Why I Am a Jew
by Edmond Fleg, 1927
(Translated from French. Excerpts from original as reprinted in The Zionist Idea; a Historical Analysis and Reader edited by Arthur Hertzberg)
People ask me why I am a Jew. It is to you that I want to answer, little unborn grandson. When will you be old enough to listen to me? My elder son is nineteen, the younger fourteen. When will you be born? Perhaps in ten years' time, perhaps in fifteen. When will you read what I am writing? In 1950 or thereabouts? In 1960? Will anybody be reading in 1960? What will the world look like then? Will the machine have killed the soul? Will the mind have created for itself a new universe? Will the problems that trouble me today mean anything to you? Will there still be Jews? I believe there will. They have survived the Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed, the Inquisition, and assimilation; they will know how to survive the motorcar.
But you - will you feel yourself a Jew, my child? People say to me, "You are a Jew because you were born a Jew; you neither willed it nor can change it." Will this explanation satisfy you if, though born a Jew, you no longer feel one? When I was twenty I too had no lot, nor part in Israel; I was persuaded that Israel would disappear, and that in twenty years' time people would no longer speak of her. Twenty years have passed, and another twelve, and I have become a Jew again-so obviously, that I am asked, "Why are you a Jew?"
What has happened to me can happen to you, my child. If you believe that the flame of Israel is extinguished in you, watch and wait; one day, it will burn again. This is a very old story, repeated in every generation: A thousand times Israel it has seemed, must die, and a thousand times she has lived again. I want to tell you how she died and lived again in me, so that, if she dies in you, you in your turn can feel her born in you once more.
So I shall have brought Israel to you, and you shall bring her to others, if you will and can. And both of us, in our own way, will have preserved and handed on the divine commandment:
"Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them to your children."
Since the beginning of the Dreyfus affair the Jewish question had seemed to me a reality; now it appeared tragic: "What is Judaism? - A danger, they say, for the society to which you belong. What danger?... But first, am I still a Jew?... I have abandoned the Jewish religion.... You are a Jew all the same.... How?... Why?... What ought I to do?... Must I kill myself because I am a Jew?"
At moments I envied the strong and narrow faith of my ancestors. Penned in their ghettos by contempt and hatred, they at least knew why. But I knew nothing. How could I learn?
Of Israel I was entirely ignorant. And I regretted all the years I had spent in the study of philosophy, of Germanic philogy, and of comparative literature. I ought to have learned Hebrew, to have studied my race, its origins, its beliefs, its role in history, its place among the human groups of today; I ought to have attached myself, through my race, to something that would be myself and more than myself, and to have continued, through her, something that others had begun and that others after me would continue.
And I told myself that if I made some other use of my life, if I devoted myself to some other study, if later I founded a family without being able to bequeath to my children some ancestral ideal, I should always experience an obscure remorse, the vague feeling of having failed in a duty. And I remembered my dead father, I reproached myself with not having understood that Jewish wisdom of which he talked to me and which lived in him - and with no longer finding, by my own fa ult, anything in common between Israel's past and my own empty soul.
It was then that, for the first time, I heard of Zionism. You cannot imagine what a light that was, my child! Remember that, at the period of which I am writing, this word Zionism had never yet been spoken in my presence. The anti-Semites accused the Jews of forming a nation within nations; but the Jews, or at any rate those whom I came across, denied it. And now here were the Jews declaring: "We are a people like other peoples; we have a country just as others have. Give us back our country."
I made inquiries: The Zionist idea, it appeared, had its origins far back in the days of the ancient prophets; the Bible promised the Jews of the dispersion that they should return to the Holy Land; during the whole of the Middle Ages only their faith in this promise kept them alive; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such great spirits as Maurice de Saxe, the Prince de Ligne, and Napoleon had caught a glimpse of the philanthropic, political, economic, religious, and moral advantages which a resettlement of the Jews in Palestine might offer; since 1873 colonies had been founded there and were developing; and now a new apostle, Theodor Herzl, was calling upon the Jews of the whole world to found the Jewish state. Was this the solution for which I was looking? It explained so many things. If the Jews really formed but a single nation, one began to understand why they were considered Jews even when they ceased to practice their religion, and it became credible, too, that a nation which had welcomed them should be able to accuse them of not always being devoted to its national interests. Then the Zionist idea moved me by its sublimity; I admired in these Jews, and would have wished to be able to admire in myself, this fidelity to the ancestral soil which still lived after two thousand years, and I trembled with emotion as I pictured the universal exodus which would bring them home, from their many exiles, to the unity that they had reconquered.
The Third Zionist Congress was about to open at Basel. I decided to attend it. My knowledge of German enabled me to follow the debates pretty closely.
I listened to it all; but, with even greater interest, I looked about me. What Jewish contrasts! A pale-faced Pole with high cheekbones, a German in spectacles, a Russian looking like an angel, a bearded Persian, a clean shaven American, an Egyptian in a fez, and, over there, that black phantom, towering up in his immense caftan, with his fur cap and pale curls falling from his temples. And in the presence of all these strange faces, the inevitable happened; I felt myself a Jew, very much a Jew,...
...What then, for me, was Zionism? It could enthrall me, it enthralls me still, this great miracle of Israel which concerns the whole of Israel: three million Jews will speak Hebrew, will live Hebrew on Hebrew soil! But, for the twelve million Jews who remain scattered throughout the world, for them and for me, the tragic question remained: What is Judaism? What ought a Jew to do? How be a Jew? Why be a Jew?
I am a Jew because, born of Israel and having lost her,
I have felt her live again in me, more living than myself.
I am a Jew because, born of Israel and having regained her,
I wish her to live after me, more living than in myself.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel if the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; men are completing it.
I am a Jew because, above the nations and Israel, Israel places man and his Unity.
I am a Jew because above man, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the divine Unity, and its divinity.
Sometimes, my child, when I wander through a museum, and stand before all the pictures and statues and furniture and armor, the faience, the crystals, the mosaics, the garments and the finery, the coins and the jewels, gathered there, from every place and every age, to hang on the walls, to stand on the plinths, to line up behind the balustrades, to be classified, numbered, and ticketed in the glass cases, I think that one or other of my ancestors may have seen, touched, handled, or admired one or other of these things, in the very place where it was made, and at the very time when it was made, for the use, the labor, the pain, or the joy of men.
This door with the gray nails, between two poplars, in a gilded frame, this is the Geneva synagogue where my father went in to pray. And see this bridge of boats on the Rhone: my grandfather crossed the Rhine, at Huninger. And his grandfather, where did he live? Perhaps as he dreamily calculated the mystical numbers of the cabbala he saw, through his quiet window, this sledge slide over the snow of Germany or Poland? And the grandfather of his grandfather's grandfather? Perhaps he was this money-changer, in this Amsterdam ghetto, painted by Rembrandt...
...One of them drove this plow, tempered in the fire, through the plains of Sharon; one of them went up to them Temple to offer, in these plaited baskets, his tithe of figs...
...and this Sumerian idol, with spherical eyes and angular jaws, is perhaps the very one that Abraham broke when he left his Chaldean home to follow the call of his invisible G-d.
And I say to myself: From this remote father right up to my own father, all these fathers have handed on to me a truth which flowed in their blood, which flows in mine; and shall I not hand it on, with my blood, to those of my blood?
Will you take if from me, my child? Will you hand it on? Perhaps you will wish to abandon it. If so, let it be for a greater truth, if there is one. I shall not blame you. It will be my fault; I shall have failed to hand it on as I have received it.
But, whether you abandon it or whether you follow it, Israel will journey on to the end of days.