So what is a Jew? Memes against genes

As is well known, anthropology deals with man, but man as an abstract does not exist. Either he stands before us as a unique individual, clearly distinguishable from all other human beings, or he is a member of a group, ethnicity, nation (or race, as we once said), which in turn is distinguishable from all others. And on top of all this, there is still the difference of perspective, namely whether we assume that of science or that of faith.

Biogenetics delivers a clear verdict. From a genetic point of view, the difference between the so-called „races“ is less than the genetic variation within each of them. In other words, a German or a Jew are genetically more distant from most of their fellow citizens in Germany or Israel respectively than their respective groups as a whole are from Japanese, Sudanese or Greenlanders. From a genetic perspective, there are no Lapps, Kenyans, Japanese, Germans or Jews. What distinguishes them most cannot be attributed to their biological make-up but is due to the influences of their environment, especially the people in whose midst they grew up. If you transplant a newborn child into another culture, its genetic make-up only plays a role with regard to the innate potential of intelligence and emotion. Otherwise, it becomes a faithful copy of its respective environment. Or to put it another way: the differences that play such a prominent role in the history of man because they have always been the main cause of wars that have arisen between them are all of an artificial kind – artificial in the sense of acquired, man-made, not innate. We may speak of a specifically human art, because they are an expression of human freedom. In this way, they are strictly and unambiguously different from those that are biologically induced, because these are inherent in human beings, genetically fixed. We cannot change the shape of our eyes, the colour of our skin and other biological characteristics. But no one comes into the world as a German, no one comes into the world as a Japanese or a Jew.

On the one hand, the information provided by science is comforting. It proves that there is a common ground of humanity. If the Germans believed that a racial characteristic existed that belonged to them by nature; or if orthodox Jews are convinced to this day that one must possess a Jewish mother to be a true Jew, then the consequences of such a belief can be very different – harmless in the one case, criminal in the other – yet in both cases we are dealing with an unscientific belief with racist overtones. In earlier times, this belief was widespread across the globe. It is safe to assume that there was no people who, at some point in their history, did not consider themselves chosen and superior to others. Until a century ago, hardly anyone distinguished between biology and culture.

The question as to what a Jew is thus takes on a comprehensive dimension. It becomes a question about human beings. If, as science proves against all doubt, we are much more different among ourselves as Jews, Germans or French than Jews versus Germans or Jews versus French, what is it that causes us to cling to nothing so much as to those artificially created ethnic (racial) differences on which we then base our identity? Apparently, the genetic perspective is simply irrelevant for most people, while the artificial differences that consist of transforming each of us after birth into a rather definite being – one becoming a Jew, another a Frenchman or German – constitute the only reality that counts. It is also striking that this adherence is not only taken for granted by those who consider themselves superior to others, but to the same extent even by peoples who have been downgraded as inferior in the eyes of others. The great Max Weber certainly did not have one of his greatest moments when he called the Jews a „pariah people“, for that was a value judgement that could not be objectively justified. The great scholar was merely repeating a common prejudice of his time. This pejorative rating was diametrically opposed to the Jewish self-assessment anyway. There are few peoples, perhaps none, who, despite thousands of years of persecution, held so steadfastly to their own identity and thus to the belief that it was better to remain Jewish than to sacrifice one’s own distinctiveness by assimilating into other peoples.

This possibility did, of course, always exist. Not only was it possible for individuals to adopt Jewish identity of their own free will, they could even declare themselves collectively as a Jewish nation. In his book The Thirteenth Tribe, Arthur Koestler argued that the majority of all Jews living today do not have Semitic origins (a hypothesis that, for understandable reasons, is hotly disputed, especially among the Jews themselves). On the other hand, one could also take the opposite step of discarding Judaism, as one of the greatest Jews, Baruch de Spinoza, recommended to his compatriots. „That is why the Jews of today… have endured so many years in dispersion without an empire…, since they have separated themselves from all peoples and incurred the hatred of all… But experience teaches that the hatred of peoples sustains them…. When the King of Spain once forced the Jews either to adopt the religion of his state or to go into exile, a great many Jews adopted the Catholic religion, and as these received all the privileges of the native Spaniards and were placed on an equal footing with them in all rights of honor, they immediately mixed with the Spaniards in such a way that after a short time no trace and no memory of them remained.” Spinoza wants to stress the fact that the Jews could have assimilated. Not a few of them did so again and again, for example in Germany.

After the Prussian Jewish Edict of March 1812 and the final legal equality of 1869, the conditions for such assimilation were nowhere so favorable as precisely in the Protestant part of the German-speaking world. Education counted more here than anywhere else – and if there was a second people who for more than two thousand years had accorded scriptural scholarship, i.e. education, paramount importance, it was the Jews. Germans and Jews were more than just united in this endeavor, they were surprisingly similar. This is the only explanation for the fact that nowhere else did the Jews manage such complete integration within a few decades. „… the German Jews in their great mass were virtually infatuated with Germany up to Hitler – touchingly enough, to a small extent even beyond Hitler and despite Hitler“, wrote Sebastian Haffner.

But let us go back to Spinoza. He argues like a modern scientist. The differences between people, even and especially those that lead to hatred and persecution, are artificial; we have it in our power to abolish them. Why don’t we do it? The answer seems rather simple at first glance. Our real life begins beyond the infant stage, it begins, as stated above, with the artificial post-biological shaping by our environment. Seen in this light, the scientific studies have rather little significance with regard to both our genetic sameness and our individual differences. It is the artificially created differences between people, i.e. their cultural identities, that have always had paramount importance. Only they explain why a people like the Jews, who suffered hatred and persecution like no other, nevertheless held on to their cultural separateness, indeed – as Spinoza explicitly notes – were welded together by hatred and persecution.  

If artificial as opposed to inborn diversity between human groups has been able to cause so much harm since the beginning of human history, then the question becomes all the more unavoidable why people nevertheless insist so doggedly on such peculiarities? Why are the rifts between Jews and Muslims, between progressives and traditionalists, between LGBT supporters and their opponents, etc., etc., deepening again? Or asked once more with regard to the Jews: How is it that the biologically unfounded, solely culturally and thus artificially produced identity of their group could provide so much satisfaction that they were ready to endure all the sufferings they had to incur because of it? For this is the only way to explain the adherence to this identity. It only makes sense if the advantages of their cultural self-fashioning outweigh the disadvantages. As Spinoza and the example of the assimilation of the Jews in Germany show, they themselves have not always believed in such an advantage. There were many Jews who preferred to blend into the majority population around them. Spinoza made this claim in the seventeenth century, Arthur Koestler did so in the twentieth. Albert Einstein did not care about his Jewishness. He only became aware of it in his protest against Nazi madness. But there were at least as many Jews who were not deterred by all those persecutions and atrocities. What counterweight was it to make them act in this way?

The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion and the Nazis thought they knew. Although scattered, despised and persecuted, the Jews were a pariah people only to their naïve opponents; in truth, they aspired to nothing less than world domination. Had they not managed to infiltrate all leading professions despite their small numbers? In fact, their share of the population in Germany has always been negligible. In the 1925 census, only 0.9% of the population declared themselves to belong to the Jewish religious community. If one adds the assimilated part, the total number of people with Jewish roots was at most two to three percent. This numerically insignificant minority was, however, soon represented in all intellectual professions in sensationally high numbers. From 1841, they controlled more than 40 per cent of all banks in the Reich, only a quarter were exclusively owned by Christians. In the Weimar Republic, 13 percent of all doctors were of Jewish origin; in 1933, this was true of 36 percent of all medical students. This fueled envy and could be exploited for conspiracy theories.

That envy played a decisive role in the relationship between Jews and Germans seems to have been the opinion of none other than the great historian Theodor Mommsen, who put the full weight of his authority on the scales for his Jewish fellow citizens with the words: „The battle of envy and ill-will has broken out on all sides“ (academy speech of 18 March 1880 at the Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Berlin).

Did the special feature of the Jews lie in the fact that wherever we encounter them, they perform above average? Was intellectual excellence the advantage that was able to outweigh the disadvantages of the hatred they encountered? That is quite unlikely, as such an advantage in no way establishes unity between the Jews, certainly not any kind of identity. Bring two Jews together and they come up with four different opinions on every subject – this peculiarity, too, cannot escape an attentive observer. How an aspiration for world domination or even its possibility should arise from such dissent, only their enemies and haters know. If the Jews were to achieve rule anywhere beyond the state of Israel, they would immediately and hopelessly argue about whether this state should better be a democracy, a fascist theocracy or a generalized kibbutz. Their intellectual versatility has undoubtedly been of extraordinary benefit to the Jews in the course of their two thousand years of exile, for it was the prerequisite for successful adaptation. It explains why Jews so often surpassed the autochthonous population, because they were able to adapt with great skill to the respective peculiarities of the peoples among and with whom they lived. In this respect, Nazi hatred was clairvoyant. The Nazis recognized this mental agility, indeed saw in it the actual characteristic of the Jews and reinterpreted it as spiritually corrosive intellectualism. But at the same time, hatred blinded the Nazis, because a culture of dispute could certainly not provide the basis for a unity on which an enduring sense of togetherness let alone world domination could be founded.

But it is precisely this feeling of belonging that exists to a special degree among the Jews. However, it is primarily not based on intellectual but on emotional grounds. Only a strong emotional bond can explain why the Jews did not see their Judaism as a sentence for lifelong condemnation, which they would rather escape today than tomorrow by becoming part of the majority population. What kept them away from such a temptation? I think this is difficult to formulate – certainly not in the language of science such as sociology. Instead, one must name and understand the language itself that creates this bond. First and foremost, there is the synagogue and especially its music. Anyone who is sensitive to this language understands how much shared suffering, but also shared joy, is expressed in the incredibly moving songs of a Jewish synagogue. I have heard these songs only a few times, but whenever I have had the good fortune and the opportunity to listen to them, I have been overcome by their magical intimacy. As a stranger, one feels almost shy to expose oneself to these longing, pleading and at the same time triumphant sounds. One believes one is entering a hidden realm only accessible to the initiated. Together with the many festivities, which have the same emotional significance because they embed the life of each individual in the history of two millennia, these songs are nothing less than revealed history. They tell of unheard-of upsurges of the soul at the same time as incomprehensible suffering – both weld people together in constant remembrance to a community of destiny. Whatever role the individual may play in daily life, as a computer scientist, a medical doctor or simply as an insufferable brawler or arrogant know-it-all, this common tradition, this music and these festivals lift him far above the accidents of individual existence and connect him on a deeper existential level with his peers.

As to faith itself, many of us shake our heads at its beliefs – be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Its often unfounded to absurd rules are and have always been doubted, rejected and reinterpreted. Not a few Jews are agnostic, but even then there is no reason why they should not hold on to the traditional cosmos of festivals and melodies. May they never agree during those disputes of different intellectual viewpoints, on this deeper level each can meet the other. We gentiles can only envy this strange people for such an identity (today a discredited term) that is for this shared cosmos that transcends the individual and the coincidence of his existence. In our own modern world, all references beyond the individual have been increasingly thinned out or wholly abolished. The Enlightenment was a victory for reason, to be sure. We have learned to keep superstition away from us and to subject ourselves and all of nature to science. This has led us to believe only in the world of necessity, utility and usability. We almost forgot man’s potential for self-creation that connects us emotionally. This cannot but have severe consequences. Reason only appeals to our head, not to our feelings but, on the contrary, lets them atrophy. Today we live in a world where we are missing a whole half of human reality: the language of shared feelings. We are extending the cosmos of intelligence further and further, so far that each of us now speaks his or her own language. What can a sign language interpreter tell a data scientist? What can the latter say to a reptile scientist, a logistician or a sound designer? Intellectually, our world is expanding at breakneck speed, but it is turning us into speechless monads where everyone lives emotionally on a desert island.

Our question concerning Jewishness is not only relevant to Jews, it is relevant to human beings in general. The fate of this people proves that human beings are able to overcome even the greatest misfortune when they live with the consciousness of dwelling with others in a cosmos of shared sorrow and joy. This identity provided them with incredible resilience for two thousand years. I do not want to say that they are the only ones, all people are guided by reason and feelings at the same time. But when one by one the traditions that express these feelings in the language of music, daily habits, celebrations and rituals are destroyed or forgotten, emotional emptiness results. To be sure, traditions are not in and of themselves good or worth defending. There are cruel, atrocious, nonsensical traditions. But the best of them stand out because they have grown over centuries and the greatest artists of their time have worked on them. If all this is torn down because a permanent industrial revolution requires the flexible human being, who only appears as a mere function of the economic-technical apparatus, then demagogues and populists must extemporize feelings, pluck them out of thin air, in order to connect people and to create a feeling of commonality. That’s what the Nazis did with the Germans, that’s what Putin is doing with the Russians today. The demagogues‘ extemporized identity creates the very mischief it is supposed to prevent.

Jews provide the example of an identity that serves as a bulwark against disaster. Isn’t it amazing that it is precisely their adherence to two thousand years of history that enables them to be particularly modern to this very day? It should give us pause for thought that they are not modern in spite of a tradition and identity that unites them across the boundaries of space and time, but rather because of it. The Jews‘ sense of belonging has nothing to do with genes. It originates from memes.