Thursday, 3 September 2009

Jewishness in the World

Recently, I have found myself, over and over again, contemplating a matter that, while different in every specfic situation, forces me to consider the circumstance of being Jewish within the context of a broader realm, be it the host country we find ourselves or the world in general. How are we to respond when the greater society singles out either a solitary Jew or a segment of the Jewish community or the State of Israel for condemnation or criticism? On one hand, we can look at the very merits of the issue and evaluate the matter in an objective manner. That would seem to be the simple, correct way of responding. But what if the merits of the arguments are not so easy to decipher? As the complexity of a situation is more and more recognized, our concern that Jews are specifically targeted becomes more and more acute. How much of the condemnation or criticism, we may begin to ask, is then the result of anti-Semitism?

Two cases may illustrate the issue, albeit both are vastly different. The Toronto International Film Festival is presently under attack for focusing on Tel Aviv in its City to City spotlight. Many individuals in the entertainment industry, many of them Jews, in protest of the Israeli excursion into Gaza earlier this year. have criticized the Festival for doing this. Charges of anti-Semitism have, in ture, been voiced against these protestors. They, in turn, retort that they are simply presenting their moral perspective and point to the many Jews who are part of the protest as a clear indication that their motivation is not anti-Semitism. The issue for me is not the moral question, per se. There are many, also in the entertainment industry, both Jews and non-Jews, who have come to Israel's defense based on moral grounds. The question, for me, rather is the role of anti-Semitism in the the motivation of the protestors. Perhaps they are motivated solely by their moral/ethical perspective, albeit a perspective that I think is wrong and simplistic. But how much of a role does anti-Semitism play in the development of this perspective? Would they have the same view if the object of their protests was not Israel? And what about the Jews who have joined in this protest? How much of their motivation is connected to a desire to ignore anti-Semitism and make-believe that it is non-existent? The further question for me is not the personal viewpoints of these individuals but how they can ignore the fact that there are anti-Semites who will use such an argument to further their evil goals? What do you do when you think that a fellow Jew has acted inappropriately but if you highlight this, you will be giving ammunition to the anti-Semite who is not really interested in the moral/ethical issue but in simply attacking Jews?

This same issue emerges, albeit in a vastly different way, in the Rubashkin case. There are those who yell anti-Semitism in response to how this has transpired. On the other hand, there are legal and ethical issues that need to be addressed. Was anti-Semitism a motivation in how this case was handled or did the police and prosecution solely deal with it on its legal merits? Was there both? The further issue is our very value of justice. If there is a case, then we, as Jews, also should want justice to prevail. This linked article by Avi Solomon outlines, in this vein, what must be our obligations to the legal system of our host society But a Jew is still being singled out and that always must leave us wondering?

The issue is how we are to view Jews in their relationship with a host, secular (non-Jewish) environment, specfically when we are accused of violating the norms, values or laws of this host environment, especially if these laws would be supported within the ethical structure of Torah. On one hand, we are to share in the enforcement of these laws. On the other hand, we are to be concerned with the specific well-being of our fellow Jews. Does that mean that we are to protect fellow Jews even at the expense of proper legal perspectives? I would say, of course not. But how much did their Jewishness play a role in their evaluation by another?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

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