When I was studying Middle East Studies at the University of Arizona there was a class about the Arab-Israeli conflict. At one point the discussion drifted to the role of the Irgun and Lehi, the pre-state Jewish underground organizations. “Jewish terrorists” or, in the title of one book, Terror out of Zion. It seemed interesting, but not odd, that organizations had chosen to use assassination and bombs to fight against both the British and Arabs during the British Mandate.
But for some students in the class it was shocking. “Jews don’t do that,” one remarked. Jews are not terrorists, they are a light unto the nations.
This binary narrative of Jews as somehow “above” numerous activities creates a strange situation in which the Jewish people are punished disproportionately as a group for behaving normally, in the sense of behaving like other people do. We see this a lot in discussions about Israel. In 2007 I gave a ride to Hebrew University to a party- time Croatian journalist who was studying there. We passed by an entrance to Mea She’arim and she grimaced.
“Those people are disgusting. They are religious fanatics,” she said. The journalist had just returned from a trip to the Gaza Strip and often discussed the beautiful and wonderful people she met there.
“Aren’t they religious there?” I asked.
“But you don’t find them disgusting, so why do you hate religious Jews so much?” She paused.
“Because I expect more of the Jews.”
For her too, the Jews were “better than that.” As such they were not permitted to be religious, or they were “disgusting” and “beating women” and “religious fanatics.”
But in Gaza women who cover their hair are “dignified” and “modest.” Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women are “suppressed” but Muslim women in full face veil or niqab “choose to dress like that, it’s part of their relationship with Allah.”
“Or Lagoyim,” or “light unto the nations,” is the main concept responsible for these strange views that hold Jews to a higher standard. Jews themselves tend to put forward this view often in discussions. When Mohamed Abu Khdeir was murdered in 2014 Adam Bronfman wrote in The Forward that he was reminded of his father’s dictum: “Israel is to be a light unto the nations... Israel must behave according to a higher moral and ethical code.” A rabbi reacted to the murder with the unusual claim that because Jews “invented morality” that they must behave especially moral. This concept came up again last year when Shira Banki was stabbed to death at the gay pride parade. “This is a day where our image has become one of darkness to the nations instead of a light unto the nations,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
The light unto the nations concept becomes a double- edged sword in this reading. On the one hand it is imbued with superiority. On the other hand when one Jew does something dreadful then every Jew is blamed.
After Abu Khdeir was killed a man wrote in a talkback at the Mondoweiss blog that it “might make the so-called light unto the nations and eternal victim claims seem a bit odd.”
What is most extraordinary is that of the 640,000 or so words in the Bible, in 24 books, only in Isaiah do we find three references to this “light unto the nations.” The concept appears twice in the New Testament, in Luke and Acts, when on different occasions Simeon, Paul and Barnabas reference the Isaiah quote.
A search online reveals numerous rabbinical takes on this concept. One Orthodox rabbi writes that “Or Lagoyim” is a “goal of the Jewish people... our main influence upon mankind is meant to be implemented not as individuals but as a national example in the framework of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel.” He adds that when “Bnei Yisrael sin” they “deny this uniqueness” and that in doing so they cannot serve as the “divine intermediaries” of God. Another rabbi notes that the concept is related to “one of spreading our moral values such as justice, modesty, compassion and charity to the world.” Another rabbi asserts that actually the concept is related to Israel being the “first” among nations, similar to a firstborn son, and that as the firstborn child is “expected to help [their] parents raise their young children, so too Bnei Yisroel are called upon to influence the other nations of the world.”
There is a distinctly missionary element in this, perhaps one reason the concept is repeated in the time of Jesus. But why has it gained such traction among Jewish thinkers in the past 200 years? In the Diaspora Jews were a small minority and often persecuted. Many Jewish intellectuals helped develop concepts such as minority rights, the need to be tolerant of the “other,” and also pioneered human rights organizations that helped formulate international law and underpin the United Nations.
As such some Jewish figures believed that Jews served as this “light” unto the nations, that as a persecuted group which had suffered attempted genocide, they had a special message.
This concept has become dangerous and counterproductive with the foundation of the State of Israel, and the transferring of moral authority from some Jewish survivors of European terror to the concept that the state speaks for all of Israel can have the opposite affect. In a sense it transfers to all Jews a sense of being “immoral” because of the actions of state. Held to too high a standard, any blemish is a blight.
Why is “light unto the nations” even a predominant concept when it is contradicted in Jewish tradition? On Passover one of the central verses of the evening is said after opening the door for the prophet Elijah: “Pour out your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge you and on the kingdoms that do not proclaim your name.... pursue them in anger and destroy them.”
Contrast this wrathful statement that is reiterated every year with the much less important “light unto the nations” wishy-washy civilizing mission in Isaiah.
It is healthy for a group to take responsibility for its actions. When it comes to Islamist terror, from al-Qaida to al-Shabab, the Taliban, Boko Haram or Islamic State there is a mass tendency to describe them all as “non-Islamic” and “not the real Islam” in contrast to Israel, where the actions of a few are said to represent the whole country. But if the only reason one is shamed by the actions of the few is simply because one thinks it reflects badly on the many, that is also not a pure reason to confront murder and intolerance. The murder of Abu Khdeir isn’t wrong because it makes Israel less of the “light” unto the nations, it is wrong because murder is wrong. That some Jews behave badly, like people all over the world, is not a problem because “Jews invented morality,” it is simply a fact of life of humanity.
It is time for people to disabuse themselves of the concept of “light unto the nations.” It feeds arrogance, moral supremacy which is unwarranted, and it fails victims by turning them into mere foils for mass Jewish behavior, rather than victims of a crime. It also feeds casual hatred for Jewish people by assigning blame to large groups over the actions of a minority. The concept behind the foundation of the State of Israel was to create a state like any other, not a moral beacon. If some people want to be a moral beacon they should do so individually, and not force everyone to live up to their impossibly high standards that set up only a stumbling block before the group.
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