I have often written, sometimes bemused, sometimes incensed, about what is surely the strangest fact of Jewish life, namely, its self-division. Since time immemorial, the Jewish people have been at war with themselves, both in the Holy Land and the Diaspora, allowing themselves to succumb to one of history’s most mordant ironies. In turning against themselves, they have effectively collaborated with those who would suppress, conquer or extinguish the Jewish community.
The template was already established in the Book of Genesis, where we read how one brother slew another in jealousy and resentment and a group of conspiratorial brothers sold their sibling into slavery. From that point on, the biblical archive presents a saga of recrimination, envy, hatred and fratricidal strife that in different degrees has imperiled the very survival of the Jewish “nation.” The pattern was consolidated in the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, the three rebels who “rose up” before Moses and challenged his authority. As the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen these people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people” (Exodus 32:9).
Brother against brother, prophet against people, king and priest, and even nation against nation form an indelible part of the Jewish chronicle. The history of the Two Kingdoms provides a continuingly relevant object lesson. After the death of King Solomon, the Israelite communality broke apart into the two warring monarchies of Israel and Judah. The shedding of kinship blood critically weakened the two kingdoms, leading to the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians and the reduction of Judah first by the Chaldeans, then by the Egyptians, and finally by the Babylonians. The Jewish epic may be described as: divide and be conquered. Indeed, surah 59:14 of the Koran tells us something very true about Jews: “There is much hostility between them: their hearts are divided…” It seems that the wise counsel of Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah has no resonance for the backsliders: “All of Israel and those who are joined to it are to each other like brothers. If brother shows no compassion to brother, who will show compassion to him?”