Oath of Loyalty to What?

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 20, 2010, issue of October 29, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

If Israel had Words of the Month, October’s would be “Jewish,” as in “a Jewish and democratic state,” or medina yehudit ve’demokratit, in Hebrew. This is what — if a controversial cabinet decision is adopted as law by the Knesset — anyone becoming an Israeli citizen will have to swear loyalty to.

Which Is To Be Master? ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it
to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master that’s all.’
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN TENNIEL/GETTY IMAGES
Which Is To Be Master? ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master that’s all.’

The many criticisms of the proposed oath can be assigned to one of two categories. Category 1 is political. To ask non-Jews to declare loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic state,” it is claimed, is an inherent contradiction, since no country can be considered democratic if it demands of prospective citizens that they swear allegiance to what excludes them. Many of those making this argument would also say that the very idea of a “Jewish and democratic state” is an oxymoron, since a democratic state has to belong equally to all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike.

But what concerns us here is Category 2, which is a semantic one. The word “Jewish,” it is argued, signifies so many different things to different people that it is meaningless to ask anyone to swear allegiance to what it represents. Does it refer to a religion? A people? An endogamous biological community? A system of values? A common destiny? To what exactly, it is asked, would the takers of such a loyalty oath be declaring their loyalty?

Here, too, of course, we are dealing with larger issues that go far beyond the proposed oath itself. The question of what is “Jewish,” or of who or what is a “Jew,” has been a contentious one for a long time now — so long, we sometimes forget that for an even longer time before that, it was not disputed at all. Until modern times, indeed, although there may have been different ideas about what being a “Jew” or “Jewish” ideally should be, hardly anyone disagreed about what the words meant in practice. A Jew was a member of a Jewish community, and Jewish communities all over the world were clearly defined entities both in their own eyes and in the eyes of non-Jews. Being Jewish meant belonging to a religion and to a people and to a biological community and sharing certain values and having a common destiny. None of these things was thought of as being inconsistent with any of the others.

This synthesis began to break down in the 19th century. The first challenge to it came from the new Reform movement in Germany, which proclaimed that a Jew was merely an adherent of the religion of Judaism, there being no such thing as Jewish peoplehood or a Jewish people that had anything beside its religion in common, so that a Jew born in Germany was a “German of the Mosaic faith,” just as one born in France was a Frenchman of that faith and one in England an Englishman of that faith. Noteworthily, German Reform Jews continued to think of themselves as an endogamous community, since while Jewish-Christian intermarriages were already common in early 19th-century Germany, they almost always resulted in the Jewish partner converting to Christianity and leaving the Jewish fold. Non-Jews converting to Judaism were extremely rare.

Two other major (and opposed) trends emerged in the 19th century, as well. On the one hand, there were now, in Europe and the United States, the first waves of assimilated Jews, who did not identify as Jews religiously, either, and thought of their Jewishness as merely biological, the result of having been born to Jewish parents. On the other hand, there were the first secular Zionists, who, standing the Reform argument on its head, argued that the Jews were fundamentally a people like the English or the French, to whom religious belief was not intrinsic. And in late 20th-century America where, for the first time since antiquity, large numbers of non-Jews have converted to Judaism, we increasingly find the attitude that Jews, whatever else they may be, are not a biological community at all, because more and more of them are not born to Jewish parents.

The consequence of all this is that words once clear to everyone have indeed now become highly confusing. “Jew” and “Jewish” may mean one thing to a secular Israeli, another to a religious Israeli, another to an Orthodox Jew in the Diaspora, another to an assimilated Jew in the Diaspora, another to a Reform (and sometimes Conservative) Jew in America or to a gentile converting to Reform or Conservatism, another to the family of that convert. Like Humpty Dumpty, the now shattered definition of “Jew” and “Jewishness” can no longer be put back together.

And yet this is precisely the reason that being asked to take an oath of allegiance to a “Jewish state” is not perhaps as anti-democratic as it might appear to be. After all, if “Jewish” can now mean what one wants it to mean, the oath taker is free to think of it as he or she wishes. Is one swearing allegiance to a religion? Let it be that. To a people? A biological community? A nonbiological community? A way of looking at the world? A joint fate that even a non-Jew can identify with? Let it be any of those things. To yet something else? It can be that, too. When you’re being asked to declare your loyalty to almost anything at all, you’re not being asked to do very much.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.