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Misconceptions about Jews die hard

Published Saturday, August 28, 1999, 
in the San Jose Mercury News

Misconceptions about Jews die hard

Dispelling false beliefs about Jews

BY LAURA BERNELL Special to the Mercury News

When I was growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., none of our
neighbors was Jewish, and most were indifferent to or
respectful of my Jewishness. Only the red-haired kids up the
street who went to the Catholic school were mean. They
chased my siblings and me down the street, throwing rocks
and yelling, "Christ-killers! Christ-killers."

Being 7 or 8, I figured they were just the neighborhood
bullies. But when Pope John XXIII officially exonerated the
world's Jews -- past, present and future -- from crucifying
Jesus, my parents transmitted their sense of relief to me,
so I charged up the street, confident that I could
roller-skate in peace. To my surprise, the kids up the
street still chased and threw rocks at me, yelling

A 2,000-year-old myth dies hard.

Since I began teaching Jewish-American literature seven
years ago, I've come to realize there is a deeply entrenched
pattern of myths among Christians about Judaism. My students
who believe these myths seem like good people. But the myths
continue to spawn and foster convoluted rationalizations for
hateful sentiments about -- and actions against -- Jewish
people. These myths are so entrenched that, reading this,
some of you may find you thought these myths were real and
see nothing wrong with them.

They are not true. And there is a great deal wrong with
them. They make Judaism out to be a punitive, cold, unloving
religion, and its people judgmental and lacking compassion.
Nothing could be further from the Judaism I grew up with,
identify with and teach my children.

There are five fallacies about Judaism I've noticed among
students and, sorry to say, some non-Jewish associates and
colleagues. My response to these might be considered that of
an average U.S. Jew -- neither terribly observant nor overly
assimilated. Just your average run-of-the-mill Jewish

MYTH 1: The Jewish God is wrathful and punitive.

My Response: I learned very early that the Hebrew words for
compassion and mercy are also names and attributes of God.
In fact, the Torah begins and ends with acts of God's loving
kindness. The rabbis point out, "At the beginning of the
Torah, God clothes Adam, and at its end, He buries Moses."

The hardest Jewish idea to get across to my students is that
a person and God have a direct relationship that involves
discussion, argument, negotiation, promises, disappointments
and forgiveness. Moses didn't always like what God asked of
him. They made deals and struck compromises. If God created
man in the image of God, then man and God share some
attributes. Man's a little bit divine, and God's a little
bit human. This means that I am a partner with God in
repairing a broken world.

Myth 2: Judaism consists of a legalistic code of law.

In "The Merchant of Venice," it becomes evident that the
Bard works this myth into his story. At first my students
buy into it: "All Shylock cares about is the letter of the
law." But later, when the Christians turn the tables on
Shylock and make him the defendant, my students start to
observe how mercy is relentlessly withheld from the
merchant. Not until Shylock denounces his daughter, his
dowry, his means of livelihood and finally his very identity
(he is forced to convert) do the Christians relent. "No one
shows any mercy in this play," one of my students wrote.

My Response: Judaism contains a code of ethical behavior.
This code asks, to give just one example, that the farmer
leave part of his crop for the widow and the orphan.
Whatever the fruits of our labor, we are required to reserve
some for the less fortunate. Thus, generosity is not a
matter of choice. It's a matter of Jewish law. Better to be
generous out of obligation than not to be generous at all.

Myth 3: The precept of love is omitted from the Hebrew

Again and again I have heard from well-meaning Christian
students that Jesus brought love into the Old Testament,
which somehow left love out.

My Response: The Christian maxim to love thy neighbor is
preceded by the Hebrew maxim to "love the stranger as
yourself," which is repeated 36 times throughout the Five
Books of Moses (see, for instance, Leviticus 19:34.) Many of
my students are surprised to learn that this maxim comes
from the Old Testament.

Myth 4: The Hebrew Scripture in itself is incomplete and had
to be finished by the New Testament.

Christian students who study the Bible tell me it consists
of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The New
Testament "corrected" or "completed" the Old Testament,
they say.

My Response: That is Christian nomenclature. What Christians
call the Old Testament, Jews call the Hebrew Scripture, the
Five Books of Moses, the Torah.

The Torah is unified and complete. The commentaries of the
rabbis, contained in the later writings known as the Talmud,
provide detailed explanations of the Torah. But those
writings don't complete the Torah; nor do the Christian

Myth 5: Persecution of Jews began and ended with Nazi

My response: I wish this myth were true. But it's definitely
not. In 1096, Crusaders murdered more than a quarter of the
entire Jewish population in the part of Europe now occupied
by France and Germany. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council,
called by Pope Innocent III, decreed that Jews should wear a
"badge of shame." That came centuries before the Nazis'
Yellow Star. And, of course, there's been a lot of
anti-Semitism since World War II.

OK. So these are the myths. So what? What's the point of
trying to budge something immutable as a myth? Even the pope
had a hard time doing that.

It seems to me that all normal human beings need to believe
they are reasonable and decent. So even the most hateful
individuals distort what they believe to be true, or use
what is already distorted, to support their hatred and
convince themselves that they are reasonable and decent.

We have to dispel myths that can be used to rationalize
hateful acts because rather than throwing rocks at Jewish
children, now an American anti-Semite has aimed automatic
gunfire at Jewish children.


Laura Bernell of Campbell teaches English courses at San
Jose State University and West Valley College, and has
developed and taught Jewish-American literature modules for
seven years.

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