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: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Latino immigrants, transgender people, African-American teenagers, anyone at all from the Mid-East. Trump supporters.
But it is important, perhaps critical, to understand that whenever our attention settles upon one of these Others, we are attempting in our minds to describe, to convince ourselves of 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. Once, I imagine, we knew who we were because of positive things we could say about ourselves: we were the children of the gods; we were part of this land; we knew all the animals and the plants.
For thousands of years indigenous or so-called “primitive” people knew quite well that the soul (and the soul of a nation) matures by gradually coming to the awareness that the Other is simply a mirror onto ourselves. The ancient Greeks certainly knew this. Their word for “stranger” – xenos – the root of “xenophobia” – also meant “guest.”
But now we define ourselves by knowing that we are “not them.” And we are not them because they are (pick a few): violent, sexual, hateful, ignorant, 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.
We can trace “Othering” back to the 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.
For more background, see my essay, The Myth of Israeli Innocence, Parts One and Two. Also, two essays by Sheldon Richman: How the US Created Israel and a Whole Lot of Trouble and Depopulating Palestine, Dehumanizing the Palestinians.
One of Sand’s 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 the area. How could they? Almost all were poor farmers. Only the small number of rich elites went into exile. Romans or no Romans, the population remained quite stable for centuries, changing only in the twentieth century, and even then only after the Holocaust.
Another of his arguments, controversial, yet grounded in solid argument, 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) we cannot avoid a certain conclusion. Those hundreds of thousands of Jews didn’t leave and they didn’t disappear.
In the seventh century, when Muslim armies conquered the entire Middle East, these Jews and almost everyone else in the area were forcibly converted to Islam.
Thirteen centuries later, with that historical memory long forgotten, when Jewish Israelis (and most older American Jews) “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 Jewish Israelis (by the way, 20% of the population is Arab) are descendants of Eastern Europeans, 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.
Questioner: How are we to treat others?
Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.