Judaism and the loneliness of being an “other”

Ben Kepes 25 October 2023

I’m an incredibly proud New Zealander. I relish the fact that I was born and grew up in the most beautiful place in the world. I love the fact that, while we have a long way to go when it comes to righting the colonial wrongs, we embrace our indigenous population. I like to use the little Māori language I have since it honours the fact that Māori is one of our official languages. I’m stoked that the passport I hold is one of the most valuable on earth.

So, yes, I love my country and its people. But I am also Jewish. And like most Jews around the world, the events of a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about my place in the world.

It probably helps to give a bit of context. The Jewish people have existed for thousands of years. For most of that time, they had no country of their own and hence have lived across the four corners of the earth. Every year during the Passover festival, Jews for thousands of years have been saying “Next year in Jerusalem” with no real hope or expectation of that being possible.

And so, we have overwhelmingly been “an other.” Guests in other countries at the mercy of our hosts and neighbours. Maybe tolerated, maybe assimilated, maybe the butt of jokes but still, at some level, an other. Now I absolutely get that this sounds dramatic – I’m a relatively successful individual and have been lucky enough to achieve a bunch of things here in New Zealand. But there is something that non-Jews find hard to understand, and that is that, given the arc of time, our welcome wherever we are has historically always run out.

From the Neo-Babylonian Empire in which the First Jewish temple was destroyed, to the Roman Empire which effectively destroyed the Second. From the Black Death Persecutions to the 1066 Granada Massacre and on to the Massacre of 1391 in Spain. From the many Pogroms in the Russian Empire to the tenets of Nazism prior to and during World War II, there has always been an event that breaks our comfortable co-habitation.

Jews have a shared memory, engrained into our DNA, that comes from the collective trauma of thousands of years of persecution. Quite literally, Jews are painfully aware that, for us, a significant proportion of the world wants to kill us. For sure, here in New Zealand I’m lucky that no one is actually trying to do it to me. But every few generations, some group or others decide that the world would be better off without us.

Every year at Passover we remind ourselves and each other of this fact, reciting the words that:

In every generation, they rise up against us to annihilate us

For us, this isn’t just a religious tradition, it is an articulation of the fact that we have lived as a people.

So every Holocaust Memorial Day, when we (and others) say “Never Again,” we don’t say it as a matter of fact, but rather as a matter of hope. A hope that truly feels a little naive. October 7th showed us that our paranoia isn’t naivete, but rather a reaction to our shared reality.

We have all grown up hearing the jokes (and non-jokes) about the Elders of Zion, the mythical half dozen or so Jews who run the world’s financial systems. We’ve laughed along as people use the literal name of our religion as shorthand for someone who is miserly. We’ve even tried not to grimace when people make jokes about the Holocaust (yes, that one about Hitler sending us the Gas bill hurts viscerally.)

October 7th, while sad and shocking, is the millennia-long reality for us. And it is because of this shared trauma that the pain we all feel about what happened that day isn’t some kind of dissociated and intellectual pain about suffering from distant people, rather it is the pain about suffering that our own family faced.

There are only 15 million Jews in the world and so most of us know someone whose family member or neighbour was killed or taken hostage. But even for those who don’t have this direct connection, these are our own family members we’re talking about. Jews have always felt a part of a tribe. A tribe that has huge variances within it and pretty existential differences of opinion, but a tribe nonetheless. The old saying goes that three Jews will have five opinions – it’s largely true. I might get angry about the arrogant Israeli bus driver who is rude and obnoxious, but he’s still my brother.

And so it’s important for readers who don’t know much about the Middle Eastern conflict and what has led to it, to understand our reality outside of the current situation. It is absolutely right and appropriate for people to show concern about the plight of the Palestinians, and hope for peace in the region. But to do so without a parallel empathy for how we, as Jews, are suffering is ignorant at best, and cruel at worst.

We hear random liberal commentators opining that the Hamas terrorist attacks were simply an act of de-colonisation and an attempt to regain autonomy. We hear that and very quickly remember that the very first line of the Hamas charter suggests that until all Israel is annihilated, its job will not be done. For Jews, that isn’t simply a charter, it is a clear message that a group wishes every single one of us dead.

And that is a wish that we’ve been facing as a people since the dawn of time.