Lately, perhaps more than at any other time in recent history, Americans find themselves in a full-blown epidemic of “othering.” We are obsessed with cataloging the qualities of those individuals and groups who appear to embody everything that we cannot accept about ourselves.
Pick one or more: Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Khadaffi, Latino immigrants, gay people, African-American teenagers, anyone at all from the Mid-East.
Whenever our attention settles upon one of these Others, we are attempting in our minds to describe the limits of our own identity. In “other” words, we are constantly listing the characteristics of these other individuals and groups to know that we are “not them,” and thus to know who “we” are.
This is how identity is formed and constantly reinforced in this modern, de-mythologized world. We know who we are because we know that we are “not them.” And we are not them because they are (pick a few): violent, sexual, prejudiced, lazy, immature, irrational, untrustworthy, overly rhythmic and/or primitive. Together, these traits represent the greatest of all sins to the White, Anglo-Saxon mind: the inability or unwillingness to repress or control one’s desires.
But many indigenous or so-called “primitive” people knew quite well that the soul (and the soul of a nation) grows by gradually coming to the awareness that the Other is simply a mirror onto ourselves. The ancient Greeks knew this. Their word for “stranger” – xenos – the root of “xenophobia” – also meant “guest.”
We can trace “Othering” back to the Biblical Old Testament, large sections of which are essentially narratives that forge Hebrew identity by distinguishing themselves from their neighbors.
With these mythic/historical roots of “Othering” in mind, we might consider an irony of the most massive proportions. The esteemed Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, author of the great book, The Invention of the Jewish People, has called into question many of the assumptions that Israelis (and by extension, all the rest of us) take for granted by way of knowing their history and identity.
One of his well-researched arguments is that, contrary to our long-held beliefs, the vast majority of Jews in first-century Palestine (several hundred thousand of them) were not expelled by the Romans after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. and did not leave. Another of his arguments is that most Eastern-European Jews cannot trace their ancestry to ancient Palestine. Indeed, most are the descendants of people who converted to Judaism in the ninth century.
Why do I bring these ideas to your attention? Very simply, because (if we accept his arguments) a certain conclusion is unavoidable. Those thousands of Jews didn’t leave and they didn’t disappear. In the seventhcentury, when Muslim armies conquered the entire Middle East, these Jews and almost everyone else in the area converted to Islam.
Thirteen centuries later, when Jewish Israelis (and most Americans) “know” who they are by seeing the Palestinians as the ultimate Other, they would be astonished to learn the truth: in this case, the Other is ourselves. Indeed, since most Israelis are not originally from the area, and the ancestors of most Palestinians may well have been Jewish themselves, we confront the great irony: the Other is maybe even more you than you think you are!