Not Normal

By Assaf Sagiv

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The British author Malcolm Muggeridge was once interviewed on American television in the early 1960s, admitting that he had only once in his life voted in an election. “On that occasion,” as he told it, “I just had to. There was this one candidate who had been committed to an asylum and upon discharge was issued a certificate of sanity. Well, now, how could I resist? What other politician anywhere has an actual medical report that he is sane?”
There is something discomfiting about a man who feels compelled to produce evidence proving he is normal. In trying to allay concerns about his mental health, he ends up deepening them. Yet what is true for a single politician is no less true for a political movement presuming to express the aspirations of a nation. The desire to integrate successfully with the other, presumably “normal” nations points to a fundamental insecurity, one that runs directly against the grain of most national ideals, which traditionally aim at fostering a sense of pride and distinctiveness of spirit.
For the longest time, however, the wish to become a “normal” people has been one of the major rallying cries in modern Jewish nationalism. Prominent figures in the pre-state Zionist movement called upon the Jews, a people persecuted, alienated, and scattered throughout the world, to remake themselves as a nation “like all the nations,” one that could live a modest, proper life in a sovereign state. This dream took various forms, depending upon one’s ideological tastes: Some, such as Leon Pinsker and Max Nordau, viewed it through liberal, bourgeois eyes; while others, such as Ber Borochov and Haim Arlosoroff, phrased it in Marxist or socialist terms. In either case, the assumption was that the primary aim of the Zionist revolution was to elevate the standing of the Jewish people until it reached equal footing with other peoples that were materially secure and healthy in spirit.

With hindsight, it is not difficult to see that this version of Zionism took a page from the ideal of emancipation, which sought to remake individual Jews as equal and active partners in Western civilization. This ideal, which captured the imagination of Jewish maskilim from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, was dashed against the harsh anti-Semitic reality in Europe and Russia, and finally abandoned with the destruction of the European diaspora in the Holocaust. Yet it found longer life within the rubric of Zionism, and its echoes can be heard in the hopes of some of that movement’s thinkers to find in nationalism the elixir which might correct the anomaly of Jewish life in exile. As Pinsker wrote in his path-breaking essay Auto-Emancipation:
The great ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have not passed by our people without leaving a mark. We feel not only as Jews; we feel as men. As men, we, too, wish to live like other men and be a nation like the others….
Similar opinions were embraced by many Jews, particularly those who saw themselves as having awoken from the emancipatory dream, who chose to build their Zionism on the foundation of a broader, cosmopolitan sentiment. The movement’s principal aim, they felt, should be to secure for the Jews, by reclaiming the material basis of communal life in their own land, the same emancipation as a people that they were unable to attain as individuals—in other words, to gain entry into the exclusive club of progressive, enlightened, “normal” nations.
Given the orientation of these Zionists, it should come as no surprise that many of them also sought to erase from the public consciousness those elements of Judaism which, in their eyes, stood in the way of Israel’s acceptance among the nations—and in particular the idea of being a “chosen people.” Joseph Haim Brenner, one of the outstanding literary figures of the Second Aliya, gave voice to this sentiment when he wrote:
I would, with the most delicious and fierce pleasure, erase from the Hebrew prayer book of our generation any mention of “You have chosen us from among the nations.” I would do it today: Scratch clean all those counterfeit nationalist verses, until no trace would remain. Because this empty national pride, this groundless Jewish preening, will not repair the breach, nor will the aphorisms of a counterfeit nationalism amount to anything.

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