Marx, Robert. “The People in Between: The Paradox of Jewish Interstitiality”, Cover to Cover Publishing, 2014.
The Interstitial Jews
I humbly and honestly admit that before I read this book I had never seen the word “interstitiality” so I am that much wiser now. Robert Marx, the author, tells us that interstitiality in terms of Jews is “the understanding that Jews occupy unique roles between large segments of society, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, Protestant and Catholic, Christian and Muslim, black and white”. It seems that when Marx was at Yale working on his doctorate in social philosophy, he developed the idea of an intermediary role of the Jews. This role places them “in between” and the entire history of Judaism is about interstitial analysis. Because of the Diaspora and Judaism’s relations to Christianity and Islam, it invites an analysis that is interstitial. It would be extremely interesting to quiz Jews in all locations to see how they react to being classified as interstitial.
It all goes back to anti-Semitism that Marx says cannot be understood just by explaining the designs of evil tyrants and dictators. The hatred of Jews is the most diagnosed and least treated or dealt with of all social diseases. This is because anti-Semitism cannot be understood by just examining the perpetrators whether they be tyrants, dictators or just people on the street. Many have found that hatred for Jews is a very useful tool with powerful social force. It does involve just the victim and/or the perpetrator in transparent ways. The suggestion that Jews, themselves, are involved in the offenses that they have to endure does not blame the victim but it gives us a key to understand the dynamic force of anti-Semitism in which both Jews and their discriminators are engaged in some terrible macabre interaction that can be indeed fatal.
Jews are interstitial which means that they are part of a larger social tapestry in which they many times become victims of conflict and tensions that they either do not understand or have no control over. If we study how individual Jews as well as the Jewish community respond to interstitiality, we can better understand and confront anti-Semitism. If we look at the writings of Baruch Spinoza, we find a relevant response to the analysis of interstitiality. Spinoza who lived some 400 years ago “presents rich insights into the problems that confront not just the Jewish community but all of humanity”.
An interesting aspect of Marx’s thesis on interstitiality is that it is not relevant in the Jewish state of Israel because the Jews there are not interstitial whereas world Jewry deludes itself into believing that they are secure where they are (unlike my father who insisted that a suitcase always be packed in case “they” should come for us). The difference in Israel is that the Jews are the bosses and they are the main and not the in between. But this brings about the question of whether Jews want to become a nation like every other nation and many will agree to this thus ignoring the greater call of Judaism for compassion and justice.
Europe has experienced the awareness that anti-Semitism is alive and continues to be a problem. The conflict between Arab and Jew has become a political issue thus making Jews synonymous with Israel and this has led to anti-Semitism. We have not seen that here yet there is anti-Semitism in the United States.
I am in awe of Marx’s scholarship. He is clearly an advocate for social justice and I believe that this is what probably led him to write this remarkable book and to share what he sees in the nature of Jewish individuals and communities. The in between theory is new to me but it makes so much sense that I am surprised that we had not heard of it before. As Jews we sit in between various cultures, religions, political philosophies, and on occasion, individual agendas. The first chapter is a fascinating challenge.
The book is quite intense and not one you read before going to bed–it is scholarly, carefully and tightly written, and requires focus and close attention. Marx uses historical examples to illustrate his theory – and does it with care and candor. Anyone who has ever asked why there is hatred for the Jews, or sought to understand the origins of the Holocaust and the recurring anti-Semitism of our own age, will benefit from this book. I am still not sure that I understand anti-Semitism but then I am not sure I want to. I really do not want to know why Hitler murdered 6,000,000 Jews for to know that gives it a certain credibility that a crime of this nature does not deserve.
In order for Marx to formulate his theory he had to examine the role of the Jewish people throughout history and we see that this works on both the micro and macro level. On the micro level, there are interesting discussions of everything from Hannah Arendt to Baruch Spinoza. On the macro level, Marx carefully presents his thesis that is put simply like this: “the Jews have always been an interstitial people, never part of one of the established sectors of society”. We then see how to live a positive interstitial life and this means “to seek justice and help those in society who need assistance”. From this we see Judaism that is “based on ethics and the pursuit of justice”.
I also loved seeing Spinoza mentioned here and his excommunication has always bothered me in that he was so profoundly ethical and committed to what he believed. Seeing God and nature as one and the same hastened his downfall and his thesis led him to believe that it is the goal of religion to “constantly strive for justice”. We certainly see this in the Torah; “Justice, justice, you shall seek”. It is refreshing to see Spinoza assume relevance here.
As for what to expect from the future, Marx tells us that we must continue to push forward. People are now very interested in themselves instead of in society. We need to be reminded and to remind others that we still have a responsibility for others and we must remain altruistic and look to the future and not dwell on the present. It is been quite a while since I have been so struck by a book and I might venture to say that it was probably Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” that so deeply affected me and that was published almost fifty years ago. A book that wakens something in me is one that I will cherish and this is definitely one of those.