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Dear Rabbi

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

Dear Rabbi,

At a family dinner, after I criticized Israeli policies and Bibi Netanyahu’s politics, my uncle accused me of being a self-hating Jew. I am a proud Jew, with my own opinions. But I was caught off guard by his caustic remark to me. I had no comeback. What should I have said to him?

Loving My Jewish Self in Lodi

 

Dear Loving,

From novelist Philip Roth in the sixties to TV personality Jon Stewart today, numerous Jewish writers and commentators who are critical of particular Jews or who depict negative Jewish stereotypes have been accused of self-hatred. After publishing his early fiction, which was peopled with controversial and comical Jewish characters, Roth often was accused of self-hatred. Back then, people apparently mistook Roth’s fiction as philosophy, and his theatrical characters as theology, and called him by a nasty name, “self-hating Jew.” And lately people mischaracterize Stewart’s comedy as political dogma and go on to label him the same way.

It would be accurate to depict writers like Roth and Stewart as comical Jews, self-berating Jews, self-critical Jews, self-analytical Jews, or even simply as self-conscious Jews.

But I cannot accept the “hating” side of the term. It’s rude and pretentious to pretend to know another person’s emotional state, to say someone is “hating.” And in fact, few people can maintain the emotion of hatred for more than a little while. To characterize a person as a “hater” is rarely true and not at all helpful.

Aside from that, our sacred Jewish literature, the Tanach, Talmud, and midrash, are full of negative stories about Jews behaving badly and Jews scathingly criticizing other Jews. The editors of those works, who gathered and published such narratives and accounts about those Jews of the past, are highly venerated and respected in our tradition. I cannot remember hearing anyone use the term “self-hating midrash.”

It seems that your uncle is ignorant of the dynamics of Jews criticizing Jews in both the classical prophetic tradition, so prominent in the Tanach, and in the entire body of Talmudic argumentation and criticism. It appears that he misuses the notion of chosenness (see the next question in this column) to create for himself a sense of entitlement that first of all makes him immune to complaints from other people and then, beyond that, empowers him to pejoratively classify those complaining folks in a bad way.

And so “self-hating Jew” is not valid as a descriptive category. It is after all nothing more than a lazy epithet, political name-calling that is meant to attack and dismiss criticism or negative stereotypes, rather than to respond to them.

Calling someone a “self-hating Jew” is not much different from calling someone a “son of a bitch” or a “bastard.” It was a form of name-calling, more prevalent in the 50s and 60s, directed mainly against secular Jews like Roth, who publically said or published critical things about Jewish characters (real or fictional), or about real Jews in general.

If your uncle calls you any rude childish name, my advice to you is that either you do not answer him at all, or you reply with a disarming “Thank you,” or you simply try, “No I am not,” or, if all else fails, try a childish retort, “Hey uncle, it takes a self-hating Jew to know one.”

 


Dear Rabbi,

Why is the world media so unfair to Israel? When I read about Israel in the newspapers, especially the New York Times, I often find myself getting angry about how one-sided and biased the media is toward the Jewish state. The Times criticizes Israel for many things, especially what it perceives as the mistreatment of Arabs. Sometimes I am so annoyed at the media, I can hardly control myself. The enemies of Israel do all kinds of violent, evil things to Israelis and to their own people. Yet that barely gets covered by the papers and on TV. But if an Israeli harms a fly, that gets blown up in dramatic fashion and roundly criticized. What gives? How can I come to terms with this?

Agitated in Alpine

 

Dear Agitated,

You are right. Israel is covered by the media with more scrutiny than other countries. The Israelis are held to higher standards. And it’s not only Israel. Jews in general get more ink and more scrutiny than people of other religions. And you know what? It’s our own fault. Here’s why.

We make no secret of our belief that we are God’s chosen people. Thus, if all the world is a stage (as Shakespeare said) and all the nations are players on the stage (as I suggest), then Israel and the Jewish people are the self-declared stars of the show. And you do understand that in the reviews of dramatic public performances, the stars always get more attention and more criticism.

When the Torah tells us the stories of God’s promises to Abraham and our forefathers, its narratives proclaim that the Jewish people are the chosen ones. And the promise of the special selection of Israel is renewed in the Sinai stories and by the bulk of the historical materials in the Tanach and the preaching of the prophets. Later Jewish philosophers reiterate the theme that Jews and Israel are the select, the chosen, the special folk – in other words, the stars of the show of world history and destiny.

The notion of chosenness does not make us immune to scrutiny. It invites intense interest and the accompanying criticism.

Rightfully, the stars get the focus and attention in the reviews and notices. When they do good, they get recognized. But when they stumble, miss one line, or fail to impress, they get roundly criticized. That’s how it works in the world of punditry and in the realm of media writing. Those high-profile subjects, the people with notoriety, get put into the spotlight.

Accordingly, it’s not right to question the fair or unfair treatment of one player versus another player. It’s right that the stars of the show will get the more thorough reviews – the greater praise when they shine, and the harsher criticisms when they slip up.

My advice to you: it shouldn’t make you angry or upset when the Times runs a long appraisal and detailed evaluation and assessment of the actions of the Jewish state, the Israel Defense Forces, or the citizens of Israel. We expect to be in the center of the stage. We proudly say of ourselves that we are special people. We invite attention and the spotlight. So when we get it, we really should not be surprised, and certainly we should not be displeased.

You cannot rewrite the Jewish theology, ideology, and religious history, which say with loud and clear voices, “Look at us, we are the greatest.” I advise you to come to terms with us Jews and with Israel being stars on the global scene.

And rightfully, when we celebrities go out on the public platform with some defect, when our makeup is smudged, or when we suffer a wardrobe malfunction, we must expect it to appear prominently in all the media reviews.

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