What a gentile can learn from a Jewish joke

Sheena McDonald minority stratagems
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The Independent Online
Tired of domestic Sturm und Drang? Why not see how your neighbours manage things.

In Alabama this month, the courts outlawed Christian prayers in schools. The protests have been noisy and embittered. The Antichrist is abroad insists the fundamentalist Christian Coalition. The ruling is a rallying point for extremists, who frame their propaganda as defying an unreasonable assault on the freedom to worship, but whose spiritual forefathers deployed the rack and flame. TV screens are filled with images of children praying in public, while their parents lament their inability to do so in school.

Alan Dershovitz, the renowned Harvard law professor, scents trouble. Favour the majority in as explosive an arena as religion, and you sow the seeds for downgrading, distancing, expelling, exiling the minority - and reaping the dragon-toothed lawlessness of terrorism. Concocted problems encourage dangerous solutions. And his family, along with millions of others around the world, know directly how cataclysmic a "solution" can be.

"We Jews made up 4 per cent of the population [in the US] 10 years ago. By the end of the decade we'll be 2 per cent. Early in the new millennium, we'll make up just 1 per cent. And we think we can afford to be divided amongst ourselves?"

Dershovitz, epitomised to the point of caricature as the fast talkin', high earnin', self-promotin' liberal celebrity New York lawyer, is addressing a gathering of New Yorkers, assembled in a vast airy Upper West Side synagogue to hear him debate what it means to be Jewish, with another bright, shining star of East Coast intellectual Jewry, David Mamet.

Dershovitz, now helping out the defence team on the Woodward appeal, in addition to his regular workload, plus 13 pro-bono cases ("I never turn down a capital case - never!") is doing nothing on this November afternoon to dilute his coast-to-coast notoriety for overstepping the mark. "Two Jews sitting in a cafe in Vienna in 1938 - one's reading his community paper, he sees his friend reading the vilest anti-Semitic rag in the city. `Why are you reading that trash?' `It makes me feel better about myself. Your paper - all you read is what we lost, how we failed, how we're repressed. This paper - it says the Jews run everything! The banks, big business, international trade ...'"

I blench, but I'm beguiled. My neighbours laugh. It's what they came for. As the tussle between liberal and orthodox wings for the heart of Jewry takes hold on both sides of the Atlantic, the community's public figures find their utterances pored over for oracular significance. Jokes define and position as much as affirmations of faith.

The two men are now taking questions, and the majority are pitched at Dershovitz, who has stolen the show with his pace and wit. Mamet, so true on the page, stage and screen in his authentic reproduction of the numberless inarticulate dialects of North America, turns out to be endearingly hesitant in his very own. Dershovitz, in contrast, has not only a considered answer for each point; he gift-wraps it with jokes, one-liners and parables.

Dershovitz broadcasts his own kind of assimilation. I, a lone Gentile in this congregation, a minority within a minority, think he means, honour your own beliefs and be secure enough in them to respect others' differences, the better to promote their respect for yours. And I'm comfortable with that, I think. Raised within the faith of the majority, I have always smiled tolerantly on the "rest", I feel comfortable enough here today, distanced from the dispute that occupies this assembly.

So why is this liberal dealing in ethnographic statistics? What kind of racial protectionism has invaded the philosophy of this man who asserts that "the moment you convert to Judaism, you were at Sinai - you were always a Jew"? I thought for a moment he might be advocating quotas and ideal proportions in a city whose schools cater for the needs of the young speakers of over a hundred native tongues. But in fact he is warning against the stockade mentality that envelops much of America. He has confidence that no matter how small his minority, it can still make positive contributions to the larger society.

He might, I realise, have quoted another notorious Jew from times past, but not even his chutzpah runs to ironically invoking the challenge issued in another great temple in a disputed land: "Render unto Caesar ..." The message is ancient, but new-minted daily in the US. Do not confuse faith and state. That way lies institutionalised intolerance and the seeds of self-destruction. And demonstrating and practising division within your own faith weakens it, as surely as the extremists hope to strengthen it.

But back home, this is a message that seems inadequate to the challenges of the Old World. Around the Mediterranean, administrations have become tainted with the violence of extremism they failed to quench. Indulging certain minorities has not created broad, tolerant churches.

And in the eerily clean streets of cosmopolitan Upper Manhattan, mysteriously cleansed of panhandlers and bums by mayor Giuliani's Republican guard, there is a misleading sense of well-being that makes rueful mockery of Dershovitz's witty warnings.

I want to ask him whether he would unquestionably defend an avowed anti- Semite on a charge of race-motivated murder. But, a minority within a minority, I am dumb.

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