Scanning my shelves this week for volumes I could donate to a book sale, my eye fell on the title I am Jewish. This compilation of thoughts and reflections from public figures and private individuals on what their Judaism means to them was inspired by the last words of American journalist Daniel Pearl to his captors – “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish” – before his brutal execution by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.
The book felt especially relevant now, amplifying recent thoughts of my own as my husband and I spent the weeks from mid-June to late July traveling in North America and then in England, all the while following the ongoing war against Hamas that was unfolding back home.
We were endlessly frustrated by the way the war was being viewed, in Europe especially, its verdict on Israel’s belated response to Hamas’s ongoing rocket fire more or less set early on by The Guardian’s Owen Jones, who compared Israel’s defense of its threatened civilian population to “Mike Tyson punching a toddler, followed by a headline claiming that the child spat at him.”
I couldn’t help recalling my father’s wry summing-up of the traditional Arab take on the conflict with Israel: “It all started when they hit us back.”
As for the accuracy of the toddler image, the Owen Joneses in Britain and elsewhere might care to read “Terrorist armies fight smarter and deadlier than ever” by military experts Robert H. Scales and Douglas Ollivant in The Washington Post of August 1.
AS EUROPEAN empathy with Israel, already scant, drained almost totally away and a tsunami of anti-Jewish hatred rolled across the continent, it became distressingly clear that, as British journalist and commentator Melanie Phillips put it, “the always paper-thin ‘anti-Zionist but not anti-Jew’ excuse has been stripped away.”
Or as I remember Charles Krauthammer opining memorably about the five or so decades that had elapsed since World War II – his view supported by my own experience of growing up in England during that period – that for half a century, Europe’s shame over the Holocaust had kept anti-Semitism submerged, but now the “natural order” of things, i.e., Europe’s hatred of the Jew, had reasserted itself.
And indeed, cries of “Jews, Out!” “Hitler was right” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” are being heard at huge, raucous demonstrations in major cities – and not only in Europe – the ranks of Jew-despisers, thugs and general ignoramuses swelled by hordes of aggressive home-grown Muslims and useful idiots. Unsurprisingly, violence against Jews has surged.
“Instead of clarifying in no uncertain terms the unacceptability of this bigotry in civilized societies,” wrote Efraim Karsh in The Jerusalem Post this week, “western elites have treated these recurrent hate fests as legitimate, if at times excessive, manifestations of solidarity with the Palestinians, thus providing a safe environment for outright anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior.”
WHAT ARE Jews to make of this dismal, dismaying echo of the 1930s? Wherever they have chosen to live, it seems that today there are essentially two basic Jewish choices of attitude: to be cowed, or to be proud.
In 2014, we Jews cannot allow ourselves to be cowed by vociferous outpourings of hatred, nor let ourselves be demoralized by what Europe is letting itself become – that self-abasement is cause for Europe’s own belated regret and shame. Rather, we ought to be proud of being that great and splendid survivor of others’ best efforts to wipe us out.
Plainly, there have never been any guarantees of individual Jewish survival; but the story of Jewish continuance throughout the ages and against all odds does seem to point to Jews as a people having an ongoing destiny, a role to play in the ongoing theater of human existence.
WHICH BRINGS me back to the Daniel Pearl-inspired I Am a Jew, and to some contributions to that collection that feel as immediate, and every bit as relevant, as they were when the book was published a decade ago.
For American author Francine Klagsbrun, being Jewish is being part of a people that gave the world monotheism and the Torah and changed the course of civilization.
“Ah, you say, but that was long ago. What has ancient history to do with being Jewish today? “My answer is that from those ancient teachings stem spiritual and ethical ideals that still challenge us to live up to our fullest human potential. From the Hebrew Scripture comes the concept that every human being is created in the image of God.
“On one level, that means that each person, no matter how lowly, is worthy of respect and consideration. On another level... it means recognizing a spark of divinity within ourselves and reaching for the best we can be, in relation to ourselves and to others.
“I am Jewish – and I say those words with passion, pride, and awe at their profundity.”
Actor Richard Dreyfuss deals summarily with “the weird ones of the world, those who are often pictured holding a gun to the head of a [bound captive]. These come and go, for millennia.
Deservedly so. The Jew, the One they try so hard to kill, he remains, for millennia. Forever. Deservedly so.”
Ruth Wisse is professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She cherishes most of all “those of my fellow Jews who settled and who maintain the State of Israel, which I consider the highest manifestation of the human spirit in modern times....
“Not since the Romans crushed the second Jewish commonwealth have Jewish soldiers been able to protect the Jewish polity from its enemies. It goes unappreciated that these defenders of Israel are also the front line of defense for the democratic world.
“No Jew should have to affirm his identity in response to a knife at his throat” (as Daniel Pearl did).... “Those of us who live outside Israel should be confronting its defamers no less vigorously than the Israel Defense Forces resist invaders and terrorists. I consider it my highest duty and priority as a Jew to oppose the propaganda war against the Jewish state.”
Without naming names, American author Cynthia Ozick appears to be admonishing those bands of selfrighteous Jews, in Israel as well as in the Diaspora, who feel that the best and most moral way to be a Jew is to be ever harshly critical of Israel’s actions, holding Israel to a double, unrealistic standard it cannot attain.
“A moment may come when it is needful to be decent to our own side, concerning whom we are not to witness falsely or even carelessly to prove how worse we are.... Thinkers are obliged above all to make distinctions, particularly in an age of mindlessly spreading moral equivalence. ‘I have seen the enemy and he is us’ is not always and everywhere true; and self-blame can be the highest form of self-congratulation.”
I HAVE, in the past, called Israel “the great Jewish adventure of our time,” and that it most assuredly is.
But this latest, just war against a merciless and manipulative foe and the civilized world’s mostly hostile reaction to Israel’s defense of its civilians has led me to add to that definition.
Israel is, sadly and perhaps inevitably, the great Jewish necessity of our time.