Starting from Benny Morris’ diatribe, Kathleen Christison analyzes how many Jews deal with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Her analysis leads me to some thoughts of my own.
“Halper writes that as one of the few Israelis who have ever even been to Palestine, he finds it ‘impossible to convey to my own people, my own neighbors (good people all, even the Likud voters), what occupation means, why they should feel responsible and resist with me. Israel is a self-contained bubble with a self-contained and exclusively Jewish narrative.’”
Having myself grown up in the Orthodox Jewish world, I understand the source of Jewish insularity (“the Bubble” Halper talks about) and how disturbing it can be for those who come from a different world. However, the indocrination process is so complete, it took me many years to figure this out.
In my sophomore year in college I was travelling through Europe. Halfway through my trip I met an American girl from the Midwest in Paris, and we hit it off so well, we decided to travel together. In Rome we hooked up for a day with two other American college students.
Over dinner at some Roman bistro, we somehow got into a discussion about marrying people of a different race or religion. Considering this was the ’70s and we were all college students it’s pretty amazing we were talking about marriage at all! Without thinking I said that while I have no problem marrying someone of a different race, I would never marry someone not Jewish.
One of the other students was a fellow New Yorker from an Italian family. She was very upset with what I said and we got into a long and somewhat heated (at least on her part) discussion. I couldn’t understand what was bothering her. Obviously I had no problem dating someone not Jewish – after all my travelling companion wasn’t Jewish. And even then, I didn’t think Jews are superior in any way. But I felt that when you have a family and kids, you want a partner who shares your values. After all, isn’t marriage hard enough without adding the complexity of being married to someone from a different cultural background?
But she didn’t let up. To her, my statement was a slap in her face, a huge insult. In her eyes I was saying that non Jewish women were good enough to be sexual partners but weren’t good enough to be viewed as potential life partners. Her reaction shook me up, but didn’t change my mind at the time.
A few years later, when I was in graduate school, Marie Osmond publicly declared that she would never marry someone who wasn’t Christian. This created quite a stink at the time, and she was accused of being anti-Semitic. Sitting around in the student lounge, one of my fellow students turned to me with a wicked smile and asked in a challenging voice, what I thought of her announcement. To which I responded: “Well I would never marry her either.” The question however made me very uncomfortable, which was exactly his purpose.
After all, why was it ok for me or any other Jew to say we would only marry someone Jewish, while if a Christian says the same thing, she is criticized for being anti-Jewish or biased in some way? Why is my statement in Rome not an insult to my dinner companions, while Marie Osmond was castigated for saying essentially the same thing – that she wanted to raise a family with someone who shares her values?
This is an issue that is relevant not just for Jews, but for any tribal group. If you see your tribal culture as being something of value, shouldn’t you do everything you can to perserve it? Isn’t group solidarity a positive value, necessary for a minority to fight the pressures of assimilation? At what point does tribal pride cross into insularity and xenophobia?
This issue of solidarity and pride on the one hand, and assimilation and insularity on the other, has long plagued the Jewish people. Starting with the Jewish Bible, there are lot’s of places where the message is clear and uncompromising: stick to your own kind. For example, Abraham makes a point of ensuring that his son Isaac marries someone from the tribe. Isaac does the same for his son Jacob.
Even more to the point, is the story of the encounter between the Moabites and Israelites before the latter conquered Canaan. As the Israelites approached Canaan, they came near the land of the Moabites, who were very frightened by what they had heard about this people who had defeated their Egyptian overlords. They were afraid they too would be destroyed by the conquering Israelites. So the Moabites approach the prophet Balaam and ask him to curse the Israelites. But instead of cursing them, Balaam can only bless them. Balaam and the Moabites give up in frustration.
Right after this, we read (Numbers 25:1) how “the [Israelite] people began to whore with the women of Moav.” The Rabbis, commenting on this verse, say that the seduction of the Israelite men was actually a tactic suggested by Balaam after he failed to curse the Israelites. This “whoring” led the Israelites to worship the god of the Moabites, which got our God mighty pissed. God started a great plague which felled thousands of Israelites. One of the Israelite tribesman lorded his woman in front of Moses and the other Israelite tribal leaders, who could only weep in despair and frustration. But Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron the high Priest, grabbed a spear and skewered the man and his Moabite “whore” through their private parts which appeased God’s wrath and ended the plague (it’s all there in the Bible).
In case you missed it, the message of this story is quite stark: intermarriage is a bad thing, stick to the women of your tribe if you want to avoid the wrath of Yahweh. In any case, foreign women are no better than whores.
These attitudes have come down through the ages. The Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman is “shigsa” which is an extremely derogatory term. It essentially connotes being a cheap whore, and is usually spat more than spoken. Inter-marriage has long been seen as almost treason. Even now the Jewish establishment views intermarriage as the greatest threat to Jewish continuity. As Christison notes, the Jewish cult of the Holocaust reinforces these tendencies. The Jews were nearly destroyed by Hitler. Ergo, the message Jews are given is that marrying out of the faith is tantamount to a victory for the Nazis.
But Judaism would not have survived for so many centuries if it is a simple-minded culture. In the very same Bible we learn that King David is a decendant of a Moabite woman – Ruth. Yes, the great-grandmother of the King of Israel was from the same Moabites as the woman whom Pinhas skewered. And further up the ancestral chain, David is a descendant of Tamar, a Canaanite woman who (justifiably) tricked her father-in-law Judah into impregnating her by pretending she was a prostitute! And yet the Rabbis see David as the annointed one, God’s chosen – the Messiah whose descendant will redeem the world and Israel. (This was Jesus’ grandpappy as well).
Speaking of redemption, the concluding prayer of the three Jewish prayer services is the “Aleinu.” The first paragraph of this prayer is extremely chauvinistic and xenophobic – the Jews declare our superiority to other nations, whom we note (in the uncensored version) pray to empty and meaningless forms. And yet the second paragraph is a prayer looking forward to the spread of God’s dominion to all nations and hopes for the day when the whole world will be united as one under God’s peaceful rule.
The tension between particularism and universalism also plays out in a famous passage in the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva is one of the most well known and beloved of the Talmudic rabbis. Akiva, however, was a supporter of Bar Kokhba, the zealous Jewish nationalist whose rebellion against Rome was mercilessly crushed.
Akiva declared Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah, God’s annointed one, the redeemer of Israel, King of the Jews, descendant of David. Ben Azzai, a colleague of Akiva said to him: “Akiva, grass will grow in your cheeks (i.e. you will long be dead and buried) before the Messiah comes.” Considering how the hope for the coming of the Messiah is a central tenant of Judaism, this was an extremely cheeky saying on Ben Azzai’s part, in more ways than one. Yet Ben Azzai spoke with amazing prescience.
The debate between Akiva and Ben Azzai actually had an earlier precedent. The Rabbis tell us that during the first rebellion led by the Zealots, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin so that he could negotiate with the Vespasian who was besieging Jerusalem. He had to resort to this subterfuge, because the Jewish Zealots would have murdered him had they known his true intentions.
When he met with Vespasian, the legend goes, ben Zakkai said the Jews would surrender on one condition: Give me Yavne and its sages. Yavne was a center of Jewish learning at the time. ben Zakkai, like ben Azzai, believed that Jewish culture and physical survival are greater values than some zealous nationalism.
In fact, while Vespasian did destroy the Temple and crush the Zealots, ben Zakkai bought the Jewish people a few more decades of peace in Israel. It was Bar Kokhba’s rebellion that caused the Romans to totally uproot the Jews from their land. For the subsequent generations of Rabbis, Bar Kokhba was Bar Koziba – the false hope. The Rabbis tell us that in response to Bar Kokhba the Romans slaughtered so many Jews rivers of blood literally flowed through the streets. His rebellion forced the Jews to be exiled from their homeland for 1800 years.
It should be pointed out that Bar Kokhba is a hero for some Zionists, especially Jabotinsky’s Revisionists. The Revisionist youth movement named itself after Betar, the city where Akiva’s students, followers of Bar Kokhba, were mercilessly slaughtered by the Romans. Betar is a symbol of the worst disaster to befall the Jews prior to Auschwitz, a curious choice of names.
Perhaps Ben Azzai’s and Akiva’s political differences are rooted in a more fundamental disagreement. The Talmud notes: “Rabbi Akiva says: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself. This is a great principle of the Torah.’ Ben Azzai says: ‘These are the generations of mankind. This is a greater principle of Torah.’”
The Hebrew for “Love your neighbor as yourself” can also be read as “Love your neighbor who is like you” – in other words a call for tribal solidarity. Akiva believed in the primacy of Jewish solidarity above all over values. As such he blindly supported a nationalist zealot, who led the Jews to one of the greatest disasters in their history.
“These are the generations of mankind” refers to the sentance in the Bible preceding the genealogy of the descendants of Adam. The Rabbis note God created only one Adam so that no person can say: “My father is greater than yours.” For Ben Azzai, our primary moral imperative is the universal one – all humanity is the descendant of one father Adam, who is created in God’s image. All peoples, Jews and gentiles alike, are equal in God’s eyes. Devotion to your tribe and culture is a good thing. But it must not come at the price of devaluing any human life or of becoming enthralled with blind nationalism and xenophobia.
Thirty years on from my trip to Rome, I have come to believe that intermarriage is no threat to Jewish survival. After all, if your culture is of value to you, does it really matter who your spouse is, in terms of transmitting that culture to your children? On the contrary, isn’t sharing our culture with people from different backgrounds, the best way to help it spread and survive?
The real threat to the survival of the Jewish people is insularity. The Talmud says: “if you want to know what the law is go to the marketplace.” In other words, it is the behavior of the people that establishes what is normative. Most Jews marry gentiles, no matter what the Jewish establishment says or does. By seeing this behavior as a threat rather than an opportunity, the Jewish people are condemning our culture to being shared by an ever-shrinking remnant. Instead of pushing people away by acting superior and exclusive, shouldn’t the Jewish people welcome anyone who cares to share with us?
And this insularity is also the source of the rebirth of Bar Kokhba’s zealous nationalism. Once again the Jewish people are being led to a national disaster by the followers of Akiva’s values. What Jewish value can be more important than Ben Azzai’s: “These are the generations of mankind?” It is this value that is being trampelled daily in our war against the Palestinians. It is this value which all those who oppose this war, are trying to uphold. It is this value which is the key to Jewish survival.