Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Acts of Injustice and the Three Weeks

In the Jewish calendar we have now entered the period of the Three Weeks. This is a semi-mourning period beginning on the Seventeenth of Tamuz and that will end on the Ninth of Av, the day the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. (and later, the day(s) that Herod's Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.)

As an orthodox Jew, I believe that there is a God, and that in some way there is divine providence. And my tradition teaches me that acts of injustice will not go unpunished eventually. The Three Weeks should remind of us that.

What do I mean by acts of injustice? Well, the Torah says "You shall have one law for the stranger and for the native; for I am Hashem your God." Strangers are always at a disadvantage merely by being part of the out group. Not only does the Torah forbid afflicting the stranger, but it also mandates that one law apply to both native and stranger. When we discriminate in terms of fundamental human rights, we are unjust. So how are we in Israel doing in that regard?

1. Akiva Eldar reported a few days ago in Haaretz about a Palestinian family named Khurd that is being evicted from its home in East Jerusalem. It seems that the building belonged to Jews before 1948, and when Israell took control of the area, the Jewish owners (or their agents) sued to have that ownership recognized. The court ruled in the Jewish owners' favor, but allowed the Palestinian residents to stay, provided they pay rent. They are now in default on their payments, and they will be evicted. (All this, according to the article in Haaretz. )

What gives the story its special poignancy is that the Palestinian family lived in West Jerusalem until 1948 and they owned property there. They are now being evicted from their homes to make way for Jews, but they cannot get restitution for their own property, which they left during the 1948 fighting. Some estimates say that the Palestinians owned as much as 62% of property in West Jerusalem. Even if that is an exaggeration, Palestinian ownership was considerable.

Now, I ask you – why is a Jew allowed to reclaim Jewish property in East Jerusalem whereas a Palestinian, who lived, perhaps, two blocks away from that Jew, is not allowed to reclaim Palestinian property in West Jeruasalem? If you argue that it is not the right time for Palestinians to make claims for property abandoned sixty years ago, then wouldn't it be right to postpone Jewish claims until the same right time?

But that's not the way Israel works. Because we have the power.

I learned this a while back, when I lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. After 1967, the Israel government threw Palestinian families out of an expanded Jewish Quarter that never existed prior to 1948, and whose legal segregation was justified by the liberal Supreme Court Chief Justice Haim Cohen. Since Jews, he wrote, were discriminated against in housing in the Old City, they could now have their special (expanded) quarter as a sort of affirmative action. The "Quarter" System was supposed to ensure that each group would have its own homogeneous quarter. Fair enough.

But then Israel turned around and let Jews reclaim Jewish property in the Muslim Quarter. Why? Because we have the power.

The Torah says "You shall have one law for the stranger and for the native; for I am Hashem your God."

Well, so much for the Torah.

2. Haaretz and Ynet published a story about the shooting of a bound Palestinian protester. By now the pattern is familiar; soldiers abuse Palestinians; nothing happens unless the abuse is caught on camera; the politicians and the military brass condemn the incident; once things quiet down, nothing is down about it. From experience we know that the IDF spokesperson routinely lies to cover its tuches.

You will ask, if abuse is routine, then why don't we hear about it more often? Three reasons: First, most Israelis are insensitive to the suffering of the Palestinians. (The same is true vice-versa. Collectively speaking, neither community could care less about the other.) So what most people consider abuse, most Israelis consider "minor inconvenience at best." Second, most people, and certainly most Jews, are moral chauvinists – they consider themselves morally superior to the other. I have yet to meet an Israeli Jew who doesn't consider himself or herself morally superior to an Arab. That is true of all cultures, but Judaism, in my opinion, suffers in a unique way from moral chauvinism.

Third, we are individualists when we come to our side and collectivists when we come to the other side. Our army is pure except for a few bad apples, we say. But the Palestinian people as a whole glorify violence, we say.

The Jerusalem Post ended its editorial on the shooting by saying that, "We must not allow Palestinians' glorification of violence to brutalize us." Hah, it that isn't the case of the pot calling the kettle black!. As if we are any different from the Palestinians or they from us. The only difference is that we have the power and they don't. So we can and do hurt more of them than they do us. That is the only difference. Oh, sure, educated people on both sides react differently from simple folks on both sides. But let's face it – if we were under occupation, and we thought that only through violence could we liberate our homeland, we would do whatever it takes.

Not a whole lot of Zionists were pacifists. What kept Ben Gurion and some Zionists in check was the pragmatic, usually displomatic consequences of the Jews' actions. I am not belittling this; pragmatism is important.

But just ask yourself, supporter of Israel, just what you would be willing to do for the survival of the Jewish State. Where would your "red line" be?

3. Speaking of moral chauvinism, there has been a lot of that lately surrounding the prisoner exchange. You know, the self-congratulatory "We-don't-dance-on-the-rooftops-we-don't-dip-our-hands-in-the-blood-of-lynch-victims we-don't-trade-in-corpses-we-don't-cause-mental-anguish-to-the-families-of-prisoners" kind of thing.

But some of those things we do, and other things that they never do we do – because we have the power to do them and they don't. How many Jews have been humiliated by Palestinians on a daily basis? When the Palestinians don't like our elected government, how long are we kept under siege? How many Israeli Jews have lived for a second, much less sixty years, subject to the total control of the Palestinians? We have almost all the cards in our hand, and yet we kidnap civillians; we barter with corpses; we detain five thousand Palestinians in jails, many of them without charge, none of them after trials in courts by a jury of their peers.

And yet, we say to ourselves, "Look at the difference between us and them. We will move heaven and earth -- we will free murderers to get back our soldiers, dead or alive. Whereas they are willing to let many of their terrorists rot in Israeli prisons rather than hand back Gilad Shalit."

But suppose that they were holding 5000 Israelis, and the only card we had was a single Palestinian soldier. Would we trade that soldier for, say, only half of ours? Would we be able to look in the eyes of the parents of the soldiers who were not released and say, "We had to be flexible"

Yes, there is a difference between us and them. The difference is that on the day we release their prisoners, we can round up more. We can squeeze them economically; we can reduce their water and electricity; we have absolute control over their lives. And they have no control, nada, over our lives.

If there is a difference, it is between us and us, and between them and them – between the us (and them) that feel it necessary to draw the line when it comes to unjust behavior, and between the us (and them) who say that en guerre comme la guerre. And, yes, where the line is drawn will be different for us and for them , because of the asymmetry of power –but there are some norms that all are bound to.

Moral chauvinists beware – you are destroying the Temple by your baseless hatred.


Anonymous said...

I doubt Jews are uniquely morally chauvinistic, though I don't doubt it's a pretty widespread disease. I see it anytime the NYT carries letters on the I/P conflict.

But let me say something about my own group--evangelical Christians. (Though I've gotten so disgusted with evangelicals I'm starting to disavow the connection.) You don't get much more chauvinistic than us. In theory it's not supposed to be that way. We have nothing to boast about, as St. Paul says. But of course in practice we manage to combine expressions of humility with unshakeable feelings of moral superiority.

But then I think a lot of secular lefties are like this too. It's just a human universal.


Jerry Haber said...


Well, it would be chauvinistic for me to claim in all seriousness that the Jews are more morally chauvinistic than others! So, yes, you are right, as I made clear, that all groups (civilizations, nations) that make claims of superiority are morally chuavinistic.

Having said that, I do believe that the Jews position as a minority without political power (except interna), and without the glorification of physical prowess, etc., developed some aspects of its moral chauvinism in response to the obvious counter claim that their historical situation proved their inferiority. The gentiles have temporal power; they may even have wisdom. But only we have Torah.

Anonymous said...

Having read about the problems in Israel-Palestine, I can't help but wonder if there has not been a slow moral decay in Israeli society (and perhaps in Palestinian society), which continues to this day?

Anonymous said...

Excellent and timely post!

As a non-religionist, I have read only short passages from the Torah and the Talmud. Do orthodox Jews naturally just assume "a spiritual divide" between Jews and Gentiles that can never be breached? And, if so, does this come about due to their understanding... or an esteemed rabbi's interpretation... of these texts... along with their familial upbringing?

In reading your post I was reminded of "The One Sentence Persuasion Course", by Blair Warren:

"People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions and help them throw rocks at their enemies."

But then, recalling this "course" is perhaps not a propos here... :)

Jimmy Carter may have been a little harsh in his own recent assessment of the Holy Land strife, but I'm sure most Palestinians would agree their plight could at least be likened to racial apartheid, as he's suggested.

Yet... you're to be commended... for keeping this off-putting, rather contentious conversation alive - G-d seems to be keen on staying on top of these questions too, I'm sure.

Oh, and BTW, do you feel the Torah G-d is identical to the G-d spoken of in the oral traditions of the Talmud? If He is indeed one and the same, how can "The Chosen Ones" not help but feel superior to all others - especially "them"?

I know in my own life... anytime I felt myself superior to another fallible human being... in any way, shape or form - and acknowledged later by my previous actions I may have unthinkingly caused hurt or harm to someone - I often experience noticeable pangs of guilt afterwards. This is why the older I get the more I try to reach inside for reserve and humility... and disconnect from any tendencies of an earthly "separateness" from other people... if I possibly can.

I've discovered that if one truly values love and peace, or success and prosperity, for example - no matter one's special mission or agenda in any given circumstance - one can also easily learn to be more mindful with constant practice.

Theoretically, Buddhist Zen-style mindfulness promotes temporal AND spiritual connectedness by causing one to always be spiritually alive... in every moment... of the here-and-now. At the same time, even while disassociating from one's "manufactured Self" - from error-ridden dialectical argument and harmful judgment, or simply from the empty, supposed need for less than spirit-filled "attachment", let's say - a person can harmoniously stay obedient to the spirit of "I will be what I will be" and still be razor-sharp in his/her devotion to the task(s) at hand... with selfless discernment... and still with a kind of joyous abandon, in the same instance.

Whether I'm feeling anti-social or not, if I'm not respectful and accommodating towards another person, I get the sense that I'll have actually lost instead of gained something... of that human interaction... in the here-and-now.

Therefore, forget about entertaining questions of ethics or morality, or dealing with issues of separateness or connectedness, it's only prudent to want to gain (and not consciously decide to lose) from every one of life's experiences!

Do the Jewish religious teachings say anything at all along these lines? Or anything else which might help guide Israelis away from this tragic enmity with the Palestinian people?

P.S. - The Jews of Europe and the Americas, to my knowledge, have not been lacking... in quite considerable political power... for a very long time. Despite their minority status, their social status, largely by virtue of their tribal "close-knittedness" and dogged, single-minded pursuit of power, has only grown by leaps and bounds. Yet, I'm sure you're correct this hasn't always been the case historically - their minority status always guaranteed they would have had to close ranks in the spirit of self-preservation, so of course, this collective "mastermind" was bound to enjoy some success.

Do you mind also elaborating on the second part of your comment in response to Donald please? I'm really not sure what you meant, except that I understand your obvious pride as regards the Torah.

Jerry Haber said...


My hasty and misspelled response to Donald suggested that there is a unique form of moral chauvinism in classical Jewish literature because the Jews were a minority religion and had to deal with the claims of both Christianity and Islam that their lack of power indicated that they were not the chosen people, and that their Torah was not still applicable, etc.

The last line of my response should have been in quotation marks; Jewish sources claim that only the Jews have Torah -- divine revelation.

Anonymous said...


I think the powerlessness for many centuries probably is one of the reasons for feeling morally superior. It's a distortion of a Biblical theme--that God cares for the poor and the oppressed, and then we humans take it a step further and say "Our ethnic or religious group has been oppressed, so that must mean we're morally superior."

Evangelical Christians in the US can't seriously claim to be oppressed, but in order to have some of the cachet of being a victim, some of us look for anything we can find--the sometimes the secular media disses us, for instance. It's not a pogrom or the African slave trade, but it's all we've got.