The Shalit Case
THE JEWS, one hardly needs to be re- minded, are a historical anomaly. People, religious confession, nation, ethnic group, culture, race-all these rubrics have been variously applied to them, each with a certain degree of evident justification, none ever really adequate to describe the bewildering historical phenomenon of a people that is also a religion (or alternately, a religion that is also a people), constituting a ghostly vestige of a past sovereign state and the potential citizenry of a new one, even as it continues “living in different places.” Since the Enlightenment, with the proliferation of ideologies of Jewish existence, Jews themselves have added considerably to the intrinsic historical confusion by often insisting, according to the particular glare or flicker of their various ideological lights, that one and only one of these rubrics should be applied to them, that all the others were a horror and an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, or of right reason, or of progressive social consciousness. It is not surprising, then, that the re-establishment of a Jewish state should focus and compound the anomaly of Jewish identity, bringing together all the tensions implicit in the historical paradox, providing a public forum for their collision. I am increasingly skeptical whether in our lifetime any agency, group, or individual in Israel will even begin to find a generally satisfactory answer to the question, “Who is a Jew?,” but it seems to be an inner necessity of Israeli society to wrestle with this question continually and to thrash it out in public once every few years. Because the facts of Israel’s national existence are peculiar, such an impulse to self-definition is understandable and in a way even commendable. The forms, however, which the debate takes are often so absurd or so deplorable that one is tempted to view the whole phenomenon in anthropological terms as a national rite of self-abasement Israelis feel compelled to carry out once every five years or so, during which license is given to political, religious, and intellectual leaders to display their full capacity for mental rigidity, moral obtuseness, alarmist rhetoric, hypocrisy, or plain silliness.
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