Others Defining Us

Being Defined by Others-Rosh Hashanah Day 1 2015

A boy walks into the circle of combat. All he has are sticks and a small puny weapon in his hand. His opponent is more than twice his size, maybe three times his size. He looks like a giant able to crush the boy with no effort. But the boy is able to use his weapon first. He has one shot, and one shot only. And it strikes true! The giant crumbles. And the boy will be remembered forever for his bravery.

What story did I just tell? Right, David and Goliath. But, I am really telling many stories. Because people love the David and Goliath story. We retell it so many ways. The idea of the weaker hero defeating the stronger, evil villain shows up in so many stories: Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, even the movie Roadhouse. But in real life, this story can be problematic. What if it is not so clear who is David and who is Goliath? What if this becomes fuzzy. Everyone wants to be David. No one wants to be considered Goliath.

We Jews are in a difficult position nowadays, particularly in regard to Israel. Israel is defined in a particular way by many of its opponents. The narrative they are telling about Israel is not the one we usually tell ourselves though. Actually, it may seem like it is from a different planet. This disconnection, though, has real ramifications as it makes it hard for us to use many of the arguments for supporting Israel that were helpful in the past. The narrative being used to define Israel, and us, as foreign as it may sound, affects our ability to be good, effective advocates. In this narrative, Israel is not David. Rather, it is considered Goliath.

Please understand that I surely do not agree with this narrative. If someone walks into the room while I am talking, and asks you why the rabbi is saying such nasty things about Israel, please tell them that I am only relaying information and he or she does not have to walk out.

But I am going to ask you to take a brief, strange trip with me as I describe what is being said about us, about Israel. This is not pleasant, but please bear with me.

Many people now see Israel as a symbol of American power. They describe it as a symbol of colonialism, though it was not founded that way. It is also seen as a symbol of persecution and racism, and its society is compared to Apartheid in South Africa. And more generally, it is seen as a symbol of Western society as a whole, a West that is oppressive and is attempting to control the whole world.

Sabah A. Salih, in his article “Islamism, BDS, and the West,” suggests that there has been an ideological shift going on in the West since the 1970’s. This line of thought posits the West as a villain in world politics, particularly the United States. Together with Israel, the US is seen as trying to make the rest of the world like itself, to impose hegemony, especially in regions where Arabs and Muslim are in the majority. Israel is seen as a creation of colonialism and having a necessary role in this dirty effort. One supposed tool of this effort is economic: globalization. Another is even considered more devious, cultural imperialism, which is said to be colonizing, infecting and even wiping out non-Western cultures. According to Salih, this line of thought has moved into the center of how the West itself thinks about itself, and has allowed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel Movement to thrive in the West. It has been promoted by television, newspapers, conferences, student organizations, and even high school and college discussions.

So, in the process, Israel has come to be seen by many as a symbol of colonialism, US power, and a wider plan to destroy the culture of native groups, particularly in Arab and Muslim lands.

Please notice how different this is than how we often see ourselves, or at least how we learned about Israel when we were younger. It is part of the reason that older arguments for Israel are not resonating. We see ourselves as victims, but we are seen as the persecutors. We are seen as Goliath instead of David.

We see this play out when we start to look at which type of academics tend to support the BDS movement. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin did a study on this topic and found that vast majority of the 938 boycotting faculty that were included were in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Can you guess which departments had the highest number of boycotters? English or literature at 21%. Rossman-Benjamin then compared the research interests of the English professors that had joined the boycott and those that had not. The ones that joined the boycott tended to have research interests around four themes: class, gender, race, and empire. Notice something about all four of these. Rossman-Benjamin suggests that all four view the world in a particular way. They divide people into the distinct categories of the oppressed and the oppressor. She believes that those academics who join the boycott are just applying this mental framework to Palestinians, who they see as the oppressed, and the Israelis, who they see as the oppressor. There is little room for nuance here. At the same time, these themes are also seen to have connections with the concept of “social justice.” Scholars who work on them tend to blur the distinction between academics and activism.

So, Israel has come to stand for Western imperialism, an effort to conquer and control the rest of the world while devastating native cultures in the process. Our homeland is seen as a base of operations for a larger effort by the West to dominate other lands and cultures.

Of course, this depiction of Israel ignores the democratic nature of the country. It also pays no attention to the progressive elements of Israel, such as its free press, protection of women’s rights, and support of gays and lesbians.

At the same time, it turns Israel into a symbol instead of something that is physically real. Let me explain what I mean by this. In general, throughout our history, we Jews been described in many ways and have been used as a symbols for many things. We have been defined as symbols of something else than just Jews and the religion of Judaism. In the book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,  David Nirenberg talks about the idea that thinkers in Western thought have continually over time used Jews and Judaism as a way of understanding their world. They do not necessarily draw from the ideas of Judaism, but use Jews as a symbol for an idea or a concept, usually a negative one.

For example, in the1844 writing “On the Jewish Question” and other pieces, Karl Marx (himself Jewish) intervened in a heated debate about whether German Jews needed to convert to Christianity in order to be emancipated from legal restrictions and become citizens. Marx said that the wrong question was being asked. He argued that conversion could not emancipate the Jews of Germany or emancipate Germany of Judaism. To Marx, Judaism was not only a religion but an attitude: an attitude of spiritual slavery and alienation from the world. Furthermore, he argued that the God of Judaism is money. In the article, he essentially used Judaism as a code word for capitalism.

Marx understood that some of basic economic concepts – such as money and property- were thought of in Christian culture as “Jewish,” and that these things could potentially produce the “Jewishness” of those who used them, whether those users were Jewish or not.

This was not a one-time event. Jews and Judaism have repeatedly served as a symbol of ideas and concepts that are not really part of Judaism. As I have already mentioned, we have been seen as symbols of capitalism. Nirenberg states that he cannot think of any financial innovation, practice, or crisis that was not discussed in terms of Judaism in the 19th and early 20th century. But we have also been symbols of communism. In Early 20th century philosophy, there was stigmatization of abstract, logical, or allegedly hyperrational thought, which was referred to as “Jewish.” Psychoanalysis was also considered “Jewish.”

So it is happening again, with Israel serving as a symbol of awful things regardless if they match or not.

On a practical level, how do we defend against this depiction of Israel. The way is by defining ourselves instead of allowing others to define us. Demonstrating that Israel is a real, breathing country like any other one. That Israelis are not a symbol but are real, live breathing people, like everyone else. Israel is a country like other countries. We need to point out that having disagreement with policies of a county, and feeling they are illegitimate can be done without saying the country is illegitimate. Let me repeat that. We need to point out that having disagreement with policies of a county, and feeling they are illegitimate can be done without saying the country is illegitimate. We can explain that Israel has important problems and deficiencies, but a lot is right about Israel.

But even more than taking that approach, we need to remind people about the story of Israel. The moral of the story is that the state of Israel helped save the people of Israel.  In the process, we need to make Israel a David again instead of the Goliath it is seen as now. We need to remind others that Israel is an underdog on steroids. That it does not have the power of an empire. That it is a small, lonely people, surrounded by enemies. With morality in its DNA.

Zionism throughout most of its history has associated itself with justice. It had a sense of both realism and morality. And it was not all about power politics. We can still emphasize that it is not all about power politics, regardless what we think of the actions of particular leaders.

Essentially, we can counter others defining us by defining ourselves instead. We can stop others from making us into a Goliath.  We can talk about the reality of the state in opposition to the way it is described by its enemies. Perhaps, this will help prevent some of the spreading of the negative depiction of Israel as a symbol of oppression and stem the flow of people attracted to the BDS movement and other anti-Semitic efforts.

I have been talking about self-definition in regard to Israel today. Tomorrow, we will talk more about this process of self-definition, but we will shift our focus to our own community. We will discuss our current opportunity, and it is a great opportunity, to say who we are and for what we stand.

Speaker: Rabbi Edelman-Blank

Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank has been the rabbi of Tifereth Israel Synagogue since 2009. He received his Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. Previously, Rabbi Edelman-Blank graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies. His eclectic experience includes interning at Burbank Temple Emanu El in Burbank, California, directing youth programs at Congregation Beth El in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assisting with research in the field of psychology at Boston University, serving in AmeriCorps and an array of community service. His passions lie in community development and making Torah meaningful in our daily lives.