The myth of the "self-hating Jew" is a slander against many American Jews who do not march in lockstep to the Likud drummer. Do not dismiss it lightly. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported to have made just this accusation against two of the highest-ranking members of President Obama's White House staff. The mythical part, of course, is the precept that any Jew -- especially an American Jew -- who does not unconditionally support the government of Israel is ipso facto a "self-hater."
Those in power in Israel understand how vital it is to their interests to keep American Jews in line. The solidarity of American Jews behind the shield of Israel is seen as a mighty dam holding back a possible flood of anti-Semitism. Israeli leaders fear that any crack in that base might begin a wholesale reappraisal of US policy as it relates to Israeli interests. The "self-hating Jew" becomes a powerful and effective symbol. Israel seeks to make it the equivalent of the Scarlet Letter no Jew wants to wear. Its detrimental force has kept many American Jews from expressing their reservations about Israel, particularly its recent policies and actions.
The myth, however, cannot overcome the free and determined conscience of any man. Phil Ross, a journalist/author and psychotherapist, writes to me about the changing nature of American Jewish feeling about the State of Israel. This is important. Here is what he tells me:
I am a Jew, secular to be sure, but culturally tender at the Jewish bone. I was bar mitzvahed. In college I spent time on a kibbutz. During the Six Day War, I volunteered to fight for Israel. A few years later I did some publicity for The United Jewish Appeal. As a freelance journalist, I wrote a cover story for a major magazine on the Israeli government's daring rescue at Entebbe. Every year since my birth my family has an informal Seder. I know a little Yiddish and I know a lot of Jewish jokes.
So, in this time of Passover, I ask the following four questions:
How did it happen that the person I have described above has become so alienated from the country for which he was prepared to give his life 43 years ago?
How has it come to pass that when I read about Israeli and Palestinian deaths in the never-ending conflict, I no longer tilt emotionally to one side?
Have I become someone who no longer sees the interests of his country and of Israel's to be irrevocably joined?
Lastly, how in this season where Jews celebrate their release from slavery do I identify with today's Palestinians as the people yearning to return to their promised land?
My answers are that I have become so transformed because I believe the idea of a Jewish homeland which I so ardently supported as a youth has evolved into something which I do not recognize as being Jewish. Israeli, yes -- like Chinese or Pakistani or, may my grandmother forgive me, Iranian or Saudi. Players on the world stage. No more. No less. No longer victims. No longer representing the highest ideals of Judaism I learned as I grew up; ideals like the importance of empathy and compassion for others. What I see instead is a hard-nosed convergence of political, military and religious right wingers who lean on the holocaust and the Old Testament to drive toward their expansionist agenda the way Bush/Cheney used "weapons of mass destruction" to justify their goals for Iraq.
Let me emphasize that not for one second do I view the Palestinians, their leaders and their outside supporters as embodying righteousness. Not any more than when I marched on Washington to protest my country's presence in Vietnam I thought that a Ho Chi Minh poster should hang on my wall or that the Viet Cong were paragons of virtue.
My anguish and anger in the Middle East focuses on Israel precisely because I am a Jew. It is the same Jew in me that is more outraged by a Bernie Madoff than I would have been had this criminal been named Kelly or Rodriquez. It is the Jew in me who longs for an Israel that can produce an Anwar Sadat. I am the Jew who wishes for an Israeli leader who can take the initiative and bring his people and the Palestinians to a lasting peace.
Once, on a Judge Judy Show, the plaintiff was a woman who clearly had the judge's sympathy as she described how her ex-boyfriend had dented her car with a bat after she refused to let him into her home. When Judge Judy learned that the man had served several months in prison for violating a previous restraining order obtained by this woman, she lashed into him -- asking why, after serving time, he was so stupid as to think she still wanted to see him. The defendant was confused. Confused? About what, Judge Judy asked in disbelief. "Well, if she didn't want to see me," the man replied, "why did she send me naked pictures of herself when I was in jail?"
After confirming that the plaintiff had indeed done this, there was a long silence. Then Judge Judy uttered these words to the woman: "You're losing me!" she said. "You're losing me!"
For Israel to lose me, and others like me, is not funny at all. Not for me. And more important, not for Israel.
I know that Phil Ross is a good man, a loyal American, and a good Jew. He's no "self-hater." He ended his note by reminding me that a lifetime of Passover Seders had always included the hopeful phrase: "Next year in Jerusalem." With Israel announcing further expansion of its settlements in that holy city, Ross hoped that this Passover, somewhere, there would be those expressing these same wishes for the Palestinians.