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Monday, July 25, 2011

Ethnic Struggle

This is the fifth in a series of posts that build on each other. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall

"(M)an was created from the dust of a single spot.  Man is committed to one locus. . . (H)e is a rooted being, not cosmopolitan but provincial, a villager who belongs to the soil that fed him as a child and to the little world into which he was born. . . Yes, man may roam along the charted and uncharted lanes of the universe, he may reach for the skies.  Yet the traveler, the adventurer out to conquer infinity, will surely return home." (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Majesty and Humility.)

These words of Rav Soloveitchick pull at me as a description of loving parents might pull at an orphan, because I have no one locus I call home.  My grandmother was born in Warsaw, my mother in New York.  I am from Chicago, my children are Californians.  The Jewish nightmare of fleeing from country to country in search of safety has morphed into the American dream of "Go West young man" to Stanford, or east to the Ivies, or mid-west or north or south or wherever opportunity calls.  But still we are unrooted.  The street names in my California neighborhood are exotic to me, and though the landscape is spectacular I am a transplant in it.

לבי במזרח ואנכי בסוף מערב
איך אטעמה את אשר אכל ואיך יערב
My heart is in the east and I am at the end of the west.
How can I taste what I eat and how can it be sweet? (Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, 12th C., Spain)
Israel is aglow with ethnic fire.  The colors are brighter here, the tastes crisper, I feel more alive in Israel than in any other place I have lived.  This year, I have been walking the streets the prophets walked, living outside the walls through which Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai was smuggled in a coffin to plead for a remnant of Israel.  My backdrop has been the same hills and valleys that Maimonides saw in the final stage of his life.  If I should forget for a moment who I am, the street names remind me, the songs on the radio and in the mouths of my own kids, the language itself.

But there is a dark side to this beauty.  Because just as joy must be outlined by sorrow, so our ethnic identities are defined in part by who we are not -- Jew, not Arab.

I recently asked Dr. Avivah Zornberg why our tradition associates each of the patriarchs with the trait that seems most lacking in him:  Abraham, who mounted his son on an altar, is classically associated with kindness, Isaac with strength, Jacob with truth.  Avivah explained that these are not the traits the patriarchs lacked, they are the traits they engaged with most intensely.  In fact, she has seen over and over that a person's most intense trait will reveal itself in complex ways, now as a burning presence and then as a striking absent, now as a great strength and then as a great failing.

If what Avivah said is true for individuals, I believe it is true for nations as well.  The Jewish passion that makes Israel so beautiful is also her greatest moral challenge.  An example is the advertising campaign I criticized in a previous post: "A Palestinian state is a disaster for the Jews".  I've seen bumper stickers and graffiti with much more explicit statements of Jewish elitism, and chance comments from individuals that reveal a deep hatred of Arabs.  (For example, about shopping in Arab-owned stores: "I don't want to give them any money if I don't have to.")  But the most blatant mainstream example came home with my son from school.

The standard third grade literature curriculum in Israeli public schools is based on a book called פתחו את השער (Translation: Open the Gate.)  It includes some beautiful pieces, but most are banal stereotypes of immigrant groups in Israel.  The elderly American couple invites the neighborhood children in for ice-cream.  The Russian girl bursts into tears at her friend's Seder, as she recalls loved ones back in Russia who are still refuseniks.  The book also includes a traditional Yemenite story, about a Jewish jeweler whose Arab neighbor entrusts him with a ring to repair.  The Arab then sneaks into the Jew's house at night and steals his own ring, spitefully hoping to frame the Jew.  The Arab tosses the ring in the ocean, and a fish swallows it.  A few days later the fish is caught by a fisherman, and the jeweler happens to buy the fish for his Shabbat dinner.  He discovers the ring inside the body of the fish, and is able to repair it and return it on time to the Arab villain.  When my son's class read this story, the teacher provided homework that included a chart in which the children were to compare the characteristics of the Jew and the Arab.

Let's be clear. Jews are not the only Middle Easterners grappling with the power, beauty and danger of ethnic pride.  Such feelings are the emotional bread and butter of the region.  In June our family vacationed in Petra, Jordan, where the locals readily identify one another as coming from Syrian, Bedouin, or (in some parts of the country) Palestinian or Groznian extraction.  They were equally quick to identify us as Jews, despite our attempts to hide our kippot under sun hats. "We are two brothers of the same father," one vendor told my husband; and more than one local told us they hate Palestinians, mistakenly assuming we would share their hatred.

Back on the other side of the Jordan, Palestinian textbooks have been notoriously severe in their anti-Jewish rhetoric, mixing religious and violent language into accounts of modern history. The Palestinian Authority issued new textbooks in 2006 that are apparently improved over the older books, which had originated in Egypt and Jordan.  But the Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) writes even of the newer textbooks: "PMW has found that the new 12th grade Palestinian schoolbooks make no attempt to educate for peace and coexistence with Israel. Indeed, the opposite is true: The teachings repeatedly reject Israel's right to exist, present the conflict as a religious battle for Islam, teach Israel’s founding as imperialism, and actively portray a picture of the Middle East, both verbally and visually, in which Israel does not exist at all."  Other groups have pointed out that Israeli textbooks mirror the Palestinian ones, making no references to Palestinians or their history in this land, and using religious language to claim an inalienable Jewish right to the land.  When you are taught from birth that God promised this land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it becomes very hard to see it as belonging to any people but yours. Clearly this is an ethnic struggle with two sides to it.

הלואי, if only it were a struggle that began and ended with textbooks.  I don't believe there's a Jew born in Israel who has not had a personal friend or acquaintance killed by an Arab.  Nor is there a Palestinian who has not had friends killed by Jews.  Such experiences imprint on the soul, and are even harder to undo than the rhetoric of childhood.

It did not have to be this way.  The Torah includes powerful messages about co-existence and peace and the essential value of every human being as created in the image of God.  These messages could have formed the foundational ethic guiding Israeli's interactions with the Arabs that share their land.  But let's not forget, the day after Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state, five Arab powers  swarmed across the border in an attempt to drive the Jews into the ocean.  They tried again in 1967, and again in 1973.  Since 1973 Israel's larger neighbors have withdrawn from direct conflict, but still rockets and ammunition are pouring in through Egypt to Gaza with "Jew" as their final delivery address.  Once caught in this ongoing, violent conflict, too many Israelis find themselves emphasizing a different ethic, for the Torah contains plenty of fuel for Jewish elitism as well.

On many levels, some real and some perceived, Israel is still at war, and government policies reflect those feelings.  I already described the sorry situation at the security checkpoints.  The situation in east Jerusalem is even more striking.  Unlike the West Bank, east Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1967, but the people living there -- as a protective measure -- were not granted citizenship.  (Note: this statement is misleading, please see my correction.) Instead, they are "permanent residents"; they have the right to vote in municipal elections but not national ones, and their status can be revoked at any time, seemingly arbitrarily, leaving them suddenly homeless and unable to earn a living.  Nonetheless, the population in east Jerusalem has grown by an astounding 450% since 1967.  This sharp population rise feels very threatening to many Israelis.  According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Jerusalem municipality has responded with unreasonable zoning laws, home demolitions, and refusal to issue new building permits.  As a result, east Jerusalem is overcrowded, with a population density nearly twice that of west Jerusalem.  65% of east Jerusalem residents live in poverty.  Approximately 160,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have no suitable and legal connection to the water network, and 50 kilometers of sewage lines are lacking.  East Jerusalem is short approximately 1,000 classrooms in their schools, contributing to a school drop-out rate of 50%.  The ACRI sees the residents of east Jerusalem as the victims of a systematic policy of discrimination, intended to limit the Arab presence in Jerusalem and secure a Jewish majority.

Yet layered in with all this fear and hatred are the Jewish prayers of hope that sustained us -- as a distinct ethnic group -- through centuries of oppression.  For a millennium and a half at least, devout Jews have been reciting the same formula three time a day.  "Blessed are You Ado-nai, redeemer of Israel . . .Blast on a great shofar, and set up a sign to gather in our exiles . . . Restore our leadership . . Destroy all wickedness . . . Place trust in the righteous . . . Return Your presence to Jerusalem, You who will build Jerusalem . . . Plant the roots of David's kingdom. . . May our eyes see Your return to Zion. . .Blessed are You, who blesses His people Israel with peace."  בשוב ה' את שיבת ציון היינו כחולמים  -- It seems a dream, that these words are coming true even as we continue to recite them.

Israel is a country built by refugees: from the Holocaust in Europe, from generations of humiliation as dhimmi in Arabia, and from complete vulnerability when even the dhimma relationship collapsed under the Ottomans;  from famine and intolerance in Ethiopia; from communism and deadly anti-semitism in Russia; and from every corner of the world where Jews resided.  The founding dream of Israel is that all Jews should finally have a secure place to call home.  I believe we deserve that.

As America was founded on the myth that "all men are created equal", so Israel was founded on the Law of Return -- a profoundly beautiful, idealistic law, that discriminates based on ethnicity.    But is that not so often the case, of people and of countries?  The fires that burn hottest and ugliest inside of us are the same fires that make us most beautiful.


  1. The Arabs were given the right to Israeli citizenship. Just most of them rejected it. They still get full health care and other rights given to Israeli citizens.

  2. Beautiful, thoughtful post, as usual. One comment, on this phrase:

    But let's not forget, the day after Ben-Gurion declared Israel and independent state, five Arab powers swarmed across the border in an attempt to drive the Jews into the ocean.

    I've always heard this event described with these words. But the word "swarmed" has always bothered me. People don't usually swarm, unless they are being compared (clearly or via metaphor) to animals that swarm. Insects. Reptiles. Sh'ratzim. Creepy crawlies. I'm thinking that this verb tells us more about our fears and perception of the armies of the surrounding (and not so surrounding) nations, and thus about their peoples.

  3. You say, "The founding dream of Israel is that all Jews should finally have a secure place to call home.  I believe we deserve that. "But I feel sure you would share my wider wish that all peoples on earth could have a secure home. The difficulty is with the idea of place, territory, or as a homeland for a people, nationalism. To have a place, a nation with distinct boundaries is in fact always to be insecure, because no definite territory is desired by only one people. Peoples define themselves, ultimately, and they can split, at any time into further factions or fractions. Do the remaining Samaritans deserve their own state? The Druze? The Kurds? The Bosnian Serbs? The Rwandan Hutus? The Kashmiris? The Sikhs of India? The Alawites who now control the non-Alawite majority in Syria? The Tibetans? The Uighurs? The Northeast Hill tribes in India? The various aborigine tribes in Australia? The Mayans of Central America? The Tamils of Sri Lanka? The Maori of New Zealand? The Sioux in the US, or the various subgroups of the Sioux? The Bretons of Brittany? The Provencales of France? The Catalans or Basques of Spain and France?  The list of peoples who might deserve a homeland is endless, and never fully satisfiable.  

    Even militarily weak claimants to a territory can have strong allies, as the South Ossetians in what was Georgia have in Russia, or the Palestinians apparently have in Iran. A very strong power can grow weak, or can be overcome by its many enemies ganging up on it. 

    Such considerations are of course relevant to the history and the security of Israel. Territories overlapping with what is now Israel were the original home of the Jewish people some three millennia ago, but they were only united into one kingdom for a small part of the few hundred years that vague homeland survived. As you well know, the Assyrians annihilated half of it, and the Babylonians not so long after took the residents of second part captive and took them away. That was at least 2,500 years ago, and since then most Jews have always lived elsewhere. Diaspora was often awful, but it was what preserved the people for all this time. The Assyrians and the Babylonians, for instance, have disappeared. So have countless other groups who stayed put. 

    In fact, not only did Diaspora prove essential to Jewish survival, the Diaspora today is still what guarantees Israeli security, not the other way round. Without the small minority of Americans and French who are Jews, Israel would not have survived this long.  

    In this time of instant interconnection, territory has begun to lose its primacy. Israel should have the same rights as any other nation-state, but the true goal for humanity it seems to me, is to guarantee fundamental human rights, including security and the right to hold to a particular culture, to any people anywhere, even if they are far apart from each other, even if they are in permanent diaspora.