There is something absurd about identifying with the racial and ethnic groups into which we are born.
After all, if you could be anything, there is little reason to limit yourself to being a Muslim or Jew or African-American.
And there may even be a moral imperative to shed these birth-based identities: they contribute to war and they limit the free development of our unique human capacities.
But a Palestinian friend in Jerusalem raised an interesting point this summer. With bright eyes and a tremendous laugh, he explained over strong Arabic coffee outside a Palestinian nationalist bookstore, that he considered himself, first and foremost, a human being.
He would not even think of himself as a Palestinian if not for the occupation, he explained. But because of the occupation, this was the identity around which his people might best organize.
He was not getting at the idea, often espoused by Israelis, that there are no real Palestinian people. Rather, he was getting at the more post-modern notion that national identities, whether Israeli or Palestinian, German or French, are mere social constructions.
Top theorists of nationalism, like Ernst Gellner and Benedict Anderson, are agreed that national identities arise when scattered peoples are faced with the problem of finding some common ground upon which they might found a state.
They will organize around a shared language, a shared religion, shared participation in a former empire—anything that might provide the sense of unity needed to win a state.
This was exactly what the Zionists did, after all, in taking a wide array of racially and culturally dissimilar Jews from around the world into the state of Israel and calling them a “nation”.
The irony of our meeting was that I would not consider myself a Jew if not for the occupation either. Whenever I use the word to describe myself it feels like a tight fitting business suit, stretching over my oh-so-free body. But the tensions arising from the occupation have led some people close to me to press my Jewishness upon me as a means of enlisting me in their cause. And while I have rejected their expectations, I have done so in a peculiarly Jewish manner. Recognizing this irony opens a door to a much wider conversation.
The philosopher Charles Taylor writes that we are born, not so much into identities, but rather arguments that stretch across the generations.
Thus, the American cannot escape from somehow answering what it means to be part of the world’s sole superpower. She can take a stand against American imperialism, but in so doing she will tend to draw from a tradition of arguments that stretch back from the sixties counter-culture through the Transcendentalists and Quakers, all the way down to Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets.
There is a particularly “American” way of rejecting empire, in other words, just as there is a particularly “Jewish” way of rejecting tribalism and a particularly “Muslim” way of rejecting intolerance.
And when an American challenges his country to give up its imperial possessions, or a Jew challenges his country to end the occupation, it holds more weight with fellow countrymen than when others make the same argument. It holds more weight because these individuals can be expected to understand both sides of the story, and they speak a language that might be understood by the members of their own team.
So, there is a sense in which the great moral questions of the peoples into whom we are born are thrust upon us. We are not just born into ethnic and racial identities but moral imperatives.
To attempt to throw off these moral imperatives is to reject duties that have been thrust upon us by circumstance, like a sick and aged parent, with no one else to care for them. Doing so can make us less-than-fully human.
And yet, each of us deserves to write the narrative of our lives for ourselves.
Each of us deserves the freedom to determine our own values.
However, the rejection of the identities into which we have been born is easier in some places than others; and this cannot simply be explained by education and the freedom that comes with development. There is a long and deep tradition of rejecting Judaism and Christianity, a much shallower tradition of rejecting Islam. What we are seeing here are deep cultural grooves, arguments have been laid down over centuries, even millennia, and are continually renewed.
Those trailblazers among us, who in grappling with the moral dilemmas into which we have been born, craft new arguments and new identities. These new identities can provide new opportunities for the full expression of our humanity. But the effort to craft an identity as if from nowhere often involves an illusory freedom.
Even the reasons we use in throwing off the great arguments into which we have been born will tend to emerge from the very cultures of which we are a part. And the end result may be an identity that is less freely generated and more free from the things that most make us human.
And yet, it is nevertheless my belief that those daring individuals, seeking to throw off the accidents of their birth, and to live according to their own lights, have a vital role to play in cultural regeneration.
Throwing off the constrictive clothing of our Jewishness or Americanness or what have you is itself an important part of cultural development. And in this age of increasing tribalism it may be some of the most necessary and preparatory work for the global conversations we must initiate to solve the great global challenges of the twenty-first century.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: Matt Shalvatis/Flickr