Jewish Ambivalence: Conformity vs. Fear of Anti-Semitism

There is a discomfort many Jews feel about Israel and the pressure not to go against "acceptable" currents on the matter.
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Touching base with a friend recently, she asked what I was up to, and having just returned from the pool of a local Jewish community center, I whimsically replied, "I've been swimming with Jews." This inside joke became a bit more pertinent as we discussed the New York Times piece "On Israel, Jews and Leaders Often Disagree," a roundtable discussion regarding the discomfort many Jews feel about Israel and the pressure not to go against "acceptable" currents on the matter.

In the piece, Times writer Paul Vitello quoted Philip Moore, a Detroit-area teacher, who gave voice to the ambivalences common to many Jews, myself included. Moore expressed it perfectly when he said, "You raise a question about the security forces or the settlements and you are suddenly being compared to a Holocaust denier ... It's just not a rational discussion, so I keep quiet."

Apparently the recent qualms many Jews (prominent and not) have with President Obama's statements regarding settlements of Jews on what many consider Palestinian territory, are bringing the subject -- with all its discomfort -- back to the forefront of conversations. I wonder if and when we might actually begin to "talk amongst ourselves" with less animosity and anxiety.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, I was stung by what seemed like a rabid hatred for Barack Obama based on what, for many Jews with whom I spoke, were casual Internet rumors that said he was both Muslim and a terrorist. I then learned from a psychotherapy patient who is an Orthodox Jew that he felt so intimidated by emails that said he couldn't be considered a Jew if he voted for Obama, he didn't vote at all.

I have been upset, not only by hatred through rumor and racism and reflex, but also because of my own assumption that Jews should know better. After all it had been done to us--the "us" being an uncontrollable reflex for most Jews of at least a certain age.

There is a Jewish expression that applies to psychoanalysts and Jews in general. Why does a psychoanalyst (substitute Jew if you like) always answer a question with a question? The answer is, of course, "And why not?" So as a therapist who is Jewish in my cells if not my religious practices, I take the liberty of indulging in the common usage of the term "On the other hand", which means that just when you think you've reached a point, there is "another hand," another consideration making for a riper set of conclusions.

So it goes that one night I am in a discussion with some friends about genocide, and we speak about having felt conditioned to feel the Jewish Holocaust was the one and only crime of the century, to be compared only to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Two of the younger people resented what they felt was a constant bias that "the" Holocaust was the only one deserving of mass grieving and remembrance.

My attention is rapt, I agreed with their sentiments. And then the very next evening I heard the story of a woman whose parents and eleven siblings were killed by the Nazis and again, it is "on the other hand." I remember the warnings about Jews always being hated, that we needed to stick together.

As the paranoia travels, I have felt what seems to be a plethora of varieties of guilt as rich as any garden. There is the guilt of feeling our Holocaust has supremacy over others, perhaps even more so because Jews in Germany committed no warring act and were not involved in aggressive conflict.

Then there is the guilt by proxy for the Jews I heard say that Jews didn't go on welfare, why did African Americans? And when I hear of anti-Semitism I feel the guilt of being a "bad Jew," after all I married an Italian, didn't I? I cringe when a young Jewish child wants to know what's the big deal about the Holocaust, after all it happened so long ago? And I cringe at my own assumption that Jews should know better about anything. Then I worry that Bernie Madoff will make even more people anti-Semitic. I know I have a shared condition and wonder about the diagnosis. Is it an environmentally inherited "racial" guilt gland? I laugh, because such notions are so crazy-intense that it becomes funny.

Added to this brew of unsettled emotions are patients who have come to my therapy practice as a result of a recent spate of anti-Semitic bullying in local public schools. I have been reaching out to others to decipher what it means. And all these feelings--more common than you may think--have an impact on the process of coordinating thought. The swimming seems to go against too many currents with no easy flow at all.

Still, there is room for surprise. There is space for yet another "on the other hand." It is the reminder that comes from the work I have been doing. I have learned, despite distractions from the past and present fears, that our answers won't come from sticking together only with any one group, because we are all capable of violence to each other, to other groups and from within.

I cannot tell you that I am free from the instinctive harshness that attempts to blunt this final thought: We are, in fact, no better than anyone else. There is no such thing as an exclusive right to goodness. If we want our chance at adding to dignity for the human climate upon which all decisions will be based, we too need to study hatred fully, and that includes our own.