The Thirteenth Tribe

arthur koestler


WHILE this book deals with past history, it unavoidably carries certain implications for the present and future. .In the first place, I am aware of the danger that it may be maliciously misinterpreted as a denial of the State of Israel's right to exist. But that right is not based on the hypothetical origins of the Jewish people, nor on the mythological covenant of Abraham with God; it is based on international law - i.e., on the United Nations' decision in 1947 to partition Palestine, once a Turkish province, then a British Mandated Territory, into an Arab and a Jewish State. Whatever the Israeli citizens' racial origins, and whatever illusions they entertain about them, their State exists de jure and de facto, and cannot be undone, except by genocide. Without entering into controversial issues, one may add, as a matter of historical fact, that the partition of Palestine was the result of a century of peaceful Jewish immigration and pioneering effort, which provide the ethical justification for the State's legal existence. Whether the chromosomes of its people contain genes of Khazar or Semitic, Roman or Spanish origin, is irrelevant, and cannot affect Israel's right to exist - nor the moral obligation of any civilized person, Gentile or Jew, to defend that right. Even the geographical origin of the native Israeli's parents or grandparents tends to be forgotten in the bubbling racial melting pot. The problem of the Khazar infusion a thousand years ago, however fascinating, is irrelevant to modern Israel. .The Jews who inhabit it, regardless of their chequered origins, possess the essential requirements of a nation: a country of their own, a common language, government and army. The Jews of the Diaspora have none of these requirements of nationhood. What sets them apart as a special category from the Gentiles amidst whom they live is their declared religion, whether they practise it or not. Here lies the basic difference between Israelis and Jews of the Diaspora. The former have acquired a national identity; the latter are labelled as Jews only by their religion - not by their nationality, not by their race. .This, however, creates a tragic paradox, because the Jewish religion - unlike Christianity, Buddhism or Islam - implies membership of a historical nation, a chosen race. All Jewish festivals commemorate events in national history: the exodus from Egypt, the Maccabean revolt, the death of the oppressor Haman, the destruction of the Temple. The Old Testament is first and foremost the narrative of a nation's history; it gave monotheism to the world, yet its credo is tribal rather than universal. Every prayer and ritual observance proclaims membership of an ancient race, which automatically separates the Jew from the racial and historic past of the people in whose midst he lives. The Jewish faith, as shown by 2000 years of tragic history, is nationally and socially self-segregating. It sets the Jew apart and invites his being set apart. It automatically creates physical and cultural ghettoes. It transformed the Jews of the Diaspora into a pseudo-nation without any of the attributes and privileges of nationhood, held together loosely by a system of traditional beliefs based on racial and historical premisses which turn out to be illusory. .Orthodox Jewry is a vanishing minority. Its stronghold was Eastern Europe where the Nazi fury reached its peak and wiped them almost completely off the face of the earth. Its scattered survivors in the Western world no longer carry much influence, while the bulk of the orthodox communities of North Africa, the Yemen, Syria and Iraq emigrated to Israel. Thus orthodox Judaism in the Diaspora is dying out, and it is the vast majority of enlightened or agnostic Jews who perpetuate the paradox by loyally clinging to their pseudo-national status in the belief that it is their duty to preserve the Jewish tradition. .It is, however, not easy to define what the term "Jewish tradition" signifies in the eyes of this enlightened majority, who reject the Chosen-Race doctrine of orthodoxy. That doctrine apart, the universal messages of the Old Testament - the enthronement of the one and invisible God, the Ten Commandments, the ethos of the Hebrew prophets, the Proverbs and Psalms - have entered into the mainstream of the Judeo-Helenic-Christian tradition and become the common property of Jew and Gentile alike. .After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews ceased to have a language and secular culture of their own. Hebrew as a vernacular yielded to Aramaic before the beginning of the Christian era; the Jewish scholars and poets in Spain wrote in Arabic, others later in German, Polish, Russian, English and French. Certain Jewish communities developed dialects of their own, such as Yiddish and Ladino, but none of these produced works comparable to the impressive Jewish contribution to German, Austro-Hungarian or American literature. .The main, specifically Jewish literary activity of the Diaspora was theological. Yet Talmud, Kabbala, and the bulky tomes of biblical exegesis are practically unknown to the contemporary Jewish public, although they are, to repeat it once more, the only relics of a specifically Jewish tradition - if that term is to have a concrete meaning - during the last two millennia. In other words, whatever came out of the Diaspora is either not specifically Jewish, or not part of a living tradition. The philosophical, scientific and artistic achievements of individual Jews consist in contributions to the culture of their host nations; they do not represent a common cultural inheritance or autonomous body of traditions. .To sum up, the Jews of our day have no cultural tradition in common, merely certain habits and behaviour-patterns, derived by social inheritance from the traumatic experience of the ghetto, and from a religion which the majority does not practise or believe in, but which nevertheless confers on them a pseudo-national status. Obviously - as I have argued elsewhere1 - the long-term solution of the paradox can only be emigration to Israel or gradual assimilation to their host nations. Before the holocaust, this process was in full swing; and in 1975 Time Magazine reported2 that American Jews "tend to marry outside their faith at a high rate; almost one-third of all marriages are mixed". .Nevertheless the lingering influence of Judaism's racial and historical message, though based on illusion, acts as a powerful emotional break by appealing to tribal loyalty. It is in this context that the part played by the thirteenth tribe in ancestral history becomes relevant to the Jews of the Diaspora. Yet, as already said, it is irrelevant to modern Israel, which has acquired a genuine national identity. It is perhaps symbolic that Abraham Poliak, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and no doubt an Israeli patriot, made a major contribution to our knowledge of Jewry's Khazar ancestry, undermining the legend of the Chosen Race. It may also be significant that the native Israeli "Sabra" represents, physically and mentally, the complete opposite of the "typical Jew", bred in the ghetto.

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