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Home > People & Cultures > Et tu, Elie?

Et tu, Elie?
Being Jewishly-correct

By Joseph Aaron
Chicago Jewish News
April 10, 2001

CHICAGO--There is a difference between unity and uniformity. And there is a very big difference between Jewish unity and Jewish uniformity.

Jewish unity is a very good thing, is something we should always have, and when we don't, it's something we should always work for.

Jewish uniformity is a very bad thing, indeed, is a very unJewish thing.

It is something we should always resist and something we have way too much of.

Though more Jews are more free than ever before, there are fewer independent Jewish voices than ever before, a far greater price to pay for anyone who deviates from the official Jewish line of the moment.

The Amish shun those Amish who don't fall into, stay in line. The Jews destroy those Jews who don't fall into, stay in line. Call them the ugliest of names, treat them in the ugliest of ways. Savage them, then dismiss them from the Jewish people.

What is most tragic about making those who say things that are unpopular, dare to question our leaders and our organizations, dare to be critical of Israel, pay a price for doing so, is that all of Judaism pays a huge price for doing that.

At its very essence, Judaism is about questioning, disagreeing, probing. That is what has made Jewish minds and spirits so sharp for so long wherever we've been. We've always had a variety of perspectives and always benefited when each has been expressed and been listened to. By hearing things you don't agree with and treating them with respect, you learn something, something that might cause you to reconsider your position or that will help you to strengthen it by forcing you to defend it. By seeing the other side clearly, you come to see your own better.

Indeed, it is no wonder it is said the best lawyers can argue both sides of a case equally well or that the best debaters can defend either side of a question with equal vigor. Jews have known that, and done that, from the beginning.

For us, it's always been "two Jews, three opinions." We've always had a wide range of points of view on every conceivable topic, have always had those able to articulate them and have all been the better off for all of that. It's expanded our minds to consider all positions, strengthened our lives to have a diversity of ways of seeing things, thinking about things.

We've never been a people to walk in lockstep. Never. But we are more now than ever. And becoming more so every day.

How much so is becoming clearer everyday, with uniformity becoming more and more the order of the day.

Uniformity, remember, is very different from unity. Unity is Jews embracing, respecting, loving all Jews all the time. Just because. It is not putting aside our differences but rather it is celebrating them, accepting and being grateful that there are Jews who don't believe or act as we do and loving them nonetheless, loving them not despite that, but because of that, feeling a connection to each and every Jew no matter what, just because. That is unity and there is less of that today than there ever was.

Uniformity is about eliminating differences, expecting all Jews to think the same, act the same and having nothing to do with those who are different. There is more of that today than there ever was.

On a big picture level, that's because of two things. One is the ever increasing consolidation of Jewish life, with huge Jewish organizations increasingly dominating Jewish life, controlling much of its money and power. The other is the increasing power and freedom that Jews enjoy, power and freedom we simply can't handle because it is a phenomenon so new to us, so different for us. We haven't yet gotten used to the fact that we are not being persecuted from the outside, aren't surrounded by enemies and so we spend all the energy we used to use to fight those outside us and use it instead against Jews not like us.

Those two realities have been true and will continue to be true. Bad enough in itself, but being intensified at the moment by what's going on in Israel.

Because of what's going on, because of how abominably the Palestinians have been acting, because of such things as the heartbreaking murder of a 10-month-old Israeli girl sitting in her stroller, the calls for uniformity are louder than ever.

And more wrong than ever. Unity yes, uniformity no.

Uniformity means no one has the right to criticize Israel at this moment, question Israel at this moment, take a stand different from how many feel at this moment.

Not good. It is especially at moments like this that we need all Jews to be involved and to feel free to see things as they see them, say things as they see them. We need to be at our best and that means being our most authentic selves. And that means having all kinds of viewpoints. It does not mean falling into line.

I understand the reflex inclination to do so. Most of our history we've been under attack, and because we have been so few and so weak and those attacking us have been so much stronger and bigger, we couldn't afford the luxury of discord within, didn't have the luxury to be debating, when we had to focus our all on surviving.

But that was true about, right for another time. Not this time.

This time, we are strong. We should feel that and act accordingly.

Israel is an incredibly powerful country in every way. Militarily, culturally, economically, diplomatically.

Admit it, you flinched when reading that last sentence. You don't accept that, are angry to hear that. That's because your heart hasn't caught up with your head. That's true of most Jews. We still see ourselves as the underdog, under fire, and so not able to tolerate, let alone welcome, a smorgasbord of Jewish views.

You're mad that I just said that Israel is a strong country, feel how dare I say that, especially at a time like this. And so it is no wonder so many are angry when I, and others, dare to question anything about Israeli policy, criticize anything about how Israel is acting.

We can't afford that, you say, reverting to style about the way things used to be. I say we can't afford to act as if things were as they were, when they are not.

We need to welcome a variety of Jewish perspectives, feel free to say what we think about what's going on in Israel. Even now. Especially now.

But so strong is the pull to uniformity today that it is becoming almost traitorous for a Jew to say anything not in keeping with the Jewishly-correct line. JC, I call it, the Jewish version of pc, politically correct, and about as Jewish as that first JC.

Indeed, this jc atmosphere has gotten so bad that even such a great Jew as Elie Wiesel has joined it.

When I read what we he said recently, I must admit, I was stunned. A chill literally ran up my back. I could not believe such a man as Wiesel, who I have so long and so much admired, who has been such a leader of our people, such a strong voice for what is right and what is good, a man who has never been afraid to speak out, been so able to express the essence of Judaism and humanity, would say what he said.

What he said was that those who criticize Israel at this time are anti-Semites. Even if they are Jews, especially if they are Jews.

Saying that many disguise anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, he noted that "anti-Semitism seems to be alive and well ... and not only among gentiles, but also certain Jewish intellectual, semi-intellectual, leftist circles."

He called Jews who criticize Israel "self-hating enemies of Israel, " "ashamed Jews" and said "to use Jewishness as a right to oppose Israel is something that I am opposed to."

Wow. Jews who question Israeli policy are "self-hating enemies of Israel, ashamed Jews." Wow. Using "Jewishness as a right to oppose Israel" is something Wiesel opposes. Wow.

Strike a blow for uniformity. Strike a blow against the essence of Judaism.

How is it possible to think that if a Jew doesn't like something about how Israel acts that that makes him self-hating, ashamed, an enemy of Israel? And what better reason to question how Israel acts than one's Jewishness? To me, there is no other reason.

As one who occasionally questions Israeli actions, criticizes aspects of Israeli policy and society, I know that I do it out of a very deep love of Israel, a tremendous caring for Israel. Would I be a better friend of Israel if I didn't say anything about the fact that its policies have incredibly polluted Israel's air to the point some wonder if it will be breathable in 50 years? Would I be a better friend of Israel if I didn't say anything about its lack of a constitution, which sometimes results in an astonishing lack of protections for its citizens? Would I be a better friend of Israel if I didn't point out the widespread corruption among its major politicians which has led to all kinds of sweetheart deals that benefit the few at the cost of the many? And would I be a better friend of Israel if I just said the Palestinians are animals, we should not give one inch of land and that Rabin was nuts for starting the peace process?

Is it being a better friend of Israel to do what Wiesel says, to just say everything Israel is doing is right, it is always right, and to say otherwise is to be a self-hating, ashamed enemy of Israel?

Today, those who say that uniformity is the way, Israel is always right, we must circle the wagons and oppose the Palestinians, are seen as the best friends of Israel. And maybe they are. But can you not also be a friend by questioning, showing another way? Since we don't know which way is right, isn't it better to hear them all, consider them all, see all who, out of love, offer their views, as friends of Israel, with nobody getting labeled self-hating, ashamed enemies of Israel.

Again, unity is what we need, not uniformity.

As Elie Wiesel well knows. For in that very same speech where he was so critical of any Jew who would criticize Israel, he laid out the responsibility of each and every Jew.

"It is not given to everyone to make history. But it is incumbent upon every one of us to take part in it. Only great figures, in virtue of talent or vision, chosen by destiny or anointed by God, only prophets, kings, philosophers, scientists, warriors, have the means to impact events and push them to the height of goodness or to the abyss of evil. Yet every one of us, be he or she wealthy or impoverished, learned or less learned, young or saturated with years, already wise or still seeking to acquire wisdom - indeed, every one of us, if he or she so desires, do participate in shaping and sharing our history, each on his or her level, and in his or her way, with all of them, all of us, emerging enriched by that experience."

Exactly. Precisely. Each and every one of us, each in his or her own way.

If every Jew does that - every Jew - than all Jews - all Jews - are enriched.

Even though I am a self-hating, ashamed Jew, I couldn't have said it better myself.

© JTA Inc., 2001. May not be reproduced without written permission.


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