Jewish Backwardness

"From 'Fiddler on the Roof' the audience gets no sense of the downside of the Jewish Reformation as it left its impress on Jewish life in the Pale in the nineteenth century.

"The Jews had their Torah to comfort them, although women were rarely taught Hebrew so as to be able to read it. They had their Talmud to guide them, although only a small minority of males and no women had the privilege of Talmudic study. they had rabbis and zaddikim to turn to for inspiration and personal counseling, but frequently these leaders were indifferent to the miserable conditions of the ordinary Jewish men and women, and were more concerned with their own power and affluence than with the physical and moral needs of their followers. What you do not learn from Sholem Aleichem is the superstition and the ignorance and the general ambiance of cruelty and deprivation, of fatalism and magic, and of comatose squalor that characterized the culture of the shtetl."

(Norman Cantor, "The Sacred Chain: the History of the Jews", p224-225)

In "Jewish History, Jewish Religion", the late Israel Shahak, who was interned in Belsen as a youth, draws a distinction between the Nazi genocide and earlier persecution of the Jews such as occurred in Eastern Europe before the twentieth century.

He characterizes the Nazi policies as inspired, organized and carried out from above by state officials. But in the earlier periods, persecution of the Jews came from below, from popular movements. Jews were allied with the ruling elite in these earlier periods--with emperors, popes, kings, aristocrats and the upper clergy. Furthermore, the elites defended the Jews during these antisemitic outbursts, not out of considerations of humanity, but because the Jews were useful and profitable to them. The defense of the Jews was tied up with defense of "law and order", hatred of the lower classes and fear that anti-Jewish riots might develop into general popular rebellion. This was true even of Tsarist Russia. During the time of Tsarism's greatest strength, under Nicholas I or in the latter part of the reign of Alexander III, pogroms were not tolerated by the regime, even though legal discrimination was intensified.

Shahak's comments on the 17th century Chmielnicki revolt in Ukraine illustrates these points:

"Perhaps the most outstanding example is the great massacre of Jews during the Chmielnicki revolt in the Ukraine (1648), which started out as a mutiny of Cossack officers but soon turned into a widespread popular movement of the oppressed serfs: 'The underpriviliged, the subjects, the Ukrainians, the Orthodox [persecuted by the Polish Catholic church] were rising against their Catholic Polish masters, particularly against their masters' bailiffs, clergy and Jews.' (John Stoye, Europe Unfolding 1648-88) This typical peasant uprising against extreme oppression, an uprising accompanied not only by massacres committed by the rebels but also by even more horrible atrocities and 'counter-terror' of the Polish magnates' private armies, has remained emblazoned in the consciousness of east-European Jews to this very day--not, however, as a peasant uprising, a revolt of the oppressed, of the real wretched of the earth, nor even as vengeance visited upon all the servants of the Polish nobility, but as an act of gratuitous antisemitism directed against Jews as such. In fact, the voting of the Ukrainian delegation at the UN and, more generally, Soviet policies on the Middle East, are often 'explained' in the Israeli press as 'a heritage of Chmielnicki' or his 'descendants'."

"Internal conditions within the Jewish community moved in a similar course. In the period 1500-1795, one of the most superstition-ridden in the history of Judaism, Polish Jewry was the most superstitious and fanatic of all Jewish communities. The considerable power of the Jewish autonomy was used increasingly to stifle all original or innovative thought, to promote the most shameless exploitation of the Jewish poor by the Jewish rich in alliance with the rabbis, and to justify the Jews' role in the oppression of the peasants in the service of the nobles. Here, too, there was no way out except liberation from the outside. Pre-1795 Poland, where the social role of the Jews was more important than any in other classical Diaspora, illustrates better than any other country the bankruptcy of classical Judaism."

Shahak goes on to examine the Halakhah, the legal system of classical Judaism, practised by virtually all Jews from the 9th century to the end of the 18th century, is based primarily on the Babylonian Talmud. Here is one of the strictures of the Halakhah: a Gentile murderer who happens to be under Jewish jurisdiction must be executed whether the victim was Jewish or not. However, if the victim was Gentile and the murderer converts to Judaism, he is not punished.

The Halakhah influenced the following passage in a booklet published by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army, which includes the West Bank.

"When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed ... Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized ... In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good."

In a letter to Rabbi Shim'on Weiser, an Israeli soldier asked, "In one of the discussions in our group, there was a debate about the 'purity of weapons' and we discussed whether it was permissible to kill unarmed men -- or women and children?" The Rabbi replied:

"The non-Jewish nations have a custom according to which war has its own rules, like those of a game, like the rules of football or basketball. But according to the sayings of our sages, of blessed memory, ... war for us is not a game but a vital necessity, and only by this standard must we decide how to wage it. On the one hand ... we seem to learn that if a Jew murders a Gentile, he is regarded as a murderer and, except for the fact that no court has the right to punish him, the gravity of the deed is like that of any other murder. But we find in the very same authorities in another place ... that Rabbi Shim'on used to say: 'The best of Gentiles -- kill him; the best of snakes -- dash out its brains.'"

The Halakhah declares that sexual intercourse between a married Jewish woman and any man other than her husband is a capital offense for both parties, and one of the most heinous sins. The Halakhah views all Gentiles as promiscuous and declares that the verse "whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue [semen] is like the issue of horses" accurately describes them.

The Halakhah, which of course predates the formation of the state of Israel, had laws which fit neatly into the exclusionary policies of the Jewish state. It states:

"When the Jews are more powerful than the Gentiles we are forbidden to let an idolator among us; even a temporary resident or itinerant trader shall not be allowed to pass through our land unless he accepts the seven Noahide precepts, for it is written: they shall not dwell in thy land, that is, even temporarily."

Jewish ideology is not emancipatory. It is shot through with strictures such as the ones above. When Jews were poor and powerless living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Halakhah had little impact on the conduct of their daily lives of Gentiles. In Israel today, the Jewish state has a modern army and air force and is backed to the hilt by US imperialism and can put the poisonous strictures of the Halakhah into practice.

The ideology of the Halakhah influences Israeli policy in a myriad of ways. The recent assassination of the head of state by a right-wing zealot who received permission from an orthodox Rabbi based on the Halakhah is just but one indication.

The inhumanity of this one assassination is simply a case of the "chickens coming home to roost", as Malcolm X observed. On this evening's news, it was reported that a Palestinian activist was blown up by a bomb placed in his cellular phone, undoubtedly placed there by Israeli agents.

This is the reality of Jewish religion and Jewish politics, not "liberation Seders" on the upper west side of Manhattan. American Jewry, no matter what percentage of it votes for liberal Democratic candidates, has been complicit with Israeli state terrorism for the last 45 years. Palestinians are the true counterparts today of captive Jewry in the time of Exodus. Nobody reads the Haggadah for the emancipation of the Palestinians, however. It is much easier to toast the freedom of members of your own race in legendary times.