There is a story about young Eitan, the first child born on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek near Megido. When Eitan was three, his mother brought him a new white shirt to wear on Shabbat. On the first Friday night that Eitan wore his new shirt, he and his mother walked to the communal dining hall of the kibbutz for Shabbat dinner. Along the way, they passed several puddles of water left for them by the generous rainclouds that fed the kibbutz fields. As would most three-year-old boys, Eitan sought out the largest puddle and jumped right into the center splashing water all over himself and his mother. The new white shirt was a mess, and Eitan’s mom was furious. Just as she raised her voice in reprimand, a woman stopped her and said, “That’s not how we talk to our children here.”
“Our” is a complicated word. It is the possessive pronoun for something that belongs to us, but who are we? What does being part of a group entitle us to? What obligations does it incur? What are the tangible differences between “us” and “them?”
In the now classic book, The Nature of Prejudice (Allport, 1954), Gordon Allport provides this definition. “It is difficult to define an in-group precisely. Perhaps the best that can be done is to say that members of an in-group all use the term we with the same essential significance. (p.32)” Does the same apply to “our?”
On Yom Kippur, during the most intimate moment of prayer, Jews ask forgiveness for “our sins.” In the Babylonian Talmudic, the rabbinic sages declare, (Shavuot 39a) “All of Israel is indebted to one another.” When three students are abducted, we shout to the world, “Bring back our boys.” Certainly, ‘our’ is a loaded word in the Jewish lexicon.
Complicating things further is the fact not all identity is chosen. For Jews, being Jewish is both ascribed and assumed. Nazi’s ascribed Jewish identity with tools like the Nuremburg Laws that define a Jew genetically by race. Jewish educators try to create Jewish identity in schools and camps by making young people want to assume their Jewishness. Rabbis sometimes convert people to Judaism. What is the threshold that makes a person transform from “them” one moment to one of us the next?
Identity is also fluid and not uniform. As I figure out which words to type, I am a writer, but when my son wants my attention, I am a father. To me, he is my son, but to his sister he is “my annoying brother.” Many Jews have hyphenated or delineated Jewish identities. In the United States there are affiliated and un-affiliated Jews, liberal and orthodox, cultural and religious. Hyphenated identity also labels subsets of groups. Jewish-settlers are one subset of Israeli-Jews, as are the residents of “Medinat Tel-Aviv,” a term used to disparage the Israeli left.
When Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel were abducted and their whereabouts were unknown to the Jewish world, they became “our boys.” What about the numerous other yeshiva students who study in the West Bank? Are they “our boys?” How far does this extend? When I was a new father in Tel Aviv, I frequently found myself instructed to cover my baby, “let her get some sunlight,” “Let her sleep.” My daughter wasn’t their baby, but I appreciated the good intentions and wasn’t expected to heed their advice.
In the case of “our boys,” however, how far does my collective responsibility extend? Do I have a voice in whether they can endanger themselves by hitchhiking? Do I get a say in their yeshiva curriculum? If they are uprooting Palestinian trees or harassing farmers, can I discipline them? And if the answer is “no,” then do I have some authority to exert some control over their behavior as citizens of “our” country? What about Jews in the diaspora? If they are attacked because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, do they deserve a voice in Israeli politics? Who gets to control over “our boys” as they do “price tag” vigilantism to their Arab neighbors?
I am not a strict universalist. I appreciate the diversity of “them” and “us,” and I think the world would be a boring place if we all had the same identity. I’m also not a strict particularist. There are some times where the universal “us” is important. As a Jew, I am proud that the Torah is explicit about the dignity of all human beings as expressed in Genesis 1:27; And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.
So now as bombs fall over Gaza, and Israelis spend their time in bomb shelters, how am I supposed to feel? How should I respond to the news of children being killed in Gaza? How should I feel about the despicable behavior of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans who abducted and burned alive a Palestinian teenager? Should I feel different about Mohamed Abu Khdeir than Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel?
I have two tangible answers to my rhetoric.
1) The next time any of us says, “we,” take a tip from Michael Jackson (do as he said, not as he did) and look at “the man in the mirror.” Ask him if the values of the collective are the same as your own values? Ask if you can honestly take personal responsibility for the behavior of the group? And ask yourself if you are willing to compromise your values to remain within?
2) Make childhood sacrosanct. No baby is born with a passport in her hand. As kids grow up, they grow into an adult world that has been affected by an abuse of “them and us,” but first they are innocent. Yehuda Amichai describes this beautifully in his poem, God has Pity.
God has pity on kindergarten children. He pities school children — less. But adults he pities not at all. He abandons them, and sometimes they have to crawl on all fours in the scorching sand to reach the dressing station, streaming with blood.
To sanctify childhood means no aqeda; the binding of Isaac is not allowed. We can’t send our children to do our warfare for us. Their lives must be considered to have greater value than our own. No sending (or allowing) them to do “price tag” attacks, and no having (or permitting) them to throw Molotov cocktails at soldiers. No bombing them with rockets and no bombing them from planes.
If we start with this, maybe Amichai’s poem will become prophetic.
Perhaps He will have pity on those who love truly and take care of them, and shade them like a tree over the sleeper on the public bench. Perhaps even we will spend on them our last pennies of kindness inherited from mother, so that their own happiness will protect us now and on other days.