Monday, October 5, 2009

Morality of Victim-hood

The results of the Goldstone report on human rights violations in the Gaza conflict came as no surprise; as a matter of fact I alluded to it in my posting of August 31, M.O.T. a month before the results were made known. It was a “no brainer” because it was a foregone conclusion. There is a double standard and Israel is always held to the higher standard.

Oftentimes we blame the community of nations for this obvious bias against Israel, but there are times when I think that we are responsible for perpetuating the double standard. In 1948 with the establishment of the state and the IDF, the principle of “purity of arms” was formulated and instituted setting the moral bar very high. “Purity of arms” was intended to frame the IDF and the country it serves within a framework of moral standards above the prevailing norms. We were to be an “or lagoyim”, a “light unto the nations”, an “am cohanim v’goy kadosh”, a “nation of priests and a holy nation”. It can be argued that there was no real basis for this in rabbinic literature. The notion of a “holy nation” was never defined in Torah text but left up to interpretation by our sages who were influenced by their environment. The idea of “Jewish ethical standards” has its origins in the Torah, but is manifestly unclear and full of contradictions.

There are times when we are counseled and commanded in Torah to take care of the poor; on the other hand Torah supported the idea of servitude, albeit benign. Torah was also not too forgiving of dissenters and those who rebelled against Moshe in the desert. And for those who persisted in maintaining religious practices out of step with Torah’s brand of monotheism their end was bitter. Our patriarchs were conflicted with moral decisions (Jacob’s behavior towards Esau is but on e example); indeed their children (Jacob’s son and their role in the revenge of the rape of Dinah and Jacob’s response, as well as the sale of Joseph) at times displayed a complete disregard fro morality. How are we to understand the commandment to “exterminate Amalek” or the religious wars of Joshua? There are multiple examples of conflicting moral positions in Torah that have us tied up in knots. Our rabbis have devoted their creative intellectual powers in reconciling these seeming anomalies. It wasn’t until the period of the prophets that a quasi-coherent ethical approach began to crystallize.

The prophets, in spite of their charisma, articulation and moral clarity, were rejected by the people and of course by the prevailing political leadership. On the rare occasion that the political leadership was predisposed to the spiritual leadership of the prophets they were, nevertheless morally bankrupt. King David is one obvious example. The sages through the ages struggled to put David in a positive light. But no matter how much they tried the stain of his morally bankrupt lifestyle and leadership characteristics out weighed any arguments the rabbis could offer. If there ever was a king who displayed any moral clarity it was Saul but was rewarded by loosing the kingship to a shrewd, calculated and cunning pretender.

It was Diaspora Judaism that tried to airbrush our history from its warts and blemishes; trying to rationalize the seeming contradictions of our narrative by creating a moral value system that never, ever existed. Our rabbis invented a system that was impossible to live by. As long as we were in Diaspora without our own home, the Judaism they invented was harmless. We were powerless and to some degree we enjoyed our victimhood because it confirmed and affirmed the fiction we created.

The birth of the state of Israel put a kink in the storyline because modern Israel picked up where we left off two thousand years before. Although there was a clear Diaspora narrative that impacted heavily on the new Israel, the effort was made to close the gap by bracketing (if not attempting to disregard) the Diaspora experience between the end of the second commonwealth and the modern state. By doing this the new reality called in to question the fiction that our sages and rabbis wove for two thousand years. Israel was in a real quandary. Does modern Israel have to live up to a fictional characterization of who we are or can they pick up from where they left off, running the affairs of state and their army as every other nation in the region. In other words, Israel was confronted with the choice of perpetuating a myth or living honestly.

It isn’t easy casting off a two thousand year myth about the moral superiority of Israel. Other nations bought into it as well. So when Israel attempted to normalize itself in its conduct of war and diplomacy it was confronted with an image that was hard if not impossible to dispel. That is the condition of Israel today. A modern country linking to its pre-Diaspora past by attempting to finesse a means by which it recasts itself from the Diaspora image of the meek unassuming role of doing God’s work here on earth, even at the price of victimhood to an image of a nation rejecting victimhood even at the expense of casting others into the role of victim.

So people like Goldstone can continue to perpetuate the image of the Jew as the victim. They feel more comfortable living with that image because it affirms the Diaspora narrative and the image of victimhood; they simply aren’t comfortable enough in their Jewish skin to risk confrontation. The new Israel, modern Israel, on the other hand has little reservation about revising history: a reversal of roles from being the victim to becoming the victimizer.