Conservative and Reformed Jews regard each other warily. Both look sidelong askance at the Orthodox community -- which in turn all too frequently shivers apart across ideological lines, the followers of each rabbinical lineage sublimely convinced that they alone have plumbed Judaism's true depths. Israeli Jews who trace their lineage to modern Israel's founders tend to see our faith through a Zionist lens, and so, inflected as this prism is with 19th century continental Romanticism, to question whether the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Near East are their kin, in the fullest sense. And within the Middle Eastern communities, Moroccan feuds with Yemenite... and so on... and so on... and so on...
While vanishingly few of us, then, have ever truly set aside the solidarity that has sustained us as a people for three millennia, all too many of us are prejudiced and yes, even flat-out, no-getting-around-it racist towards other Jews.
To be sure, things are better than they once were.
Flooding into New York City in the late 19th century , Eastern European Jews turned to the city's established German congregations for the helping hand that after centuries of Tsarist oppression they so desperately needed. Largely regarding their Slavic kin as an invading horde, the Hochdeutsch Jews turned them an exceptionally cold shoulder for decades, relegating them to harshest squalor.
Often known as Sepharadim after the Hebrew for Spain, North African and Middle Eastern Jews trace their ancestry back to the storied Jewish communities of medieval Iberia. For all that luminaries from Baruch Spinoza to Chief Justice Benjamin Cardozo have sprung from these illustrious bloodlines, when the Mizrahi Jews fled to Israel in the wake of horrendously bloody mid-20th century Muslim pogroms, they were greeted at airports and harbors not with open arms, but with sheers and insecticide: with their European Sturm und Drang heritage, native Israelis just knew (nobody needed to verify) that the "Arab Jews" had been made unclean by their centuries in the Muslim world. And so Israelis shaved their returning cousins bald, men, women and children alike, and engulfed them in toxic clouds of DDT. Not that this treatment cleaned anything beyond their skin -- and so Israel embarked upon an aggressive campaign to ensure that "their" culture wasn't "contaminated" by "Islamic" influence, to include force-feeding Mizrahi children curricula that completely elided their native culture. But of course re-education would take time to set in -- and so for their first years in Israel, Mizrahi Jews were de facto barred from residing in Israel's major cities, restricted instead to squalid tent cities (ma'abarot) or decrepit border towns.
Though Israel was largely founded by Russian and Polish Jews (although the contributions of communities such as the Yemenite were numerous and of the utmost historical significance) when the Jews of Russia and the Soviet bloc made their way to Israel after the Iron Wall's crumbling, their reception carried strong overtones of the outrages that had attended upon the reception of Mizrahi'im decades earlier. In proof positive that past oppression is no guarantee of future egalitarianism, tensions with the Israeli Sepharadi communities were often particularly severe. "I spent my whole life thinking I was Jewish, and came to Israel to learn I was Russian" ran the common, extremely bitter refrain.
Today, Jews of all ethnicities and religious backgrounds mix cordially even in the US' most exclusive synagogues and neighborhoods. Mizrahi Jews occupy the highest echelons of the Israeli private and public sectors. The Jews of the former Soviet Union have long since become the backbone of the burgeoning Israeli high-tech and financial sectors.
And yet in too many ways the Jewish house does remain divided against itself. If we are ultimately to stand, then, much work remains to be done.
How best to eradicate prejudice? To be sure, we must continue to academically deconstruct, to publicly and aggressively inveigh against all forms of bias, preconceptions, bigotry, and the abhorrent actions that almost uniformly flow from the adoption of such beliefs. What, though, of the redeeming power of art, stories? If prejudice is based on a fundamental, willful blindness to that which unites us, might great art, bewitching stories that speak powerfully to our souls' innermost commonality, not beguile even hardened audiences into recognizing if not fully acknowledging that in reality, there is no "Other"?
This will be our share of the war against the specter of racism that continues to haunt our people.
In a bit less than a year, we will have ushered what was once known as the Museum of the Diaspora, or Bet Hatefutsot, through its transformation into the Museum of the Jewish People. Reincarnated, we will stand as stewards to the Jewish people entire, forever enshrining the traditions of even the smallest, most obscure of our communities. Our aim, though, is not merely to curate. Rather, we intend to showcase in the most enthralling ways, the sheer, incontrovertible Jewishness that shines forth from all of our communities. As we count down the months to our re-opening, we've already begun to stage early events and exhibitions -- and now, we'll also be using the space that The Huffington Post has so graciously gifted us with to weave the tales of our people around the world and down through the ages. We'll be presenting you with new stories every Friday. This, in the way, perhaps, of food for thought for whatever if any kind of Kabbalat Shabbat you hold.
Through our Museum, which we pray you'll find as breathtakingly beautiful as we do; through our global exhibitions and events; through the histories both ancient and modern we'll spin, we hope to delight and enchant, to bring forth laughter and tears, and most of all to dispel any doubts that might yet linger amongst our people that the Jewish family is, always has been, and always will be, a family of equals -- and by so doing, to exponentially hasten the emergence of a truly pluralistic Jewish Peoplehood, wherein the heritage of every last one of our communities becomes an ineradicable part of the bedrock upon which all Jews will forever be able to build their identities.
We are not working solely against the prejudices that remain lamentably rife within our own ranks, nor even solely on the Jewish people's behalf.
Beyond showcasing the incontrovertible Jewishness of our communities, each of our exhibitions, each of our stories, will lovingly frame our people's essential -- sometimes glorious, often laughably ridiculous, and certainly frequently flawed -- humanity. By showing our visitors and readers of all races and creeds themselves in us, we intend of course to launch a headlong attack on the anti-Semitism that is once more rearing its ugly head in the West and elsewhere, that would have it that Jews are sub- or indeed in-human. Through this assault we likewise intend to strike a major blow in the larger, critically important war for a truly pluralistic, wholly multicultural world -- after all, by undermining the racist narratives directed against our own kind, do we not inevitably raise questions about other racist narratives?
But of course subversion-by-suggestion isn't nearly a powerful enough gambit in a game with such high stakes.
In furtherance of the essential cause of universal cultural pluralism, then, our stories will strongly highlight the many wonders of the communities in which our people sheltered throughout our ages-long exile. Can anti-Muslim hysteria fully survive detailed descriptions of the incredible heights of science, literature, philosophy, medicine that Jews witnessed and helped Followers of the Prophet scale whilst we resided with them over the centuries? Can anyone who hears about the incredible warmth, the depths and breadths of humanism and visionary imagination that we saw from the Chinese whilst putting down stakes in Kaifeng and elsewhere, fully cling to any lingering animus towards our East Asian brethren? Upon learning of the gorgeous sophistication and grace that our forbearers marveled at in East Africa -- 90 years before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the region was already a trading partner of storied Ming China -- could anyone give full credence to poisonous hectoring about inherent African atavism?
We warmly invite you all, then, to join us for what we hope you'll agree promises to be an amazing, exceptionally worthy ride! We hope to hear from you in the comment sections and to see you on our tours and at our museum!
Until next week, Shabbat Shalom, to all!
This post has been modified since its original publication.
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