In last week's Financial Times, Prof. Tony Judt, the well-known historian of Europe and France, explained for global readers in the financial and political communities that Israel ought to renounce its claim to being a Jewish state because Zionism has been debunked as an idea. Zionism's internal contradiction, according to Judt, is that it is premised on Jewish ethnicity, and Jewish ethnicity is an "imagined or elective affinity."
Judt's claim is drawn from the recent book by Tel Aviv University Prof. Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, which argues that Jewish ethnicity was "invented" or "constructed" out of multiple ethnic and linguistic groups over the course of centuries, much as French historian Pierre Nora explained in the 1980s that French national identity and ethnicity was constructed out of diverse ethnic and linguistic groups in Brittany, the Loire, etc., between the 15th and 19th centuries.
What is thought of as the homogeneous "Jewish people," according to Sand, is in fact formed out of diverse peoples without common roots. (In Sand's account of Judaism, the king of the Khazars, whose warlike tribe converted to Judaism in the eighth century, is a truer genetic forebear of contemporary Jews than the Israelites of the Second Temple period. This link no doubt explains the well-known Jewish traditions related to axe-throwing and hunting on camels).
Judt draws the necessary conclusion from his own first principles and Sand's information: If Israeli national identity is based on coherent Jewish ethnicity, and Jewish ethnicity is a "construct," well, you get the point. Abandon Zionism. Embrace a secular Israel with no distinction between Jew and Arab, much as Judt and others argue that European and indeed all nations should embrace a non-national secularism in light of the "constructed" quality of all national ethnic identities.
ACCORDING TO this view, E pluribus unum (From many, one - the motto which appears, among other places, on the US $1 bill) can only apply to rational states organized around ideas and not "national" or "ethnic" states. Unless the state is Palestinian, of course. Judt does not question the coherence of Palestinian Arab national identity or submit the unity of Palestinian Arab peoplehood to the postmodernist deconstruction which he visits upon Jews.
A theory which denies intractable facts denies reality - and that is precisely what Judt's deconstruction does. One can admit that the Jewish ethnic makeup may have changed over the centuries (though this argument would be a hard sell to the newly-wed Ashkenazi couple nervously awaiting their Tay-Sachs screening results). But the jump from ethnic plurality to the irrelevancy of ethnicity is illogical. The conversos in Inquisition Spain, irrespective of their ancient ethnic origins, abandoned all Jewish ritual, but yet, for generations, in the eyes of their suspicious neighbors and probably themselves, remained Jews. There are some things from which one cannot run away even if one wishes to, and Jewishness seems to be inescapable.
The broader point is that Zionism and Israel are based on Jewish religion and not ethnic kinship, contrary to Judt's assumptions. While many early Zionist theorists, like the communist Ber Borochov, waxed dreamily about a totally godless state in which Hebrew workers united only by common language would do their bit in the global class struggle, Zionism was always better expressed by traditional Jewish religious ideas and traditions.
"Next year in Jerusalem," recited annually by Jews at their Passover Seder for at least a millennium, according to the scholar James Kugel, expresses Zionism much more clearly than the utterances of the various Zionist intellectuals of late 19th- and early 20th-century Poland and Russia. Certain of Zionism's theorists knew that there could be no Zionism without traditional Judaism. Indeed, Theodor Herzl, widely credited as the founder of modern Zionism, wrote a book called The Jewish State (notice the adjective), for example. In Herzl's works, it is a mix of Western humanism and Jewish religious tradition that defines Zion and its people - not language or race.
THE INABILITY of Israelis to articulate the Jewish basis of their state is the actual problem here, rather than any professor's theory of "constructed identities." The constructed quality of all human things, including nations, may be a fact, and it is probably true that no people "sprang from the soil" of its motherland; religions, however, are admired as constructs, perhaps divine ones, but works of artifice none the less, and therefore, pointing out that a religion is constructed or invented by no means debunks it. The rationales for Jewish practice range from the divinity of Jewish laws to the morality of the Jewish way of life. Judaism's comfort with having been constructed - by God, by the psalmist, by the talmudic rabbis and their students who wrote of their debates, by Maimonides - is one of its strong points.
The failure of Israeli leaders or intellectuals to articulate the Jewish rationale for a Jewish state is manifest in thousands of ways, from Israelis' inability to settle on a constitution to their ongoing incapacity to find a place for Judaism in public school curricula. While the scientific, economic and military capabilities of Israel offer the world all of the justification that it should require for its existence, the material subsistence of Israel does not answer Israelis' own questions about the purpose of their country.
A people justifiably skeptical of ethnic or historical explanations of its existence requires a genius of self-understanding to articulate its common purpose. In America, this genius was provided by the generation now known as the Founding Fathers and by Abraham Lincoln, all of whom in their ways explained that America exists to facilitate lives lived in accordance with the principles of its Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness and all of their necessary corollaries. Israelis are still waiting.
Dov Zigler is an analyst with Interinvest Corporation in Montreal and teaching fellow at McGill University. Neil Rogachevsky is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at Georgetown University.