Image by Daniel Hartwig
One of the foundational principles of Judaism is summarized by a saying attributed to the Sage Period (1 – 5th centuries BCE) Kol Israel Arevim Ze Ba’Ze: all Israel are each other’s guarantors (Hebrew). The original meaning of this saying addresses the acceptance by Israel (the Israelites) upon first crossing the river Jordan of the burden of the Mitzvoth (Commandments) of which there are not ten, but six hundred and thirteen. The failure by any member of the Tribes of Israel to live up to this burden meant the accrual upon his soul of sin, which was seen in very real terms as an indebtedness, with the Lord of Hosts serving in the role of the creditor. This was an awesome and fearsome responsibility, kind of like owing to the IRS, except much worse.
At the ceremony on Mount Gerizim (now in the autonomous Palestinian Territories), all of Israel agreed to accept the burden of the Mitzvoth and become mutual guarantors in the eyes of the Lord for the discharging of this burden. This meant that if a single one of Israel slipped in observance, all Israel were obligated to help him recover his footing and all Israel were held responsible for the actions of the individual. In a very real sense, sin, seen as debt, was communized among all Israel, very much in the manner that the debt of a closely held corporation is shared by all shareholders. It would not be long before the Lord held Israel to its commitment and foreclosed on his debt; many a communal punishment, from repeated enemy invasions to the eventual exile from the Promised Land were visited upon all of Israel for the actions of a few.
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Today, when only the very religious among us accept the burden of sin as a literal indebtedness and most (the humble author of these lines included) do not observe the 613 commandments, the saying acquired a different meaning. Translated into contemporary American it simply means that Jews (Israelis) have each other’s back. It means that we succeed and fail as a group, all of us, together. In modern day Israel this concept has both symbolic and practical manifestations. Symbolically, it would be unthinkable for any Jewish Israeli (a small fringe group of ultra-orthodox anti-Zionist Jews excepted) to fail to stand for the singing of our national anthem, the Ha’Tikvah. When sirens are sounded at 11 AM on the Holocaust Memorial Day and the Day of Remembrance for those who fell in Israel’s wars, the entire country stands as one. Cars stop in the middle of highways, drivers and passengers leaving their vehicles and standing at attention. Practically, it means that in times of war all Israeli Jews forget their differences and do whatever it takes to help the country and each other survive. When Israel was surprised by the Arab attack on Yom Kippur of 1973, Israelis living abroad, in many cases for years, lined up at El-Al counters everywhere, anxious to get home to their reserve units.
Considering that Israel in day to day life is one of the most contentious societies on Earth, with the population divided into countless factions among every possible fault line (left/right, Ashkenazi/Sephardi, native born/newly arrived, secular/religious, to name but a few), these symbolic manifestations are both extraordinary and extraordinarily meaningful. They are a reminder that when push comes to shove (and in Israel it often does) we can all count on each other to set our differences aside and rely on each other to watch our six. The symbolism also works in reverse; every Jewish Israeli knows that the Arab Israeli who just smiled at him in the grocery store, but who did not stand for the siren, will slit his throat and kill his children the moment Israel’s military is seen as incapable of defending the country. And those Orthodox Jews who failed to stand? Well, they will watch the Zionists being slaughtered shaking their heads and mumbling in Yiddish “they had it coming, we told them so.”
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The concept of mutual guarantee within a tribe or a nation is not Jewish or Israeli, of course. It is universal and forms the necessary condition for any nation’s long-term survival. In healthy nations this concept is inculcated in successive generations via respect for symbols such as the national flag, the national anthem, the national Armed and Law Enforcement Forces, the Head of State, and prominent figures from the nation’s past with all their warts and imperfections. Adherence by all to these symbols is essential. When at the ballpark listening to the Star Spangled Banner is played you see the family next to you standing up, hands covering their hearts, the little kid removing his cap just like his dad and you know that these people whom you have never met before and will never see again will give their lives for you if need be. If your home gets flooded they will be there to lend you a hand and see you through.
And of course the opposite is true; when Colin Kaepernick and his imitators “take a knee” during the playing of the national anthem, you can’t but feel that they want to have nothing to do with you, that they will stay in their multi-million mansions or use their bank accounts to get out without the slightest thought for your wellbeing. You and they simply do not belong to the same tribe; you have nothing in common, there is no bond of mutual guarantee between you. Nobody contends that anyone MUST stand for the national anthem. No such laws exist in Israel or America and they would be counterproductive; like spray-painting a moldy wall these laws would only mask the underlying rot in your tribe. By not standing, Kaepernick et al simply make a choice; they choose to demonstrate that they do not belong to our tribe, that they care nothing about us, and that we should not count on them in times of trouble. It is no wonder that Americans choose not to pay their hard-earned money to see people who have so demonstrably taken themselves out of the tribal boundary; who so clearly express that they want nothing to do with their fans.
Recent months have brought us conflicting data points regarding the state of mutual guarantee in the American tribe. Kaepernick et al, Antifa, the mobs attacking confederate and other statuary, the local councils enabling and encouraging this behavior, the rush to denounce and divorce the past that made America what it is today are powerful indicators that the mutual guarantee among Americans is to put it mildly fraying at the edges. But then came Hurricane Harvey. The selfless response by law enforcement and regular citizens alike, often risking their lives and their property to help other Americans whom they do not know and who they may have nothing in common with other than belonging to the same tribe is a clear demonstration that at least in extremis Americans still have each other’s backs. What can be more exemplary, in both senses of the word, than a Louisiana redneck taking time off work and putting his prized bass boat at risk to save the lives and property of African Americans (or any Americans) in Southeast Texas?
It remains to be seen whether the war that was declared by many elements of the American elites on both sides of the political spectrum on their own tribe suffers a decisive defeat at the hands of regular Americans in the aftermath of Harvey. I am not optimistic. The disgraceful national media coverage of the natural disaster, with its bizarre focus on the First Lady’s footwear and barely concealed glee at the suffering of people who they perceive as their political opponents (though the counties affected went to Hillary), leaves little room for hope. These people are just too far gone. America’s tribal symbols, her symbols of shared fate through thick and thin are no longer their symbols; simply put, America is not their jam anymore. Perhaps regular Americans will just have to do without these so called elites; ignore them, isolate them, make them be the one thing they fear the most: irrelevant.
Image by Festival of Faiths