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Sunday, 27 June 2010

Blood, Culture, Nation: Shlomo Sand on the Jewish People

I am reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso 2009). Much of it deals with very old and boring myth-cum-history. But it is a very interesting and sophisticated book.

European Jewish cultures before the Holocaust interest me and about the Holocaust itself, I have read the books. When in Jerusalem 15 years ago, Yad Vashem and Oskar Schindler's grave were the places I most wanted to visit. Parts of Yad Vashem I found moving: the black basalt pillars, the railway truck tipping over the precipice. But I was shocked by the signs acknowledging sponsorship by wealthy Americans. It did not seem a place where the living should put their names on a plaque.

When in Lithuania a dozen years ago, it was the Karaite (Karim) Kenessa at Trakai that I wanted to visit.

I have no interest in Judaism. To an outsider - especially someone like me who read avidly in Calvinism and Jansenism in my youth - it's most obvious manifestations are rather odd preoccupations with dress, food, women's hair and male genitals. It makes God into some kind of obsessive neurotic. It is hard to think of Judaism as something that nurtures the human spirit though it's rituals have clearly given comfort in many-times repeated periods of despair.

As for Israel, I have come to doubt its legitimacy entirely. In its willingness to resort to disproportionate and extra-legal violence, it is like a rogue state. Behind those violent actions lies a culture which is deeply racist - the nature and extent of which is something Shlomo Sand's book clarifies.

So I now incline to the idea of a one-state solution. Provided that the one state was secular and kept all the religions of the region in their proper, private place. Since that it a utopian dream, the two-state solution emrges as a second-best.

Shlomo Sand clarifies how cultures and nations can inter-relate in different ways, more closely or more loosely. Zionism, with which he is concerned, seeks to integrate what are really very different Jewish cultures by offering them a myth of shared Origin in the homeland of Palestine / Israel and a myth of a shared blood line, preserved through all the disaporas. Neither myth stands up to scrutiny. His most shocking claim is that the people most closely linked, genetically and by continuous occupation, with the Jews of ancient Israel / Judea are the peasants who till the soil today just as their forefathers did. And they are not Israel's Jews but Palestine's Muslims, many of them undoubtedly descended from Jews who converted when Islam arrived in their region.

The book has also made me think again about the United Kingdom. The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be greatly helped in the tasks which it discharges (badly - but that is another story) if the people it rules believed themselves to be United Kingdomish. But plainly they don't. They don't even have a football team, and yesterday's defeat of England by Germany in the World Cup will have brought satisfaction to those in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland who think - and maybe wear the T shirts - ABE: Anyone But England. These are the people who send Nationalist MPs to Westminster. In the case of Sinn Fein, once elected they do not even take their seats in Parliament. The stench is too great for them.

What the United Kingdom needs is not a one-state solution but a four-state solution, perhaps with a federal Parliament for the three mainland countries. Ireland could then proceed to a two-state solution, perhaps with a federal parliament. In these ways, culture, nation and state would be more closely aligned. Fortunately, blood is hopelessly mixed throughout the UK and no one need be called upon to prove a blood line. We are coffee coloured people and that is something to celebrate.

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