Marina Benjamin, author of the Last Days of Babylon, and I spoke about her family story, her experiences in Iraq during the war, and her thoughts on Babylonian Jewry. Here is an excerpt of our conversation, published as a Q&A in the Forward:
Q: You write about the last remaining Jews of Baghdad and, in doing so, declare that millennia-old Jewish life there has come to an end. Those Jews who remained behind, you write, chose to be Iraqis first and Jews second. Would there be inherent worth in the reconstitution of Jewish life in Iraq?
A: It is a question that is hard for me to answer, as someone who was not born in Iraq. But I know many Iraqis who would certainly entertain going back, were such a thing possible, and who believe Jewish life should be resuscitated. As I write in the book, this is a place of ancient importance to the Jews. In fact, one of the responses to the Balfour Declaration was that Iraqis couldn’t quite understand why Palestine was being chosen as the national home. They said: “Well, why can’t Mesopotamia be the national home? We have the history! Abraham was born here, Daniel was here, Ezra was here.” You can’t accuse the Iraqi Jews of never being proud of their heritage.
Funny–American Jews seem to think the same thing now. Simon Rawidowicz had it right in his essay, Babylon and Jerusalem: in every generation there is a Babylon and a Jerusalem–and we need to ensure that Jerusalem frames Babylon, and not the other way around.
In an article published by the Jerusalem Post I explore the implications of a study conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman entitled “Cultural Events & Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York.“
The article discusses a point I have been seized of for quite some time: our contemporary zeitgeist is one where universalism is the norm, and particular or distinct cultures–with distinct value systems and historical missions–are seen as no more than consumer choices to be adopted for the aesthetic benefit of the user. Multiculturalism, in this case, becomes no more than a gloss on Universalism–a way to spice up the common framework that we all operate under. To use computer terms, as is often done, we are said to all be functioning under the same operating system, with only the windows or programs we choose being different.
I disagree–and tried to express so much in this article. Unfortunately, due to length, my argument was significantly cut. Specifically the part where I give the reasons behind my protest. In the original, I write:
Those interested in preserving a distinctive Jewish People—a people with essentially valuable values, a distinct mission of Justice a and culture that transcend aesthetic choices and will borrow from other cultures but is not assimilated into them, should attempt to prevent further deterioration—and it seems the disease might contain the cure. As Hillel Director Wayne Firestone has said, “Multiculturalism presents an opportunity for us to attract young Jews to Jewish life,” because they are already turned on to the aesthetic. The success of Chabad has shown that youth today are not afraid of something being “too Jewish.” An excellent study by social scientist Bethamie Horowitz entitled “Connections and Journeys,” published in 2000, affirms that non-Orthodox experiences such as youth movements and Israel trips can inspire increased allegiance as well. It seems that the more commitment demanded, the more seriously we take our choices—and the more committed we become to the Jewish People.
The choice, therefore, is ours. Either the multiculturalist ethos will lead my generation to assimilate into the global community, thereby loosing our potential power as a collective actor, or we will use multiculturalism as a tool to open new pathways to a Hebrew identity shaped by Jewish knowledge and history. If we believe the Jewish People to be inherently valuable, we should recognize that it is not enough to be Jewish in symbols. Laughing about Heebs is great once in a while, but only after a robust Hebrew identity has been encouraged by programs that demand more from us than a night on the town.
I hope we make the right choice.