The mindless masses

A majority of the murderous will vote for murder.

hamas rally 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
hamas rally 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The parliamentary electoral victory of an unrepentant terrorist movement in the Palestinian Authority has created much chagrin. The specter of a future Palestinian state's government pledged, as is Hamas, to the murder of Jews and the destruction of the Jewish state is obviously vexing to civilized observers. But the Palestinian vote scandalized many for another reason, too. It created a crisis of conscience among people who had put their trust in the inherent virtue of democracy. Those trusting souls have now been rudely disabused of the noble but benighted notion that, given the opportunity to express its collective will, groups of human beings can be expected to do so responsibly, and with some semblance of civility. Alas, that bubble has burst. The secret is out: What a large number of people may want to do needn't equate with what they should want to do. A majority of the murderous will vote for murder. Masses, as the saying goes, can be... donkeys. It is a truism, in fact, whose brutal brunt has been felt by Jews on many occasions in the past, when great masses of populations - whether Christians in the early Middle Ages, or Muslims a bit later, or modern European nations in later centuries still, or Communism until less than two decades ago - decided that members of the universal scapegoat-people deserved to be oppressed or killed. So the grand democratic expression of Palestinian will did not come as a great shock to anyone familiar with history (or, for that matter, Palestinian aspirations). AS IT HAPPENS, the idea that a majority's will need not equal right, or even decency, is central to Jewish thought. Abraham was called the Ivri - from which our word "Hebrew" derives, but which can be literally translated as "the man of the 'other side.'" The "Ur-Jew" (pun entirely intended) was so called, explains the Midrash, because "the entire world stood on one side, and he on the other." The majority was wrong, and the minority - of one - right. The people that would emerge from Abraham's son Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob came to occupy a similar place, standing in stark opposition to the "majority opinion" of a largely idolatrous and immoral ancient world. That, it can well be argued, remains the mission of the Jew: To stand apart - and up - for an ideal: honoring and serving humanity's Creator. It is a mission that is no less pressing today. Ours, after all, is a world that worships the material, idolizes the inane, scorns modesty and hallows gratification. The Jewish mission is to be an example of holiness, to affirm eternal truths, unpopular though they may be to those who crowd bustling bandwagons. Judaism declares that we are here to serve, not to get. That the true heroes are the selfless, not the self-centered. That the human body is holy, not a billboard. And that principle should trump pleasure. And it speaks as well to issues of the day - often, again, from the "other side" of where society has chosen to stand. Judaism teaches that, even if it may sometimes be justified, killing the unborn is an evil, not a right. That homosexuality is a challenge to be met, not an "alternative" to be celebrated. That marriage is the union of a man and a woman. That life, even compromised, is priceless. And that science is a means through which to gain awe for God's Creation, not a contrivance with which to try to deny Him. JEWS WERE chosen to champion such ideas. Unfortunately, though, some heirs to the Jewish religious tradition seem more attracted to the masses than committed to the mandate. Some of us even stand at the very forefront of contemporary efforts to embrace democratically-derived decadence. That does not do our collective mission well. But even Jews who fully acknowledge what their heritage has to say about larger societal issues can be "majority fools" too when it comes to other matters. When, simply because "everybody does it," we treat synagogues like lounges, conversing when we should be praying or paying attention, we are doing anything but emulating Abraham. And when, with similar servility toward "the mainstream," we squander money on frills and status symbols instead of investing it in helping others, we are similarly falling prey to the mindless majority. Judaism exhorts Jews to try to mine crises for clues about how we might better ourselves and thereby merit God's protection. The threat to Israel posed by the terrorist enterprise now embraced by a majority of Palestinians well demonstrates how majoritarianism can be malign. Perhaps that's something those of us - and, to a degree it's all of us - who sometimes pursue what's popular instead of what's right might wish to quietly ponder. The writer is director of public affairs for the New York-based Agudath Israel of America.