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1 December 2023

Jews can be humanists

A lot of evil is done to people because of their particular identities, but that is no reason to entrench those identities in our responses.

By Samuel Moyn

There is no necessary contradiction between Jewish solidarity and human solidarity. Jews have been among the leading seers of universal solidarity, and perhaps from the earliest times. But the seamlessness between the Jewish and the general that I envision for myself has been tested since the slaughter on 7 October, when both Jews and others have made it seem like it is necessary to choose between them.

There is, of course, a contradiction to be faced if Jewish solidarity is defined as privileging “one’s own”. But there is no reason to aim for a Jewish identity that requires such a thing. “One’s own” could include anyone and everyone.

What Hamas did on 7 October is difficult or impossible to justify not because Israelis were killed as Israelis or Jews killed as Jews (and non-Jews were killed too). It is, rather, because human beings were killed in an unresolved political struggle, flouting the expectation that “civilians” or “innocents” are off limits for violence. I don’t mean to deny that a lot of evil is done to people because of their particular identities, but that is not a good reason to entrench those identities in our responses. It is tempting to call out “anti-Semitism” or “genocide” when the deeper wrong was the harm inflicted on another human being. I also don’t mean to trivialise the problem of what oppressed peoples are within their rights to do. People think it is easier than it is to condemn political violence – though almost all successful enterprises in the world have resorted at least to the threat of it. But people also think it is easier than it is to justify mass murder for a good cause. There has been too much needless death and suffering in world history so far, not too little.

Nor does the claim that Israel makes on Jewish mourning mean that those with universalistic aspirations must steer clear of Jewish solidarity, let alone renounce it to avoid its mobilisation by currently more powerful forces. The same is true of the claim to legitimacy that Israel’s politicians have drawn from their promise – a failed promise given 7 October – to afford a safe harbour not just to the country’s own citizens but to all Jews everywhere. This would amount to just another version of the concession that Jewish solidarity is forbidden by human solidarity.

It is not as if the appropriation of Jewish identity, or of the memory of Jews who died lately or over millennia, is unreal in its effects. But if I cannot reserve part of my identity beyond the claims that are made on it, I have no basis on which to critique the instrumentalisation of my identity, to instrumentalise my identity myself, in hopes of changing the conditions of politics. The proper response to appropriation, in short, is counter-appropriation, with full responsibility for one’s one own choices.

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None of this is to suggest that Jewish humanism is an easy proposition. Those who aspire to it will err inevitably between its terms but can still strive to do justice to both. No one is lacking a particular identity they acquire from specific experiences, and the connections everyone makes along the way; so ultimately the problem of squaring Jewish solidarity and human solidarity is itself a universal one.

This article is part of the series What It Means to Be Jewish Now.

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