One of the requirements for being a pro-Jewish and pro-Israel activist, which I am, is that I spend a great deal of time keeping up to date on current events and opinions in the Jewish world. I read articles, watch videos, and listen to podcasts and radio, but I also read their comment sections. These comment sections are full of opinions on every subject imaginable, and I find that it can be helpful to get a feel for what the Jewish public is feeling on various issues that involve them. I’ve gained a lot of great insights, but I am also becoming both disturbed and upset at a trend that I’ve noticed more and more in recent months.
Conventional wisdom on the internet is that you should never read the comment sections, they are each, in the words of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi; “A wretched hive of scum and villainy”, (Ok, he was talking about Mos Eisley, but the sentiment still applies). Along with the comments sharing relevant opinions about geo-politics, religious observance, Jewish values and Israeli policy, there are the personal attacks. Venomous, hateful and vile personal insults are thrown around regardless of the subject of the article. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, someone is going to choose to shift the focus from the idea to the people expressing it. The sad thing, and the scary thing, and what I find unacceptable, is that the culprits are often Jews. Jews who are addressing other Jews.
The internet is a wonderful creation, it has enabled more people to share more information and ideas than ever before. It has allowed people from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all beliefs to share and compare their ideas with others. Unfortunately, it also has a few side effects. The internet often depersonalizes the people with whom we interact. Globally, we live in a politically charged climate, and emotions tend to run high. The internet removes the personal and human aspect of discussion and debate, so it becomes very easy for people who take issues like religion and politics seriously to forget that it’s still a person that they are talking to. Certainly, there are times when emotional responses are appropriate. When UN organizations pass resolutions that ignore or downplay Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and other holy sites, we should react very strongly and denounce their claims as nonsense. When an organization like J Street or Jewish Voice for Peace misrepresents the majority Jewish stance on issues like BDS and land for peace deals, we should speak out and condemn their statements. These condemnations can’t segue into insults and personal attacks though, as it makes the entire movement looks bad. When a Jewish Zionist starts shooting off at the mouth that another Jew who wants a two state solution is “the enemy” or “supporting terrorism”, that hurts the entire movement. If we cant even show respect to each other, how are we supposed to be taken seriously by anyone else?
The trend towards personalizing intra-Jewish disagreements poses a problem and a serious one at that. Jews, who are already scarce in number relative to the rest of the world have fallen into this same habit. The hostilities that I see are occurring between Jews of all backgrounds, be they between religious and secular Jews, Orthodox and Reform Jews, or liberal and conservative Jews. This rancor and the personal attacks that tend to result are causing a dangerous divide among the Jewish people, and it hurts us all. It isn’t just hostility towards certain ideas, in my mind, that is a natural thing. It is the speed at which people direct that animosity towards the people they are talking to. In my experience, Jews and non-Jews alike have allowed their emotional connection to their own ideas overshadow what is most important; that Jews stick together as a people.
I’m not saying that you have to like everything that other people say, or that you shouldn’t express disapproval towards ideas that you think are incorrect, but there is a difference between hating the idea and hating the person that has the idea. We don’t have to respect everything our fellow Jews say, but we should respect their right to have a different opinion than us. Be measured in your responses to ideas you disagree with, remember that the person who shared it is actually a person, and probably has more in common with you than not.
When we lose sight of the fact that Jews have enemies, and those enemies often don’t care what opinions Jews hold, we also lose sight of how important it is that we outwardly project a united front. It is very important that Jews of all beliefs and backgrounds debate and discuss the issues that affect us. We have done it for thousands of years, and it usually serves us well. In today’s world, with anti-semitism on the rise even in countries that were traditionally friendly to the Jews, it’s vital that we keep these disagreements and discussions “in house”. When we start writing hostile articles or making angry videos attacking other groups of Jews, or leaving nasty comments about how people we disagree with “aren’t real Jews”, rather than civilly debating the ideas that are presented, we are showing weakness. We are showing weakness that can be exploited by BDS groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jihadist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. When we resort to petty insults and personal attacks against our fellow Jews, we are doing Hamas’ job for them by widening the rift between ourselves and those that we should love as brother and sister. They want to divide and conquer the Jewish people, why should we help them do it? This isn’t the first time the Jewish people have had this problem, we really need to work on getting it in check, because the last time this happened, things got very bad, very quickly.
I am a student of history, its one of my hobbies and is also one of the focuses of The Eternally Jewish Project. One of the things that happens when you study history while also paying attention to current events, is that you begin to notice patterns of behavior in the present that have already been seen in the past. Watching the growing hostility between various Jewish groups over wide ranges of issues has begun to resemble one of the worst periods in Jewish history. One that ended in the sacking of Jerusalem, the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and the destruction of the Second Temple. It can be argued that this intra-Jewish conflict led directly to the existence of the Diaspora, and indirectly to every instance of persecution the Jews have faced since. I am referring to the conflicts between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Among ancient Jews, there were always disagreements. Great Torah scholars debated each and every nuance of the Jewish scriptures, and sometimes there were harsh arguments between them. These were learned men, however and they generally kept the discussion on topic. Outside influences on Jewish thought and practice were relatively scarce, even as the Jews rode a roller coaster of conquest, persecution and liberation. This changed with the introduction of Hellenism by Alexander the Great and his armies. Hellenism was very much in opposition to Jewish tradition and teaching culturally and religiously, and many Jews resisted. Hellenism did take root however, and it gradually led to more and more Jews questioning and challenging the old ways. In a lot of respects, this is similar to how the ideas of Progressivism and tradition are dividing Jews today. This disagreement continued into the Hasmonean period in ancient Israel. This short-lived period of Jewish self-governance following the initial incursion of the Greeks was bookended by some famous names in Jewish history. It began around 170 BCE (Before Common Era) with the Maccabees of Chanukah fame, and ended in 37 BCE with King Herod, who is best known for his ambitious building projects including the fortress at Masada and of course, the renovations of the Temple Mount and 2nd Temple in Jerusalem.
During the Hasmonean period, two factions began to emerge. One, the Pharisees, resisted most Hellenistic thought, opposed assimilation into Greek and Roman society, and believed in the validity of the Oral Torah, which would later be written down in the form of the Mishnah. The debates and interpretations of great Rabbis on the Mishnah were then compiled in the form of the Gemara, and these two writings combine to form the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
The other party came to be known as the Sadducees. They wanted to embrace Hellenism, as they viewed it as a more relevant philosophy for the times in which they lived than the traditional ways. They also disputed and disavowed the legitimacy of the Oral Torah, believing that it was neither true, nor relevant to them as they wanted to live. Along with this, they believed that the written Torah, which consists of the Five Books of Moses, should be taken literally rather than interpreted.
These parties both served in the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council of the kingdom, and as they both grew in support and power, the rift between them grew as well. The two factions disagreed on everything from religious practice, to cultural values to the best way to deal with increasing Roman interference in the region. The differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees reached a point of intractability, in which there could be no agreement on anything, in part due to the treatment of members of each group by those of the other. Personal grudges as well as political disagreements became a feature of the relationship. It was also during this period of heightened tensions between the Jews of Judea and the Romans that another group appeared.
They were known as the Zealots, and their primary goal was to incite a rebellion. The Zealots wanted to expel the Romans from Judea by any means necessary, as they felt the Romans to be oppressors rather than benefactors. They eventually succeeded in instigating the first of three Jewish rebellions against the Romans and in 66 CE (Common Era), war broke out between the Jews of Judea and the Roman Legions which occupied it. The war went on for several years, and many Zealots were driven out of their homes and they made their way to Jerusalem. Once they arrived, tensions between the Pharisees and Sadducees began to build even further, and the eventual result was that intra-Jewish violence erupted in the streets. The Jews had become so divided that they fought and killed each other as the Roman armies moved to encircle Jerusalem and in 70 CE the Siege of Jerusalem began. Not only were the Pharisees and Sadducees fighting, but the Zealots began to fight amongst themselves as well, during the fighting, Jerusalem’s food stores were burned. The Jews, who had managed to hold back the Roman Siege for seven months were left weakened by infighting and a lack of food and in the summer of 70 CE, were defeated.
Roman soldiers stormed the city and put it to the torch. The 2nd Temple, which had stood for hundreds of years was completely destroyed and most of the Jews of Jerusalem were killed or sold into slavery. In the years that followed, the Romans and Jews continued to fight and thousands of Jews were killed or driven out of Judea. We can only speculate as to what would have happened had the Jews in Jerusalem set aside political differences and united against the Romans. It is entirely possible that the Jewish defenders would have held the city, and forced the Romans to agree to terms that were more favorable for the people of the region. Regardless of what may have been, the lesson that we can learn from this story is what matters.
Jews cannot fight with other Jews. We can argue, we can disagree, but we cannot fight. Whether it is with words or weapons, the damage that we do when we attack our own people is cumulative. The more we direct our ire at them, the more we alienate those who differ only in that they have different opinions. As this continues, it will be harder and harder to resolve differences or to reach out to those that we don’t agree with. People will no longer be willing to listen. In a lot of cases, we have the same goals, the disagreements are just on how to reach them. The most crucial thing that Jews in these arguments have in common is passion. It is a wonderful thing that so many Jewish people have an inner fire that leads to a passion for Israel and for their people. We have to channel that fire properly though. All too often, we turn a flamethrower towards our fellow Jews when we should instead be lighting candles with them. Our enemies are groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, lets use the flamethrowers on them, rather than on other Jewish people.