By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Goyim or gentiles?


I have known Dick Sharkansky since my first memory. Our families lived for a while in the same building on Belmont Street, and sometime during our second year, I’m pretty sure that he bit my finger. He may have a differ set of memories. We were in the same classes from about fifth grade through high school.

Dick went the route of engineering and law, and we’ve drifted apart and gotten closer together over a half century or so.

What prompts this note is Dick’s complaint about my using the word “goyim” in my notes.

I replied that the word has a pedigree of at least 2500 years in Hebrew. Among its first of many appearances in the Hebrew Bible is a passage in Genesis.

“Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations (goyim).” (Genesis 17:3)

Dick responded with what I knew well, that “goyim” is not necessarily neutral, and has been used by Jews as a derogatory term for non-Jews. Moreover, he pointed out that I was writing in English for an English speaking audience.

Among the complications is that the biblical origins of goyim make clear that it means “nations,” and is also employed to include the Jews, as in the passage above from Genesis.

No doubt I’m on slippery turf. That’s not necessarily a problem. I’ve been there often in my career as learner and teacher. Here, too, there is something to learn and to teach.

My fascination with ethnicity goes back to Fall River. As a Jew I learned early on about insiders and outsiders. It may have helped that Fall River was a city of outsiders. Working class Portuguese, French Canadians, Poles, English, Italians, and middle class Jews who owned stores or small factories were most of the population. Thinking themselves on top were a few remnants of the WASP upper class who had owned the cotton mills that had long ago surrendered to competition from the lower wage South.

As a boy in a largely middle class neighborhood, I was wary of the “other,” especially the Portuguese who lived “below the hill.” I don’t remember knowing any Portuguese kids in the Highland School. It was only in junior high school when I began making multi-cultural friends and fantasizing about their beautiful girls. Later I chose The Portuguese of Fall River as the subject of my BA thesis at Wesleyan, which led me to survey their social and political developments over the course of some 80 years, and to interview the priests in the Portuguese parish churches as well as other prominent figures in the community.

The upper crust Protestants who dominated Wesleyan were as different from my roots as were the ethnics I encountered in junior high school. Then years in Wisconsin, the Deep South on the cusp of integration, back to Wisconsin, with subsequent long stays in East Africa, South Africa, Australia, Utah, shorter stays in lots of other places, along with more half my life in Jerusalem have combined to make me sensitive and appreciative of the human variety.

Long before the recent note from Dick Sharkansky, the trait has gotten me into trouble.

When I made a point of expressing my pleasure about the Israelis of Iraqi origin who made their way to our family, I heard from several of my loved ones that I was causing problems. Against charges of insensitive arrogance, I had a sense of pride that individuals derived from the riches of Judaism as it developed in Iraq and produced the Babylonian Talmud that is the essence of modern Judaism, and had also contributed to kids who are my nephews, nieces,  and  grandchildren. However, I was told that I was reminding the Iraqis of their marginal status among the European aristocracy of Israel.

Nonsense. We are all Jews. How can the grandchildren of less than estimable shtetles claim higher status than Iraqis, North Africans, Turks, or who else?

You’re an Anglo-Saxon, I was told. You can’t understand.

Anyone who called me an Anglo-Saxon in Wesleyan would have been laughed into the gutter.

Not all encounters with others are pure pleasure. Like other Israelis, I have acquired friends among Israeli Arabs/Palestinians, some of them my former students. Yet the frontier between cultures is greater than among ethnics in Fall River. Beyond personal rapport, it is obvious that a rift separates these communities that has defied the efforts of the best and the brightest to produce accord.

I’m drafting this on our way to Seattle, to celebrate the bar mitzvah of senior grandson David. His other grandfather, who I sadly never had the opportunity to meet, was professor of Korean language at Michigan State University.

I see my task on this occasion to talk about the openness and opposition among Jews to outsiders. We are not only a religion but a people, whose religion is tribal, both open to outsiders and suspicious of them.

I will note that David’s portion, includes the passage about Abraham being an outsider in a land that was not his own; that the Moabite Ruth was the great grandmother of David, and an episode from the Book of Ezra describes his effort—with limited success—to combat intermarriage.

David may be fated to be an outsider. I’ve been an outsider since my beginnings in Fall River, over the course of 10 years in Madison, Wisconsin, 40 years in Jerusalem, as well as in Nairobi, Melbourne, Kabul, Pretoria, Provo, Seoul, and elsewhere.

Looking backward over more than three quarters of a century, I think I’ve gained more than I suffered as an outsider, and I wish no less for David and others like him.

Will I continue to employ “goyim” in my notes, or revert to the more politically correct “gentiles”? Maybe a bit of both, with this note meant to assert that no insult is intended.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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