Thursday, March 24, 2011

The New Middle East and the Culture of Victimhood (Jewish Week)

In light of this week's terror attacks, I've updated my Jewish Week column: Itamar, Cairo And The Culture Of Victimhood. This updated version will appear in the Week as well.

In the wake of the murders in Itamar, the rocket attacks on the south and the bombing in Jerusalem, 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, at least until now, the rate of terrorism had plummeted.

In the past, terror attacks have targeted the peace process, looking to sway the Israeli electorate rightward before elections. The current attacks have come at a time when peace prospects are already dim and Israelis are not voting. But there are elections coming up – in Cairo. Hamas is playing for the Egyptian vote on behalf of their Moslem Brotherhood buddies. Stiff Israeli reprisals would be just what the doctor orders to sway that watershed June election toward the extremists.

Hamas’ desperate move only highlights the potency of this historic moment and why it is so important for Israel to set its sights on Cairo as well. 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 – and that is something the extremists cannot tolerate.

Despite the terror, Jews need to resist the temptation to return to the trenches. To navigate the post Cairo era, it is essential that we shed the victim’s mindset and present ourselves to the world as ambassadors of love and respect, not as history’s Rodney Dangerfield. Here in America, that means fighting delegitimization with reasoned calls to dialogue, with events like the “Israel-Palestinian Peace Weeks” that have been popping up on college campuses, which are successfully neutralizing the confrontational bluster of “Apartheid Week.” It also means obsessing less over each anti-Jewish quip we hear from celebrities like Charlie Sheen, Julian Assange, Helen Thomas and John Galliano. Every slur scribbled on a student’s locker should not be presented as proof that even 4th 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.”

There are many who love us. Hey, Chelsea Clinton married one of us. Amare Stoudemire signed with the Knicks and discovered his inner matza ball. A 2009 ADL survey revealed the lowest rate of American anti-Semitism on record, just 12 percent. But even given that some despise us, the real important question is, how do we respond to hatred 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 emails 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. 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.

We have to try to love everyone, not simply our neighbor, and if we can’t love them, at least 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. Who knows what would happen if he suddenly pulled a Sadat and reached out, not as one of history’s eternal victims, but one uniquely empowered to break the cycle of hate.

I plead with the Prime Minister to do that now. For I believe that such a bold
gesture would play well in the cafes of Cairo and not be seen as a sign of weakness – and that it would ultimately save many innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives.
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, at long last, we toss aside the mantle of the victim forever.

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