One Law for Jews, Another Law for Gentiles

Most of the world is tribal and tribal morality is inevitably dual — there’s one morality for how you deal with members of the tribe and another morality for how you deal with outsiders.

Judaism is tribal morality (with the God of Judaism mandating differing codes, for instance, you do not lend to a Jew at interest but you can lend to a goy at interest). There’s one code for how you deal with your fellow Jews and a more relaxed code for how you deal with outsiders.

The way Judaism usually works in practice is that it often does not matter to many Jews how their fellow Jews treat non-Jews except to the extent that it affects how non-Jews relate to Jews.

Westernized Jews tend to be the most polite and ethical Jews in their behavior towards non-Jews, depending upon how many generations they’ve been to the West, the more generations the more westernized, while Jews who come from parts of the world such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East which had terrible relations between Jew and goy tend to be more ruthless in their dealings.

Jews who practice white collar crime against goyim often pay little price in their social standing in Jewish life.

The most prominent exception to tribal morality is WASP morality aka universal morality. When I was growing up a WASP, there was no notion that it was OK to treat outsiders any differently than your own group. This mono morality is why WASPs create the best countries (England, Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand) with high social trust while Israel is a low-trust society.

Marjorie Miller describes the Israeli concept of ‘freier’:

A freier, in Israeli eyes, is a shopper who waits in line to pay retail. It is a driver who searches for legal parking rather than pulling onto the sidewalk with the other cars. … The fear of being a sucker turns driving into a bumper-car competition and makes grocery shopping as trying as arm wrestling.

… ‘In London, the culture is to give way, be a gentleman, don’t compete,’ said Peri, the former editor. ‘But an Israeli is the opposite. If you are stronger, why should you give way to someone weaker? In a debate, the British will say, ‘You have a point.’ In a debate here, no Israeli will admit he has been persuaded to change his mind. That shows weakness.’

Americans often find the Israeli attitude intolerably rude. Israelis, meanwhile, find Americans to be the biggest freiers of all. They are naive idealists. … Americans are perceived as innocents who follow the rules and who believe a person will actually do what he promises to do. ‘An American is willing to trust until someone proves to be untrustworthy,’ Shahar said. ‘Israel is much more like the rest of the world, where the basic assumption is that people . . . should not be trusted until proven trustworthy.’

Jews approach to non-Jews is very similar to how other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern peoples relate to outsiders. When compared to Greeks, Italians, Persians and Arabs, Jews are not noticeably less ethical in business.

When “white shoe” Wall Street firms did not want to hire Jews, it was because in large part they wanted to keep up their ethical standards and this depended upon employing WASPs rather that tribesmen with dual moralities.

When you hear about a major scandal on Wall Street, it’s rarely Presbyterians and Anglicans getting in trouble. Half the time it seems like it is Jews in trouble, and the other half of the time it is wogs.

Adam Kirsch makes a pitiful attempt at apology for Judaism in his Tabletmag column:

In this case, there is no avoiding the fact that the Talmud is heavily biased in favor of the Jew against the gentile. The mishna in Bava Kamma 37b says, “With regard to an ox of a Jew that gored the ox of a gentile, the owner of the belligerent ox is exempt from liability. But with regard to an ox of a gentile that gored the ox of a Jew, regardless of whether the goring ox was innocuous or forewarned, the owner of the ox pays the full cost of the damage.” In other words, a gentile doesn’t even benefit from the rule about an innocuous ox costing only half the damages; his ox is automatically considered forewarned and so responsible for full damages. But a Jew’s ox can hurt a gentile’s ox with impunity….

Rather than remedy this injustice, however, the Gemara attempts to justify it. According to Abbahu, God “arose and permitted their [the gentiles’] money to the Jewish people.” The reason for this, he explains, is that after the Flood, the sons of Noah received what are known as the Noahide commandments—seven laws that are binding on all human beings, including laws against theft and murder. Because the non-Jewish peoples did not obey these laws, God punished them by allowing Jews to take their property. (Although one might note that the Israelites notoriously failed to uphold their own laws on many occasions.) Rabbi Yochanan gives an alternate explanation, based on the legend that God offered the Torah to all the peoples of the Earth, but only the Jews accepted it. Thus the other nations deserve to have their goods taken by the Jews.

No matter how much they justify it, however, the rabbis can’t ignore the fact that this principle would make Judaism look pretty bad if it were widely known. That is the message of a story about a pair of Roman officials who were once ordered by their emperor to learn the Torah. When they had finished, they said, “We have examined the entire Torah and it is true, except for this matter that you state with regard to an ox of a Jew that gored the ox of a gentile.” “But,” they added, “we will not inform this matter to the kingdom”: These Romans realized what kind of an impression this favoritism would make on a non-Jewish audience, and agreed to keep it secret.

As the Koren Talmud shows in its always useful notes, later Jewish commentators were equally concerned to palliate this inequity. Many of them held that the law about Jewish and non-Jewish oxen was only promulgated because, in the ancient world, non-Jews were usually pagans with no sense of religion or morality. In later times, when the gentiles that Jews dealt with were mainly Christians and Muslims, who had their own monotheistic beliefs and upheld the Noahide commandments, this law did not apply. Alternatively, Maimonides suggested that since gentile laws did not punish the owner of a goring ox the way Jewish law did, gentiles were treated accordingly and not given compensation when one of their oxen was gored. Still, however you explain it, this is one of those moments when the Talmud reveals the limits of its ethical imagination—which is exactly why later Judaism recognized the need to go beyond it.

Judaism recognizes the need to appear to go beyond tribal morality when that is useful for public relations, but no matter how you spin it, Judaism remains tribal morality with dual tracks — one for how you treat Jews and one for how you treat non-Jews. This does not embarrass me. I feel no need to apologize for it. Tribal morality is how most of the world works.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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