Think Identity

By Zvi November

On 28 May 2017 Professor Yeshayahu (Isaiah) Gafni, an expert on Jewish history during the Hasmonaim and Herodian eras over two thousand years ago drew an audience of several hundred to his presentation in Jerusalem.  His lecture dealt with the conflicting attitudes of Jews who lived in distant parts of the Greco-Roman world, especially in Alexandria (the cultural and intellectual capital of the Hellenistic world) as well as in Babylon since the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BC.  At that time, the argument was between Jews who believed that Jewish life and history is linked to a specific locale, namely Eretz Yisrael and those living in the Diaspora who asserted that Judaism is equally valid and viable anywhere it successfully cultivates a firm spiritual base. 

The Jews abroad also claimed that they were bringing Torah-based ethics and morality to the gentiles.  In reality, however, it was large numbers of Jews who became Hellenized and, or adopted Roman mores.  And it was the Jews of Babylon who stayed put for 2,500 years until March 1951 when the Arab Iraqis kicked them out, allowing them to take only what they could carry with them.

Professor Gafni who, like me, was raised in Brooklyn confessed to his deep immersion in the Jewish world of two thousand years ago.  In his talk he established a strong parallel between Jewish identity problems back then and our current conflicts (e.g. friction between the secular American community and Israeli government policies, conversion controversies and Western Wall prayer arrangements).

Gafni’s lecture reinforced the old saying that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.

Often, when Jews dwell as a minority in foreign lands they face the possibility of expulsion (Spain 1492), annihilation (the Holocaust) or disintegration (aka assimilation).  Despite these dangers, Jews tend to identify with their host nation.

At the end of the 18th century the great European powers divided up Poland.  The eastern provinces of Galicia and Bukovina were colonized by the Austro-Hungary regime.  Large numbers of Jews lived in these remote territories and they welcomed their integration into the Hapsburg Empire.  The modern, progressive, enlightened, emancipated and successful Jews gladly adopted the language, customs and ethos of Austria.  The German language and culture was seen as superior to all others including the traditional Jewish orthodox way of living as it was practiced by the poor Yiddish speaking masses who were ‘dirty’. ‘backward’ and superstitious.  The more advanced German-oriented Jewish elite even created its own reformed version of Judaism to make it easier to be both Jewish and German at the same time.

A reform synagogue, for instance, was opened in Lemberg (Lwow, Lviv), Galicia in 1846.  It was named, “Deutsch-Israelitisches Bethaus (house of prayer).

These elite Jews were extensively integrated into Austrian-German culture and its relatively tolerant politics.  Unfortunately, along came WWI and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was replaced by Polish, Ukrainian and Romanian states that didn’t appreciate the Jewish identification with their former German rulers.

On 12 June 2017 a panel of academics in Jerusalem reviewed a new book

THE BURDENS OF BROTHERHOOD by a young University of Cincinnati professor, Ethan Katz.  This text is a study of Jews and Muslims in France since the end of WWII.  Three speakers explored the North African context during the 19th and 20th centuries; during the French colonial reign.  Again, an unhealthy triangle of powerful French administrators used cooperative and helpful Jews to help them dominate the majority, ‘dirty’, backward Arab populations of Algeria and Morocco.  The Jews identified with the French overlords and the ‘advanced’ French civilization.

Eventually, however, the anti-colonial Arab forces drove the French and Spanish out of Algeria and Morocco.  And Jews were again the object of Arab denigration and attacks as in the 1934 riots in Constantine, Algeria.  Then with the re-creation of the State of Israel in 1948 Jewish life in Arab countries became unbearable.  Now Jews are under attack by Muslims in France even though Jews identify as Frenchmen while the Muslims do not.

On 29 June 2017 the Truman Institute (situated on the Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus) held a seminar to discuss TV and cinema in the Arab world.  Most of the speakers were Israeli Arab academics.  They analyzed Syrian, Egyptian and other productions.  Dr. Mary Totry, a Haifa University lecturer spoke about Turkish soap operas that are very popular in the Arab world as they are translated into Arabic and deal with themes familiar to and appreciated by Arab audiences.

I was surprised by Ayman Agbaria, who also teaches at Haifa University. He has written three plays and one movie.  All four have been produced for Israeli Arab and Jewish consumption.  He focuses on Arab identity problems.  Agbaria declared that his identity is Arab, Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian.  Yet despite these four conflicting components he says that he does not have an identity problem.  This, it appears, is a testimony to Israeli civil society especially the open-ended lifestyle found in Tel Aviv and Haifa where one can comfortably be whatever one wants to be.

An American Jew or Jewish American can decide what part of him is Jewish; 10%, 30%, 50% or he or she can avoid the question altogether.  Given the pace of assimilation (disappearance) in the USA I would guess that many Jewish Americans have simply dropped the “Jewish” and hide behind their Christmas trees.

Alas, the Jewish identity problem has not passed over Israel.  The local media dedicates huge amounts of air time to the Right-Left political divide, the supposed Ashkenazi-Sepharadi distinction, “strange” ultra-orthodox sects as well as clashes between the secular and the religious.  However, the real crisis in Israel is similar to the one in America.  There are Israelis who do not want to live in a Jewish state.  They are alienated and disengaged from rabbis, the Rabbinate, synagogues, Sabbath observance, traditional marriage ceremonies, Torah study and just about everything Jewish.  In short, these modern, worldly free-thinkers do not want to have anything to do with Judaism.  They demand an Israel ‘for all its citizens’.  And large numbers of Israelis who disapprove of the Jewish character of the Jewish state have already left and now reside in the US, Germany and elsewhere.  This partly explains why the extreme leftist Meretz party gets so little electoral support.

In Israel, the Israeli-Jew disconnect problem is fought out in the schools.  Secular public schools minimize Jewish studies while the religious public schools teach more Torah and Talmud.  The ultra-orthodox haredim maintain their own yeshivot and mostly ignore civics, teaching very little about the state and its efforts to create an acceptable national identity.

In conclusion, the future of the Jewish state rests on Jewish identity.  This identity is molded at home and in the the classrooms.  Unfortunately, what has to be taught is highly controversial.  This, in my opinion, is Israel’s number one problem.

July 10, 2017 | 27 Comments » | 261 views

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27 Comments / 27 Comments

  1. [Jewish] identity is molded .. in the classrooms.

    Public skool classrooms mold a state-oriented, crap identity.

  2. haredim maintain their own yeshivot and mostly ignore civics, teaching very little about the state


    Now if we can only get them to stop mooching government funds ..

  3. Israeli-Jew disconnect problem is fought out in the schools.

    Public education is a *political* institution.

  4. Wait a minute. This essay is mixing up and confusing a few different things in its historical examples.

    First of all, it wasn’t Poland, it was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poland got a Lithuanian King at one point and they merged, the way Scotland became part of the United Kingdom. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Lita) had been one of the largest countries in Europe.

    Secondly, The Litvaks, or Jews with roots in LIta are all the descendants of a group of German Jews who were invited to settle in the new town of Vilna — which was this dude’s castle, originally — in the 13 or 14 hundreds. He wanted to develop his nation culturally and economically so he wrote a letter to German Jews inviting them to come as a community with rights as a community just as Jews were being expelled from every country in Europe one after another.

    “…Jews have lived in Lithuania since the 14th century. They came at the invitation of the Grand Dukes Augustus II and Augustus III, who had recognized the utility of the merchants, artisans, and traders as an integral component in the development of the nation. Jews also played important roles in diplomatic missions and defense. Over the centuries, however, the Jewish community rode a volatile rollercoaster of turmoil and peace. Throughout, the Jews of Lithuania were resilient, managing to refine a culture steeped with history, tradition, education, and family…”

    …Jews began living in Lithuania as early as the 13th century.[citation needed] In 1388 they were granted a charter by Vytautas, under which they formed a class of freemen subject in all criminal cases directly to the jurisdiction of the grand duke and his official representatives, and in petty suits to the jurisdiction of local officials on an equal footing with the lesser nobles (szlachta), boyars, and other free citizens. As a result, the community prospered.
    In 1495 they were expelled by Alexander Jagiellon, but allowed to return in 1503. The Lithuanian statute of 1566 placed a number of restrictions on the Jews, and imposed sumptuary laws, including the requirement that they wear distinctive clothing, including yellow caps for men and yellow kerchiefs for women.
    The Khmelnytsky Uprising destroyed the existing Lithuanian Jewish institutions. Still, the Jewish population of Lithuania grew from an estimated 120,000 in 1569 to approximately 250,000 in 1792. After the 1793 Second Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Lithuanian Jews became subjects of the Russian Empire…”

  5. Sebastien Zorn Said:

    Also see:

    “Bogdan Chmielnicki, leader of the Cossack and peasant uprising against Polish rule in the Ukraine in 1648 which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities…”

    Ukrainians were murdering Jews long before Austria took over.

    And while Philo was influenced by Hellenism as Jewish scholars have always exchanged influences with surrounding cultures, there is really no parallel with today. It’s anachronistic. But, he was very much a Jew, subjectively and objectively.

    “…In the eyes of the Palestinian rabbis the Alexandrian Jews were particularly known for their cleverness in posing puzzles and for their sharp replies. As the largest repository of Jewish law apart from the Talmud before the Middle Ages, Philo’s work is of special importance to those who wish to discern the relationship of Palestine and the Diaspora in the realm of law (halakah) and ritual observance. Philo’s exposition of the law may represent either an academic discussion giving an ideal description of Jewish law or the actual practice in the Jewish courts in Egypt. On the whole, Philo is in accord with the prevailing Palestinian point of view; nonetheless he differs from it in numerous details and is often dependent upon Greek and Roman law.

    ‘That Philo experienced some sort of identity crisis is indicated by a passage in his On the Special Laws. In this work, he describes his longing to escape from worldly cares to the contemplative life, his joy at having succeeded in doing so (perhaps with the Egyptian Jewish ascetic sect of the Therapeutae described in his treatise On the Contemplative Life), and his renewed pain at being forced once again to participate in civic turmoil. Philo appears to have been dissatisfied with his life in the bustling metropolis of Alexandria: He praises the Essenes—a Jewish sect who lived in monastic communities in the Dead Sea area—for avoiding large cities because of the iniquities that had become inveterate among city dwellers, for living an agricultural life, and for disdaining wealth.

    ‘The one identifiable event in Philo’s life occurred in the year 39 or 40, when, after a pogrom against the Jews in Alexandria, he headed an embassy to the emperor Caligula asking him to reassert Jewish rights granted by the Ptolemies (rulers of Egypt) and confirmed by the emperor Augustus. Philo was prepared to answer the charge of disloyalty levelled against the Jews by the notorious anti-Semite Apion, a Greek grammarian, when the Emperor cut him short. Thereupon Philo told his fellow delegates not to be discouraged because God would punish Caligula, who, shortly thereafter, was indeed assassinated.

    The quote box is too difficult to edit

  6. @ Sebastien Zorn:

    Hi, Sebastien.

    My Jewish ancestry was Galician — “dirty” Galician; because Jews there were excluded from so many occupations, a large number were absolute paupers. Being a pauper was illegal in many cities; so when they could, some emigrated to other parts of Austria and were assimilated. That, I believe, is how my branch of the family became Slovenian (Yo, Melania!) Catholics.

    I am not an expert of Jewish history; but I believe the Babylonian Jews, who seem to have outnumbered the Palestinian Jews, held a privileged position, even in Palestine. No more obvious evidence need be presented, than that most Jews follow the Babylonian Talmud. Feel free to correct me on this; but I read that Babylonia was even considered by many as part of “Eretz Israel”, because it shared with Palestine the Aramaic lingua franca. “Greek” (speaking) Jews, on the other hand, were looked down upon and discriminated against.

    I believe I am in the minority, in calling the US the modern-day “Babylon”, because most of the Jewish exiles live there. It is certainly NOT Eretz Israel; though Orthodox Jews, for a while, seemed to think it was more halachically proper to live here than in Palestine. These modern-day “Babylonians” share with their ancient kindred spirits, the reason they don’t want to do aliyah: It may be a step “up” spiritually; but it’s definitely a step “down”, both socially and economically.

    Jewish identity might be an important issue among Jews in the US; but I think it’s best not to press the issue too much in Israel. That country has enough problems, hanging together; and it probably owes far more to the seculars than to the religious when it comes to bearing arms and fighting for the Land.

  7. “How a Chinese-Jewish chef finds inspiration on a North Dakota farm”

    “…She was passionate about food — especially when it came to Jewish staples like the matzah ball soup and hummus she had loved since childhood in a Chicago suburb, where she grew up with an Ashkenazi mother and Chinese father. But her casually updated food blog, which she had started a few years before during a family vacation, was of secondary concern.

    When she chose to follow her boyfriend-turned-husband to his family beet farm in North Dakota, food gradually became more of a priority. Newly unemployed, Yeh took a job in a local bakery working a late-night shift. She began to put more energy into her food blog, which then started to gain some traction online. Betty Crocker soon contacted her to contribute recipes.

    Four years later, the 28-year-old Yeh is one of the internet’s most popular food bloggers, with 245,000 followers on Instagram. Her site, my name is yeh — it uses only lowercase letters as an aesthetic choice — offers a cornucopia of impeccably photographed culinary treats (she also takes all the photos). Many of her creations incorporate foods and ingredients that are popular in Jewish and Israeli cuisine, such as challah, shakshuka, hummus, tahini and shawarma. Some of the entries on her site, such as the scallion pancake challah and hummus dumplings, point to her dual heritage…

    RE: article: “Two, Four, Six, Eight, Time to Over-Generalize”

    To the tune of “Vatican Rag’ Tom Lehrer

  8. A very valuable and highly relevant article. However, it would be more helpful if Mr. November would provide us with specifics about what the content of Jewish education should be, both in Israel and the United States. We need tp get down to sketching out preliminary outlines for a curriculum–particularly for Jewish schools with students from secular homes.

  9. “if one thing is a lie, everything is a lie” (kdrama mystery, I forget which one)

  10. @ Sebastien Zorn:

    Hi, Sebastien

    I scanned the article. What it means, is, that the religious Jews are FINALLY catching up to the seculars, in their zeal for Zion — zeal measured by actually living there and fighting for the country. For decades, the religious shirked their duty and even opposed the Zionist cause. I have always been interested in the scripture:

    Deuteronomy 30:
    [1] And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee,
    [3] That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.

    There has been a trickle of Orthodox Jews going to Israel over the centuries; but when the great ingathering occurred, which was obviously alluded to in Deuteronomy 30, it was the SECULAR Jews who received the blessing for obedience.

    This begs the question, “How did the Secular Jews obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, they and their children, with all their heart, and with all their soul?”

    Answer: They did Aliyah. The religious Jews did (or excused themselves out of) 612 other mitzvot, mitzvot which were not real observance of the law, but rather a modified REMEMBRANCE of the law — modified, because they could no longer do the full law, because they didn’t have the Temple; and they couldn’t build the Temple, because they weren’t in the Land.

    Do you see how the Seculars were way ahead of them on this count? They didn’t make excuses. They went — with their whole heart, and with everything they had. Then, in 1967, they fought when many religious Jews excused themselves, and they won the Temple Mount…

    …but then, the Seculars also began making excuses, from Moshe Dayan down; and Rabbi Goren read the Torah scroll not on the Mount, but at the foot of a retaining wall — opening the door for 50 more years of humiliation of the Jews by the heathen.

    So, the Seculars drew up even with the religious in their backsliding in 1967; and since then, the religious have begun to come around — to where today, it is the Orthodox who are Zionists and the Seculars who oppose them.

    Each party has had its turn. The next great test, I believe, will be the Turko-Iranian invasion. Maybe after that, there will be a real revival in Israel. We’ll see.

  11. True ’nuff. It’s all gobbledygook to me but whoever is the more fervent Jewish nationalist gets all my support. Anybody who supports this moron the way American Jewish liberals supported Herzog can go jump in a lake as far as I am concerned. They can go pray in one too.

    “The Labor party will embark on a new direction as Avi Gabbay won the race for party leader Monday, defeating MK Amir Peretz in a runoff race.

    Gabbay received 52% of the vote with 16,080 votes. MK Peretz received 47% of the vote with 14,734 voters.

    Gabbay replaces current opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, who placed third in the Labor party primaries last week. Gabby is an avowed leftist, who believes in the two-state solution and wrote in his platform that he would be willing to hand over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the PA in an agreement.”

    Poll: Gabbay bypasses Lapid in popularity

  12. “I can vouch for there being a type of Zionist who doesn’t care what kind of society our “state” will have; I’m that person. If I were to know that the only way to a state was via socialism, or even that this would hasten it by a generation, I’d welcome it. More than that: give me a religiously Orthodox state in which I would be forced to eat gefilte fish all day long (but only if there were no other way) and I’ll take it.”

  13. I don’t care about religion, I don’t care about corruption, I don’t care about democracy, I don’t care about universal human rights.

    i care about expanding Israel’s borders and getting rid of the enemies of the Jewish people by any means necessary. All of them. As soon as is practical. Somebody answer this question, of the disputants about the Kotel, about Conversion, about all of this other jazz, what are their positions on the TSS, on Greater Israel, on Jewish Settlement, on death penalty for Arab Terrorists, and freedom to torture them first, on United Jerusalem? That’s all that matters. Whoever answers correctly, should get EVERYTHING!!!!!

  14. As far as Tikkun Olam goes: The world doesn’t need fixing. Our enemies do. But good.

  15. @ Sebastien Zorn:

    Wow, Sebastien! You have enough platforms to start a new party!

    Here’s what I care about. I am a blessed man. I’ve lived 69 years so far, and may get a few more. My wonderful, caring wife of 42 years is still with me; and we have two children and four grandchildren. We are upper middle class, and live in a peaceful, semi-rural, forested neighborhood frequented by deer and other wildlife.

    Should I even care about what happens in Israel? I do, for one reason: I want my short life (Yes, very short, even at 69) to mean something. In fact, I want everyone’s life to mean something. I want there to be a God who made all things, who orders all things, and will judge all things. That God is the God of Israel (Accept no substitutes); the Jewish people are His people; Israel is His footstool, and Jerusalem is where He has chosen to put His name.

    Everything else follows from there. Tikkun olam? I thank God, that He doesn’t expect me to fix anything. He asks me to believe in Him, to trust in Him, to acknowledge Him in all I do. He asks me to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Him.

    If I do those things, I will have a full life and receive an eternal reward. If I fail, I know this: God forgives those who forgive; He is just to those who are just; He blesses those who bless; He acknowledges in eternity, those who acknowledge Him here.

    Is there a “Plan B”? Sure; and a Plan C and a Plan D; but they all stink.

    I’m sure there are Israelis, who think they have control over their lives and over their country. I’m sure there are religious Jews, who think they’re the answer to the world’s problem. I’m also sure that it was God, not them, who plucked them from the brink of extinction, to put them in the land of His choosing, something He promised 3400 years ago that He would do; so He shows those Israelis and Jews for what they are: Liliputans. He has plans for them, and they are good plans. I would be a fool, to try to fight against him.

    God bless and keep you and yours.

  16. @ Sebastien Zorn:
    You sound more like me than I do.

    Dr Yisrael Eldad, who was my key ideological mentor back in the summer of 1974, would have enjoyed your presence for serious discussion about the real needs of Jewish nationalism, in his apartment in the Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem every Friday afternoon. He had a brain akin to a steel trap, and it was no surprise aise to me that I couldn’t beat him at chess.

    Arnold Harris, Outspeaker

  17. Michael S Said:

    I thank God, that He doesn’t expect me to fix anything.

    Doesn’t sound like you’d have been among those pioneering seculars but among the “leave it to God” religious zealots who sanctified sitting around and picking their ass in acceptance of God’s apparent judgement that we must suffer in exile, albeit five times a day.

    Actually, the Tanakh is full of exhortations to take action. But no matter. People believe what they want to believe and then say they read it somewhere. Could be a shopping list.

    “”Fiat Homo” (“Let There Be Man”)[edit]
    In the 26th century, a 17-year-old novice named Brother Francis Gerard is on a vigil in the desert. While searching for a rock to complete a shelter, Brother Francis encounters a Wanderer, apparently looking for the abbey, who inscribes Hebrew on a rock that appears the perfect fit for the shelter. When Brother Francis removes the rock, he discovers the entrance to an ancient fallout shelter[14] containing “relics”, such as handwritten notes on crumbling memo pads bearing cryptic texts resembling a 20th-century shopping list.[15] He soon realizes that these notes appear to have been written by Leibowitz, his order’s founder. The discovery of the ancient documents causes an uproar at the monastery, as the other monks speculate that the relics once belonged to Leibowitz. Brother Francis’ account of the Wanderer, who ultimately never turned up at the abbey, is also greatly embellished by the other monks amid rumours that he was an apparition of Leibowitz himself; Francis strenuously denies the embellishments, but equally persistently refuses to deny that the encounter occurred, despite the lack of other witnesses. Abbot Arkos, the head of the monastery, worries that the discovery of so many potentially holy relics in such a short period may cause delays in Leibowitz’s canonization process. Francis is banished back to the desert to complete his vigil and defuse the sensationalism.
    Many years later, the abbey is visited by Monsignors Aguerra (God’s Advocate) and Flaught (the Devil’s Advocate), the Church’s investigators in the case for Leibowitz’s sainthood. Leibowitz is eventually canonized as Saint Leibowitz – based partly on the evidence Francis discovered in the shelter – and Brother Francis is sent to New Rome to represent the Order at the canonization Mass. He takes the documents found in the shelter and an illumination of one of the documents on which he has spent years working, as a gift to the Pope.”

  18. Michael S Said:

    “Here’s what I care about. I am a blessed man. I’ve lived 69 years so far, and may get a few more. My wonderful, caring wife of 42 years is still with me; and we have two children and four grandchildren. We are upper middle class, and live in a peaceful, semi-rural, forested neighborhood frequented by deer and other wildlife.”

    “A boy grows up in a poor Eastern European country. Every Saturday at services his rabbi ends the sermon by saying, “Life is like a fountain.” The boy remembers this whenever he has a hard test, or he is bullied at school, and it helps him cope.
    When he gets older, he decides to move to America for a better life. It is hard at first, but he remembers that “life is like a fountain,” and perseveres.
    Eventually he gets a good job and starts a family. Sure, there are struggles along the way, but he only has to think, “life is like a fountain” to find the strength to keep going.
    One day, he hears that the rabbi from his old town is very sick and on his deathbed. The man decides he must see the rabbi before he dies. So, he flies out to Europe and goes back to his hometown, where he finds the rabbi.
    “Rabbi, when I was young, I attended your sermons, and you always used to say ‘Life is like a fountain.’ It was so profound, and many times over the course of my life I have pondered it, and it has given me strength. But, I must confess that I feel I have never truly understood it’s meaning. Can you please tell me what is meant by ‘life is like a fountain?'”
    The rabbi thinks for a minute before responding:
    “Okay, so it’s not like a fountain.”

  19. @ Sebastien Zorn:
    Rarity? People like you and me are rare.

    But one side of my consciousness says that rarity is a virtue, while the other side says we are in a battle that never ends, and we need reinforcements.

    By the way. What happened to the edit feature of Israpundit’s comments? Ted, is that something you specifically ordered? In any case, it is strongly needed, unless you want us to compose comments in a word processor, then copy and paste them on your blogsite.

    Arnold Harris, Outspeaker

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