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AMixed Bag: Zionism as Identity Politics; Much Superficial Reasoning, etcTheTen Lost Tribes, Various Jewish Groupings, and Birobidzhan as an InadvertentModel for Judeopolonia

jan peczkis|Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Owing to the many topics addressed by this book, I focuson only a few, and, unlike the author, assess the significance of Birobidzhanbeyond its immediate impact.  Jewish identity and politcs


The author does not think much of attempts to identify theLost Tribes of Israel. He believes that most Jews of the former NorthernKingdom intermarried with others and now form the modern Samaritans. (p. 22). However,genetic evidence suggests that the Lemba “Black Jews” of southern Africa may bedescendants of the Lost Tribes. (p. 173). The most fascinating part of this book is the one thatalludes to Eastern European Jews. Despite imports from Romance, Hebrew,Aramaic, and eventually, Slavic, 80% of Yiddish was Germanic. (p. 125). Yiddisheven assumed the status of a “native” Jewish tongue even though Sephardic Jewsnever spoke Yiddish, Ashkenazi Jews had spoken it for only the last thousandyears at most (pp. 124-125), and most eastern European Jews had not lived inGermany for several centuries. Maroney assesses this as follows: “The drive to giveYiddish a centrality in the life of Eastern European Jews was called theYiddishist Movement or Diaspora Nationalism—or Goles Nationalism in Yiddish.The JAR [Jewish Autonomous Region in Soviet Birobidzhan] was the only physicalfulfillment of the Yiddishist dream of an autonomous homeland for Jews awayfrom the traditional bounds of Zion…” (p. 124). “The JAR was the only formalattempt to put into place the dream of a Yiddish state. As we saw earlier,Goles Nationalism, in its various forms, conceived of the kind of state the JARattempted. The JAR was a semi-autonomous region within a wider confederation ofstates, which gave preference to Jews and fostered Yiddish…” (p. 145). Reflecting on the foregoing two quotes, the informedreader may be struck on their similarity to Endek understanding of erstwhilePolish Jews.  This includedYiddish-centered hostility to Polish-ness, and Jewish nationalism with its goalof some form of Jewish nation outside Zion if necessary, culminating in thedangers of some form of Judeopolonia (a foreign-appointed Jewish ruling class,over subjugated Poland, serving the German and/or Russian masters). The JAR  inBirobidzhan, commissioned in 1927 and a reality in 1937, proved that at leastsome Soviet Communist authorities came to see the Jews as a nation (and notjust religion or peoples), and moreover a nation worthy of some type of distinctivegeographical region on Soviet-held territory. (pp. 138-139). The possibility ofa literal Judeopolonia is obvious. Birobidzhan, located in Siberia near the Chinese border,far from areas where Jews lived previously, thus became a Soviet Zion, alsosupported by foreign monies. However, by 1939, only 18,000 of the 109,000people living in the JAR were Jewish. (p. 141). Despite this, Yiddish andRussian were used in street signs and all government transactions. Yiddish wasa compulsory subject even in non-Yiddish schools. (p. 141). Had Poland lost the 1920 Polish-Soviet War, and Polandbeen re-absorbed into the USSR as the 17th Soviet Republic, thestage would have been set for Poland, and not Birobidzhan, as the new Jewishnational state. Unlike the situation in Birobidzhan, a Jewish population—not tomention a huge one and long-established one--was already in place. Ironically,Maroney, in discussing the eventual failure of the JAR, inadvertently hinted athow a Soviet-ruled Judeopolonia would have been a much better choice thanremote, never-Jewish Birobidzhan: “If Birobidzhan was no Land of Israel,neither was it even Polish Galicia.” (p. 146). In any event, the possibility of some form ofJudeopolonia was long realistic owing to the following: “We will never know ifthe Yiddishist dream could have become a reality, in the JAR or elsewhere, forthe Holocaust destroyed nearly all of the Yiddish-speaking communities thatfostered the hope of Goles Nationalism.” (p. 146).   Review of TheWandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, by Gilad Atzmon. 2011.Winchester, UK. Washington, USA Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis AMixed Bag: Zionism as Identity Politics; Much Superficial Reasoning, etc. Instead of repeating other reviewers, I focus mainly onunmentioned content. My review is bound to disappoint both supporters anddetractors of this book. Atzmon rejects conspiracy theories involving Jews (p. 76,169) but does focus on Jewish influence in world politics. For instance, in theUK, Jews are 0.46% of the population, and should therefore have 3 seats out ofthe 650-member House of Commons. Instead, they have 24, which is an 8-foldoverrepresentation. (p. 169). He also mentions prominent American Jews (e. g.,the neocons) by name, and how they led the USA into Middle East policies that,according to him, were futile. He touches on the role of past Jewish bankers and theirinfluence on world politics. (p. 27, 194). In particular, Jacob Schiff of Kuhn,Loeb & Company gave 20 million dollars to support the Bolshevik Revolutionin Russia. A former Jewish nationalist himself (p. 7), Atzmoncondemns those Jews to put their Jewish-ness over and above all their othertraits. (p. 16). He views Zionism as a movement of Jewish tribal solidarity (p.19), and one whose political goal (as it was from the beginning with Herzl) isto prevent Jews from disappearing through assimilation. (p. 40, 70). The authorlapses into extreme invective in condemning Zionism. (e. g., p. 101, 123). Atzmon sees Zionism as part of the dialectic of negation.(p. 58-on). Jews define themselves not so much as who they are, but as who theyare NOT (not Christians, not Muslims, etc.). However, the author does notexplore this subject in sufficient depth. For instance, Jewish Polonophobia isprobably a form of the dialectic of negation: Whatever a Jew is, he is,thankfully, not one of those dumb, primitive Poles among whom most Jews hadlived for so long. On another subject, and perhaps without intending to,Atzmon confirms the fact that Jewish sympathy for Communism had been muchbroader than formal CP membership, and that it infected much larger Jewishpolitical parties. He comments: “Marxism also attempted to make people lookequal…The idea was very appealing to a few West European and many East EuropeanJews who even formed the Bund, a Jewish Socialist Party.” (p. 56). He confirmsthe Endeks as he alludes to the Bund as a purveyor of Jewish particularism:“…the Bund would demand national and cultural self-determination within theEastern European proletarian discourse…” (p. 104). Atzmon tacitly supports Dmowski’ssuspicion that, for at least the first part of WWI, both Eastern European andwestern Jews were pro-German. (p. 194). Atzmon believes that the declining Jewish support forsocialistic systems demonstrates that Jews have always been capitalists atheart. Could it not, instead, support the premise that Jews tend to supportwhomever they think is the more powerful, will be the winner, or is the wave ofthe future? Also, could not the virtual disappearance of left-wing Zionism (p.117) been caused largely by the Soviet Union having turned against Israel, itserstwhile ally? The author discusses the Holocaust as a substitutereligion for Jews. He notes how the ADL had at first accepted, and thenrejected, the 1915-era Armenian genocide as a true genocide. (p. 173). Now let us consider some major shortcomings of this book: The author repeatedly attacks the Bible as unhistorical.(e. g., p, 137, 141-142, 154-155). In doing so, he repeats the outdatedpost-Exilic origins argument for the Pentateuch, and ignores the manyarcheological discoveries that support the historicity of Scripture. He also attacksthe Bible for its violent themes, forgetting that violence was a given inancient times. Atzmon repeats the argument (p. 135-on) that modern Jewsare an artificial people—an amalgam of converts to Judaism (notably theKhazars: p. 144) over the ages. Even if true, it would have no bearing on the"realness" of a people. Besides, modern genetic studies have refutedthis argument, and proved that Jews worldwide have a common ancestry, and onethat probably goes back to the Jews of ancient times. These studies also refutethe premise that most Jews today are descended from Khazars.  Continuing the foregoing theme, Atzmon suggests that, ifanything, the modern Palestinian people are the descendants of the ancientJews. He insists that, after the Romans had destroyed the Jewish State nearly 2,000years ago, they did not and could not have deported most of its inhabitantsbecause they did not have modern transport technology such as trains andtrucks. (p. 142). How ridiculous! Fact is, there have been many population massmovements, both voluntary and involuntary, in pre-modern times. Not surprisingly, the author repeatedly attacks the Stateof Israel and its policies, even savagely. (p. 121). Do not Jews have a rightto their own homeland? What else is Israel supposed to do to those who arestriving to destroy her? Let us follow Atzmon’s reasoning regarding modern Jewsand Israel to its logical conclusion. Is the modern state of Greece anillegitimate one, in that modern Greeks are an artificial people insofar asthey cannot demonstrate a direct ancestry to the Greeks of the Age of Pericles? 
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