Secular “Jewishness:” The Case of Isaac Deutscher


Somehow, all of this recent talk and thought about philosophy and biography, or philosophy as biography, has gotten me thinking about identity.  In his 1954 essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” Isaac Deutscher writes, “The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.”  Such heretics for Deutscher are Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud:

All of them had this in common, that the very conditions in which they lived and worked did not allow them to reconcile themselves to ideas which were nationally or religiously limited and induced them to strive for a universal Weltanshauung.

Deutscher’s argument is basically that the Jewish backgrounds of these thinkers was critical to their becoming revolutionaries, but yet, each of these thinkers could not reach their dream of “universal human emancipation” within the borders that mark the Jewish tradition. 

This is not to say that Deutscher is without his problems, nor are the examples he cites.  Trotsky was rumored to have replied to requests for help from the head Rabbi in Moscow during the civil war by claiming he wasn’t even Jewish so what did he care.  I think Luxemborg renounced her “Jewishness” and Marx certainly said some unfortunate things about Jews.  Often cited by vehement anti-Zionists (as if Zionism is one thing) Deutscher had some silly things to say about Israel, but one would expect such from an avowed internationalist for whom the project of Jewish nationalism is anathema from the start.  In his essay (actually a speech he gave to the World Jewish Congress in 1958), “Who is a Jew,” Deutscher remarked:

Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.

This is a very interesting response, and really, a very Jewish one.  This begs a number of questions: Is it ever possible to reconcile ethnic fidelities with a commitment to “universal human emancipation? ” Is the only option to simply choose sides, that is, either a nationalist (particularism) or a “non-Jewish Jew” (universalism/cosmpolitanism)?  But here’s the thing, if Judaism is a particular community/ethnicity/religion with a universal aims/goals/ramifications (e.g. a light unto the nations) to begin with then there is no choice to be made, the “Jew” as such would not have to choose either/or, but then again, perhaps I’m just not very dogmatic.

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1 thought on “Secular “Jewishness:” The Case of Isaac Deutscher

  1. Pingback: Badiou, Rosenzweig and the word “Jew” « Perverse Egalitarianism

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