A few weeks ago, a colleague (Rabbi Yitz Etshalom) and I agreed to appear on a radio program called Focus on the Mideast. The station is ultra-leftist (Marxist would be more accurate); the host is a Lebanese Christian not very kindly disposed to the State of Israel.
We figured that it was a perfect learning experience. We would gain some experience in dealing with the arguments the other side uses, with nothing to lose. Given the listener profile of the entire station, we would not be turning anyone off to the Jewish cause, no matter how poorly we fared. (At times it was fun. While the host was a bright guy, many of the listeners were anti-Semitic wackos, who were usually cut off by the host. One of them asked me what I thought about the role that the Mossad played in some recent terrorist incident. Quickly I responded, “Gee, how did you know I worked for them? I wish I could answer your question, but company rules don’t allow me to comment about ongoing projects!” I thought that was funny, but when I walked out of the room at the end of the program, one of the station workers came over and emphatically averred that the Mosad indeed was behind the WTC attack.) In the best case scenario, staying calm and displaying confidence, humanity, humor and humility might even do some good for listeners who turned to the wrong station during the hour.
The host was courteous and pleasant. wrong, but a pleasure to be with. He didn’t know what hit him. Starting up with two rabbis could be a mistake. We prepared for hours before, and B”H did very well. My thirteen year old called right after the show to say that he felt bad for the host!
One argument, if you can call it that, shook me to the core.
In the one-state solution that loomed ahead, the Arab majority and Jewish minority would get along famously. After all, Jews fared pretty well in Arab countries, until ’48, when the Zionists capped off their decades of colonialist mischief by declaring a Jewish state, and Arabs throughout the region just went wild in indignation. But this had nothing to do with Jews. The Europeans who colonized Palestine weren’t really Jews. Only the Sephardim who lived in Arab countries were Jews. The Zionists were Johnny-come-latelies, imposters, recent descendants of the Khazars of the Russian steppes.
I had heard this before, going back to the time I was a kid. I knew that a Jew (Arthur Koestler) had popularized it. I had always thought that only a handful of absolute morons and Berkeley professors (but then I repeat myself) believed anything like that, especially in the light of genetic research in recent years.
It turns out I was wrong. This mantra has become boilerplate in the Arab world. The Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari recently told a group of Americans the same thing. A standard Arab argument these days is that none of Ashkenazic Jewry has an historical claim or link to the land of Israel. They are all imposters, and the fact that Europe wanted no part of them should not become the burden of the Arab world.
In other words, they used to know who we are, and they hated us. Today, they know they hate us, but they do not know who we are.
Not that I’ve come to grips with this, but I did have a thought that might work. Just before Yaakov readies himself to leave the house of Lavan, he “saw Lavan’s face, and it was not towards him as it was earlier.” (Genesis 31:2) The Kotzker ‘s take on this is typically forceful. This is what he has Yaakov thinking: “When I arrived, I saw exactly what Lavan was. I recognized an evil person when I saw one. Lately, however, looking at him does not fill me with the same revulsion. I must be getting used to his evil. If I don’t see him the same way, there must be something wrong with me. It is time to head out.”
There is something wrong with us if we don’t see in others what we should be seeing. It makes sense that if others don’t see in us what they should be seeing, then perhaps that is our doing as well.
Sheker ein lah raglayim, says the Gemara. Falsehood doesn’t have a foot to stand on. If it is false and it persists, there must be a small amount of truth mixed in, enough to prop it up artificially. If non-Jews can get away with the argument that only some Jews are the genuine article, then the acid-test indicators of Jewishness must be less than obvious.
Those indicators are given by a Gemara in Yevamos. “There are three characteristics of this people. They are compassionate, imbued with a sense of shame, and they perform many acts of lovingkindness.” These should be the common denominators of Jewish communities, transcending geography, accent, and costume.
My guess is that if we were doing a better job, there would be little room left for the propagation of the Big Lie. If I had to pick one item that left lots of room for confusion, my vote would be for the second. In one of his first books, Alan Dershowitz told us that we American Jews ought to be less reserved and conciliatory, and demand more of what we deserved with Chutzpah. While the Orthodox community completely rejects his message of entitlement and political security, we often don’t walk the walk. Our life styles, our homes, cars, restaurants often speak the polar opposite of the understated soft-spoken qualities that usually go hand in hand with the boshes of the Gemara.
If Jews would wear the essential elements of their Jewishness on their sleeves, perhaps we would only have to deal with the old-style anti-Semitism, not this virulent new kind, which has people hating us as Jews while denying that we really are!