The Politics of Fasting on Tisha B'Av

Tisha B'Av, like Yom HaShoah and many other aspects of the Jewish calendar, can no longer be a politics-free zone.

Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair
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An Orthodox Jewish man holds a mourning prayer during the annual Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 26, 2015. Credit: AFP
Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair

"They tried to kill us; we won; let's eat." It's the old joke about how to describe every Jewish festival in under 10 words. On Tisha B'Av (the fast day of the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, occurring this Wednesday night and Thursday), it's a little different: they tried to kill us; they often succeeded; let's not eat. On Tisha B'Av, by fasting and mourning, we commemorate all the terrible things that have happened to the Jewish people over the centuries.

How we Jews love being the victims.

It's true that we have been victims on countless occasions in history. "They" - the goyim - did try to kill us, and did succeed, and it was tragic, and some of those tragedies are still fresh, and the memories of them still make us weep.

But when we look at the Jewish situation in the world today, in the United States, in Israel, and many other (but not all) Jewish communities, we are no longer victims. Folks, we're the winners! We have money, we have influence, and in Israel, we have power. We don't run the world behind the scenes - sorry to disappoint you, anti-Semites - but we're doing okay, really we are.

Tisha B'Av, like Yom HaShoah and many other aspects of the Jewish calendar, can no longer be a politics-free zone. Our sense of victimhood, our righteous indignation at how we have always been the wronged party, has become a socio-psychological barrier to the political steps that are necessary for peace to be achieved.

We have been victims, but the Palestinians have also been victims.

When we look at the conflict through the prism of "Israel versus the Arab states," we may still have a right to feel like potential victims. We are a tiny Jewish minority surrounded by millions of Arabs, some of whom genuinely want us to disappear. The Iranian bomb, Hezbollah and Hamas missiles, and Islamic fundamentalists across the world are genuine existential concerns. If the conflict is one between Israel and the Arabs, then Israel is the victim. Tisha B'Av becomes a meaningful and sober moment in which we cry at the tragedies that have befallen us and pray that they will end soon.

But when we look at the conflict through the prism of "Israel versus the Palestinians," then we are not the victim. We hold the upper hand. We have the power. We have living standards that rival Western Europe, and they live in squalor. We have a thriving, beautiful, successful state, and they have nothing. If the conflict is one between Israel and the Palestinians, then we are not the victims: they are. And Tisha B'Av becomes a faintly embarrassing wallowing in parochial self-pity.

The confusion between these two prisms of the conflict is the root cause of our inability to break through the socio-psychological peace barrier.

What, then, is the left-leaning committed Jewish Zionist to do this Tisha B'Av? In a halachic responsum published several years ago by the Israeli Conservative-Masorti movement, Rabbi Tuvia Friedman gives a variety of halachic reasons for fasting only until the afternoon. Rabbi Professor David Golinkin argues against this innovation, and states that we should continue to fast a full day.

For me, the issue is not so much a halachic one as a political one. Fasting a full day on Tisha B'Av simply perpetuates our blinkered sense of victimhood, which is at odds with the reality of the Israel-Palestinian prism of the conflict. Not fasting at all on Tisha B'Av ignores the real Jewish suffering that has happened, and that continues to threaten us through the Israel-Arabs prism of the conflict.

So perhaps we should indeed just fast half a day, until minchah (the afternoon prayer). Our hunger during the first part of the day will sensitize us to the tragedies that have befallen us. But our return to reality in the latter half of the day might help us, as a people, get over the psychosis of victimhood that warps our identity and our politics.