Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jewish Reaction to Obama's Speech

Actually it is the authors of these articles who have their information wrong. While the desire to re-settle in the ancient holy land has indeed existed for Jews as a more abstract concept for millenia, it didn't manifest itself as a viable political movement until the 19th Century. There are several underlying causes for this:

1) For thousands of years - from the Roman diaspora of the first century A.D. through the Napoleonic Wars - the vast majority of Jews in the Western world tended to live in densely populated neighborhoods in and around major European cities. These neighborhoods were known as ghettos (a term coined in Venice), and because of the hostility with which Jews were treated by the outside world, an insular lifestyle developed within those ghettos that caused Jewish history to develop almost parallel to that of the rest of the European world, with the two worlds intersecting only when persecutions occurred (which was almost every year, and often quite bloody) or when external pressing circumstances (wars, plagues, et cetera) made it inevitable. That changed with the gradual emancipation of the Jews from their ghettos and their consequent integration into the social, political, and cultural lives of the nations in which they lived. Once that happened, the Jewish community as a whole began to develop a distinct awareness of a potential political identity as part of the larger Western world, and that awareness - when fused with the nationalistic fervor that was sweeping across Europe at the time and the humanitarian sentiments that had been stimulated by the American and French revolutions - ultimately resulted in a more tangible desire for a homeland of their own.

2) A moral as well as purely political justification for a homeland was injected into the equation with the wave of anti-Semitic persecutions brought about by the Russian pogroms of the late-19th Century, the Dreyfus Affair in late-19th/early-20th century France, and countless other lesser known but equally disturbing anti-Semitic movements that convinced many of West's finest thinkers that the creation of a separate nation for Jews was the only way to bring about an end to such oppression. Theodore Herzl was the most famous advocate of this point-of-view, which he came to after witnessing the humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus firsthand. The Holocaust was the final act that made it seem clear to the rest of the world that a Jewish state was necessary to bring about an end to history's longest on-going ethnic prejudice, although it must be made clear (as Obama did) that it was only the culminating event, and not the sole catalyst.

In my opinion, there is a unique and largely undiscussed for Jewish sensitivity to the remarks made by President Obama in Cairo, one that cuts to the core of the American Jewish experience. The American ideal, as every citizen of this nation knows in his heart, is that of human freedom and equality of rights; the Jewish identity, as every Jew knows in his mind and with his viscera, is that of being victimized and oppressed. When you take a group that has personal oppression as such a strong part of its identity and move it to a country that has as its core value the championing of human rights, what you end up with is a community that will defy demographic logic and adopt a strong left-wing political character as part of its collective sense of self. That is why you find an average of three-out-of-four Jews supporting the liberal Democratic party over the conservative Republican party in every presidential election since 1928, despite the fact that as white well-education white-collar professionals who on average earn much more than most Americans, Jews should vote Republican (as do all other groups who fit those demographic criteria). That is why, even as pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC strongly supported President Bush's war effort in Iraq, polls consistently showed that Jews were more opposed to the war from an earlier time than any other religious or ethnic group in America. That is why Jews are more pro-choice than any other religious group in America, more pro-gay marriage than any other religious group in America, and participated in the anti-Vietnam and pro-civil rights protests of the 1960s and 1970s far out-of-proportion to their numbers. All of this traces back to a key aspect of the American Jewish identity - the idea that no matter how economically successful, socially influential, or politically powerful any individual Jew may be, he or she is always at heart a member of an underdog group, and thus morally obligated to throw his or her lot in with other underdogs, wherever and whomever they may be.

In light of this mindset, it becomes easy to understand why some Jews dislike Obama's speech. The idea of the oppressed becoming the oppressors, the valiant champions of human freedom becoming its extinguishers, the long-standing opponents of Southern segregation and South African apartheid becoming the perpetrators of their own form of apartheid, does not sit well with the American Jew's sense of political self. It goes against the grain of how we view ourselves. Can we still consider ourselves one with the oppressed of the world if one of our most prominent communities in the modern world is guilty of such wrongdoing? Does that negate the thousands of years of previous persecution, or somehow make it so that we can no longer claim that by-and-large we are history's victims and not its villains? How do we reconcile who we have been for thousands of years with the human rights violations being committed by Israel today?

There are two ways of addressing this problem. The first is by pointing out that only an anti-Semite of the most vile sort would believe that somehow the wrongs committed by Israel makes less valid or tragic the persecution Jews have suffered throughout the world over the millenia. If indeed a ledger is to be kept for our small tribe, with one column chronicling the sufferings we have endured at the hands of others and the other recording the sufferings that we have forced on others, the former would so outweight the latter that it would literally take five thousand more years of Palestinian oppression just to make them even (sixty years is a drop in the bucket when taken into comparison). Anyone who says that the essence of Jewish history is no longer that of the perennial victim, but is now that of the victimizer - or who attempts to even minimize the injustices and suffering borne by the Jewish community, both past and present - is either an idiot or a bigot, and in both cases is exposed by his own ignorance to be unworthy of further consideration.

The other point that needs to be made is that Jews are human, and like all human beings, can make mistakes. While it may be an uncomfortable fact, the reality is that Israeli Jews are guilty of oppressing Palestinian Arabs, be it by building ever-growing settlements on their land, by forcing them to labor under humiliating legal restrictions, by reacting to terrorist attacks with force so disproportionate that it forces hundreds of innocents to pay for the evil of a few transgressors, and in general by behaving toward the Palestinian Arabs in a manner sadly similar to the way in which South African whites treated South African blacks during apartheid.

This is not to say that Israel hasn't also been the victim of disgusting atrocities at the hands of neighboring Arab countries and Palestinian terrorist groups, or that it hasn't contributed much which is positive in science and culture to the modern world, or that it isn't a stalwart ally (as President Obama has often pointed out) to this country, or that it isn't a thriving democracy which (ignoring its mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs) actually has a glowing human rights record when it comes to the government's relationship with its own citizens (far better than any other nation in the Middle East). Nor does it change the fact that many critics of Israel, on the left and on the right, in this nation and throughout the world, use anti-Zionism as an excuse for anti-Semitism, first by focusing Jew-hatred solely toward the Jewish state but then finding clever ways of extending it toward the Jewish community as a whole. All of these statements are true, and are frequently cited by Israel's defenders when that nation's errors are pointed out. Yet none of these truths change the fact that the situation faced by Palestinian Arabs is a grave moral wrong, and that the actions of Israel's government is in many ways responsible for those wrongs. While many American Jews recognize this and thus demand change in that region, many others enter a state of denial, and instead take to shooting the messengers who speak this truth, and rationalizing what they know in their hearts to be wrong by rewriting history and spinning the present. That is, in short, why President Obama's speech has stirred up such a negative reaction among American Jews - by criticizing Israel's treatment of the Palestinian Arabs, he appears to flout a key element of the Jewish identity. Because that aspect of the Jewish identity has long been flouted by real anti-Semites (who after all can't justify hating Jews if they admit that Jews are one of history's longest-standing victims, and therefore generally spin or outright lie about this fact), it is easy to simply say that Obama's perceived flouting of it makes him at best a naive fool who is playing into the hands of the Jews' enemies, and at worst a bona fide anti-Semite.

The problem is that this simply isn't true. Although some critics of Israel are anti-Semitic, many of them, including President Obama, are not. Although the overwhelming fact of Jewish history has been the oppression of our people, that doesn't mean that we aren't guilty of being oppressors in this situation. Most important of all, if human suffering is being forcibly endured anywhere in the world, then it is incumbent upon all men and women to fight to bring that suffering to a close, and to end all of the injustices which are responsible for its initial perpetration. American Jews, because of their unique identity, have historically have met this challenge with a consistency and strength that gives us justifiable pride; with Israel we face our toughest moral challenge. I hope that our reaction to the message of Obama's speech will ultimately be a positive one, so that when we look back at this chapter of our history, we will see that moral challenge as one which we not only met, but transcended.

1 comment:

MAX said...

I don't think I've ever heard a more eloquent and needle-point-precise explanation of the current American Jewish quandary over the Israeli-Palestinian situation. You also pinpoint the origins and philosophy of the American Jewish political and social identity with impeccable clarity. Amid all the partisan and religious noise that saturates the media every day, it's a piece like the one you've composed that should be on the front page of every newspaper in America. Bravo!