Liberal Jews overlook Hillel’s adage ‘If I am not myself, who will be for me?’

Liberal Jews overlook Hillel’s adage ‘If I am not myself, who will be for me?’

Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah. And they said unto him: ‘Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. (1 Samuel 8:4-5)

Was this the first recorded Jewish attempt at assimilation? “Assimilate” is defined as “to make similar”; it would seem that the elders’ petition would certainly fit this definition.

But does assimilating mean that you must give up your group’s self-interest?

Hillel offers some guidance: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)

I believe that many American Jews, and perhaps many Jews around the world, today follow the second part of Hillel’s adage while avoiding, or denying the existence of, the first. One way we do this is by applying standards to Jews and Israel that are different from those we apply to other people and nations.

It is as if we applied the Hebrew National slogan “We answer to a higher authority” to everything Jewish and Israeli.

But what is this higher authority? Is it the UN, which at one time declared Zionism to be racism? Is it the UN Human Rights Council, which declares Israel to be the worst violator of human rights in the world? Is it the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions crowd, and its intersectionality cohorts, who want to delegitimize Israel and declare it an apartheid state?

The proposed Palestinian state is envisioned to be “judenrein,” free of Jews. Is this not racism? If the same standard applied, would it be OK for Israel to be “arabrein” or “muslimrein”? Syria uses chemical weapons against its civilians and Saudi Arabia suppresses women and prohibits non-Muslim religious artifacts from coming into the country; should they not be condemned as human rights violators?

As to the accusation that Israel is an apartheid state, consider Alan Dershowitz’s proposal for a “Middle East Apartheid Education Week,” during which, based on the universally accepted human rights principle of “the worst first,” the worst forms of apartheid being practiced by Middle East nations and entities would be studied and exposed. And who is first? By his estimation, Saudi Arabia. 

What gets to me is that so many Jews buy into these calumnies. Israeli author Tuvia Tenenbom has observed the charges of Israel as an apartheid state and Judaism as racism being echoed from synagogue pulpits in America. “When you see some anti-Jewish thing,” he writes, “if you dig deep and put a magnifying lens to see who’s behind it, over and over and over you find a Jew, and that’s frightening.” 

In the Israeli media network Arutz Sheva, Steve Apfel, a South African Jew, observes, “The counter-intuitive mind of the Jew is uncanny.” He condemns “left-wing elements” whose “[h]istory and tradition (their word for God in the secular?) marked out the Jews to care for the stranger in their midst.”

Apfel boils it down by saying that for such Jews, “Caring for the stranger is everything; caring for the Jew is nothing.” Citing real examples, he writes that these counter-intuitive Jewish minds think: “Better to give underprivileged people the right to live in a swanky suburb” — he is referring specifically to Capetown — “than to allow Jews the right to build a school. Better to worry over a dedicated bathroom for transgender types than to lose sleep over Jewish victims of terror [in Ukraine and elsewhere]. Better to debate the right of Israel to exist than to debate the right of Palestinians to yet another sharia-ruled fiefdom. Better to lose sleep over the plight of the ‘other’ than to lose sleep over the plight of a Jew.”

The propensity of American Jews to embrace such attitudes was flagged by Norman Podhoretz in his 2009 book “Why Are Jews Liberals?” As he summarized in The Wall Street Journal: “The upshot is that in virtually every instance of a clash between Jewish law and contemporary liberalism, it is the liberal creed that prevails for most American Jews.”

In the current issue of Commentary magazine, Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel update Podhoretz’s thesis, making their case in “Jewish Conservatism: A Manifesto.” In his introduction to the lengthy essay, John Podhoretz states: “To hear liberal Jewish leaders talk, there is little distinction between contemporary leftish beliefs and the classic convictions of the Jewish faith — which they have enshrined in the concept of tikkun olam, or ‘healing the world.’ Tikkun olam is used to kasher any and every progressive aim, and so promiscuously that it has given rise to this apocryphal story: A Reform Jew on a tour of Israel asks his guide, ‘How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?’”

In their essay, Cohen and Meisel note that viewed historically, the Jewish devotion to liberal politics has deep and understandable roots, but a distinct part of the Jewish community in the United States opposes the progressive agenda, in whole or in part, both culturally and politically. The authors write: “The primary Jewish responsibility today — and the greatest gift that Jews can offer the world — is to defend Jewish civilization against its many detractors, at home and abroad. American Jews have a crucial role to play in this great project, both in sustaining vibrant Jewish communities in the United States and in strengthening American support for the Jewish state. To succeed, Jews will need to reform their political philosophy.”

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Indeed.

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