As a people who have suffered millennia of persecution, expulsions, forced conversions, pogroms, genocide and holocaust, many Jews of all nationalities are highly sensitive to the perception that Israel – the ancient and reborn Jewish national homeland – is unfairly criticized, attacked or threatened.
Without the context of a history woven within our collective DNA, our reactions can be interpreted as a rejection of alternative views or debate — valued standards and traditions of Jewish life from time immemorial.
Look no further than the vibrant Israeli press, parliament or courts to see Israel’s character as a nation that not only permits debate, but actively encourages, fiercely protects and, more often than not, celebrates diversity.
So why is someone as popular as comedian Jon Stewart accused of siding with those fighting for Israel’s destruction when he raises concerns about the violence raging between Israel and Hamas on his nightly comedy news show?
Understanding the reaction is tied to knowing that for Jews, especially Jewish activists, words and actions are as much about what people don’t say as what they do say.
That’s true whether the platform is Comedy Central, national and international agencies and officials, reporters, pundits and analysts, and even friends, neighbors, and family.
When we hear someone speaking out about hundreds of civilian deaths related to Israel, we are also listening for the attention given to the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths that have collectively taken place in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, Libya and much of war-torn Africa.
That does not mean the death of any person is not tragic. It is, especially for those who are the most innocent of bystanders.
But it does mean watching for the same standard of morality and perspective when it comes to Israel as it does to interpreting America’s wars against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone the raging violence in neighboring Syria, Iraq and far too many other places where innocent blood is shed every minute of every day.
At a time when thousands of rockets have been intentionally fired at Israeli homes, schools and communities, no one should expect Israel’s leadership to do anything less than everything necessary to protect its citizens. That’s an obligation of any responsible government elected for and by the people. It’s also very different than the actions of brutal regimes whose strategies include deliberately inviting the killing of their own civilians.
When Jews and Israel are held to standards that are entirely different than those of others who equally embrace values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it shouldn’t be surprising to see that interpreted as more of what’s lead to centuries of persecution and violence waged against us from ancient to modern times.
The People of Israel live and will continue to live, not because of the permission or blessing of those who distance during times of peril, but because of the bravery, ingenuity, and heart-wrenching sacrifices of its citizens.
When this round of violence subsides, there will be ample opportunity for debate among those who care about Israel, democracy, and hope for an era in the Middle East in which swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and we learn of war no more. But in the midst of a war to defend Israel’s own children, no one should expect to see double standards, hypocrisy and selective morality embraced by a people committed to survival.