If you use social media to keep an eye on events in the Jewish world, the comments you see from your fellow users are sometimes qualified as being given in their capacities “as a Jew.” This habit of framing a topic by patting yourself on the back for having a Jewish identity deserves further scrutiny. If understood broadly enough, it may lead to an inquiry into something far more far-reaching and sinister: in fact, nothing less than the inadvertent (one hopes, at least) perpetuation of hatred toward Israel and – dare I say it – antisemitism.
If there is anything that the totality of our Jewish past has managed to tell us, and something we surely don’t need to be taught, it’s that there will always be people in the world who look for just about any reason they can find to hate Jews. History is littered with acts of spectacular hostility, turpitude and horrific intent toward Jews, resulting in a broad array of ugly situations, ranging from turning out for a nighttime rally to chant “Jews will not replace us,” to destroying our property, livelihoods and lives on a genocidal scale. Of course, as much as “deniers” will explain how the Shoah never really happened, this is not speculation. It’s not even that long ago, and we forget its grim lessons at our great peril.
The Jewish world over the last few decades has begun to figure this out more precisely, and with deeper apprehension, than even 20 years ago, at the turn of the century. The mood has darkened, and the onset of a global “war on terror” hasn’t helped. Inevitably, with fighting “non-state combatants” as the coin of the realm for advocates of beefier defense budgets and ever greater emphasis on “national security,” the gradual militarization of our thought processes may become a problem for some of us – specifically, for those of us who are Jews.
The latest impetus for Jew hatred, since the end of the 1940s, has been what the Palestinians call their “nakba” – the events that befell them as a result of the 1948-49 war. As the kids would say in their alphabetic acronym sort of way, although such a tragedy makes doing so highly inappropriate, “lol” because, as long as we are talking about nakbas, let’s throw in the fact that more than a third of Jewish living souls were destroyed over a few short years preceding this nakba in Palestine. We may also note that the Arab Muslim world in general did not suffer any similar disproportionate loss in its world relative to its massive size, in which Palestine’s Arabs are but a very small fraction, given their give or take population of 370 million. But the “never-ending” nakba, which some even deem deserving of comparison to genocide, isn’t the same thing, and it’s not even a matter of scale. Details are obscure and it is certainly true that tens of thousands people left when they would have rather stayed, but even according to esteemed Arab historian Albert Hourani in his seminal 1991 book, “A History of the Arab Peoples,” it was probably due to a rough combination of things that may or may not have involved vicious Jewish militias: a little by prudence, some by panic and more by prodding (p. 359). In other words, it’s a little more complicated than to say they were all kicked out by the Zionists.
While the nakba apparently serves a powerful need to define Palestinian society in terms of its ongoing martyrdom, you might think the rest of the world would approach this 70+ year-old story with a little more deliberation. For many people looking for a solid reason to hate Israel, apparently not. Fast forwarding to the present, it is true that Palestinians face extraordinary challenges that have been made ordinary for far too long, but it’s also worth noting that relatively low infant mortality rates, life expectancies that are smack-dab in the middle of the pack for the Arab world, and the ongoing rivalry between two camps (“secular” and “Islamic”) might also be relevant factors for assessing the prospects for a decent quality of life in Palestine. So what is the point of constantly telling the rest of the world that Palestine is on a perpetual verge of societal collapse because of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing and of course, everyone’s go-to favorite, apartheid? If you boil it down to its purest essence, you may end up finding it is because these things just happen to be very good reasons to demonize Israel and (oh yeah, maybe a little) hate Jews.
Herein lies the rub, and an appreciation that there is no other way to understand it. The larger, “existential” problem before us is not with Israel, or wealthy captains of global finance, or pushy customers who always try to get the best deal possible, or rude celebrities whose shticks are way past the boundaries of good taste, or peculiar facial features or habits of dress, or laser beams, or anything else that may strike someone as the root cause of the evil of antisemitism. No, the problem is Judaism. Its existence, for some reason – not as a religion so much as an identity that asserts itself in a decisively cultural, civilizational way – seems to rankle a certain type of person who hates feeling like someone else is very “other” than them, and even has the gall (let’s not say chutzpah) to believe they are in some way “chosen” enough that they have the right to take over someone else’s land. The grim reality is that there will always be a lot of people who feel this way. All you need to do is spend time exploring any popular social media platform to see how this rubber is meeting a lot of road, whether you do so “as a Jew” or not.
The latest wrinkle in this age-old curse is that it is now being thrust upon a new generation of fairly affluent and relatively well-educated North American Jews, who are largely unacquainted (at least on a personal level) with a hostile, deeply threatening systemic animus and bias toward them. Some of them have thought about why it is happening and have decided they understand the real problem; it’s that other people have come to recognize, with good reason, that Israelis are the world’s misfortune. Why? Because of that ongoing nakba in Palestine. These Jews readily tell you they see no upside in saying otherwise, and it is “emet” to call it as it is, so they form their “movement” organizations (If Not Now, Jewish Voice for Peace, JStreet, T’ruah) to shout out their truths from the rooftops. They also include some highly cultured Jewish voices who pontificate on the subject, and its various permutations, at great length from their lofty diasporic perches. All this leads to the view – “as a Jew,” of course – that it is deeply unfortunate, ugly and embarrassing to see how people who identify themselves as our co-religionists (if nothing more) are doing and saying things that do not reflect at all well upon the rest of us, who are trying so hard to act responsibly “as a Jew.”
Take, for example, the recent protestations of doctoral student Elizabeth Tsurkov on Twitter, who was astounded to see a certain turn of events in the latest confrontations over Sheikh Jarrah, a tract of land on the outskirts of Jerusalem that has been owned by Jews since the 1870s and supposedly emblemizes the “violent brazenness of Israel’s colonialist project.” In the course of unrest around this latest “outrage” – telling Arabs who live there that they have pay rent to Jewish owners – there appears to be some Jews who are downright bloodthirsty and cruel toward those poor souls who are now being put to task for ignoring their debts and may even come into harm’s way as a result. As Ms. Tsurkov recently tweeted:
“As a Jew, it hurts me to see this disgusting show of hatred at the holiest site for the Jews, the Western Wall. Young boys celebrating as east Jerusalem burns. Zionism is infecting Jewish identity in Israel with ethno-nationalism, militarism and glorification of violence.”
To which I must ask – are you sure you feel this way “as a Jew,” or is it instead “as a person, with opinions”? Granted, you may be a careful observer, capable of perceiving the dynamics of a highly complex set of facts playing out in real time against a backdrop that consists of a deep-seated conflict and many tales of woe. But that just seems to lead you to a visceral understanding that things would be so much better if everyone in Israel behaved like you do. True, your ways are nice, but rather than focus on how sure you are – “as a Jew” of course – that other Jews are desecrating Judaism’s “holiest site,” (a subject about which you presumably know much), the question that comes to mind is: don’t you really mean, why can’t Israel’s Jews, unlike us, simply embrace the wisdom of our sages and behave in a far more decorous and moralistic manner, rather than sing songs of vengeance and hand out lethal weaponry to kids who “enjoy near-total impunity” in dealing with people who went through a nakba for heaven’s sake?
That is the implicit concern in the picture painted by Ms. Tsurkov. Now let me share briefly the picture I would paint. It is always appropriate to call out situations where someone wields authority unwisely, or fails to live up to expected and necessary standards of conduct, or somehow oversteps bounds in ways that harm others. It’s also necessary to consider, in such instances, what should be done to redress whatever unfortunate outcome results. This surely happens in Israel no less often than anywhere else in the world and Israel in particular seems to have a relatively decent track record of dealing with such situations, according to its own rules of law. But it is another thing altogether to say that “as a Jew,” you know in your heart that Israel is on a slippery slope that is very dangerous because as a society, it has this unhealthy fixation that makes it act rudely and violently toward Palestine. This deeply offends your moral compass “as a Jew.” Another way to look at what you mean, whether you choose to put it in such terms or not, is that “we Jews,” with our heads full of learning and tikkun olam, should be far more careful to preserve the delicate balances required of our precarious position in someone else’s home and – maybe better to leave this part unsaid – we should also be aware that someday there may be a terrible backlash if some of us behave really badly, making things all that much worse for the rest of us.
Apart from how exhausting it must be to feel, think and speak this way, I would simply like to remind anyone who does that if they feel an urgent need to proclaim on social media that this is their view, great. Or maybe not so great, but whatever. But they should still think twice before they sidle up to the bar to have a chat about all that with the rest of us, “as a Jew.” After all, if the question is between what they say, and what some other random Jew might say (and after all, we are all random Jews) – about Israel, or Jewish history (including its history of dealing with external hostility and oppression), or the unique and timeless genius of Jewish wisdom – how would we decide who should be listened to and who is right? It’s not as simple as they might think. Come to think of it, maybe we would all be better served if we stand down more often and not weigh in to tell other Jews – and everyone else, of course – that they should take something from us because we are telling it to them “as a Jew.”