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November 23, 2014 | 1st Kislev 5775

Jewish Identity/Israeli Identity

Galilee Diary #466, November 18, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

       Take your son," - "Which son?"
       "Your only son," - "Each is the only son of his mother."
       "The one you love," - "I love them both."
       "Isaac."
       -Midrash Genesis Rabbah 39, on Genesis 22:2

The other day I observed a Bible class in the regional high school at Kibbutz Sasa, in a gorgeous setting in the mountains of the Upper Galilee. This is a relatively small high school (about 350) and serves a number of non-Orthodox communities in the region. The classes tend to be small; there were only about 15 ninth graders in the lesson I visited, but the levels of interest and knowledge were pretty heterogeneous: there were some kids (mostly boys) who sat slumped in their seats and seemed to be working at demonstrating how uninvolved they were (one boy either fell asleep or pretended to do so, forcing the teacher to wake him up), while others participated actively, answering and asking questions as the teacher reviewed with them the dramatic narrative of Abraham's almost-sacrifice of Isaac. The teacher was dynamic and energetic, and worked at trying to get the students to think about the problematic nature of this story.

The above description would be unremarkable, probably typical of many classrooms in Israel, except for the fact that most of the students in the room were not Jewish. Among the communities served by this regional school is Reichaniya, one of the two Circassian villages in Israel (I wrote about the Circassians a few years ago when I met the imam of Reichaniya). The Circassians, from the Caucasus region near the Caspian Sea, were expelled by the Russians who conquered their territory in 1864. First moving west into the Balkans, they then dispersed, with many ending up settling in the Middle East; thus, these non-Arab Moslems arrived in Palestine in the late 19th century just when Zionist settlement in the area was getting started. While they shared the same religion as most of the local population, they were culturally (and linguistically) distinct, and were seen by the local Arabs as European interlopers just like the Jews. Thus, they represent still another small minority in Israel who are not really part of any of the major population groups - they speak their own language, and work at keeping their own distinct culture alive (music, dance, food, and a rather remarkable marriage custom in which the groom "kidnaps" the bride). They serve in the Israeli army, and since their village is too small for a high school, and since they do not feel part of the Arab minority, the teens from Reichaniya attend the Sasa high school where they are a significant presence in a small school.

In the class I observed, one girl was wearing a hijab (head scarf); the others were dressed in jeans like all the Jewish students - indeed, there was no way to tell them apart by dress or accent or behavior or physical characteristics; some even had names that gave no clue about their ethnic identity. In an attempt to connect/respect these kids, the teacher brought in a photocopied page from the Quran containing the story of the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son (who is not specified by name in the Quran), but no comparative discussion really developed. The kids did not seem to be particularly knowledgeable about or interested in their own tradition, and were, apparently, mostly concerned with learning what they need to know about the Bible for their matriculation exams.

Israel is of course a Jewish state, but that doesn't mean that all Israelis are Jews. The Circassians are an interesting case study because they don't share the identity - or the various dilemmas - that characterize the situation of the Arab citizens of the state. In a way their situation parallels that of Jews in western democracies - their challenge is purely ethnic and religious, not national or nationalistic: the struggle to keep their identity alive while being integrated into majority culture. It will be interesting to see what these Israeli Moslems' lives and identities will be like a generation from now...

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