One thing that struck me about Judaism on my brief visit to Jerusalem is that it’s a tribal religion. The god that it posits — the ineffable YHWH — is the god of a particular people, his Chosen People, in opposition to other gods of other peoples.
That’s the way it originated in biblical times, when YHWH had to compete with Ba’al and other disreputable types, and that’s the way it still seems today.
Christianity, for all its warts, is at least intended for everyone.
Islam claims to be for everyone, but its god speaks only Arabic and you have to be able to pray in Arabic if you want to have any show with him.
Judaism makes no pretensions to universality.
This matters because Judaism is the heart of the state of Israel. The state is not for everyone either. It’s for members of the tribe, as made clear in its declaration of independence and its national anthem. Its central conceit is that modern-day Jews, whether from Poland or Ethiopia, and regardless of physical type, are all lineal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible.
After 2,000 years they have come home. You hear this all the time in Israel. I heard it most memorably from an aggressive guy in downtown Jerusalem who buttonholed me and tried to get me to sign a petition against the division of Jerusalem, not that any such division is in the works. “We waited 2,000 years!” he shouted at me, though I was not offering any resistance.
It turned out he was from New York, though he could as well have been from Kiev or Marrakech.
“Israel” in the Bible had shifting meanings and uncertain boundaries, but that doesn’t matter. It’s real.
Palestine, however, also of shifting meaning and uncertain boundaries in the Bible, is not real. It does not figure in the archeology presented in the otherwise magnificent Israel Museum, and it doesn’t figure in the national myth.
“There were no such thing as Palestinians,” quoth the former prime minister, Golda Meir. “They did not exist.”
They’re an “invented people,” agrees Israel-booster Newt Gingrich today.
Which of course makes it easier to cut down their trees, demolish their houses and put them in prison without charges. You can go a long way toward understanding Israel’s predation of Palestine by understanding the tribal outlook.
Did I say tribal? Tel Aviv has a government-sponsored counseling program to discourage Jewish girls from dating Arab boys.
A survey in 2007 found that a majority of Israelis considered marriage to non-Jews to be “national treason.”
Not that “marrying out” is even possible under the rule of the Chief Rabbinate, which leaves even reform Jews out in the cold.
The claim of coming back after 2,000 years is reach enough, you might think, but add to it the conceit that the land is theirs because God gave it to them, and you’ve really got trouble. I mean, it might be possible to compromise on a tribal land claim, but how can you compromise on a divine mandate?
But that’s part of the national myth, at least for religious Jews — the Covenant, as recounted in the Book of Genesis. That YHWH gave the land to the seed of Abraham they take as historical fact.
“This country exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God Himself,” insisted Golda Meir. “It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for its legitimacy.”
That the land was already inhabited when the Jews latterly arrived — by Arabic-speaking people who called it Palestine — was an inconvenience, to be sure, but an inconvenience that they overcame with military might, and an inconvenience that they continue to overcome not only with military might but with the creeping conquest of land occupations called settlements.
Palestinian Arabs, alas, have not entirely acquiesced in their subjugation. They throw rocks, or fire rockets when they get hold of them, and this is taken as further cause for Israeli suppression. “We have to keep our boot on their neck, or they’ll shoot us,” Jews say in effect, which is by no means a faulty analysis.
It’s curious, the taking of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, as justification for the modern state of Israel. It would be like Greece hanging its national hat on the Iliad and Odyssey. A case of literature being misconstrued as history.
I refer to the mythology of the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, the captivity in Egypt, the Exodus, the wandering in the desert, the Covenant, down to probably the united kingdom of Solomon and David, which persons of sober disposition recognize as literature.
I do not speak of the downright weird hortatory parts of the Torah — the arrangement of the entrails of sacrificed animals on the altar, the obsession with bodily discharges and skin rashes, the arcane dietary taboos. They can have all that, and they’re welcome to it.
I refer only to the imaginary-history parts. Remember, when Prime Minister Netanyahu visited President Obama recently he presented him a bound copy of the book of Esther, a charming short story about a Jewish girl saving her people from murderous Persians, or Iranians. He described it as “background reading on Iran” as he tried to drum up support for war.
Taking the heat
Of course it pains me that some readers have taken exception to what I have written so far about my adventures in the Holy Land, since there is nothing I desire more than approval, but I can’t help it. I went there and I saw with my own eyes and I thought with my own brain, knowing that a guided tour would be safer, and now I have to take the consequences.
I was especially pained by the letter in yesterday’s paper from the rabbi of Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, who had graciously counseled me before I embarked on my journey.
Now he says my reports are “bordering on anti-Semitic,” which is a charge so shabby that I will not embarrass either of us by responding to it.
He says my research “fell short of discovering” the truth about Masada, for one thing, though in fact I didn’t do any research at all on that subject but just passed along what the Israel Museum says, which is that no archaeological evidence exists for the tale of mass suicide there.
He also says I “did not follow through” on my personal adventures “by speaking with Israeli authorities,” who presumably would have set me straight, though in fact I had a half-hour meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s international press secretary. And naturally I wonder if he has ever followed through on his own experiences by speaking with Palestinian authorities.
Probably not. In an apparent effort to discredit Palestinians, he tells us that in his synagogue there hangs a poster of an Israeli soldier who was “kidnapped by Hamas terrorists” and another of “hundreds of Israeli citizens murdered by homicide bombers,” wherein we see again the tribal perspective.
No posters of any of the 1,463 Palestinian children killed by Israelis since 2000 (according to the website ifamericansknew.org), as opposed to 124 Israeli children killed in Palestinian attacks.
No posters of Hana Shalabi, the Palestinian woman who fasted 40 days to protest her detention — I saw those posters in Ramallah, land of the other tribe.
Nor posters of any of the other 300 Palestinians that Israel acknowledges holding in what it calls “administrative detention,” without charges, without sentences.
His synagogue honors victims from its own tribe, including a soldier, but ignores the more numerous victims from the other tribe. Then he tells us, eyes heavenward, that he is “one who is empathetic to the plight of Palestinians.”
Let him get squeezed into the holding cage at the Qalandia checkpoint with a few dozen Palestinian men trying to get to work and then come back and talk to us about empathy.
There was a demonstration at that checkpoint a few days after I wrote about it last week, with pictures on the Internet of Palestinian young men throwing rocks, and combat-outfitted Israeli soldiers firing back with rubber bullets and tear gas, and I thought, I have been seeing such pictures for years and they never meant anything to me.
Now, all of a sudden, after being degraded at that checkpoint myself, they mean something, and I give thanks I wasn’t there at the time, or I might have thrown a rock myself. As a result of what I saw, I am one who empathizes with the plight of Palestinians.
Anyway, I have asked the rabbi two questions:
1. Has he toured the West Bank and seen with his own eyes? (He is a regular visitor to Israel, so maybe he has. I just want to know.)
2. Does he have research on Masada not available to the Israel Museum that he can share with me?
I’ll let you know if I get any response.
Meantime, I’m going to keep my head down.
And oh, yes, one more thing I just thought of: Israel last year passed a law to deny funds to any Arab town or organization within its jurisdiction that commemorates what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, referring to their conquest by the state of Israel.
That strikes me as like modern Germany punishing Jews for trying to commemorate the Holocaust, and surely I am not the only one who revels in the irony.
Now I’m going to keep my head down.