Identity and Self-Determination

A people that has already achieved self-determination, that lives in a state which expresses its identity, finds it difficult sometimes to remember what it is like to live without such a privilege. It finds it hard to remember how relevant this right, which is essentially collective, is to private life. Here is a reminder, from a biographical story of a woman I never knew. I saw her recorded testimony at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, in a discussion which actually raised my concern regarding the justification of Zionism: the discussion was about Zionism and the Holocaust. It raised my concern, because of the temptation to reduce Zionism into “the lesson of the holocaust” and to reduce the Holocaust into a kind of prelude to the Zionist revival. But all of this is not what the woman wished to talk about.

Instead, she described a moment she experienced as her happiest at the Second World War’s end. When she boarded an illegal immigrant ship to Israel, she saw a sign that said “Knisa” [Hebrew for "Entrance"], and it was this sign that filled her heart with joy. An Israeli by birth may find it hard to guess what was so exciting. A metaphor, perhaps? Entrance to a new world? To a different future? Entrance to a home? No. None of these. What struck the woman, what literally took her breath away, she explained, was the size of the letters. She never so Hebrew letters so big. Hebrew was for her, until then, she said, a language written in small, private print, embarrassed and always hidden.

This experience, the exhilaration of seeing Hebrew as a functional language of the public sphere, entails a deep Zionist insight: there is no such thing as private self-determination. Privatizing identity sabotages, rather than frees, the individual. This is why the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) and Emancipation failed. Because there is no such thing as “a Jew in your home and a human being outside it.” If you cannot be a Jew on the street, then you are not a free person.

Part of the movement of the elite in Israel, from values of solidarity to values of individualism, manifests itself as the abandonment of this deep insight. The new, liberal elite offers a different, privatized conception of identity. According to it, an identity does not represent the common within the group, but rather a unique compound to be concocted by each individual. It is like a colorful mosaic that each individual shall create on his or her own. Each one of us shall walk through the big supermarket of identity components (profession, gender, ethnicity, religion, folklore), and be free to assemble his or her own unique identity. Only this way, we are told, can we keep our private self free from collective coercion. Only this way can we complete our political freedom (protected by civil rights) with cultural freedom (which is the option to choose our identity).

However, this is not a new freedom, but an old slavery. It has not protected the individual from the tyranny of the collective; it is the ancient prohibition on Jews stepping – as Jews – out of their home and into the public sphere. It is a return to the emancipation that gave “To Jews as individuals – everything. To Jews as a collective – nothing.” Emancipation did not fail incidentally. The problem was never circumstantial. It failed in principle. It failed because it privatized what is public in essence, because it denied what it claimed to provide. It offered the Jews the right to self-determination provided they would not determine themselves in any public sense. But identity is public, and leaving it in the closet cripples it.

That sign which said “Entrance” really meant “Exit”. For this woman it was the exit of Hebrew and of Judaism, from privacy and secrecy, into the public sphere, literally from darkness to light.

(A Hebrew version of this article was first published in Yedioth Ahronoth, June 30, 2009)

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