The Seven Pillars Of Jewish Denial
By Kim Chernin Tikkun
Sept/Oct 02 Cover Story: Jewish Denial

I am thinking about American Jews, wondering why so many of us have trouble being critical of Israel. I faced this difficulty myself when I first went to Israel in 1971. I was an ardent Zionist, intending to spend my life on a kibbutz in the Galilee and to become an Israeli citizen. Back home, before leaving, I argued almost daily with my mother, an extreme left wing radical, about the Jews' right to a homeland in our historical and therefore inalienable setting. However, once established on my kibbutz on the Lebanese border, I began to notice things that disrupted my complacency.
We used to ride down to our orchards on kibbutz trucks with Arab workers fro m the neighboring villages and were occasionally invited to visit. We liked sitting on a rug on a dirt floor, eating food cooked over an open fire, drinking water from the village well. Above all, we loved the kerosene lamps that were lit and set in a half circle around us as it grew dark. But walking home it occurred to me that our kibbutz had running water, electricity, modern stoves. Our neighbors were gracious, generous, and friendly, although I had learned by then that the land the kibbutz occupied had once belonged to them. We were living on land that was once theirs, under material conditions they could not hope to equal. I found this troubling.
The path from this troubled awareness to my later ability to be critical of Israel has been long and complex. Over the years I have spoken with other Jews who have traveled this same path, and to many more who haven't. In each of us I have detected mental obstacles that make it hard, sometimes impossible, for us to see what is there before our eyes. Our inability to engage in critical thought aboutour troubled homeland is entangled by crucial questions about Jewish identity. Why do American Jews find it difficult to be critical of Israel? Here, setout in linear form, are seven obstacles to a Jew's ability to be critical of Israel.
Seven Obstacles:
1. A conviction that Jews are always in danger, always have been, and therefore are in danger now.
Which leads to:
2. The insistence that a criticism is an attack and will lead to our destruction.
Which is rooted in:
3. The supposition that any negativity towards Jews (or Israel) is a sign of
anti-Semitism and will (again, inevitably) lead to our destruction.
Which is enhanced by:
4. Survivor's guilt.
Which contains within itself:
5. A hidden belief that we can change the past. Which holds:
6. An even more hidden belief that a sufficient amountof suffering confers the right to violence.
Which finally brings us to:
7. The conviction that our beliefs, our ideology (or theology), matter more than the lives of other human beings.
Obstacles: Conviction
The first three obstacles reveal a cluster of convictions about Jewish endangerment which tend to reinforce one another in insidious ways. We can trace the developmentof this consciousness. It goes something like this: We keep a watchful eye out, we read the signs, we detect innuendo, we summon evidence, we become, as we imagine it, the ever-vigilant guardians of our people's survival. Endangered as we imagine ourselves to be; endangered as we insist we are, any negativity, criticism, or reproach, even from one of our own, takes on exaggerated dimensions; we come to perceive such criticism as a life-threatening attack.
The path to fear is clear. Butour proclivity for this perception is itself one of our unrecognized dangers. Bit by bit, as we gather evidence to establish our perilous position in the world, we are brought to a selective perception of that world. With our attention focused on ourselves as the endangered species, it seems to follow that we ourselves can do no harm. We are so busy warding off danger we become unaware that we endanger others. We fill up, we occupy, all the endangerment-space. When other people clamor for a portion we believe they are trying to deny us our right to this ground. At its most vehement, our sense of ever-impending Jewish peril brings down on us a willed ignorance, an almost perfect blindness, to the endangermentof others and to the role we might play in it.
When I lived in Israel I practiced selective perception. I was elated by our little kibbutz on the Lebanese border until I recognized that we were living on land that had belonged to our Arab neighbors. When I didn't ask how we had come to acquire that land, I practiced blindness. Long before I went to Israel, my mother would bring out a rolled up poster of a Palestinian youth. Without saying a word, she would unroll it and hold it up. It showed a very young man lying in the road in a pool of his own blood.
This image had caused a major family breakdown when she showed it to her brother, who stormed out without saying goodbye and didn't speak to her again for years. On another occasion, there was an even more violent scene with th e father of an old high school friend of mine. My mother unrolled the poster, he jumped up from the couch, raised his fist at her, and stormed from the room. Before slamming the door behind him, he shouted back: "This time, Rose , you've gone too far. Next thing, you'll be calling Israeli soldiers." Here he caught himself, but couldn't hold back. "You'll be calling Jewish people who defend their lives." Another break, and then, finally, the unthinkable word: "You'll be calling us fascists."
Slam. My friend and I looked at my mother in shock, amazed to find her silent and unperturbed. Between us, between my mother and myself, I was the one still practicing blindness. Where my mother saw martyrdom, victimization, tragedy in the image of the fallen youth, I saw a dangerous enemy stopped short in his effort to destroy our people. My friend's father, who lived in constant dread of Jewish annihilation, may have seen a necessary vengeance, an image of justice. I don't know what my friend saw. I drove her home in silence and we never met up with one another again. My mother, for her part, never said a word. When I stared at her she merely narrowed her eyes and looked back with an expression that implied: "Am I afraid of a word? Am I going to let a word keep me from seeing?"
The fixed certainty of impending Jewish destruction. Wherever we look, we see nothing but its confirmation, the same old story, always about to happen. In the grip of this persuasion, any other possibilities of meaning are swept away; we are unable to imagine things, even for a split second, from another's pointof view. It took me years to overcome this blindness. My thoughts would return to the scene in my mother's living room; I would pore over the image, the outrage, the silence. One day, during an enormous inner struggle, mostof what I believed about most of what mattered most to me fell apart. (Buber refers to such an event as "an elemental reversal, a crisis and a shock") Years of images and impressions I had kept atone remove came resoundingly together. I saw what my mother had seen: A boy gunned down by a superior military force; a very young man fighting for the survival of his people, who were far more endangered that ours. Wherever we look, we see nothing but impending Jewish destruction.
To see a people far more endangered than ours: step one in the dismantling of blindness.
Obstacles: Survivor's guilt
Guilt goes something like this:
I was walking across the beautiful square in Nuremburg a couple of years ago and stopped to read a public sign. It told this story: During the Middle Ages, the town governing body, wishing to clea r space for a square, burned out, burned down, and burned up the Jews who had formerly filled up the space. End of story. After that, I felt very uneasy walking through the square and I eventually stopped doing it.
I felt endangered, of course, a woman going about through Germany wearing a star of David. But more than that, I experienced a conspicuous and dreadful self-reproach at being so alive, so happily on vacation, now that I had come to think about the murder of my people hundreds of years before. After reading that plaque I stopped enjoying myself and began to look for other signs and traces of the mistreatmentof the former Jewish community. If I had stayed longer in Nuremburg, if I had gone further in this direction, I might soon have come to believe that I, personally, and my people, currently, were threatened by the contemporary Germans eating ice cream in outdoor cafe's in the square. How much more potent this tendency for alarm must be in the Middle East, in the middle of a war zone!
What was the reasoning underlying my fear? If we live in a world as dangerou s to us as the Holocaust was to our people, we can be that much closer to the victims of the Holocaust, we can know their apprehension and terror; perhaps we may even succeed in taking their suffering upon ourselves. No one holds these beliefs knowingly. But they hold on to us: in a tragically paradoxical way, our guilt brings us to magnify our vulnerability. It seems that no victory on the Israeli side, no crushing of the perceived enemy, no destruction of their wells or complete dismantling of their infrastructure, can change our fear that they will defeat us or alter this perception of ever-present danger.
We will not let it happen again. But this claim, which seems to point exclusively into the future, is also yoked to our inability to accept the past. By keeping the past alive, by living it all over again, we attempt to alter it. Hidden within the militant "never again," is the anguished, impossible cry: "It will never have happened."
There is a widespread assumption among our people that the vanished victims of the Holocaust would approve of what we do to make sure their fate cannot again befall the Jewish people. Is it fair, however, to assume that their suffering and death would hold no other meaning for them than a recourse to violence, vengeance, and paranoia?
Some of our people, listening in on our ancestors' imagined, other-worldly discourse, hear only the endless repetition of the never again.
I hear, not in my name.
There is a new poster. It shows a single Palestinian woman facing a massive Israeli bulldozer. Looking at this image one immediately understands what Primo Levi (a survivor) meant when he claimed that the Palestinians are the Jews of the Middle East. Can we face the fact that we make use of the Holocaust as a way of refusing to see our own lamentable actions?
I hate this idea. It is, I think, the harshest moral reproach I have ever directed against myself. I can just about tolerate the idea of a survivor guilt that exaggerates my sense of vulnerability and leads me to perceive danger and an enemy where there may be instead a suffering neighbor. Can I, (can we), really face the idea that we are using the six million, hiding behind them, importing our own meanings into their suffering and death, usin g their victimhood for propaganda? It took me a long time to face this charge; to recognize that some partof my ever-increasing concern with Holocaust victims, Holocaust books, and first-person Holocaust accounts, was serving a s a cover up, distracting my gaze from a living struggle in which another people were enduring a victimization for which we Jews were responsible.
For which we Jews are responsible.
Arafat is not Hitler. The Palestinian terrorists are not the SS. We are no longer the victims. The world has changed, but Jewish identity has not kept up with it. If we lived in the present, we would have to acknowledge that the Jewish people of the twenty-first century are no longer the world's foremost endangered species. We would have to recognize that we, as a people, are ourselves capable of victimization. Seeing ourselves as ordinary people, not victims: Step two in the dismantling of blindness.
Obstacle 6. Suffering, Violence
The Israeli army that defends our homeland behaves brutally, uses torture, fires upon innocent civilians. What justifies the behavior of this army? We call it self-defense but this is, I suggest, only the surface of our justification. Further down, tucked carefully away in our collective psyche, we find a sense of entitlement aboutour violence. Our historic suffering, a s a people, entitles us to the violence of our current behavior. Our violence is not horrendous and cruel like the violence of other people, but is a justified, sacred violence, a holy war. Of course, we would not want to know this aboutourselves, it would make us too much like the perceived en emy whose violence against us we are deploring. When the suicide bomber blows up a hotel full of Passover celebrants, we see clearly that this is an instance of hateful, unjustifiable violence. (And it is, it is.) When we destroy a refugee camp of impoverished Palestinians, this, in our eyes, is a violence purified by our history of persecution. (And it is not, it is not.) We are puzzled that much of the world doesn't see our situation in the same way.
I think many of us hold this view of purified Jewish violence without being aware of it. Though we rarely admit it, the Torah is full of ancient stories marked by tribal violence done in the name of Jehovah. We know the story of Elijah wrangling with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. The prophet wins a clear victory for Jehovah over the Canaanite gods. We know, but don't make much of the fact as we retell the story, that after Elijah won the contest on Jehovah's behalf he took the prophets of Baal down to the brook Kishon and slew them there. All 450 of them. I have not heard of or read a midrash that elaborates this massacre.
I recently wrote an article about the traces of Goddess worship in the Torah . When I cited this example of Elijah and prophets, my three editors, all intelligent and well-educated Jewish women, were uneasily eager to have me supply a footnote for this contentious assertion. They were as surprised as I initially had been to discover that the accountof this violence was in the Torah itself. And yet they had certainly read Kings II.
In a similar vein: We celebrate the military victories of Joshua. But do we really take in what they involved? "Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on up from Elon to Hebron.
They attacked it, took it and struck it with the edge of the sword, with its king, all the places belonging to it and every living creature in it (my italics, Josh. 10:37)." I have yet to hear a rabbi help us imagine this even t in which women and children, the very young and the very old, are put to the sword.
Our sense of victimization as a people works in a dangerous and seditious wa y againstour capacity to know, to recognize, to name and to remember. Since w e have adopted ourselves as victims we cannot correctly read our own history let alone our present circumstances. Even where the story of our violence is set down in a sacred text that we pore over again and again, we cannot see it. Our self-election as the people most likely to be victimized obscures rather than clarifies our own tradition.
I can't count the number of times I read the story of Joshua as a tale of our people coming into their rightful possession of their promised land without stopping to say to myself, "but this is a history of rape, plunder, slaughter, invasion and destruction of other peoples." As such, it bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to the behavior of Israeli settlers and the Israeli army of today, a behavior we also cannot see for what it is.
We are tracing the serpentine path of our own psychology. We find itorganized around a persuasion of victimization, which leads to a sense of entitlement to enact violence, which brings about an inevitable distortion i n the way we perceive both our Jewish identity and the world, and involves us finally in a tricky relationship to language. That boy over there with the black face mask and a rock. That is a terrorist. That boy over here with a sub-machine gun, firing on the boy with the rock, he is a soldier.
A trick of language? A highly dangerous trick. I was once persuaded to show up for rifle training when I lived on my kibbutz, although as an American citizen I wasn't required to attend. And whom did I imagine I would shoot? And kill? I, who cannot kill a moth? I never imagined it had to do with killing. Because of the language I used (I lift this rifle in defense of my beleaguered homeland) the training became a clean act, necessary, not even i n need of justification.
Accepting our own history of violence. Step three in the dismantling of blindness.
Obstacle 7. Ideology vs. Living People?
Some American Jews will soon setout to join settlements on the West Bank or to volunteer for the Israeli army. Others are going to Ramallah to help the Palestinians, hoping that their presence there will make it harder to smash through the city with tanks, randomly killing civilians. Still others are talking about a peace brigade that will be established along the border, a human buffer zone between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Jewish identity, stretched out between these extremes, is up for grabs. Atone extreme, the decision to further occupy the West Bank is guided by a sense of Jewish destiny and by an ideology that claims Judea and Samaria as Jewish sacred ground. These claims are based on archaic conversations with God. The Orthodox families moving to the settlements will set themselves dow n among a hostile population, will be trained to shoot, and will participate i n the further partition of Palestinian lands. They will take up a great deal o f the water when there is already not enough water for their neighbors, many o f whom go for days without being able to wash or even drink. In service to an archaic idea these people will see their Arab neighbors, not as a humbled, battered, impoverished, hopeless people, but as a potent enemy living illegitimately on ancient Jewish land. In the grip of ideology some things get neglected. Living people, the present, the sanctity of civilian life become less important than what, exactly? An idea? The idea of the Jewish people as chosen by God, living out a covenant with Him?
When I first went to Israel in 1971 I was on my way to a new kibbutz in the Golan Heights. It was a bleak, grim, heavily armed place with living conditions as rough as those faced by the early pioneers. There were no tree s on this kibbutz, no gardens, no fields, no grazing animals. It was an armed camp made up of mud, reserve forces, and young Israelis who were there to hold the newly acquired land. I was convinced that I belonged with them, although I was not invited to stay. Today I want to ask that younger self What can it mean to be God's people if this election does not come with a concern for all living peoples? Would it mean that the God who once spoke to our people has nothing new to say?
Our God is a God of many changes. The old warrior God who has had nothing new to say for thousands of years has been able, over time, to unfold aspects of Himself our Israelite ancestors would have found surprising. In talmudic thought the war-like, conquering diety evolves into a God of profound ethical concerns. He has revealed the Shechinah, his female, compassionate side, who comes to her children on the Sabbath and goes out with us into exile. She has, along the way, shown herself to be in love with a good story. She inspires midrashim, cherishing them as much as stories and teachings regarde d as more sacred. She rejoices as women speak to her through their own prayers and rituals in settings that for too long excluded women. She is a God of perpetual unfolding; we, her people, inherit a tradition that asks for and imposes on us the work of continual renewal. Compassion, service, and a concern for justice are the imperative expressions of our divine worship. Call to Prayer, Call to Action
What Judaism means and will come to mean follows from the choices we make today. Our acts, as Jews, promote or defeat the crucial purpose of Judaism, to maintain a potent, living, intimate relationship to a divine force that tear s through the universe busily promoting transformation. The call of this presence, as I experience it sitting here at my desk, is towards community and action, to the awareness that if we can't do everything we can still do something.
We can clarify our vision. There is no reason we must continue to live either in survivor's guiltor in a sense of our inevitable victimization as Jews. We need not take refuge in an entitlement to violence or a remorseless emphasis upon our suffering. We can see the world as it is, not as it was or as we hope or fear it might be. We can enlarge our sense of Jewish identity to include both vulnerability and aggression. We do not have to be blind. We can see and we can act.
If we don't happen to be the people called to Ramallah we are certainly the people who can join the long march to social justice. We can:
take on the conservative policies of the established Jewish institutions, incessantly pester the White House and Congress to intervene in the Middle East, join organizations that support a Judaism of radical commitment to social justice.
Challenge, pester, join they do not seem to have the epic scope required by events that involve so much suffering and death. But it would be a mistake to diminish their significance. They stand well within the radical challenge the prophets have always made to the conservative Jewish establishment; they direct themselves, against all odds, toward formidable obstacles and will require the staying power of a visionary, activist community. These commitments, in our time, in a world in crisis, must be recognized as an essential form of Jewish prayer. But are we, as a people, still capable of prayer? How will we manage to pray , we who have just seen this:
Wednesday, June 19, 02. 7:10 am.
Fifteen-year-old girl:
People coming aparto my god right in frontof us all over the place. O my god, o my god. Mama gets out of our car. Mama steps on a finger. Let's getoutof here Mama, let's go, let's run, let's get away. If you walk in the street you will fall, you will slip in the blood, Mama says we have to help them, Mama says never take the bus, walk everywhere we have to go. Could happen, any day, any minute, look around, look over your shoulder, keep an eye out. That's me, screaming no no no no no no no. That's me shouting get them, get them, make them stop, do something, kill all of them.
We who have just seen, who know, who have witnessed, if we are to pray, we will have to call upon the highest developmentof our Jewish God, evoking th e compassion of the Shechinah and the traditional female abhorrence for violence. We will have to imagine the midrashim that will, in time, inevitably be told to our ethical God about the struggles between Israel and
Palestine. In this crisis we need a divine presence who is still talking to us and is closely in touch with the contemporary world of our people, so that, when we are able to pray, our prayers might sound like this:
Make it possible for us not to seek vengeance. Help us to find the way that is not the way of violence. Teach us to grieve without turning into those who have brought us to grief. Help us to remember the innocence of the innocent. Teach us to remember ourselves, a holy people. If compassion is not possible for us, If love is not possible for us, Teach us not to hate.
Mark Kona Lowell
Aloha Jeff,
If all people had this woman's courage and honesty this world would not be on the verge of imploding. Thank you for publishing this revealing and encouraging article in a place of prominence on your site and keep up the excellent work. You bring us a host of curious and interesting topics to study and think about, but promoting articles like this, articles that could actually change minds and save lives, indeed may have already saved lives, set you and your program apart. There is enough hate-speech and bigotry in the world. Whatever else you accomplish, you have justified your time here if one child, Palestinian or Jew, has escaped death as a result of your sense of justice.
K Lowell


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