It’s gratifying that our society has become more open and tolerant. Whether it comes to race, religion, sexual preference or gender identity, there is an expectation of acceptance and accommodation the likes of which has never before existed. What’s frustrating, however, is the one glaring exception: Jews in general and Israel in particular. We get it from both the left and the right. When people are going to bat to defend everyone’s rights, why is vilifying Israel acceptable? And if American Muslims are not to blame for ISIS, nor American Christians for the Westboro Baptist Church or the KKK, then why is it okay to castigate Jews as if they were personally responsible for perceived injustices against the Palestinians?
This is an old story, recently exacerbated by the US throwing Israel under the bus at the UN. Even before that, standing up for Israel on campus was often considered “hate speech” while calls to eradicate not only Israel but Jews (who, ostensibly, were at least tacitly part of the problem) were acceptable. Aren’t we an oppressed minority? Where are our defenders?
I have a thought that may explain this phenomenon. It has to do with punching up and punching down.
If you’re not familiar with these expressions, “punching up” means taking potshots at those in power, while “punching down” means to take digs at those who are somehow disadvantaged or downtrodden. Punching up is acceptable but punching down is not. Here’s an example that clearly illustrates the point: rape humor is almost universally reviled. It’s considered to be in spectacularly poor taste because it belittles and re-victimizes those who have suffered such an assault. That’s punching down. And yet, the late-night talk show hosts love to take swipes at Bill Cosby who allegedly-I-don’t-know-if-it’s-been-proven-but-it’s-commonly-accepted drugged women and took advantage of them when they were incapacitated. That’s not making fun of rape, it’s making fun of a rapist: “Here’s a guy who presented himself as a paragon of virtue but he’s very much not. Let’s take the wind out of his sails.” It’s punching up and therefore acceptable.
The dichotomy between punching up and punching down explains a number of apparent contradictions. Why is “black power” acceptable but “white power” racist? Because the whites already have the power. The former phrase punches up in an attempt to equalize, the latter punches down, in an attempt to maintain the imbalance of the status quo. (See also Black Entertainment Television, Ebony magazine, and other things whose white analogues would be considered racist.) Similarly, women’s gyms, women’s achievement awards, etc. are seen as safe spaces while male equivalents are considered glass ceilings to be broken. Again, it’s because men have historically held all the cards and women have had to claw their way in to achieve a semblance of equality.
So what does this have to do with Jews and Israel? Simple enough. From an insider’s perspective, we see ourselves as a tiny minority of the world population, nearly universally reviled. Seriously, if anyone needs a safe space, it’s us. But how do others see us?
If you read comments online (which you shouldn’t – they’re terrible!), you will notice that there are people who honestly believe that we control the banks, the media, the US government and/or the world. (Of course, if any of this were true, we’d get better press, there wouldn’t be a tuition crisis, etc.) There are even people who still believe in The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – an anti-Semitic treatise that couldn’t be more transparently-fraudulent if it had “This Book is a Hoax” stamped on the cover in gold. People who believe such things punch up at us.
Even excluding the conspiracy fringe, there are plenty of reasons one might think that attacking Israel and Jews is punching up rather than down. Just look at our successes. In its decades-long history, the modern nation of Israel – a tiny country with no oil, whose existence has been challenged since day one – has become a global leader in electronics, communications technology, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, water conservation, solar and geothermal energy, and more. Is it any wonder people view Israel as Goliath rather than David?
This isn’t true just of Israel. Historically, Jews have thrived wherever we have lived. (This was often necessary just to survive!) An example of this is that 22% of individual Nobel Prize recipients between 1901 and 2016 were Jewish (or at least half-Jewish); 36% of all US Nobel Prize recipients for that period were Jewish. This is despite making up a mere 2% of the US population and 0.2% of the world population. We’re rightly proud of such accomplishments but, again, this does not make us appear to be an oppressed minority in the eyes of the world.
And then there’s the expression “Chosen People,” which I believe is greatly misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews alike. I think the prophet Isaiah explained it best when he delivered the message, “I, Hashem, have called you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and kept you, and set you for a covenant of the people, for a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). So “Chosen People” doesn’t mean “better than everyone else” (how good or bad one is being a factor of one’s actions); rather, it means “held to a higher standard in order to serve as an example.” Nevertheless, if you’re known as the nation singled out by God, people are going to read a lot into that and, honestly, there’s no greater punching up than that.
I don’t believe in blaming the victim and I’m not justifying the way people demonize Israel or Jews. I’m just hypothesizing as to the source of the phenomenon. It doesn’t make it right to attack Israel, a nation that only wants to live in peace with its neighbors, nor to make pariahs of Jews who have nothing to do with Israeli political policy, let alone the banks or the media. Just next time, when you wonder why a “social justice warrior” doesn’t include Israel or Jews, be aware that it may be because he perceives attacking Israel as punching up, and therefore okay.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.