January 25, 2022

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The Shame of Israel: Panic in a Crooked Mirror


The Jewish World has just published a version of the article below in the Adar I 5776/March 2016 issue, dedicated to The State of World Jewry, with other essays by Jack Engelhard, Lisa Klug, Manfred Gerstenfeld, Dov Fischer, Ari Soffer, Alex Maistrovoy, Steven Apfel, and Michael Freund. Below is a longer version of the article with more links.

On the American-Israeli Jewish Divide

Jewish anti-Zionism and Proxy Honor-Murder

Peter Beinart has written many a piece about the growing split between American Jewish youth and Israel, which he sees as the inevitable cost of Israel’s failure to make peace with the Palestinians, on the one hand, and the long-term effects on liberal sentiments of seeing an Israeli Goliath bullying the Palestinian underdog, on the other. This “youth,” according to Beinart has “imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights.” Studies show Jewish youth “resist anything they see as ‘group think’… want an ‘open and frank’ discussion of Israel and its flaws… and desperately want peace.”

To these folks, raised on bedrock values, every effort of Jews to defend Israel by criticizing the Palestinians offends their sense of fairness: blaming the victim is not a winning strategy. Beinart asserts:

For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.”

Given a choice between Zionism and liberalism, American Jewish youth choose the latter.

For Beinart, at least, the case is pretty open and shut. Israeli political choices are illiberal, bad, and her politicians act in bad faith. The split between American Jews and Zionists, therefore, is inevitable. Beinart has little sympathy to the plaints from Israel that the neighborhood here does not permit such simplistic naïveté. Not much room in this worldview for Palestinian, Arab, contributions for the endlessness of the conflict, for their poisonous hatreds, for their insane religious violence. Don’t blame the [perceived] victim. Look at your own extremists which, you too have. Israel, says Beinart and a generation of Jewish critics of Israel, should act like a liberal, or lose our affections.

To which the obvious response from here is, “Are you kidding me? Do you know what we’re dealing with here?”

To which the apparent response is, “No. And I’m not listening… Nobody’s hearing nothing.”

But why? Why do you turn a deaf ear on us, your family, trying to explain how hard it is to maintain good, liberal values in this neighborhood? Why will you cut us no slack? Why do you join groups that claim they’re “pro-Israel, pro-peace” when they relentlessly criticize us, and team up with groups that hate us? Why do you stay silent when the US and Iraqi troops devastate the city of Ramadi, when you shouted “War crime” from the rooftops when Israel did a fraction of that damage in Gaza? What is going on here?

In a reported exchange, a J-Street organizer explained their self-perception vis-à-vis Israel:

Well, I’m the head of the J Street club on my campus and what you don’t understand is that we see Israel as our younger sister. We want our younger sister to be better — we love her and care about her.

Maybe that’s what you do in your neighborhoods (not!), but around here, you don’t show love and loyalty to your sister by trash talking her so you can hang out with the people who like to slander your sister. On the contrary, that kind of talk will get her killed much faster, because of the peculiar power here of shame and the overwhelming desire to annihilate such feelings, no matter what the actual circumstances.

The Shame of it all: Panic in a Crooked Mirror

A significant amount of this “split” in the American Jewish community between liberals and Israel can be understood not as a response to real problems in Israel – of which, like any country, especially one at war with her neighbors, there are many – but as responses to feeling ashamed of her. The feelings stem not because of what Israel has (often enough not) done, and certainly not in comparison with the behavior of our neighbors, but because of “how it looks” to outsiders. Shame comes from looking bad – awful – in the eyes of people whose opinion matters. When it comes to the emotion, it matters little what actually happened. In the most toxic of honor-shame communities, men kill their daughters and sisters not because they did something shameful, but because others think it, true or not.

Since the beginning of the “Al Aqsa Intifada” (aka the Oslo Jihad), when the pictures of a 12 year-old Palestinian boy, cowering in fear behind his father, “gunned down in cold blood” by the IDF, hit the news media, and brought to prominence the “Israeli-Goliath” school of lethal journalism, Jews the world over have felt, and continue to feel horror and shame at how Israel looks in the global media mirror. The drumbeat of accusations against Israel for unspeakable brutality in the mainstream news media (MSNM) – Jenin Massacre, Gaza open-air prison, child-killing – replicates no patterns of journalistic reporting from a war-zone, but rather the messaging of Jihadi war propaganda.

The result, people, especially people with a gripe against the Jews, take these lethal narratives as true, as accurate descriptions of what’s going on in the lands between the two rivers. When I gave a talk in 2007 in Europe and called Al Durah a “blood libel”, one of the participants objected: “It’s not a libel: Everyone knows that every day the IDF kills children.” QED.

There is not a Jew alive, who doesn’t live under the cloud of the ferociously negative depiction of Israel in the global public sphere of the 21st century.

Some of us were in our prime when it started, others of us grew into a changed world.

Wherever you are today, O Jew, you live in the shadow of this great mainstream news media shaming.

How we all responded and continue to respond – individually and collectively – will define our generation’s contribution to the history of the 21st century, the global century, or, as some of us optimists might like to think, the first century of the 3rd millennium, the first global millennium.

When the wave of lethal journalism first hit, most Western Jews, endowed as they are with a moral imperative to have for compassion for the “other”, felt shame. Those Jews whose identities were also highly invested in realizing this compassion with and through the global progressive left (GPL), felt the greatest shame.

Those Jews with a more tribal attitude of, “in a war, I’m on our side,” pushed aside such feelings, understanding that sometimes, you have to defend yourself violently, that angélisme is not an option.

More broadly, however, among the non-Jewish GPL, the attitude was unconflicted. Siding with the Palestinians became a litmus test. Zionism became a dirty word, in some cases a global villain, a Nazi avatar, an incarnation of evil. If there were liberals unhappy with this “demonization” campaign, they did not speak out very loudly, or, put differently, their voice was muffled.

And of course, all Jews, no matter what their political beliefs, found it hard to see picture after picture, hear story after story, read analysis after analysis, that depicted Israel as a bully Goliath beating up relentlessly on a Palestinian victim… Israel as the wholesale murderer of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians, of children, for heaven’s sake! Even if only half of what the media reported were true, that’s just so painful, and certainly supports the widespread consensus that Israel is the primary “roadblock to peace.”

One sees this shame at work in a recent piece by Yosi Sarid, one of Oslo’s most fervent architects, in response to Israel’s refusal to take in refugees from Syria: “My Love for Israel Has Been Replaced by Shame.” Just as Israel’s taking in Vietnamese refugees (however few) made us all proud of them and our country, so Israel’s refusal to take in Syrian refugees makes him feel shame. Of course, given that on the one hand, Israel has been providing medical care for wounded Syrians for years, and that, on the other, taking in Syrian Muslims is categorically counter-indicated by circumstances visible to anyone, the depth of Sarid’s shame seems a bit extravagant:

I love you no longer, my homeland. This is no longer “my country.” As far as I’m concerned, you can scream or be silent – do whatever you want, unbeloved land. The place of love has been taken by shame. I am ashamed, which means I still care, it still hurts, but less. See how you look, our little country, our petty country.

When we feel like this, we must ask ourselves: how much of this is shame stems from “how Israel looks” rather than than what it has really done? How much of this pain reflects our loss of esteem in the eyes of those who matter to us, even if we are not “guilty” of a fraction of what they think of us guilty? And how often do we hasten to gain their favor, by admitting to accusations that are not true nearly so often as our journalists tell us?

When it comes to dealing with being publicly accused, Jews by and large prefer public self-criticism to violence. Like Judah, who preferred the public shame of admitting that Tamar was more righteous than he, over the public “honor” of burning her alive in order to wipe out his family’s shame in the public eye… like Joseph’s brothers in their recognition of their guilt and Joseph’s willingness to forgive their genuine regret… Jews tend to prefer admitting wrongdoing. God, we believe, like any good parent, much prefers repentance to punishment.

  • But to whom does one repent? And for what? And what is that deep desire for approval that drives us to conspicuous self-criticism?
  • One’s own needs?
  • The demands of justice?
  • One’s people’s needs?
  • And how do such various needs play in our choices of whose approval we seek?
  • Who is our honor-group…  those that are the result of moral revolutions? or those that refuse to undergo moral revolutions?

When Beinart formulates the dilemma of Jewish liberals and progressives as: having to “choose between principles and family,” he actually misstates the dilemma. The liberals who think they “choose principles” by supporting the Palestinian leadership, actually side with demonizers who victimize their own people, and have contempt for both liberal and Jewish principles. In so doing, they become dupes to a demopathic discourse in which jihadi war propaganda set the moral frame: Israel=evil, Palestinians=innocent victims. No move could have put liberal and Jewish values at greater risk.

Proxy “Honor-Killings”

When liberals hear about “honor-killings” (really shame-murders), they feel horror: kill your daughter or sister for having shamed the family?! And when they find out that families kill their daughter for shaming the family even if she has done nothing, but merely stands accused by public opinion, they are even more horrified. Parents kill their daughters and then have an autopsy to see if they’re virgins, or kill them even though they passed a virginity test? Who would do that? Only people driven by concern for their honor in the eyes of their community.

And yet, I think, a closer look at the behavior of some prominent voices among Jews, suggests that similar dynamics were at play in their “progressive” anti-Zionism, in which their hostility to Israel reflects not who she is, or what she has done, but their own concerns to wash their face that, in their minds, Israel has so terribly blackened. The problem is not those who criticize Israel, but those who do so constantly, obsessively even as they tolerate, encourage, even rejoice in the smearing of one of the world’s most progressive states, as racist and Nazi-like. Shmuel Trigano calls them alter-juifs; Anthony Julius call them “scolds”; Edward Alexander calls them “Jews against themselves.”

These passionate critics say they model themselves on the prophets. But they keep company no ancient prophet would ever have tolerated. Prophets of yore lived between deserted places and their own people’s public sphere, where they rebuked the people. These post-modern critics, on the other hand, disparage their people in the public sphere of their enemies – a stance that’s hard to call an act of “prophetic love.”

These Jewish scolds, apparently, find it hard to bear the shame of having a family member – Israel – viewed by others as a brutal and heartless Goliath. It has produced a bumper crop of “Theobald Jews” who “as-a-Jew” feel compelled “catch-the-Jew”, to bear witness against their own people in front of a hostile world audience. These are Jews who are proud to be ashamed to be a Jew, because it shows how “good” they are. They get lionized by outsiders with a worrisome appetite for stories about Jews behaving badly: they are righteous Jews, they have the moral courage to accuse their own people.

Tuvia Tenenbom explains how such Jews, worn down by the constant accusations, end up embracing them instead, and clean their (own) blackened face by scanning constantly for ways to catch another Jew misbehaving.

It’s a mental problem… For 2000 years Jews have been persecuted, for 2000 years they have been told taught it’s they are the worst… Some people cannot handle it and you get a kind of Stockholm syndrome, and they say: “If everyone in the world says I’m bad, that I am ugly, a thief, a murderer, horrible shrewd person, a money grubber, I am. What can I do to cleanse myself of it?” And what do they do? Catch another Jew doing wrong… that makes them feel better, makes their ugly skin feel better.


Demonstrator during the Operation Protective Edge, July 2014

Israel’s “war machine” is insatiable? What universe do you live in? Certainly not the one where you listen to the insatiable talk about war among Israel’s enemies.

What better symbol of shame at a malevolent rumor than this sign?

And for someone so deeply shamed, what does one do with a family member who has brought this shame on the family in the eyes of the outside world? Most of the tribal customs in this region of the world, allow, expect, even demand, that one kill that shaming member in order to restore the family honor. And this, I suggest, is what drives more than one anti-Zionist Jew to his or her progressive positions.

Of course, a Jewish honor killing cannot possibly be like gentile honor-killings. Unlike the inhabitants of this region, who actually kill their daughters and sisters, those Jews feeling such horror at being shamed, like Judith Butler and “Jewish Voice for Peace,” are avowed pacifists. God forbid they should lift up an actual sword and slay anybody, much less their own people!

But they find the shame unbearable. So they have to outsource the job of execution to a proxy.

Thus, Butler in 2006 welcomed Hamas and Hizbullah as “part of the global progressive Left.” In doing so she embraced Jihadi forces that betrayed every fiber of progressive values, and, perhaps not coincidentally, people who really do have both the constitution and the will to kill Israel. Post-modern honor-killings are done “in the name of peace,” by remaining resolutely non-violent, and assigning the task to a killer proxy.

The corrosive irony, of course, is that by empowering such a proxy killer — one who also hates progressives, democracies, indeed, any unsubjected infidel, these people – the Jewish self-accusers and their Schadenfreude-drunk audiences plunge together down a suicidal path.

This deep shame that we all feel, is, I submit, the force driving a wedge between American Jews and us Israelis, including ABIs. American Jews may be able, in Beinart’s words, to have a healthy “skepticism about the use of force”; Israeli youth actually have to put those scruples to work on a regular basis in a battlefield, with neighbors bent on our destruction.

So why cannot American liberals listen to someone who tells them that, given the real world challenges, Israel has a record that stands up well against any other nation in world history, including the current progressive models? I think this “deaf ear” comes less from the clash between liberal principles and Israel, as Beinart frames it, but between Israel and maintaining American (and other diaspora) Jews’ face in that progressive community, the image of oneself as good people, as liberals, progressives, citizens of a peaceful, responsible, global community. It matters less to them that Israel is, in fact, an amazingly progressive society, than it matters that Israel appears to be an ugly, malevolent Goliath in the eyes of their honor group.

The real, inevitable, imperfections of the “body” Israel, therefore, get filtered through the eyes of the most offended peer group. It’s enough to turn us all into anorexics, disgusted, betrayed by our bodies as we imagine they appear to others.

The tribal response, the “normal” human response, to open, us-them, conflicts, is to rally round one’s family, clan, people: “my side right or wrong.” This tribal response represents a widespread, common human one. And yet those who think along these lines are often dismissed contemptuously by Jihadis and Post-Zionist as “Israel-firsters.” And yet, in pushing a masochistic self-criticism, these same critics flip into “Israel-lasters” whose default mode is [a suicidal] inverted tribalism of “their side right or wrong.”

The Way Out of the Matrix

So how do we navigate between this Scylla of refusal to take any responsibility and the Charybdis of taking it all on “our” shoulders?

For one thing, we who remain relatively sane, must rebuke those driving headlong in either direction. We should collectively rebuke Jews who rage against peoples and religions, no matter how justifiably furious they might feel at the violent hatred directed against them.

But we must also rebuke those (largely assimilated) Jews who, in the name of the Jewish people, spread hatred of Jews among gentiles. And certainly anyone dedicated to a peaceful century/millennium should be wary of people who offer their compulsive (self-)accusation to audiences eager for reasons to hate the Jews.

Above all, we must face the shame and ask ourselves:

  • What are we ashamed of?
  • Whom are we trying to please…
  • to appease…
  • From whom are we trying to gain approval?
  • How do we respond when we hear “bad news” about Israel?
  • Have I, perhaps, in escaping the “Jewish firster,” tribal, group-think, fallen into our enemy’s far more vicious group-think?
  • What are the limits to our self-abasement before our people’s accusers…?
  • Just how much “group think” have I been drawn into?
  • How much of what I hold to be true yields to peer group pressure?

I am personally convinced that many of the West’s many ills in this baleful century, are related to, or mirror the Jewish tendency of dealing with shame, even unjustified shame, by compulsive conspicuous, self-criticism. Since the millennium-turn, this dynamic has turned a generation of progressives, increasingly straight-jacketed by a mafia-imposed “political correctness,” into “objective” dhimmis: they cede to Jihadi aggression in exchange for peace. And one of those concessions the Jihadis demand is that the West throw Israel into their devouring maw. It is perhaps significant that both Said and Derrida were born and raised in dhimmi cultures.

Until we learn how to be fair to ourselves as well as others, those we have hurt, we cannot possibly contribute to an effective tikkun olam.

  • For the sins we have committed against you and all the people of Israel by uncritically believing accusations against them…
  • For the sins that we have committed against you and all the people of Israel by demeaning Israel in order to win the favor from people who hate us…
  • For the sins we have committed against you and all the people of Israel for losing patience with fellow Jews for disagreeing with us…
  • For the sins we have committed and will commit against you and all the inhabitants of the world, in being merciful to the cruel and cruel to the merciful…
  • For the sins we have committed against you and all the inhabitants of a peaceful world, who, in our shame, we lead to ruin at the hands of war-mongers.

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