This is the time of the year when we celebrate the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Greeks some two thousand one hundred and sixty-eight years ago. For many it is a celebration not of Divine Intervention, but of the importance of standing up to our enemies and fighting them if necessary. It is contrasted with the mistaken perception of ghetto passivity and, in Zionist mythology, with the supposed suicide of the Massada defenders.
People often think that the fighting citizen of modern Israel is a new phenomenon but it is not. It is passivity that is the exception even ‘though I personally prefer that side of the scale. After all, ‘Israel’ is the name given to Jacob and it means ‘fighting with God and man’. It is a Biblical obligation to defend oneself. The Talmud expanded it into a principle that, to use my translation, ‘If someone comes for you, get him first!’
We Jews have always been fighters. We fought our way into Canaan. King David was no pacifist. Even the two Jewish Kingdoms of Judea and Israel went into battle against each other regularly. We fought the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans. We were fighting all the bloody time. Not only that, but according to both Tacitus and Plutarch, Jews were the best mercenaries during the first and second centuries of the Common Era. Between 613 and 617 there was a massive Jewish revolt against the Byzantine Empire in support of the Persians (someone ought to tell Ahmadinejihad) and the Jewish tribes of the Arabian Peninsula put up a brave and bloody struggle against the early Mohammedans (perhaps someone ought not to tell him about that ). Then Jewish mercenaries helped the Umayyad conquest of Spain and fought on both sides in the Peninsula for the next five hundred years. So the idea that we were not fighters is a relatively recent one! .
It is true that Eastern European Jewry was permeated by a sense of helplessness and passivity and this was underpinned by the kabbalist and Chassidic emphasis on passive messianism. It is also true that very often Jews were so heavily outnumbered and outgunned that resistance was almost psychologically impossible. But then, of course, one might argue that German Jewish passivity was a result of too much assimilation or an exaggerated trust in European culture and ‘civilization.’
It is still believed in some quarters that only the secular Jews are fighters and, indeed, in the early years of the State it was the secular Jew who fought for the community, in contrast to the ‘Old Yishuv’ Orthodox Jews living on the Chalukka, the charity of Eastern Europe. In the early years of the State it was the kibbutz movement which contributed a disproportionate number of top class soldiers and officers. But over recent years it has been the Religious Nationalist Jews who have come to dominate the elite ranks. This, I suggest, is because of their religious idealism, while elsewhere in Israel idealism is nowadays in short supply.
The anti-Zionist (or some might prefer ‘non-Zionist’) Orthodox Jews refused to join the armed forces and this has led to the perception that they will not and cannot fight. But, of course, violence is very much a feature of those communities both internally and externally, as years of stone throwing and clashes with police amply illustrate, not to mention worrying degrees of domestic violence. Indeed, recent protests in Jerusalem underline Charedi aggression and I am reliably informed that religious gangsters rule in Bnei Brak. Last week indeed a lady was attacked by such ’outwardly religious’ gentlemen on a Jerusalem bus because she refused to move to the back!
Anyone familiar with the great gatherings of Chassidim to attend Shabbat or festive meals with their rebbes, who are the focal point of Chassidic life, will know that these events are neither for the fainthearted nor for those who recoil from physical aggression. I have often seen blood drawn, on one occasion a broken limb, as strong young men battle each other for a place on the bleachers (or the terraces, as we in England would say) to get a better view or nearer to the Holy Man. I also must say that I found American Chassidim to be even more aggressive and wild with their punches than Israeli ones. of course, English Chassidim are just wimps when it comes to a good fight. And so, apparently, are Antwerp Hassidim.
A few weeks ago a party of some fifty Belzer Chassidic teenage school boys from Antwerp, together with two of their rebbes, were taken on a school outing to Beringen Mijn in Limburg, Belgium. It is a tourist centre based on old, disused mines that recreate the awful conditions of miners during the Industrial Revolution, and I was impressed that they actually made this into a formal school outing. Well, it seems when they arrived at the local youth hostel, a group of twenty young adult and teenage Muslims gathered around and started stoning the building, smashing windows and doors and threatening to kill them. The local police were called, who advised the Chassidim that they could not protect them and encouraged them to withdraw and return to Antwerp. Of course this wasn’t a pogrom but it was very disturbing nevertheless.
Naturally. the press was divided in reporting this story, because in Belgium one part of the political spectrum, the Socialists, bend over so far backwards to appease Muslim voters that they make Vikram Yoga look like a mild stretch, while on the other hand you have right wing, even ex-fascist, anti-immigration parties. They both went to town.
The Socialist press defended the police. There were only one or two on duty in a small provincial town and reinforcements would take time to come. Besides, the day after they arrested the ringleaders. The right wing press accused the police of appeasement and protested that peaceful Jewish school children can no longer venture freely around the Belgian countryside. The Chassidic teachers, themselves, protested that they were peaceful people who would never throw stones or make a public nuisance of themselves, and they felt sad that in this day and age they could not expect protection. It is a common refrain now throughout Belgium that instructions from On High are to protect Muslims rather than Jews.
But then it struck me. There were fifty healthy young Jewish teenagers. Why the heck didn’t they sally forth and beat the living daylights out of those primitive yobs? They were provoked. Were they told by their teachers to turn the other cheek? I thought that was a Christian principle. Was this an example of Jewish passivity, of Diaspora Jews who dare not make a fuss? Or perhaps their fighting experience had been confined to other Chassidim and they weren’t sure what moves to make against Turks and Moroccans?
Part of me felt proud that my coreligionists chose not to respond to unprovoked violence with violence. But on the other hand we must not allow bullies to attack us where we have a perfect right to be and this event and our weak response is symptomatic of what’s sick in Europe. It would never happen in the USA. On balance, I think those Belzer Chassidim should be given a course on Krav Maga, aggressive self defence, next time they venture outside of their ghetto.
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