Shabbat Goy: Set a place for the minority

Israel’s cultural identity is shaped by what is important to most of the population.

Cartoon 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cartoon 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
And so, we’re on the verge of a new year. It is the Jewish New Year, of course, but I’m not going to ignore the event. After all, I am now part – a small, insignificant part, but there you go – of the the Jewish nation. If you can’t beat them, join them, so the old adage goes. In any case, why wouldn’t I want to be a part of the festivities? Family meals, presents, the hagim (holidays).
It all sounds good to me.
Bring it on.
It is still a bit strange at times, I have to admit. One grows accustomed to celebrating the holidays that one identifies with fully. When I lived in the Other Place – you know, the big gentile nation – I never quite appreciated the slight unease with which some non-Christians approached the Christian holidays. Yeah, so you don’t really subscribe to the whole Jesus as the Son of God narrative and so on. But neither do most of the happy lot around you. It’s all symbolic, I used to say. Just think of it as an excuse for a bit of a jolly.
But now the shoe’s on the other foot, I see things a little differently. Not that I’m actually suffering from this. After all, I have family and friends who work jolly hard to make sure that I do feel included. And as I said, I’m quite happy with the competitive eating and present-receiving regime.
I figure that there are quite a few people in Israel today who feel a little left out when it comes to the business of the Jewish holidays. No surprises there: after all, it is the Jewish traditions and Jewish history that dominate in Israel today. More to the point, there isn’t – in itself – anything odd or unusual about this. Every country has its identity shaped by its majority population and their principal interests – England and a wishy-washy Christianity, America and consumerism, France and adultery, Nigeria and corruption, and so on. (Tongue wedged firmly in cheek, course. None of the last sentence ought to be taken seriously. Maybe.) Israel’s cultural identity is shaped by that which most of the population hold to be important to them.
The important thing is leaving space for those who don’t fit into the majority matrix.
It doesn’t need to be a delicate balancing act, but we seem to make heavy work of it sometimes. Take the past couple of weeks. There’s the business of the monastery in Latrun. The Arabs beaten up in the street. The migrants on the border. All that said, I won’t pay much attention to people decrying Israel as a particularly racist nation because of all these things.
These, rather, are symbolic of the way of the wider world these days, unfortunately: the majority abusing their position of dominance, oppressing minorities just because they can.
There is, I think, a pretty thick line that distinguishes the notion of Israel as a Jewish state from that of Israel as a state for Jews alone. The first is a state that within reasonable limits can tolerate – even welcome – the outsider, the other, the stranger in its midst; the second implies that if the goyim and the Arabs weren’t here in the first place, they wouldn’t risk being beaten up, having their homes firebombed, their holy places desecrated.
The second argues that if the migrants (as neutral a term as I can come up with; I don’t really want to go into the foreign workers vs asylum seekers debate just this minute) had respected the notion of Israel as a country for the Jews alone, they wouldn’t be trapped at the border in the first place.
Clear as this distinction ought to be, it seems strange that still some people are unable or unwilling to tell the difference between the two. We all know that the Jewish people had – still have, some might argue – much experience of oppression in the Diaspora. The Jewish people know what it is like to be excluded. And that alone is enough to allow one to pause for a moment and take stock: what do we mean when we talk about Israel as the Jewish state? Now seems as good a time as any to think about it. A new year, new dispensations.
BUT BEFORE the New Year actually arrives, the challenges of another new year need to be negotiated on the home front. The challenges of Year One, to be precise. Kita Alef (first grade). The Small Noisy One has moved up to big school. Where have all the years gone? It only seems like yesterday that he was cutting his first tooth, taking his first step, scaring the life out of me for the first time. (Him in Hebrew to a friend, assuming that I wouldn’t understand: “Do you want to see me do the most dangerous thing in the world?”) Now he’s off marching to school, a schoolbag almost as big as he is strapped to his back.
Outside the school gates. We pause for a moment, exchange glances, drink it all in. We’re sharing the same thought, I suspect: how best to navigate the new dispensation? A new teacher to please in a new class. New expectations. New playground alliances to be negotiated. New hours to keep. Homework. HOMEWORK. It’s all so scary. And this is all just me, mind. Heaven knows what the child is thinking about... but he’s walked off without a backward glance, off to start his new life. Same with all the other kids, leaving their parents hovering anxiously behind them.
And therein lies the problem. Adults are the problem. We should hand over the reins to the kids and let them sort out the complexities of everyday life. Let’s face it, they can’t do a worse job than us, can they?
Shana tova!