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To put it simply, the questions “Who are the Jews?” and “What does it mean to be Jewish?” are modern conundrums; they had little meaning before the Enlightenment, because nobody asked whether the Jews were a nation, a race or a community of faith. The inclusion or exclusion of the Jews in feudal Europe was not contingent on this.
Moreover, the Jewish communities of Europe did not question whether they were a nation, a race or a religion. They were all of these things and none of these things; they were the Chosen People in Exile whose identity was built upon theology, ritual and a narrative of common descent.
Until the the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, Ashkenazi Jews did not, and had no reason to, separate religion, nationality, ethnicity and race, for they had no bearing on their present and there was no reason to think that such concepts would have profound implications in the future.
But the implications did become profound, because ethnic nationalism became the order of the day during the 19th century. “All nations have the right to self-determination” is rooted in the concept of kinship and common descent; “We were here first” became the battle cry of those seeking a state, and continues to be the mantra of those denied one. It is the primary rhetorical device through which Palestinians have demanded Palestine, much as the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Kosovars deployed it to violently dismember Yugoslavia two decades ago.
The genetic origins of the Jewish people have no relevance as to whether Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, even if the Jews can no longer say, “We were here first.”
For it is undeniable that throughout the 2,000 years of galut, or exile, world Jewry articulated a theological and genealogical connection to Eretz Yisrael. But more important, a Jewish state became necessary because of the pseudo-scientific racialization of the Jews in the 20th century, which rhetorically and politically transformed 9 million Europeans into a stateless Semitic race, unwelcome on the continent and slated for elimination.
The Wandering Jews of medieval Europe may have suffered severe persecution as the killers of Christ, but in the 20th century, “exile” took on a far more sinister meaning, as it rendered the Jews into a deracinated people who allegedly (and one might say genetically) lacked loyalty to European blood and soil.