As we approach Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, we highly recommend a thoughtful meditation on the Jewish culture of self-criticism by Ruth Wisse recently published in the Wall St. Journal.
Here’s an excerpt:
Jews rightly take pride in their culture of self-accountability—before the Ultimate Judge and justly established human authorities. This culture has created and sustained a remarkably resilient people. Lamenting the excesses of the current American electoral cycle, the columnist Ira Stoll imagines how much richer the country’s politics would be if “this spirit of self-examination were exported from the Jewish religion into the rest of American culture.” If democracy requires the patient improvement of life in a community, nothing furthers that goal better than the practice of individual and collective self-scrutiny.
But the millennial-long history of Jewish self-restraint also stands as a warning. It is all very well to focus on overcoming your failings. Yet the search for moral perfection can also render individuals, and nations, prey to those who believe in conquest rather than self-conquest and who join in holding you accountable for their misdeeds. The same confessional posture, praiseworthy when standing before the Perfect Judge, becomes blameworthy when adopted before an enemy that has you before a rigged tribunal.
In the 20th century, some modern European thinkers and political leaders began singling out the Jews for their alleged racial or religious or social culpabilities. Many Jews felt obliged to answer apologetically for these supposed failings, instead of exposing the evil ideology that had chosen them for its target. Jewish Marxists, for example, blamed Jewish capitalists and bourgeoisie, even though defamation was leveled equally at Jewish professionals, artisans, journalists and paupers.
No sooner had the politics of Jew-blame reached its genocidal apotheosis in Europe than it was taken up in the Middle East. Rather than accepting the principle of co-existence and concentrating on improving the lives of their own subjects, Arab leaders refused Jews the right to their homeland in a war that they, the Arab leaders, had initiated. Forcing almost a million Jews from their ancient communities in Arab lands, the same leaders blamed Israel for Arab refugees whom they themselves refused to resettle.
This calumny is by now the basis of political coalitions not only at the United Nations and in Europe but on campuses here in the U.S. So ingrained are the assumptions of Jew-blame that newspapers will often devote more coverage to the shooting of one Palestinian Arab by an Israeli, often unintentionally or in self-defense, than to the murders of Jewish civilians by Arab and Muslim terrorists. What such belligerents do with the aim of eliminating the Jewish state, friends sometimes do in the name of holding Jews to “a higher moral standard.” And, as previously, some Jews join the blame-shifting ranks, castigating the Jewish state for engaging in self-defense rather than apology.
Read the full essay here.
- Tisha B’Av and the moral necessity of Jewish power (UK Media Watch)