A recent, fascinating article in the New York Times focused on the growing divisions between Israeli and American Jews. The differences between them are real, and the implications of those differences for American foreign policy and Middle East peace deserve examination–but I took a somewhat different lesson from the “schism” being scrutinized.
That lesson has two parts: national cultures matter, and stereotypes rest on a profound misunderstanding of the relative influences of biology and culture.
It isn’t only bigots who ascribe certain behaviors to discrete groups of people; even folks who would never impose a quota or paint a swastika on a synagogue wall often stereotype marginalized groups, believing that all Jews–or gays, or blacks, or “Polacks” or other identifiable populations– have particular, inborn characteristics. How many times have you heard someone refer to a minority group as “those people”?
To the extent that minority groups do have observable “markers” of attitude or behavior, those characteristics are almost always the result of history and culture rather than genetic traits. (In an echo of the old nature/nurture debate, it’s hard to disentangle, for example, the emphasis Jews have placed on education from a history that highlighted the value of an asset you could take with you when the powers-that-be confiscated your property and ran you out of the country.)
Marginalized groups develop coping mechanisms that observers often assume are inborn characteristics of “those people.”
Jews who live in Israel, where they are the majority, occupy a very different culture than we American Jews. The threats they face from hostile countries on their borders, the requirement that almost everyone serve in the military, and the theocratic elements of Israel’s governance combine to provide an environment that is dramatically different from the environment experienced by American Jews.
It shouldn’t surprise us that different national cultures shape different perspectives and behaviors, even among people who share a long history. Scholars tell us that the worldviews of the cultures into which we are socialized are enormously consequential.
The truth of the matter is that all groups composed of “those people” are the products of a specific history, time and place. Any group of people who shared that particular history, time and place would be likely to exhibit similar behaviors and attitudes.
Stereotypes are based upon the assumption that certain identifiable groups are monolithic, that all of its members have recognizable, inherited similarities.
The differences that have emerged between Israeli and American Jews should remind us that humans are a mixture of genetics and culture–of nature and nurture–and efforts to cram our differences into silos marked “those people”–or simply “us” and “them”–aren’t simply pernicious.
They’re wildly inaccurate.