Jewish proverbs often have a bit of self-deprecating humor as in: A Yid Shlogt un schreit gevalt.” Loosely translated, it means, “A Jew hits you and cries that he’s being attacked.”
If it wasn’t a Jewish saying, we would probably decry any such reference to an aggressive victim mentality as anti-Semitic. As it is, we can smile at our own occasional foibles (and this one certainly is not restricted to Jewish people). Besides, even if some have been guilty of such a ploy, it is more than compensated for by our record of striving to alleviate the real sufferings of those who are victims.
Even a cursory study of history confirms a Jewish reputation for compassion and dealing kindly with those who have suffered persecution and deprivation.
This concern is rooted in the Jewish religion. The Torah is emphatic: “Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”1
Oral tradition also exalts compassion for the oppressed. The phrase Gemiluth Chasadim refers to kindly deeds that lessen the burdens of the afflicted. Such charitable acts as visiting the sick, caring for orphans, feeding a needy stranger, etc., are all Gemiluth Chasadim. These are said to be virtues, “of which man eats the fruit in this world and the capital remains for the World to Come.”2
These tenets have become ingrained in our culture. Many Jewish people—from the most observant to the least religious—have a seemingly innate sense of social responsibility. We see more contemporary Jewish activism in such causes as the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Author Stuart Svonkin chronicles part of this history:
“…prominent American Jews—including Louis Marshall, Stephen S. Wise, Jacob Schiff, and Julius Rosenwald—helped to found and support the NAACP, the National Urban League, and a host of other liberal organizations and causes.”3 He also points out that, “while they never abandoned their commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, AJC, ADL, and AJCongress leaders redefined Jewish interests in universal terms and committed themselves to the creation of a more pluralistic and egalitarian society.”4
Likewise, David A. Rausch, in his book, Friends, Colleagues, and Neighbors: Jewish Contributions to American History tells how a determined cadre of Jewish men and women worked hard for civil rights reform in the United States. Jewish activists were involved on various levels of that movement. Regarding the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Rausch notes that “Abraham Joshua Heschel, leading philosopher and theologian from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was in the front row with Dr. King, Ralphe Bunche and Ralph Abernathy.” Also, “Over half of the white freedom riders in the 1960s were Jewish and nearly two-thirds of the white volunteers involved in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 were Jewish.…”5
Likewise, in South Africa many Jewish activists helped stem the tide of apartheid. Helen Suzman, born of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants was elected to the South African Parliament in 1953. In 1959, she and 11 like-minded members of Parliament formed the aggressively anti-apartheid Progressive Party. From 1961 to 1974, Suzman was the only anti-apartheid member of Parliament. Jewish activists from other public arenas—musicians like Johnny Clegg and Jewish authors like Nobel Prize Winner Nadine Gordimer—also helped keep issues concerning apartheid in the forefront.
Of course, no activists are without some self-interest. When we promote the rights of others, we are protecting our democracy and, ultimately, ourselves.
Even so, enlightened self-interest does not rob us of compassion towards those whose unjust suffering we seek to alleviate. We Jews know what it is to be strangers. From Bible times until now, we know what it is to be oppressed. We know what it is to be hated for no reason. We know that it is wrong to persecute people, to deprive them of basic rights. We empathize. We don’t want others to suffer these things any more than we want ourselves or our children to suffer. It is right to stand up for those who are oppressed, for those who have been victimized. And it is right to encourage others to stand up for their own rights.
Yet…growing out of this very attitude of “rightness” is the potential for a very subtle wrong. That wrong has the potential to impinge upon the rights of others and even to diminish our own dignity as a people.
It is common for oppressed people (including, but certainly not limited to, Jews), to adopt a certain mentality. That mentality utilizes one’s own victimization as leverage. Because we have a grievance towards people who either caused or were indifferent to our pain, something, in a sense, is owed us. Yet sometimes people seek consideration in areas that are not really related to their pain—from people who were not involved with their suffering.
Some people leverage for that kind of consideration unintentionally, others deliberately.
One extreme example of this kind of reverse oppression seems to occur with regard to gay rights in some U.S. cities. It is indeed intolerable for human beings (gay or otherwise) to be made to suffer constant taunts, beatings or even worse, from people who justify their violence out of bigotry towards those with whom they disagree.
Some select schools feel strongly that the way to prevent gay bashing is to encourage students to explore their own sexuality. They teach that one should not be frightened to consider same-sex relationships, etc. It is difficult for them to believe or accept that this teaching oppresses those whose faith is based on biblical teachings which forbid such relationships.
Such teachings undermine the concept behind the First Amendment principle of “separation of Church and State” which was designed to prevent one religious group from gaining governmental power to oppress those of another religion. Yet what happens when views on morality—which for many people are directly related to religion—are taught as facts to be interpreted by a government institution? A reversed oppression takes place. Teachers contradict students’ beliefs and the law seems to prevent alternative (religious) views from being presented. This is a classic case of those who have been (and, in some cases, still are) wrongfully oppressed, infringing upon the rights of others, intentionally or not. Why assume that biblical or non-biblical views of such things need to be taught in schools? Other ways to teach tolerance without promoting a particular and controversial set of values do exist.
One very different example of using oppression for leverage is what some call “holocaustology.” Author Sam Schulman pulls no punches in his very pointed, articulate piece titled, “Did Six Million Die for This?” He worries about what can happen when “…the attempt to understand the Holocaust breaks free of the historical discipline and is raised in a hothouse of preening modish concern; when it becomes ‘Holocaustology.'”6
The operative phrase is “breaks free of the historical discipline.” It’s not that Schulman wants the six million ever to be forgotten. But, he says, “The sacred mission of memorializing the victims and blaming their killers has been surrounded by an aura of careerism and self-importance.”7 And he also points out that, “…the Holocaust becomes a means to other ends”8 (speaking of Joan Ringelheim, a feminist who compares Nazi sexism to the sexism she claims Jewish men exhibit).
Schulman’s abhorrence of Ringelheim’s comparison should not be seen simply as an aversion to feminism. He is speaking of something far deeper when he says, “The Talmud vividly warns that the Torah must not be made merely into an instrument for something other than itself: ‘Do not make the Torah a crown wherewith to magnify thyself, or a spade wherewith to dig.’ The Holocaust, which should be held sacred, is in danger of becoming used as such an instrument.”9
Schulman seems to be saying that when people take suffering out of context to suit an agenda, they trivialize the authentic atrocities that have taken place. We should not dismiss past atrocities or fail to guard ourselves against persecution. Neither should we use such memories as leverage. Yet, it is a natural tendency for people to use leverage, sometimes to motivate others and sometimes to comfort themselves.
Maybe by remembering the wrongs others have done to us, we make ourselves feel right by sheer contrast. Maybe when we know we have suffered innocently, it makes us feel pure, blameless—in a sense, powerful. Focusing on the evil others did to us dares people to find fault with us.
That’s because when confronted with the suffering of others, compassionate people want to alleviate pain. When given a proposed remedy by the injured parties, they may feel it is not their place to question that remedy. They do not want to be seen as unsympathetic, or worse. Thus, caring people can be manipulated into putting the person or people who suffered above reproach.
Imagine this: you are discussing someone who was tortured and killed by Nazis. And a surviving friend mentions how, earlier in his life, this Holocaust victim had cheated on his wife and embezzled from his business partner. We would be horrified at the mention of it. How dare anyone bring to mind the faults of someone who suffered such horrors?
Maybe we react that way because we tend to ascribe a certain innocence to those who have been unjustly persecuted.
Ascribing innocence to those who have been unjustly persecuted also works on an infinitely smaller, personal scale. How often do we dwell on someone’s wrongful treatment of us, comforting ourselves with how innocent we are? The problem is, it is tempting to hide under that innocence like a shroud so that we do not see our actual shortcomings.
When others act wrongly and victimize us, their wrongness does not make us right, it merely makes us hurt. Our hurt and humiliation make us innocent of nothing except the senseless pain someone has inflicted. Memorializing the wrong someone else has done to us cannot make us righteous. On the other hand, the self-righteousness with which we may comfort ourselves when we are wrongly oppressed can sometimes blind us to the truth.
It is right to help the oppressed. It is right to stand up for those who are victimized and to help them stand up for themselves. But that is different from fostering a “victim mentality” in ourselves or others—which can lead to bad things happening. People may see themselves as above reproach. They may develop unrealistic or unfair expectations of others. Or they may allow themselves to believe that they are surrounded by people who are, at best, uncaring or indifferent to their pain and, at worst, out to harm them.
If a person defends himself when no one is attacking, that defense becomes an aggression against the supposed attackers. So, persistently labeling others as oppressors and treating them as such often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But even when that is not the case, people ultimately harm themselves when they see themselves as perpetual victims and thus perpetually blameless.
The shroud of innocence over unjust wrongs is a transparent one. It cannot hide the fact that none of us is truly innocent in comparison to the Almighty, the One who has done no wrong. All of us have failings and shortcomings. Most of us would admit that in theory, but few are willing to take the blame for many specifics. And the unwillingness to take blame for our shortcomings prevents us from dealing with them.
Our own sin is the worst oppressor of all. In a sense, it even aggresses the Almighty. His sensibilities are offended by our sin, our unholiness. Sin separates us from God. His holiness and righteousness require that separation.
Our sin also oppresses us because it prevents us from enjoying the purpose, the power and the peace that come from truly knowing God. And ultimately, it leads to terrible despair because if it is not resolved in this life, we will spend the never-ending life-to-come in perpetual separation from our loving God.
Not only are all people, Jews and gentiles, victims of our own sin—but we cannot turn that victimization to any sort of advantage. We have no leverage with God, no matter what we think, feel or do. We cannot manipulate God by the pain our sins cause—because he has his own way to alleviate it.
The amazing thing is that God was moved—not by anything we could do, but by his own love. He chose to send his son, the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) to be truly oppressed for our sake. Yeshua allowed himself to be victimized for a time so that we would not have to be oppressed by an eternity of godlessness. His suffering was predicted hundreds of years before it occurred:
He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from him; he was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:3-7).
This servant suffered willingly for the sins of others. He allowed himself to be led into that experience with no complaint, with no protest. And that is exactly what Yeshua did.
We Jews have often risen to the defense of the oppressed and have sympathized with those who, like us, have suffered unjustly. We have followed the biblical mandate to reach out to those who are afflicted. We have been instrumental in bringing about justice for people who have been deprived of their rights. Yet when it comes to Yeshua, who also suffered unjustly, it is difficult for us to rise to his defense. It is especially difficult to hear that he suffered on our behalf.
It is one thing to sympathize with the sufferings of others when doing so makes us feel righteous and noble. But to think that someone suffered because we are not righteous? To think that we cannot offer that victim a helping hand, but that he offers one to us? That we are both the cause and the beneficiaries of his unjust suffering? These are very uncomfortable, very disturbing thoughts.
Because these thoughts are painful, many have dismissed them by dwelling on their own past sufferings or the sufferings of their people. After all, some of the people who unjustly persecuted Jews (and others) used “his name” as their reason. When we think of their evil, we can feel righteous by sheer contrast. We can make their wrongs into the perfect excuse for not wanting to hear about Jesus.
But ultimately, is it really to our advantage to make excuses? The evil of a Hitler does not resolve the problem of our own shortcomings, no matter how miniscule they are by comparison.
We may gain a momentary advantage by dismissing uncomfortable thoughts about Jesus. But what if he is what we really need in the long run? What if it’s true that any falling short of God’s righteousness creates a chasm between us and him? What if this Yeshua, this victim, truly is the Messiah who embodies everything good and right and loving and wise? What if he came as an innocent victim—not so he could focus on the evil done to him—but because his innocence has the power of atonement for our sin so that we can be truly innocent in God’s sight?
End Notes 1(Exodus 23:9). The book of Leviticus takes that basic command a step farther: “‘The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God'” (Leviticus 19:34).
2Reverend Dr. A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud (USA: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949), 225.
3Stuart Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 13.
5David Rausch, Friends, Colleagues, and Neighbors: Jewish Contributions to American History (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 39.
6Sam Schulman, “Did Six Million Die for This?” Jewish World Review (January 11, 2000)
8Ibid., p. 3.
9Ibid., p. 4.