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  • Andres Spokoiny

A Day Like Today in Jerusalem

As funders, we need to stop watching [the] deterioration of civility from the sidelines. We certainly are part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution. By choosing who, what, and how we fund, we can reward or punish specific behaviors. We need to realize that we don’t just fund projects; we exercise moral leadership.

It all started with name-calling, demonization, and polarization. It ended in twenty centuries of tragedy.

We are now in a period that Jewish tradition calls “the three weeks,” marking the terrible times of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. The “three weeks” refers to the time elapsed between the first breach of the city walls (commemorated by the fast of 17th of Tamuz) and the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Many of us know the Talmudic quote that says that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sin’at Chinam – gratuitous, internecine hatred. In these times of unprecedented ugliness in the Jewish internal debate, many of us pay lip service to the need for civility and moderation in the community discourse, but we don’t really realize the true dangers of polarization and demonization of our fellow Jews. In sum, few of us really know what Sin’at Chinam is really referring to. So let’s bring ourselves to a summer day like today, 1,945 years ago in Jerusalem.

It was the year 70 C.E. Four years beforehand, and against the advice of cooler heads, the “zealots,” a populist extremist religious party had launched the “big rebellion” against Rome. It wasn’t just a revolt against a foreign rule, but a civil war, where extremist Jews fought and killed each other. Moreover, it was a war where the zealots tried to force their nationalistic ideology upon their fellow Jews. This fratricidal war hadn’t come out of nowhere – it followed decades of incitement, where one side demonized the other. Jerusalem was the theater of ugly religious and political disputes. The zealots called anybody that didn’t share their extreme views ‘traitors’ and ‘allies of the gentiles’ (sound familiar?).

As extremism invariably does, sooner or later name calling descended into violence and the Sicarii (so called for their mastery of a short knife called the Sica) were tasked with using their skill to terrorize the moderates and quell dissent. After a few initial victories, and despite the bravery of the common folk, the extremism of the zealots – more occupied with establishing their political preeminence than with fighting the Romans – proved self-defeating. The Historian Josephus talks about Jews “locked in perpetual slaughter of each other,” each faction trying to be more extreme than the other. In the meantime, Vespasian, and then Titus, closed in on Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, instead of organizing a defense, a multitude of extremist warlords were busy deploying vicious witch-hunts for traitors. That hunt for “self-hating Jews” was an excellent excuse to consolidate power and eliminate opponents. John of Gaschala, a Galilean warlord, terrorized the city. The “silent moderate majority” of Jerusalemites finally had enough and rebelled against the fanatics. The High Priest Ananias led the masses, but John prevailed through sheer brutality. He killed Ananias and other Temple priests, stripped them, dumped their bodies onto the streets for his zealots to trample over, and then threw them to the dogs.

Twelve thousand Jews were killed when the victorious extremists rampaged through the streets of the Holy City. As is always the case with fanatics, sooner or later another one tries to outdo them in fanaticism (think of ISIS and Al-Qaida). In this case, John was challenged by another nationalist warlord, Simon bar Giora. Josephus tells us that, “he was a greater terror to the people than the Roman themselves.” A third group of zealots, complaining that neither John nor Simon were nationalistic enough, also broke off.

Inside the city walls, the situation resembled hell on Earth. Thousands of refugees, fleeing from both Romans and zealots, crowded the city, which now had over half a million starving inhabitants. The victims of violence were left to rot in the scorching summer sun and the stench was unbearable. Outside the city, Titus crucified five hundred Jews a day; inside, the warlords poured Jewish blood like water. There was, in the words of Simon Sebag Montefiori, “intransigent fanaticism, whimsical sadism, and searing hunger.” Corpses were dissected for gold coins and, as hunger progressed, for seeds and crumbs. While dogs and jackals feasted on human flesh, the trapped Jews ate cow dung, leather girdles, shoes, and old hay. Josephus, an eye witness to those horrible days, claims that, “no any other age bred a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, since the beginning on the world.”

The end of the story is known. As was predictable, the Romans took the city in an orgy of blood and pillage. Bodies heaped on the burning Temple Mount and rivers of blood ran through the venerable esplanades. Today, one can visit the Burnt House museum in the Jerusalem’s old city and see charred remains of the inferno that consumed the town. The damage that the “wicked generation,” in its fanaticism, inflicted on the Jewish People lasted for two thousand years. We have Romans and zealots to blame in equal parts for the longest exile in human history and countless centuries of suffering and massacres.

And it all started with Jews demonizing their fellow Jews.

Why I am saying all this? Why do I need to be so graphic – and believe me, I spared you the goriest of Josephus’s details – in the description of the cruelty and famine?

The sad truth is that the germ of self-destruction through extremism and fanaticism lies dormant in the Jewish DNA. Much of the Talmud is a desperate effort by the rabbis to quell that streak of fanaticism. Many of our values of tolerance come from the understanding of what intolerance can lead to.

But even as a recessive gene, that streak of internal intolerance can rear its ugly head. Now is one of those times. The story of the “churban,” the destruction, shows that the radicalization of the communal discourse – the name calling, the demonization – are not harmless idiosyncrasies. It teaches us that the distance between name calling and dogs and jackals eating Jewish bodies isn’t that long. It’s doubly sad because fanaticism made us lose our state two thousand years ago, and now, when we have managed to get our state back, we resort again to internal hatred. Now, fanatics and zealots have platforms of unprecedented efficiency to distribute their message. What would have been a fringe opinion yesterday is now mainstream, thanks to the level playing field of the Internet.

The examples of the decadence of Jewish public discourse are too many to list. I could find one horrendous example each day. A few weeks ago, for instance, we saw the heckling of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew at the Jerusalem Post conference. Lew is the first orthodox Jew to serve as both White House chief of staff and treasury secretary. His commitment and contribution to the State of Israel over the years are as enormous as they are beyond doubt. It’s true, there are valid reasons to disagree with some policies of the administration – especially after the Iran deal – but heckling is highly symbolic – it means, “I don’t even want to listen.” Rob Eshman, editor of the LA Jewish Journal, which is a vocal critic of the government, had the nerve to say thank you to President Obama for his impassioned condemnation of BDS and his likening of Zionism to the civil rights movement. Eshman was compared to Hitler. Rick Jacobs, head of the reform movement, dared to disagree with PM Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Jewish communal leaders circulated pictures of him with an Arafat style keffieh (mind you, this is the same Rick Jacobs that valiantly stood in front of the Presbyterian assembly and delivered a scathing condemnation of their attempts at joining the BDS movement). As the zealots had the nerve of accusing the High Priest of not being patriotic enough, fringe elements dare accuse venerable institutions like UJA-NY of being anti-Israel for supporting organizations that don’t toe the right-wing line to the millimeter.

While more vociferous on the right, the demonization discourse is also present on the left. For years, the left refers to rightists not as holders of legitimate political views, but rather as obstacles to peace. Likud voters were called “primitive kissers of mezuzot.” Organizations like AIPAC, ADL, and AJC are equally demonized by the left and the right. The vilest attacks on Israel’s defenders regularly come from fellow Jews. Many don’t see the obvious contradiction between the “progressive values” they supposedly espouse and the vitriol they pour on their fellow Jews. The left tends to couch demonization in sophisticated argumentations, but it’s there, equally pernicious and equally venomous.

As John of Gaschalla wasted precious energies fighting fellow Jews as the Romans approached, Jewish leaders today use their time, money, and energy demonizing others.

I shudder when I think of the sea of ugliness that will engulf us as we confront the Iran nuclear deal. Sadly, I’m sure that those in favor of the agreement will be called “traitors” and “self-hating Jews,” and those against will be called “warmongers” and “extremists.” What will be sorely missing is an empathic understanding of the other, of how Jews committed to the State of Israel and to each other can have legitimate differences of opinion on a difficult issue for which easy answers don’t abound. If my fears prove right, we may win or lose this Iran fight, but it won’t matter, because we will do irreparable damage to the internal fabric of the community.

The rabbis state that in the beginning of the “three terrible weeks,” not only were the walls of Jerusalem breached, other catastrophes afflicted the Jewish People. Their example is the day on which Moses broke the Tables of the Law, judging the People unworthy of them. It’s highly symbolic that these two events are made to coincide on the calendar; internecine hatred violates something so central to Judaism, so core to our beliefs, that it’s equivalent to the destruction of the most important element of our tradition. Dissent is central to Judaism, as is compassion and respect for others. We are commanded to argue with each other, but we are warned that, “whomever shames his neighbor in public is like a murderer.” Ignoring this basic Jewish tenet, we proudly engage in “name and shame” campaigns.

As funders, we need to stop watching this deterioration of civility from the sidelines. We certainly are part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution. By choosing who, what, and how we fund, we can reward or punish specific behaviors. We need to realize that we don’t just fund projects; we exercise moral leadership. We can support those brave voices on all sides that strive for a loving and respectful way to disagree. We can encourage healthy dissent and show zero tolerance to demonization and name-calling. We can help create Jewish organizations that honor the tradition of elu va’elu, the idea that two diverging opinions can both be right and no one owns the truth. We can unmask those that coat their intolerance in a demand for unity, which really means “everybody should agree with me.” Moreover, nothing will be stronger than us, funders, being the model of civil and respectful discourse.

Fanaticism is a human trait. Every human group will have its extremists, but we can encourage the community to adopt rules of conduct that protect us from them, that isolate them, that don’t let them take over the community discourse. It’s up to us to help create a core of passionate moderates that can stand up to extremists on both sides. Silent majorities don’t count if, alas, they are silent.

As we prepare to commemorate tisha b’av, the anniversary of a destruction caused by internecine hatred, let us make true the words of Rabbi Kook: “If the Temple was destroyed by ‘sin’at chinam’ (gratuitous hatred), it’ll be rebuilt by ‘Ahavat chinam’ (gratuitous love).”

I realize I may be spoiling a careless summer day with a gloomy message, but it all happened on a summer day like today in Jerusalem, 1,945 years ago. And it’s happening again, here and now.

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.


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