Our homeland, the text

Our homeland, the text

23 Sep 2016

Rabbi Howard Cooper

In light of the rise of right-wing nationalism across Europe, we are reminded of our centuries-old belonging to a trans-national community, neither dependent on, nor limited by, nationality.

Is there a country in Europe where right-wing nationalism – xenophobic, often racist, sometimes anti-Semitic – is not gaining ground?

We have Marie le Pen’s 7 million voters in France, Viktor Orban’s populist anti-refugee campaign in Hungary, the Czech President Milos Zeman’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant Party for Freedom who are topping the polls in the Netherlands, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement in Greece, the surge in support for the Northern League in Italy who are demanding the destruction of Roma settlements, Nazi-sympathiser Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria who scored a record result in the Viennese elections last year, the far-right Swedish Democrats who regularly have 20% of electoral support, the Danish People’s Party with 27% of the vote, and the hard-right Finns party who are already part of the government.

Who have I forgotten?

Even in Germany, which has resisted movements of the far-right for two generations and more, the National Democratic Party and the populist Alternative für Deutschland have growing and increasingly vocal support. And in the UK the anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP (as well as members of his own party) pressurised David Cameron into the ill-fated referendum that has led to the tragic act of self-isolating national self-harm we know as Brexit, a result which has provoked an outbreak of hate crimes across the country.

Even before the exodus of millions of Syrian refugees into Europe since the start of the civil war there, the fantasy of pure homelands was again haunting Europe.

And 70 years after the defeat of that fantasy, in the rubble of Berlin in 1945, we Europeans are having to live again with the spectre of nationalisms being used as a pseudo-solution to the complex transnational and global problems of late-capitalist modernity.

I have a strong sense that although - and possibly because - Europe has been the home of longstanding antipathy towards Jews, European Jews have always had a sense of belonging to a trans-national community.

Image credit Ian Levack.

They were loyal citizens of their host community but aware of a larger identity, and the strength that comes from a larger identity of belonging.

You could go into any Ashkenazi or Sephardi synagogue in any country of Europe, wherever the borders were and however often those borders changed over the centuries, and you would find a home, be at home.

You were at home in the community as a Jew, you were at home in the texts, you were at home in the liturgy, you were at home in a shared identity, a shared history, a shared set of values that did not depend on nationality, but on your trans-national identity as a Jew.

You could open your page of Talmud in any community you visited and there was the same text: and side by side on the page - the design of which was laid out in Venice - was the Rashi commentary written in France, next to the Ibn Ezra commentary written in Spain, which nestles next to commentators from Vilna and Germany.

The Talmud was a Euro-text centuries before the European Union was dreamed up.

Jews were originally known as Ivrim – Hebrews: the word, just to remind you, is from the verb ‘to cross over’, to cross boundaries, ‘to migrate’.

Jews are those who live in countries with boundaries - but know no boundaries in their hearts. Proud in the sovereignty of our separate identity, we diasporic Jews glory in the way in which that identity is not limited by nationality: we know that to belong to something larger, more collective, something that transcends the insular, is a source of strength not something to fear.

Take the example of the Rothschild family: since the 1760s, when Mayer Amschel Rothschild established his banking business in Germany and through his five sons instituted a revolutionary international banking system embracing London, Paris, Naples, Frankfurt and Vienna, European diaspora Jews have recognized the economic, social and political limitations of nationalism.

All of this is second nature to diasporic Jewish self-perception in Europe. In spite of the complications that resulted from the establishment of a national homeland in what was then Palestine, I would suggest that ingrained in our spiritual Jewish heritage is this sense of a pan-European identity that transcends nationalism.

70 years ago, from the midst of the rubble and ruin and wretchedness of a devastated continent, a grand vision arose: to ''make war unthinkable and materially impossible''. Nationalism had proved a dead end, literally and metaphorically. The dream of a supra-national union of states based on close economic ties and treaties was born. It was an extraordinary and moving vision of a way of living together peacefully with our differences. Although there are multiple ways in which the EU is a flawed arrangement, I feel blessed that I am part of a generation freed from the terrible burden of war. After the bloodshed of the 20th century it is no small thing that the European Union has ensured that no blood has been spilled between its members. Nobody has had to die because of ancient or nationalistic hatreds. It is arguable that if Yugoslavia had been part of the European Union twenty-five years ago we would not have had a Bosnian war with all its suffering.

European Jews have a particular perspective on the toxic clouds of xenophobia now swirling around Europe.

We Jews - who have eyes thousands of years old and know how minority groups can become the scapegoats for social ills, the victims for prejudices and hatreds which have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with governments who fail to care for the well-being of poor and disadvantaged citizens - we Jews have the historical experience and the moral insight to see how issues to do with immigration have become a very convenient framework narrative to speak about economic and social insecurities. It’s the prism through which right-wing parties across Europe see everything - there isn’t a single grievance that can’t be blamed on immigrants. People’s insecurities are real – and both material deprivation and a decline in the quality of living are felt experiences, affecting millions, that need to be addressed politically – but blaming immigrants for this is morally suspect; and thinking you can protect yourself from these insecurities by trying to create an imaginary pure homeland is just deluded thinking. Part of the contribution of European Jews to this growing phenomenon is to call out the fraudulence of this kind of rhetoric.

For Jews – and here I am following one of the great thinkers of our times, Professor George Steiner – our homeland as a diasporic people does not relate to geography. Our homeland is the text. Historically, culturally, spiritually, the fabric of Jewish life is woven out of a myriad of texts, and their interpretation and application and inspiration through the ages is at the heart of Jewish identity. This is, as Steiner says, the

‘open secret of the Jewish genius and of its survival. The text is home; each commentary a return.’

But which texts belong to this ‘homeland’ of ours?

Orthodox religious thinkers would argue that what counts are the original Biblical texts, together with each generation’s responses to those central texts, which are capable of infinite interpretation. Steiner too adopts this perspective:

‘The Torah is the pivot of the weave and cross-weave of reference, elucidation [and] debate which organize… the daily and the historic life of the community. The community can be defined as a concentric tradition of reading… neither Israel’s physical scattering, nor the passage of millennia, can abrogate the authority… in the holy books, so long as these are read and surrounded by a constancy of secondary, satellite texts… Via magisterial commentary, the given passage will, in times and places yet unknown, yield existential applications and illuminations of spirit yet unperceived’.

But what Steiner adds to this ever-expanding corpus of Jewish texts in his own ‘magisterial commentary’ is crucial - the notion that this ‘concentric tradition of reading’ moves ever outwards in wider and wider circles, embracing ‘the “bookish” genius of Marx and of Freud, of Wittgenstein and of Lévi-Strauss... a secular deployment of the long schooling in abstract, speculative commentary’.

What I have learnt from Steiner, and from my own religious teachers, is that a contemporary religious consciousness now needs to embrace what one used to think of as ‘secular’ voices - because the central spiritual post-Shoah Jewish question is: ‘Where can we find revelation for our own times?’

So if a Kafka or a Paul Celan or a Joseph Roth or a Philip Roth or a Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Hannah Senesh, Amos Oz, David Grossman, can offer us insights into the complex multi-layered realities of the human condition and the human heart – then these are the texts that will form part of my ‘homeland’, a land with porous borders and wide horizons, a land that welcomes truthfulness wherever it appears.

Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com

All quotes from ‘Our Homeland, the Text’, Salmagundi journal, Winter/Spring 1985.

Photo credit: Mario Azzi

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