There’s a good reason why one of the very first stories in the Bible involves fratricide: Cain murdering his brother Abel. A news item from Israel this week shows how easily and close Jews – like all human beings – can get to committing this age-old sin.
The largest ultra-Orthodox sect in Israel, the Gur Hasidim, have been split by internal strife for several years, and this week it reached a heretofore unprecedented level of violence. This newspaper reported “mere” window smashing; other media reported bodily attacks. The cause of all this not that important. The real point is that such violence is hardly ever addressed to other Haredi groups, and even less so to non-religious ones (one exception to follow). Why would that be?
The Cain & Abel story is instructive: the closer one is to the “other,” the greater the potential animosity. This need not be within the biological family; it can be within the ideological/ cultural/ religious/social group as well. There is almost nothing as vicious as a messy divorce between husband and wife, who used to be the closest human unit possible. Nationally, there’s nothing as deadly as a civil war (the greatest oxymoron of all!). Think of the 1860s American Civil War between people ostensibly belonging to the same nation. The Hutu vs. Tutsi civil war in the 1990s killed a million people; the former Yugoslavia ethnicities in that decade would have done equal damage if not for Western intervention. Not to mention the ongoing, murderous, internecine warfare between the Sunnis and Shiites: birds of a feather knocking the other.
Indeed, one could even argue that the Russian devastation of Ukrainian cities these days is another manifestation of this, for the former considered the latter to be cultural and national “brethren” – only to be deeply frustrated and upset when the Ukrainians showed how wrong was such a Russian assumption.
Of course, we don’t have to stick to the modern era. Jewish history is unfortunately replete with such examples as well – from the civil war between some tribes as related in the Book of Judges 20: 1-17, all the way to the destruction of the Second Temple when different Jewish sects were at war with each other despite (or even because of) the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
Closer to our era we have the 18th century bitter struggle between the scholar-oriented Mitnagdim vs the mystical prayer orientation of the Hasidim – both from within the “traditional” (what today would be called the “Orthodox”) camp. This was then followed by vituperation (and worse) between the Orthodox and the nouveau Reform (“Liberal”) and Conservative Jewish movements. Indeed, if there is anything that is the exception to the rule that proves the rule it’s what has been going on for many years in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox and the “Reformin” (Conservative Jews are lumped into that category as well). Here the two are not close at all, but for the Haredim the latter constitute a greater red flag than “regular” secular Jews who don’t go to synagogue at all. Why? Because the secular aren’t a threat to Orthodoxy – they’re not playing the same “game”; the Reform/Conservatives are “in the game” but with a completely different (and competing) approach to Jewish religiosity. In that sense they are far “closer” to the Haredim than straightforward non-believing secularists.
There’s some good news (so far) in all this. The Jewish civil war of 2000 years ago leading to the destruction of the Second Temple has so traumatized the Jewish People (Tisha B’Av reminds us every year) that Jews have mostly stayed within the bounds of denouncing/ cursing/ excommunicating/ the “close other side” but almost never make the quantum leap to murderous “fratricide”. Indeed, the assassination of PM Rabin was another such watershed, reinforcing the dire warnings within Israeli society of getting carried away against “brethren” of a different ideological/political/ethnic stripe.
This is something that non-Israelis, especially overseas Jews, find perplexing when they visit the Holy Land. Israelis will vociferously argue, yell, even curse each other – but very serious, outright violence against the Jewish “other” is not a common feature of the Israeli landscape. That’s left to the ongoing fratricide between the two local Abrahamic “cousins”: Moslem Palestinians and Jewish Israelis – the latest incarnation of Jacob and Esau at loggerheads. In short, this phenomenon has been going on for close to 3500 years, even discounting who we started with: Cain & Abel.