Who among us wouldn’t – doesn’t – prioritize the well-being of members of one’s own immediate family above others? Other things being equal, if one has a chance to help a family member or a non-member (but not both), then one will choose the family member. Or, in other words, being a family member is a factor that has significant weight in decisions about whom to favor when one is forced to make a choice.
This behavior has probably developed in response to evolutionary pressures over millennia. Discussions of precisely how and why and its relationship to altruistic behavior (helping another person even if it is not to one’s advantage) are complicated, but there is no doubt that it is almost universal among humans. It can be called nepotism, to broaden the common meaning of the term.
In many cases nepotism extends beyond family to include members of extended families, tribes and even nations. The phenomenon is called ethnic nepotism. It’s argued that this preference is also caused by evolutionary pressures, both on individuals and groups.
But how far does it extend? Apparently that varies a great deal among groups and individuals. Clan loyalties, for example, are important to Arabs. Broader national loyalty – patriotism – characterizes certain groups of Americans or Europeans, but by no means all.
In addition to the intuitive feeling of affinity for members of the relevant groups, there is also the influence of ideology. This takes place at a higher level of consciousness than intuition. So a person can believe that he should prefer members of a particular group. Alternatively, he can believe that it is morally wrong to do so, and suppress any intuitive feelings to the contrary.
I call the ideological position opposed to ethnic nepotism Lennonism (not a misspelling!) Lennonists believe in part that ethnic or religious preferences are the root cause of human misery, and that if we could overcome them, everyone could be “living life in peace.” Lennonism is opposed to borders and even private property.
Lennonism appeals almost entirely to people in developed societies who are unlikely to have had the pleasure of being attacked through inadequately fortified borders by members of other ethnic groups in order to kill or enslave them and steal their private property. Lennonism is thus most popular in Western Europe and North America than in places with a more recent memory of instability.
The Jewish people meet all the criteria for a distinct nation – self-identification, a common origin, a unique language and religion, cultural similarities, and more. Many Jews feel their Jewish identity – their connection to the Jewish people – very strongly. However, in the US, where a majority of those of Jewish descent have either become completely secular, or adopted an attenuated form of Jewish observance without maintaining a knowledge of their language, their ethnic connection has weakened also.
Many US Jews, even if they haven’t adopted a Lenonnist point of view and see themselves as “world citizens,” consider themselves primarily American and only secondarily Jewish. If they do have intuitive feelings of ethnic nepotism, they choose to suppress them, consciously or subconsciously.
This suppression of ethnic feeling is necessary for survival in a culture which is ready to accuse Jews of disloyalty if they place their Jewish identity above their American one. This perhaps explains the distaste for Zionism among many American Jews. They understand, on some level, that they are living in a nation which does not belong to them, and at any moment they can become personae non gratae. Zionists who suggest that Jews should care strongly about Israel – a foreign country – endanger all American Jews, who can be tarred by the brush of disloyalty.
This points precisely to the difficulty faced by the Diaspora Jew. Even if he does feel a pull to identify strongly with his people, he is unable to express it without endangering his status in the overwhelmingly non-Jewish society.
Some Jews deal with it by insisting that their Jewishness is entirely religious in nature: Americans of the Jewish persuasion. But anybody who pays attention to the weekly Torah readings understands the true importance of Eretz Israel in Judaism.
Others redefine Judaism. They understand Biblical injunctions to treat your Jewish neighbors and the ger that lives alongside you as you would treat yourself to refer to all humankind. In effect, they claim that Judaism is Lennonism. But there is no textual support for this, and anyone who tries to take it seriously soon finds out. Judaism cannot be Lennonism.
Some simply define themselves as Americans of Jewish extraction and leave it at that.
And sometimes, the tension brings about a violent rejection of the Jewish people and their state, and drives American Jews into the arms of anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.
The fact is that Jewish nationalism or Zionism is a perfectly natural ideology for a Jew to adopt, regardless of where he lives.
If it becomes uncomfortable where you are, well, that’s why there is a Jewish state.