Rejecting ‘Eicha’: Jews are not to blame for antisemitism - opinion

A historical pattern has emerged whereby Jews continue to accept responsibility for the crimes committed against us.

‘THE DESTRUCTION of the Temple of Jerusalem,’ Francesco Hayez, 1867 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE DESTRUCTION of the Temple of Jerusalem,’ Francesco Hayez, 1867
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On Tisha Be’av, we will read Eicha, also known as the Book of Lamentations, which chronicles the devastating destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. In these verses, it states:

“Her adversaries have become the head, her enemies are at ease; for the Lord has afflicted her because of the multitude of her sins; her young children went into captivity before the enemy.”

While these words were an attempt by ancient Jews to make sense of a horrific experience, I believe that it contributed to a tendency for self-blame within our community.

Instead of holding the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, accountable for the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, the razing of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of Judean elites to Babylon, the blame was placed upon ourselves. It was believed that the people of Judah had sinned, thus invoking God’s wrath.

Jews must stop accepting responsibility for their own misfortunes

Since then, a historical pattern has emerged whereby Jews continue to accept responsibility for the crimes committed against us. Even after 2,500 years, we witnessed a similar response within certain Jewish communities in the aftermath of the Shoah. 

 THE ENTRANCE TO Theresienstadt. (credit: Maya Zanger-Nadis)
THE ENTRANCE TO Theresienstadt. (credit: Maya Zanger-Nadis)

They sought to comprehend the obliteration of their world and the genocide of six million Jews, not by attributing responsibility to the true perpetrators – the Nazis and their allies – but rather by pointing fingers at Jews for assimilating. Just as their ancient forefathers did, they tried to explain the inexplicable by placing the blame on Jews themselves for the hatred we endured.

I empathize with the struggle to find answers in the face of such profound suffering and tragedy. The atrocities of the Shoah and other horrific events throughout history have challenged the beliefs of many individuals. The question of how a benevolent and omnipotent deity could allow such immense suffering is a deeply complex and profound philosophical inquiry. Even for secular Jews, finding an explanation for the horror that has so often befallen our people has been an almost necessary coping mechanism.

The thing is though, this specific answer – that Jews sinned – is harmful and is one that we should reject. Eicha is wrong. The notion that Jews are responsible for our own suffering or that we somehow deserved the horrors inflicted upon us is harmful. Blaming the victims for the atrocities they endured is morally incorrect and it perpetuates harmful victim-blaming.

It is important to critically examine historical texts and understand the context in which they were written. While Eicha served as an expression of grief and an attempt to make sense of the destruction of the First Temple, it must not provide a valid basis for blaming the Jewish people for their own suffering. It is crucial to approach such texts with a discerning mindset, separating the historical and cultural context from harmful narratives that may have emerged.

Like other victims of abuse, whether individuals or a collective, we often find ourselves desperately searching for ways to make sense of our experiences. Our primary goal is to prevent similar traumas from happening again. In this pursuit, our desperation can lead us to seek a sense of control and understanding. We yearn for an explanation for the pain, one that offers us a comforting role to play in minimizing it.

History is rife with the Jewish tendency for self-blame. We think if we could only adopt certain behaviors or conform to societal expectations, we could mitigate the hostility and persecution directed towards us. We change our names, alter our physical appearances, adjust our identities (shifting from a nation to a religion), and modify religious practices.

Many Jews in the West, in response to Jew-hate and the desire for acceptance, have made extraordinary efforts to assimilate and “fit in” with the larger society. However, despite these efforts, they have faced continued discrimination and prejudice.

Both traditional and secular responses to hatred against Jews involve placing blame on the Jewish people, albeit for different reasons. Traditional perspectives attribute suffering to not following Torah and sinning against God, while conversely, secular perspectives assign blame for not conforming to certain universal standards or expectations. This developed in the 19th century when assimilated German Jews began denigrating the Ost Juden, Eastern Jews, for not assimilating and for being obstinately Jewish.

However, this quest for solace can gradually poison our minds and souls. It instills the false belief that we have committed wrongdoing, leading us to believe that we deserve the trauma repeatedly inflicted upon us by the larger world. It is important to recognize that this self-blaming is harmful and corrosive. It perpetuates a destructive cycle of guilt and self-doubt, obscuring the fact that the responsibility lies with the perpetrators, not the victims.

In order to heal and move forward, we must focus on developing self-compassion, empathy, and solidarity among ourselves. By challenging self-blame and embracing our inherent worth, we can break free of past trauma and work towards a future where we are not defined by the suffering we have endured.

It is essential to reject such falsehoods that assign blame to the Jews. Jew-hate is rooted in prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. It is crucial to understand that Jew-hate is a non-Jewish problem rooted in prejudice, ignorance, and irrational hatred. It is not the fault of the Jewish people, and it is not our responsibility to solve it.

However, that does not mean we should remain silent or passive. It is important to raise our voices, stand up against Jew-hate, but we should not, under any circumstances, fight back with the notion that it is our fault. It is not our fault. The fault lies with the wider world, and it’s time we recognized that.

The writer is the founder of the modern Jewish Pride movement, an educator and the author of Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People and Reclaiming our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride.