Supposedly, I have a column dedicated primarily to the effects of modern technology on human behavior. And, in truth, one could say that even my most recent columns have had an implicit connection to this topic. The Israel Hamas War generates an incredibly overstimulating tension-pocket of noise, smoke, and crowding of people, both soldiers and refugees. A war with this intensity definitely has the capacity to pull countries and territories out of the paralyzing numbness of a cold peace. Israel and the Palestinians should know about this with all the other wars in which they have engaged. And all the acts of violence that the Palestinians have perpetrated against the Israelis. And, increasingly, the acts of violence that the West Bank Israeli settlers have perpetrated against the West Bank Palestinians.
But now that the Israel Hamas War has gone on for a month, a different kind of act of violence has emerged as a result of this conflict. All the different violent protests that have been generated by Palestinian sympathizers all over the world. In the United States, what has been particularly shocking and appalling has been the violent protests that have emerged on elite college campuses like Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and Penn. These are universities where a large portion of the students are Jewish, a large portion of the faculty is Jewish and, very important, a large portion of the donors are Jewish.
Universities are supposed to be bastions of reason. And yet they are becoming backdrops in the U.S for some incredibly barbaric manifestations of aggression against Jews. Jews are being harassed and beaten up in what can be described as a form of overstimulating abrasive tension-pocket violence. In addition to these acts of violence, there has been another very painful form of sensory distortion with which Jews have had to deal. And that is the lack of reaction, the numbing silence of so many other people right after the events of October 7 occurred. College presidents, in particular of Ivy League and other high-prestige universities, said nothing until prodded into doing the right thing. But by then it was too late. If one has to be prodded into expressing outrage for a massacre that resulted in the worse loss of Jewish life in an act of violence since the Holocaust, then, at that point, whatever one does is not going to be taken very seriously. The phrase “crocodile tears” comes to mind.
As it is said in Jewish tradition, the Jews are definitely a people apart. Particularly in the diaspora, just when it seems that Jews are finally going to be fully accepted as a minority in a non-Jewish society, something comes along to totally disrupt the grounding upon which this connection is supposed to be based. During the Golden Age of Spain, Jews were everything from successful businessmen to philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and poets. And then the Inquisition came along. And German Jews never had the slightest doubt that they were fully German until everything collapsed on them. And now perhaps something similar is happening in the United States. If it is dangerous for Jewish students to attend classes in prestigious American universities, then is it going to be dangerous pretty soon for Jews to live their lives outside of the universities? Or maybe it will just devolve pretty soon into a cold peace between Jews and non-Jewish Americans in the same way that Israelis and Arabs have related to each other in the Middle East.
If the Jews are to be considered a people apart, then we can say that they experienced experiential vacuums long before modern technology put everyone else in such a state of being. Until modern times, Jews had to live in experiential vacuums of ghettos and shtetls. They were places where Jews were forced to live in a kind of collective social isolation. In the case of ghettos, they were also isolated from nature. This isolation must have been very disorienting. Each community was like a collective figure floating in a vacuum. There was little social or physical grounding connecting them with the outside gentile world. The only meaningful grounding for them was to be found in books: in the Torah and the Talmud and other religious books that grounded them in their religion. These books acted as a surrogate physical grounding and as a template that allowed for social bonding between Jews.
Today, many American Jews experience themselves in a situation similar to pre-Hitler Germany. That is, they derive much of their social grounding from their larger American social environment. One can only hope that the sensory distortion occurring from modern antisemitism does not become dangerously worse than it is now.