The strangest and most self-destructive fact of Jewish life.
I have often written, sometimes bemused, sometimes incensed, about what is surely the strangest fact of Jewish life, namely, its self-division. Since time immemorial, the Jewish people have been at war with themselves, both in the Holy Land and the Diaspora, allowing themselves to succumb to one of history’s most mordant ironies. In turning against themselves, they have effectively collaborated with those who would suppress, conquer or extinguish the Jewish community.
The template was already established in the Book of Genesis, where we read how one brother slew another in jealousy and resentment and a group of conspiratorial brothers sold their sibling into slavery. From that point on, the biblical archive presents a saga of recrimination, envy, hatred and fratricidal strife that in different degrees has imperiled the very survival of the Jewish “nation.” The pattern was consolidated in the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, the three rebels who “rose up” before Moses and challenged his authority. As the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen these people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people” (Exodus 32:9).
Brother against brother, prophet against people, king and priest, and even nation against nation form an indelible part of the Jewish chronicle. The history of the Two Kingdoms provides a continuingly relevant object lesson. After the death of King Solomon, the Israelite communality broke apart into the two warring monarchies of Israel and Judah. The shedding of kinship blood critically weakened the two kingdoms, leading to the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians and the reduction of Judah first by the Chaldeans, then by the Egyptians, and finally by the Babylonians. The Jewish epic may be described as: divide and be conquered. Indeed, surah 59:14 of the Koran tells us something very true about Jews: “There is much hostility between them: their hearts are divided…” It seems that the wise counsel of Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah has no resonance for the backsliders: “All of Israel and those who are joined to it are to each other like brothers. If brother shows no compassion to brother, who will show compassion to him?”
The fault line in the Jewish sensibility is tectonic in its dimensions and destructive in its effect. Perhaps the single most resonant case study in self-division involves the institutional founder of the Christian faith. The story of St. Paul is too well known to require much in the way of comment, yet it is richly instructive. A rabid persecutor of the followers of Jesus, Saul of Tarsus experienced a blinding conversion to the new faith and was shortly thereafter called by the name of Paul (Acts 13:9). He then became the Apostle of Christianity, considering his Jewish identity a mere rehearsal for a larger identity and at times expressing strong disapproval of Jews who held to their traditional beliefs and identity. (His quarrel with the Desposyni, the “servants of the Lord,” led by James the brother of Jesus who wished to preserve the purity and exclusivity of the original faith, is a matter of historical record.)
But the details of the Apostle’s former activities and subsequent religious convictions are specific to the time. Jews today do not persecute Christians. Indeed, they are the ones who are relentlessly persecuted—by Muslims, by secular antisemites and unhinged fanatics from both sides of the political spectrum (though massively from the Left), and by several Christian denominations associated with The World Council of Churches, replacement and liberation theologians, and the Quaker-Presbyterian axis promoting its BDS campaigns. More to the point, and the most indigestible perversion of all, countless Jews harry and denounce their own congeners. The tendency to a kind of binary kinesis seems inherent in the Jew, whether it is himself he loathes or his own people he reproaches and undermines. It is the psychic split itself, not its local content, that transcends the ages. In this respect, the Saul/ Paul fracture represents a longstanding Jewish archetype.
This history of self-estrangement, political strife and cultural rupture has been played out from the biblical era through the centuries of religious factionalism and reciprocal excommunication culminating in our own epoch. The profound antipathy between assimilated Jews and their irredentist counterparts in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed and Hebron, as well as the caste-like contempt of Western Jewish intellectuals for the Ostjuden, that is, their assumed “plebeian” and “uneducated” East European brethren, are facts of modern Jewish history. The shame of many of the Jewish Councils in Nazi Europe that collaborated with their murderers (not all, as Gershom Scholem justifiably argues in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis) cannot be forgiven, despite attempts to explain it away as the least of worst alternatives. The legacy of the celebrated Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the equally acclaimed Jewish political writer Hannah Arendt, who could never forget their German patrimony and were corrosively suspicious of the Zionist project, has been broadly and unambiguously noxious. In the present moment we observe their offspring, that is, left-wing “peace activists,” liberal rabbis and “post-Zionist” intellectuals, who strive to erode the Jewish character of the state of Israel and so deprive it of its legitimacy. The Jewish Left, as it dances around the golden calf of a fictitious peace, represents perhaps the gravest danger to the survival of the country.
Many Jews, as I wrote in Hear, O Israel!, tend to transpose the fight against iniquity and oppression to other nations and communities rather than press for the rights of their own people. Or they believe, “in traditionally Marxist fashion,” as Sol Stern writes in City Journal, “that the way to fight anti-Semitism was through the broader struggle for international socialism.” Thus they pursue their fugitive merit. Like Paul, their main focus falls on the Corinthians and Ephesians et al. of the time. Indifferent to the reality of their own condition—ignoring the rain clouds until they are drenched and catch pneumonia, as the 19th century Jewish philosopher Max Nordau noted—these are the ostensibly benevolent Jews who wish to “repair the world” (Tikkun Olam). That it would be a world in which their place would nevertheless remain precarious escapes them entirely.
The benevolent Jews are bad enough. Their spirit of pharisaic charity, however, is exceeded by that of the reprobate Jews, who take their “idealism” to the next level of unctuous self-effacement. They struggle against injustice by reprehending, for example, not Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah jihadists but Israeli Jews themselves whose right to national legitimacy they perceive as an affront and do everything in their power to misrepresent. Again, like Paul, they regard their own people as “those who please not God, and are contrary to all men” (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
But both the benevolent Jew and the reprobate Jew, the supposedly reasonable and the plainly irrational, work against their own long-term interests in a pusillanimous and delinquent flight before the Accuser. These are the “degraded” Jews whom the great Jewish patriot Vladimir Jabotinsky deplored. They are reminiscent of the spies that Moses sent out to reconnoiter enemy territory, ten of whom on returning compared themselves to frail grasshoppers before the fearsome Anakim and recoiled from their destiny (Numbers 13: 33). They do not understand, in the words of Nurit Greenger, that “Israel is the last station in the Jews’ Via Dolorosa” and that “beyond this station is the Jews’ final crucifixion,” nor do they realize how profoundly they themselves are at risk. They have forgotten that the Jewish sense of security is always a false sense of security—that over the past 2000 years, as Melvin Konner points out in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews, Jews have been expelled from 94 countries—and do not think to ask themselves why the future should be any different.
Renegade Jews especially have much to answer for. They are always happy to become token Jews, showcased at antisemitic seminars and congresses—where, as Alan Dershowitz writes in an article titled “Why Anti-Semitism Is Moving Toward the Mainstream,” the “red lines separating legitimate criticism of Israel from subtle anti-Semitism” are now being crossed at will. These turncoats pose as principled anti-Zionists, but their anti-Zionism is nothing more or less than a kosher antisemitism. In so being and doing, they acquire what historian Robert Wistrich calls “historic dissident status” by willfully providing their enemies with the ammunition they need to advance their cause while disguising their intentions. There is not much doubt that what we are looking at is a pathology of the first magnitude, what the Talmudic sages called sin’at akhim, or brotherly hatred, an element of Jewish life sufficiently pronounced to merit a name of its own. The 1930s Zionist Labor leader Berl Katznelson was very explicit about this. “Is there another People on Earth,” he asked rhetorically, “so emotionally twisted that they consider everything their nation does despicable and hateful, while every murder, rape, robbery committed by their enemies fill their hearts with admiration and awe?” The syndrome has come to be known as Jew Flu.
Jews do not have the privilege enjoyed by all other peoples in the world, that is, the luxury of hating one another or, for that matter, of hating themselves. Other groups can get away with intramural conflict, the Islamic umma being the chief example of a community that can inflict enormous damage on itself, sundered between Sunni and Shia, nationalists and pan-Arabists, despotic regimes and the equally tyrannical Muslim Brotherhood. Due to its numbers, its domination of the United Nations, its vast oil reserves and its energy stranglehold on the rest of the planet, it survives robustly and continues to exercise global power. Jews have no such exemption.
A Jew who hates another Jew or who is mortified by his own Jewishness has given hostages to fortune and rendered his own prosperity and well-being, let alone his survival, hypothetical. The universal human prerogative of hating one’s fellow man, whether members of one’s race, ethnicity or nation, should be anathema to Jews since they of all peoples can least afford it. No less than Cain hated Abel or Jeroboam hated Rehoboam or Paul hated Saul, the pathology continues to work its harm or, at the very least, to produce an etiology of dislocation in the self. It is only a small step from this ancient matrix to the current mob of anti-Zionist Jewish Jew-haters we are all familiar with, schismatics like George Soros, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Amos Elon, Naomi Klein, Richard Falk, the late Tony Judt and, most recently, Gilad Atzmon asserting in The Wandering Who? his “contempt for the Jew in me.”
In his important book United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror, Jamie Glazov states that “Two of the most outstanding Jewish characteristics are the love of life and the enduring struggle to survive.” There is much truth in this observation; how else explain Jewish survival into the modern world against all the odds? Yet I fear that this is only part of the story and that in our ceaseless squabbles and conflicts with one another, our misdirected skepticism and historical amnesia, we may one day bring about our own demise. It is as if there is something in the Jewish soul that, despite its love of life, paradoxically hungers for its own extinction, as if the very quick of life, of practical wisdom, ethnic solidarity, love of the better part of heritage, faith in the political miracle known as Israel, and the stubborn desire to persist, will often lie dormant.
Under these circumstances, it is hard not to sympathize with the pungent and despairing remark of the Przysucha Hassidic Rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who said: “I could revive the dead, but I have more difficulty reviving the living.”
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