Generalizations & Stereotypes

Please convey condolences, Yaakov Menken, to your brother-in-law; May Hamakom comfort him with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

We were recently invited to a dinner with friends where the discussion turned most unpleasant. The guests were a mixture of modern Orthodox, haredi and non-observant. At one point a former British barrister made sweeping derogatory generalizations about Muslims. This was from a highly articulate and gentle person, who had earlier in the conversation given a sophisticated, nuanced explanation of often-misunderstood talmudic concepts such as “slavery”. His Muslim-bashing continued, and I made a few attempts at quiet rejoinders. I pointed out the problem of generalizations. I reminded my interlocutor that another guest, who had grown up in Morocco, had told us about the ups and downs in the relations between the Jews and their Muslim neighbors, and especially about the help the Jews received from their neighbors during Pesah and the post-Pesah Maimuna observances. But the barrister reiterated his negative stereotyping and I sat glumly through the meal.

A few days later, I thought of something I should have said.
The founder of Sanz Hassidim, Rabbi Haim Halberstam (born 1793 Galicia) wrote in his responsa titled Divrey Haim,Yoreh Deah #30, that Jewish women should not imitate certain new fashions because these fashions were hukkat hagoy (Lev. Ch.20 “v’lo telkhu b’hukkat hagoy” meaning “you shall not follow the norms of [non-Jewish] nations”). But he added a strongly worded caveat.

Although the poskim [decisors] have made clear to us the prohibition against following the norms of the Gentiles, the intention is not, G-d forbid, to belittle the honor of the other nations; for on the contrary, we are strictly enjoined to honor the nations, both the rulers and the general populace.

This holds for all nations, he wrote, even the Egyptians under whose rule we suffered tremendously. Although we are specifically prohibited, as cited above, from copying certain of their practices, we are nevertheless commanded “Do not abominate an Egyptian” [lo titaev Mitzri, Deut.23:8] . Rabbi Halberstam continued,

We are instructed not to belittle the honor of non-Jews because in spite of all, we did derive benefit from their country. All the more so, then, are we obligated to show honor to those countries in the shade of whose protection we rest

In Rabbi Halberstam’s view, we are also “not commanded to refrain from interacting with them”. He cites examples of numerous Sages who were often guests of kings and emperors, among them R’ Abbahu, R’ Yehoshua, Shmuel and Rava. The friendship, social and intellectual, between R’ Yehuda the Nasi and the Roman Antoninus was legendary.

Looking back at that mealtime discussion, I felt that I should have spoken out more forcefully, and that I may have erred on the side of exaggerated politeness. What would others have done or said?

10 b’Iyyar Netanya

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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18 Responses

  1. David Brand says:

    Well, I guess we should be respectful. Just as respectful as they are. Unless, of course, there is an article in Newsweek that reports a bunch of false information about flushing the “holy” Koran down the toilet. In that case, those “wonderful, honorable” Muslims riot and kill people. I don’t know if your conversation occured before or after the Newsweek article, but it seems that the Muslims, by their own actions, have earned the scorn of the dinner guest in question. After all, how many Jews rioted when kever Yosef was desecrated? How many Buddists rioted when their sculptures were blown up? And, how many of the above desecrations were perpetrated by Muslims? The gentleman’s position was reinforced by the recent Nazi-like statements of the Palestinian Muslim cleric. While I understand the point about being curteous and polite to gentiles at large (after all, most of us work among them and interact with them all the time), it is hard for me to have any respect for the practioners of the “religion of peace” when they act according to standards of a different time and place than the rest of us do. So, I probably would have agreed with the guest.

  2. David Brand raises a valuable point about the Muslim response to the Newsweek article, compared to Buddhist and Jewish responses to similar provocations. I heard a similar argument from Dennis Prager.

    However, it is clear that, of the 1.3 billion or so Muslims in the world, most did not riot. If 1% of them had rioted, that would be 13 million people rioting — and the actual number of rioters was no doubt much less than that. Clearly, there are a comparable number of Buddhists and there were no Buddhists riots after what is arguably a more severe provocation, so it’s clear that there is something wrong with Muslim society. However, it is equally clear that it is inaccruate to use this event to generalize about all Muslims.

    It is worth nothing, I think, that while nowadays Jews are oppressed by Muslim nations and (generally) live at peace in Christian nations, there have been times in history when the opposite was true. During the middle ages, Jews were oppressed in Christian Europe but lived at peace in the Ottoman Empire. RAMBAM fled from Christian conquerors in Spain and settled in Muslim Egypt.

    I think it is also worth noting that anyone who wants to generalize against Jews can find examples of Jews who behave badly. It is unfortunate (and a Chillul HaShem) that there both many such examples and people willing to use them.

  3. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    The saintly Poles and Germans who endangered themselves to save Jews do not redeem their murderous or indifferent fellows. Right now, the majority of Muslims would aid and contribute to the effort to eliminate the Jews; the bloody edge of the sword of Islam faces us.

    Every ethnic group has certain propensities. Although individual members of the group may not exhibit these traits, they are valid identifiers of the group as a whole. Protecting the human dignity of those who wish us harm is our uniquely Jewish meshugas, and it has never served us well.

  4. JZ says:

    Count me in as a vote for the barrister too.

    It’s easy to fish for Chazal to support any side of an issue. For what it’s worth, the Ohr Hachaim on Parshas Tzav makes extremely unkind comments about his Ishmaelite contemporaries, labeling them worse than the Ancient Egyptians, who at least supplied us with sustenance.

  5. Circle says:

    Mr. Barzilai, are you maintaining that R. Chaim Sanzer was ignorant of the nature of the Polish and Ukrainians the Jews lived among, or that he was unaware of gzairas tach-tat?

  6. Different River says:

    Eliezer Barzilai: The saintly Poles and Germans who endangered themselves to save Jews do not redeem their murderous or indifferent fellows.

    True enough. But the murderous and indifferent Poles and Germans (and Ukrainians and Lithuanians…) do not obviate the merit of the saintly ones who saved Jews. Indeed, since the latter were a minority, their merit may be greater because they acted “against the tide” of immorality in their society.

    Eliezer Barzilai: Right now, the majority of Muslims would aid and contribute to the effort to eliminate the Jews; the bloody edge of the sword of Islam faces us.

    While many would, I submit we don’t know what the majority of Muslims thinks. They are not allowed to say. Consider Jeff Jacoby’s desciption of the situation in Gaza:

    At Tnuvot Katif, a large produce packaging plant here, … ask some of workers if they like their jobs. They shrug — rinsing and bagging lettuce is no one’s idea of exciting work. But when I ask what they think of the coming Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, they grow animated. If the Israelis go, some of them tell me through an interpreter, they’ll lose their jobs. If this plant shuts down, they’ll be out of work, and if the Palestinian Authority takes it over, they’ll still be out of work — the jobs will go to workers with better connections to the PA’s ruling thugs.

    “If that’s how you feel,” I ask, “why don’t you oppose the disengagement publicly? Why don’t you tell the PA that you want your Jewish neighbors to stay?”

    When my question is translated, the men look at me as if I’m crazy.

    “It’s forbidden!” replies Randoor, the only one of the workers who would give even his first name. “We’re not allowed to say that!”

    I press him: Why not? What would be so bad about saying that Jews and Arabs should be able to live together? But Randoor shakes his head and crosses his wrists, as if being handcuffed. “They might put us in jail,” he says. “They might call us ‘collaborators.’ ” In the jungle that is Palestinian society, being called a “collaborator” can be a death sentence. Indeed, the PA’s newly elevated security chief — a cold-blooded killer named Rashid Abu Shabak — is known in Gaza as the “collaborator hunter.” In recent years, reports Khaled Abu Toameh of the Jerusalem Post, Abu Shabak has “hunted down” scores of Palestinians accused of helping Israel prevent terror attacks. Who knows what he might do any Palestinian who would dare to call for the Israelis to stay?

  7. JZ says:

    Different River- The Gazan lettuce packers’ panic about losing their only source of income sheds absolutely no light on “what the majority thinks”.

  8. DovBear says:

    Why does the attitude of (some) Muslims toward Jews, have any bearing on the law, as cited by Sarah Schmidt?

    Those of you criticizing her magnanimous stand, are not living up to the ideas of our religion. Instead, you’re acting like the people you despise, and trading in sterotypes and generalizations.

    Congratulations Sara Schmidt on a wonderful, even noble, essay.

  9. Max says:

    Dear DovBear,
    I did not realize that ‘turning the other cheek’ is our religion. Nor did I fathom that postmodern ideals global village: blind tolerance and acceptance are our principals. We certainly are not permitted to mistreat gentiles and we are certainly required to recognize that as a nation vested with the role of representing humanity in front of Almighty we have responsibilities toward other nations. We can even be honest and admit that it was our sins that brought on much of the persecution and hatred we had experienced. We did disproportionally contribute to the fire of communism in the beginning of last century as well as to the moral decay that has come to dominate the West.
    But at the same time, honesty is not a sin. Recognizing that Arabs today, as a nation, assign 0 value to human life is truth. Recognizing that many Eastern and Central and some Western European nations assign 0 value to Jewish life (whether reflecting on Holocaust experience or on their opposition to the state of Israel today) is truth. From my perspective, Divrei Haim is “Tsarich Iyun”.

  10. Leapa says:

    DovBear, I agree with your post, but it seems inconsistent with some of your own prior stands, for example on the Pope.

  11. DovBear says:

    did not realize that ‘turning the other cheek’ is our religion

    It’s not.

    Our religion includes the laws Shira cited, among them: we are strictly enjoined to honor the nations, both the rulers and the general populace. and We are instructed not to belittle the honor of non-Jews because in spite of all, we did derive benefit from their country. All the more so, then, are we obligated to show honor to those countries in the shade of whose protection we rest

    That’s the law. That’s our religion. Those are our principles. What’s your justification for flouting it?

    Recognizing that Arabs today, as a nation, assign 0 value to human life is truth

    Let’s stop short of making claims about entire nations, okay? I’ll agree that many Arabs don’t like us very much, and I’ll agree, as you said, our sins (the sin of hubris especially) has a good deal to do with it. But I won’t make blamket statments about every single Arab in the world, not when those kinds of statments have been the cause of so much Jewish sufering, when non-Jews have made them.

    Leah: The popes, as individuals, have, for the most part been terrible to the Jews. I was speaking of those individual popes. Not about every catholic in the world.

  12. JoeT says:

    It’d be great if all of us had something nice to say about Moslems. It’d be also nice if all deragotory comments about Moslems were just right-wing claptrap as Dov Bear sems to believe. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that sort of world. We live in a world where Moslems massacred over 1,000,000 Armenians (DovBear will probably say it was the Armenians’ fault), where Moslems still practice slavery in Mauritania, where Moslems countries are more repressive than any other region, etc. So, perhaps your British friend could be forgiven for at least some of his generalizations.

  13. Tstern says:

    First of all, stereotypes are an integral part of the way Judaism classically looked at other nations. I will not quote the dozens of gemaras that make sociological observations (aka stereotypes) or various nations and peoples.

    Second, empirically, the notion that steretypes are unfair and invalid is simply not born out. As much as individuals might differ from the group they belong to, culture is extremely powerful. To get a sense of this, look at the regional differences that exist in America today despite the levelling effect of television.

    Finally, yes, Muslims are the source of much of the world violence, from Yugoslavia to Chechnia to the Phillipines to Sri Lanka to Afganistan to Sudan. I could list a few more countries but the point is clear: no matter what the local culture (Arabic, South-East Asian, Slavic), Muslims seem to get involved in armed conflicts more than any other religion.

  14. Adam Steiner says:

    I have often had similar discussions (not limited to Arabs or Moslems) with friends and family.

    JZ (Comment 7); Just as the single Gazan’s fear does not show what the majority wants, there has not been any proof of what the average Moslem or Arab wants. Nor are the polls that most of those in Gaza want an end to the fighting (not necesarily with the destruction of Israel) and nor are the riots that, in fact, make up a tiny percentage of the arab and moslem populations.

    Yes, there are riots there, but there were riots in America after the Rodney King beating. Are all blacks therefore bad and evil? There was security when the OJ verdict was announced, out of fear of riots. After nearly *every* major championship (baseball, football, hockey and basketball) there are riots, cars being burned and stores looted. Are all Americans bad?

    Timoth McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma, which caused more deaths than any suicide bombing in Israel (at least in the last intifada). I guess all Americans are evil too. Let’s not forget the Crusades.

    In fact, it appears that the only people who are good are the Jews and Buddhists. Oh, forget about the Jews. We write hundreds of letters to judges so that embezzlers who “are good men because they support our yeshivas” don’t get sent to jail.

    I would not disagree that the majority of the riots now occuring are due to problems within segments of the Arab and Moslem communities (that is basically an empirical fact). Insofar as that is a generalization I’m all for it. But Turkey, a Moslem country…no riots. No suicide bombings. They even hold joint air force, army and naval exercises with Israel.

    Generalizations are extremely dangerous, though they may have some basis for truth and may have a place to be used. Shira is right. They are dangerous in many contexts, and are rarely constructive. What do you plan on accomplishing? Whip people up into a fervor? So that what? They go out and kill every arab or every moslem? So that they riot, burn cars and libraries? Slaughter children? Or just so they get up in anger and protest?

    Oh wait, that’s exactly what “we” claim “they” do.

    And to Different River…why focus on the 1% (actually much less) of Moslems that do riot (i’d love to see a riot of 13 million people). Why not focus on the 1% that make up Turkey? Or the majority that want peace and quiet, or in Egypt the millions that want democracy? Selectivity is very nice, but be prepared for it to be turned on you. And for all of you who will say “but obviously they want us dead” and “obviously they’re all against us” I may not disagree with you, but show me the proof. And if you use the newspapers or media, if you use stories, be prepared, those exist on the other side too.

    The idea is to remember that there are exceptions to every rule, whether you define it as every arab loves you or hates you. Don’t let a generalization blind you to that. Don’t forget, Jews…they’re the source of the world’s problems…would you be ok if someone made that generalization about you? If not, why is it ok for you to make it about someone else.

    Good job Mrs. Schmidt, keep it up.


    PS: By way of disclaimer, I am a conservative, right-wing independent who generally votes Republican. I disagree with DovBear on most (if not all) political and policy issues.

  15. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    “Generalizations are extremely dangerous, though they may have some basis for truth and may have a place to be used. Shira is right. They are dangerous in many contexts, and are rarely constructive. What do you plan on accomplishing? ”

    It was Reagan’s ‘simplistic’ description of the Communist regime as “the evil empire,” and Bush’s characterization of Iraq’s Baathist party as a part of ‘the axis of evil’ that changed what had been an unfocused anger into a specific and concrete intent, and galvanized forces that resulted in very positive changes. Yes, Turkey, whose desire for inclusion in the civilized world has resulted in good relations with Israel, has been an island of light in a savage sea of black. But what good is it to tell people that things are not so bad? Do we benefit when we defuse the anger people feel at the savagery they witness every day? Nuance has its place when dealing with individuals, but in the dull-witted court of public opinion, absolutes are a vital tool of change.

  16. Adam Steiner says:

    “Nuance has its place when dealing with individuals, but in the dull-witted court of public opinion, absolutes are a vital tool of change.”

    So then please explain how a private dinner amongst friends calls for absolutes. Even if you would like to argue that a private dinner party constitutes the “dull-witted court of public opinion”, the immediately prior conversation, a “nuanced explanation of often-misunderstood talmudic concepts such as ‘slavery'” indicate that *this* group was not your average dull-witted one which required blunt absolutes. In fact, the very person who had given the previous nuanced explanation of slavery was the one who delivered the blunt diatribe!

    If a small dinner does not count as individuals, calling for nuance, then what does?


  17. Different River says:

    Adam– I don’t think I actually said we have to “focus” on the less-than-one-percent of Muslims who riot/murder/suicide-bomb, though in some sense we do because they are the ones who are threats to us. When characterizing Muslims generally it’s right and proper to give credit to the many who wish us no harm (some of whom even wish us well). But when determining our own security we have to focus on those, of whatever background, post threats.

  18. Adam Steiner says:

    I highly doubt that the British barrister, speaking at a private dinner party, was interested in determining our own security. Nor would the barrister’s comments have impacted on our security.

    I agree with you. When dealing with security, the fact is that the largest problem stems from the Moslem and Arab populations. To ignore that reality is foolish and dangerous. The question though is at what point in time do you use the generalization argument and when do you use the individual argument.

    A politican speaking in front of a crowd uses the former. But the default should be nuance. An excuse or point is needed to generalize. What justification or point exists at a private dinner? How would that point have been ruined if the speaker had just said “Yes, historically that is true, but the main threat today…”?

    From the facts given, I think the comments were inappropriate and called for the individual nuance mentioned in comment 15 by Eliezer.


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