The Idiocy Of The Isms…

Okay–I guess the time for mulling over relatively abstract issues of political philosophy has passed.

I really haven’t wanted to comment on the eruptions of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, or the wars currently raging in Ukraine or Gaza, because, after all, what can I add? That Russia’s incursion is inconsistent with global order and international law? That failure to help Ukraine would undermine democracy and stability around the world? That there are no unblemished “good guys” in the history of the Middle East? That there are deep divisions of opinion and politics within both the Israeli and Palestinian populations? That none of that is an excuse for the slaughter of innocent people attending a music festival?

That rain is wet…?

What I suppose I will never understand is the widespread tendency to believe that people who share a race or religion or ethnicity are all alike. (I think that’s the definition of bigotry.)

Like most members of the Indianapolis Jewish community, I get emails from our local Jewish organizations. I recently received one that began as follows:

Ruba Awni Almaghtheh drove her vehicle into a building in a residential neighborhood at 3500 N Keystone Av, Indianapolis. This building is identified as belonging to and representing a sect of the Black Hebrew Israelites (designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), with a semblance of a star of David on the front door. Based on this signage and “Hebrew Israelite” wording, it is believed Almaghtheh thought the building to represent Israel in some way, specifically citing the Hebrew Israelite symbol on the door. The woman was immediately taken into custody. Coordination with local and federal law enforcement continues.

I can’t help thinking that this incident displays –indeed, highlights–everything that’s wrong with bigots. Stupidity, of course, (in this case amplified by the perpetrator’s evident inability to accurately identify her target) but especially the stupidity of blaming an entire group of people for actions of some of them with which you disagree.

The incident just underlines the idiocy of racism and bigotry.

If an Arab kid stole your bike when you were young, would you grow up assuming that all Arabs are thieves? If you saw one woman faint at the sight of blood, would you conclude that no women could be surgeons?

Questions like these ought to answer themselves.

What intellectual deficit or personality flaw causes someone to conclude that all members of a defined group are alike, that any misbehavior by any one of them reflects characteristics and behaviors common to all of them–and that animus toward the entire group is thus justifiable?

(That lack of uniformity works both ways: Jews have received a wildly disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, but believe me, that doesn’t mean all Jews are smart…)

My mother used to say that the only thing two Jews could agree on was what a third should be donating to charity. She wasn’t far wrong–we’re a disputatious lot. So are Black people. So are Muslims, women, LGBTQ folks…

Humans are individuals.

Anyone who has been following the political turmoil in Israel knows that Israelis are deeply divided over the policies of the Netanyahu government, and deeply conflicted over the proper approach to Gaza and to the Palestinians. Anyone who has been following the internal politics of the American Jewish community knows that those divisions are equally sharp here. (As recently as July, for example, the Guardian reported on Jewish groups demonstrating against the Israeli settlements policy.)

The current increases in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents, along with the stubborn persistence of American racism, act as uncomfortable reminders that we humans are deeply and inappropriately tribal–that we apparently have a very dangerous need to see the world in shades of “us” and “them,” and to see “them” as a monolithic, undifferentiated whole.

I don’t know what deep-seated tribal hatred convinced Ruba Awni Almaghtheh that she should ram her car into a building she presumed was occupied by “them,” or what she thought such vandalism would accomplish (other than wrecking her car).  I do know that expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and the like are the antithesis of civilized behavior, and that our current global unrest is largely due to politicians like Trump and Putin who encourage and legitimate the latent and not-so-latent bigotries of not-very-bright people.

One of the most laudable aspects of the American legal system is that it is a system that is intended to ignore the question of identity. In America, who you are isn’t supposed to matter–what does matter is how you behave. Not how your clan or tribe behaves, but how you, individually, behave.

Bigotry isn’t just stupid. It’s anti-American.


  1. I wish everyone started their day at Honestly. The human race might then become civilized after 200,000 years of failed attempts.

    Does that make coming here to start the day a religion

  2. Gaza and Ukraine? There are over 20 other shooting wars going on around the world. This to Pete’s point … and his irony.

    Do we want to support Israel? Okay. All Biden has to do is back Hamas and the Republicans will fall all over themselves to fund Israel. Ukraine? Same… except that Putin owns the Republican narrative too. Pathetic.

    This is our political situation when you have one major party relishing their circular firing squad operation. Take Tommy Tuberville – PLEASE! How does anyone so stupid, craven and bigoted ever get elected to the Senate in 2023. Oh. Right. Alabama. Does that state send his mail to his home in Florida? Even Tuberville won’t live in Alabama.

  3. Vernon, you’re right, it’s a political mess here and now.

    My assumption right now is to take the risk of assuming Republicans are in free fall. Manchin is the risk in third party. Wish I could see the future.

    That said, Biden/Harris ought to support Democracy and humanitarian relief.

    I don’t see how either is possible in the Middle East. That has been an impossible to untie knot since I was born in 1942. The only progress since is we don’t need their oil. That will be the main issue liberals will have with Manchin.

    It’s simply not the right time in history for anything but bold and courageous.

  4. Israel is in desperate need of a common proximate enemy to sustain unity. Israel? … Palestine? … a country without a constitution at war with a constitution without a country. Both need to fully articulate sovereignty within internationally accepted convention of boundaries. Then both will need to learn to live within themselves peacefully without needing each other as common enemies. America is now demonstrating an established constitution is no guarantee of national unity, but it is a common instrument that defines basis for civil debate.

  5. Pain, Shiela…pain can cause irrational behavior.
    Perhaps it is not always a defect in character.
    ‘Isms’ and ‘ishes’, primitive carryovers for for many. Extended families on steroids.
    Clans and clubs… common bonding rituals and common enemies and allies.
    Seeing the bonding of so many who join together with others and then become a larger collective that calls on a deeper human trait that calls upon an innate trait that is beyond imposed identities… beyond the clan identities that must be taught or imposed by others to be experienced.
    The collective sense of urgency that drives humans to act spontaneously with mo regard for the binding identities that are superimposed at birth but not before.
    The irrational actions may be driven by the same internal forces, instincts that we observed the doe display to protect ‘Bambi’.
    For good or for evil… that instinctual function gone rogue.
    Fear and pain can be driving forces that may have overridden Ruba’s sense of reason.

  6. But how do you separate Israel’s retaliations from Hamas and Russian slaughters? The deaths of the innocents is increasing daily and the identified target is still active and holding hostages. Before Ukraine’s President Zelinsky was elected Vice President Biden was among the allies withholding aid from Ukraine till the corruption was addressed an removed from within their government. Maybe now is the time to use the same tactic till Israel reorders their current slaughter of Palestinians. This war, among all of the on-going wars in Europe and the middle east, is going to play a major part in the outcome of the United States’ presidential election in 2024; in fact, it will play a big part in the outcome of the spring Primary and is currently aiding Trump’s rise in donations and power. Unless and until the Judicial system actually convicts him of the many crimes the world has watched him commit for decades and which turned Americans against one another within families and neighborhoods, we are in danger of another Civil War. We are nearing an internal slaughter of more innocents here at home. Who will/can we turn to for aid when that happens?

  7. There is MUCH history here that I didn’t know…in the midst of reading “The Guarded Gate” about US immigration policy and its tie to the global eugenics “science” movement.

  8. Isms are not the way to a lasting peace, anywhere. Being part of a tribe can feel comforting, but, then, e everyone else is “other.”
    Bumper sticker: “The Hippies Were right:” Love and acceptance, non-violence, without judgment.

  9. Even if there is an immediate and permanent cease fire tomorrow, how will either side ever be able to forgive the other for what they have done to each others children? And how will the rest of the world ever be able to trust either side?

  10. This is one of your best columns ever, Sheila. Every line is apt and true. And the clarity is exemplary. Thank you!

  11. This is a tragedy with roots going back thousands of years. By believing themselves to be God’s chosen people, early Jews pretty much guaranteed that everyone else would view them as “other.” Their persecution strengthened their determination to maintain their religious identity which increased their persecution which strengthened their determination and on and on. The rest is history, with the hatred of Jews getting more and more virulent over time as they became the convenient people to blame for every problem, the people to exploit by others for greed and power.
    Christians, Muslims, Jews, all “people of the book” who should have mutual respect but somehow have wound up slaughtering each other. Such is the result of religious dogma.

  12. Netanyahu seems to want to join the ranks of world leader who never have to worry about their re-election. These include Putin, Xi, Kim, Orban, and Khamenei (yes I know Khamenei is a religious leader and his only worry about an election is which of his puppets gets to pretend to be in charge). Imagine having a dinner party with that group?

    After WWI, when the European powers were carving up the Middle East, they didn’t listen to the one person with knowledge of the area and its people, T. E. Lawrence. If they had, we might not have the absolute s…show we have today. I know there wasn’t any provision for Israel in that plan, but it might have been easier for an Israeli settlement for the European Jews to come into being, naturally.

  13. Kudos Theresa; and a cease fire now or returning to full scale war, neither side will ever “get even” for the continuing terrorism on both sides.

  14. Jews were the “Chosen” to heal the world. Is this healing?

    From today’s Guardian: “Inside a darkened operating theatre in Gaza’s largest hospital complex, staff swaddled dozens of tiny premature babies seven or eight to a bed, in a desperate effort to keep the infants warm – and alive.

    With no oxygen supplies or power for incubators, nurses attempted to provide what care they could for 39 babies who were transferred from the neonatal unit in another part of the sprawling complex after a strike on Dar al-Shifa’s intensive care unit.”

    Maybe it is time to “update” Judaism with some form of excommunication. A candidate sits as the “ruler” of Israel.

  15. Rachel’s Prequal (which I am now perusing) was not a necessary reminder of the near loss of our democracy to fascism during the Thirties. It was during the Thirties that I would occasionally go to the movies (10 cents until FDR imposed a “luxury tax” of 10 percent and then 11 cents – outrageous!). The movies in those days were preceded by what was called Movietone News, and more than once while watching this prelude to the movie I saw Nazis in full swastika and communists in full hammer and sickle regalia marching in New York City. As a kid in the middle of a mind-numbing depression I didn’t pay much attention to what I was seeing because I knew nothing of what was going on in the world, and as one of three sons of a coal miner with no work I numbered among those in my little coal mining town in southern Indiana who when asked about the three greatest men in the world answered: John L. Lewis (president of the United Mine Workers Union), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Jesus Christ – and in that order. That was our “ism,” since eating was necessary to have a soul to “save” in the order of things. We were pragmatists.

    I now know that depressions create a polity more open to fascism since during such downturns they come to view their existing ism as not working and can be brought to view another ism as the answer to their woes. German and Soviet propaganda during that era sought to undermine our very fragile economic situation and very nearly succeeded.

    Isms based on tribal connections and historical hatred of the “others” find their way into the social structure today as racism, rich-poor, and other medieval anti-democratic sociological standards, and trouble is that, based on human history since the Agricultural Revolution began in present day Iraq, if we somehow conquer such hatreds we will find new grounds for hatred of others per the famous “blue eyes” experiment in how we can stoke hatred for those who have blue eyes.

    So what to do? How can we root out causes for hatred and blame for our own shortcomings? I haven’t the faintest and must leave the solution to sociologists, if there is a solution. Meanwhile, I am left with the wisdom of my old World Politics professor, who refused to label us as homo sapiens, instead insisting that we be called “homo saps.” I think the professor may have been on to something, and that perhaps since we brought isms into this world we can also rid ourselves of them, as in “Physician, heal thyself.” Perhaps. . .

  16. Organized religion is at the root of much of the evil in this world. From the beginning of time men have used religion to acquire power and control over people.

    Without considering the territory/country boundary lines that ruling kings created many centuries ago, I believe world peace might be less elusive if we weren’t able to also divide ourselves into religious tribes.

  17. From today’s Guardian:

    “Antisemitism is rarely placed within a catalogue of European racism that encompassed colonialism and slavery, with each distinct and particular racism influencing the other. We have lost the lens of intellectuals in the postwar period, who excavated the connections between racism, colonialism and antisemitism. The political theorist Hannah Arendt, among others, argued that the racist violence of European colonialism in Africa both shaped and paved the way for the hateful Nazi antisemitism, premised on racial hierarchy, that led to the unique horrors of the Holocaust. After visiting the Warsaw ghetto in 1949, the African-American civil rights giant WEB Du Bois wrote that the experience gave him “a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilisation was going to triumph and broaden in the world”.

    Meanwhile, the common leftist view of Israel’s origins as colonial is borne out by the nation’s founding fathers describing it in these terms, while the Palestinians already living in that land experienced it as such in forced expulsions and dispossession. That same expansionist logic, one that violently displaces Palestinians, continues to this day in the illegal Jewish settlements network beyond Israel’s internationally recognised borders and into the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

    But this obscures the thing that propelled so many European Jews into Palestine in the first place: centuries of endless European antisemitism culminating in the Holocaust. There would be no Jewish national project in Israel had there been no deadly antisemitism racing across Europe at that time. The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said expressed this duality in Israel’s formation by describing Palestinians as “victims of victims, the refugees of the refugees”.

    We can add to that the experiences of Jews who had lived in Arab countries for millennia, with no reason to leave, yet ended up as the socioeconomically disadvantaged majority Jewish population in Israel. Mostly free of the pogroms that were a feature of Christian Europe, these communities were uprooted by a pincer of competing forces: Jewish nationalism in Israel and the Arab nationalisms of countries such as Iraq, trying to shake off the yoke of British imperialism.”

  18. I was not going to comment today, but with Fox News worthy comments from people I respect leads me to believe that massive misinformation pervades.

    Sharon – while it is comforting to blame the Jews for their problems, let me ask you. If a Christian minister says “I received the call”, or something similar, are their being arrogant? The Jews claim that they were “chosen” to tell the world that there is one god, no more and no less. There is no special status. There is the old joke:
    Jew: God, is it true that we are the chosen people.
    God: Yes.
    Jew: Would you mind choosing someone else for a change.
    Perhaps fear that there might be something special about a Bronze Age people still existing is a source of antisemitism, but there is nothing special, or “superior” about the Jews, and we understand that.

    Peggy – sorry. T. E. Lawrence was a friend of Chaim Weizmann, and had a favorable opinion of Zionism (the “national liberation movement” of the Jewish people). You are correct about the culprits. Lawrence brokered a deal between Weizmann and Faisal to support each other’s aspiration for Arabs and Jews all having homelands. The French and English, in the Sykes-Picot agreement, scuttled that.
    Also, contrary to what young Palestinians are taught, Jews are more genetically related to each other that to the non-Jewish population where they lived. Their closest genetic relatives – the Palestinian Arabs. It is a shame that neither side seems to understand that. Also, before the influx of Jews from Russia in the 1970s and 1980s, Israel’s Jewish population was majority non-European Jews, being refugees (and their children) from Middle Eastern and North African countries.

    Anecdote – 1968 – Michigan campus at pro-Palestinian rally. Argument between younger man and middle-aged man. The younger man was Palestinian and said that his family had lost huge amounts of land in 1948. The middle-aged man pulled out a cancelled Egyptian passport and a picture that he said was the factory he had owned in Egypt until the government seized it. His comment. “I will help you get your family’s land back if you help me get my factory back.” That sort of ended the conversation. There are issues on both sides.

    I will end with my hopeful thought. Some year, there will be peace. I will not come from politicians or even from protesters. It will come through food and music, univerals that bring people together.

  19. Len. I didn’t call anyone arrogant or assign blame to Jews. I just described what I believe has been a cycle of events that have a long history wherein each side became more entrenched. Blame can certainly be assigned to all who have made Jews the target of their hatred and taken advantage of their vulnerability, but I see the underlying cause being religious dogma. I understand your point but I think you read something into my comments that I did not intend. War is always a tragedy and religious wars are so intractable precisely because they are based on dogma.

  20. Lester, if you are being serious, “Chosen” by whom? A mythical being? Apparently, the ancient Hebrews labeled themselves as “chosen.

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