At the Mercy of Others?
The Question of Anti-Semitism

There is a well-known institution called Beit Hatfutzot, the Museum of the Diaspora, on the grounds of Tel Aviv University. When it was opened, some two decades ago, it was considered state-of-the-art because it was a new type of museum. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a museum at all. In place of the old artifacts that are the basis of every museum, Beit Hatfutzot contains very few objects, choosing to replace them with models. The reason is that the aim of Beit Hatfutzot was – and remains – the presentation of an idea and a story, rather than specific artifacts. This was its novelty. It was the story that stood at the center; any objects were secondary.

Beit Hatfutzot attempts to tell a very ambitious story: no less than that of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. How did a people that was dispersed for thousands of years in dozens of different centers manage to survive? Each section of the museum attempts to suggest part of the answer, emphasizing themes such as family life and rituals; community life; faith; culture and collective memory. The entire top floor is given over to different community stories that integrate many of the factors already discussed in the previous sections and place them in an historical context.

There is a large sculpture made of electric lights and metal in the very middle of the museum - a location that cannot be missed - in an open space that connects the three floors of the permanent exhibit. The sculpture stands for anti-Semitism. Many people pass it by without thinking about the profundity of the statement being made. It must be considered, however. The idea is clearly that anti-Semitism is connected to the heart of Jewish survival in the different Diaspora centers. It is impossible to understand Jewish survival without it.

There are many other aspects of Jewish survival that are equally as important as the ones mentioned above. However, the sculpture’s location suggests a staggering reading of Jewish history. Without the pressure from the outside world that most communities encountered at one time or another, the Jewish collective would not have stayed together. There is another implication in the position of the sculpture: whatever the state of Jewish life in specific communities, anti-Semitism was never too far away. A community could be occupied with culture or rituals, with institutions of scholarship or anything else, but it had to be aware of the presence of anti-Semitism. It may have been further away or nearer, but it was always a potential factor that the Jews had to consider. The museum’s presentation of Jewish history is hardly objective, however, as it serves a traditional Zionist agenda that sees Jewish life in galut (exile) as fundamentally untenable.

Let us move on to another symbolic reading of Jewish history that points in a similar, but not identical, direction. One of the most extraordinary stories in the whole of modern Jewish literature is The Lady and the Peddler, a fascinating vampire tale by the outstanding Hebrew writer, Shai Agnon, which has been translated several times into English and French (but not, as yet, into Spanish). The story first appeared in 1943, shortly after news of the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis began to penetrate the Jewish community in Eretz Israel. It represents Agnon’s allegorical reaction to the news and it presents a timeless scenario of a Jew wandering in foreign lands, peddling his wares in order to make a living.

Having sold merchandise to a woman in the middle of the forest, he then becomes a guest at her house. He endeavors to make himself useful by offering to do anything in order to secure even a temporary shelter for himself from the cruelty of the elements. He engages in all sorts of small repair jobs but also becomes the woman’s lover. Meanwhile, it is revealed to the reader that she is a murderer who has devoured a number of her husbands. The Jew starts to drop his usual guard and relaxes, blissfully ignorant of the danger awaiting him. He stops behaving like a Jew, drops the dietary laws and changes his dress. In the denouement, he narrowly manages to turn the tables on his adversary. After her death, instead of understanding the perils of his situation and drawing the necessary conclusions, he continues on his way, returning to the situation at the beginning of the story, peddling his wares in other lands, hoping to be accepted there too.

The story is a brilliant allegory that emphasizes the conditional nature of Jewish life in exile. It hints at Agnon’s own Zionist belief that salvation can only come from renouncing this perpetual wandering in foreign lands and complete dependence on the non-Jewish population, which only treats Jews well as long as they serve a useful function. It is a strange story, but one that haunts the mind long after it has been read. As such, it serves Agnon’s intention of highlighting the precariousness of the Jewish condition.

These two items, the sculpture from Beit Hatfutzot and the Agnon story, represent symbolically another central theme that we need to examine in relation to the subject of Jewish community: the question of anti-Semitism as a reality in Jewish community life.

Whether or not one accepts the classic Zionist analysis that anti-Semitism is the inevitable result of Jewish life in the Diaspora and therefore rejects Diaspora life as a valid possibility for a good Jewish life, anti-Semitism is central in the Diaspora story. Somewhere in every Diaspora story, it has appeared. A famous Irish writer once praised his country as the one place where anti-Semitism had never appeared. He was too optimistic: a close look at the history books reveals that that country’s record is not unblemished. It seems unlikely that any community has totally escaped anti-Jewish prejudice and actions. The more extreme stories are clear and familiar. Both Moslem and Christian lands have witnessed plenty of barbaric behavior towards their Jews on numerous occasions. In some lands, it was the norm; in others, such outbreaks were few and sporadic.

This is not the place in which to describe or analyze one of the most familiar aspects of Diaspora life; however, but it is the place to discuss its existence in the lives of the students and their communities and the ways in which this has come about.



Activities

Is the Whole world Against Us?

The aim of this activity is to examine the students’ sense of the presence of anti-Semitism in their own lives and see how this affects their view of the Jewish community.

Jews as Victims – Reading Jewish History

The aim of this enrichment activity is to provide the students with a better perspective on Jewish history and their place in the story. N.B. The activity is largely based on the Agnon story, The Lady and the Peddler. If the story is not available, it is possible to use the part of the activity that is connected with Beit Hatfutzot.


 

 

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30 Nov 2006 / 9 Kislev 5767 0