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Is It Good or Bad for the Jews?

20 April 2002

When my grandmother heard a surprising piece of news, she asked only one question: Is it good or bad for the Jews?

Here is a surprising piece of news. The other day, at my university, chalked messages appeared on the sidewalk urging an end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories. One went so far as to call the Israelis Zionazis. Some Jewish leaders complained to university administrators that these messages created a hostile and threatening environment, an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for Jewish students. Meanwhile, other messages appeared on the sidewalks reading, Happy Birthday, Israel. The administrators had university personnel erase the messages critical of Israel - but not the Happy Birthday chalkings.

My grandmother's question is rolling around in my brain: Is it good or bad for the Jews? To many Jews, it may seem just fine that students will not be provoked to think critically about Israeli policy. But that conclusion is most short-sighted.

In the long view of history, whenever the authorities start deciding whose opinions are acceptable and whose are not, it is usually the Jews opinions that are ruled out. All too often, that has been a prelude to the Jews themselves being ruled out. Book-burnings, inquisitions, and all forms of official censorship are simply bad news for Jews.

But the danger to the Jews in this incident goes much deeper. Why should political speech create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation ? No doubt you read and hear a lot of political opinions very different from your own. Sometimes you may feel upset, even outraged, but not threatened or intimidated. You understand that a free exchange of ideas - even outrageous ideas - is the lifeblood of democracy. You feel afraid and threatened, as you should, only when the authorities stifle the free exchange.

Why, then, do some Jews have trouble tolerating free speech, the obvious first rule of democracy? Many (though by no means all) U.S. Jews have been raised in a culture of victimization. They have been taught to be constantly on the lookout for signs of anti-Jewish feeling. They have been told that this feeling is everywhere, that too much (perhaps most) of the world is against them. Being constantly on the alert, they have little trouble finding the signs they are looking for.

People who feel like permanent victims always live in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, because they create that atmosphere for themselves. They carry around their own hostile and threatening environment, wherever they go. And it frightens them. It is a self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating prophecy.

Israel's policies, including the horrors on the West Bank, flow largely from such a culture of victimization. Convinced that they are victims, most Israelis see themselves pitted against an eternally hostile world. They have no choice, it seems to them, but to strike back and to ignore pleas for restraint. It all seems morally justified, as long as they and not the Palestinians are the victims. The same culture of victimization leads many U.S. Jews (though fewer than before) to support Israel s actions.

Like all victims, many Jews crave understanding and then, when they get it, refuse to believe they are understood. The world's pleas for restraint, for conciliation, for a more humane policy, are most often accompanied by sincere commitments to Israel s security. Yet when they reach many Jewish ears, the commitments are not heard. The words are taken simply as more proof that everyone is against the Jews, and Israeli violence seems even more justified. The inevitable result, of course, is more Palestinian violence and more deaths on both sides.

For Jews, the only way to break this cycle is to break through the culture of victimization. That would be a valuable step toward ending the violence and making Israel more secure. It would also enrich and enhance the lives of Jewish people.

In the fearful atmosphere of victimization, creativity is constricted, joy is stunted, and happiness is hard to hold for very long. That atmosphere has taken a heavy toll on Jewish life, robbing it of much creativity and joy. It has alienated many Jews from the community that is their birthright. To accept free speech, no matter how outrageous, as a positive good would be a valuable step toward reversing the trend of victimization and the cycle of Middle East violence.

Perhaps Jews might even learn to tolerate the seemingly intolerable slur, Zionazis. No, Zionists are certainly not Nazis. But Elie Wiesel wondered aloud, in his novel Dawn, whether a Jew who kills in the service of the Jewish state has stooped to the level of a Nazi. If our greatest Jewish writer could raise the issue, surely it can be tolerated on the sidewalk of a university campus, our most precious citadel of free speech.

Ira Chernus
Published by © Ira Chernus 2002

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