David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

Streams of Anxious Consciousness 45

I never fully realized the gravity of Tal Becker’s warning of a shared race for victimhood that is contested between Palestinians and Israelis. He would speak of it often at AIPAC summits or Hartman convenings, but the weight and pace of the race was lost on me. Until this week.

I would disbelieve it were I not to see with my own eyes, grown and educated people tearing down signs of missing women, babies, elderly Holocaust survivors, octogenarian men, snatched form their beds in Israel and taken as hostage for God knows what price.

Four hostages have been released, to date. A few videos have been used to wage psychological warfare. Israel produced CCTV security footage of terrorists ferrying hostages into Shifa hospital. Some Israeli sovereign citizens were found murdered inside of Gaza. How else would they have gotten there? As I type, negotiations are happening to release fifty Israeli hostages for 150 prisoners.  Still, a horde of people spend their free time strolling through parks and actively removing the signs of missing Jews and claim it is not real. That it is Jewish propaganda. How could it not be real, if there is a deal to release them?!

Mind you, these same people tearing down signs leave posters affixed to lamp posts in parks that are looking for lost dogs and cats from unknown entities.  But signs of missing Jews come down.

I am satisfied with social media sites that shame these people. No tears have been shed for those terminated from employment or expelled from school because of amoral behaviors. Still, I contemplate what can make any person do such a heinous and cruel action as to deny our right of pain and victimhood.

Then it smacked me across the face with fury. I heard Tal Becker’s words ringing in my ear about wanting to earn the victimhood grand-prize between Israelis and the Palestinians.

If Jewish children, women, the elderly and the innocent were taken during a day of rape, rampage and savage murder, and held against their will, all while blindfolded and bound and gagged, what could possibly be more traumatic and undeserved? What is more victim-like than that? Afterall, the definition of a victim is a person harmed or killed because of a crime or accident or event or action.

The kidnapping of close to 250 people – a broad sampling of all streams of Israeli society – is the ultimate victimhood prize Becker referenced. I assure you it is an award we would be happy to forego. Still, having signs posted on walls with pictures and stories and physical reminders, inherently negates the sense of victimhood and suffering of the Palestinian people. Apparently, two peoples cannot suffer at once.

Becker taught me countless times that the race to victimhood is futile. There is no winner. Both groups lose. Both the Israeli and Palestinian people and their nations are pained and traumatized. There are legitimate histories on both sides which evoke anger, resentment, frustration and sadness. There is a time to unpack those feelings. It is not now.

I came to realize recently that those who remove ‘Missing’ signs taped up around the world is a heartless attempt of refusing to cede the victimhood narrative or acknowledge the pain of one group over another.

It is reminiscent of a story in the Babylonian Talmud – tractate Yoma – about two kids who both want the honor of cleaning the altar after the sacrifices have been burned to God. The kids are running up the ramp of the altar. One kid, worried he would get to the alter second and lose the privilege of cleaning the ashes, kicks his friend from the ramp, where he falls and breaks his leg.

That ancient story is about doing something shameful, reprehensible and appalling so that an honor or rite can be bestowed. Is not a similar thing happening in parks around America and Europe today? Are the sign destroyers not kicking us from the proverbial ramp so they can deny our sense of pain and sacrifice, and they can retain the title of supreme victim?

Is that the medal either of us really pine for? Ultimate Victim?

Sadly, yes. It is.

Here is why.

The paradigm of support and allegiance in society is based on a simple equation: have versus have less. Power versus powerless. Oppressed versus oppressor. Since the time of Rocky Balboa (probably way before) the human condition inclines us is to cheer for the ones who are ‘less.’ Power-less, have-less, help-less, use-less. The underdog. The little guy. The weaker party.

Rhetorically speaking, what is more powerless, helpless and useless than a ten-month-old baby taken from its parents? Or an 82-year-old woman suffering from dementia removed from her home and comforts? Or a 19-year-old boy whose arm was blown off held against his will with no medical treatment afforded him? Or a 68-year-old grandfather who needs medicines to stay alive?

For many who see Israel as big, powerful, strong, sovereign with a mighty army, yet at the same time in the role of suffering, is equivalent to saying that the wealthy, flashy, articulate Apollo Creed is the underdog in his boxing match against Rocky. To claim Israel is the suffering and weaker victim in this scenario is against the linear paradigm much of society has crafted. It makes them uncomfortable. It requires stutter steps. Nuance. Semicolons. They are ill equipped to work in a way where a strong, white, privileged people can be victims. It is just easier to tear down signs, deny a reality, and keep things neat and clean in columns simpletons can understand.

The ruthless act of tearing down missing signs is tantamount to Kanye ripping a trophy from Taylor’s hands on the stage and declaring who the real victim, ahem…. I mean, victor, is.

This is a race to the bottom. No one wins. We are all losing. Stop tearing down the signs. Acknowledge our pain, hurt and suffering. We will and must do better acknowledging the pain and suffering of Palestinians too. Not Hamas. Palestinians. Denying pain of one is not the path to acknowledging the suffering of another.

Next – A quick and noteworthy observation.
Conversion to Judaism is a double leap of faith: the obvious leap of the candidate who irrevocably aligns themselves with the fate of the Jewish people. The second leap is by the sponsoring clergy, who even through study and training, have no crystal ball to unpack the real motives or future intentions of the Jewish person by choice.

My heart has been warmed by the dozens of people I have seen leading the charge at pro-Israel rallies, taking on their employers, challenging alma-maters, pushing their kid’s schools and defending Zionism against keyboard-commandos,  who are Jews-by-choice. Obviously, there is no Instagram badge for converts to Judaism. I can identify many because I personally served on the commission that approved their conversion. Others I know because they have shared their background.

Each time I meet with an individual who wants to become Jewish, I lovingly warn them that by affiliating with the Jewish people and linking their fate with ours, they might become the subject of bigotry, discrimination or antisemitism. Never during these warnings in my office did I imagine we would face a moment like we are now. The people who have carried forward with their journey have risen to the moment with grace and determination.

The alliance and advocacy of these precious humans have incontestably proven that they are as much a part of our history as they are our future. Each of these Jews-by-choice could have run for the hills or embraced an earlier heritage or previous identity when the going got tough. They didn’t. They are all-in on Judaism and Israel. The Jewish tribe and the Zionist people are stronger and better with these souls amongst us. Kudos to my colleagues who have done a fantastic job teaching and bringing these individuals into our fold. And thank you to my brothers and sisters of choice. Our family is holier with you in it!

As I submit this piece for daily publishing, my heart is fluttering with anxious anticipation of the release of fifty hostages, primarily children in an asymmetrical swap for 150 Hamas prisoners. One Israeli friend phrased it best: The entire nation is holding its breath. We can all sense it.

Will it happen?
Who will be amongst the released?
Will Hamas pull a fast one?
Will Hamas take advantage of the pause to rearm, which will result in more dead soldiers?
What will the physical condition of the hostages be?
What will the mental condition of the hostages be?
What will be the reaction of those whose loved ones are not in the first batch of returned captives?

I cannot contain my nerves, excitement and worry. All of Israel feels the same. I have yet to digest these feelings. I just have intense ones. They are making me feel great and terrible, simultaneously.

May the hostages return to an embrace we can all witness and feel. May the balance of hostages be soon behind them.


About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.
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