Saturday, October 14, 2023

In This Moment: There's a Reason They Call it "Knee-Jerk"


There's a reason they call it "knee-jerk"

When Black Lives Matter desecrated the memory of 1,300 murdered Israelis, does that mean I was a jerk to take a knee in solidarity with BLM after George Floyd's killing?

Back in 2020, while Covid’s rage prevented my congregation from gathering for the High Holidays, and the rage over George Floyd filled me with indignant rage at America’s unrepentant racism, I took a knee during a landmark Rosh Hashanah sermon, in support of Black Lives Matter.

I never regretted that gesture until last week, when a congregant who recalled that sermon sent me the now infamous meme released by BLM Chicago following the slaughter of 1,300 human beings by Hamas.

Frankly, when I saw it on X (formerly Twitter) I thought it was the product of a Russian or Chinese disinformation campaign, so I did not respond to the congregant. Why play into the hands of bad actors who are trying to manipulate us, to get us to mistrust one another more than we already do?

But I subsequently learned that not only is it authentic, but that BLM Chicago was shamed into taking it down. In this “gotcha” world, however, an ill-advised posting needs only offend for a moment to remain a stain forever. So the damage was already done. And it caused me to wonder, as a Jew and proud Zionist who believes in social justice for all peoples, and who wishes to partner with like-minded people, who my allies really are. Do I regret having taken that knee back in 2020?

Spoiler alert: I don’t. But I do think there are lessons to be learned from the way people have responded to the unprecedented events of October 7. Yes, what happened last week was unprecedented, at least since Babyn Yar, Kamenets-Podolsk and the Nazis’ infamous “Harvest Festival.” But while the drama was unfolding, people rushed to judgment, as if this were a round of Jeopardy with our hands fidgiting on the buzzer, with no time to waste before getting it out there. “I’ll take ‘shooting up a music festival’ for $200, Alex.”

When the news first came out that Hamas had committed an act of terrorism, everyone automatically retreated into their partisan corners, as if this was “just another” terror attack, a blown up bus, a kidnapped soldier, a decapitated journalist. Of course those are all horrific, but the responses are also rehearsed, mindless and Pavlovian. Shock, indignation, bothsidesism, “context,” moral equivalence, rinse and repeat. At first there were “only” a hundred known dead. A hundred dead Jews - no big deal. That’s probably when the BLM meme-ologists went to work on their snarky drawing. Then 250. Then 500. Then 900. Then, perhaps at long last, shame.

There’s a reason they call it “knee-jerk.” Of course it is all about the reflex test everyone has taken at their doctor’s office. But knees can’t offend anyone, unless they make contact with another person’s groin. When our response to anything is reflexive (as opposed to reflective), we are bound to make mistakes and sound idiotic. BLM Chicago’s response was classic knee-jerk. It may even have been well-intentioned, but so was the French army’s defensive strategy in May of 1940. The strategy was absolutely correct - for the prior war.

BLM must have mistakenly thought their fight was against George Wallace or David Duke or Benito Mussolini, and on behalf of Uyghurs or the Tutsi in Rwanda, or even Palestinians other than Hamas; but not on behalf of homophobic, racist, antisemitic genocidal killers who had just shown the entire world their true colors. God did not implant brains in our lower extremities, so when you try to think with your knee, you often end up looking like a jerk.

Knee-jerk reactions are not just the domain of the left. Oftentimes, the response to the response is even more vitriolic than the original, because the responders have been lying in wait. BLM acted unthinkingly, and the right wing media industrial complex was ready to pounce, because it is always ready to pounce. They were salivating (there’s Pavlov, again), just craving a progressive knee to jerk around. And so they jumped and sent the BLM meme far and wide, because that’s what they do, in the hopes, perhaps, of convincing a few Jews like me to break historic alliances with people of color and vote Republican next time. Clearly, Donald Trump did not get the memo, as he excoriated Israelis and American Jews repeatedly last week during our darkest hour, while President Biden became Israel’s new bestie.

While all this righteous indignation was going on, Israelis were burying 1300 grandmothers, Holocaust survivors, peace party goers and babies, and praying for their captives. And they were doing the moral thing by warning Gazan civilians to get out of the way before the tanks roll in.

BLM Chicago pulled its meme, just as a number of Harvard groups pulled their support from an outrageous statement signed originally by more than thirty student groups, including the Harvard Islamic Society, Harvard Act on a Dream, and Amnesty International - Harvard, calling Israel “entirely responsible” for the ongoing violence in the region. Apologies all around would even be better, but BLM. did say they “weren’t proud” of what they did. That may have to suffice for now. And presumably, many of the Harvard signees have expressed extreme regret privately - at least to the corporate execs who have threatened to blackball them.

We all do it. We all respond too quickly and occasionally misstate. We all have knees and those knees jerk. And because of the exponential acceleration of information zapping at us, much of it designed and targeted to appeal to our least rational impulses, it’s happening all too often.

But responsible media outlets should know better, and with regard to Israel especially, they need to stop relying on facile presuppositions when dealing with the unprecedented. Pundits can’t speak of a “disproportionate response” here, as they may have in the prior Israel-Hamas wars, because there is nothing on earth other than the carpet bombing of Dresden that would rise to the level of a proportional response to the horrors inflicted on October 7. What Israel is about to do in Gaza will be brutal, and in terms of numbers of casualties perhaps unequal, but it can’t even approach proportionality in terms of the cruelty inflicted.

Maybe we have to go biblical for an apt comparison to what the IDF is about to do in Gaza. We can compare it to Samson knocking down the pillars of the Temple of Dagon - which took place in Gaza.

But unlike the modern Israelis, Samson didn’t warn the spectators to leave the area or knock on the temple’s roof, and unlike Samson, Israel, though maimed, is not suicidal.

When Joshua came to Jericho he circled the walls for seven days, and then seven more times on the final day. Sounds like an ancient version of Sukkot, the festival when October 7 occurred. He gave the residents plenty of notice. But unlike modern Israel, Joshua didn’t set up a casino in Jericho that made Palestinian leaders wealthy, or repeatedly extend an olive branch in the hopes that someone would be receptive to peace overtures.

If we are going to go biblical, we also have to consider Moses, the original knee-jerk thinker, who, when he was commanded to speak to a rock in order to bring forth water, let himself be guided not by his noggin but by pure muscle memory, striking the rock as he had done before. He should have known that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Black Lives Matter should have known that past impressions often have nothing to do with current scenarios.

Over the past week everyone has stayed true to their uncontemplative bot-think: the progressives, for trying to defend the indefensible, the right-wing media, for their knee-jerk demonization of the libs, and even the centrists, for lying in wait to jump down the throats of the left and the right. Maybe I’m part of that latter group, but at least I try to look before I leap.

Maybe, just maybe, the pending invasion of northern Gaza will give the long-suffering Palestinians living there a chance to rid themselves of those who have inflicted so much pain for so long: Hamas. Maybe it will shake the Egyptians, Saudis and others to come to the table and forge a comprehensive solution to regional issues. Maybe it will tilt the tables against Iran. Maybe it will lead to a more moderate, Bibi-free government in Israel, ready to seal the deal with the Saudis.

Or not.

We have no way of knowing. The only guarantee is that if we allow ourselves to be sucked into Pavlovian thinking, where every impulse goes from our social media directly to the amygdala, we’ll all end up looking like jerks.

Literally, as I was writing that last sentence, a text came in from a Black minister friend with whom I engaged in a lengthy and public dialogue during the Summer of George Floyd:

praying g for u and the community. How are you and is your family in Israel ok

I’ve gotten similar call-outs this week from others in the Black community - but coincidentally, none of them on X. These acts of empathy come from real people, not bots, and are not propagated by media masters of manipulation.

I’ll still ally with Black Lives Matter, if they will align with me. If they can learn from this unfortunate chapter, maybe we can all humbly heal from this unfortunate Wounded Knee, and be a little less jerky.

In This Moment

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