On the borders of cultures
We’re all on the borders of cultures. We express the condition by where we travel, with whom we deal, and how we deal with those who are different from ourselves.
Staying close to home and minding our own business are conventional ways of dealing with strangers, some of whom may worry or threaten us.
Americans who feel safe in upscale neighborhoods don’t venture into Black ghettos, unless they know the way and want to purchase something available there.
Jews living in French Hill stay away from Isaweea, Shuafat, or Beit Hanina, unless they speak Arabic, have business there, and know how to talk themselves out of trouble.
We often hear and see fireworks coming from those neighborhoods, celebrating weddings or graduations. Occasionally there are gunshots or sounds of stun grenades or tear gas, most likely the work of the Border Police.
Five times a day there are loud calls from the mosques. During the summer, one of those may wake us at about 4 AM.
Politicians who think we’re all alike are bound to failure.
Ariel Sharon thought he had a deal with the Christians of Lebanon, and found himself out of the Defense Ministry due to Sabra and Shatilla. George W. Bush brought disaster rather than democracy to Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein, and Barack Obama multiplied the American contributions to chaos in the Middle East when he urged equality and democracy, and abandoned the imperfect Hosni Mubarak for a democratically elected Islamist.
There are several markers of a nearby culture that is much different from ours.
One is honor killings, when a father or brother kills an errant female. “Errant” can mean sex outside of marriage, or as little as seen speaking with a male who is not a family member. In some Muslim countries, an honor killing is not a crime. It is in Israel, and may get a long prison sentence. While in prison, however, those convicted of honor killings are treated with respect by other Arabs.
There is also suicide for the sake of killing Jews. It may not actually be suicide, insofar as the person doing it may be convinced that he or she is destined for something better. Men are told that they’ll be served by 70 virgins. What they believe is unknown to us. In some cases family members mourn their deaths, while in other cases they speak about them with pride, and say that others should do the same.
Family feuds are part of the culture. The Hatfields and McCoys would be at home, and know what to do.
A friend living in Beit Hanina says he is afraid to go out at night, lest he get caught in the cross fire.
Those living alongside Arabs are not the only ones on the edge of cultures. They are everywhere. Americans are on the other side of the tax border from other western democracies. US taxes are about the lowest, but Americans think they are ungodly high. And within the US there are cultural differences between high tax states and low tax states, where many of the people in the low tax states think that their’s are the highest.
There are also sharp cultural divisions within the Jewish population of Israel. Most prominent are between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews, with the most extreme of the ultra-Orthodox in self-contained Ashkenazi congregations. There are families in which young men are reluctant to leave the yeshiva, join the army, go to work, or study in a university lest they stain their family’s reputation and reduce the marriage value of brothers and sisters. It’s among the same population where there are schools which refuse to enroll Sephardi students, out of concern that their level of observance cannot match that of the Ashkenazim.
Violence exists among Jews, but it is not as prevalent or as legitimate as among the Arabs. Individual choice about sex may lift an eyebrow or annoy parents, but is not likely to produce a slashed throat.
Where Jews engage in violent feuds are the rivalries between criminal organizations. They deal with disagreements by car bombs or drive-by shootings.
Americans are also aware of cultural differences, and the better off do what they can to avoid areas where they would expect danger.
The issue of culture has obvious relevance for questions of democracy, and political dealings with other people.
Anyone who thinks that democracy or respect for human rights prevail in the vast majority of countries that call themselves democracies ought to look again.
While individuals inclined to democracy and human rights may be found in every society, the generalized pictures are important in affecting how those of different societies anticipate relating to one another. In the midst of the Holocaust, and Arab pogroms, there were Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Muslims who risked their own lives in order to protect individual Jews. However, they were not typical.
An Israeli politician or government official may not speak so openly and cynically about the quality of other democracies, insofar as they are dependent on the cooperation of international organizations dominated by authoritarian governments that describe themselves as democratic. They are also dependent on colleagues from the west who are themselves dependent on the same organizations, or obsessed with being politically correct.
We can respect the norms of what is politically correct without being fooled by them.
Will there be a Palestinian State?
That depends largely, but not entirely on Israel. Deals may have to be made, and reservations swallowed.
Just now Israel and Turkey have signed off on a deal whereby Israel pays $20 million for the families of people killed while violently opposing the landing of IDF personnel on a ship trying to break the blockade on Gaza.
Many Israelis may think the deal is unfair, but occasionally such deals have to be made.
Should a Palestinian State come into existence, we can’t be sure how it will be governed. We can guess, however, that it will work to limit violence toward Jews, out of concern about what Israel might do. The rubble in Gaza, and the death tolls there and in Lebanon (2006) provide examples.
Being so close to the borders between sharply different cultures is interesting in an intellectual sense, but It ain’t always pleasant. For Israelis, it is also the fate of a people long targeted, who must do unpleasant things in order to protect themselves.
Comment please, email@example.com, and pity on those who do not understand.