Jews Who are the Problem
On November 1st I ran a workshop at our synagogue titled “How to Connect with Other Jews, Even When They Are Wrong and Their Views Will Lead to Catastrophe.”
Though the title is tongue-in-cheek, the underlying predicament is serious: We Jews can be very hard on one another. Through the decades, and especially since October 7th, we lock antlers with each other about Israel-Palestine and about how best to fight antisemitism. We have been known to attack our own with a rather pointed intensity, even sometimes threatening a kind of excommunication from the Tribe. There are rifts and even cut-offs within families and between lifelong friends – and at a time when we most need the mutual support, comfort, and understanding of fellow Jews. And as our ingroup attacks fester, American and Israeli democracy fall deeper in peril.
On October 8th, I called my best college buddy, to connect and find a salve for our ashen hearts. And we did…for about two minutes — until I forced us on to Netanyahu, terrorism, and competing definitions of antisemitism. The emotional temperature skyrocketed. We soon hung up, in despair, and more isolated and hurt than when we began, my stomach in knots. I had blown it.
I propose here no solution to the current heartbreaking war. Instead, I offer a shift in perspective designed to help us, together, find the best solutions, now and in the future.
The Better Angels of My Discipline
Over the last 40 years, I have been listening closely to Jews of many political and religious stripes — listening deeply to my patients and, less formally but still with my clinical psychologist’s ear, to family, friends, and political allies and adversaries. The very sort of listening I and so many of us have failed to do, especially after October 7th.
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I have also tried to keep to the discipline of listening to myself with curiosity and love. What I find in myself and other Jews is not always pretty. Still, as Robert Birdwell movingly explored in these pages, the bravery to examine the shadow makes us bigger and can provide a path toward some liberation and clarity.
In my career, I have been particularly interested in getting to the core drivers of the most extreme views on the Jewish spectrum. I believe that extremism powered by unconscious shame is exacerbating painful infighting among the Jewish people — and splintering our psyches.
My own political views often differ viscerally from those of my patients and friends. My mouth has become a bit bloody more than once for all my tongue biting. I have tried to keep to the discipline of remembering with compassion that all Jews are struggling for security in a dangerous world, want what is best for the Jewish people, and are often stuck in a middle, impossible spot. Too often we have been victims of centuries of “choiceless choices” — ethical no-win situations.
At times, we Jews have even to a degree unwittingly internalized that most awful antisemitic canard of all: that the Jews are responsible for their own plight – that we have brought our persecution upon ourselves. I wish to explore here how this self-blame can lead to ruptures, polarization, and extremism within the Jewish community. And perhaps how, by making conscious the unconscious, we can right the ship and move toward genuine justice and safety.
Our Right Wing
From right-wing Jews, I hear a valuing of the bravery to fight for the safety and flourishing of the Jewish people, to proudly and unapologetically stand up for our rights and existence. These values resonate very deeply with me.
For many of the most extreme right-wing Jews there is a kind of disgust for anything that smacks of appeasement. Last year, from a right-wing Jewish patient born in Soviet Russia: “I know a dictator when I see one. But Netanyahu is our tough-guy and fights for us.” The psychologist’s question is, then: “And what would be the most extreme terrible outcome if you supported a peace party?” Here he hung his head and replied “More Israelis would die. I could never live with myself. The world would see us as sniveling weaklings. It even crosses my mind that I’d be hated by Jews everywhere…. it’s almost like I’d have the blood of those dead Israelis on my own hands.”
At the site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp marking International Holocaust Memorial Day in 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu said “I promise, as head of the Jewish state, that never again will we allow the hand of evil to sever the life of our people and our state” [italics mine]. The Times of Israel quotes Meir Kahane as having said “…we will never again let this happen to us…Last time, the Jews behaved like sheep” [italics mine].
A key posture is revealed in the words “let” or “allow.”The unconscious subtext of some versions of the motto “Never Again” is to subtly suggest that we — to our shame! — are partly responsible for the centuries of pogroms, stake burnings, and expulsions, culminating in the Shoah: that we went like lambs to the slaughter. That we have our own blood on our hands.
In classical analytic terms, this is an example of reaction formation: the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposites. At times, this blame-the-Jews posture is projected on the polar opposite wing of our ingroup: “it’s the damned anti-Zionist appeasers that are the cause of our troubles.”
The writer and artist Eli Valley and others have even argued that the farthest right-wing Jewish position is based on stereotypes of diaspora, appeasing Jews as weakling victims — in contrast to the muscled macho-tough superhero Israelis. In this exaggerated view, Sabras can derisively see Holocaust survivors as soap.
The most jingoistic extremists (in Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere) see themselves as unapologetic “Proud Boys.” This extreme right-wing nationalism often betrays and is a reaction formation against hidden unconscious shame.
At times, deep within the quintessentially right-wing fear that we will be betrayed by our so-called neighbors and allies – that they will not fight for or hide us — lies the fear that we ourselves would chicken out. I had a nightmare in the months after the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. I am attending a simcha (celebration) at synagogue. An armed attacker with military fatigues bursts into the service. He is in his 60s and not terribly fit. I think about rushing the guy – maybe I can tackle him. At least, if I can draw his fire, others can escape. But I lie there hiding under a pew, hyperventilating, paralyzed, terrified — and burdened with the thought that my cowardice caused the death of my family and congregation.
Our Left Wing
From left-wing Jews, I notice a kind of parallel and opposite process. I hear authentic good will toward the stranger and dedication to the pursuit of justice as core driving forces. There is intense valuing of the courage to speak out in the face of injustice against any group — to be on the right side of history. These values also resonate very deeply with me. I am interested here in finding any unintentionally disallowed shame or self-blame in the subtext – particularly among the most extreme leftist Jewish groups. The psychologist’s question is then: “what do you worry could happen if you and the Jews did not pursue justice in this way?”
I have a younger anti-Zionist Jewish friend who has been involved with Democratic Socialists of America. She has told me that, after her parents vacationed in Israel, she had needed to cut off contact with them. “My grandma used to talk about a shanda fur die goyim (shame in front of the non-Jews). That’s what my parents are. I’m not even sure what it means to be a Jew anymore if we go against our values like this.”
Two weeks after the Hamas massacre and well into the Israeli shelling campaign I was interviewing this young friend while she was taking a walk — and she apologized for talking softly. The psychologist in me asked, “What could happen if you talked too loudly – how does that thought go?” “I know it’s not rational, but walking in my lefty neighborhood I feel a bit afraid that a neighbor might hear me and think I was pro-Israel – and verbally or even physically confront me.”
The subtext here admits a kind of dual loyalty libel: that every American Jew can be held accountable for every act of the Israeli state. This implies that no Jews are civilians and that all Jews are combatants and therefore the legitimate targets of verbal attack or worse.
Though I am not a far lefty anymore, this sort of shame, hiding, and fear is not unfamiliar to me. Throughout my 20’s I was attracted to dressing down and slumming it. Underneath this paltry attempt at virtue signaling is some shame for having been raised with advantages. As Reb Lerner has suggested, I had gotten lost in identity politics in a way that blamed myself. The unconscious thought is “maybe my family really have been parasitic, capitalist Jews. With how I was raised, I don’t want to be taken for an intolerant greedy Jew.”
I now realize that part of the underlying subtext, especially in extreme strains of our left wing, is the trope that we Jews are playing into the hands of antisemites by enacting the worst stereotypes of Jews. That we are bloodthirsty, ruthless, power- and money-hungry, international warmongers. That we are bringing antisemitism upon ourselves with these qualities.
Here the assimilationist “sha, shtil (shhh, quiet) — do not anger the goyim” instinct is aroused. I can fit in – like the main character in the movie Zelig — and be one of the “good” Jews. Perhaps part of the subtext of “not in my name” is the fear that my name will go on a list of Jews for angry goyim to target. The fight for justice can, at times, be driven by shame for appearing to have more power and wealth than others; we try to absolve ourselves and deflect the anger of the less fortunate.
Infighting, Shame, and the Structure of Antisemitism
Without question, left- and right-wing Jews are driven at the bottom by the same superordinate goal that all Jews hold dear: individual and collective survival and thriving of the Jewish people. Yet when unconscious fear leads to shame, leads to anger – in this case turned toward our own tribe and even ourselves – we can head in the wrong direction, toward a Jew vs. Jew quagmire.
In my roughly five thousand hours of listening to Jewish patients, I have rarely met a Jew who, like myself in 2018, is not haunted by a version of the choiceless choices our people have faced for ages. Whether in the background or foreground, awake or in dreams, we are too often faced with intrusive ethically and strategically insoluble scenarios. What would I do when push comes to shove and the Proud Boys, Brownshirts, Vichy French, Polish collaborators, Cossacks, Inquisitors, or Crusaders are at the door or gates? Would I have the courage or presence of mind to do the right thing – hide others, fight, bargain? But too often there is no morally clear or strategically predictable “right thing.”
Today, so many of us are faced with similar in-your-face dilemmas, if not with lower stakes. At our jobs and campuses, we have palpable shpilkes (pins and needles) regarding “do I speak up or stay silent about Israel/Palestine, given the risk of shunning, verbal attack, blacklisting, firing?” How visible should I be as a Jew? Too often we worry that the attack or marginalization might come from other Jews.
Whether the tired old trope of international Jewish conspiracy and power or its opposite — that we went like lambs to the slaughter — these subtextual themes tear us apart. The sort of unconscious projection and reaction formation I have described here sometimes results in polarization, splitting, and ingroup hatred – the narcissism of small differences on steroids. As social psychologists have argued, negative ingroup evaluations may be overly intense for derogated groups. Shame-based narratives are often used to advance a radicalized identity within an established ingroup. One need only mention the name of Yigal Amir to be reminded where this can lead. In 1995, Amir, a right-wing religious extremist Israeli Jew, assassinated then incumbent Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — and in some ways with him, the beating heart of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Perhaps the primary slogan of the German Nazis was “The Jews are the Cause of Our Misfortune.” This mantra is manifestly a primitive sort of projection of the truth: that the German Nazis were the cause of our – we Jews’ – misfortune. The risk with infighting and primitive projection of shame among the Jewish people is that we can internalize this falsehood: we are the cause of our own misfortune. We can blame one another — the damned spineless anti-Zionists or the ultranationalist, bellicose settler movement — for our misfortune.
We can forget that insults, forced conversion, expulsions, and extermination camps did not happen because of anything we did. It was never because we were too quiescent or too aggressive but rather because of the age-old deeply ingrained structure of antisemitism — a fundamental element of the Western mind that leaves Jews as a convenient scapegoat, forced into the middle role, into choiceless choices, into dilemmas and gray zones with no ethical solutions.
This is not to say that Jews now and in the past lack any agency or power whatsoever – a lachrymose view some have rightly criticized as dehumanizing and disempowering to Jews. Of course, we Jews are not merely the victims of history. Yet, as Michael Lerner has argued, all human choices are made in the context of social arrangements that “constrain our ability to imagine alternatives.”
Certainly, we have important decisions to make – decisions with consequences, especially after October 7th. I believe that healing from excessive infighting and unconscious shame might clarify our vision of the most ethical and strategic path ahead.
Furthermore, I do not wish to blame any Jew for holding an extreme position – I can feel the logic of both security and justice in my kishkes (gut) — or to shame any of us for unconscious self-blame. I have struggled to be kind to myself – a powerful route to become conscious of hidden shame. My hope is that we will repair a portion of the severe extremism that has fractured our people and made us less safe. Regarding the centuries of antisemitism, maybe we have nothing to repent for. There is no shame anywhere along the strategic spectrum from accomodationism to fighting back – and hence no need to make penance by rigidly vilifying the opposite approach. There is no need to argue that we should never again let this happen to us, because we never did let it happen to us. Antisemitism is not and never was our doing.
A Balm for Infighting
I certainly do not know the best way forward for Israeli or American Jews in the current horrifying and desperate mess. I suggest that when we Jews find ourselves attacking other Jews with a special venom, unconscious shame and primitive projection may be playing a role.
Our synagogue’s values statement emphasizes the importance of Maḥloket L’shem Shamayim (Conflict for the Sake of Heaven) – in this context, aspiring to honor points of disagreement, maximize humility, and engage in open-minded listening.
To this end, with humility I offer an array of tools for connection among Jews. Keep to the practice of a sacred I-Thou posture. Seek to understand rather than convince. You need not agree in order to empathically grasp the humanity of your fellow. Courageously find compassion and even affection for Jews with differing views. Listen first and allow yourself to be moved. Remember that at bottom we all want safety for our people and are too often stuck in ethical and strategic choiceless choices. Ask “what’s your worst fear?” Identify, invite, and tolerate Thou’s anger, resentment, fear, and blame. Attend to bonding and ethical concepts, such as trust, care, isolation, shame, and safety. With kindness, explore your own unconscious self-blame. Bravely cultivate a genuine sense of pride in yourself, in your political sub-group, and in your people as a whole. These are challenging but learnable skills; cultivating them takes practice.
I hope we can acknowledge and assuage some self-blame, and integrate both pride and introspection, both strength and empathy, so that we will be better able to see the way forward to security and justice for Klal Yisrael, the entire Jewish people. This might begin with the discipline of the sacred mitzvah (commandment) of Ahavat Yisrael: love and compassion for the Jewish people – every single one.
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