What Is Rootless Cosmopolitan?

It’s the successor to the Tony Karon weblog and email commentaries that I sent out from 9/11 onward to a list that eventually grew to several hundred friends and colleagues in different parts of the world. Initially, they focused mostly on that slow-motion catastrophe known as the “war on terror” (including Iraq) but as this new state of affairs became our permanent reality, the commentaries also began covering more quotidian obsessions such as football (soccer!), pop culture and cuisine. It’s a kind of en famille commentary from an exasperated journalist watching the unfolding of a tragedy foretold. If Rootless Cosmopolitan were a cocktail, the recipe, with apologies to Gramsci, would be equal parts pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Explaining the Name

“Rootless Cosmopolitan” was Stalin’s euphemistic pejorative for “Jew” during his anti-Semitic purges of the late 1940s. But as an African Jew with roots in Eastern Europe and before that France, raised under the cultural aegis of the British empire but living in the great global transit lounge that is New York (still playing the odd game of tennis-ball cricket with Jamaicans or Kashmiris in the parks of Brooklyn), I’ll happily answer to “rootless cosmopolitan” – even wear it as a badge of honor.

Rootless cosmopolitanism may describe my experience of Jewishness, but its hardly exclusive to Jews: It applies equally to most of the people I love and respect from every corner of the planet who see themselves as citizens of the world, their identities defined by multiple affinities formed in their movement through the spaces between cultures, their instincts including a disdain for racism and cultural (and geopolitical) arrogance, and a tendency to understand and respond to events through a global prism, rather than via the ties of blood and soil. Whether they were raised Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist; whether their origins are Jewish, Indian, English, Scottish, Irish, German, Chilean, Persian, Basque, Israeli, Palestinian, Australian, Serb, Libyan, Midwestern or what have you, they are always most at home among people of similar heart and spirit.

All of the great Jewish intellectual, philosophical, moral and cultural exemplars I can think of were products not of a separate Jewish existence, but of the Diaspora, our dispersal among the cultures of the world. Whether it’s Maimonides or Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein or Derrida; Kafka or Primo Levi; Serge Gainsbourg or Daniel Barenboim; Lenny Bruce or Bob Dylan; Mike Leigh or Ali G; kneidlach or rugelach or so many of the brooding operatic tunes I heard in synagogue as a kid; all are products not of Jews living only among themselves, but of our interaction with diverse influences in the Diaspora.

I’m a proud South African, and a proud African. I spent my youth there and had the privilege of working for a decade as a full-time activist in the liberation struggle against apartheid – an experience I wouldn’t exchange for anything. Frankly, it was that experience, more than any other, that taught me how to be a Jew in the world, and affirmed my rootless cosmopolitan instincts. I’m not at all religious, and certainly no Zionist (Israel in no way “represents” me, nor do I believe that it should hold a place for me, and others like me who’ve chosen to live elsewhere — the majority of Jews, actually — at the expense of others.) But I am proudly Jewish, my own sense of the meaning of that term captured in that famous comment by the great rabbi Hillel, who when challenged to define Judaism while standing on one foot, said: “That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others. All the rest is commentary.”

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