In his negotiations to secure a permanent burial place from the Hittites, Abraham describes himself as a “ger toshav.” In Biblical Hebrew, the word “ger” means a sojourner, someone just passing through. As opposed to the home-born, the “ger” had no inherited rights. A “toshav” means a temporary resident, one who may choose to dwell in a given place, usually for a long period of time, but is not considered a full citizen. (See RaShI and ibn Ezra on Genesis 23:4.) Grammatically, the term “ger toshav” is a hendiadys, a construction that joins two seemingly independent terms. In Abraham’s case, it connotes ambivalence. It is as if Abraham is saying that he is unsure whether his neighbors consider him a resident or an alien – but certainly not a full citizen. Abraham is expressing his self-perception that he does not fit in.
What may seem to be an arcane grammatical phrase is really an ancient antecedent to an ongoing issue. How do we as Jews view ourselves? Are we Jews who happen to reside in Canada, France, Argentina, or the United States? Or, are we Canadian, Frenchmen, Argentinians or Americans who happen to be Jews? Experience has shown that this question belies an easy answer.
Despite the signal contributions Jews had made to Spanish culture, economics, and politics, these contributions were overlooked when theology and chauvinism demanded that Jews be expelled from Spain in 1492 – a mistake admitted by King Juan Carlos in 1992. In the euphoria that followed emancipation, Jews rushed to integrate into Western society. For a while, all was good: Jews in Germany, for example, played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s character. A Jewish jurist wrote the Weimar constitution. Kafka brought German literature into the existential world as Buber revolutionized theology. Freud explored the limits of the mind while Einstein expanded the limits of physics. Schoenberg brought new life to music with his twelve-tone system, building on the musical heritage inherited from Mendelssohn. All these innovations enriched the world as well as the reputation of Germany. Yet when the fever of anti-Semitism gave rise to Nazism, Jews were again labeled as alien. The echo of Abraham’s ambivalence still reverberates today.
The only place on earth in which the question of the status of Jews is not in doubt is Israel. This is the very point emphasized by all the founders and thinkers of Zionism. Israel is the one safe haven in which we need not even ask the question.