Jews and others

The news on Saturday night and Sunday was of a suicide bombing in Istanbul, with three Israeli tourists among the dead. Some will see a political irony in the death of an Iranian, as well.

It's not clear whether the presence of an Israeli tour group prompted the attack, whether Israelis became targets of opportunity, or if the attack had most to do with conflicts among Muslim sects and gangs. Turks initially pondered if it was a Kurdish operation, then concluded that the man who died while killing others was a Turk who had affiliated with the Islamic State. 

Commentators are massaging the incident to demonstrate that Turkey is involved in more disputes than any other Middle Eastern country, and to speculate that the cooperation in dealing with the injured, and mutual condemnations of terror, may aid Israel and Turkey come closer to normal relations. There are still issues bothering that, however, especially Turkey's aspirations to be a patron of Hamas and Gaza.

The episode raises the classic issue of Jewish suffering,  prompts a comparison with others, and should remind us that there is no knowledge without comparison. Thinking in terms of more or less than this or that is essential to knowing and judging.

Jews have suffered. The Holocaust is at the edge of comprehension, and those who deny it define themselves as barbarians. However, it was not the only case of genocide attempted or accomplished. The disappearance of countless tribes and nationalities testify to it happening before. Efforts have continued against political and ethnic groups in Asia and Africa, up to genocidal massacres and enslavement of women that Islamic State and similar fanatics have directed against minorities in Iraq and Syria.. 

What was distinctive about the Holocaust was us as its targets, and its source in one of the countries that had made some of the richest contributions to civilization.

Jewish history also features two prominent destructions of Jerusalem, and countless murderous rampages at various places across Europe and the Middle East done by Christians and Muslims, often with incitement or complicity by religious leaders and/or government officials..

When we compare our history to others, ours doesn't look all that different. 

Except perhaps, that we've written about it and remember it. Perhaps not more than all other groups, but certainly more than the countless who have suffered and disappeared, with little or no impact on recorded history.

While Jews suffered from rampaging peasants and townspeople, many of those who attacked Jews were no better off. The peasants were owned by local aristocrats, tied to the land, could not leave, were illiterate, sent their sons to the lord's army, and their daughters to entertain the lord and his guests. When Thomas Hobbes wrote in 17th century Britain that life was "nasty, brutish, and short," he was most likely not thinking primarily about Jews. 

Palestinians  and other Arabs have been killing Jews since the onset of modern settlement here in the 19th century. Yet comparison leads us to ask what they have accomplished compared to us.

An American friend of Italian lineage, who recently visited us in Jerusalem, talked about his childhood in Newark. When his family moved to a better location, he encountered kids of Polish lineage who didn't want him in their neighborhood.

My father told of being chased by Irish kids when he wandered into their neighborhoods of Fall River.

Judaism is many things. Jews have been creating laws and customs, writing history and other literature for some 3,000 years. Israel has become home to people from perhaps 100 countries, each with their own traditions and memories.

What marks us, among other things, is a high degree of literacy and a concern for ourselves and our past.

One should wary of defining the essence of anything so complex and rich as Judaism, but at least part of it is a concern for the Jewish people  עם ישראל.

We are a people as well as adherents to a faith. We include atheists, agnostics, and those who distance themselves from one Jewish sect or another, without losing status as Jews. Those who think the condition is new should take another look at Josephus.

Judaism links faith with politics. Substantial parts of the Hebrew Bible describe the coping and struggle of the people and their leaders against greater powers. It also describes the coping of the people with themselves. The Hebrew Bible is, in large part, a book about politics. Those who doubt it can begin with Jeremiah, and note how the prophet maneuvered, without success, in a regime caught between Egypt and Babylon. 

Biblical leaders from Moses to Ezra faced members of their community who did not behave according to the desired norms. Passages attributed to Moses suggests that he both protested against his Judaic antagonists, and recognized the status of those who might oppose him.

"And Moses said unto the Lord, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? (Numbers 11:11) . . . would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them! (Numbers 11:29)"
It's not much of a leap from the travails of Moses to our own struggles with Jews who see BDS and other Israel bashing as the essence of what they can contribute to the world. 
My own encounters with the scourge involve a Jewish professor at my alma mater who signed on to a screed that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is  "one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times," and the Jewish President of the same institution who opposed boycotts, but felt it necessary to write, "As a Jew, I have argued against the policies of the current Israeli government, many of which I find abhorrent."
Those comments have cost the institution a few hundred dollars per year in what I had been contributing, admittedly  more symbolic than material. My absence from the list of contributors won't mean a thing to the college, but it makes me feel better.
Somewhere in this discussion we should recall the professional and economic success of Jews in numerous times and places. For us, perhaps, was coined the expression of crying all the way to the bank.
Russian-speaking friends describe economic hardship and severe anti-Semitism, with elite institutions of higher education closed to Jews as opposed to those of the US that admitted small percentages when I was applying. Nonetheless, Russian Jews were similar in their overall professional profiles to American Jews. There were middle sized towns left without physicians when Jews left in the 1990s. 
We mourn tragedies and should take care when near people likely to be hostile.  We should also remember to compare, realize that our suffering is real and important to us, but not unique.
Comments welcome


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem