this switch in allegiance, and assuming it has in fact been fully internalized, he sees it as a key to what is happening globally among the Jews two centuries later. Not only is the first loyalty of Jews to the country in which they live, but everywhere, to a degree that far exceeds earlier Diaspora precedents, they take on the coloration of their national habitat—its political assumptions, its language and culture, its habits of mind. The often proclaimed unity of the Jewish people is thus rapidly turning into an obsolete myth and an empty slogan:

Where there was once a single, if certainly a scattered and far from monolithic people—indeed, a nation—there is now a sort of archipelago of discrete islands composed of rather shaky communities of all qualities, shapes, and sizes, in which the Island of Israel, as it were, is fated increasingly to be in a class by itself.

Vital sees two basic, virtually opposed, classes of Jewish existence determined by the fundamental differences between “a congeries of voluntary societies” in the Diaspora and life in Israel under an elected Jewish government exercising the full range of authority, power, and legal coercion on and in behalf of its citizens. “And this absolutely crucial difference is being reinforced and intensified over and over again through the years by differences of language, of culture, of aspirations, of social outlook, and above all by situation—and therefore, necessarily, by differences of interest too.”

The fierce political debate over Israeli policy in the occupied territories is construed as a prime symptom of that deep schism beneath a thin facade of national unity that is splitting the Jewish people apart. Vital concedes that there are vehement opponents of the occupation within Israel itself, but he intimates that the terms of the debate within Israel have to be different because the debaters there on both sides must be prepared to live with the consequences of the positions they endorse. By contrast, the Diaspora critics of Israeli policy, as free agents speaking from a distance, and in the U.S. influenced by American traditions of political moralism, approach political issues not in instrumental but in purely moral terms. They want Israel to be “a country of a kind as yet unknown to history . . . governed ultimately neither by need nor by circumstance, nor even the stated interests of its own inhabitants, but firmly and exclusively in the light of universal moral laws, the laws in question being those which all decent people believe applicable to their private relations.” Vital is himself a political moderate, but he grimly notes that such insistence on purely moral rather than pragmatic thinking in politics is a recipe for national suicide.

Vital’s prognosis is similar to one proposed in the 1960′s by the French sociologist Georges Friedmann in Fin du peuple juif?—the Jews who remain in the Diaspora will eventually disappear through assimilation while those who have settled in Israel will become a new, wholly distinct people. The only difference is that Vital, from the perspective of secular Zionism, sees meaningful continuity between the reborn nation of Israel and the historical Jewish people, whereas Friedmann, viewing the process from the outside, saw a new people emerging in Israel, only nominally identified with the old one.

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This is a sobering analysis, and it would be foolhardy to assume that the future unity of the Jewish people is in any way assured. The circumstances, however, of Jewish existence are extraordinarily untidy, and Vital’s account of them may be in a couple of crucial respects a little too neat. Although he is certainly right in contending that Zionism has redefined Jewish existence in more urgently political terms than Jews were ever willing to conceive in the pre-modern period, his argument is founded on a political determinism that requires critical scrutiny. His key assumption is that consciousness is determined by the frameworks of political organization. If Jews draw together as private individuals in voluntary organizations dominated by unelected oligarchies, while they owe allegiance as citizens to a Gentile state, they will exhibit a distinct, highly diluted order of Jewish consciousness, one in which categories “applicable to their private relations” are imposed on the public realm. If, on the other hand, they live under their own government—with their own language, and, to boot, their own peculiar social institutions, their own pop music, their own soccer teams—they are bound to have a different order of consciousness, individually and collectively.

One hardly wants to deny salient differences in mental habits, values, and allegiance between the “typical” Israeli and his American Jewish counterpart, but Vital’s analysis provides little sense of the odd and persistent connections between the two communities. There is no place in his account for belief as a determinant of consciousness, but belief continues to color the perception of reality of large segments of the Jewish people. I refer not merely to resurgent Orthodoxy (for better or for worse, a power to be reckoned with) and to the other branches of Judaism in America and, minimally, in Israel, but to the potent survival in the minds of many non-practicing Jews, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, of values originating in the world of belief: the importance of Jewish history, a sense of connection among the generations, the idea of the text as a vehicle of truth and the concomitant importance of intellectual work, an attachment to the possibility of redemption through history, and even the notion of the unity of the Jewish people.

I do not mean to suggest that all these surviving fragments of a traditional Jewish world view operate uniformly, or that the consequences of their operation are always happy ones. But they do help explain why there are still many peculiar convergences of attitude and identity on the two sides of the Israel-Diaspora rift. We have different languages, literally and figuratively, yet large numbers of American Jews at least pay lip-service to the ideal of Hebrew as a genuine second language for Jews in this country, and a handful actually realize the ideal, through the means of American Jewish educational institutions. The relentlessly moral, unpragmatic approach to politics, which Vital attributes to the location of the Diaspora Jew, is, as he is surely aware, abundantly present in Israel, not only in the Left-liberal opposition but also on the messianic Right. By contrast, in the continuing debate over what Israel should do about the Palestinians, the American Jewish community also has numerous and vocal members who insist on thinking about the problem in instrumental rather than in moral terms.

Altogether, it seems to me that there is much more cultural (and physical) circulation between Israel and the Diaspora than there was a generation ago. Among Israelis, the old Zionist attitude of dismissal of the Diaspora world has in many instances been replaced by a keen curiosity about the cultural life of the contemporary Diaspora. Jews on the other side of the divide now are often eager to know what is going on in Israeli culture—as one may see in the large American following for Hebrew fiction in translation, a phenomenon that would have been inconceivable twenty years ago.

David Vital is right to warn us about the forces that might in the long run lead to deep divisions within the Jewish people; but, for all the threat of divergence, the prosperous insurance broker with his four-bedroom house in Ramat Hasharon may not be that different from his American Jewish counterpart in Westchester County. A certain common sociology draws them together, an increasingly international material culture, but also a set of shared historical memories, a persistent background, even in the fullness of their secularity, of collective beliefs.

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