The rise of the Religious Zionist Party in the last Israeli election to a position of considerable power and influence was enabled in not insignificant ways by the party’s rhetoric of “Jewish pride.”
As is often the case with the religious Zionist movement in general, RZP attempted to draw a sharp distinction between the more liberal and leftist elements of Israeli society and its own nationalist worldview. To vote for RZP, they claimed, was to vote for a party that represented a proud Jewish identity—one without apology or compromise. To vote for its opponents, it was implied, was to vote for… something else.
Zionism’s emphasis on pride is not new. It was essential, for example, to Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement, especially his concept of hadar. In “Shir Betar,” Jabotinsky described hadar as meaning “even in poverty a Jew is a prince, whether slave or tramp.” The Jew, he wrote, is “the son of kings, crowned with the diadem of David … the crown of pride.”
It would be unfair to dismiss any of this as cheap demagoguery. Jabotinsky was unquestionably sincere in his belief that pride is essential to Jewish liberation. And without doubt, RZP and the religious Zionist movement in general are proud of Judaism and their Jewish identity. They genuinely believe that the Israeli center-left, wrapped up in universalist values of self-abnegation, is not. This attitude was summarized in 1997 by Benjamin Netanyahu, who was caught on a hot mic saying, “The left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish.”
There is some truth in this, at least on the far reaches of the Israeli left. Putting aside the anti-Zionists of the Arab parties, the non-Zionist or post-Zionist left—a small minority, but still there—does see Jewish pride, at least as the nationalists conceive of it, as chauvinistic, provincial and backwards. They want Israel to be a Jewish state dedicated to universal values of democracy and human rights. And it is not unfair to say that, in certain cases, they do not want Israel to be a Jewish state at all. They see the very idea as inherently discriminatory and even fascistic.
In the case of the mainstream center-left, this is not the case. The likes of Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz are liberal Zionists and want a Jewish state as conceived by Theodor Herzl—one that is both firmly Jewish and firmly liberal, informed by both traditional Judaism and the universalist principles of the Enlightenment.
This is largely my own position, mainly because—I freely admit—I view the kind of “Jewish pride” advocated by the right with a certain ambivalence.
One must ask, for example, precisely what they are “proud” of. In my view, the only genuine form of pride is pride in one’s own accomplishments. This makes the right’s “Jewish pride” somewhat problematic. None of us except converts chose to be Jewish, and we did nothing to become Jewish. We simply are Jewish, and it does not require much effort simply to be.
Moreover, while the charge of chauvinism is often tendentious—and the libel of fascism risible—it cannot be entirely dismissed. When I hear the right speak of “Jewish pride,” I am often reminded of James Baldwin’s comments on the problematic nature of Malcolm X’s ideology.
When Malcolm spoke to young black people, Baldwin said, what “Malcolm tells them, in effect, is that they should be proud of being black, and God knows that they should be. That’s a very important thing to hear.” At the same time, however, “What he does is say, ‘You’re better because you’re black.’ Well, of course, it isn’t true.”
It is indeed an important thing for young Jews, who are heirs to a people who have long struggled to survive in an evil world and suffered a genocide within living memory, to hear that it is a good thing they are Jewish. There can be no question of that. But as Baldwin points out, this can easily slide into the sense that one is better than others for being Jewish. And as he also pointed out, this isn’t true. Yes, the Jews are a unique people. We are, in our way, special. But we are also human beings, and thus the same as everybody else. “Jewish pride,” then, is explosive material, and should be handled with great delicacy.
If “Jewish pride” is a problematic concept, then, what should be our attitude towards being Jewish?
The answer, it seems to me, is not so much pride as gratitude and resolution. Gratitude for being permitted, by pure chance, to take part in what may be the greatest epic in the history of the human race. The Jewish people has trodden a path that is unlike any other. We are the last survivors of an ancient and unforgiving world. We have undergone trials unthinkable to other peoples. And out of this, we have nonetheless forged one of the most vital, important and influential civilizations known to history. To be allowed to be part of this civilization, for all its difficulties, is a great gift, perhaps the greatest of all, and we should be properly thankful.
This gift, however, comes with an obligation. It is a simple obligation, and made necessary by the world’s violent ambivalence towards our civilization, both embracing and despising it simultaneously. Because of this ambivalence, one of the defining aspects of being Jewish—especially being young and Jewish—is that of struggle. And the most important thing to realize is that one cannot retain one’s dignity, integrity and basic bodily existence without engaging in that struggle. One must do so in the name of both ourselves and our mighty ancestors whose struggle is the only reason we are here today as we are. What this requires, above all, is resolution. A surety of purpose. The knowledge that we are heirs to a titanic legacy and we must honor it.
Perhaps, in the end, these two principles—gratitude and resolution—can be the source of a pride that is a genuine pride. A pride that is without compromise but also without arrogance, and one of which we may consider ourselves worthy.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.
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