Matthew Chalmers on Cynthia Baker’s Jew
Calling someone a Jew is not a neutral act. In her new book, Cynthia Baker explains with exemplary clarity how for much of their history the term Jew and its adjacencies (juif, Jude, yid, etc.) were used and defined primarily by non-Jews. Thinking about Jew(s) served in the West as scaffolding within which to construct Christian, European, and other collective identities. Only relatively recently, Baker observes, have those who consider themselves “Jewish” adapted the exonym Jew as a self-designation. Therefore, tracing the meanings of the term from ancient Israel to contemporary America not only speaks to the relationship of Jews to their own worlds, but also illumines the making of premodern Christian and modern European non-Jewish identities.
As a scholar researching ancient and modern representations of Samaritans, I should confess that my first interaction with any book about Jewish identities is often to flip to the index and see whether it mentions them. Samaritans, after all, are a Torah-observant group who also trace their identity back to ancient Israel. Baker’s book does not. I suggest that exploring this omission tells us something more about what Baker’s book does, while also helping to articulate some broader ramifications for the study of Jews and beyond.
Baker is candid about limiting her project to one regionally-bounded arc, which begins in ancient Israel and ends in modern Europe and contemporary North America. While drawing collaboratively on the specialist historical research of scholars from across Jewish Studies, she distances her task from theirs, making space to focus on structural fixations across time as well as on the past genealogies of current scholarly practices and popular assumptions about Jewish identity.
Her argument about the transformation of Jew from exonym to self-designation thus targets a predominantly European phenomenon, which she shows to have been pivotal to broader European Christian conceptualizations of identity. Hence the omission of Samaritans: there have never been large populations of them in Europe. Although present in the ancient Mediterranean context with which Baker begins her study, Samaritans have no part in the blood libel, massacres, exiles, suppression, contested spaces, or campaigns for assimilation that characterize the medieval and modern past of European Jews.
Therefore, Baker does not need to mention Samaritans to succeed in her deft dissection of the term Jew. Since they do not play a comparable conceptual part to Jews vis-à-vis European identity, it makes a lot of sense that her book passes over even the earlier record for the Samaritans. Nevertheless, her inquiry gifts us with a technical toolkit well-suited to working over other identities—and perhaps especially that of the Samaritan. Specialist scholarship in Samaritan Studies has tended to focus on historical reconstructions, in part because of its long history as a field on the margins of Biblical and Jewish Studies. What might research on the Samaritans look like if it took advantage of these more sophisticated tools for thinking about identity through time? In my view, Baker models an approach that can illuminate a simultaneous, often interwoven story.
Despite their contemporary obscurity, Samaritans swirl in and out of the archaeological record of ancient Israel. They appear in the Hebrew Bible, the histories of Flavius Josephus, the New Testament, early Christian texts, the Mishnah, the Talmudim, and other rabbinic literature. When interpreting these literary references, the historian faces problems parallel to those faced with Jews. For example, the scholarly debate over translating Greek Ioudaios into English mirrors a similar dispute over Samareios/Samaritēs. When do these Greek terms denote a “Samarian”—an identifier defined geographically as a resident of the northern kingdom of Israel? And when should we translate as “Samaritan”—invoking something resembling a sectarian Jewish or other such “religious” identity?
Samaritans, moreover, have spent most of their historical existence labouring under names given to them by other people. In this sense, Baker’s emphasis on Jew as exonym proves useful in understanding references to Samaritans as well. Modern Samaritans adopted “Samaritan” as a self-designation when talking to Europeans, following correspondence initiated by the great Dutch antiquarian Joseph Scaliger in 1583. Among themselves, they self-designate as shomer/shomerim, consistent with their self-identification as the true “keepers” of ancient Israelite tradition and the Law of Moses. Josephus and the rabbis, however, called them kutim—a slur undermining their ethnic ties to the land of Israel. This name traces Samaritan origins to Mesopotamian Cutha, one of the five foreign lands from which the King of Assyria replaced the ten “lost tribes” of northern Israel, according to 2 Kings 17:24. Like Jews, they find themselves lumbered with exonyms—although, in this case, mostly by Jews. The rabbis seemed to know—and dismiss—Samaritan self-designation, with the Babylonian Talmud presenting a rabbi who is told when visiting a Samaritan city that in it there were no shomrē torah (“keepers of Torah”).
Early Christian writers, following the Greek translation of 2 Kings 17, called the group Samaritai (for the Hebrew shomronim). Its use in late antique Christian literature attempts to fix Samaritans as a monolithic imagined Other against which Christians could safely define themselves. In the fourth century, for example, Epiphanius of Salamis points out what he perceives as Samaritan idolatry and religious failings, so as to conceptualize and regulate proper Christian practice. So also in medieval and modern Europe. In contrast to the perennial presence and importance of Jews, the persona of Samaritans remains largely imagined, in part due to the absence of any comparable diaspora population. Nevertheless, that persona still serves its part in the mechanisms of Christian identity production. The term can signal an ethical cliché—as most famously in the “Good Samaritan”—or evoke a distant “Oriental” landscape of religious remnants precariously preserving the biblical past.
Even the final and perhaps most arresting concept of Baker’s book, the genomic Jew, conjures up possible parallel insights into the shifting status of Samaritans. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, historian and second president of Israel, ensured after 1949 that Samaritans could take advantage as Israelites of the Law of Return. When searching for a “surviving lineage of ‘native’ Jews in the land” to anchor the population of new Jews, he looked not only to the Jews of Peki’in and Arab fellahin—as Baker so clearly explains—but also to the Samaritans, who live in two modern-day communities in Holon, Israel; and Nablus, Palestine, and with whom Ben-Zvi enjoyed correspondence. He saw Samaritans, in fact, as preserving “the purity of its [Israelite] race” due to their prohibition on intermarriage.
Earlier generations of Zionists also presented Samaritans as exemplars of an unassimilated Hebrew lineage, harnessing the same race-scientific logics that Baker examines with respect to Max Nordau’s “muscular” Jew as the raw material (das Volksmaterial) for nation-building. In the 1907 Jewish Encyclopaedia, for instance, the entry for Samaritans provides tabulations of physiognomic, cephalic measurements, average height, and so on, before it declares under the heading “Include a Blonde Type”:
The general type of physiognomy of the Samaritans is distinctly Jewish, the nose markedly so. Von Luschan derives the Jews from “the Hittites, the Aryan Amorites, and the Semitic nomads.” The Samaritans may be traced to the same origin. The “Amorites were men of great stature” and to them Von Luschan traces the blonds of the modern Jews. With still greater certainty the tall stature and the presence of a blond type among the Samaritans may be referred to the same source. The cephalic index, much lower than that of the modern Jews, may be accounted for by a former direct index of the Semitic nomads, now represented by the Bedouins, whose cephalic index according to measurement of 114 males, is 76.3. The Samaritans have thus preserved the ancient type in its purity; and they are to-day the sole, though degenerate, representatives of the ancient Hebrews.
In stating that Samaritans “have thus preserved the ancient type in its purity” by continuous inhabitation in the Land of Israel, moreover, this entry uses Samaritans to support a genetically-inflected judgment on geographically-dispersed Jews—those who “assimilated in physical as well as in moral qualities to the nations among whom they have long dwelt.”
Ben-Zvi and the early Zionists got their way in the end. According to rabbinic halakha, Samaritans are Gentiles. Nevertheless, as citizens of Israel, every Samaritan today carries an ID card and passport displaying their status as iehudi. A 1994 legal judgment ensured this would remain the case for the foreseeable future. By means of their status as Israelites and Israelis, Samaritans entangle with Jews even as Jews write themselves as a genomic and national body.
Attention to Samaritans even uncovers a recurring structural component of Jew that Baker’s book largely passes over in silence—that is, the unresolved tension between the landedness and portability of Jewish identities. In his Antiquities, for instance, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus recounts a history of the Ioudaioi, centred on the Land of Israel. But he also advocates for the portability of this identity, governed by ancient customs that remain stable even when carried beyond Judaea. He does so in part by characterizing the Samaritans as a foreign importation into the land of Israel in a way that simultaneously implies that Jews are not. Josephus grants them no stable transportable identity, and describes them as repeatedly attempting to mimic the connection of Jews to the land of Israel into which they are thrown.
In accordance with her trajectory toward modern Jewish identity in Europe and America, Baker’s book tells a story that involves the portability of Jewishness. Debates over a geographical sense of Yehudi, Ioudaios, etc. only arise early in her book, and even there she moves quickly to discuss how those terms also served to denote those outside Israel. When we look to Jewish representations of Samaritans, however, we see something of a continued tension. The modern construction of the genomic Jew in relation to the physiognomic Samaritans noted above, for instance, reveals continued concern over whether Jewish identity is ever effectively decoupled from the Land of Israel. After all, it was precisely Samaritan inhabitation of Holon and Nablus for as long as anyone could remember—and hence the geographical emplacement core to the identity of a non-Jewish “Israelite” people—that made them so attractive to some early Zionists. The Samaritans trouble any assumption that Jewish identity ever became unproblematically portable. Anxiety about dispersion remains only one Samaritan comparison away.
What does it mean, given all this, that Baker can so effectively dissect the term Jew without mentioning Samaritans even once? Discussing Jew(s) generates a fruitful analysis of identity because European identity-formation centers the Christian past in a manner that also implicates a Jewish one. The term Jew thereby absorbs the fracturing of postmodernity as well as the contestation of Jewishness in an actively universalising Europe, an Israel increasingly claiming to speak for all Jews, and an individualizing and pluralistic America. Within this trajectory, the absence of Samaritans simply indicates that Samaritan identity is not that relevant now and here, insofar as now and here is defined by the European body and the history of interactions between Christians and Jews.
But just as calling someone Jew is not a neutral act, I wonder whether this is also the case with what is forgotten in the process of constructing this Jewishness. Both in common parlance and within Jewish Studies, Jew as an identity has come to function ably without Samaritans. But it was not always this way. Go back far enough, or look in the right places, and Samaritans start popping back into view. As an ethnos, for instance, Samaritans in Roman Palestine were as much a priority to the later empire as Jews. During the time when Jew still functioned predominantly as an exonym, moreover, they played a notable role in the inner-Jewish articulation of what it meant to be “Israel” and Ioudaioi. Samaritans serve as the foil against which the Jewish historian Josephus presented his understanding of Ioudaioi to Romans and others in the ancient Mediterranean. And Samaritans continually annoy late antique Sages, even to the degree that rabbis imagined punishing them for blaspheming.
Even despite all this, Samaritans can fall out of sight. Although Israelites in antiquity and Israelis in modernity (even entitled to repatriation under the Law of Return), they are dropped out of many narratives about Jews. This forgetting offers a powerful example of what Baker emphasizes in her final chapter: there is no prima facie reason that any one group is indispensable to our thought about particular identities. Baker’s book is shaped by a specific vision of here, now, and us. The cautiousness with which she signals her narrative choices calls us to attend to historical selectivity and its erasure of alternative pasts and perspectives. Thus, in its exemplary play with limits, the book highlights the spaces and places where more is yet to come, where the past yawns as void, and where the limits of identity mark the edges of our attention—not just for Jews, but for Europe, America, and all of us paying attention to the consequences of historically-narrated identities.
This is the third essay in the Marginalia Forum on Cynthia Baker’s Jew.
Matthew Chalmers is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.