Monday, January 12, 2009

Are Jews a nation?

I am feeling rather ill today so may not post as much as usual but despite that I am immediately drawn to renew my discussion with Punditarian -- who has just written a long post in support of his contention that Jews are a "nation". I am at something of a loss to know why that seems important to him -- "ethnic group" is the normal appellation -- but I will comment nonetheless. "Ethnic group" is certainly vague and uninformative.

I have been careful thoughout all I have said on this matter to avoid placing any importance on race, for what I hope are obvious reasons. But I hope I might be forgiven for using another "dangerous" word: Volk. Punditarian strayed into Latin and Greek in his comments so I hope I can be forgiven for straying into German. And I think Ashkenazi Jews could be seen as a Volk. Volk is a "dangerous" word because it was a central concept for Hitler. Though the old East German Communists used it a lot too. Contrary to what many seem to think, it does NOT mean race. The German word for race is Rasse and Karl Marx in fact simply used the English spelling: "race", even though he was writing in German. So when Hitler described Germans as a Herrenvolk, he was calling them a "master PEOPLE", not a master race. Yet Volk means rather more than the English word "people". I have written rather extensively here on the translation of the word but let me try to summarize here by saying that it does overlap a little with the concept of race in that it describes a group of interrelated and interconnected people, a sort of extended family. And I think that their weak endogamy does make Ashkenazi Jews a Volk in that sense. It seems a pity that, despite their extensive borrowings from other languages, the English never seem to have found a use for Volk, even though it is in various spellings found in quite a few European languages. It is both a very ancient and a very useful word.

And the word comes into its own in describing two groups that Punditarian mentions. He argues that throughout the 19th century Italians and Germans were "nations" even though they were not under any kind of central rule until late in that century. There were many small German-speaking states but no Germany as a single political entity, for instance. I would argue however that Germans were always a Volk but only became a nation in the 1870s. Volk is certainly the word that Germans of the time used for themselves. The words "nation" and "national" are identical in English and German and are used similarly. And what Germans wanted to do for most of the 19th century was to unite their Volk into a single Nation. And under Bismarck, they just about managed it -- though Bismarck's strategic omission of Austria from the new German nation was grumbled about by many as a Kleindeutsch (little Germany) solution. A later German leader remedied that omission to much acclaim, of course.

Punditarian raises the case of Nigeria, with its disparate tribal mix and says that Nigeria is not a nation because of the hostility between its composite tribes. I am going to be a bit cheeky here and remark that by that standard Israel is not a nation either, with its Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Druze, Arabs etc. Without an external threat Israel would fly apart in a trice. But be that as it may, I think Volk again clarifies the situation. Nigerians are not a Volk but they ARE normally called a nation. And Israel too is a nation composed of several Voelker. The Ashkenazim and the Sephardim are certainly not a single Volk, though they could become one through intermarriage.

A final point which Punditarian touches on is however very important. Christians define their religion in terms of accepting certain BELIEFS. Jews tend to define their religion as accepting certain PRACTICES -- practices set down in halacha (Jewish law). So in that way even an atheist could be a Jew in good standing as long as he kept kosher etc. And I think that gives power to my contention about the centrality of religion in defining Jewishness. As Punditarian himself argues, Jews have remained Jews by way of their distinctive practices, and those practices define a religion.

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