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Tanya White
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Why the progressive liberal left isn’t sympathetic to Israel’s pain

The Jewish experience has been replete with suffering, but since the time of the biblical Jacob, this people has refused to play victim
Yaffa Adar, center, being brought back home to Israel on November 24, 2023. When taken on October 7, she was photographed smiling, causing observers to ask whether she understood what was happening. Her relatives explained that she knew full well, and was defiant. (courtesy)
Yaffa Adar, center, being brought back home to Israel on November 24, 2023. When taken on October 7, she was photographed smiling, causing observers to ask whether she understood what was happening. Her relatives explained that she knew full well, and was defiant. (courtesy)

As a nation we have had more than our fair share of trauma. We know about resilience and recovery. Our identity is inextricably tied to our suffering, but it does not define us. Rather, what has defined the Jewish people time and again is their response to challenges and suffering – using it as a springboard to growth, rather than a weapon to demand goodwill. I believe this week’s Torah portion is a profound illustration of the origins of this national characteristic of resilience.

* * *

So many of our assumptions have been shattered in the past eight weeks: the security of our own hometowns, our military strength, our perceptions of the enemy. Maybe the ultimate slap in the face is the double-standard upheld by members of the Western “progressive” movement who utter retorts of “prove there were rapes,” “there’s no hard evidence of torture,” “the hostages look happy so they must have been treated well.” It is unfathomable that the progressive liberal left is demanding proof for the atrocities perpetrated in Israel on October 7th, despite the mountain of evidence: photos, videos, and first-hand witness reports. It has left many in Israel, particularly those of the liberal persuasion, bereft and utterly disillusioned. Yet this should not come as much of a surprise.

Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist whose bestselling book The Righteous Mind, was published over a decade ago, warned of the notable regression in the liberal outlook: “Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race, and more recently sexual orientation). But their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions and moral capital.”

The echo chambers of social media, as well as the collapse of the moral imagination and the basic tenets of liberal democracy have resulted in a liberal left that promotes a toxic and frankly dangerous politic of victimization. We have seen its moral bankruptcy in the two-faced standard brandished when it comes to atrocities against Israelis, which, if suffered by anyone else, would have become the darling of the liberal agenda.

The politics of victimhood occur when victim status is harnessed for political and social gains. “Blame” tactics are used to establish individual rights or a group agenda, which lead to a rhetoric of victimhood that has yielded substantial benefits at a very low cost. In turn, it results in a competitive market of victimhood, in which each group fights for greater “victim” status so as to earn higher victim capital.

This is not to suggest that we should ignore victims, or abuses or injustices. On the contrary, a society that is built on foundations of the common good, with strong social capital, will naturally make provisions for, and be scrupulously attentive to the weaker parties in its midst. But caring for victims is dramatically different from rewarding victimhood and promoting a culture of blame.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book, Morality, differentiates between victimization and victimhood. Victimization comes from without: it is circumstances that force a certain external reality beyond the individual’s control. Victimhood, however, comes from within – when one defines oneself as a victim.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his celebrated 1956 essay, Fate and Destiny, describes two experiences of suffering that illustrate this idea: that of fate and that of destiny. Those who perceive themselves as victims of circumstances that caused their suffering focus on the “why” question. Theirs is an existence of fate: they look to blame the conditions that have led to pain and suffering. In contrast, those who experience an existence of destiny rise above the conditions of their suffering, and instead ask, “What does this call me to do?” An existence of fate is backward-looking; an existence of destiny is future-oriented.

Viktor Frankl taught that concentration camp inmates who managed to survive the greatest horrors ever known to man were those who could envision a different future. They found a semblance of meaning in their unimaginable circumstances, and the suffering became bearable. According to Frankl, “man…can only live by looking to the future, viewed sub specie aeternitatis” (in relation to the eternal). And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although sometimes he has to force his mind to the task” (Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), 76). Holding on to a victim identity, by contrast, absolves one of having to work hard to take control of one’s life. Thus, victims must be granted the conditions that will enable them to heal, but healing depends on individuals themselves choosing to become masters of their destinies.

So, why is it that when Jews are murdered, raped, tortured, children beheaded, kidnapped and slaughtered in their own beds, they are not the poster children of radical liberalism that champions victim culture?

Because Jews, as this week’s parsha highlights, throughout the ages, have refused to identify as victims.

On October 7th, in the immediate aftermath of the graphic atrocities circulated on social media platforms around the world, there was shock and sympathy for Israel-the-victim. That initial sympathy was rapidly replaced with blame, reproach, and loathing on an unprecedented scale. Much of that was antisemitism, but it some of it emerged from the question of victimhood. The narrative of Israel as oppressor and the Palestinians as victims has dominated the liberal perception for over two decades, and was rekindled with Israel’s immediate self-defense against its aggressors. So, while the Israel-Palestinian conflict is far too complex for the simplistic division of oppressor and victim, or for the naïve and crude assumptions upon which identity politics and a victimhood culture are sadly predicated, once that framing was in place, there was no stopping the blame-and-shame game.

* * *

To understand Jacob, we must first look at his upbringing. His father Isaac, quite literally, undergoes a holocaust in his own father’s near-sacrifice of himself. He nearly never speaks; he remains stuck in the moment of the Akeida. Jacob, as a young lad, lives under the trauma of his father — the survivor. He desires the antithesis of his father’s life — a simple tent existence, far removed from the tempestuous experiences of Isaac. But that was not his destiny. When his mother Rebekah encourages (some say “coerces” (Bereishet Rabbah 65)) him to step outside the tent and don the “clothes” of his hunter brother Esau, Jacob departs a simple constructed reality for one of complexity and entanglement, both literally and metaphorically.

Despite Jacob’s surface reluctance to betray his father, he does so, and with that comes a lifetime of repressed guilt. Like his father, Jacob becomes the object of a plan. It would be easy for him to blame others — to point the finger at Rebekah, to claim “I had no choice, I am who I am due to the trauma imposed upon me.” Indeed, it seems that nothing heals the void of identity and belonging that haunts his existence; everything reminds him of his own act of betrayal and deception. Jacob should have left Laban many years before he did, yet living there, removed from his past, it was easy to forget his family, even his destiny. It was easy to keep repressing his memories of deceit and pain. Until God beckons him to leave (Genesis 31:3), to take control of his future.

Interestingly, he is commanded to reverse the journey of his ancestor Abraham. Whereas Abraham leaves his birthplace and father’s household commanded to “forget” in order to become renewed, Jacob is commanded to return to his birthplace and his father’s household in order to reassociate and create a complete identity. This finds expression in the narrative of the encounter between Jacob and a stranger at the river’s edge (Genesis 32:25): “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until dawn.”

If Jacob was “left alone,” who was this איש – man? The text suggests that the struggle with this “stranger” was internal. Could Jacob, as he is about to meet his nemesis (Esau) and the object of his betrayal, be struggling with the “other” within himself? The words that play off each other throughout the narrative hint to an integration of things:

שמך, פנים, פני, פניאל, שרית’ ישראל, יעקב, יבק, ויאבק

It is at this moment that Jacob becomes Israel, where the heel, the behind/after, becomes the step forwards, the straight/face-to-face. This stranger asks Jacob a startling question: “What is your name?” (32:28). It is the same question asked by Isaac at the original deception scene. This time, Jacob replies in the mode of victim, as he had come to accept and define himself: “Jacob” — I am the heel, I am behind, I am the victim of undeserved circumstances. The “other” refuses that self-definition, however, mandating a new identity: “No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed” (32:29).

There is redemption in the struggle; there is an identity that is born when we redeem victimization by choosing to counter its consequences. When we are future-oriented, envisioning a bigger picture, acknowledging the Divinity in our struggle, we are able to integrate traumas of our past into a brighter tomorrow.

Jacob understood he had a choice: to remain in the mode of victimhood, blaming the other, stuck in the past, or to nurture and build an autonomous self that takes responsibility for a life infused with agency and looks to the future. Only after he chooses the latter does he receive the blessing from the stranger (verse 30) that he had asked for earlier (verse 27). It would seem that one must be able to take responsibility for one’s actions — and future — to be worthy of a blessing. The path to true liberty emerges through a perception of self that extends beyond an experience of persecution that might otherwise yield a passive victim who receives the hand-outs that come with pity. Only once Jacob accepts who he is, what he has done, and who he can become if he puts in the work does he receive a blessing. That move from victimization to being proactive is the shift from an existence of fate to an existence of destiny. That affirmative choice transforms him into the father of a nation.

Jacob is not the same after this encounter. He limps. He has scars, he has been injured, and he is hurting. But he faced the past – and came face to face with God. He has learned that there is strength in moving past victimhood that leaves one empowered and blessed. He knows in the words of the stranger, of the repressed self, “you will prevail,” and he does — though his future is by no means easy. His beloved Rachel dies, his daughter is raped, his sons kill men in a city with whom he has business dealings, his favorite son is presumed dead, his eldest son cohabits with his handmaiden. There is no end to his suffering, yet he prevails, knowing that, ultimately, his life will be blessed and he will provide blessings for others. Indeed, the text emphasizes this wholeness when describing Jacob’s arrival in Shechem: “And Jacob came in peace (whole) to the city of Shechem” (33:18).

The completion of our national character does not come through victimhood. Rather, we surpass the trauma by integrating our wounds into the fabric of our national narrative, and become complete. We can then reassert our autonomous selves and take control of our destinies, finding meaning beyond the pain and trauma, and making a blessing out of an often seemingly hopeless reality.

This is the secret of Jewish national resilience. It is also why Western progressive liberals not only fail to understand us, but label us the oppressor. But victimhood wins the Jews no privileges either, and we can only guarantee our survival if we ensure we are no longer victims. In the timeless words of Golda Meir: “If we have to choose between being dead and pitied and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.” This outlook is counterintuitive to the politics of victimhood that permeates the progressive leftist mentality, and it is one that we have bitterly needed over recent weeks.

Thus, despite innumerable incidents of persecution, attempted genocide, discrimination, violence, and now of kidnapping, beheading, rape, burning, and other excruciating torments of unimaginable proportions, we refuse the “victim” label. We also refuse to relinquish those values of liberalism in its ideal form – equality, dignity, individual autonomy and the pursuit of the common good. It is the politics of victimization that is the cornerstone of liberal democracy, dominating liberal thinking and eroding the common good, which has been exposed through its latent antisemitism and double standards to need immediate revision.

Sometimes the conventional, simplistic, narrative is the easier way to define our story, but it is never true. Jacob, the trickster is known for the characteristic of truth (Micah 7:20) — not because his actions always spoke of truth, but because, in the authenticity of the struggle to move past the identity of victimhood towards a future-orientated life, and in the pursuit of truth lived as a struggle with men and God, he is the quintessential exemplar of personhood and autonomy. Never easy, never simple, never clear. He demanded a blessing but only left complete when he realized that the true blessing comes not only from without, but also from within.

May we have the strength, fortitude and resilience to be able to integrate the struggles we face into the rich fabric of our national narrative, and eventually emerge whole.

About the Author
Dr. Tanya White is a lecturer in Tanach and Philosophy and a Sacks Scholar. She is currently a senior lecturer at Matan, LSJS and Pardes and acts as scholar in residence for many communities in Israel and abroad. Tanya has published numerous articles in books and on social media. To contact her or read more of her ideas visit her webpage www.tanyawhite.org
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