The question of the role of power and vulnerability in determining the identity of the Jewish people has been on my mind a lot lately. It seems everyone I have interacted with has a different story that contributes to “The Identity of the Jewish People”, and every story hinges on an understanding of either the power and capacity of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, or that necessitates some degree of weakness. I’m not sure how align these two types of narratives in to one cohesive identity, but I want to share them with you because I think they make an interesting point about the power of perspective.
This first story presents a perspective on the power of strength of the Jews, from the perspective of relatively weaker or more dependent population- refugees currently residing in Israel.
After Purim, I was discussing the holiday with my mostly Darfuri English students. They were all quite surprised, intrigued and delighted by the costumes and drunken festivities they saw on the streets of Jerusalem, and were eager to talk to me about what happened and why. I knew a few of them had heard the Purim story from the teacher of the Tuesday class, so I decided to review the story both for the pedagogical benefit of those who had already heard it once and to simply expose the others to the basics. Once I finished explaining Esther and Mordecai and Achashverosh and getting them to say it out loud a few times, I asked if they had any questions. Every single one of these men, mostly refugees plus a few Ethiopian Orthodox priests, said they still didn’t understand the connection between that very nice story and why there was a big festival.
“Because we as Jews are celebrating the fact that someone tried to kill us and they did not succeed! Narrowly escaping destruction and death is a pretty common theme in Judaism, so we like to make holidays to celebrate our survival”, I explained.
At first I wondered if I had accidentally wandered in to uncomfortable territory, talking about near-genocide with a dozen or so Darfuri men. Cautiously, I asked them why they looked so confused. After exchanging some glances amongst themselves, the strongest student answered, “Someone tried to kill all the Jews?” “Yes”, I affirmed. “But Jews are so strong! Israel is so strong!” They responded.
We began to discuss the idea behind the Purim story, namely that the Jews see themselves as near victims and celebrate their non-destruction. This concept confused some and went completely over the heads of others. Aside from the clear lack of historical knowledge (both the Holocaust and the relatively recent date of the founding of the State of Israel were not known facts to most of the group), I found it fascinating that the students could not even begin to think of Israel or the Jewish people, which they equated as one and the same, as the victim or the weaker party in a story.
This makes sense, since most of them fled warfare, persecution and genocide and found refuge in Israel. Given where they came from and what they have been through, it follows that Israel would seem like the most powerful, capable, developed place on Earth. And, from this point of view, it might well be. Despite rhetoric on threats from Iran and international rejection of some of Israel’s current policies, Israel in many ways looks like the country that would make figures like Jabotinsky proud.
I began to wonder what I would think of Israel if I didn’t know anything about Jewish history. I know that the near-destruction of the Jewish people has been an important factor in the identity construction of our people and in the founding of the State. But I almost have to wonder, is this construct still relevant? Should perhaps we be thinking of the State of Israel and the Jewish people in the way my students see it?