A stiff-necked people, i.e., us


Israeli politicians and Jewish activists here and there are calling for unity, typically behind whatever point of view they are supporting. In extremis, we hear that it is essential for the survival of Israel or the Jewish people.

Yet it never takes long before we hear other Israelis or Jews demanding unity behind something quite different.

God Himself gave us the label of a stiff-necked people, in the 32nd chapter of Exodus. The meaning since then has involved antagonism, stubbornness, argumentative, and going into minute detail in order to distinguish our point of view from others. 

The latter trait fits the conception of pilpul, which has intrigued confused, and annoyed Talmudic scholars for more than two millennia concerned with following the convoluted arguments of those who came before them.

God’s accusation of our being stiff necked occurs in one of several stories where Israelites are portrayed as anything but unified.

It concerns the people’s demands for idols, and Moses having to persuade God not to destroy His people.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is another of the early stories. Along with that later line about David loving Jonathan more than any woman, those places of sin portray the people as mixed up in what the late-arriving English language labels LGBT.  

Also prominent is the story of Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16). And in Ezra, one of the last books in the Hebrew Bible, we see that Jewish men were not always content to select Jewish women as their wives. The Book of Ruth also portrays intermixing. So much for racial purity, or those who think that non-Jewish in-laws threaten the continuation of a long family history. 

Beyond the time of the Bible’s creation, one of the earliest, and most prominent stories of something other than Jewish unity appears in the work of Josephus, who was both historian and participant in an especially bloody incident of Jews’ conflicts.

Dispute may be a piece of our early acquisition of literacy, and the intellectual sophistication that produced the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, a couple of thousand years of rabbinical commentary, as well as a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes. Dispute comes along with a power of expression, and the thinking associated with it.

At every juncture, past and present, we hear those saying that we must be unified. Yet diversity and dispute are among our strengths. 

They are also among the causes of what has been called anti-Semitism since the 19th century, but has been around a lot longer. Again we can thank Josephus for documenting an earlier set of expressions that were similar to what we’ve recorded through the Holocaust and up to the Palestinians and their friends.

Currently on the agenda are disputes about the killing of a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, and the vacating of settlers’ homes in the West Bank settlement of Amona that the Supreme Court decided were built on land owned by Palestinians. Both cases are muddied by dispute and more than a bit of complex detail. 

In the case of the Palestinian seemingly shot dead by a soldier when he was already inert, pathologists have testified for each side that the soldier killed him, and that he was already dead when the soldier shot. There has also been competing testimony from respected senior IDF personnel and retired generals. While some have said that the soldier violated the IDF’s norms and should be punished, others have questioned the capacity of soldiers to decide under pressure when or who to shoot, and the clarity of this case with respect to the IDF’s rules.

The story of Amona combines Palestinian claims of land ownership, with the claims of the residents that they had Israeli government approvals for the purchase or construction, and the Supreme Court’s ruling that key documents were forged. Israeli politicians to the right of center have been working to find a way to evade Supreme Court decisions to remove the settlers. So far the Attorney General has nixed them, saying that they would threaten the continued existence of Israel’s rule of law. One of the most bizarre involves moving the homes of settlers to land that is not disputed.

Somewhat more reasonable, but not yet tested, are proposals for compensation that could be put on the shelf until Palestinians are willing to accept the money.

Whatever transpires should not encourage anyone to expect a quick removal of Jews from the West Bank, even from those plots said to have been owned by individual Palestinians. It was 2006 when the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that Amona’s constructions were illegal, and had to be vacated.

In both disputes about the soldier in Hebron and the settlement of Amona, it’s not necessary to wander too far to the right before encountering Israelis who argue that we shouldn’t bend over backwards to be fair or humane to Palestinians, as long as they teach in schools, media, and mosques about the justice of killing Jews.

Along with these details, we live with the noise produced by AIPAC and JStreet, the media and activists funded by Sheldon Adelson on the right, George Soros on the left, Haim Saban somewhere between them, and Jewish media personalities across the spectra of numerous western countries. 

It all makes it difficult for us and others to understand the Jewish phenomenon. It also makes it likely that Jews at least hear, and that some actually consider a variety of perspectives before making important decisions. That, along with the skills to explain ourselves to other Jews and to non-Jews, is somewhere close to the essence of our strength.

Calls for Jewish unity may sound right, but those calling for it are talking to some other people.

As always, dispute as well as praise are welcome.



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