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The good Jew

On the long history of the insidious notion that Jewish empowerment is a perversion of nature

Why does it seem that, in the eyes of many, a good Jew is a suffering Jew? How is it that when hundreds of thousands are killed in Syria, when Britain and the US are responsible for untold hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, and global misogyny, oppression, and racism abound, Israel is continually singled out for condemnation in the UN, in Europe, and on college campuses? Why are so many liberally minded Diaspora Jews joining groups that call into question not only Israel’s control over the West Bank, but even the entire Zionist enterprise?

Disagreements on policy and the contentious results of wars are inevitable. But something more is afoot. Some liberal groups seem to almost fetishize attacking Israel even in areas where Israel is especially progressive (think openness to LGBTQ issues). Certain Christian and academic groups are targeting Israel and joining BDS campaigns, while ignoring crimes committed across the globe. It doesn’t always seem to make sense. Unless, maybe, it does.

Perhaps, part of the reason can be found in the anathema of the notion of Jewish power.

To take an interesting example: the academy doesn’t like King David. As James Kuglel sums up, “Modern scholars are divided about David. Some see him as a ruthless guerrilla…others believe the real David (if he existed at all) was a small-time politician whose military exploits and mighty empire were the creation of a later age” (How to Read the Bible, p.475). While both biblical and Jewish tradition view King David as a flawed yet mighty king who overcame his flaws to become a religious and civil world leader, in the eyes of the intellectual elite, either he was a hooligan who slowly and unjustly built his empire — or he was a myth.

There it is in a nutshell. Jewish power either doesn’t exist or it is a secretive, unjust act on the pristine world stage. The seemingly blatant bias in the supposed objective world view of biblical scholarship tells volumes. Jewish power is either a myth or a perversion — but never positive. This caricature of Jewishness stems almost directly from classic anti-Jewish tropes as absorbed into Western culture, a perversion that has even affected Jewish self-definition.

The notion that Jews should be impotent, such that if they wield power, it is a perversion of nature, finds early adherents in Roman, Christian, and Muslim cultures; however, it is most nefarious as expressed by Jews themselves. Gidon Levy, and his ilk, seem to pine for the “good old days” of Jewish powerlessness. In his latest diatribe in Haaretz, he righteously (almost religiously) proclaims, “Israel Is Reborn Into a Monster – and No One Is Going Stop It.” His claim, which permeates much of his writing over the years, is that Jews use power differently than others. Jewish power is evil and has been since before the State of Israel was founded. Prof. Marc Gopin of George Mason Univeristy points out in a Facebook comment, “one thing to remember, there is not a nation on earth that does not have a monster within, a monster that occasionally rises and terrorizes, then goes into remission,” yet Levy and many others who single out Israel for rebuke and blow the reality out of all proportion seem to see something different. For them, Jewish power cannot exist unless it is perverse. The ideal Jew, in their eyes, is powerless.

As the self proclaimed anti-Zionist and BDS supporter, Prof. Daniel Boyarin explains,

As I reflect on my coming of age in New Jersey, I realize that I had always been in some sense more of a “girl” than a “boy.” A sissy who did not like sports, whose mother used to urge me to stop reading and go out and play, in fifth grade I went out for — ballet…I start out with what I think is a widespread sensibility that being Jewish in our culture renders a boy effeminate. Rather than producing in me a desire to “pass” to become a “man” this sensibility resulted in my desire to remain a Jew, where being a sissy was all right.” (Unheroic Conduct, Prologue p. xiii)

Being Jew, in Boyarin’s world means being physically weak. A Jewish army, even one designed primarily for self defense, doesn’t fit with his “sissy” Jewish self-definition.

Although critical of the philosopher’s misogyny, Boyarin seems to find echos of truth in the self-hating Jew Otto Weininger’s (1880-1903) anti-anti-Semitism, “Otto Weininger was to write: ‘Citizenship is an un-Jewish thing, and there has never been and never will be a true Jewish State…The true conception of the State is foreign to the Jew, because he, like the woman, is wanting in personality, his failure to grasp the idea of true society is due to his lack of free intelligible ego. Like women, Jews tend to adhere together.’ Statehood would show, then, that Weininger was wrong, that Jews were not ‘like the woman’” (Unheroic Conduct, p. 284). Boyarin, then, the “more of a ‘girl’ Jew,” sees in the Jewish state maleness — and one that doesn’t sit well with him or his cohorts in Jewish Voice for Peace. Jews should not wield any form of power, and when they do, well, we know it’s just not right.

This concept of Jewish weakness, of course, is not indigenous to classical Jewish culture but, rather, an import. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the famed Church father, advocated that the disgraced and impotent state of the Jew was divine punishment to prove the truth of Christianity. In a celebrated passage in The City of God, Augustine writes,

For a prophecy about this thing was sent before in the Psalms, which they [the Jews] also read, where it is written, “My God, His mercy shall prevent me.  My God hath shown me concerning mine enemies, that Thou shalt not slay them, lest they should at last forget Thy law: disperse them in Thy might.” …although they have been conquered by the Romans …it was not enough that he should say, “Slay them not, lest they should at last forget Thy law,” unless he had also added, “Disperse them;” because if they had only been in their own land with that testimony of the Scriptures, and not every where, certainly the Church which is everywhere could not have had them as witnesses among all nations to the prophecies which were sent before concerning Christ.

(City of God, chapter 46)

Augustine theorizes that the psalmist, King David himself, prophesied the impotent state of the Jews throughout history. Augustine’s view along with those of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348 – 305/18) had a tremendously detrimental impact on the Jews in medieval Europe. Although by Church doctrine they were not to be killed, as Augustine emphasizes, their role in society was to be of wandering Jews bereft of native land or independence. Harassed and weakened, yet alive, is the proper position of the Jew.

In Islam, a similar concept found its way into the notions of Dhimmitude that applied to both Jews and Christians. As spelled out in the famed Pact of Umar, “We shall not mount on saddles, nor shall we gird swords nor bear any kind of arms nor carry them on our- persons.” Jews are not to be warriors. Power, at least theoretically, is to be denied the Jewish people.

The medieval attitude that had been primarily religious in orientation metamorphosed into the lethal anti-Semitism of the modern age. Yet, despite the change, the notion that Jewish empowerment was a perversion of nature remained. The real Jew is a weak and powerless person. A human rights crusader, who, at the end of the day, is a pacifist. Is it it any surprise, then, that the first Jew to have a chance for the US presidency declares that, “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. Judaism, for Senator Sanders, as for many other Jews, especially in the Diaspora, is defined by victimhood.

The weak bespectacled intellectual who understands the world through the lens of martyrdom is an acceptable Jew in certain circles. Woody Allen made his comic fame highlighting such characters. Sanders, ironically, realizing that Americans will not elect a pacifist to be Commander in Chief has been trying to change his image. “‘As a college student in the 1960s, he was a pacifist,’ Michael Briggs, campaign spokesman added in an email. ‘[He] isn’t now.'” So the same Jewish element that may make Sanders attractive to some invalidates his candidacy to others. Leaders need to be powerful; Jews not so much.

During Operation Protective Edge, Israel was condemned for strategically bombing Gaza to prevent Hamas from firing missiles at our civilians. Jews are to be meek and not unyielding defenders of our land. However, as Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik forcefully proclaimed,

For the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker! If anti-Semites wish to describe this phenomenon as “an eye for an eye” so be it; we will agree with them. If we wish to heroically defend our national historical existence, we must, at times interpret the verse “ an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) literally…Revenge is forbidden when it serves no purpose. However, if by taking revenge we raise ourselves up to the plane of self-defense, then it becomes the elementary right of man qua man to avenge the wrongs inflicted upon him.

(Fate and Destiny, pp. 31-32)

For Rabbi Soloveitchik — someone who supported “land for peace” — armed self-defense is not only Jewish, but a human necessity.

Many prefer the midrashic Abraham who was thrown into the fiery furnace to promote monotheism over the biblical character who girded his loins and amassed an army to go to war with kings who had kidnapped his kinsman. To be sure, many of the great European rabbinic thinkers who opposed Zionism chose the model of the pale yeshiva student over that of the tan kibbutznik, and many Jews and non-Jews alike can more easily sympathize with Rabbi A.J. Heschel walking arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. than with the warrior-turned-statesmen, Menahem Begin. But both Jewish models exist from biblical to modern times, and, in reality, we need both Moses the lawgiver and Joshua the warrior.

The notion of Jewish power and a Jewish army is not new. The way the Israelis gained independence was not unique. Yet, as Israel finds itself mired deeper and deeper in the confrontation with Palestinians, old notions of Jewish power and impotence that are grounded in anti-Semitism have gained new traction. That is not to say that Israel is unique either positively or negatively in its use of power, and I, for one, see the present situation in the West Bank as untenable for both Israelis and Arabs. Make no mistake, however: the singling out of Israel and focusing on our fringe elements, highlighting our errors, and blowing our mistakes out of proportion find their background in classical anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.

So let’s be clear. Criticism of Israeli policies, like criticism of any country’s policies, is both legitimate and sensible; however, when people, Jewish or not, attack Israel’s “crimes” of power in an unbalanced way, they cross a line. Jewish power is neither uniquely good nor uniquely evil. The focus on it, however, even by Jews, is anti-Semitism.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.