Friday, 16 January 2009

Don't be ashamed you're Jewish - Be ashamed THEY are!

Concert pianist Anton Kuerti recently said that “Israel’s behaviour makes me ashamed of being a Jew.”

I personally don’t think much of being proud (or, come to that, ashamed) of being something that one is by birth. I am neither proud nor ashamed of being Jewish or a U.S. citizen; neither fact is due to any achievement or failure of my own. Both are merely accidents of birth.

But Kuerti’s comment reminded me of an oft-quoted line from Wallace Markfield’s novel You Could Live if They Let You: “Never, never, never be ashamed you’re Jewish, because it’s enough if I’m ashamed you’re Jewish.” The behaviour – which I personally had as little to do with as with the fact of my being Jewish – does not make me ashamed that I am Jewish; it does, however, make me ashamed, or perhaps rather disgusted, that I share that background with the likes of Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Alan Dershowitz, Joe Lieberman, Thomas Friedman, and the rest of Israel’s criminals and their apologists in the media and academia.

It is hard to escape the fact that we Jews - though certainly not only us - are in some pretty unenviable company. We’re reminded of it every time we turn on the TV to see ourselves represented by yet another another thug (Peres, Olmert, Livni, Sharon, Kissinger), sycophant (Friedman), goniff (Madoff), liar (Foxman), or all-round schmuck (Dershowitz, Lieberman). Let’s admit – even if it’s just to ourselves – that it is not a pretty sight. In fact, it’s damned depressing to see some of the most prominent products of the culture that once brought forth (to name just a few) Viktor Frankl, Hannah Arendt, Kurt Tucholsky, Heinrich Heine, Albert Einstein, Maimonides, and Noam Chomsky (even if - alas! – it will take some of us another fifty years to realise why he belongs on the list). Anyone wishing to theorise about vast anti-Semitic conspiracies could have a field day just looking at the people who claim to speak for us all!

And yet, for the most part, we put up with being represented by these people. Some of us even go so far as to jump down the throat of anyone who criticises them even mildly. The rest of us hear the likes of Foxman and Dershowitz and the Israeli government claiming to be our representatives – even going so far as to claim occasionally that it is anti-Semitic to distinguish between us and our purported representatives – and wonder why we always end up being held responsible for what Israel and our other avowed representatives say and do.

In response to criticisms that his many brilliant essays on the German judiciary took the worst judges as representative of the entire group, the Weimar-era essayist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky had the following to say:

My work does not say that the basest member of a group is its representative; he is no more a representative of the group than the most elevated member that the gentlemen would want to have mentioned to their credit. I said that the basest member is characteristic for the standard of a group: the member that the group just barely tolerates. For example:

If a German physician rapes an under-age female patient, and these facts and the perpetrator’s criminal liability are proven beyond doubt, the entire medical profession will distance itself from the man. Even more – they will remove him from their ranks. Thus, the group cannot be judged based on this member. The group cannot help that he was once one of them. They do not tolerate him, they throw him out.

If a German judge takes a bribe, the group will react immediately – all members will want the man kicked out; the ethics hearing would be a mere formality in this case. Thus, the judge who takes bribes is not a prototype of the German judge.


And as long as the group of judges do not demonstrate against this type of judge, even if it is merely in the form of serious opposition, as long „the“ judiciary, out of a false sense of collegiality, takes the side of the overrated expert against the “layman” – I will continue to call a German judge a German judge. And I would like that to be understood in the way that a proletarian would understand it – remembering the reports of the Nazi trials [here: trials of Nazis in the 20s and early 30s for political murders and coup attempts, for which they were either acquitted or received absurdly lenient sentences] – when he stands before these judges.

Put differently, as long as members of a group do not clearly shun fellow group members for engaging in a particular sort of conduct, it is reasonable for a person standing on the outside to assume that the group as a whole condones - or, at the very least, does not condemn - that conduct. Unless followed by immediate and public condemnation, a Palestinian might reasonably assume, for example, that Alan Dershowitz is speaking for us all when he calls the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians "a fifth-rate moral issue", or that Tzipi Livni speaks with our overall approval when she threatens Palestinian citizens of Israel with expulsion ("You should seek your future elsewhere."). Nor can the hypothetical Palestinian be blamed for assuming group approval when he sees Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League launch a campaign on behalf of the Turkish government to deny the Armenian genocide, eliciting no condemnation (or even notice). Unless we truly wish such behaviour to be taken as representative of our community, we must act immediately to make it clear that the offending party is acting on his or her own and does not speak for us.

Recent events suggest that at least some of us have begun taking Tucholsky’s words to heart. We are not eternally bound and indebted to the Israeli government and its apologists, nor should we, in a false sense of “ethnic solidarity”, feel obliged to waste our breath defending the indefensible. When we defend – or deny – Israeli crimes and Palestinian suffering, we are doing ourselves no favours. Ultimately, we are merely telling the world that this – be it the assault on the defenceless population of Gaza, the ethnic cleansing of 1948, the use of torture, the various attacks on Lebanon and other countries – is the sort of behaviour we tolerate in members of our community. By defending such crimes, we are in reality telling the world that they meet our minimum standards of acceptable conduct.

Open repudiation of the indefensible conduct of our avowed representatives is the only way to avoid being held personally responsible for it. It is also the only way that justice – without which any “peace” is merely violence by other means – will ever be achieved in the Middle East.