Wednesday, April 24, 2019


The IDF wished its Christian, Druze, and Jewish soldiers a happy holiday this week. Which is fine. Israel is, after all, a democracy, and we have soldiers of various religions serving side by side. But I did wonder why the graphic showing the Jewish symbol associated with Passover, a matzoh, was situated at the lowest point of the three symbols depicted. After all, the IDF is an army that represents the Jewish State.

I’m sure no harm was meant. Quite the opposite. That holiday greeting was an exercise in democracy, showing Israel’s tolerance for people of different faiths. The point of juxtaposing the symbols in that manner was perhaps to show that Israel is humble—that we don’t need to see Judaism as superior to other religions. Only different.
Whether or not we agree with this idea, it is important for Jews to remember and absorb the lessons of Jewish history. In Ottoman times, it was prohibited for Jews to build homes higher than those of Muslims. Four important Jerusalem Old City synagogues, in fact, were built below street level as a result of this prohibition. Officials had to be bribed before the Hurva synagogue could be renovated during the early 1700s, because it was to be built higher than before.
The issue of height was not exclusive to the Turks, to buildings, or even to Jews. It was the practice wherever there was Islamic rule that those who were not Muslim be subject to humiliation. Often, humiliation was expressed through lowering the height of Infidels as compared to Muslims. This meant that, for instance, Jews and Christians could not ride horses.
It was regarded as a grave offense for a dhimmi to ride upon a noble animal, such as a camel or a horse. . . In 1697, a Frenchman visiting Cairo noticed that Christians could ride only donkeys and had to dismount when passing distinguished Muslims, “for a Christian must only appear before a Muslim in a humiliating position.” Till the beginning of the twentieth century, in Yemen and in the rural areas of Morocco, Libya, Iraq, and Persia, a Jew had to dismount from his donkey when passing a Muslim. An oversight authorized a Muslim to throw him to the ground. A Spaniard, Domingo Badia y Leblich, who traveled in North Africa and the Orient between 1803 and 1807, and who wrote under the name of Ali Bey, related that no Jew or Christian in Damascus was even allowed to ride a mule inside the town. In Yemen, the prohibition on riding horses remained in force till 1948, as well as a rule obliging the Jewish dhimmis to ride donkeys sidesaddle. (Bat Ye’or. The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996)
The lowering of the Infidel in Muslim lands was a pervasive practice enshrined by law. Humiliation, as a precept, was extended to walking as well as to speech. Eyes had to be lowered, doorways, too.
In some legal opinions (fatwas), jurists required dhimmis to walk with lowered eyes when passing to the left—the impure side—of Muslims, who were encouraged to push them aside. In the presence of a Muslim, the dhimmi had to remain standing in a humble and respectful attitude, only speaking in a low voice when given permission. Jews and Christians were humiliated and maltreated in the streets of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed till the middle of the nineteenth century. Travelers to the Maghreb and Yemen mention similar customs even later; in the early twentieth century Nahum Slousch observed at Bu Zein, in the Jabal Gharian (Libya), that it was customary for Arab children to throw stones at Jewish passersby.
In Persia and Yemen, at the beginning of the twentieth century, foreigners noticed the low doors that forced the dhimmis—as an additional humiliation—either to stoop or knock their heads when entering their own homes . . . At certain periods, the Jews of Bukhara . . . had to crouch in their shops so that only their heads and not their bodies were visible to their Muslim clients, a practice reminiscent of the obligation for Jews and Christians in fourteenth-century Damascus to keep the threshold of their shops below street level so that they would always appear in an inferior position before a Muslim. (Bat Ye’or, Ibid.)
In the book Miriam's Song: The Story of Miriam Peretz, Miriam Peretz tells how, as a little girl in Casablanca, she was running an errand for her mother, and as she came up to the counter, several Muslim children entered the store and the storekeeper waited on all of them before her. It was just the way things were in Muslim countries, even in the mid-twentieth century. Their money may have been as green as anyone else’s, but Jews were always secondary to Muslims in Muslim countries. It appears it was not, in fact, “all about the Benjamins, Baby.”
Jews and Christians had to be lower than Muslims, both figuratively and literally. Muslims were always first, higher, and ahead of anyone else: ahead of people with differing beliefs. And of course, the Jews were the lowest of the low and had to walk in the gutter to be lower than Muslims, identify themselves with different clothing, and wear bells and/or silly hats to announce their offensive presence to Muslims.
This history of humiliation is a part of who we Jews are today as a people. The historic practice of Muslims humiliating Jews is, in fact, one of the reasons it is so important we have our own state: a place where we can live life with basic human dignity, as people with the same rights as any other people in any other place.
But in Israel, the Jewish part is supposed to come first.
Hence, in Israel, we are not bombarded with television specials designed for children with a Christmas theme. Our holiday is Chanuka.
It is not that we are saying that Christmas doesn’t exist, or that Chanuka is better. It is that Israel is the Jewish State, where Jewish practice is primary.
Other people are welcome to live alongside us, rather than below us in humiliating fashion, but we must insist on the central Jewish character of the State of Israel, or we imperil what it means to us as Jews who for so long had to live subservient to other cultures, marked inferior due to our religious beliefs.
This being the case, where should the IDF graphic artist have rightfully placed that matzoh symbol? On top, showing that in the Jewish State, Judaism reigns supreme? At the same level, implying equality? Or at bottom, because after all, humility is also a trait of decency and tolerance.
It’s a toughie, all right. And I don’t envy that graphic artist’s dilemma: how to depict all the symbols so no one gets upset. As such, the artist chose to put the Jewish symbol at the bottom, thinking: the Jew won’t mind. It isn’t the locus of the symbol that matters, but the holiday itself.
There is no doubt the graphic artist serving the IDF meant to show Israel as a democracy, a place where all people have complete freedom of religion, and can live in equality and harmony.
What that holiday greeting suggested, however, is that our stateless wanderings of the past have affected our current collective psyche. We are used to being humbled, used to letting others go ahead of us, used to letting others climb on top. But now that we have our own state, things are supposed to be different.
Menachem Begin knew this, felt it when, in 1982, he said to then Senator Joe Biden, who had threatened to cut off U.S. aid to Israel, “I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”
That is the spirit that is missing from that graphic. The spirit that rebels at the idea of being Jews with trembling knees. But it’s better that we find out now. It’s better that we know the nature of the work that lies ahead. That IDF holiday tweet tells us that our IDF soldiers (including those who serve as graphic artists) need to have a much better grounding in Jewish history. That is if they are to be the first line of defense for the Jewish character of the Jewish people in the Jewish State of Israel.

UPDATE: As reader Dovid Levine noted, I originally said the IDF holiday greeting mentions Jewish soldiers, last. I have updated to correct the error.


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