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It would be an overstatement to suggest that the early Zionists from Pinsker to Herzl to Jabotinsky saw the Holocaust coming. But they understood the implications of statelessness in a world increasingly defined by ethnic nationalism.
And with the founding of Israel, the Jews of Arab lands felt the full weight of ethno-national statelessness, as regime after regime — Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and so forth — made it abundantly clear that “their Jews” were no longer “theirs” and therefore not their problem; these centuries-old Jewish communities were involuntarily conscripted into Zionism and forced from their homes.
Not surprisingly, the Palestinians have weighed in on the racial aspect of the Jewish question. Article 20 of the 1968 charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization asserts that “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”
Such a statement is neither true nor false, but has been contingent on time and place. Moses Mendelssohn and the leaders of 19th-century Reform Judaism would have agreed with it; the Nazis and their sympathizers would not, nor would have Pinsker, Herzl and Jabotinsky. And the Jews of medieval Europe would have been utterly perplexed by it, as it was a meaningless question in the world they inhabited.
DNA studies will neither “solve” the Jewish question nor undermine Israel and its supportive Diaspora, because today there is a Jewish nation that lives and governs itself in the Middle East.
And even if most Jews give little thought as to whether or not their ancestors actually walked the streets of Jericho, Hebron or Jerusalem, the unprecedented anti-Semitism of the 20th century made the Jewish state a necessity and gave it legitimacy, and has ensured its tenacity. For all intents and purposes, the Jews are a race today, and Israel is now its historic homeland.
Jarrod Tanny is Assistant Professor and Block Distinguished Fellow in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the author of “City Of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press, 2011).