Saturday, March 24, 2012

Ingroups, outgroups, and out of bounds / Pesach

Peter Beinart, in his 3/18/2012 New York Times op-ed calls for a bizarre response to the insidious anti-Israel B.D.S. (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) movement: his very own version of B.D.S! His, of course, is morally superior. Curiously, it’s predicated on the notion that the West Bank (which he sanctimoniously wishes to rename “nondemocratic Israel”) is part of Israel, which has never been the case, with the exception of East Jerusalem. Has Beinart not heard that the Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank in cooperation with Israeli security forces -- yes cooperation -- with its headquarters in Ramallah? Has he not heard that trade and commerce between the West Bank and Israel are thriving? (He should visit Jenin on a Sunday to see all the Israeli shoppers flocking to its markets.) Would Beinart like to dismantle all the Israeli-Palestinian co-existence organizations that do not adhere strictly to his definition of the “green line” (yes, he has his own definition)? Are we surprised that Beinart places all the blame at Israel’s feet and nowhere mentions Palestinian terrorism, or intransigence and refusal to come to the bargaining table, let alone legitimate Israeli security needs? Rather than considering history -- or the future for that matter! -- Beinart is stuck in an eternal present defined by his “ingroup” and his perception of the “outgroup,” combined with a mammoth dose of “Jewish guilt” that goes something like this: Jews should never be in the position of having power over anyone else. Maybe celebrating Pesach will remind him what happens when Jews are utterly powerless.

If you ever spent any time on the playground in third grade, or in the cafeteria in seventh grade -- places where those who hold the reins of power are easy to discern -- you already know a great deal about social identity theory even if you don’t know the fancy lingo that accompanies this field of social psychology pioneered by Henri Trajfel. We humans have a proclivity to form “ingroups” (people with whom we identify and toward whom we have an affinity) and “outgroups” (who are often the subject of our contempt, opposition, and with whom we feel ourselves to be in competition). This all-too-human proclivity breeds prejudices, cronyism and collective narcissism.

Social identity theorists tell us, however, that our individual attitudes and behavior are not determined solely by our “ingroup.” Rather they lie along a continuum between interpersonal behavior and intergroup behavior. In simpler terms: I’m not an automaton of my social group; I choose my attitudes and opinions depending upon how I value and privilege my individual relationships and my membership in a social grouping.

Perhaps the most striking example is one I heard from a man whose family had had been saved by a Christian family during the Holocaust. His elderly grandmother went to the park each day and sat on a bench with another elderly woman, a Christian lady. That’s it. That’s the whole Torah. Here is the commentary: Each day these two old women sat together for an hour talking about their children and grandchildren. They did not visit one another's homes. Their families never met or socialized. Yet these daily conversations imbued the Christian woman with a deep sense that this Jew was a human being in “her world” about whom she cared. At her insistence, the Christian woman’s family saved the Jewish family. The individual relationship trumped membership in a social grouping -- all because two elderly women sat together for an hour each day on a park bench.

This Shabbat we pause in the cycle of Torah readings for the special reading designated for the first day of Pesach. Exodus 12:21-51 recounts the Tenth Plague, from the selection of lambs and gathering of hyssop to dip in the blood and smear on the lintels, to the horrifying account of the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt: “their” children die, but “our” children do not. The ultimate powerless people will be avenged from heaven. From the outset, Moses reminds the people earlier in chapter 12 that what they are doing in crisis mode at that moment, will set the stage for a yearly national remembrance of their redemption. What they do then to protect themselves from the Angel of Death they will repeat and incorporate into a series of practices designed to teach the next generation (and in every generation, the intent is to teach “the next generation”) of God’s capacity for redemption.
This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time…You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time… (Exodus 12: 16, 17)
So far, we presume that Moses is addressing the Israelites. But wait:
No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger (ger) or a citizen (ezrach) of the country. (Exodus 12:19)
And further in the same chapter:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the passover offering: No foreigner (ben neikhar) shall eat of it. But any slave (eved ish) a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. No bound (toshav) or hired laborer (sakhir) shall eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel (adat Yisrael) shall offer it. If a stranger (ger) who dwells with you would offer the passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall be as a citizen of the country (ezrach ha-aretz). But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. There shall be one law (torah achat) for the citizen (ezrach) and for the stranger (ger) who dwells among you. (Exodus 12:43-49)
Torah both acknowledges “ingroups” and “outgroups” but seeks to teach that the boundaries are permeable. People are not “other” if their intent is peaceful and they live their lives with you as neighbors and friends. All rights of citizenship apply to the ger (the resident alien) as much as to any Jew. Torah teaches us that our view should be mediated by how people behavior toward us: are they good friends and neighbors, or do they treat us as the enemy. Our arms and minds should be open, our boundaries permeable.

Peter Beinart seems to have missed this lesson. His “outgroup” is demarcated by the Green Line -- a line on a map that he fails to understand was an armistice line (a cease-fire line) and never intended to be a permanent border. In his propensity to ignore history in favor ideology, Beinart has ossified it, as he has calcified his views of what a Jewish nation is. So a quick review:

The 1949 Israel-Egyptian agreement specifically states: "The Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary, and is delineated without prejudice to rights, claims and positions of either Party to the Armistice as regards ultimate settlement of the Palestine question." The Jordanian-Israeli agreement is similar.

Prof. Stephen M Schwebel who, in 1967 was deputy legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State, wrote in the American Journal of International Law (1970) that "...modifications of the 1949 armistice lines among those States within former Palestinian territory are lawful (if not necessarily desirable), whether those modifications are... 'insubstantial alterations required for mutual security' or more substantial alterations -- such as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem." In a footnote, he wrote: "It should be added that the armistice agreements of 1949 expressly preserved the territorial claims of all parties and did not purport to establish definitive boundaries between them."

We all want to see a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It will only be achieved when we can look beyond "ingroups" and "outgroups" and see human beings with legitimate rights, needs, and aspirations.

Oh, and by the way, you might find it interesting to know that Henri Trajfel, the British social psychologist who pioneered social identity theory was born Mersz Mordche in 1919 in Poland. Facing restrictions placed on Jews seeking education, he left Poland to study chemistry at the Sorbonne. When World War II broke out, he volunteered to serve in the French army. Within a year, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and rode out the rest of the war in a series of POW camps. At the end of the war, Trajfel learned that his entire family and most of his friends in Poland had been murdered by the Nazis. He dedicated the remainder of his life to studying the psychology and interplay of bigotry and intergroup relations.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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