"What exactly could 'being Jewish' mean in the 1920's to an intelligent Anglo-Viennese boy who suffered no anti-Semitism and was so remote from the practices and beliefs of traditional Judaism that, until after puberty, he was unaware even of being circumcised? Perhaps only this: that sometime around the age of ten I acquired a simple principle from my mother on a now forgotten occasion when I must have reported, or perhaps even repeated, some negative observations of an uncle's behaviour as 'typically Jewish'. She told me very firmly: 'You must never do anything, or seem to do anything that might suggest that you are ashamed of being a Jew.'
I have tried to observe it ever since, although the strain of doing so is sometimes intolerable, in the light of the behaviour of the government of Israel. My mother's principle was sufficient for me to abstain, with regret, from declaring myself konfessionslos (without religion) as one was entitled to do in Austria at the age of thirteen. It has landed me with the lifetime burden of an unpronounceable surname which seems spontaneously to call for the convenient slide into Hobson or Osborn. It has been enough to define my Judaism ever since, and left me free to live as what my friend Isaac Deutscher called a 'non-Jewish Jew', but not what the miscellaneous regiment of religious or nationalist publicists call a 'self-hating Jew'. I have no emotional obligation to the practices of an ancestral religion and even less to the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds. I do not even have to fit in with the most fashionable posture of the turn of the new century, that of 'the victim', the Jew who, on the strength of the Shoah (and in the era of unique and unprecedented Jewish world achievement, success and public acceptance), asserts unique claims on the world's conscience as a victim of persecution.
Right and wrong, justice and injustice, do not wear ethnic badges or wave national flags. And as a historian I observe that, if there is any justification for the claim that the 0.25 per cent of the global population in the year 2000 which constitute the tribe into which I was born are a 'chosen' or special people, it rests not on what it has done within the ghettos or special territories, self-chosen or imposed by others, past, present or future. It rests on its quite disproportionate and remarkable contribution to humanity in the wider world, mainly in the two centuries or so since the Jews were allowed to leave the ghettos, and chose to do so. We are, to quote the title of the book by my friend Richard Marienstras, Polish Jew, French Resistance fighter, defender of Yiddish culture and his country's chief expert on Shakespeare, 'un peuple en diaspora'. We shall, in all probability, remain so. And if we make the thought experiment of supposing that Herzl's dream came true and all Jews ended up in a small independent territorial state which excluded from full citizenship all who were not the sons of Jewish mothers, it would be a bad day for the rest of humanity - and for the Jews themselves."
-- Eric Hobsbawm: Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (Pantheon, 2002, p.24).
Link: Obituary: Eric Hobsbawm, BBC News, 1 Oct 2012
Photo: Street sign on the lower east side, NYC, Sept 30 2006.