Self-Censoring Jews


In 1936 Joseph Hertz, chief rabbi of the British Empire, published an annotated translation of the Pentateuch that is still used by many synagogues. Hertz was an outspoken critic of discrimination against minorities, and his commentary reflects a keen sensitivity to gentile perceptions of the Jews, particularly when he deals with biblical passages that modern readers might view as cruel or barbaric.

Discussing the Torah's approval of slavery, for example, Hertz is at pains to point out that Hebrew standards of treatment were vastly superior to those of the Greeks and Romans, or "even of Western countries down to the middle of the last century." The implication, here and elsewhere in the commentary, is that non-Jews are hardly in a position to criticize.

Sixty-five years later, this Jewish defensiveness persists, and it is likely to intensify following the landslide election of Ariel Sharon, perceived as a warmonger by much of the world, as Israel's prime minister. Today's Zionists are preoccupied by the same question that haunted Hertz a decade before the Jewish state was created: What will the goyim think?

That concern fosters habitual self-censorship. Jews are reluctant to criticize Israeli policies because they do not want to aid Israel's enemies. The unspoken rule is that if you must disagree, you should keep it in the family. Better yet, keep it to yourself.

But in the long run, this silence does Israel no favor. It means that even when criticism is justified (perhaps especially when it's justified, since that's when Israel seems most beleaguered), it comes mainly from those who question Israel's legitimacy. This pattern drives people who are troubled by specific excesses into the anti-Israel camp, and it undermines the credibility of Israel's friends.

The rabbi at our synagogue frequently complains that press coverage of the recent violence in Israel suggests a false moral equivalence between Jewish murder victims and Arabs killed while hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails. He has a point, but so did Hertz when he said the Hebrews practiced slavery more humanely than the Romans did.

It is indisputably worse to deliberately kill someone because he happens to be Jewish than it is to unintentionally kill a rioter (or a bystander) with a poorly aimed rubber bullet. But that does not mean the latter sort of killing is beyond criticism.

To an outsider, the casualty figures for the last several months-about 340 Arabs killed, versus 50 or so Jews, according to one recent count–look pretty damning. And that, of course, was the intent of the Palestinian leadership when it encouraged the violence, including the unconscionable practice of sending children into the street to be martyrs for the cause.

Still, most observers can only be baffled by the average Israeli's complaint that the government has not been tough enough. On their face, the numbers raise obvious questions about whether the government could have avoided some of these deaths by retreating from confrontations, using less-lethal force, or using it more carefully.

I don't know the answers to those questions. But it should be possible for a friend of Israel to raise them without being considered a traitor.

Our rabbi warns us not to trust what we read in The New York Times, because "they have an agenda." (Don't we all?) But unless the paper's reporters are making things up out of whole cloth, allegations of excessive force by Israeli soldiers cannot be lightly dismissed.

In a November 16 incident, the Times reports, "witnesses said a soldier shot [a Palestinian] in the head at point blank range after an argument at a checkpoint." At the time of the shooting, which is under investigation, an army spokesman said the Palestinian had tried to grab the soldier's rifle.

Without prejudging the facts of this particular case, and without accusing Israeli soldiers in general of being trigger-happy, Israel's supporters should make it clear that the alleged act of violence is the sort of thing no civilized society can tolerate. They should also be willing to question officially approved acts of violence, as when Israeli forces assassinate a terrorist leader and happen to kill a couple of innocent bystanders in the process.

As for what the goyim will think, the fair-minded among them will conclude that Jews, like all human beings, are capable of making mistakes and committing injustices. The more important question is whether they are capable of admitting and correcting them.