Argumentum ad Jewdem

Let’s move the debate from “how could a Jew…?” to “how could a human being…?”

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
Working as an executive director for a major Zionist organization, I often hear arguments from all sides of the political spectrum that begin with, “How could a Jew…?”
Here are just a few examples:
Left: How could a Jew live in "stolen" Palestinian land?Right: How could a Jew support the creation of the Palestinian state?Left: How could a Jew be so cruel towards the downtrodden “other,” i.e. the Palestinians?Right: How could a Jew ever appease the genocidal Palestinians?Left: How could a Jew support the Tea Party movement?Right: How could a Jew support US President Barack Obama?
I call this phenomenon "argumentum ad Jewdem;" it is the type of argument in which the debater in question makes any particular position or action seem even more abhorrent - just by virtue of the fact that it belongs to a Jew. It is a variation of argumentum ad hominen, a classification of argument which in Latin translates into “argument to the man.” It refers to an argument in which the character of the person is attacked as a means to attack his or her or position or behavior.
In cases of “argumentum ad Jewdem,” the attacker usually holds Jews to a higher standard, whether fair or not. The supposition is that if a non-Jew had taken the position or action, it would be more forgivable.
But expecting a Jew to hold a certain opinion or behave in a certain way just because he or she is a Jew is a form of collective mind control and, to a certain degree, racism. Jews are a multi-faceted people, an extraordinary people, a brilliant people and oft-times a cowardly and obtuse and stubborn people—but the Jewish people is made up of individuals, said to have been born in the image of God but with human desires, emotions and fears as they seek to stay alive and thrive in this world.
There are many theories as to why Jews gravitate towards and often lead intellectual movements, both on the Left and Right. Jews were leaders of Communist movements (Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky), capitalist movements (Ayn Rand), the Zionist movement (Theodore Herzl or any one of the original Zionist leaders), and are even the forerunners of anti-Zionist trends (think: Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein).
Perhaps the Jewish People’s history of persecution is what triggers Jews to seek and fashion the world order according to their favor. Or perhaps it is due to the Jewish tradition of learning and the resulting aspiration towards the moral perfection of the world (traditionally known as tikkun olam).
Whatever the reason, Jews often ask themselves: what ideas do I need to promote to ensure physical and spiritual survival? Only sometimes, as is the case with their non-Jewish counterparts, they provide all the wrong answers. They may even interpret the Torah in such a way as to justify those answers, consistent with the rabbinic adage that there are “70 faces to the Torah.” A Jew could find justification for liberalism in the Torah as much as he could find justification for conservatism. This room for freedom of thought and inquiry is what makes the Torah so eternal and powerful, but also makes it unreliable in terms of offering resolute, morally objective answers to questions about real-life Jewish survival.
However, there would be a lot less intra-faith anger and far more means of effective communication and dialogue if, in both in private and public discourse, Jews stick to only criticizing the arguments posited by fellow Jews. Jews are not immune to faulty logic.
Jews on the Left who abide by the mistaken notion that Israel is an aggressive “occupier” of the Palestinian people believe they are acting in the best interests of world Jewry. Concerned with the image of “Jews,” they believe that Jews will be hated less if the Jewish state is not perceived as ruling over another people. They often take the Jewish tradition’s mandate to be kind towards the stranger to the extreme by expecting Jews to sacrifice their own self-interest for the “other” - especially if that “other” is an enemy.
Unfortunately, the tendency to expect Jews to behave or think in a certain way often leads to increased tolerance of truly destructive and immoral behavior. An example of this is the recent hareidi-secular spat in Beit Shemesh. “Liberal” Jews were outraged when members of an extremist, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect spat and cursed at schoolchildren in Beit Shemesh. To be sure, this behavior deserves unequivocal censure, but not because the perpetrators were clearly religious Jews. Human beings shouldn't treat other human beings in such a despicable manner.
That said, when Palestinian adolescents strap bombs to their chests with the aim of killing as many Jews as possible, or, in a similar vein, when Muslims engage in honor killings, those same Jews who are quick to criticize religious Jews for lesser acts of violence continue to wonder how to appease the Arab “other.”
Jews on the Right, on the other hand, are usually concerned with Jewish survival qua human survival. They abide by the premise that rather than seek to appease them according to world demands, Jews can only thrive spiritually and physically if they take an uncompromising stance against their murderers. They are flabbergasted that other Jews would ever seek to appease the very people who want them dead. These Jews are less concerned with Jewish popularity and likeability and more concerned with obliterating racism against Jews at its source.  They further believe that while some Jews may lose their lives in battles of self-defense, as did the early Zionist fighters, they will have at least died standing up for their values, thus eternalizing Jewish survival.
Some of the greatest, undeniable contributions of Judaism to the world at large are the basic moral absolutes which surpass religious and ethnic identity: you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witnesses, to name but a few.
We’d get a lot further in our debates about Israel, society and morals—and a lot further in our quest to preserve Jewish survival—if Jews on both the Left and the Right concern themselves more with what is objectively wrong or right and true or false.
Let’s start by going back to the questions listed at the top of this article and changing the preface to: “How could a rational, moral, decent human being….”
The answers that follow would do a great deal more to encourage a healthy debate and to examine the moral premises guiding the arguments of Jews belonging to all walks of life.
The writer is the Executive Director, Western region, of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).