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October 6, 2013 1:45 pm

The History of Judaism: An Undivided People

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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New York's Central Synagogue. Photo: Wikipedia.

There are several words used in the Bible to describe the Jewish people. At one stage, we were simply tribal. Then we became an “Am,” a people, a “Goy,” a nation, a “Mamlacha”, a kingdom. Post-Biblically, if the gentiles called us Jews, Judeans, Israelites, Hebrews, Yids, or whatever, we used “Yisrael” as the name of choice. This meant a people, a culture, a religion, a relationship with God, and a land, all in varying and amorphous degrees. We knew what it meant, even if others were confused or bemused. It takes one to know one.

Under pagan empires, religion was not a factor, only loyalty to an overarching regime or royal family. If you were a serf, it was loyalty to your lord and village. Neither the Persian, nor the Greek, nor the Roman Empires cared how you worshiped or behaved, so long as you professed loyalty to the empire. Then Christianity emerged as the religion of the Roman Empire and other religions were marginalized.

Ironically, the bloodiest battles were within Christianity, between one theological variation and another. The same thing happened under Islam. Ideals soon got perverted by politics and just as today, Muslims of different sects killed more Muslims than all their enemies put together and doubled.

Freud memorably described this internal divisiveness as “the narcissism of minor differences.”
In the West, most Jews that non-Jews encounter are not particularly committed to being Jewish. For Jews like a Soros or a Zuckerberg, it’s an accident of birth, a minor casual affiliation, like belonging to the Church of England. And this explains why most of those in the West reckon that the Jews are not really too concerned about having a land of their own and that it was only the accidental intervention of imperialist powers that explains the Jewish presence in the Middle East. It was a misjudged adventure.

And really, the Jews ought to pick up and leave, and stop being nasty to the indigenous population.

It takes an objective observer to notice that for millennia, Jews have shared a powerful core identity, even though in many situations, most Jews actually abandoned the community of Jews. It took a determined minority within a minority to fight hard, relentlessly, and ultimately victoriously for its Jewish identity.

In his book The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences, David Cannadine writes:

“Egypt under the Pharaohs may have resembled a nation…but there was no accompanying sense of public culture or collective identity. As for the ancient Greeks, their limited pan Hellenic aspirations embodied in their shared language, Homeric epics and Olympic games foundered on the disputatious reality of their fiercely independent city-states. Similar objections have been made to claims that the Sumerians, the Persians, the Phoenicians, the Arameans, the Philistines, the Hittites and the Elamites were ancient nations, or that the Sinhalese, the Japanese or the Koreans might be so described during the first millennium of the common era.”

“Only in the case of Israel does it seem plausible to discern a recognizable ancient nation with its precise though disputed territoriality, its ancient myths, its shared historical memories of the Exodus, the Conquest and wars with the Philistines, its strong sense of exceptionalism and providential destiny and its self-definition against a hostile “other” and its common laws and cultures. These were and are the essential themes in the unfinished history of the Jews… this example has also furnished ever since a developed model of what it means to be a nation.” (p. 58)

Throughout exile, we somehow did preserve a sense of belonging to a people, to a tradition, to a land, a sense of community, Klal Yisrael. This is why the problem of Israel in the Middle East, the Jewish problem, is so intractable. The overwhelming majority of Jews now living in Israel or the West Bank are committed to the notion of a Jewish people. It is not to be compared as ignorant opponents of Israel try, to a few British or white imperialists imposing themselves on a vast majority “other.” Some may try to delegitimize us by overturning a decision of the United Nations, but they cannot delegitimize or wish away the Jewish people.

As we start to read Genesis again, I am always amazed by the commentator Rashi’s famous question, a thousand years ago. Why did the Bible start with Genesis with its stories, instead of Exodus with its laws? Cannadine would say because any nation needs its myths and its epics. But Rashi says it’s because other people will always be telling us we have no right to the land. That’s why the Bible starts off with God creating the world, to let us know that there are greater forces than mankind that decide how things are going to be.

There’s a good series you can find on YouTube, Simon Schama on the history of the Jews. Now he’s Jewish in his fashion, but hardly a poster boy for Jewish continuity; yet he concludes that it is the Torah that has kept us going. And the Torah is the origin of our peoplehood and the connection with our land.

Way back, we took on a mission to mankind in general and to a geographical location specifically. We have always had our delegitimizers. But no matter what others may say, enough Jews have the strength to defy the odds, to stand up and to fight for what is as much historically theirs for far longer than anyone else’s.

So here we go again, another year, another cycle, more threats, more hatred, and yet we are not only still around but, if anything, demographically and ideologically getting stronger despite laughable statistics, telephone surveys, and prophets of doom. We are, and have been, a nation longer than anyone else. Although that has not always guaranteed victory, it has ensured survival.

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  • I never tire of hearing about my Judaic history.
    Though I read a variety of books, I am always drawn
    to books about Jewish history and the Jewish people.
    Thank you Mr. Rosen, for enforcing this in your article.

  • tirtza

    Dear Mr Rosen

    what a heart worming essay. I have came back to my homeland Israel after about ten years in the Usa and Suise-Geneva.
    I wanted my children to learn Alef and not A. My fore faters came from Rumeniya on 1882 and the only languge I heard at home was Hebrew.
    The Bible was written in Hebrew
    I am not a religious person but we are the only nation in the world that speaks a languge after thousands years is was read only in prayers.
    It is beacouse Jewish people like you the land of Isreal Heabrew and Jewdeism we shall “Yes we can” Mr Obama – he can not!

    • Jeremy


      Theres nothing quite like arriving back home to Israel, the sense of feeling at home. Its not always that easy to keep that excitement going but I am sure you will. And your children are lucky to have you to guide them.

      I hope you have a very sweet year.

  • BRILLIANTLY insightful Jeremy. I read a lot on this subject and so many people miss so many key points and appear to be so confused. What you wrote hear is conscise and hits on quite a number of KEY points in world history and Jewish Israel. Am Yisrael Chai.

    • Jeremy

      Thank you very much Michael.
      Thats very generous of you.

  • zeynep

    How lovely, Mr. Rosen. May the Victory be soon.

  • RMM

    It appears that the Arabs are not about to read a few history books and conclude that, indeed, the land of Israel was fought for, won, and built from the ground up – by Jews. Arabs are welcome as citizens, members of the government, partners in commerce, and so on. But the country ‘s name is ISRAEL, and just as sure as Rome is Catholic, Israel is Jewish.

    Does anyone have a problem with that?

  • Wayne Stevenson

    It seems to me that there are “negative” aspects to all national entities. It would be good if we could all get along a bit better, and live in peace, as a human family, which is what we all are. Peace be with you.

    • Jeremy

      Yes I agree with you. Nationalism in its modern nineteenth century manifestation is a problematic phenomenon.

      But since it is the currency of world politics and new entities are being established all the time, we simply have to deal that way and in its terms. Otherwise we simply relinquish the field to the spoilers.

  • THE BIGGEST THREAT I see as the few ”journalist” in algemeiner. Its the owners responsioblity to fight for THE ONE G-D OF ISRAEL and not look for numbers to make advertising revenues.
    Any Jew lost or confused falls on this links soul. DAMAGED.
    I dont think so.

    At least we have Jeremy Rosen to bring balance to some wackos who have the privilidge having their rubbish articles posted here as if its meaningful.

  • Kevin Moore

    “By their fruits you shall know them”

    Matthew 13:24-30

    Parable of the Wheat and Tares

    “Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”

    ” -for it has been written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,says the Lord.” Romans 12:19

  • Sandy Brown

    Watched the last episode of the history of the Jews. Yes, it was OK. The land that the Palestinians call theirs has been lived on by the Romans, the Jews, the Arabs for centuries. So the Palestinians should stop going on about it being theirs. They should read some history books. Get their facts right to start with.

    • judorebbe

      This is a rhetorical question, but …It was a PBS production? PBS wanting to get facts straight concerning Israel?

      • Jeremy

        The program is from BBC British Broadcasting Company, very similar in outlook to PBS.

        In this case I believe Simon Schama’s authority and reputation ensured he was able to present things as he sees them, not as politically correct junkies tend to.