Not This Month: We Are a Good People — and It is Good to Pause and Recognize It
By Dov Fischer
The recent brouhaha in Israel, occasioned by an unfortunate rush to pre-judgment by the Israeli High Court of Justice, raises a question for us all to consider: How do we indeed relate to the Other? In a world where there is racism and bigotry between Black and White, Shiite and Sunni, Hutu and Tutsi – where and how do we Jews stack up?
For that matter – in a world of bloodshed and internecine violence among nations and between individuals, in a world marred by reports of corruption and immorality – who are we, the Jewish people, as a Community of Israel?
We are a good people. Whether Haredi or “Modern” or, for that matter, utterly non-Observant, we are – as a People – an accepting people. Racism is not our way. Similarly, despite the presence among our number of some egregious financial cheats, we are a profoundly honest people. Despite an occasional act of violence ascribed to one of our own, we are a monolithically peaceful people. As the prophet Bil’am described us: We are a nation that dwells alone, whose behavior patterns and values lie utterly outside any realm of contemplation of the Nations. (Bamidbar 23:9).
Sometimes, as a community of the peaceful, honest, and tolerant, we find ourselves arguing whether one Jewish sub-group comports itself with even more excellence than another. We need not argue among ourselves. For we all are a Kingdom of Kohanim, reflecting for the world the impact of the Torah – even on non-observant Jews who never studied it but whose ancestors did – on our society.
Certainly, we are people, regular people subject to the natural foibles of the human condition. And as it happens, our acceptance of others increases the more we directly encounter individuals among the Other. Thus, one might distinguish between a truly hateful or bigoted “racist” view of the Other versus a “what-a-shame” attitude. Thus, if a Jew growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s knew African-Americans personally, then he typically knew really good people. Mr. Troy, the school janitor. Miss Bessy, the cleaning lady. In contradistinction from the canard about the “lazy Negro,” they worked so hard, sweated so intensely for every penny so that they could provide for their children, and they were so honest that you trusted your children to be with them in your home. Those were the people one encountered in the actual one-to-one meetings of life. Yet, there also was a “What-a-Shame” reality with which 1960s Brooklyn Jews lived, reading about or personally encountering the anti-Jewish group hatred that reposed in communities like Ocean-Hill-Brownsville. So, among those Jews who did not enjoy the opportunity to know African Americans personally, there was a counter resentment in some quarters: “You hate me, so I hate you.” Among those Jewish immigrants from the Old World in particular, this fearful recoiling from the Other was expressed in the term “shvartzeh” (the Yiddish word for the color “Black”) reflecting something between racism and denigration on the one hand, but really born of a “What-a-Shame” sense that some members of the Other were threatening people’s lives with acts of inner-city violence, something that those using the term never did to the Other and could not understand.
Yet, who among those immigrants and their first-generation children who used the term “shvartzeh” ever would actually mistreat a Negro (the term by which African Americans preferred to be known in the 1960s), refuse a Negro entry into their home, stand in front of a college or any school to bar Negroes from entering? Such behavior or thinking was across-the-board outside the Jewish consciousness. Who among Jews of that era would deny Negroes entry into their stores or would contemplate refusing to bear the risk of extending credit to Negroes, in an era predating credit reporting and plastic credit, when others demanded that Negroes pay in cash or get out? Few would contemplate denying Negroes the right to rent or purchase homes in their Jewish neighborhoods. Thus, whereas Italian and Irish neighborhoods in Brooklyn truly barred Negroes from entering their streets — consider the true-to-life images in Robert De Niro’s movie “A Bronx Tale” — such behavior was not and is not and never was Jewish behavior.
Sometimes – as we contemplate the differences between the “Orthodox” and the “Non-religious,” the Jews of a more sociologically liberal or conservative world view, and even ethnic differences that individuate different Jewish communities – we forget how holy we are, how uniquely treasured a nation we are: all of us. It is good to pause and consider as the UN assemblage of cutthroats and knaves votes, almost unanimously, to condemn Israel as a violent war-monger. To contemplate as the European Union, hoping for a quick-fix to assuage its guilt for 1000 years– and more — of shedding innocent Jewish blood in the name of their
religion(s), turns to castigating Israel as no better than they because Israel turns away a flotilla attempting to violate a legitimate naval blockade against a renegade terrorist state.
Even America, our most precious nation and society, would dare judge Israel after forgetting America’s own ethically challenged history of dealing with its landed minority society. America mass-murdered that minority society, the Native American, in forced winter marches, blocked the exit paths to Canada to rein them in and corralled into concentration camps that we euphemistically called “reservations.” Monuments along the Trail of Tears from North Carolina to Oklahoma offer one small remembrance of their Babi Yars. Even now, a century later, those reservations have been reserved for the kind of behavior we never would allow for rearing our children. So these places have become centers for casino gambling and alcoholism, consigning that tragic minority’s future generations to the social crises that arise from coming of age in such a world. In touching metaphors that continue dehumanizing the Other, we nickname our baseball and football teams by that minority’s proudest symbols, create exaggerated mascots that parody proud Native American culture, and display the final remains of their ancestors in our museum showcases.
These would call the Jews “racist”?
Today in Israel, the society addresses the nest stage of reuniting the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions by which we separated during the Exile. There were no “Sephardim” or “Ashkenazim” until the Romans burned the Holy Temple – our Beit HaMikdash – and exiled us from our land, launching a tragic adventure of nearly two thousand years during which we contributed to building and nourishing one society after another, only to be expelled or worse. As the modern State of Israel has witnessed the beginnings of the ingathering of the Exiles from the four corners of the earth, a new society has emerged these past six decades that has brought together, almost unthinkably, Jewish communities as disparate as those from Russia and those from North African lands. And today the great Jewish challenge merely is the need to encounter each other with mutual respect, albeit with healthy curiosity. That’s all. Insularity, no less than familiarity, breeds contempt.
Ashkenazim and Sephardim just need to meet each other in Israel — and increasingly they do. In the Tzahal armed forces, in the yeshivot and Torah academies and public schools, in the Israeli marketplace. As the Labor-Socialist world passes, a society that ironically divided Jews ethnically for a generation in sharp contrast from Torah Jewish values, Sephardim have emerged in the vital dynamic life of Israel. The emergence of Sephardim in every public aspect of Israeli society – including positions of real social and political influence – inexorably allows for less insularity.
Yes, an Ashkenazic Jew needs a bit of an open mind sometimes to understand that maybe — just maybe — Avraham Avinu, our Patriarch Avraham, whom we are taught observed all the Torah’s mitzvot and traditions, maybe was not an Ashkenazi. Maybe Avraham did not welcome the Shabbat with two loaves of braided Polish egg bread but with Middle Eastern Pita. Maybe he did not eat gefilte fish but matboukha. Maybe he did not speak Yiddish but a Hebrew with a Middle Eastern pronunciation. Maybe he ate rice on Pesach. Maybe his “D’ror Yikra” and “Ki Eshm’rah Shabbat” Shabbat melodies sounded more like the Middle Eastern cants than like the tunes born of a genre begun when Shlomo Carlebach interpreted Hebrew songs in the shadow of Elvis and the Beatles.
Yes, we all can benefit from open minds. To the degree that we see the Other in other Jews, it is part of the tragedy of the Exile. As I have written in the past, we are the cultural offspring, despite our efforts at insularity, of the Nations in whose midst we have grown. Persian and Iranian non-Jews, despite their Islam, despise Arabs and resent being thought of as Arabs. So Iranian Jews similarly prefer not to daven in Moroccan-Tunisian Sephardic minyanim, if they can build their own shuls. Syrian and Egyptian Arabs regard themselves respectively as culturally superior Arab entities, so the Jews from Syria prefer their own Deal. And Ocean Parkway.
It is not different from the way that German non-Jews contemned the Polish and other East European societies as subculture. So Jews from Germany saw Jews from Poland as contemptible “Ostjuden” (“Eastern Jews”) speaking a “despicable jargon” (Yiddish) that “polluted” the language of Heine.
We Jews are anything but racist people. The very word in Hebrew for “racism” – “giz’anut” – is only a recent import into the contemporary Israeli lexicon so that a Hebrew-speaking society could describe the phenomenon of racism that infects parts of the Modern World. The word does not exist in the Torah, the Talmud. And, as we enter the period marked by the Fast of 17 Tamuz, launching The Three Weeks of mourning the Exile and the Churban, we should take a moment’s pause to contemplate this 2,000-year Roman Exile and why most great rabbis have ruled not to change the “Nachem” prayer that we recite on Tisha B’Av describing a People in Exile and a Jerusalem yet to be rebuilt. The Exile continues.
But we have come so far these past sixty years and more. So let’s not get into a thing about whether the Modern Orthodox or the Ashkenazic Haredi communities are more sensitive than the other.
Not this month.
[Rabbi Dov Fischer is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County and a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.]