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Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Judaism, General Jewish Themes

Published on Jun 23, 2004 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for The Jewish Press

Blithe Spirits, Rest In Peace


Dear G-d, what is it with your Jews that has them courting such great danger for such noble purposes?

One can ask this question about Jews on both the extreme right and the extreme left. Those holy souls who wish to pray in Hebron—and those holy souls who may not pray at all but who believe their mission as Jews is to enlighten and repair the larger world.

It is a mitzvah for a Jew to feed, uplift, free, and demand justice for non-Jews; it is also a mitzvah for a Jew to love, honor, defend, and support her own. There is an ongoing disagreement among Jews as to which is the greater mitzvah. I am not taking sides here. However, I would like to focus, briefly, on some Jewish responses to the brutal murders of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg.

Both men have been lauded as the most admirable of Jews; perhaps this is true. As a volunteer and entrepreneur, Berg viewed the world as in need of his help. As a journalist, Pearl viewed the world as an entity to be understood, analyzed, perhaps enlightened.

Progressive Jews, (both secular and religious) initially refused to focus on the fact that Pearl was beheaded because he was a Jew and an American. To do so might call their entire world view into question and make them, personally, feel more unsafe than ever. Thus, Pearl was admired and mourned as the "right kind of Jew" who was slaughtered precisely because he had refused to narrow his focus to Jewish-only concerns. Pearl did not live in a ghetto; all the world was his.

More recently, similarly progressive Jews viewed Nicholas Berg's public beheading as an example of who the Jews really are: the saviors of humanity, willing to die in order to help others.

Many progressive Jews who mourned these two deaths also viewed their deaths as somehow caused by the military and political policies of Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush. If only America had not ever supported Israel, made deals with the Saudi princes, initially funded the Taliban, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq; if only Israel had voluntarily drawn back to its pre-1967 borders in 1967, there would have been no al-Aqsa Intifada, no 9/11, no 3/11, no ongoing al Qaeda terrorism against Christians, Jews, and Americans.

In my view, this is somewhat delusional. But, as a psychologist and psychotherapist, I understand it. When people feel both threatened and powerless they tend to resort to "magical thinking." A battered woman (and an abused child) will often blame herself for being beaten—this gives her the only control over the situation she might have. If she thinks she did something wrong that "provoked," and that thereby explains her beating, then next time she will not do whatever it was and will, hopefully, avoid being beaten again.

Progressives find it easier to blame the Israeli or American governments for their mistakes than to stare long and hard into the face of radical Islamist evil. People often blame the victim. It's more dangerous to blame the perpetrator who might come after you too and who can only be stopped by a high-risk rescue mission or prolonged military operation.

Finally, because people are also good, they prefer to either blame the victim or they look away from the matter entirely rather than endure the guilt they would otherwise feel for doing nothing.

I was once a blithe traveler to far and distant shores. Even then, travel was dangerous for a woman. I was lucky, I got out alive. Al Qaeda knew that Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg were Jewish-Americans; as such, they were indistinguishable from "Zionist" agents. Neither man viewed himself as a Zionist agent for, if he had, he would not have gone into Pakistan or Iraq unarmed and alone.

I will not blame these two victims for their gruesome, public murders at the hands of Islamist barbarians. My point, rather, is that no Jew—and no American—can any longer afford to think of himself (or herself) as a blithe citizen of the world; not at this moment in history, perhaps not for a long time.

May these two tragic deaths serve as all the warning we need.


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