Peace with Realism

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Jewish Self-Criticism and Anti-Semitism

By Carlos

Forty-five Jewish intellectuals in Britain have formally renounced their right to Israeli citizenship.(1) One of these, Steven Rose, a Jewish science professor, has been organizing a cultural boycott of Israel and has gotten the support of at least nine Israeli academics.(2) Among his supporters are members of a group called "Jews for Justice for Palestinians."

These events in Britain are not unique. There are a number of Jewish organizations and web sites criticizing and even condemning Israel. Many of these just repeat Palestinian propaganda (for example, criticizing Israel for blocking the movement of ambulances during Operation Defensive Shield, while omitting the fact that Palestinians were violating international law by using those ambulances to smuggle terrorists and arms). One can observe almost an eagerness among some Jews to get on the anti-Israel bandwagon. Because this creates very bad public relations for Israel, it needs to be addressed. Often these anti-Israel partisans are dismissed as "self-hating Jews." Whatever truth such labels may contain, using them is too easy. The phenomenon deserves more careful analysis.

It is remarkable that this intense Jewish self-criticism has no parallel on the Arab side. There is no Arab "Peace Now" movement. There is no "Arabs for Justice for Jewish Victims of Terrorism." The agonizing soul-searching and self-questioning that many Jews experience about the Middle East conflict is simply not evident in the Arab world.

One might draw a superficial conclusion: all this Jewish dissent proves the justice of the Arab cause and the injustice of Israel's. Since even many Jews, including some Israelis, oppose Israel's policies, this should show that Israel is wrong!

Well, hardly. All it shows is that Jews are more willing to question themselves.

Dissent within Israel is often explained by saying that unlike every single Arab state, Israel is a democracy, and so tolerates dissent and the expression of opposing viewpoints. This is true, but there is something even deeper at work. We see far more Jewish self-criticism because self-criticism is a quality with roots deep in Jewish tradition and the Jewish national consciousness.

Self-criticism is in fact one of the great contributions of the Hebrew scriptures. While the records of other ancient civilizations are mostly self-laudatory, the Bible faithfully records the Jewish people's criticism of itself. There is no true parallel anywhere to the prophetic figures who arose to denounce the corruption and decay of their own society as the cause of its impending downfall. And ever since that time prophetic Judaism has inspired movements for social justice.

Passages like the following are both stinging and inspiring:

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

"Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Isaiah 58:1-8

This is typical Isaiah: criticizing both social injustice and religious hypocrisy. The people did not listen to Isaiah, and society did not reform. How remarkable it is that these words of social criticism were preserved as holy scripture!

But as history progressed, a strange thing happened. The new religions that claimed continuity with the Hebrew scriptures did not adopt this tradition of self-criticism, but instead used it against the very people who preserved it and brought it to the world. Much Christian anti-Jewish preaching is known for quoting the words of the Jewish prophets against the Jewish people, and has accused the Jews of being a rebellious people who murdered its own messengers crying out for justice. The roots of this attitude go back to the New Testament itself. The following parable of Jesus, whatever its original intent may have been, has been interpreted precisely in this manner:

He began to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out.

"Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.' But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, 'This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.' So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others."
Luke 20:9-16

This is how the parable came to be understood: God sent his messengers, the Jews mistreated them, so God rejected them and gave their inheritance to others.

This theme is even more explicit elsewhere in the gospel and in the book of Acts.

Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.
Luke 11:47-48

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Luke 13:34

In Acts the faithful Stephen addresses the Jewish crowd:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.
Acts 7:51-53

Bible scholars are divided as to whether all these sayings are authentic or are a backreading of later Christian anti-Jewish trends. The question certainly cannot be decided here. The point is that self-criticism, a great strength of Hebrew society, has been turned on its head and used against the very people who were courageous enough to expose this quality to the world.

I was once invited to a service at a prestigious Protestant church in New York City and was appalled to hear the following words spoken from the pulpit and interpreted as criticism of present-day Israel:

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.

The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!...

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
Isaiah 1:1-4,15-18

How fortunate for Arab public relations that Muslim tradition has not encouraged such uncompromising self-criticism! How unfortunate for the Jews that they actually admitted their society has flaws. The prevailing attitude seems to be: the Jews brought self-criticism; self-criticism is good for the Jews, but not for anyone else.

The charge of rejecting, persecuting, and murdering their own prophets has been leveled against the Jews throughout the tortured history of Jewish-Christian interaction. The record is available and there is no need to summarize it here. However, it is important to note that this use of Jewish self-criticism against the Jewish people found its way into Islam, and is fixed in the Qur'an.

They were covered with humiliation and misery; they drew on themselves the wrath of Allah. This because they went on rejecting the signs of Allah and slaying His messengers without just cause. This because they rebelled and went on transgressing.
Qur'an 2:61

We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of messengers; we gave Jesus the son of Mary clear (signs) and strengthened him with the holy spirit. Is it that whenever there comes to you a messenger with what ye yourselves desire not, ye are puffed up with pride?- Some ye called impostors, and others ye slay!
Qur'an 2:87

We took the covenant of the Children of Israel and sent them messengers, every time, there came to them a messenger with what they themselves desired not - some (of these) they called impostors, and some they (go so far as to) slay. They thought there would be no trial (or punishment); so they became blind and deaf; yet Allah (in mercy) turned to them; yet again many of them became blind and deaf. But Allah sees well all that they do.
Qur'an 5:70-71

This attitude is not confined to the Qur'an but even today finds expression in Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment. One Islamic religious leader said in an interview:

The Jewish element is as Allah described when he said: "They disseminate corruption in the land." We know they have always broken agreements, unjustly murdered the prophets and betrayed the faith. Can they be expected to live up to their contracts with us? Their people murdered the prophets; do you think they will stop spilling our blood? No. (3)

These scriptural quotations as well as subsequent history show that Christianity and Islam, two great religious traditions that have roots in Judaism but that claim to go beyond it, have failed to learn and incorporate Judaism's great gift to the world, consciousness of the value of self-criticism. Instead of seeing prophetic Judaism and its courageous self-criticism as an example to emulate, they misunderstood it and used it as a weapon against the Jews themselves. They forgot that it was the Jews themselves who recorded and preserved these terrible self-criticisms. They forgot that it was the Jews themselves who told the world that they mistreated their prophets. The prophets made the criticisms, but it was the Jewish people who made sure they would not be forgotten. This was a tremendous advance in human history, a check against the self-justifying ego, which left to its own impulses can rationalize every manner of evil and destruction. Yet this was not seen as a strength but as reason for condemnation of the Jews throughout history. People with no self-criticism have condemned the Jews for being critical of themselves!

And so it continues today. In the Jewish community, in Israeli society, there is dissent and self-criticism, which is often mistakenly interpreted as evidence that the Israeli cause lacks moral foundation. But it is really the absence of significant self-criticism in any part of the Arab world that should be cause for suspicion and doubt. When dissent is suppressed, when tribal values take precedence over concern about what is morally right - that, not self-criticism, is evidence of a cause that lacks moral foundation.

The implications of all this are deeper than we may realize. Human nature loathes self-criticism. It will do almost anything to avoid it. And so there is a natural antipathy to the message of prophetic Judaism. This message is effectively neutralized through a clever misunderstanding: Jewish self-criticism is not a message for the world, but for Jews only! If Jews have revealed through their scriptures their own criticisms of themselves, then they deserve the criticism - and even condemnation - of the rest of the world. And so the world protects itself from the Jewish message by failing to understand its real meaning: self-criticism is good for them too.

We now come to the deep psychological root of anti-Semitism. Modern anti-Semitism has largely been a Christian phenomenon. Many Christians simply could not forgive the Jews, Jesus' own people, for not accepting him as their Lord. While this is true enough, it leaves much unexplained. The Nazis were not Christians. Many who are anti-Semites are not Christians. There must be something else that explains the enduring power of anti-Semitism, and the outrageous double standard by which Jews have always been judged.

There is something in the dark side of the human psyche that needs to negate, to delegitimize, the Jewish message of self-criticism. We have seen how Christian and Muslim tradition have done this by turning it against the Jews themselves. The dark side of the human psyche that cannot stand to look at itself also cannot stand the messenger who asks it to do so. And so this dark side will always hate the Jewish people and the message of the Jewish scriptures.

This explains the irrational double standard to which Jews have always been held. Look at what is happening in Israel today. The Arabs have rejected genuine offers for peace, have tried repeatedly to obliterate the state of Israel through wars and terrorism, have killed hundreds of innocent civilians and have permanently disabled thousands more, and the world utters hardly a word of protest. In contrast Israel does not try to wipe out its neighbors, does not intentionally attack civilians, and yet so many people are only too eager to condemn Israel with boycotts, sanctions, and Security Council resolutions. They may not even be aware of what fuels their passions. But it must be something deeply imprinted in the psyche, something dark and irrational; otherwise it would be impossible to explain the callous disregard of the facts that these critics of Israel never fail to exhibit. None of these critics has ever addressed the obvious: If the Palestinians were to stop fighting, they would have their state. If the Israelis were to stop fighting, they would lose theirs.

The harshest critics of Israel and the Jewish people seem to be those with the least moral restraint. The Nazis are an obvious example. This seems true also in much of Arab culture, where values of kinship and tribal loyalty trump any sense of moral obligation. And so, despite all the evidence, it could not have been Arabs who flew those planes into the World Trade Center - it must have been the Jews: this rumor has gained currency throughout the Muslim world and is still taught and believed in many places. And despite all the evidence, the Egyptian copilot could never have crashed that Egypt Air plane on purpose. Arabs can do no wrong. Self-questioning is not a part of the culture. It may even be considered traitorous.

It is not just the Jews but self-questioning itself that must be blotted out. So the human psyche devises an effective way of doing this: the moral double standard. Put Israel on a moral pedestal, "honor" her by expecting more of her than of anybody else, and then watch her fall. Attack and attack and attack until Israel must defend herself, then condemn her for it. See, Israel committed massacres in Jenin (conclusion drawn before all evidence to the contrary was in), Israel does "targeted assassinations" (that is, goes after the perpetrators rather than innocent bystanders) - this proves that Jews are no better than anybody else, they are just like the rest of us! So much for self-questioning! It doesn't work for the Jews, so why should anyone else have to engage in it? Sweep the Jews and their self-questioning into the dustbin of history.

The Jews are hated not because as people Jews are different from, better or worse than anyone else, but because the message of Jewish tradition is so dangerous.

And so what can we say about those Jews who want to boycott Israel or renounce their Israeli citizenship? They are right to be concerned about doing what is moral and they are right to question themselves. The error they make is to fall into the same double standard that has historically been the tool of anti-Semites. They condemn Israel for the defensive measures it has taken against terrorism without making at least an equal stand against terrorism itself. This last is the giveaway: Whatever they may think of Israel and its policies, why do they not also push for a boycott of Arab countries that support and fund terrorist activities?

Some Jews seem to have learned the lessons of their tradition too well, bashing themselves against not only their own self-interest but even their own survival.

It is difficult but necessary to maintain a balance between the moral imperative to subordinate self-interest and the legitimate concern for one's own survival. No one has the obligation to die for the irrationality of another. The great sage Hillel is known to have said: "If I am not for myself, then who is for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I?" These two interests are equally important and must be kept in balance: concern for the other and for oneself as well.

Criticizing Israel does not make one an anti-Semite. But criticizing Israel according to an unrealistic and unfair double standard is the very essence of anti-Semitism. Israel is not above making mistakes, just as no country is. But to those who are quick to condemn, who want to boycott Israel or fire people because they are Israelis or who support unquestioningly the Palestinian cause, I would only ask: Are you absolutely certain you are judging the Arabs by the same standard with which you judge Israel? Have you questioned yourself?

August 2002


1. Steven Morris, "Jews in UK Renounce Right to Live in Israel," Guardian Unlimited, August 8, 2002.

2. Tovah Lazaroff, "European Academics Call for Cultural Boycott," Jerusalem Post, April 13, 2002.

3. Interview with Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Al-Gamei'a, Al-Azhar University Representative in the U.S. and Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque of New York City, October 4, 2001, Middle East Media Research Insititue, Special Dispatch No. 288, October 17, 2001.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism