Seven Pillars of Jewish Denial

Kim Chernin

I am thinking about American Jews, wondering why so

many of us have trouble being critical of Israel. I

faced this difficulty myself when I first went to

Israel in 1971. I was an ardent Zionist, intending to

spend my life on a kibbutz in the Galilee and to

become an Israeli citizen. Back home, before leaving,

I argued almost daily with my mother, an extreme left

wing radical, about the Jews' right to a homeland in

our historical and therefore inalienable setting.

However, once established on my kibbutz on the

Lebanese border, I began to notice things that

disrupted my complacency.

We used to ride down to our orchards on kibbutz trucks

with Arab workers from the neighboring villages and

were occasionally invited to visit. We liked sitting

on a rug on a dirt floor, eating food cooked over an

open fire, drinking water from the village well. Above

all, we loved the kerosene lamps that were lit and set

in a half circle around us as it grew dark. But

walking home it occurred to me that our kibbutz had

running water, electricity, modern stoves. Our

neighbors were gracious, generous, and friendly,

although I had learned by then that the land the

kibbutz occupied had once belonged to them. We were

living on land that was once theirs, under material

conditions they could not hope to equal. I found this


The path from this troubled awareness to my later

ability to be critical of Israel has been long and

complex. Over the years I have spoken with other Jews

who have traveled this same path, and to many more who

haven't. In each of us I have detected mental

obstacles that make it hard, sometimes impossible, for

us to see what is there before our eyes. Our inability

to engage in critical thought about our troubled

homeland is entangled by crucial questions about

Jewish identity. Why do American Jews find it

difficult to be critical of Israel? Here, set out in

linear form, are seven obstacles to a Jew's ability to

be critical of Israel.

Seven Obstacles:

1. A conviction that Jews are always in danger, always

have been, and therefore are in danger now.

Which leads to:

2. The insistence that a criticism is an attack and

will lead to our destruction.

Which is rooted in:

3. The supposition that any negativity towards Jews

(or Israel) is a sign of anti-Semitism and will

(again, inevitably) lead to our destruction.

Which is enhanced by:

4. Survivor's guilt.

Which contains within itself:

5. A hidden belief that we can change the past.

Which holds:

6. An even more hidden belief that a sufficient amount

of suffering confers the right to violence.

Which finally brings us to:

7. The conviction that our beliefs, our ideology (or

theology), matter more than the lives of other human


Obstacles 1?3: Conviction

The first three obstacles reveal a cluster of

convictions about Jewish endangerment which tend to

reinforce one another in insidious ways. We can trace

the development of this consciousness. It goes

something like this: We keep a watchful eye out, we

read the signs, we detect innuendo, we summon

evidence, we become, as we imagine it, the

ever-vigilant guardians of our people's survival.

Endangered as we imagine ourselves to be; endangered

as we insist we are, any negativity, criticism, or

reproach, even from one of our own, takes on

exaggerated dimensions; we come to perceive such

criticism as a life-threatening attack.

The path to fear is clear. But our proclivity for this

perception is itself one of our unrecognized dangers.

Bit by bit, as we gather evidence to establish our

perilous position in the world, we are brought to a

selective perception of that world. With our attention

focused on ourselves as the endangered species, it

seems to follow that we ourselves can do no harm. We

are so busy warding off danger we become unaware that

we endanger others. We fill up, we occupy, all the

endangerment-space. When other people clamor for a

portion we believe they are trying to deny us our

right to this ground. At its most vehement, our sense

of ever-impending Jewish peril brings down on us a

willed ignorance, an almost perfect blindness, to the

endangerment of others and to the role we might play

in it.

When I lived in Israel I practiced selective

perception. I was elated by our little kibbutz on the

Lebanese border until I recognized that we were living

on land that had belonged to our Arab neighbors. When

I didn't ask how we had come to acquire that land, I

practiced blindness.

Long before I went to Israel, my mother would bring

out a rolled up poster of a Palestinian youth. Without

saying a word, she would unroll it and hold it up. It

showed a very young man lying in the road in a pool of

his own blood. This image had caused a major family

breakdown when she showed it to her brother, who

stormed out without saying goodbye and didn't speak to

her again for years. On another occasion, there was an

even more violent scene with the father of an old high

school friend of mine. My mother unrolled the poster,

he jumped up from the couch, raised his fist at her,

and stormed from the room. Before slamming the door

behind him, he shouted back: "This time, Rose, you've

gone too far. Next thing, you'll be calling Israeli

soldiers?." Here he caught himself, but couldn't hold

back. "You'll be calling Jewish people who defend

their lives?." Another break, and then, finally, the

unthinkable word: "You'll be calling us fascists."

Slam. My friend and I looked at my mother in shock,

amazed to find her silent and unperturbed. Between us,

between my mother and myself, I was the one still

practicing blindness. Where my mother saw martyrdom,

victimization, tragedy in the image of the fallen

youth, I saw a dangerous enemy stopped short in his

effort to destroy our people. My friend's father, who

lived in constant dread of Jewish annihilation, may

have seen a necessary vengeance, an image of justice.

I don't know what my friend saw. I drove her home in

silence and we never met up with one another again. My

mother, for her part, never said a word. When I stared

at her she merely narrowed her eyes and looked back

with an expression that implied: "Am I afraid of a

word? Am I going to let a word keep me from seeing?"

The fixed certainty of impending Jewish destruction.

Wherever we look, we see nothing but its confirmation,

the same old story, always about to happen. In the

grip of this persuasion, any other possibilities of

meaning are swept away; we are unable to imagine

things, even for a split second, from another's point

of view. It took me years to overcome this blindness.

My thoughts would return to the scene in my mother's

living room; I would pore over the image, the outrage,

the silence. One day, during an enormous inner

struggle, most of what I believed about most of what

mattered most to me fell apart. (Buber refers to such

an event as "an elemental reversal, a crisis and a

shock.?") Years of images and impressions I had kept

at one remove came resoundingly together. I saw what

my mother had seen: A boy gunned down by a superior

military force; a very young man fighting for the

survival of his people, who were far more endangered

that ours.

Wherever we look, we see nothing but impending Jewish


To see a people far more endangered than ours: step

one in the dismantling of blindness.

Obstacles 4?5: Survivor's guilt

Guilt goes something like this: I was walking across

the beautiful square in Nuremburg a couple of years

ago and stopped to read a public sign. It told this

story: During the Middle Ages, the town governing

body, wishing to clear space for a square, burned out,

burned down, and burned up the Jews who had formerly

filled up the space. End of story. After that, I felt

very uneasy walking through the square and I

eventually stopped doing it.

I felt endangered, of course, a woman going about

through Germany wearing a star of David. But more than

that, I experienced a conspicuous and dreadful

self-reproach at being so alive, so happily on

vacation, now that I had come to think about the

murder of my people hundreds of years before. After

reading that plaque I stopped enjoying myself and

began to look for other signs and traces of the

mistreatment of the former Jewish community. If I had

stayed longer in Nuremburg, if I had gone further in

this direction, I might soon have come to believe that

I, personally, and my people, currently, were

threatened by the contemporary Germans eating ice

cream in outdoor cafés in the square. How much more

potent this tendency for alarm must be in the Middle

East, in the middle of a war zone!

What was the reasoning underlying my fear? If we live

in a world as dangerous to us as the Holocaust was to

our people, we can be that much closer to the victims

of the Holocaust, we can know their apprehension and

terror; perhaps we may even succeed in taking their

suffering upon ourselves. No one holds these beliefs

knowingly. But they hold on to us: in a tragically

paradoxical way, our guilt brings us to magnify our

vulnerability. It seems that no victory on the Israeli

side, no crushing of the perceived enemy, no

destruction of their wells or complete dismantling of

their infrastructure, can change our fear that they

will defeat us or alter this perception of

ever-present danger.

We will not let it happen again. But this claim, which

seems to point exclusively into the future, is also

yoked to our inability to accept the past. By keeping

the past alive, by living it all over again, we

attempt to alter it. Hidden within the militant "never

again," is the anguished, impossible cry: "It will

never have happened."

There is a widespread assumption among our people that

the vanished victims of the Holocaust would approve of

what we do to make sure their fate cannot again befall

the Jewish people. Is it fair, however, to assume that

their suffering and death would hold no other meaning

for them than a recourse to violence, vengeance, and


Some of our people, listening in on our ancestors'

imagined, other-worldly discourse, hear only the

endless repetition of the never again.

I hear, not in my name.

There is a new poster. It shows a single Palestinian

woman facing a massive Israeli bulldozer. Looking at

this image one immediately understands what Primo Levi

(a survivor) meant when he claimed that the

Palestinians are the Jews of the Middle East. Can we

face the fact that we make use of the Holocaust as a

way of refusing to see our own lamentable actions?

I hate this idea. It is, I think, the harshest moral

reproach I have ever directed against myself. I can

just about tolerate the idea of a survivor guilt that

exaggerates my sense of vulnerability and leads me to

perceive danger and an enemy where there may be

instead a suffering neighbor. Can I, (can we), really

face the idea that we are using the six million,

hiding behind them, importing our own meanings into

their suffering and death, using their victimhood for

propaganda? It took me a long time to face this

charge; to recognize that some part of my

ever-increasing concern with Holocaust victims,

Holocaust books, and first-person Holocaust accounts,

was serving as a cover up, distracting my gaze from a

living struggle in which another people were enduring

a victimization for which we Jews were responsible.

For which we Jews are responsible.

Arafat is not Hitler. The Palestinian terrorists are

not the SS. We are no longer the victims. The world

has changed, but Jewish identity has not kept up with

it. If we lived in the present, we would have to

acknowledge that the Jewish people of the twenty-first

century are no longer the world's foremost endangered

species. We would have to recognize that we, as a

people, are ourselves capable of victimization.

Seeing ourselves as ordinary people, not victims: Step

two in the dismantling of blindness.

Obstacle 6. Suffering, Violence

The Israeli army that defends our homeland behaves

brutally, uses torture, fires upon innocent civilians.

What justifies the behavior of this army? We call it

self-defense but this is, I suggest, only the surface

of our justification. Further down, tucked carefully

away in our collective psyche, we find a sense of

entitlement about our violence. Our historic

suffering, as a people, entitles us to the violence of

our current behavior. Our violence is not horrendous

and cruel like the violence of other people, but is a

justified, sacred violence, a holy war. Of course, we

would not want to know this about ourselves?it would

make us too much like the perceived enemy whose

violence against us we are deploring. When the suicide

bomber blows up a hotel full of Passover celebrants,

we see clearly that this is an instance of hateful,

unjustifiable violence. (And it is, it is.) When we

destroy a refugee camp of impoverished Palestinians,

this, in our eyes, is a violence purified by our

history of persecution. (And it is not, it is not.) We

are puzzled that much of the world doesn't see our

situation in the same way.

I think many of us hold this view of purified Jewish

violence without being aware of it. Though we rarely

admit it, the Torah is full of ancient stories marked

by tribal violence done in the name of Jehovah. We

know the story of Elijah wrangling with the prophets

of Baal on Mt. Carmel. The prophet wins a clear

victory for Jehovah over the Canaanite gods. We know,

but don't make much of the fact as we retell the

story, that after Elijah won the contest on Jehovah's

behalf he took the prophets of Baal down to the brook

Kishon and slew them there. All 450 of them. I have

not heard of or read a midrash that elaborates this


I recently wrote an article about the traces of

Goddess worship in the Torah. When I cited this

example of Elijah and prophets, my three editors, all

intelligent and well-educated Jewish women, were

uneasily eager to have me supply a footnote for this

contentious assertion. They were as surprised as I

initially had been to discover that the account of

this violence was in the Torah itself. And yet they

had certainly read Kings II.

In a similar vein: We celebrate the military victories

of Joshua. But do we really take in what they

involved? "Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on up

from Elon to Hebron. They attacked it, took it and

struck it with the edge of the sword, with its king,

all the places belonging to it and every living

creature in it (my italics, Josh. 10:37)." I have yet

to hear a rabbi help us imagine this event in which

women and children, the very young and the very old,

are put to the sword.

Our sense of victimization as a people works in a

dangerous and seditious way against our capacity to

know, to recognize, to name and to remember. Since we

have adopted ourselves as victims we cannot correctly

read our own history let alone our present

circumstances. Even where the story of our violence is

set down in a sacred text that we pore over again and

again, we cannot see it. Our self-election as the

people most likely to be victimized obscures rather

than clarifies our own tradition.

I can't count the number of times I read the story of

Joshua as a tale of our people coming into their

rightful possession of their promised land without

stopping to say to myself, "but this is a history of

rape, plunder, slaughter, invasion and destruction of

other peoples." As such, it bears an uncomfortably

close resemblance to the behavior of Israeli settlers

and the Israeli army of today, a behavior we also

cannot see for what it is.

We are tracing the serpentine path of our own

psychology. We find it organized around a persuasion

of victimization, which leads to a sense of

entitlement to enact violence, which brings about an

inevitable distortion in the way we perceive both our

Jewish identity and the world, and involves us finally

in a tricky relationship to language. That boy over

there with the black face mask and a rock. That is a

terrorist. That boy over here with a sub-machine gun,

firing on the boy with the rock, he is a soldier.

A trick of language? A highly dangerous trick. I was

once persuaded to show up for rifle training when I

lived on my kibbutz, although as an American citizen I

wasn't required to attend. And whom did I imagine I

would shoot? And kill? I, who cannot kill a moth? I

never imagined it had to do with killing. Because of

the language I used (I lift this rifle in defense of

my beleaguered homeland) the training became a clean

act, necessary, not even in need of justification.

Accepting our own history of violence. Step three in

the dismantling of blindness.

Obstacle 7. Ideology vs. Living People?

Some American Jews will soon set out to join

settlements on the West Bank or to volunteer for the

Israeli army. Others are going to Ramallah to help the

Palestinians, hoping that their presence there will

make it harder to smash through the city with tanks,

randomly killing civilians. Still others are talking

about a peace brigade that will be established along

the border, a human buffer zone between the Israelis

and the Palestinians.

Jewish identity, stretched out between these extremes,

is up for grabs.

At one extreme, the decision to further occupy the

West Bank is guided by a sense of Jewish destiny and

by an ideology that claims Judea and Samaria as Jewish

sacred ground. These claims are based on archaic

conversations with God. The Orthodox families moving

to the settlements will set themselves down among a

hostile population, will be trained to shoot, and will

participate in the further partition of Palestinian

lands. They will take up a great deal of the water

when there is already not enough water for their

neighbors, many of whom go for days without being able

to wash or even drink. In service to an archaic idea

these people will see their Arab neighbors, not as a

humbled, battered, impoverished, hopeless people, but

as a potent enemy living illegitimately on ancient

Jewish land. In the grip of ideology some things get

neglected. Living people, the present, the sanctity of

civilian life become less important than what,

exactly? An idea? The idea of the Jewish people as

chosen by God, living out a covenant with Him?

When I first went to Israel in 1971 I was on my way to

a new kibbutz in the Golan Heights. It was a bleak,

grim, heavily armed place with living conditions as

rough as those faced by the early pioneers. There were

no trees on this kibbutz, no gardens, no fields, no

grazing animals. It was an armed camp made up of mud,

reserve forces, and young Israelis who were there to

hold the newly acquired land. I was convinced that I

belonged with them, although I was not invited to

stay. Today I want to ask that younger self What can

it mean to be God's people if this election does not

come with a concern for all living peoples? Would it

mean that the God who once spoke to our people has

nothing new to say?

Our God is a God of many changes. The old warrior God

who has had nothing new to say for thousands of years

has been able, over time, to unfold aspects of Himself

our Israelite ancestors would have found surprising.

In talmudic thought the war-like, conquering diety

evolves into a God of profound ethical concerns. He

has revealed the Shechinah, his female, compassionate

side, who comes to her children on the Sabbath and

goes out with us into exile. She has, along the way,

shown herself to be in love with a good story. She

inspires midrashim, cherishing them as much as stories

and teachings regarded as more sacred. She rejoices as

women speak to her through their own prayers and

rituals in settings that for too long excluded women.

She is a God of perpetual unfolding; we, her people,

inherit a tradition that asks for and imposes on us

the work of continual renewal. Compassion, service,

and a concern for justice are the imperative

expressions of our divine worship.

Call to Prayer, Call to Action

What Judaism means and will come to mean follows from

the choices we make today. Our acts, as Jews, promote

or defeat the crucial purpose of Judaism?to maintain a

potent, living, intimate relationship to a divine

force that tears through the universe busily promoting

transformation. The call of this presence, as I

experience it sitting here at my desk, is towards

community and action, to the awareness that if we

can't do everything we can still do something.

We can clarify our vision. There is no reason we must

continue to live either in survivor's guilt or in a

sense of our inevitable victimization as Jews. We need

not take refuge in an entitlement to violence or a

remorseless emphasis upon our suffering. We can see

the world as it is, not as it was or as we hope or

fear it might be. We can enlarge our sense of Jewish

identity to include both vulnerability and aggression.

We do not have to be blind. We can see and we can act.

If we don't happen to be the people called to Ramallah

we are certainly the people who can join the long

march to social justice.

We can:

? take on the conservative policies of the established

Jewish institutions

? incessantly pester the White House and Congress to

intervene in the Middle East

? join organizations that support a Judaism of radical

commitment to social justice.

Challenge, pester, join?they do not seem to have the

epic scope required by events that involve so much

suffering and death. But it would be a mistake to

diminish their significance. They stand well within

the radical challenge the prophets have always made to

the conservative Jewish establishment; they direct

themselves, against all odds, toward formidable

obstacles and will require the staying power of a

visionary, activist community. These commitments, in

our time, in a world in crisis, must be recognized as

an essential form of Jewish prayer.

But are we, as a people, still capable of prayer? How

will we manage to pray, we who have just seen this:

Wednesday, June 19, 2002. 7:10 am. Eyewitness.

Fifteen-year-old girl:

People coming apart o my god right in front of us all

over the place. O my god, o my god. Mama gets out of

our car. Mama steps on a finger. Let's get out of here

Mama, let's go, let's run, let's get away. If you walk

in the street you will fall, you will slip in the

blood, Mama says we have to help them, Mama says never

take the bus, walk everywhere we have to go. Could

happen, any day, any minute, look around, look over

your shoulder, keep an eye out. That's me, screaming

no no no no no no no. That's me shouting get them, get

them, make them stop, do something, kill all of them?.

We who have just seen, who know, who have witnessed,

if we are to pray, we will have to call upon the

highest development of our Jewish God, evoking the

compassion of the Shechinah and the traditional female

abhorrence for violence. We will have to imagine the

midrashim that will, in time, inevitably be told to

our ethical God about the struggles between Israel and

Palestine. In this crisis we need a divine presence

who is still talking to us and is closely in touch

with the contemporary world of our people, so that,

when we are able to pray, our prayers might sound like


Make it possible for us not to seek vengeance.

Help us to find the way that is not the way of


Teach us to grieve without turning into those who have

brought us to grief.

Help us to remember the innocence of the innocent.

Teach us to remember ourselves, a holy people.

If compassion is not possible for us,

If love is not possible for us,

Teach us not to hate. 

Kim Chernin is the author of fourteen books and

numerous articles. She is the founder of EdgeWork

Books ( Her most recent book is: The

Girl Who Went And Saw And Came Back, a novel.


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