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.