In a very recent blog sent by Rabbi Dow Marmur, he opened with the following joke: “When a rabbi who knew both countries [Israel and the U.S.] was asked to describe the difference between Israel and America, he said: ‘In Israel they give me advice and ask me for money; in America they give me money and ask for advice.’”
A few days ago, I had the pleasure of spending three hours with a very old friend who lives in Italy. He told me a different joke. It was a philosophical rather than rabbinical play on national distinctions, but one that emphasized character rather than attitudes related to different circumstances. Various representatives of different nationalities were offered a complex lesson in philosophy, more precisely, in maieutics, that is, the philosophic method Socrates used in Plato’s dialogues to demonstrate we already possessed the knowledge that needed to be elicited. In the joke, representatives of different nationalities responded in quite different ways:
Japanese: studied and learned the lesson
American: asked how much the lesson cost
French: pretended to learn the lesson and recast it in abstruse language
Irish: said the lesson reminded him of a story and proceeded to tell it
Greek: argued about what the lesson was
British: snubbed the lesson and insisted it was irrelevant
Canadian: apologized for not grasping the meaning
Israeli: insisted that he had a better way to phrase and teach the lesson
Both jokes are twists on creating caricatures of national differences, either because of circumstances or predominant cultural patterns. More importantly, the jokes suggest that, whatever the common purpose of the lesson, our national dispositions subvert those goals. We give that universal treatise a national twist, so much so that the twist distorts the lesson so much that it loses its universal meaning.
The iconic story of the Tower of Babel – common to the holy literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – describes the universal wish of all mankind to reach towards the heavens, to surpass themselves. To do so, the builders adopted a global and inclusive approach to develop the skills and knowledge to accomplish that unprecedented feat. Instead of God applauding the effort, in the most popular interpretation of the story, He undermined those universal aspirations and the arrogance behind it by turning the builders into factious groups, each of which developed their own language, making them incapable of communicating with one another.
That is a reactionary interpretation of the fable which, like ISIS, insists it is literally the height of folly to have universal aspirations. If we reread the story, there is a quite opposite interpretation. For the most important condition of the inanity of building the tower was that each human group lost that most extraordinary and super-human quality, the capacity of empathy. If you do not understand and comprehend, if you do not know an Other, if one is denied this essential power of the heavens, it is not possible to surpass oneself, to evolve from self-loathing and resentment to a polity and community based on trust. Empathizing with another is not just a matter of promoting mutual understanding. It is the sine qua non for believing that you can be more than you are. This failure in recognition preceded the breakdown of the building of the tower and the scattering of peoples around the world into different self-enclosed language groups.
Socrates taught: “Know thyself.” The real lesson the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) – and of the caricature jokes about national attitudes and dispositions – is “Know an Other.” For that is how we develop trust and faith. Faith then is not a creed, a condition for belonging to one group rather than another, but the highest aspiration that allows any creed to be transvalued to develop common goals. We worship God, not to become God, but to become something above ourselves. When the universal quest becomes a matter of turning ourselves into divine beings instead of turning towards one another to surpass ourselves, then our efforts at reconstruction and aspiration turn into megalomaniacal efforts.
The scattering of peoples and the divisions among them were not the results of trying to aspire towards the heavens, but the failure to rise up with the tower, to grow beyond previous differences resulting in peoples being cast down to earth and swept by the winds on the plains into different territorial enclaves around which we tried to build walls rather than towers. God destroys the tower, not because we aspire to reach the heavens, but because we aspired to do so without mutual and reciprocal understanding. Towers built to trump others instead of being constructed to appreciate Others are doomed for destruction. God created nations so they could know and understand one another, not to be suspicious and distrustful.
The question then is why did they fail? Why did groups fail to understand one another? External misunderstandings begin with deep internal fissures. On the high beams of our efforts at globalization, we must learn to balance so that we can aspire to more without losing contact with those around and below us. We aspire for the highest, but can only achieve the higher by knowing what is lower and beneath, by constantly remembering where we came from. In such a context, faith is not an heirloom, a condition of being blessed, but a pinnacle of hope, a goal to be achieved. And it can only be erected on a foundation of compassion. That foundation starts with compassion for the condition of our own people.
We live in an era in which the quest for a global order wrestles with religions and nationalities seen as sources of division and misunderstanding rather than the means by which we truly develop our empathy and hone our ability to feel compassion. The issue is not overcoming perceived differences, but overcoming ourselves so we can understand and empathize with those differences. If we retire behind the fortifications of a newborn tribalism that, instead of enriching us and sending us forth into the world assured of our ability to become something more because we see what is more by understanding others, then we are doomed to look inward instead of outward, doomed to reify God as a fixed and limited entity instead of viewing God as capable of occupying all the heavens above.
No country, no religion, no ethnic group has escaped the scourge if an inward dwelling nationalism and the putrid stupefaction it breeds. The illness is pervasive. It is the same sickness which will once again render us incapable of reaching towards the heavens. The current wave of the divisive politics of resentment threatens the politics of hope and trust that Obama tried to create. Israel is another case in point. But if we sit on a high beam and revel in our moral superiority looking down and askance at those below, we lose our moral bearings. That is why parochial nationalism begins with internal condescension. That is why it is incumbent upon liberal cosmopolitans to see the links with those they might otherwise see as worthy only of contempt. The issue is our commonality rather than the differences between those who occupy lofty positions and those trying to preserve what are regarded as prejudices. The problem does not start with nationalism, but with equating nationalism and patriotism with parochialism.
Among Jews, one effluence is the division between diaspora Jews, particularly American diaspora Jews, and Israeli Jews that Rabbi Marmur discussed in his blog. As the peace process becomes ever more petrified, as Israel swings more and more to the right, more and more into an inward looking nationalism, at least as seen from the perspective of liberal Jews in both the North American diaspora and in Israel, the core of misunderstanding is reified. My friend Michael Barnett analyzed the effects of that rightward shift in Israel on diaspora Jews in America.in his recent book, The Star and the Stripes A History of Foreign Policies of American Jews.
As we approach fifty years of occupation, Michael finds a radical divide between the nationalism and tribalism predominant in Israel versus the liberal cosmopolitan outlook dominant perspective among American Jews. As a result, we have the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in which many young Jews and old style leftist Zionist like Bernie feel themselves forced to adopt a more pro-Palestinian outlook as they become more and more alienated from the predominant Israeli sensibility. The dilemma is that the American Jews are branded as cosmopolitans, aloof from the horrible cauldron of the Middle East, while Israelis are stamped as right wing ideologues increasingly racist and oriented inwardly.
There is plenty of evidence to support the latter charge. This spring, a Pew survey showed that almost half of Israeli Jews favoured expelling Arabs from the country. Among the ultra-orthodox, the figure went as high as 71%. Among secular Israelis, those numbers went down to 36%. The contrasts were even larger when the Jews were examined as political rather than religious tribes. 87% of the Left opposed “transfer.” 72% of the Right favoured such a program. The centrists split down the middle. Thus, complementing the external tribal splits, and, I would argue at the root of them, we find deep fissures within each tribe and between one tribe of Israelis and the predominantly liberal cosmopolitan views present among U.S. Jews.
Israeli cosmopolitan revisionist or new historians – Avi Shliam, Tom Segev and Benny Morris (who disclaims any membership in that sub-tribe) – obligated us all to look at the history of Zionism from a much broader and higher lens, far less chauvinistic and defensive. But instead of greater understanding of all and by all, history began being read in radically different ways. Israeli liberals and human rights groups eschewed the chauvinism and adopted an intense sense of recrimination characterizing Israelis as oppressors. Other Israelis in defence of their history insisted that they were the victims, not only of others historically, but of their own university-educated liberals. The cosmopolitan liberals as they rose higher in the Tower of Babel detached themselves more and more from a passionate attachment to the land and the Jewish people per se. The Right, on the other hand, clung to that attachment with greater strength and berated those who had risen to such lofty heights for their indifference to their own.
The political divide between Jews and Others, between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, became even more exaggerated by the internal divisions. Jews in America increasingly voted, not simply indifferent to the plight of Jewish Israelis, but contemptuous of that plight. Other Jews in America identified more solidly with that plight. And the split between American and Israeli Jews was mirrored in the deep fissures with both the Jewish community in Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S. Further, liberal American Jews have become more attached to the plight of those regarded by the Right as intractable enemies of Israel than to the Jews of France and Belgium who face and deal with rising antisemitism.
So the American Jewish community (as well as the Canadian) grows at one and the same time more distant from Israel and closer to Israel, and much more distant from one another. Solidarity is shattered and the squabbling leads to a cessation in creative construction. Each side increasingly does not hear the other. Those Jews whose connection to synagogues and Jewish communities have declined seem more correlated with those Jews whose connection to Israel has also declined. The reverse seems also to be the case. American Jews are both more attached and more detached from Israel as they become increasingly detached from one another. So the solitude increases. More effort is put into denouncing than in understanding the other. As a consequence, there is less rather than greater understanding of the Other by both parties, one as a result of deep prejudices that either border on or are racist and the other on a condescension towards the Other regarded primarily as victims.
If forced to choose, the fissure will become a deep and unbridgeable valley. Issues like proportionality in fighting one’s enemies, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the troublemaking of Iran, bypassing any and all efforts to advance a two-state solution, became occasions for shouting matches rather than dialogue. So if Jews who ostensibly belong to the same tribe cannot speak and address one another with civility, how can either group communicate with other equally tribalized and fissured groups?
When we offer to teach the lesson of maieutics to others, when we base that teaching not on the dictum of “Know Thyself,” but on the dictum of “Know the Other,” we must also remember that knowing the other who is oneself is a necessary prerequisite of knowing the Other who is other.