Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Ashkenazic-Centered Perspective

Elisheva's comment reminded me of something that used to be true, but I don't know if it still is. For good historical reasons, American Jews used to regard the words Christian and Gentile as interchangeable in everyday conversation. This is because the overwhelming majority of Jews were of Ashkenazic origin, from Europe. All European countries were at least nominally Christian of some sort, and the religious concerns of Christians tended to dominate the culture there.

Similarly, when Americans referred to Jews they meant Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, though most gentiles don't know that distinction. But even among those who knew that Sephardic (corrected: Oriental) Jews existed, or were aware of smaller communities in such diverse lands as Ethiopia and India, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, especially Central or Eastern Europe, were what they were thinking of when they thought of Jews. They were pretty much all that were here.

If you pressed them on the issue, both groups were aware that the generalization was sloppy and inaccurate , but everyday conversation is usually not taken up with such overprecision. I even recall two Jewish friends telling me that their own Jewish friends would sometimes look at them oddly when the consciously avoided saying "Christian" in conversation and used "gentile" instead. (One was a closet Buddhist, the other may have just learned to make the distinction for my sake.)

I thought this would slowly vanish, as everyone became more secular and everyone became more aware of the Middle-East. Yet I have no evidence that this has actually happened. Perhaps among younger Americans, both gentile and Jew, who are more used to friends having no religion at all, or a religion that is neither such as Islam or Hindu, this is changing. Also, both gentile and Jewish Americans have traveled to places other than Europe now, including Israel, Turkey, Egypt and other spots where there are Oriental Jews. Both factors would work to undermine the mental picture of Jewish=Ashkenazi and gentile=Christian. People my age might still keep the mental pictures and sloppy generalizations of our youth.

I have a couple of people I can ask about this, and I would appreciate if you all would as well.

Update: Don't neo-nazi groups use "Christian" in the same way, to mean "not Jewish?" Do they still do that? Fundamentalists are more likely to use it to mean "Not secular; you Jews are like, sort of okay."

11 comments:

njartist said...

Using the term gentile for non-Jewish and non-Christian peoples is an excellent: such would put an end to considering Nazi Germany as Christian or that it had Christian roots: it was a modern restoration of paganism; Theosophy was its driving religion.

As for the Ashkenazi, I remember vaguely from my reading years ago that Arthur Koestler wrote that the Ashkenazi, being, in truth, a converted pagan tribe, were not true Jews, i.e. not Hebrews. His conclusion was that the true Hebrews no longer exist. If this is partially true, that we can no longer tell who is the true Hebrew; then God who has declared that he will bring the House of Judah and the House of Israel back to their homeland; and as he is able to do as he speaks; He is going to bring people from out of the nations who never knew they were of Israel: they are truly hidden in the wilderness.

If one Googles the clause "modern Jewry is Edom," one finds that modern Jewry, this includes the Zionists, is descended from Esau as the Ashkenazi tribe mingled with the Edomites; and God has declared his permanent hatred of Esau. Further study determines that the Ashkenazi are descendants of Gomer (Genesis 10:3), not Shem: the Ashkenazi are not Semites. At the time of the tribal conversion, the king of the Ashkenazi knew exactly of whom they were descended.

I have come upon writing that declares the Zionists drove out the original Hebrew Jews when the former began to form the state of Israel.

It is quite a swirling mixture and difficult to disentangle.

Gringo said...

I always thought the term that Jewish people used to describe us was "goy," with "goyim" being the plural.

Which reminds me of a joke from high school. What's the W.S.S.P. Bible? Readers' Digest.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, no, it's not difficult to disentangle, nj. Those sorts of rumors of "not the real Hebrews" have been around for awhile, with only odd historical fragments to back them up.

Those are the real Jews we've got here. While it is true that everyone is more mixed than they admit, there is the interesting new bit of DNA evidence that the Cohen line among the Ashkenazi and the Sephardim both trace back to an original ancestor about 3000 years ago (+/- a lot), and are thus, pretty clearly related to each other. There is some genetic similarity of the Ashkenazi with a tribe from the Caucasus, but nowhere near enough to retreat from the position that European Jews are just that, Jews who migrated to Europe.

The Zionists who moved to Palestine thus had as valid a pedigree as the Jews living there, and anyway, bought property rather than "driving" people out. Be always suspicious. There remain Christians who really, really hope that they can find some reason that they don't have to like the Jews and be associated with them. While this prejudice originated in Europe, I think it is stronger in fringe Christian groups in America now.

Dr X said...

My Italian Catholic family (parents and grandparents generation) intermarried extensively with Jews. I have many Jewish relatives. When I was growing up, my parents had as many Jewish friends as Catholic friends, and I had two long-term relationships with Jewish women when I was younger. I rarely, if ever, heard Jews in my world use the word 'Christian' to describe non-Jews. Sometimes it was 'gentile' and more often 'goy,' in casual conversation.

Example (true story): famished girlfriend comes over after work, opens the freezer and sees my roommate's frozen waffles, Jimmy Dean sausages and frozen pizza rolls and exclaims loudly: "Yuk... goy food! Don't you have anything decent to eat around here?"

We, the Catholics, didn't even call ourselves 'Christians.' Yes, Catholics are Christians, but we always used the word Catholic to describe ourselves, which is typical of Catholics. We used the word Protestant to describe non-Catholic/non-Orthodox Christians. People who used the word 'Christian' to describe themselves were almost always Protestants.

This was in the New York City area (later, Chicago) where, I suspect, historically, most of the Jewish-'Christian' social contact and interfaith marriage was, for decades, with Catholics. For years, ethnics of all varieties mixed much more freely with other ethnics than we did with mainline Protestant, Northern Europeans. That has changed, but my point is that for the longest time the word 'Christian' was Protestant vocabulary, not much used by Jews or Catholics in everyday conversation--at least not in my experience.

Dr X said...

My Italian Catholic family (parents and grandparents generation) intermarried extensively with Jews. I have many Jewish relatives. When I was growing up, my parents had as many Jewish friends as Catholic friends, and I had two long-term relationships with Jewish women when I was younger. I rarely, if ever, heard Jews in my world use the word 'Christian' to describe non-Jews. Sometimes it was 'gentile' and more often 'goy,' in casual conversation.

Example (true story): famished girlfriend comes over after work, opens the freezer and sees my roommate's frozen waffles, Jimmy Dean sausages and frozen pizza rolls and exclaims loudly: "Yuk... goy food! Don't you have anything decent to eat around here?"

We, the Catholics, didn't even call ourselves 'Christians.' Yes, Catholics are Christians, but we always used the word Catholic to describe ourselves, which is typical of Catholics. We used the word Protestant to describe non-Catholic/non-Orthodox Christians. People who used the word 'Christian' to describe themselves were almost always Protestants.

This was in the New York City area (later, Chicago) where, I suspect, historically, most of the Jewish-'Christian' social contact and interfaith marriage was, for decades, with Catholics. For years, ethnics of all varieties mixed much more freely with other ethnics than we did with mainline Protestant, Northern Europeans. That has changed, but my point is that for the longest time the word 'Christian' was Protestant vocabulary, not much used by Jews or Catholics in everyday conversation--at least not in my experience.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hmm. There are some problems with this. First, the Sephardim also lived in Europe--and spoke Ladino--a form of old Catillian and Hebrew. They were the people who were expelled from Spain by the most Catholic Isabella and Ferdinand during the Reconquista. Although the Sephardim did live with Islam during the golden age of Spain, those Jews who lived only under Islam in the Middle East are not Sephardim--they are often called "Oriental" or "Eastern" Jews, though this is not the "Orient" as westerners now think of it. The Sephardim have a western heritage and they suffered under Christianity also. During the Inquisition, they migrated to Italy, the Balkans and Caucasus, and Greece (as well as North Africa and India). They were killed by the millions in the Nazi Holocaust.

Secondly, as one commentor says, the Ashkenazi tend to refer to non-Jews as "goyim" or "goy" for short, at least among themselves. Goy can have derisive undertones, but the Hebrew meaning is simple "nation". The Jews I am familiar with tend to avoid the word Christian, unless we are discussing the religion and its sects. I am not sure why.

Thirdly, njartist is simply wrong historically on several counts. The Ashkenazim were already established in the Rhineland prior to the conversion of that tribe in western Asia of which he speaks. Also, as the Assistant Village Idiot pointed out, the genetic evidnce is compelling. My husband is a Levite; and a cheek swab related him to Levites going back to pre-Christian times in the Middle East. njartist should read "Abraham's Children" which is a popularization describing all the genetic work that has been done.

Finally, I dispute njartist's assertion that Christianity per se had nothing to with the Holocaust. This is simply incorrect. Although it is true that the Nazis were involved in a quasi-pagan revival, the vast majority of people who carried out the genocide were Christians, whether secular or religious. The secular, race-based antisemitism of the 19th and 20th century had its roots in Christian anti-Judaism. That the Holocaust was indeed a betrayal of certain Christian values is undeniable, but it was carried out by Christians in the heart of Christendom, and was sanctioned by some Christian leaders. Others, to their credit, opposed it. Extreme Christian Nationalism, such as that of the Arrow Cross of Hungary fit it quite well with the Nazi doctrine, and in fact the Arrow Cross party was responsiblity for the deaths of almost all Hungarian Jews during WWII. The Arrow Cross had the sanction of the Hungarian Catholic Church. There are evil Christians and the political structure of Christianity can enhance that evil, just as with any other human institution.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Elisheva, I stand corrected on the Sephardim. Am I correct that not many came to America?

I would take your word, and Dr. X's that the word Christian is not used as the equivalent - except that you do it yourself in that very comment when discussing historical prejudice. (paragraph 4). To a Christian, the phrase "secular Christian" has no meaning. It is a contradiction in terms.

You do make what I am sure you think is a nice attempt to be evenhanded, recognising that there were exceptions in the antisemitism of Christians of Europe (and elsewhere). But I think you paint the equivalence much too strongly. By one definition of "being Christian," most of Europe indeed was for many centuries. Rulers told subjects what religion they were, and everyone worshiped in that fashion. Most people would also self-identify as Christians. Those two things together do indeed count for a lot. Yet I would contend that Christianity was never as universal in Europe as advertised. Customs we now lightly call superstitions were in fact the old religions persisting for centuries, not at the fringes, but at the heart of holidays, weddings, funerals, births, medicine, agriculture - everything. The fundamentalist obsession with the pagan roots of many religious customs is founded on good fact, even if it is a bit overdrawn in this day and age when the pagan and Christian are both watered down.

I don't think you will find a person in a hundred who will now look at European history that way. Those people said they were all Christians, and we look no deeper. I maintain nonetheless that Europe was never fully Christian - not merely in the trivial sense that none lived up to the teachings, but in the fuller sense that other religions held considerable sway over the minds of the people. The monasteries did not consider the areas around them to be Christian, but still largely pagan.

For this reason I question your straight line from Nazi to historic Christian antisemitism. If you fear you are writing to people who are attempting to deny any responsibility of Christians for the persecutions, I understand your desire to be emphatic. But I don't think such people are common, just noisy. I have never met one in my 56 years, though I have read their writings (as above).

The Arrow Cross, for example, claimed to be pro-Catholic and drew many communicants of that faith. But they killed priests and nuns, were quite open in their restoration of Magyar paganism, and did not have the official backing of the church. Cardinal Serendi was in fact one of their opponents and victims.

Please do not think I am implying something more dramatic but merely saying it softly. If you suspect that, you might use the search feature of the site and see what I have written about Jews and the Holocaust in the past. But I think you make the common error of assuming a pretty exact equivalence that is unwarranted.

For the record, given their village of origin, I strongly suspect that my Romanian son's grandparents were persecutors of Jews.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

AVI: You're not going to like this much, but I do not apologize for being frank. It is time to cut through the evasions.

For the record, there is a strong connection between medieval and modern Christian anti-Judaism and the race-based anti-Semitism of the Nazis that suceeded it.
Scholars of history do not even debate this. Rather they discuss and debate about how the transition occured.

When I hear or read Christians claiming that Christianity had no responsibility for the Holocaust, the pograms or the Crusades, what I hear is an evasion. It is an evasion of the fact that Christianity in multiple forms has the capacity to be as brutal as any other human institution,. In fact, as you so rightly mentioned, it was Christians who forced conversion on the pagans and they Christianized a good deal of Europe by the sword. It was Christians, goaded on by their churches, who burned pagans as witches, and outlawed the very pagan rituals that were the antecedents of many Christian holidays and rituals. These are simply historical facts.

Particularly in Europe, it was Christians, not pagans, who were responsible for the Code of Justinian, the massacres of Jews during the Crusades, and the ghetto laws. Many of the Nazi race laws had cognates in that aforementioned code. It was a Christian law promulgated in the name of Jesus, the Jewish founder of your religion. I doubt he would have approved.

It is true that American Christianity is different. The religion that was most persecuted here was a Christian one, Roman Catholicism, not Judaism. And even that persecution was mild compared to Europe's long history of religious violence. Nevertheless, it is instructive.

I have heard the excuse from Christians many times that "those people" who did X evil deed (whether it was murder Jews in the name of Christ or sexually abuse children in the rectory) "weren't really Christians". I suppose Christians can define their way out of their discomfort with the actions of their coreligionists, but from the outside this looks ridiculously like an evasion of the truth. I think the more (excuse the effrontry of the outsider here) Christian behavior would be to acknowledge the reality of history and make sure that Christian institutions repent of the ideas that led to the religious bloodshed in Europe.

I've always thought it was the most delicious of ironies to be told by an earnest, well-meaning American Christian who has no knowlege of Jewish history, that I am the one who must repent or go to hell. And then, in almost the same breath, be told with the same earnest quality, "we just love the Jews." I am always tempted to say, "Why don't you convert your own people? Your "love" has been creating a hell on earth for us for centuries." But that would be a waste of good pearls.

Finally, the above is a judgment about the institutions of Christianity as they have acted historically; not about individual Christians. I don't think too many Jews in the US see their Christian neighbors as Jew-hating Nazis. I know I don't.

What I do think about American Christians is that they are hopelessly naive about their own history, or that of the Jews they seek to convert. And that naivety, combined with a refusal to admit that Christianity's institutions, as well as individual Christians, are capable of great evil is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Then there is the matter of the concocted history of the likes of njartist, who basically says that the Ashkenazim are not "really" Jews and therefore have no right to defend themselves in Eretz Yisrael.

In his book, Podhoretz makes the comment that Jews are the only people who are required by others to justify the space they take up on earth. In njartist's comment I see that, in spades.

I don't think much of it.
In my old age I am becoming less and less enamored with the American emphasis on being "nice."
I'd much rather practice righteousness. And part of that is being truthful about history.

Does not your scripture say something about removing the beam from your own eye first?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Elisheva, if you wish frankness, then you should first read my comment as written, not as you imagine it. I made every effort not to say that Christians bore no responsibility, but to offer a modification. If you missed that, I cannot trust that you read and understood what else I wrote. You have answered what you believe Christians usually say, not what I wrote.

I thought I had also been polite. After the good start of the discussion, I would have expected a bit more benefit of the doubt. You mention multiple forms of Christianity, yet lump them all together, as if each must of necessity be responsible for the actions of the others. If one group consciously disassociates itself from other Christian groups, that is not enough? They are still required to abase themselves before you at each pass or you will not relent? You bring up events from not merely centuries but over a thousand years ago. You fairly spit when discussing American evangelicals trying to tell you what they have learned about God, assigning the popular caricature to them.

Put your own words into the mouths of Serbs and Croats - either way - and see how they sound.

Tell me how your attitude differs functionally from "You persecuted my people. I hate you forever. Your religion is hateful and ugly." It sounds rather like, er, evangelism for the ideas of your religion, but keeping the individuals at a distance.

You may read my related posts, Perhaps they will infuriate you more. Nonetheless, I press on.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

AVI: Yes, your comment that there is no direct connection between the Christian history of Europe and the modern anti-semitism did make me angry. It sounds very much like the kind of refusal to face the fact of human evil that seems to plague American liberal views.

And I do think it is dangerous to ignore one's own history, especially those parts that we are the most ashamed of. These are the parts that we each must deal with. No I am not personally responsible for the plight of innocent Lebanese civilians, but it would be dishonest of me to claim that some of my people in the name of our mutual religion did not act evilly towards them. And if I did deny it, how could I ever expect to have an honest and productive realtionship with, say, Lebanese Druse or Christians?

I did not say that your religion is hateful and ugly. What I said is that there is a hateful and ugly historical aspect to it, and that the ignorance or denial of that history is a large reason why Jews, among others, don't want to play ball with Envangelicals on issues of mutual concern. And that ignorance or denial sounds a good deal like evasion. Now if instead of claiming that Christianity had no direct effect upon European anti-Semitism, Evangelicals said clearly that they have separated themselves from that aspect of European tradition, then they would get a much more respectful hearing from many Jews. After all, there is a 40 year experience of dialogue between Jews and Catholics based on the Church's disavowal of the anti-Judaism that was present in that Church until the 1960s.

It is hard to trust someone who comes from a tradition that has continually pulled the football out from under the punt (like Lucy does to Charlie Brown), and yet who denies that it ever happened. Or blames it on Lucy's evil twin.

So Jews have great difficulty trusting evangelicals, mostly because Evangelicals are ignorant of Jewish history in Europe, and for that matter, as you yourself pointed out, of Christian history in Europe. At least, in my more charitable moments, I like to think it is ignorance. Denial and evasion are ever so much worse.

I did say that American Christianity is different, however, it too has a history of the persecution of American Indians (did you know about the Indian Schools? Living in the Western US, we are all acutely aware of this history; this is one reason why the indigenous people here generally distrust Europeans) and of other Christians, particularly the Catholics. In your latest post, you talk about "persuasion", but unfortunately, the history shows force as well, though not on the scale of Europe. (cont.)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

(Cont.)
With respect to my encounters with evangelizers, they were real and not made up. They are not stereotypes. It is really difficult to feel anything but contempt for a person who first consigns me and my people to eternal punishment by the Eternal precisely because we have kept the covenant, and then to hear that he really "loves" us. Especially when the conversation is uninvited. Remember, that Jews have no hell, and never in her right mind would a Jew presume to demand that G-d consign a Christian to any punishment at all simply because he is faithful to the Christian Covenant.

Lastly, I never said: "I hate you forever." What I did say, in so many words, is that I see certain Christian ideas as a threat to my wellbeing. And I have good, historical reasons to do so. So I do say, "I don't trust you." And here the "you" refers to the historically ignorant Evangelical who does not care to understand who I am before trying to tell me about G-d.

However, the Jewish concept of forgiveness hinges on the acknowledgement and repentence from evil, and when we have done evil, it is our responsibility to go to the person we have harmed and say so, and lay out for them how we intend to repent of it. Even the great and awesome Day of Atonement does not atone, as the Talmud teaches:
"For sins against G-d, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins of one person against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone."

When Christians practice forms of evasion about the responsibility of their institutions for the deaths of millions of Jews, many in modern times, then it sounds a good deal like there is no change in those beliefs about us, and that gives Jews reason to not only distrust those Christian institutions, but also to refuse them forgiveness. (There is also the technical question of whether living Jews other than the few survivors who are left, can actually forgive those institutions since they were not harmed; those who were harmed are dead and thus cannot forgive).

Do I hold you personally responsible for the murder of millions of Jews over the last 2,000 years. No.
I doubt that you would ever kill an innocent person.

But I do insist that certain Christian institutions and certain Christian characterizations of Jews perpetuated by those institutions will inevitably lead to the same end again and again, as they have throughout European history.

And, speaking strictly for myself, and as a Jew, I find little reason to trust an Evangelical with my life, if he insists that he, being a Christian, knows the mind and intentions of G-d, and thus can so confidently assign me and my people to eternal punishment. That kind of claim sounds like the arrogance of idolatry to me.

I don't insist that you accept my ideas. It is, still, a free country. I am only pointing out an unwelcome truth to you. That this is the reason that the majority of Jews are unwilling to spend much time in the company of Evangelicals.

To refuse to recognize the demons plaguing your own house is dangerous to those of us who dwell nearby. Prudence dictates that your neighbors act accordingly, and keep you at arms length. That is what Jews are doing when they choose not to work with Evangelicals on issues of mutual interest. And, really, who are you to say that they should? Or that it is bad for them if they do not?

From a personal perspective, it is far more important for me to maintain my ties with the Jewish community, because it is they, and not you, who will be there for me when the next crunch comes.

(And it may be very soon indeed, when Imadinnerjacket--may his name be erased- of Iran gets the ICBM and nuclear capacity to wipe Israel off the map. I am sure that the UN will then find a way to blame that on the rest of Jewry as well.)

We will either live or die together, and in our experience the world will not much care, one way or another, about it.