Appeasing contempt of the Jews

Posted: Jul 24, 2006 12:01 AM

They're caricatured with hooknoses and humpbacks, as sucking up a sow's excrement, murdering children for their blood in a recipe for matzoh. They're scorned for being weak and sneered at for being strong, for passivity and aggression, for segregating themselves and for assimilating to disappear among their secular neighbors. They're too studious or merely stupid, obsessed with cleanliness or living in filth, hated for their industry and reviled for their sloth. They're condemned as greedy capitalists and naive communists, as reactionaries and radicals, patriotic nationalists and secular internationalists, for being stateless and for building a thriving state.

Jews are persecuted when they don't convert and persecuted when they do. The converted are accused of hating themselves, and the unconverted are accused of hating everybody else. Seneca, the Roman tragedian, expressed annoyance at Roman Jews for their observance of a ritual Sabbath: "This meant that Jews were wasting one-seventh of their lives doing nothing."

Now the Jews of Israel, doing what they have to do to survive, are accused of "acting out of proportion" to the daily assault of Iranian rockets fired by Hezbollah to kill Jews in their homes. The Jews should show restraint. Restraint was what the Jews in Germany showed when the Nazis were organizing the Holocaust and the world wouldn't believe that what was happening was happening. Restraint is what the rest of the world showed when they dismissed a crazy Austrian paperhanger and his nutty book, "Mein Kampf." If the rest of the world was willing to ignore Hitler and his boasting and bloviating, why couldn't the Jews?

Restraint is what you show in disputes with rational people who are willing to compromise, who will give up something in return for something. But restraint can buy time for your uncompromising enemies to enable them to plot the ambush to kill you later. During the Holocaust, certain Jewish leaders, eager to show restraint by trusting their enemies, gave up lists of Jews, a few at a time, to save others a little while longer.

Ariel Sharon, showing restraint, organized the withdrawal from Gaza as a way to achieve peace through strength, a controversial idea but nevertheless credible. You could call it aggressive restraint. All that was wrong with it was that it didn't work and was perceived as weakness by the enemies of Israel. The only thing Israel got was more rockets on its cities, the elevation of Hamas to power and the kidnapping of its soldiers standing duty in Israeli territory. "When you keep pinching a lion," Jeffrey Gedmin, director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, writes in Die Welt, the German daily, "sooner or later he'll clobber you with his paw."

Throughout history, others have had a lot of advice for the Jews, cheap at the price. America aside, there was not much else. Anti-Semitism is often personal, and always political. The anti-Semites get away with acting on their prejudice because there's a political environment where spin is appreciated. Anti-Zionism, the legitimate criticism of Israel politics and policy, is not always anti-Semitism. But it usually is. Once upon a time, the world's sympathy rested with the Jews. The United Nations approved the creation of Israel; the Jews had suffered so much in the early decades of the 20th century. Israel gave the Jews a new identity, an opportunity to create a country by working the land, bringing it to flower and training men (and women) to fight back when attacked. They succeeded beyond their dreams, beyond the nightmares of their critics. When Israelis survived in the wars of 1948, 1964 and 1967, no thanks to restraint, their global supporters began to fall away. Jews were easier to feel sorry for when they couldn't fight back.

"Nathan the Wise," an 18th-century German play by Gotthold Lessing, depicts a flattering portrait of Moses Mendelssohn, the playwright's famous Jewish friend. When the Sultan Saladin asks Nathan, the Moses figure, to explain his identity, Nathan replies simply: Ich bin ein Mensch -- "I am a man." This line infuriated Hannah Arendt, writing about it after the Holocaust. It characterized the Jew in a private, personal way, she said, ignoring his specific identity subject to political vulnerability. She knew what the Israelis have had to learn the hard way. For a Jew, being a man is not good enough unless it's backed up by the power to survive.

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