In the wake of the gruesome and indefensible murder of five Jews in Itamar, the banner of Jewish victimhood has been raised once again. It has long been axiomatic in the Middle East that “to the victim belongs the spoils,” and in the past, such horrible attacks have given Israel’s defenders an opening, however brief, to appeal to the world’s conscience. But lately it’s been harder for Israel to do that, in part because (thankfully) the rate of terrorism has plummeted.
In addition, the revolution sweeping through the Arab world has been replacing the culture of victimhood with one of empowerment. Millions of Egyptians, no longer pawns of great powers and corrupt dictators, are now the masters of their own fate. Blood feuds are dissolving and violent cycles of protest and retribution are being shunned.
Democracy is still a work in progress in the Arab world; dangers abound, but the cult of victimization is being largely discredited. For Israel to survive in the post-Cairo era, and for the next generation of American Jews to remain Jewish, it is essential that we also shed this victim’s mindset for good.
Instead, however, the cry of victimization has intensified. With terrorism waning, the focus of that cry has shifted to anti-Semitism: while they may not be killing us as much, they still really hate us. We obsess over each off-color quote from Charlie Sheen, Julian Assange, Helen Thomas or John Galliano. Every swastika scribbled on a student’s locker is presented as proof that even fourth graders despise us.
Last summer, a young Israeli named Yedida Freilich wrote a song, “Only Israel,” which went viral on YouTube: 400,000 hits in less than two weeks. It was a powerful, haunting indictment of the world for holding Israel to an unfair double standard following the Gaza flotilla incident:
“Only Israel has no right to defend herself,” she sang. “Because the world cares nothing about Jewish blood.”
But do they really hate us? Read how the American Muslim’s editor responded to Itamar: “The recent murder of the Fogel family … was a criminal act of the worst order. Whoever carried out this brutal murder needs to be found, tried, and if found guilty, executed. There is no justification for such an act of brutality.”
Yes, some people do detest Jews. But we’ve been hated for millennia. And guess what? We’re still here! Get over it!
There are many who love us. Hey, Chelsea Clinton married one of us. Amare Stoudemire signed with the Knicks and discovered his inner matzah ball. But even given that some despise us, the important question is, how do we respond to all the hatred in this world in a manner that enhances our humanity and expresses our deepest values?
“Save me, O God,” says Psalm 69, “for the waters are flooding my soul.” The paranoia of the pariah is threatening to flood our souls, generating a spiritual tsunami of fear that could destroy us. A skeptic might wonder whether we in fact take perverse pleasure in being demonized, because it allows us to demonize in return and enables us to stoke anger, send out panicked e-mails and raise money. Victimhood is toxic, and if this culture is allowed to dominate, we will lose our kids, we will lose Israel, and we will lose a tradition that for 3,000 years has preached that the best response to hatred is to turn enemies into friends.
We need to love not simply because it’s a good political strategy — which it is — but because it is right and it is the essence of our faith. What Israel did in rushing rescue teams to Haiti and Japan came right out of the Jewish values playbook. It was the right thing to do, just as rescuing Ethiopian Jews, including many of dubious Jewish lineage, was and remains the right thing to do. Just as caring for African refugees and the children of foreign laborers is the right thing for a Jewish state to do.
It’s not enough simply to love our neighbor. We have to try to love everyone, not just the person who lives next door. Not just a fellow Jew. And even if we can’t love them, we have to treat them with dignity. We should reach out even to those whom it might be hardest to love: the stranger, the indigent, the immigrant, the Muslim or Christian, the Jew from another denomination, the sinner, do-gooder, the office snitch, the teacher’s pet, the right wing activist, the left wing activist, the enemy, the former friend.
Last April I escorted a group of teens to Poland on a pilgrimage designed to memorialize Jewish victims. But plans changed when on the day after our arrival Poland was plunged into grief by the plane crash that killed their president and many other leaders. We had every reason to remain suspicious of a nation that had participated in the murder of so many of our ancestors. But suddenly we were emissaries from the Jewish world at the Polish national shiva. Recalling the Polish pope who cried and begged forgiveness at Yad Vashem, I embraced our guide and pledged solidarity with him in front of the teens. His tearful reaction confirmed to me — in Krakow, of all places — that it is time for Jews to shed the cloak of victimhood.
After the Tucson shootings in January, President Obama had the perfect opportunity to accuse his political enemies of incitement. He chose not to, and as result, the nation united behind him. Following Itamar, Prime Minister Netanyahu did precisely the opposite, invoking pre-Cairo reasoning in a post-Cairo world.
Golda Meir used to say that we will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.
Maybe peace will also come when we learn to love their children too, nearly as much as our own. That will happen when we toss aside the mantle of the victim for good.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.