A troubled Israel Word wars: The Jewish political tradition is more violent than Jews like to admit, and the assassination was a direct result.

November 12, 1995|By Jacob Neusner

WEAK PEOPLE fight with words; strong people fight with fists. We Jews are good at demonizing one another and imagine that there are no costs. We fight our uncivil wars with words. Last weekend, we paid the price. So brief an encounter with the realities of power -- scarcely 50 years -- evidently did not prepare the people of the state of Israel to cope with the consequences of violent language. Call a man a traitor, a murderer, a Nazi, turn him into a demon and take away all shreds of respect -- then why find it surprising that someone listened, heard the message, went home to get his gun and blasted away? What did anybody expect?

Many, to be sure, have entertained the fantasy that Jews don't kill Jews, just libel them. Our sense of mutual obligation is supposed to place limits on the effects of violent language. We can say anything we want to or about one another because in the end, nothing will happen. So we are the world champions of gossip.

But that fantasy knocks up against the reality that so far as we may speak of a Jewish political tradition at all, it is one of violence. Israeli politics is carried on in a language more violent than any American or West European government would find tolerable or even plausible. Few Jews agree to disagree; fewer still value amiability in debate about public policy. In the Taiwan Parliament, they throw chairs at one another; in the Knesset, it is hair-raising venom. But then the Chinese are a great and strong people, and we are what we are.

And Jewish violence takes the form not only of words but also of concrete deeds. Words incite, someone listens. Few today recall the 1933 murder of Tel Aviv Mayor Chaim Arlosoroff, a murder many then supposed to have been carried out for political reasons. But some still remember the Altalena, an arms smuggling ship for the right-wing Jewish army, shot up on the beach at Tel Aviv by the Haganah in the midst of Israel's war of independence in April 1948. Jews killed Jews.

Jews killing Jews

So much for Zionist history. But what about Jewish tradition? Think back to the last Jewish state before the present one, 2,000 years ago. Plenty of Jews killed Jews back then. In the midst of the Romans' siege of Jerusalem in the summer of A.D. 70, Jewish troops fought one another. The leading rabbi of the day, Yohanan ben Zakkai, begged his nephew, head of the Zealots, to spare the stores of food but the man burned them.

Jewish unity? Jews don't kill Jews? Our sages in the Talmud never entertained so naive a reading of the Jewish people. They taught that while the First Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. on the Western calendar because of the Jews' own sins -- idolatry, violence, immorality -- the Second Temple fell to the Romans only because of one thing: gratuitous hatred. Because Jews fought Jews, Jerusalem was conquered from within, not by Rome.

No tolerance for differences

The stark truth is we Jews have no tolerance for differences with one another. When we Jews compliment ourselves by expressing horror that a Jew should kill a Jew, we close our eyes to the deep wells of intolerance of the brother who is the other, the other who differs, that flow through our midst.

Anyone who doubts it should ask an Orthodox rabbi his opinion of Reform Judaism, or quiz a Reform rabbi about his or her take on Orthodox ethics. Talk to a Jewish liberal secularist about helping a yeshiva in the neighborhood or to a Hasid about someone else's rebbe. Contempt for the other, not patience, sets the norm.

No, we are no better than anybody else. On Saturday evening, we buried a fantasy about ourselves. On Monday, we buried the victim of the fantasy: Wear a bulletproof vest among Jews? Whatever for? Jews don't kill Jews.

The myth is heard everywhere, but Jewish history records much fraternal violence in deed as well as word.

Jacob Neusner is a research professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and visiting professor of religion at Bard College in New York.

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