Men reading selichot -- Jewish penitential poems and prayers said leading up to the High Holidays -- at the Western Wall before Rosh Hashana.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For thousands of years we as Jews have felt oppression on our skins, and have likened ourselves to the persecuted people par excellence. In the eyes of others we have likewise become the archetypes of affliction and victimhood. In many ways, such sentiments are completely warranted. We have suffered through exile, prejudice, horrifying pogroms and the Holocaust – mankind’s darkest hour, history’s lowest of lows. As a people we have endured more collectively than any other.
What came of it is that many in the Jewish world automatically equate being a Jew with being a victim. Victimhood has become so fully ingrained in our experience that it seems like one thread in the Jewish fabric that simply cannot be extricated. If you tug at it, the whole quilt of our history and culture would unravel in an instant.
At the individual level, every Jew has felt the weight of our past travails and the resulting anxiety about the how the future will unfold. Each one of us has witnessed how the idea of being a victim has worked its way up into our core, burrowing itself into our thoughts and become part of daily life.
How have we coped with this pervasive feeling? Like most people who have been wronged, we’ve adopted a blaming strategy. It is the perfect short-term solution, and I am certainly not exempt.
It’s like a tiny injection of moral righteousness that gives you a temporary high, a friend who never lets you down. Furthermore, this little shot of rectitude can be applied to history, our sense of victimhood, but also to everything that goes wrong in our lives, as well as to present agitations.
For example, if you listen to the news or open up a newspaper in Israel you will likely come across a story on antisemitism. An American university is hosting a boycott activist who made derogatory quips about Jews, or various leaders are slammed for not condemning such statements, or a rapper spewing anti-Israel hatred is set to perform in a theater funded by the city of Berlin. The list could go on, and versions of these stories appear every day.
Don’t get me wrong – it is right to be vigilant, raise awareness and call out these hateful ideologies. The issue, however, is that deep down inside most of us know that in the long run the blame game does not and won’t take us anywhere. Generating outrage should not be our focus.
Until we actually take responsibility for our lives, we won’t be able to locate and incrementally move toward the good life. Taking responsibility is more of a present-tense action. Our past courses through our blood and should never be forgotten or diluted, but it is out of our hands. Now, we get to choose what it means going forward. How do we react to what we’ve inherited? What can we do despite what has befallen us?
This is the liberating thing about choice or realizing one has a choice – it’s the moment when the clouds dissipate to reveal the majestic peaks in the background, if that doesn’t sound too cliché. Yet it’s true. The difference between being a victim and assuming responsibility for your life and therefore being a free person is a matter of choice. And the more we opt for responsibility and less for the victim narrative and strategy, the more leverage we will have over our lives, how to change things and how to pursue directions we deem most promising.
So for this Rosh Hashana, let’s try out a little experiment (it’s also my personal resolution). I want to urge the Jewish People to choose not to be victims anymore. Also, looking at our present reality, support for the victim narrative should be eroding. We live in a time with the most freedom of choice, security and opportunities for us as Jews. We also have a strong Jewish state to ensure and protect these privileges.
And so this year we should make a choice, both as a people and as individuals: we should start the new year by assuming full responsibility over our lives. We must never forget the past, but building around and dwelling in that part of our identity should not be our priority.
We should instead make a conscious choice not to be victims. By conscious I mean sitting down with ourselves and engaging in a serious dialogue over who we are as a people and in what trajectories we would like to move. By doing so, we can choose to be radically free, to open up an infinite realm of possibilities, and forge ahead in new and unexpected ways.The author is president of the Nadav Foundation and chairwoman of the board of directors of the Museum of the Jewish People – Beit Hatfutsot.