Understanding the “Other”

I was in the 6th grade, in a modern Orthodox Jewish Day school. The Hebrew teacher got very angry at one of the pupils and slapped him in the face – not altogether uncommon back in the early 1960s when “light” corporal punishment was handed out in schools. But the pupil’s reaction was certainly uncommon: he punched the teacher back – in the stomach! And then he followed that with (in Hebrew): “don’t you ever touch me again!” (And the teacher never did.)

It goes without saying that we were all shocked back then by our “colleague’s” response. I’ve thought about it over the years (the only “violence” I ever witnessed in my entire educational experience): how and why did he have the gumption to react like that? My conclusion: he was born and raised in Israel (his family came to the States somewhat recently before that event). Over “there,” no one takes “shit” from anyone else, whether age 12 or 52.

As a dual citizen, born and raised in the U.S., but living most of my life in Israel (with occasional sabbatical years back in the States), I am eminently qualified to compare these two allied countries that have very dissimilar cultures. My purpose here, however, is not an academic exercise in cross-comparative culture, but to note the difficulty that certain cultures have in “understanding” others. This is especially true of America.

First, some facts. It’s banal to note that the U.S. exists on a continent several thousands of miles away from Europe on one side and the Pacific on the other side. But this has had profound consequences on the American mentality. For most of its history that meant little international warfare and political isolationism (George Washington’s Inaugural Address is the prime example, where he warned Americans against getting involved in European politics and wars). That macro approach has filtered down deeply into the micro-level as well. Only 42% of Americans have a passport – up from 32% in 2009 when for the first time they needed one to get into Canada or Mexico. Compare that with another “even-more-distant-over-the-ocean” Anglo country, Australia, with 57%.

I could not find any similar data on Israel regarding passports, but in 2019 (the last pre-Corona year), an astounding 4.3 million Israelis went overseas – almost half the country’s population (and half of them went overseas more than once). Clearly, the percentage of Israeli passport holders is well over 50%. From a macro standpoint, Israel is the mirror image of the U.S., with constant foreign travel. In part, this might also be due to the fact that a majority of Israel’s Jewish population was either born overseas or are children of overseas-born parents.

What does this all mean? First, xenophobia is much higher in the U.S. than in Israel. I would venture a guess that most American “white nationalists” do not hold foreign passports, and thus have not really had (nor do they want) any significant exposure to “others.” Israel has some xenophobic racism, but nowhere near the magnitude found in the U.S.  Second, and more important for the world scene, American foreign policy – when it does decide to enter world politics, especially post-WW2 – tries to mold the rest of the world in its own image. Democracy in Afghanistan? That U.S. debacle is but the latest result of a profound symptom in which even (most) American foreign policymakers see the world through the prism of their country’s culture and creed. It goes without saying, though, that American “exceptionalism” not only holds within it the benefits of a liberal, democratic order, but also the disadvantage of cultural blinders that others do not have the same history, culture, or even aspirations that America has.

This is particularly perplexing for American and Israeli Jewry. On the face of it, one would expect Jews to think and behave about the same everywhere. However, after seventy-plus years of incessant conflict – in a mostly hostile regional neighborhood – Israelis have developed a culture, not only politically but also on the micro-personal level, that is worlds apart from their American (and western European) counterparts. American Jews cannot understand why Israelis are so “belligerent” towards their immediate neighbors, the Palestinians (forgetting that Israel had no problem signing peace treaties with several former enemies). Even on a personal level, the gap is wide. For example, few Israelis residing in America feel comfortable or socialize with native co-religionists for all sorts of cultural-behavioral reasons – and vice versa.

Which brings me back to the school incident. Was the teacher right in slapping the boy? No. Was the boy right in punching our teacher? Again, no. Two noes don’t make a right, of course – which is exactly the point. Jewish history is full of examples where Jews from around the world didn’t get along because of the widely disparate cultures they came from. To take but one egregious example from two centuries ago: upper class Sephardi Jews asked Napoleon not to “emancipate” (i.e., grant wider civil rights to) their poorer Ashkenazi Jewish counterparts.

The best we can hope for, indeed strive for, is greater toleration of the “other” (Jew and non-Jew alike) and even some appreciation of the fact that any culture tends not to be “superior” (or inferior) to most others – just humanly different.

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