There was an article in Ha’aretz yesterday by Naomi Daron, “An Odyssey from Birthright to the BDS Movement,” an account of how the jingoism of the Birthright movement has turned many young Jews in the opposite direction, and has led them to question and challenge some of their assumptions about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The most striking quote from the article is from a young 24-year old American, who climbed with his birthright group up Masada, and when he got there the group leader made the following statement. He said he had Italian neighbors “and they’re wonderful, but if I had to decide whether to save their lives or the life of one Jew, I would choose to save the Jew. If I had to choose to save 100 non-Jews or one Jew, I would save the Jew.” And I am told that that the English version of his article is bowdlerized, and the Hebrew extended the comments—the Birthright leader on Masada continued to raise the stakes—1000 non-Jews vs one Jew, concluding that he would rather save the life of a single Jew than all the victims of the Japanese tsumani in 2006. (Please Ha’aretz, fully translate your articles into English.)
This little sermon on the mount can serve—the quintessence of Masada-ism—can serve as well as anything as the credo of the new Israeli government; “Jewish lives matter, and only Jewish lives matter.” It perfectly captures the moral blindness of too many in Israel today. There has been much attention to the grotesque decision of the new government to assign the ministry of justice to Ayalet Shaked, a 39-year old ultra-right wing firebrand, who has previously called Palestinian children snakes and called for Israel to wage war against the “entire Palestinian people,” including “its elderly, its women, its cities and its villages, its property.” But it is not just Shaked, but the entire government that is openly embracing annexationist talk, that is declaring that there will be no peace with the Palestinians, and that the Palestinians are vermin, and that they don’t really matter.
A few years ago, just after I moved down to South Carolina, I was looking for a synagogue for the High Holidays. It’s not that Jew-y around here, and there aren’t a lot of choices, but I found one, about 25 miles away. I attended services, and went the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon, before the avodah service, listening to a talk. A gentleman was speaking, clearly very knowledgeably, about the situation in what he called “Judea and Samaria.” Listening to him for a few minutes, it was clear that he was very right wing. Okay, I said to myself, no one asked you to approve the speakers; let me think of an appropriate but polite question to ask him. The conversation turned to Syria. He stated, “ I don’t care about the death tolls in Syria. The life of a Syrian child is not worth as much as the life of an Israeli child.” I was going to shout something, but my wife tugged on my sleeve, not wanting me to make a scene. We walked out.
The tragedy of this devaluing of non-Jewish life is that it is a very traditional Jewish outlook. There is a long strain of rabbinic thought that is profoundly xenophobic, holding that God created the goyim to test and punish the Jews, but they are really no more important than scenery—if Jews truly feared God, they would go away. And I suspect among many ultra-orthodox Jews today, such as the Satmars, this view still remains; Jews are just much more important than non-Jews; the non-Jewish world doesn’t really, in the final analysis, really exist.
But there is a real difference between the xenophobia of the weak, of Jews in the diaspora, and the xenophobia of the strong, that dominates some Israeli Jews today, and the current Israeli government who are just as hateful towards and fearful of non-Jews as were their counterparts in Eastern Europe several centuries ago. The whole point of Zionism was that Jews would be able to live their lives without fear, but Israel has created a society in which, for many, fear of non-Jews is the animating political principle. And what we fear, we hate.
As we look at this new Israeli government, we need to be vigilant, we need to protest it however we can, we cannot let it get away with anything, we need to insist that it does not represent us, we need to encourage civil society within Israel to fight it, we need to encourage peaceful Palestinian resistance against it, we need to support international agencies, the EU, and perhaps even the US, to take appropriate steps against it, if warranted.
I hate Masada and the cult that has developed around the death-loving zealots who defended it against the Romans back in the first century CE. But I will grant them one thing; they felt that an ominous force was taking over their country, they did not dismiss or discount the threat, they did not try to explain it away; they tried to destroy it. We need to do the same, but of course, peacefully and rationally. And if we must climb the ramparts of Masada, let us ascend the heights and proclaim “Jews and non-Jews are equal in the eyes of God; Jews and non-Jews must find a way to live together as equals and in peace, and without fear. Masada is a symbol of our fragility, not of our strength. If Israel betrays its democratic principles and ideals, as this government seems likely to do, once again, as happened so many centuries ago, Israel will fall.”