Ask Dr. Difference, fear edition

Ask Dr. Difference, fear edition

It’s time again to turn this column over to Dr. Sam Difference, America’s leading expert in parsing the fine distinctions between seemingly identical phenomena.

Dear Dr. Difference: I just read that “more than two dozen Israeli rabbis’ wives signed a letter urging Jewish women not to date or work with Arab men.” Many are treating this as the latest example of an anti-democratic, even racist trend within Israeli society. But what’s the difference between what the rebbetzins wrote and the message Jewish parents give their kids every day about not dating or marrying gentiles?

It’s the difference between teaching kids to love their country, and teaching them to hate foreigners. In the former approach, you try to demonstrate the positive values and life-enhancing traditions of your people in the hope that the kids will be inspired to live and transmit those values to their own families.

In the latter approach, you demonize others, rob them of their humanity, embarrass your co-religionists, and demonstrate that you have so little faith in your own way of life that the only way you can think to preserve it is to denigrate the Other.

And boy, are the rabbis’ wives good at denigrating. Their letter warns young women that as “soon as [Arab men] have you in their grasp” the women will face “curses, physical abuse, and humiliation.”

It is sometimes tough to defend “in-marriage” in a multi-culti world. And yet folks who call Jewish organizations “racist” for urging in-marriage are often the same folks who denounce “colonialists” for squashing indigenous cultures and customs. If we can agree that the planet’s cultural diversity is worth preserving, we can understand why Jewish parents want their kids to create Jewish families.

But there is a right way and wrong way to preserve a way of life, as a group of Reform women rabbis wrote in response to the rebbetzins’ missive. “Jews who are confident in their Jewish identity do not have to fear contact with people from other nations,” they wrote. “The way to strengthen the Jewish identity of our sons and daughters is through education, not incitement and fear.”

Dear Dr. Difference: The end of the year brought a bunch of scary fund-raising letters from Jewish organizations, suggesting Jews are in grave danger. What’s the difference between today and, say, 1939?

I know what you mean; I got a fund-raising e-mail from David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, who wrote that, “In my 20 years as AJC’s executive director, I have never seen a more dangerous time for the Jewish people.” [Emphasis added.]

Mr. Harris cites “a shift in global power, a rise in terrorism at our doorstep, and true existential threats to the Jewish people.” He and other Jewish leaders are warning first and foremost about Iran and whether it will make the Bomb, at which point all bets are off for Israel. They are also worried about efforts to delegitimize Israel, the rise of anti-Semitism, and Islamist terrorism.

Each of these is a legitimate concern, but let’s consider the counter-idea that the Jewish people have never been more secure. To wit:

1) It is not at all clear how close Iran is to nuclear capability, and there is a broad coalition of countries, including Arab states, that are adamant that Iran not be allowed to go nuclear and are either overtly or quietly supportive of crippling sanctions and “all other options.”

2) The Boycott Israel movement remains a marginal cause, with little to show for its efforts besides proclamations and press clippings. Meanwhile, Israel’s economy and international trade is robust, its aid package from its most important partner is secure, and the American people continue to show deep sympathy for Israel’s cause. Israel is facing a lot of blame for the stalled peace process, but consider this: Whether you agree with the hawks or the doves, the fate of Israelis, unlike that of so many Jews through the centuries, is in their own hands.

3) For the first time in history, there is not a single sizable Jewish community facing repression or annihilation. Today’s anti-Semitism is amplified by modern communications, and there is tension between Europe’s Jews and Muslims, but you can’t compare today’s Jew hatred to the global, systematic, and socially acceptable anti-Semitism that flourished in the lead up to World War II.

4) Jihadis hold a special animus for Jews, and in a number of attacks, including in Mumbai, have added specific Jewish targets to their otherwise undiscriminating mayhem. And yet the world does not treat terrorism as a “Jewish problem”; instead, nearly every Western nation is mobilized against this threat — something you couldn’t say when Jews were the special targets of the Nazis or the Soviets.

Admittedly, the wild card in all this is Iran — can it make a nuke, will it use it? I understand the impulse to imagine and expect the worst, and the need to mobilize people to action. But constant appeals to fear are too easy to dismiss if they do not resonate with actual experience.

Dear Dr. Difference: What’s the difference between actors Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling?

I’m not sure. I’m still working on Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman, and Red Smith and Red Barber.

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