Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the goodest of them all?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 18, 2003
Menachem Begin famously remarked after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, "Gentiles slaughter gentiles, and the world blames the Jews." The question is why.
Why is Israel repeatedly subjected to standards of judgment applied to no other country? Why does the plight of the Palestinians attract such a disproportionate share of the world’s attention compared to hundreds of millions of other human beings with no less valid – indeed far stronger – claims to the world’s sympathy.
These questions have occupied many fine minds for a very long time. So it is doubtful that any one theory will satisfactorily explain the double-standard regularly applied to Jews and Israel.
One factor that should not be overlooked, however, is the human need to look into the mirror and receive assurances that the face staring back is that of a morally good person. That need has become particularly acute, as modern technological society provides tens of millions with both material plenty and leisure time beyond the wildest dreams of early generations.
That good fortune generates tremendous guilt on the part of its beneficiaries. Among those fortunate to enjoy the new prosperity, writes Victor Davis Hanson ("I Love Iraq, Bomb Texas," Commentary Dec. 2002), "the realization has dawned that their own good fortune is not shared worldwide, and must therefore exist at the expense of others, if not of the planet itself."
The unprecedented prosperity of advanced technological societies has been accompanied by the near total breakdown of traditional morality. Virtues of loyalty, self-discipline, moderation, even-temperedness, patience, honesty, thrift, and the like are scorned both in theory and practice. The old virtues, which had to be acquired through painstaking personal effort, have been replaced by fuzzy values. Values need only be espoused, not lived, and anyone can espouse as many as he wants – hundreds of them.
Values, however, inasmuch as they require no personal effort, can do little to assuage feelings of unworthiness. The problem of the face in the mirror remains.
Modern man has grown accustomed to satisfying his desires quickly, effortlessly, and guiltlessly as possible. And so it is with the need to feel good about his moral rectitude. Volunteering to help those less fortunate takes time; giving charity costs money. Progressive politics, however, are costless. Mouthing progressive platitudes is cheap salve for the pricks of conscience caused by lives of material excess and personal relationships based on extreme self-centeredness.
As the invaluable Hanson puts it, "Local charity is unheralded and also expensive, in terms of both time and money. Far easier to exhibit concern by signing an ostentatious petition against Israel or to assemble in Central Part: public demonstrations that cost nothing but seemingly meet the need to show one’s peer that one is generous, fair, caring, and compassionate."
The attraction of left-wing politics to so many of the best educated and most affluent cannot be separated from the psychological need to feel morally superior. Last week Charles Krauthammer brilliantly dissected the apparent paradox behind Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean’s enthusiasm for American military intervention in Liberia and his steadfast opposition to American military intervention in Iraq – a position that has made him the current darling of the American Left.
On its face, Krauthammer notes, the case for intervention in Iraq would seem to be much stronger. No area of the world is of greater strategic concern to the United States than the Persian Gulf, both in terms of the region’s natural resources and the terrorist threat emanating from failed Arab societies. Even in terms of human lives brutally snuffed out, Liberian dictator Charles Taylor is a piker compared to Saddam Hussein.
By contrast, the United States has virtually no strategic interests in Liberia, just as it had almost none in Somalia, another intervention that commanded wide support on the Left. Unless America is prepared to turn Liberia, and sixty or so equally dismal countries around the world, into an American protectorate, the most likely to be achieved there is the replacement of one very nasty, brutish dictator by another similarly inclined.
That lack of strategic interest, in the eyes of the Left, rather than constituting an argument against American involvement, is the strongest argument in its favor. "The central axiom of left-liberal foreign policy," writes Krauthammer, is: "The use of American force is always wrong, unless deployed in a region of no strategic significance to the United States." In other words, power can only be used as a means of proving one’s humanitarianism. And for that purpose any taint of national interest is fatal.
The attraction of the Palestinian "narrative" – a native people dispossessed by a colonial invader that repeatedly uses its superior military power to crush Palestinian national aspirationgs – is part and parcel of the attraction of progressive politics for so many of the beneficiaries of Western affluence and freedom. But still to be explained is how the Palestinians became the cause upon which the educated elites have chosen to salve their consciences. Why not the Kurds, the Tibetans, or dozens of others of oppressed peoples around the world? Here we must look to the unique history of the Jews.
President Harry Truman rightly observed, "Put an underdog on top and . . . he goes haywire. I’ve found very, very few who remembered their past condition when prosperity comes." Pace Karl Marx, being downtrodden is no guarantee of moral superiority. Where Truman erred, however, was in including the Jews in this generalization: "Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog."
In fact, Jews have always been the glaring exception to Truman’s rule. The Torah commands us repeatedly to remember that we were slaves and strangers in Egypt and to act upon that memory in showing solicitude for the stranger, widow, and orphan. No injunction of the Torah is still taken so seriously by Jews today.
American Jewry consistently votes against its class interests. Despite the negative impact of affirmative action in higher education on many Jewish applicants and the widespread anti-Semitism among elements of the American black community, American Jews have, as a group, remained the whites most committed to the civil rights agenda.
Jews remain by far the most generous segment of American society, and the overwhelming majority of Jewish charitable giving goes to non-Jewish causes. Even a large percentage of Federation spending goes to "Jewish" hospitals, that no longer serve the Jewish community.
One may view these giving patterns as folly at a time when American Jewry is threatened with extinction and the best antidote to assimilation and intermarriage -- a Jewish day school education -- remains out of the financial range of all but the wealthiest or most committed. But at the very least, these statistics do not bespeak narrow group selfishness.
And that is why the Jews pose such a threat to all those eagerly seeking reassurance of their own moral superiority. The Jews are too tough competition for all those who need to see themselves as part of a moral elite. Portraying the Jews as colonialist exploiters and oppressors is designed to respond to that challenge.
Last week, Bret Stephens argued in these pages, "the U.S. is hated . . . because of its overwhelming need to do good: to feed the world, cure the sick, spread the wealth, depose the tyrants." And so, ironically, is it with the Jews.
Related Topics: World Jewry
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