Friday, 28 November 2014

On the 'Jewish State' Bill, Rembrandt and Favouritism

Have a look at this

It’s Jacob blessing his grandchildren as depicted by Rembrandt


From a story in a couple of week’s

Jacob – whose young love we read about this week – is old, on his death bed.

And he calls his grandsons to bless them.

Joseph – the beloved and fav son looks on.

The story is that Jacob places his right hand – the hand that would traditionally be placed on the head of the firstborn, on the head of the younger grandson, Ephraim, and his left hand – the hand for the younger born onto the head of the firstborn, Menashe.

The Biblical narrative makes a big deal about this inverse act of blatant favouritism.


So this is how I read Rembrandt’s interpretation.

Jacob, the patriarch, is old, but firm. He knows exactly what he is doing.

Ephraim, the younger grandson is busy looking pious, he knows he’s the favourite and he’s playing up to the adoration he believes to be his natural due.

So far so obvious.

It’s the other three characters that interest me.

Menashe stares off to the side, rueful. He knows he’s not beloved. He knows he’s being passed over, and the thought that goes through my mind, is oh-oh – this one’s going to be trouble. He’s going to grow up with a chip on the shoulder. He’ll never forget what it is to be passed over and quite how he’ll behave to others – who knows, but it’s probably not going to be good.

Joseph looks on, the look is wistful, accepting but somehow rueful. Joseph knows exactly what being the favourite of Jacob means – it means the multicoloured coat and the blessings and a bunch of good stuff. But it also means the hatred of your siblings – a hatred that resulted in Joseph being left for dead, only to be sold into slavery. It means years of loneliness and loss. The blessing of being a favourite is a mixed blessing. No-one knows that better than Joseph.

And then there is Asnat – the Egyptian. The mother of both boys. It’s just sad. She’s watching a pattern of favouritism that has ripped apart the family of her in-laws for generations unfold into yet another generation. There is nothing she can do, she’s the outsider to this mail intergenerational unfolding of favouritism, but she knows the seeds of disaster being planted for the future.


It’s this intergenerational engagement with the question of favouritism that interests me this week. It’s a story that stretches back and a story that stretches forwards.

Last week we read of Jacob’s father who loved Esau more than Jacob, and we read of Jacob’s mother who loved Jacob more than Esau.

This week we read of Jacob’s marital situation. The bride he loves and the bride he doesn’t.

Last week’s story is populated with deceit and despair and concludes with Esau wanting to kill his brother.


This week’s story sets up the tsores – the rows and the pains of the future generation.

Leah, the non-favourite, conceives. She calls her firstborn Reuven – ki raah hashem b’onyie – for God has seen my pain. How’s that for a name. How’s he going to grow up.

And so it goes on.

Generation after generation.

Through the first and second Israeli Commonwealths, and now we get to this.


You may have caught this story in the news.

There is a new Bill before the Israeli Knesset, a bill, to enshrine the Jewish characteristic of the State of Israel.

The  proponents of the Bill say that it is required because the Jewish nature of the State of Israel is somehow under threat from those who are questioning the right of Jews to their homeland.

That claim, as the excellent Israeli commentator Anshell Pfeffer suggests in an article is, at best a ‘paranoia-induced illusion and at worst a bare-faced lie.’[1]


The Bill is dog-whistle politics. It’s a Bill designed to send two messages .

One to the Muslims, the Christians living under Israeli rule to watch their step, to know that they are only tolerated on sufferance. Don’t get too big for your boots, or in the words of the American civil rights movement – get to the back of the bus. Or in the image of that Rembrandt painting – I’m not laying my right hand on you. You are not the favourite.


And the other message is being sent to those, within, Israel who might be balancing up their obligations to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living under Israeli rule – ‘don’t care so much’ it says. Don’t side with those who will fight for the democratic rights of every person who lives in Israel. They are not important – lo choshuv – in the Charedi idiom. Their desires, rights and dreams are not your concern.


Even the President of the State of Israel – and Hazak Hazak President Rivlin – is alarmed.

Rivlin’s point is that no-one doubts that Israel is a Jewish state.

“It is a Jewish state because the majority of the population is Jewish, because the dominant language spoken is Hebrew, because most of the books published here are Hebrew books, and most of the songs sung here are Hebrew songs … But most important, because of the Law of Return which enables any Jew, anywhere in the world, seeking refuge or desiring to live in Israel, to come here and become a citizen of the country.”[2]

Of course Israel is a Jewish state.

So therefore, what should such a state do about its minorities, always assuming that such a state makes the claim to care for all of its inhabitants regardless of religion, regardless of race?

Rivlin’s point is that , and I quote , ‘the most important item on the nation’s agenda should be the integration [of Isarel’s non-Jewish minorities] into the fabric of Israeli society and their participation in the Israeli economy. Giving them the feeling of being at home, of being equal citizens.”


The unloved wife knows she is unloved.

The unloved sons know they are unloved.

The unloved grandson knows he is unloved.

Don’t rub it in.

Don’t go round lording your democratic power over a minority in their face.

It’s not, or not just, that doing so puts in danger your claim to being a democracy.

It’s not, or not just, that doing so opens you up to accusations of following such appalling political situations as those of apartheid South Africa, or even – God help us – Nazi Germany

It’s that rubbing in the favouritism is cruel, its pernicious, its counter-productive, its stupid.

It breeds an intergenerational discomfort that we know, as Jews, we know.


The Torah has it right.

The emphasis, when it comes to minorities, and let us not forget that in a society ruled by majority a minority is always going to be on the back foot,  has to be the warning now to offend the minority, not to oppress the minority, never to forget your own experience of being a minority.

Again and again the Torah bangs away on this stuff because of two reasons – the majority forget so quickly the experience of being unloved and unpowerful.

And because the minority, the unloved, is always so fragile.

Like Menashe in that painting, he knows exactly how he is seen and how he is to be cherished.

It’s pernicious.

It’s unethical,

It’s forbidden.

It’s wrong.

And if it doesn’t stop now, it will just unfold into the next generation and the next and the next.


Two things.

We need to be bold, in this country. I know we aren’t living there, but this is our story, this claim is being made in our names also. We need to make the case to our Israeli friends – and I recommend letting the Ambassador know your feelings.

And we should also take this message to heart in our own lives, in our own relationships with our own sense of who we love most and who we love least.

Play down the favouritism that may be in your heart, seek out opportunities to downplay and be balanced in treatment of all.

Because favouritism

Is pernicious.


forbidden and wrong.

And if it doesn’t stop now, it will just unfold into the next generation and the next and the next.

Shabbat shalom,







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