It’s Hard to be a Jew

Schwer zu sein ein yid—“It’s hard to be a Jew”—my Yiddish-speaking grandmother used to say. In Eastern Europe, where she grew up, it was a saying well known to every Jew, and with good reason. Jews were marginalized and discriminated against—if not flat-out persecuted—in her time.

My grandmother knew nothing about historic times of harmony between Jews and their gentile neighbors; she knew only about her own experience, and that of her parents and their parents, as far back as anyone could remember. In living memory, it was simply hard to be a Jew.

It is still hard, though for reasons my grandmother would never have guessed. She could not have known that, a century after she came to America, her grandson would feel so much at home in the predominantly gentile society. She could not have imagined that I would find it hard to be a Jew—not because we are discriminated against, but because we ourselves have become the oppressors.

Indeed, that fact is what makes me feel most different from non-Jews. When Israeli planes drop bombs on crowded neighborhoods, and try to justify it with a mix of truth and lies, they act in my name. Israel (so its government says) is the homeland of every Jew, the place we can all go for refuge when every other place rejects us. It’s precisely to keep this refuge safe for us (they say) that the bombs must be dropped and innocents killed.

But it’s not as if I have any say in this. The only government I owe any allegiance to is the US government—which is, of course, also busy killing people in my name and with my dollars, without asking my permission. How busy? My government won’t tell me. It’s bad enough knowing that Iraqis and Afghans are killed in my name. It’s worse to have no idea how many have died, nor who the victims were, what they looked like, where they lived, or how painfully they died.

When Israel kills in my name, at least I get an approximate death toll. And occasionally I get human names and faces attached to the act, like the little girls who were found clinging to their mother’s corpse or the boy whose arm was eaten up by phosphorus burns. Still, knowing that Israel blocked medical supplies and volunteer medical teams from entering Gaza; that Israeli snipers targeted ambulance drivers; that Israel’s blockade still deprives so much of Gaza, including its hospitals, of electricity and running water—it’s hard to take.

The other thing about the violence in Israel—unlike the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is that it has had strong support among Israeli citizens as well as among American Jews. So it’s not merely that a government kills in my name. The Israeli government can honestly say it has been doing the will of the people; at least, a solid majority of the people. According to the New York Times’ man on the spot, Ethan Bronner, polls showed some 90% of Israelis support the war, most of them quite strongly. “Flags are flying high,” he reported during the Gaza attack. Not everyone flew that pro-war flag, though. And those who protested the war saw its effects most clearly, the way it damaged not only Palestinians but Israeli Jews too.

Don’t Bother Us About Compassion

Among the protesters, I’m glad to say, was my brother-in-law, who has lived in Israel for 35 years. A few weeks ago he wrote to me: “Our conflict with the Palestinians has eroded Israel’s moral compass. We as a people have become more ruthless, more willing to tolerate the killing of innocent people to attain our goals. We’re like a character that has gone on a drunken binge and suddenly become desensitized to other peoples’ suffering, only because we cannot believe that we ourselves are inflicting it.”

Some Israeli intellectuals saw the Gaza attack inflaming that tragic pattern. Gideon Levy, a writer for Israel’s premier newspaper Ha’aretz, began a column: “This war, perhaps more than its predecessors, is exposing the true deep veins of Israeli society. Racism and hatred are rearing their heads, as is the impulse for revenge and the thirst for blood. Don’t bother us about humaneness and compassion. Only at the edges of the camp can a voice of protest be heard.”

Standing on those edges, political leader Yossi Sarid described (with pained sarcasm) what he saw as the average Jew’s thinking: “In Gaza they are digging graves these days for small sizes too, this is the latest fashion there. The begetter of all this will no longer boast of the-most-moral-army-in-the-world; let us be grateful for having rid ourselves of the burden of this superlative… Jewish morality was to our detriment, and weakened us… We have consciously decided to relinquish our inborn moral supremacy.”

Many Jews do resent the idea that, because Israel is a Jewish state, it should be held to a higher moral standards than other nation-states. The original driving force behind the Zionist movement—the call for the Jews to have a “normal” nation, an amoral nation, no better or worse than any other—is still very much alive, especially in Israel. That makes it easier for most Jews to support a war, and harder for me to be a Jew.

In this respect, America is different. While some Jews here are willing to take the fully amoral route, most still expect their Jewish identity to be somehow linked to morality and ethics.

To understand what’s going on in the American Jewish community, I can rely on my own experience. I am part of the minority who called for an immediate end to the attack, for the sake of Israel’s security as well as Palestine’s. We recognize that violence can only beget more violence. And while it inflicts grievous physical wounds on the victim, it also inflicts a grievous moral wound on the perpetrator.

The number of American Jews who see and say this is steadily growing. So it’s not as hard to be a Jew speaking out against Israel’s wars as it was thirty years ago or more, when I entered what was then the almost invisible world of American-Jewish peace activists. Israel has always had its peace movement. Now we in the United States are catching up. We have groups like Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Jewish Voice for Peace, and others, that speak up for the primacy of conscience and Jewish ethical teachings.

Yet we are still a small minority. The pro-war rallies held by Jews in the United States were much larger than the anti-war gatherings. A staffer with a Jewish organization in a small, quite liberal university town told me with deep distress of seeing a reversion to a militaristic, almost primal mindset in the Jewish community. A rabbi critical of Israel’s attack told me of feeling virtually no support in the Jewish community, and plenty of animosity. All of that is hard.

Yet here in the United States, we scarcely dare utter in public words like Yossi Sarid’s, Gideon Levy’s, or my own brother-in-law’s. When you are wounded and can’t tell anyone about your wound, that’s even harder.

It gets harder still when I reflect that, as a scholar and writer, I’m supposed to be able to explain things. How can I explain this? I listen to Israelis like Moshe Halbertal, a philosopher at the Hebrew University, who told Ethan Bronner that “Israelis feel like the tiny David faced with an immense Muslim Goliath.” How can that be, given the immensely disproportionate Israeli firepower so visible on our television screens every day? Israeli peace activist Rabbi Jeff Halper explains that it comes from a deep-seated fear: “There is in Israel a deeply held assumption that Arabs are our permanent enemies… This whole idea there’s no partner for peace has been internalized by Israelis. Everything has been reduced in Israel to terrorism because Israel has eliminated the political context of occupation.”

I know that the same simplistic “us versus them” thinking is all too common among US Jews too. I know that reducing political complexities to mythic stereotypes always dehumanizes the other. But why is there so much stereotyping and so much blindness to the way it dehumanizes us, too? From time to time I try to explain it. Then I feel dissatisfied and try again. But in the end I admit that I don’t understand it. I probably never will.

All I know for sure it that is hard to get up every morning and read the latest news, whether it’s from Gaza and the West Bank, where the suffering remains beyond my capacity to imagine, from Israel, where the new government is likely to be a stumbling block to peace, or from the American Jewish community, where it still takes courage just to speak out for the prophetic values of justice and peace.