It came as no surprise to anyone watching the anti-Israel trends in the media that people found a way to blame Israel for the problems in Ferguson, Missouri. Protestors’ signs in downtown Seattle read, “Occupation is a Crime – Ferguson to Palestine, Resist U.S. Racism, Boycott Israel,” as if the connection between the two situations was obvious. Another sign read, “From Ferguson to Palestine: Resistance is Justified.” In a similar vein, Detroit Lion’s running back, Reggie Bush, posted on Instagram, “The Palestinian people know what mean [sic] to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity #Ferguson #Justice.” Several months ago, Iranian activist Trita Parsi made a more direct connection, when he tweeted: “Wondering why the excessive police violence? Here’s a guess: #Ferguson police chief got training in Israel… #Gaza.” The post was retweeted by civil rights lawyer and columnist Glenn Greenwald, who added, “St. Louis County Police Chief, in 2011, on visiting Israel to learn about police tactics from the Israelis.” Besides the fact that the police chief mentioned, Chief Timothy Fitch, has been retired since last February, he went to Israel to participate in a counter-terrorism seminar hosted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – not to learn “police tactics.”
There is however a much more blatant connection between what’s happening in Ferguson and the Gaza situation. Both cases involve minority groups who have faced oppression at the hands of a ruling majority. Both involve the death of allegedly innocent people. Both invoke tremendous anger and pain from the public. And both involve a people who feel like victims.
The problem with victimhood is that it doesn’t help anyone.
Whether one is a victim at the hands of white supremacists, Israeli soldiers, Nazis, or Muslims, perpetuating one’s victimhood leads to paralysis. The flipside of the attitude that others are responsible for my suffering means that others are also responsible for my success. It is the ultimate excuse for failure and is the antithesis of the attitude needed to begin to change. Only when the individual or community realizes that they – and only they – can take responsibility for succeeding, can the seeds of change begin to sprout. Change must come from within. The victim mentality creates a self-perpetuating culture of victimhood. Although Hamas’ victim line has succeeded in garnering worldwide support for their cause, it has done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Closer to home, I see this pattern with my middle son. He can’t ever dream of keeping up with his older brother who’s naturally faster, stronger, and smarter than he is. Instead of trying he gives up and claims that he can’t do anything. Whenever his brother touches him, says anything that can be misconstrued as an insult, or takes his toys, he cries hysterically knowing that he will get our attention and compassion that way. By using the victim card he has found a defense strategy to get what he wants without trying. Unfortunately if this paradigm continues it may encourage him to never take responsibility and learn how to take care of himself.
After my mother passed away when I was in college, I felt like a terrible victim. I felt alone, angry, and scared. For years I walked around looking for pity from others. I wore my sorrows on my sleeve hoping to gain sympathy. The problem was that no one likes being around a downer. Instead of having compassion for me, my friends ignored my pain. Only when I took responsibility for generating my own positive energy was I able to move on. Victimhood creates an insatiable desire for external support. As a passive victim, you look to others to help you move on. The first rule in therapy and personal growth is that you can only help someone who wants to be helped and ultimately you can only empower them to help themselves.
The Jewish Secret to Overcoming Oppression
Having survived over 2,000 years of persecution, the Jews could be the leaders of the cult of victimhood. Whether it is slavery in Egypt, the Roman conquest, the Spanish inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the Nazi genocide, invasions by multiple Arab armies, or Hamas terror, we have plenty of oppressors to blame for our suffering. However, the Jewish approach to suffering offers a radically different attitude to the commonplace practice of placing blame on the oppressors and feeling like a victim. In fact, it may hold the secret to Jewish success and survival throughout the ages and it can offer vital tools to help empower the oppressed people of the world – whether it be American minorities or Palestinian Arabs.
The Jewish approach to suffering is to take responsibility. We believe that we are never the victim of circumstance. On the contrary, everything happens for a reason. In the words of the 18th century Italian Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto: “God’s only desire is to bestow good, and He loves His creation like a father loves his child.” The Creator of the Universe is conducting a master symphony – and it’s all for our good. “However,” he continues, “the love itself can justify the father bringing suffering to his child for his ultimate benefit. . . Therefore, Divine judgment and strictness themselves flow from the source of [God’s] love” (The Way of God, 2:8:1). Nachmanides, writing in 13th century Spain, similarly says that “God tests a person [through suffering and challenges] in order to bring out [his/her] potential into the realm of action. All of the tests in the Torah are for the benefit of the one being challenged (Genesis 22:1).”
In other words, all challenges in life come to teach us a lesson in order to help us to improve ourselves. When the Torah states numerous times that terrible suffering comes about because of one’s spiritual deficiencies, it does not mean that these are unrelated punishments. Rather, they are signposts to facilitate our personal growth. In fact the word for suffering in Hebrew, “yissurim,” shares the same root as the word for self-improvement or chastisement, “mussar” which in turn shares the same root as the word to change directions “sur.” The Talmud therefore adjures us that “If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his deeds” (Brochot 5a).
The Jewish equivalent of the Hindu karma, is the concept of midah keneged midah or measure for measure. In other words, our actions cause similar things to happen to us. When you do good deeds, good things happen to you; when you do bad things, bad comes back to you. Negative experiences are not random acts or Divine punishments – rather they are the consequences of our own negative actions. The goal is that we should learn from our mistakes and change.
When suffering strikes, don’t point the finger to blame others for your problem. Instead look inward and see what you might have done to somehow have contributed to the negativity and see how you can grow from the experience. Maimonides goes so far as to write that anyone who does not use suffering as an opportunity for self-improvement is considered cruel (Laws of Fasting 1:3).
The Talmud recounts the following story to illustrate this point: “Rav Huna had four hundred barrels of fine wine that turned to vinegar. . . The rabbis came to him . . . and told him, ‘You should check your [spiritual] affairs.’ He told them, ‘Am I suspect in your eyes?’ They told him, ‘Is God suspect of enacting judgment without cause?’ He told them, ‘If there is someone among you that heard something [wrong] about me, he should say so.’
“They told him, ‘This is what we have heard: You did not pay your laborers!’ He told them, ‘Have they left me anything? They stole everything from me!’ [He defended not paying the workers by claiming they stole more than their due wages.] . . . ‘[Nonetheless] I accept it upon myself to pay them.’ Some say that the vinegar reverted to wine, and others say that the price of vinegar went up and was sold for the price of wine” (Brochot 5b).
When King David was cursed by one of his enemies, his followers wished to exact vengeance. “Let him go,” he told them. “Surely God has told him to curse me” (Samuel 2, 16:9-10). The commentaries explain that one’s enemies are merely sticks in the hand of God. Instead of attacking the stick, go directly to the Hand that wields it and introspect as to why it may be happening.
Michal Levine, the daughter of Rabbi Kalman Levine Hy”d who was brutally murdered while praying in the Har Nof synagogue earlier last month, urged people not to seek revenge but rather to look inward. “I know there are people who want to take revenge,” she said. “That’s not the way of my father; he wouldn’t have wanted vengeance in his name.” She spoke about how her father used to gather the family together whenever there was a tragedy anywhere in the world to ask them to think about how they may have contributed to it. “He called us together and said, ‘Let’s look within us and see what action and responsibility we have to take upon us in order to implement change.”
Does that mean that you are blaming the victim?
Saying that the “victim” can take responsibility for overcoming his or her trauma and growing from the experience, does not exonerate the perpetrator. The oppressor is guilty and should be held accountable even though he or she was only delivering a Divine message. We are never exempt from seeking justice and fighting against oppression in any way. On the contrary, the Torah teaches us that we must strive to fix the world and fight evil as much as we can on every level.
Jews marched alongside African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement and have always spoken out for the rights of the poor, weak, and oppressed. However, seeking justice proactively is very different from taking vengeance. Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the abolition of South African apartheid has shown the world that peaceful protests accomplish much more than wanton violence. Fighting wars may change borders, but fighting ideas changes people. Although acts of revenge feel heroic, they are really cowardly. Violence, terrorism, and riots only perpetuate the victim status. Just because someone suffered does not mean they are forever a victim. Although their suffering is real and someone else may be deserving of punishment, wallowing in it does nothing to improve the situation or heal the past.
Doesn’t this attitude lead to beating yourself up whenever anything bad happens?
A life of introspection also does not mean a life of self-deprecation. Beating oneself up means focusing excessively on the mistakes of the past. On the other hand, the Jewish concept of teshuva – or repentance – is forward oriented. It does not dwell on what happened any more than necessary to propel you forward to a more positive future. Guilt arises when one feels that his past errors have permanently damaging effects. The Torah teaches that teshuva can actually repair the past so much that your sins are elevated to the level of mitzvos – good deeds! Guilt and depression are feelings of stagnation. Taking responsibility for hardship leads to a life of growth and positivity. You don’t feel victimized by the past. Instead you are empowered to radically affect your future for the better by changing yourself.
The famous Chassidic Master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said: “When I was younger I thought I would change the world. As I grew older I realized that I couldn’t change the world, instead I would work on changing my city. Later I realized that I couldn’t change my city but should rather concentrate on changing my family. But now I have decided just to try and change myself.”
This does not mean that one should ignore the suffering of the world – on the contrary, we must feel it deeply – however, the areas that we focus on are those directly within our control – namely ourselves. Focusing on things outside of our control – politics, the weather, the economy – lead to frustration, anger, paralysis, and depression. When people go through hardships they often feel powerless. The goal of a therapist, mentor, or spiritual guide is to empower people to make free will decisions to better themselves. In this way they are asserting themselves over the one area of life where they truly possess control. When we change ourselves, it has a ripple effect that spreads outwards. Changing ourselves can actually change the world.
‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Jews’
The American Jewish experience exemplifies this point that one can succeed and change despite poverty and prejudice. As a Jew, our ancestors came to America lacking money, English, and higher education, and they faced incredible discrimination. It was not uncommon for establishments in certain parts of the country to display signs saying, “No dogs, no Blacks, and no Jews.” Nonetheless the Jews found a way to succeed financially while educating their children and having a positive effect on countless areas of American society. They succeeded because they knew that no one was going to help them if they didn’t help themselves. They didn’t wallow in their victimhood, they didn’t blame, and they didn’t ask for pity or special compensation. They took responsibility for themselves, got to work, and were able to overcome.
The same is true of the Jews of Israel. Many founders of the State of Israel were Holocaust survivors – orphans and refugees who had every reason in the world to give up. What greater victims then they, who saw the world stand by in silence while six million of their brethren were systematically slaughtered. Nonetheless, instead of complaining, they got to work building a future for themselves in a mostly barren land of deserts and swamps. After the United Nations officially offered them their own country for the first time in over two thousand year, they were attacked by numerous Arab countries on multiple fronts who outnumbered them in both manpower and arms. Nonetheless they persevered and won against all odds. Instead of expecting handouts from the world, they took responsibility and arguably accomplished more growth than any country in the world over the past century.
Of course many will argue that it was the “victim” status after the Holocaust that enabled the Zionist leaders to justify the necessity of a Jewish State, however anyone versed in Israeli history knows that the Holocaust only played a minor part in the forming of the State of Israel. Additionally, the fact that many of today’s Jews have made the Holocaust the central focus of their Jewish identity, and have used it as a “cult of victimhood,” is contrary to the millennia-old Jewish approach to suffering. As surprising as it may be, “kvetching” or complaining is not really the Jewish way.
The Future of the Palestinians
In an article in the Washington Post, Dennis Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Middle East negotiator under President Clinton and former special assistant to President Obama, writes about a speech he gave to over 200 Palestinians in Gaza City in 2005. He was invited by a Gaza representative in the Palestinian Legislative Council to speak about the future of Gaza, just months before Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the area. He told them that if they took the opportunity to develop Gaza peacefully, it would open up many new opportunities for the Palestinian people in the future. However, if they chose to use Gaza as a launching pad to stage attacks on Israel instead, it would greatly limit their chances of someday having their own state. “Much of Palestinians’ history might have been imposed on them by others,” he said. “But this time they had the power to shape their future. If they made the wrong choice, they could not blame the Arabs, the Europeans, the Americans – or the Israelis. . . Unfortunately, we know the path Hamas chose.”
The fact that the Palestinians remain “refugees” after 60 years, is a deliberate choice that has been made by the Palestinian leadership as part of their propaganda campaign to garner world support for their cause. Never before in world history has the refugee status been passed down for so many generations when other Arab nations could have easily absorbed them. The number of Jews fleeing Arab countries immediately after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, greatly outnumbered the number of Arabs leaving Palestine. The majority of the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries were resettled in Israel, without any compensation from the Arab governments who confiscated their property and possessions – which greatly exceeded the value of the wealth lost by Palestinian Arabs. This perpetual refugee status has done nothing to benefit the Palestinian people other than making them the world’s most popular victims.
My job is not to take sides in a very complicated situation. African Americans and Palestinian Arabs have a lot to be upset about and their grievances are real. However, true change must come from within. When they are ready to stop feeling like victims, they can begin to improve their situation in life. The same is true for minorities everywhere. We deeply feel their pain. We have been there too. There are insurmountable obstacles in the way of their success and we must never minimize them – but the first step is to change their attitude. Stop blaming, stop complaining and rise from victimhood to victory.