A Belgian’s Tale of an Encounter with Jews Betrays Incomprehension and Bigotry Lurking Beneath Empathy

July 12 2021

In 1987, J.S. Margot, then a student at Antwerp University, got a job as a tutor for the four children of a family of devout Jews, and remained in contact with the family even after her six-year-long tutoring stint came to an end. Margot draws on this encounter in her award-winning memoir Mazel Tov: The Story of My Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family, which has recently been translated into English, and several other languages. Liam Hoare finds the book “artfully” written, but lacking in the “empathy” for which it has praised:

This is a book that is neither about a friendship in any real sense of the word nor demonstrative of the author having learned much from the Schneider family at all. Rather, Mazel Tov is a memoir about Margot’s ignorance of the Modern Orthodox world—which very occasionally manifests as low-level anti-Semitism—and ultimate failure to comprehend it.

She takes in the whats and wherefores of Judaism but is never quite able to grasp the why: why someone would wish to be Modern Orthodox and live a life according to the strictures of traditional Jewish law. To be “empathetic” . . . would be to come to terms with those things about Orthodoxy with which she disagrees. Instead, her tendency is to fight against the possibility of comprehension, each new piece of information provoking a cacophony of objections, often phrased as rhetorical questions.

[Such questions include], “Who, apart from the whites in South Africa, sought to protect their identity by isolating themselves? How self-righteous—or fearful—would you have to be for that?” [And:] “It wasn’t so long ago that Germany and its cohorts had viewed this tight-knit people as public enemy number one. Yet now, not 50 years later, they still wanted to isolate themselves?”

Margot also has a habit of bringing up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in contexts where it doesn’t quite belong, using it as a cudgel with which to beat the Schneiders as if they bear responsibility for Palestinian statelessness. It would not have been [the fault of Elzira, the daughter with whom Margot becomes closest], for example, that while she was studying in Jerusalem, her rights differed from those of a Palestinian living in the same city, or indeed, in the West Bank. Yet Margot—who had been corresponding with her—wonders if she was being “tactful or hypocritical” not to point out that Elzira had “overlooked the Palestinian population” in her letters.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Anti-Semitism, Belgium, European Jewry, Modern Orthodoxy

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship