Saturday, October 29, 2011
A question of identity
There is a question that is asked so often I decided to have a stab at answering it myself. The question is: Who is a Jew? This is an odd question, because I have never heard anyone asking who is a Belgian, or a Tibetan, or an Apache, or an Irishman. or anyone else, for that matter. It's understandable when asked in the context of the Law of Return, the Israeli law that grants automatic rights to settle in Israel to anyone recognised by Israel as Jewish, and the answer then is simple--anyone born of a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism according to certain recognised rules.
Of course, there have been many Europeans of Jewish descent who couldn't have cared less about Jewish ancestors in their family tree. These people saw themselves as French, Russian, Polish, Italian, and so forth; some of them even thought they were German until Hitler came along and explained things to them. In fact, some Jews didn't even know of their Jewish ancestry at all until the Nazi authorities confronted them with it. I once read of a British man in Germany during the early 1930's--a journalist, I believe--who was arrested for some reason, and found himself sharing a cell with Jews who had been arrested simply for the crime of being themselves. One of these was a blonde, blue-eyed young man who, until recently, had been marching in torchlight parades, and roaring out the Horst Wessel song with the best of them. And now, here he was, raging at his idiot great-grandfather for having dropped all his unsuspecting descendants in it by marrying a Jew.
Which brings me to myself. I am Jewish on my mother's side, and her great-grandparents arrived in Britain from Portugal. My father is a Scots-Canadian, from somewhere in the frozen north, which means I could have a bit of Native American in me as well. I was not brought up in a Jewish household, and my favourite holiday as a child was always Christmas. My main reason in coming to Israel was because I thought the Middle East would be an interesting place to live. (How right I was.) Finally, I have always seen myself as more British than anything else, and have never tried to conceal this.
An Israeli friend of mine--who could be called an Arab Jew, as his family emigrated from Syria--recently said to me: "It doesn't make any difference in the long run how British you consider yourself to be--because if ever they come for me, they'll be coming for you as well."
So I suppose that's about it, really; however we define ourselves, it's our common fate that really has the last word.