Prof Richard Falk: On Jewish Identity
As someone who is both Jewish and supportive of the Palestinian struggle for a just and sustainable peace, I am often asked about my identity. The harshest critics of my understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict contend that I am a self-hating Jew, which implies that sharp criticism of Israel and Zionism are somehow incompatible with affirming a Jewish identity. Of course, I deny this. For me to be Jewish is, above all, to be preoccupied with overcoming injustice and thirsting for justice in the world, and that means being respectful toward other peoples regardless of their nationality or religion, and empathetic in the face of human suffering whoever and wherever victimization is encountered. With this orientation, I could, but will not, return the insult, and say that those who endorse the cruelties of Israel occupation policies are the real self-hating Jews as they have turned away from the moral clarity of Old Testament prophets, which is the shining light of the Old Testament overcoming the often bloody exploits of the ancient Israelites. So interpreted, the biblical mandate for just behavior extends to all of humanity. As the great Rabbi Hillel teaches, “[T]hat which is hateful to you do not do to another..the rest (of the Torah) is all commentary, now go study.” Not hateful only to another Jew, but clearly meant to encompass every human being.
But in a more fundamental respect my own evolution has always been suspicious of those who give priority to tribalist or sectarian identities. In other words, it is fine to affirm being Jewish, but it should not take precedence over being human or being open and receptive to the insight and wisdom of other traditions. We have reached a point in the political and cultural evolution that our future flourishing as a species vitally depends upon the spread of a more ecumenical ethos. We have expressed this embrace of otherness in relation to food, with the rise of ‘fusion’ cuisines, and with regard to popular culture, particularly music, where all kinds of borrowing and synthesis are perceived as exciting, authentic, valuable.
For me this rejection of tribalism takes two forms, one negative, the other positive. I do not feel exclusively Jewish. Also, even if I did, I would never claim the superiority of the Jewish religion over other religions. I have felt uncomfortable since childhood with biblical claims, often repeated in contemporary social settings, that Jews are ‘the chosen people’ of God even if this is understood benevolently and temporally as a special destiny associated with doing justice rather than as a matter of societal achievement via wealth and professional success. As soon as exclusivity or superiority is claimed for any ethnic or religious fraction of the human whole, there is implicitly posited a belief in the inferiority of ‘the other,’ which unconsciously and indirectly gives rise to the murderous mentality of warfare and gives a moral and religious edge to many forms of persecution, culminating in a variety of inquisitions.
And, of course, the historical climax of inverted exclusivity was the Holocaust, a process in which Jews (along with the Roma and others) were chosen for extermination. Claims of exclusivity often usually pretend to possess privileged access to truth that helps disguise monstrous intentions and behavior. To have such access, whether from a divine or secular source, treats all those outside the select circle as tainted by falsehood, the logic of which generates a societal license to kill, even to exterminate. Extreme tribalism is genocidal at its core given material scarcities and inequalities that exist in the world, which would otherwise be indefensible.
Besides, the disturbing historical record of exclusivist approaches to living together there is increasing confirmation of the artificiality of the ethnic foundations of the claims of distinct national identities, often at the expense of those exclusions. Benedict Anderson has seminally linked nationalist aspirations with distinct political projects in his Imagined Communities. More recently the Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People has shown the absence of a Jewish ethnos that might justify the claim of being a distinct people, and the degree to which in the Zionist embodiment of their conception of Jewishness in Israel, the Palestinian minority has been subjugated, a cruel ideological side effect of this type of ethnic nationalism. Once of the achievements of European secularism and the move to modernity was to denationalize the state while asserting its sovereign control over people living within its bounded territory, which in effect disconnected juridical nationalism from ethnic and religious nationalism, and thus created the basis in law and morality for treating all people subject to the state as equal before the law. Of course, societal beliefs and traditions, along with class conflict and racism and religious prejudices persisted, but not with the blessings of the state. Toward the end of his book Sand poses the question that exposes the raw nerve of the Zionist insistence on Israel as a Jewish state, an insistence given great salience by the current leadership: “It is hard to know how much longer the Israeli Arabs, who represent 20% of the country’s inhabitants, will continue to tolerate being viewed as foreigners in their own homeland.” (p. 325) It should be borne in mind that even the initial purely colonialist encouragement of the Zionist project in the form of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 looked with favor only to a Jewish homeland, and only then if it did not encroach on the rights and prospect of the indigenous population then resident in historic Palestine.
Turning to the positive effects of rejecting tribalist and sectarian approaches to truth and spirituality, I would emphasize the fabulous opportunities at this stage of history to learn from and participate in diverse religious traditions, especially in a globalizing world. In my own case, I have drawn spiritual sustenance from the other great religions ever since my student days. Although celebrating the distinctive traditions of one’s own birth or chosen religion can be personally enriching, and is for most people, I have found that the quality of the sacred and divine can be experienced from many different points of entry with interactive and comparable benefits. In my case I have at various times been inspired and enlightened by the practices and wisdom of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, and indigenous peoples. And in a more mundane sense, I think that the future of humanity will be greatly enhanced if these various religious and wisdom traditions are ecumenically and inclusively embraced by more and more people throughout the world, providing a thickening societal and civilizational fiber for human solidarity. I have always been skeptical of the rational case for global humanism that is quite prevalent in the West, an aspect of the Enlightenment legacy, which is also partly responsible for secular excesses relating to technology culminating in the development and normalization of nuclear weaponry. This exclusion of the spiritual is also responsible for those forms of materialism that underpin predatory capitalism that prevails in many parts of the world today. Beyond this, such homogenizing types of universalism, associated with both consumerism and its military twin, imperialism, tend to erode cultural differences, and do not touch the experience of most of the people living on the planet.
In my experience what is most appropriate in our historical circumstances is an ecumenical and inclusive spiritual identity, and associated ethical and political commitments. In effect, what would awaken the collective sensibilities of the peoples of the earth to the challenges confronting humanity is a movement of spiritual and ethical globalization that approaches the universal through an immersion in a variety of particularities. In this sense, I want to say, yes I am Jewish, and proud of it, but I am equally indigenous, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian to the extent that I allow myself to participate in their rituals, partake of their sacred texts, and seek and avail myself of the opportunity to sit at the feet of their masters. Many persons living deprived lives do not have or desire such ecumenical opportunities, and can best approach this universal ideal, by seeking out the inclusive potentialities of their own religious and cultural reality.
I want to give the last word to an early nineteenth century American spiritual seer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, although with some hesitation, given his patriarchal use of language. I was slightly tempted to substitute ‘humans are’ for ‘man is’ but then I decided to respect the integrity of Emerson’s speech within the historical setting of its original utterance (unlike the recent purging of ‘nigger’ from the American classic, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and the substitution of the historically misleading, yet culturally less offensive word ‘slave’). Here are Emerson’s words as written: “The civility of no race can be perfect whilst another race is degraded. It is a doctrine of the oldest and of the newest philosophy, that man is one, and that you cannot injure any member, without a sympathetic injury to all members.”