In My Own Write: A case of radical otherness

Israel must build on its growing awareness of the crucial need to win hearts and minds.

It’s tough being the kid no one in the class wants to play with. And it’s tough being a country that is so persistently misunderstood, both on land and, most recently, at sea.
It’s saddening and bewildering. One feels lonely, stigmatized.
It is, as David Horovitz wrote in these pages last Friday, “so obvious, so widely accepted” that Israel is the aggressor; that its blockade of Gaza is “foul and illegitimate”; that the travelers on the Mavi Marmara “aid ship” (my quote marks) were “helpless peace activists” and the Israeli soldiers nearly lynched by them wholly at fault.
“So obvious... and so dishonest, so distorted, so false,” Horovitz declared, going on to expose “the latest installment of the big lie.” THOSE with a sense of Jewish destiny might choose to see this willful misperception of Israel’s response to the “Freedom Flotilla” – and, indeed, of any action Israel takes to defend itself – as a portent of some cataclysmic epoch approaching for civilization as we know it.
So ingrained – so incredible, really – is the international community’s lack of empathy for the Middle East’s only democracy vis-a-vis the murderous Iranian-backed entity in Gaza that one is tempted to lift it entirely out of the framework of common human behavior and set it down in a biblical context, something akin to the way “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” prior to leading the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 7:13).
In other words, one might surmise, there could just be a divine method in the madness the world exhibits whenever Israel responds to external threat the way any normal nation would.
The operative words are, of course, those last few: because Israel – the theory of classic Zionism notwithstanding – is not a normal nation, and it is doubtful if it will ever be one.
There is nothing in the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages, against insurmountable odds; in its return to its ancient homeland and revival of its ancient language; in the ingathering of its exiles and repeated repelling of its implacable enemies; in its flourishing and extraordinary achievements despite being in a constant state of war that is in any way normal.
And that out-of-reach normality is hard for many to concede. Human beings – and nations, as well – long for acceptance, for understanding and fellowship. We’ll go a long way to achieve them, sometimes against our own best interests.
Almost anything seems better than being thrust permanently out in the cold.
IT’S A hard and lonely thing to have a truth no one seems to want to hear, to carry a moral compass few claim to recognize, to adhere to a value system that is judged – and found wanting – only after it has been distorted by one’s enemies.
“When the name ‘Israel’ comes up in conversation,” a fellow Shabbat lunch guest who worked at the UN told me soberly, “the next word one commonly hears is ‘assassin.’” We were all good friends around the table, but I felt personally shocked and offended, shunned as an Israeli and as a Jew.
There’s a great danger here, as the Zionist thinker Asher Ginsberg, known as Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), noted in an essay which began with a boy in school who is constantly denigrated by his teacher and his peers. In time, he internalizes this attitude and comes to regard himself as inferior and unworthy.
So too, wrote Ahad Ha’am, the Jews, persecuted throughout history, have to an extent come to see themselves through the eyes of their maligners.
Similarly, some Jews today – inside and outside Israel – viewing themselves through the lens of an increasingly hostile world, have internalized that hostility and developed a self-hatred that drives them either to seek anonymity as far away as they can get from the despised Jewish heritage, or to identify, often loudly and publicly, with Israel’s enemies and their narrative in a vain and desperate attempt to gain universal, non-Jewish acceptance.
It won’t work because history has shown time and again, most tragically during the Shoah, that other nations won’t – maybe can’t – allow the Jew, however assimilated, to be “just like anyone else,” or Israel to be like any other nation. Is that inability those nations’ assigned role in a grand plan we can only dimly conjecture? Perhaps.
NATIONS need friends and allies, and it is clear that Israel must build on its growing awareness of the crucial need to win hearts and minds in the public opinion war being so successfully waged by our foes, aided by lazy or malicious enablers, misguided do-gooders and a smattering of useful idiots.
But while Ben-Gurion’s “It doesn’t matter what the goyim say, what matters is what the Jews do” patently no longer holds true, we Jews must learn to let go of our poignant but fruitless craving for an acceptance based on “normality.” We must learn to embrace the fact that we are, in the biblical (non- Jewish) prophet Balaam’s words, “a people that dwells alone,” and that this aloneness – call it distinctness – might be the permanent and natural situation of the Jewish people among the nations; not only in history, when we were stateless, but now, in the time of the modern State of Israel.
This kind of aloneness needn’t signify loneliness, more a recognition of where one stands in the world and of the consequent need, as Golda Meir once put it, “to fall back on our own Jewish, Zionist faith.”
And this recognition, once it takes hold, will prove far firmer ground than running after the chimera of other countries’ “normality.” What other nation/state has a civilizational journey that is remotely like ours?
But in order to stand tall on the real and solid ground of “unique, and proud of it,” we and our children – and our children’s children – will need an understanding of where we’ve come from as a people, and why it is worthwhile for us to pursue a common destiny.
That means devoting all the funds and resources possible to the best Jewish education we can muster.
Nothing else will do.
HERE’S WHAT rabbi, author and thinker Nathan Lopez Cardozo had to say about Jewish normality in a 2006 piece titled “Eternally other”: “The attempt to transform that people into a normal nation in its own homeland has turned into a farce. In fact, it is exploding right in Israelis’ faces. The old secular Zionist dream promised that once Jews had their own homeland, anti-Semitism would cease to exist; but it has now become clear that the very existence of the State of Israel has become the main reason for anti-Semitism.
“A normal Israeli state with a normal army and government and a normal people has not transformed the Jewish people into a normal nation, reconfirming the old biblical truth that ‘Israel dwells alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations’ (Numbers 23:9).
“Like it or not, we are not a ‘normal’ people and can make no greater mistake than to try to ‘normalize’ ourselves. Our long history is, by definition, one of existential oddity.
“It is,” Lopez Cardozo concludes, “ultimately an awareness of the radical ‘otherness’ of the Jewish people that will ensure the Jewish future in the State of Israel. It is this that will enable us to stand up to any external threat.”