The Jew: An Existence of Non-Conformity by Israel Eldad

The Jew: An Existence of Non-Conformity


Israel Eldad


The Jewish Revolution
Jewish Statehood

Translated from Hebrew by Hannah Schmorak
Shengold Publishers
New York
Chapter 1
pages 9-16
originally titled "An Existence of Non-Conformity"

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An essential non-conformity is the primary characteristic of the Jewish people. The large number of Jews who take part in various protest movements is easily explicable against the background of Jewish history. As long as the Jews are living amongst their own people, their non-conformist streak finds its satisfaction in the collective non-conformity of the Jewish existence, as compared with the life of other nations. In isolation, the Jew first tends to become ultra-conformist, in reaction to his former non-conformism when he was still sharing in the customs of his people. He tries as fast and thoroughly as possible to assimilate into his environment—Christian, liberal or national—so that he may no longer stand out from the rest. Many have tried this course of merging into the multitude. While they personally may have failed, their descendants, usually after three or four generations, finally achieved total immersion. Yet as a rule the experiment does not work.

Generally, despite all their efforts, gentile society continues to regard them as Jews. In the first assimilation movement on record, the Hellenization movement which was an attempt to adapt to the then dominant Helleno-Graeic culture, those ardent assimilationists who were trying to hide the marks of circumcision during the athletic events at which nudity was the rule were referred to as "stretching their prepuce." This stretching of the prepuce became a symbol of the ridiculous attempts of these Jews to assimilate to a foreign environment. For a long time the outstanding physiognomic characteristic of the Jew—his long, bent nose—was looked upon as a kind of symbolic displacement, the extension of one organ in compensation for the artificial shortening of another. Significantly enough, it was the long nose of the assimilated Jew that figured most prominently in anti-Semitic caricatures. For the Jew who remained Jewish there were plenty of other marks of recognition connected with his religion—his beard, his sidelocks or his dress. It is doubtful whether the recent nose-bobbing fashion would have been of much help to the assimilated Jews of those days. A nose modified by plastic surgery is not an inherent trait.

Gentile society never placed any reliance on assimilated or baptised Jews. Strangely enough, their distrust stemmed from the unconscious respect they had for the true Jew. Baptism or assimilation—they obscurely felt—were merely a ruse for infiltrating gentile society and vanquishing it through internal subversion. Others, conceding the latent strength and truth of Judaism, found it difficult to grasp why any Jew should escape from this bastion. When Dr. Max Nordau, Herzl's closest political ally said that a baptised Jew was not an honest man, he provoked an enormous outcry, yet he spoke nothing but the truth. There were very few indeed who had converted because of a sincere belief in Christian dogma. It was a home-truth that sooner or later had to be told.

There is the story of a Jewish socialist leader who had managed to escape from Germany during the Nazi regime, and found his way to England. At a reception held in his honour by the Labour party, the chairman welcomed him also as a Jew, but the staunch socialist waived this distinction by saying that he had left the Jewish community some time in the twenties. "I did not know Judaism was a kind of club," was the chairman's response.

There was another reason why the attempt to escape from the shackles of Judaism by means of outward conformity was doomed to failure. The Jew never managed to hide his peculiar talents. For there can be no doubt that in certain areas, especially in the intellectual field, the Jew has been endowed with special gifts and inclinations. Not only did he not hide his light under a bushel, but he did his best to boast of his talents, one of the main reasons for having abandoned the Jewish community having been the desire to be able to give them free rein. Soon, however, his special aptitudes were to betray him by swiftly pushing him to the top, where the gentiles, partly from envy and partly from mistrust, right away latched on to his Jewishness—either in a gross and direct fashion, especially in Eastern Europe, or with a biting subtlety, carefully preserving all the proprieties, as is the custom of the English-speaking countries.

The third way in which assimilation failed was through the emergence of individual nonconformism. The inherently rebellious character of the Jew tended to become still more pronounced with the disintegration of the collective or the detachment of the individual from the collective. It is no accident that Freud, the emancipated Jew, in his exploratory voyage into the depths of the human psyche did not go beyond the shores of the individual, while his gentile disciple Jung, deprived of the internal motivation to stop there, delved further into the chasms of the collective soul.

This non-conformist tendency, whether directed solely against the Jewish father image or against contemporary society as a whole, is the psychological impulse that has caused so many Jews, in the past and in the present, to take part in a variety of revolutionary movements. Evidently these movements were of the Leftist brand; first, because Jews were as a rule, though not always, debarred from the Rightist, frequently anti-Jewish movements; and secondly, because for a long time the left was swathed in an aura of social justice and thus exerted a preternatural attraction on the descendants of the ancient prophets and the recent victims of the existing regimes. The proportion of Jews in the ranks of the old as well as the new Left, as theoreticians and men of action alike, many of them endowed with an uncommon capacity for personal sacrifice deriving in no small measure from the tradition of Jewish martyrdom, is much higher than their percentage of the total population. This again is due to the same nonconformist streak that is a predominant characteristic of the Jewish people. In former ages, while they were still living in the ghetto this trait had helped the Jews to shape their autonomous existence and survive as a separate nation.

The nonconformity of the Jewish collective, or the revolutionary character of the Jewish people, found its expression in all three stages of its existence—its prehistoric evolution or national mythology, the period of statehood that lasted some thousand years, and the two thousand years of exile.

The term "mythology" when applied to the ancestral tales of the Jewish nation, the story of Abraham, for instance, is somewhat of a misnomer. Ordinarily, national mythologies consist of biographies of gods and demi-gods, men of divine origin or men who have turned into gods. Not so the story of the evolution of the Jewish people, whose main theme is a constant revolt against mythology. The term can be applied only insofar as it is taken to denote the pithy depiction of ancient figures that have come to embody an ideal and have been preserved in the consciousness of a people as a lasting legendary force, transcending mere historical fact.

A basic image of this kind in the consciousness of the Jewish nation is the figure of the patriarch Abraham. We are not so much concerned with the fact that critical scholarship has recently veered back to the view that Abraham was truly a historical figure, as with the artistic-psychological-educational aspect of his image as implanted in the heart of the Jewish nation, which has its origins not only in the Bible but even more so in story and legend. Abraham was the father of the Monotheistic revolution, the greatest of all rebels against the establishment, rising up against his own idol-worshipping father. Legend has it that he went so far as to smash all the idols on display in his father's pagan department store. He was a rebel who resorted to violence, and for his crime was sentenced by the tyrant Nimrod, the head of the all-powerful establishment, to death in a burning furnace . . . from which he came out alive. On the altar of his new-found faith he is willing to sacrifice his son—a much more difficult ordeal than sacrificing his own life. What is more, in the name of this faith in a single God, the God of justice and law, he is willing to stand up to that very Godhead: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18, 25) says he in a violent argument about the imminent destruction of Sodom. This attitude of protest against a God in whom one yet never ceases to believe is a recurrent motif in Historical Books of the Bible, the Prophets and the Book of Job. It is an attitude that is completely at variance with the total submission demanded by all other religions, where such personal revolt, such claims and accusations against the Deity are quite inconceivable.

Recent historical research has shown that Ur Kasdim, the birthplace of Abraham, was a land of flourishing culture. And again the very words of the Bible, when Abraham hears the voice of God saying unto him: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee," resound the call of revolt. Abraham is exorted to break all his ties with the past on his way to something new and unprecedented; to break not the ties of slavery, but the ties of gold that hold him to a prosperous land and home, and the ties of blood. But this is no anarchistic, nihilistic breakaway out of despair. It is a deliberate dissociation from a multitude of false gods, leading to a positive, new spiritual and intellectual experience, the experience of a single invisible God that has neither picture nor image. At the beginning of the second millennium B.C. when Abraham is presumed to have flourished, this concept of Divinity must have appeared both odd and strange, and it continued to be so throughout the subsequent two thousand years.

Then came the age of statehood, another period of mental and spiritual trial. The temptations to become "like unto the nations all around" were considerable. Here was a nation trying to go about its daily life in its own special way, in the midst of other, major cultures great in matter and in spirit; first, Egypt and Babylon, and then Greece and Rome. Moreover, it was not living in a remote corner of the world where it could set itself up against outside influence, but right on the crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe—a highly delicate geopolitical position. Obviously the dangers and temptations to integrate within these major cultures to the point of total fusion and disappearance were enormous. Nevertheless the Jews managed to live the life of a normal nation, while at the same time preserving those spiritual, ethical and religious features that set them apart from all the rest. Prophecy and the halakha (the body of Jewish law evolved from the Bible through rabbinical exegesis) became the basis of individual and collective, constitutional existence. They set the rules that governed both private and public affairs. The fundamental monotheistic faith and the moral convictions with which these rules were imbued, and the Jews' supreme trust in God and in their own destiny, consistently helped them to preserve their national independence against the repeated onslaught of powerful empires and the seductions of more esthetic and hedonistic cultures, such as the Greek. These recurrent clashes were not without conflict. They provoked many a costly fight. But in the end the Jewish nation always emerged triumphant. It always managed to preserve its own existence and continue steadfast in its own way. Other nations, the major powers of those days, failed to understand this special quality of the Jews, their unbending urge to survive and retain their distinction. Yet the spirit of national existence, of Jewish statehood, managed to overcome even such major disasters as the destruction of the First Temple, the internal dissensions by which the people were rent, and the impact of Hellenism that swept the entire Middle East. The Jewish nation remained a non-conformist entity despite the surrounding welter and the drive to uniformity.

Afterwards came the end of territorial sovereignty. The nation was dispersed the world over. Two mighty religions—Christianity and then Islam—were swallowing up continents and nations. But not the Jews. They remained a separate enclave in this alien world. Times were hard. The temptations, too, were many. Ostensibly the monotheistic faith had won a tremendous victory. Why, then, should the Jews not give up their stubborn separatism and merge into the no longer pagan establishment—the Christian or the Moslem?

We are not concerned with theological matters and the differences between the Jewish faith and its two rivals. Our concern is with the survival of the Jewish nation, though deprived of its land and political sovereignty. For the Jewish people nevertheless managed to retain its autonomous existence. It did so without external compulsion but by an act of choice, by the exercise of its sovereign will to stand fast against a hostile environment that was alternately using seduction and oppression, the carrot and the stick, to win it over to its ways—or stamp it out.

This autonomous existence, moreover, was no mere vegetation. The Jews continued to live a full and independent life according to their own specific code—a life of constructive creation in the arts and the sciences. Their obstinate adherence to their own culture and their urge to survive caused no little amazement. Their unprecedented personal devotion, their willingness to make every sacrifice and undergo any martyrdom, coupled with their inalienable trust in their final redemption frequently aroused a sense of awe and fear in an uncomprehending environment. The miracle of their survival defied conventional history, and to this day continues to irk philosophers who are unable to fit this phenomenon into their world picture.

Neither Augustine nor Marx nor Toynbee was able to explain it according to their norms. Toynbee's anger at the Jewish nation's refusal to be neatly classified into any of his categories, the unanswerable challenge it presents to his theories, has caused him to declare that the Jewish nation is no more than a historical fossil. For him this may be a satisfactory way of dealing with what is to him merely a theoretical problem. It is not satisfactory for us, nor is it compatible with the simple fact of the existence of a living Jewish nation. Ironically enough, at about the same time as Toynbee arrived at his peculiar logical definition, that very "fossil" was in a very unfossil-like way fusilating the British from Palestine.

Also on the non-metaphysical, purely existential plane, the non-fossilised nature of the Jewish people is making itself manifest. It is manifesting itself in its struggles and efforts to create for itself a new sovereign existence in defiance of all historical "laws" and historiosophic logic—and of the will of many powerful nations.

Like the core figure of Abraham, which is essentially revolutionary in its history, legend and ideals, so has been the dynamic existence of the Jewish nation both during its period of territorial sovereignty and in the subsequent age of ex-territorial survival. Non-conformism was the hallmark of the Jewish people throughout. What is more, it was to this non-conformism that the Jews owed their survival as a living, creative and constructive people. It is quite sufficient to accept this basic trait as a fact without trying to look for abstruse explanations. Reasons will not alter the fact.

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