Resisting the Temptation of Victimhood

There’s something very tempting about victimhood.

When things go wrong, victimhood gives us someone else to blame. If, however, we try to improve the status quo and end up failing, we only have ourselves to blame.

Once upon a time, the Jewish people were victims. As is typical of victims, we placed responsibility for our destiny in the hands of outside sources, just as we blamed those sources when things went wrong: In vain we waited for the allies to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz.

With the establishment of the state of Israel, after years and years of Jewish victimhood, a profound change occurred in the collective psyche of the Jewish people:  Suddenly, we refused to be victims.

From the very conception of the State, her survival was under attack. The Jews knew that curling up in a ball of victimhood, no matter how tempting, would not ensure their survival. The injustice of it all must have been palpable: I can only imagine what it must have felt like for those Jews who had finally arrived in British mandated Palestine – after losing their entire families in the Holocaust, after surviving POW camps and overcrowded immigrant voyages from Europe – to finally return to their sanctuary of safety, the ancestral homeland that they dreamed and prayed about for thousands of years; and then, when it seemed as if salvation had finally come, they were thrust into a major war against five invading Arab armies the day after declaring independence in 1948. How easily those Jews could have fallen victim to fatigue, trauma and injustice – but they didn’t.

The history of Jewish statehood has since proved to be an outstanding model of what liberation truly means. In a remarkable, almost over-night transition, the skinny and pale shtetl Jew became an olive-skinned Middle-Eastern warrior. From the ice cold ghettos of Europe to the scorching Negev Desert, his stunningly-inspiring adaptation was borne out of knowing first hand just how dangerous victimhood can be. As time went by, this knowledge became ingrained in his synapses. Perhaps he simply had no other choice, perhaps he was helped by what Golda Meir would later call the “secret weapon” of the Israeli people: “no alternative”.

The age of Jewish victimhood was well and truly over.


The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement’s agenda against Israel, in stark contrast, relies entirely on the narrative of Palestinian victimhood. A recent article “Israel IS an Apartheid State” from famed Israel hater Terry Crawford-Browne is a case in point.

In his article, like so many others typifying the same thinking, Palestinians are portrayed as perpetual victims of Israeli aggression. Their fate lies entirely in the hands of outside sources – so too, does their responsibility and accountability. Nearly everything that has gone wrong has gone wrong because of Israel.

Subsequently, you will never hear a BDS supporter mention anything that the Palestinians have done to contribute to their own (admittedly) adverse status quo.

You will not hear about the corruption of Palestinian leaders, for example – the exorbitant wealth of Arafat, Mashal and Haniyeh, to name a few – that came at the expense of their impoverished constituencies; You will not hear about the many rejections of Palestinian Statehood by their own leaders;  nor the thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians, fired by Hamas from schools, mosques and hospitals; at university panel discussions you will not hear about Palestinian criminals – only the Israeli “crime” of arresting them. You will not hear about the fact that the disputed territories were won from a 6-member Arab military alliance led by an openly genocidal Egyptian leader. There will not be a word about the suicide bombs that tore apart Israeli buses, shopping malls, hotels and nightclubs.

Such is the extent of this victim mentality that you will hardly even hear about what the Palestinians have done right – only what Israel has done wrong. And this, the limelight on a malicious and megolamaniacal Israel, adds credence to the arguments that BDS is an anti-Semitic Organisation. Really though, the organisation’s singing of “shoot the Jew” and its general tactic of singling out Israel from amongst exponentially-worse human rights abuses in the region and at large, should suffice to prove this point.

In his article, Browne cited the findings of the Russel Tibunals – a series of kangaroo courts at which not even one pro-Israel perspective was offered. The outcome that Browne cites (Israeli Apartheid and human rights abuses) was determined before the so-called tribunal even took place.  I was at the Cape Town Russel “Tribunal” to protest it. Of course, my peers and I were barred from entering. One person who didn’t belong to the anti-Israel community, a German freelance student named Janis Just, did manage to get in – but was physically assaulted inside after he dared ask the panel a challenging question.

Any vague hint, any minuscule suggestion that the Palestinians are not total victims, threatens BDS to its core. The notion of victimhood is the foundation of its rhetoric, so when this idea is challenged, there will be nothing left for BDS on which to stand. Thus, the BDS strategy has evolved to become one in which open and honest conversation is flatly rejected. Anyone who argues against its rhetoric is labelled as an Apartheid-apologist, or, as Crawford-Browne illustrated, a “hasbara” agent. On this basis, the Israel advocate cannot even enter the conversation in the first place. Such circular reasoning ensures BDS can never be challenged – and this is how BDS ensures its survival. For without it, its bigotry and hypocrisy would be a lot easier to expose – especially for the untrained eye.

This is the reality that diaspora Jewry – and indeed, members of society at large face in their battle for truth, fairness and hopefully, that oh-so utopian dream of peace in the Middle East. BDS has already closed down the conversation. Now, its advocates are attempting to intimidate the rest of us into submission by controlling where we shop, who we do business with, and essentially, what we can or cannot think with regards to the Middle East Conflict.

As BDS threatens to target more South African retailers in the coming months, The South African public has a role to play by heeding the inspiring Israeli example: they must refuse to be victims of coercion.

Just as Israelis continue to live normal lives in spite of the fear posed by terrorism, so too must South Africans continue to shop where they want, in spite of the bullying that may come their way. This is what freedom is all about.

Finally, to the uninitiated I say: do not confuse our lack of sympathy for BDS with a lack of empathy for the Palestinians. The Jewish people pray daily for peace, and we will continue to pursue it. But we will not succumb to those who deny us our right to speak and attempt to humiliate us into submission; we will always defend ourselves when terrorism seeks our destruction. The age of Jewish victimhood is over.

About the Author
Josh is the former Chairman of SAUJS (South African Union of Jewish Students) Cape Town; and former Board Member of the SAJBD (South African Jewish Board of Deputies) Cape Council; and Tikvah Fellow
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