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Scream Cycle

Forget the self-hating Jew; as everything from Internet comments to political speeches shows us, and as this week’s parasha reminds us, it’s the self-infatuated ones we need to look out for

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In The Shadow of the Sun, his masterwork of reportage from Africa, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski offered an observation by way of explaining some of the major cultural chasms separating the beleaguered continent from prosperous Europe. At the heart of Western culture, he observed, was its “bent for criticism, above all, for self-criticism—in its art of analysis and inquiry, in its endless seeking, in its restlessness. The European mind recognizes that it has limitations, accepts its imperfections, is skeptical, doubtful, questioning.” Other cultures, on the other hand, are “inclined to pride, to thinking that all that belongs to them is perfect; they are, in short, uncritical in relation to themselves. They lay the blame for all that is evil on others, on other forces (conspiracies, agents, foreign domination of one sort or another). They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc.”

In this week’s parasha, one African rises to prove the venerable Kapuscinski wrong: As his leadership is called into question, Moses has the wherewithal to focus, as they say in Sinai, on the bigger, celestial picture.

The story begins when the leader, fed up with his stiff-necked people, kvetches to the Almighty. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” Moses asks the Lord. “Why have I not found favor in your eyes that you place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that you say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the land you promised their forefathers? … Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way you treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.”

Feeling Moses’ pain, God instructs him to select 70 elders and bring them to the Tent of Meeting. There, the Creator promises, he’ll make a special appearance and charge the elders with helping Moses lead the people. The 70 are selected and carted off to the sacred spot, but just as they depart, two young dudes named Eldad and Medad have a divine moment and start prophesying.

To Joshua, Moses’ second-in-command, such a break with decorum is intolerable. A stickler for order, he runs to complain to his boss. “Moses, my master,” he cries out, “imprison them!” But Moses is unflappable. “Are you zealous for my sake?” he asks Joshua. “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”

In the Five Books of Moses, there are, thankfully, many testaments to the man’s greatness, but none, arguably, is more profound than this brief episode. Here is Moses acknowledging his weakness, Moses asking for help, Moses realizing that sometimes what seems like a transgression or a challenge is truly a blessing.

Herein concludes the cheerful portion of this column. If, dear reader, you are not the sort that takes kindly to criticism, I would advise bidding our adieus and turning to less rankling pursuits. Because while Moses stands tall as a paragon of self-criticism, many of us, alas, do not.

I’ve nothing but anecdotal evidence to offer in support of such a cutting observation, but the anecdotes, I think, pile up and harden into a thick wall of obduracy. As someone who habitually writes about Israel, I frequently have the uproarious pleasure of reading this website’s comments section and discovering that I—scion of a great rabbi, ninth-generation Israeli, non-commissioned officer in the Israel Defense Forces, former low-ranking diplomat in Israel’s foreign service—am not only not a Jew, but someone who, if true to his hidden nature, would feel much more comfortable in the crisp, black shirt of a National Socialist stormtrooper. In conversations with Jewish communities across the nation, to which I am fortunate enough to be, from time to time, invited, I hear endless variations on the theme of criticism-is-racism: Bring up any observation that portrays the Jewish state—or those slivers of the Jewish community that support it unequivocally—in a critical light, and you’re guilty of being naïve or malicious or troubled or some impossible combination of all three. The Jewish state itself, alas, isn’t doing much better on the self-criticism front: Even in light of obvious and systematic failures, such as last year’s massive fires, Jerusalem’s captains are constantly engaged in a perpetual game of pass-the-buck.

In the late 20th century, the dominant cultural paradigm haunting Jewish communal life was that of the self-hating Jew; now, in the dawn of the 21st, the figure to watch out for is the self-infatuated Jew, incapable of introspection, resistant to censure, aggressively rejecting any bit of opprobrium as inherently and intolerably evil. It’s the self-infatuated Jew who drowns any attempt at dialogue with the din of accusations—but the Palestinians started it all! But we’re still more democratic than Syria! But the Iranians are denying the Holocaust!—and who is quick to draw the boundaries of communal belonging as passing somewhere between right and extreme right. And the rest of us, as smarter men have already observed, are left to either fight an uphill battle or walk away from the whole throbbing mess.

Amid the rancor, this week’s parasha comes as a much-needed reminder of our tradition and its attitudes toward leadership and dissent. Borrowing a favorite turn of mind from the self-infatuated hordes, I can say that self-infatuation and intolerance of criticism are fundamentally non-Jewish traits; real Jews, like Moses, admit their own shortcomings and embrace their passionate kinsmen even if the latter are defiant. Real Jews know how to tell prophesy from piffle. Real Jews reject thundering statements—in a website’s comments section or on the floor of Congress—in favor of difficult, often cantankerous, but always illuminating conversations. Like the one, dear reader, I hope we’re about to have soon.

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Shalom Freedman says:

Please reread this sentence and understand that not all criticisms made of your writing are hysterical, fanatic, and unfair- minded.
“Even in light of obvious and systematic failures, such as last year’s massive fires, Jerusalem’s captains are constantly engaged in a perpetual game of pass-the-buck.”
Your statement is a simplistic blanket- generalization which is not qualified enough to be true. Certainly there are those who ‘pass the buck’ but as I understand it there are also those who take criticism to heart, and make changes.There is a new fleet of fire- fighting planes already in operation as the summer begins in Israel. Israel would not have developed in certain areas had its people not learned to look at faulty realities and correct them.
I would also fault you on taking the ‘straw- men low- level critics as norm’ and not responding to genuine thoughtful fair- minded, and non- insulting criticism. Perhaps it is you who are wrong in many of your generalizations. As for your generalization I wonder if there is any more self- critical society than Israel or more self- critical people than the Jews.
I would in fact insist that Jewish self- hatred has not gone out of business and is going strong even within Israel itself.

The fact that there are so many openly different Jewish positions on Israel and Judaism itself seems to refute your premise that those not towing the party line “are left to either fight an uphill battle or walk away from the whole throbbing mess.”

That “whole throbbing mess” that you refer to takes place in Israel and every other place on earth that allows people the freedom to voice their opinions. There are majority opinions and one or more minority opinions. Disagreement, sometimes abusive, occurs frequently. Of course the people espousing minority opinions feel pushed around. It comes with the territory.

I’m so sick of the term “self-hating Jew.” I here it more often today than “tikkun olam” – And I got sick of hearing that one too. I disagree with many positions of the Jewish left but I never question their Jewishness. I might consider them naive, gullible, and/or wishful thinkers. But they are Jews as long as they want to be.

Jews have been bitching and moaning since we left Egypt 3,000 years ago. My guess is that we will continue to do for, God-willing, many more years to come. As long as we can express our war of ideas with words rather than bullets, we should be o.k.

Shabbat Shalom.

J.Scott says:

What is sad is that a large majorit of Jews in America and Europe are in denial of Israel’s being threaten by her foes.

asherZ says:

In his defence of self-criticism (and who would dispute the constructive aspects of self-examination and the goal of self-improvement) Leibovitz seems to show a bit of sensitivity to the brickbats that previously been leveled at his own bona fides by finding the need to conjure up his Yichus, and his illustrious forebears.

When the Israeli Prime Minister received an overwhelming positive response from Congress and from members on both sides of the aisle, and made members of the global Jewish community so proud, Leibovitz did not merely level some criticism at Netanyahu’s speech.
“But instead of hurling oneself against the firm wall of slurs and untruths Netanyahu erected in his Washington speech, let us read the parasha instead, and recall the spirit, sacred and fierce and urgent, that urges us to keep our accounting strict and strictly honest.”
In effect he called the PM a liar, and used the “impartial” source of Haaretz for some of his “facts”. In fact Netanyahus statements were on the mark and although some of his observations were debatable, one did not have to stoop to the writer’s level of pejortive adjectives to make his point.
I wonder how proud Leibovitz anscestors would be to read his words. After all, there is a difference between criticism and calumny.

Interesting parallel and good observation. Moshe could admit that he needed help. I wish Bibi had the same humility. The Yale Institute on Anti-Semitism closed for the very reasons you refer to – an inability to look at ourselves critically. We are not all good and they (Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs, etc.) are not all bad – but if you acknowledge that, you are deviating from the script and thus a self- hating Jew!

anotherJew says:

“resistant to censure, aggressively rejecting any bit of opprobrium ”

I am a parent and a spouse, and one thing I have learned, is that its VERY difficult for someone to apologize for their own bad behavior, while they are being unfairly, excessively, even viciously blamed.

In fact, today almost any criticism a Jew makes of a specific Israeli policy, is seized on by people with no good faith toward Israel (some are obvious antisemites, some are “antizionists” with Jewish friends, and some are “prozionists” who nonetheless oppose ANY self defense by Israel – what the meaningful differences between these groups are is no more interesting to me than the exact dimensions of the second temple) in launching their attacks. In that context its very difficult NOT to rally around the current govt of Israel.

I want a two state solution. I want the left brought into the Israel govt. I think the blockade of Gaza has been a policy of questionable benefit for the last year, at least. I want the hilltop outposts evacuated, and I want a serious response from the GOI to the current peace initiatives. I want Leiberman out of the cabinet.

BUT, BUT, BUT -”the Palestinians started it all! But we’re still more democratic than Syria! But the Iranians are denying the Holocaust!—”

are all true. And relevant in terms of many aspects of todays debate. An argument that is nonsense in defense of the claim “bibi is right” can be quite relevant in defense of the claim “bibi is not the main obstacle to peace” or “bibi is not the only obstacle to peace” or “US support for Israel is not an obstacle to peace” etc, etc.

David Jove says:

You are both the self-hating Jew,and the self-infatuated Jew. Congradulations, on proving your point!

Jason says:

Great post. I have to admit I see very few self-hating Jews (although they do exist); I know PLENTY of self-infatuated ones. Most of them seem to have gotten their brash personality from Likudnik Israelis, who have been emboldened by the brash personality of the Texan/Southern right-wing evangelical Christians who have become their most uncritical champions here.

I think both types are dangerous, but the self-hating type seems to be a vanishing breed nowadays. Not so with the self-infatuated kind.

J Carpenter says:

My daily mantra (shima if you will)for close to 30 years with my self-absorbed teenaged high school world-literature students was for us to “step away from the mirror, and look out the window”, to get off our own case, to see that our lives, our perspective, our culture is not the only one, nor the only one that matters to God.

Beatrix says:

Your comments would have been more effective if you’d said “real Jews reject thundering statements—in a website’s comment’s section or on the floor of Congress” or in your column. Making your readers the recipients of your comments and omitting self-criticism limits your effectiveness. In fact, it makes one wonder if you think you are the equivalent of Moses and the faithful readers of Tablet are the stiff-necked followers.

Your writing and not your background should be what impresses us.

Hi all, First “God Bless and show Mercy to Israel and all Jewish people.

I can only say there are two types of people in this World, and they are the Cursed and comdemded and the ones that love God’s People. You want the Blessing’s of God then Love the Jewish People, they are the Choosen of God. The Lord is soon coming, woe unto the ones that are against the Jewish People, the Mesiah will destroy them and place them where they belong. again “God Bless the Jewish and Israel”
Ed

david friedlander, esq. says:

There is a stark difference between self criticism and delusional thinking. Self criticism is an overall positive phenomenon. However there comes a point where extreme self criticism turns into delusional positions such as “we can make peace with Hamas” and “Palestinians oppose Israel because of “occupation”.
The supposed turn to the right is not some sort of mass jingoistic tribalism run amok. Its a result of real people looking objectively at a currently atavistic culture (palestinian rejectionism) and reaching a valid conclusion that compromise is not feasible.
Does self criticism inevitably lead to side with Israel’s enemies?
I used to be a supporter of the so called peace process until I saw exactly what type of society the Palestinians intend to build on the wreckage of Israel.

beni says:

Nobody says that Israel is perfect, that there should be no criticism, and that any critic is a traitor or a false Jew. On the contrary, in your obsessional hatred to Zionism and Israel, you have something very Ashkenazi.

You are using the infamous Straw Man tactic – you create your opponents (absurd) arguments that you can easily debunk.

The truth is of course very different. Israel has a lot of issues, but what you do is not criticism but demonization. Israel is bad, Israelis (but you and your crazy fringe friends) are evil, anybody that does not think like you is immoral and disgusting, and of course never a word against the so pure and perfect Arabs, because how could you not understand people living under the worst crime against humanity ever: the Kibush !

How do you expect to be taken seriously ?

The fact that you are “the scion of a great rabbi” does not change the fact that you do not understand anything about the Torah (from what I read from you at least), the fact that you are Israeli does not give you any credit when over 90% of Israeli Jews (me among them) would think you are a leftist lunatic. The fact that you are so out of touch with almost all Israelis should “light a bubble” in your head – maybe you are the wrong one and not all the others ?

I think the problem is martyrdom syndrome,not accepting responsibility for one’s acts as an influence on future outcomes except to believe everything is the way it should be.

“It’s the self-infatuated Jew who drowns any attempt at dialogue with the din of accusations—but the Palestinians started it all! ”
It appears, not only the ugly Jews are responsible for (falsely?) blaming Palestinians for starting it all. They also are responsible for “drowning any attempt at dialogue”! So, it is not Palestinians are responsible in “drowning dialogue” by launching rockets at civilians in Jewish cities and firing at school buses.The Jews are responsible for it! If this is not anti-Semitism, nothing is.
Based on this text, Self-hating Jews are still very dangerous. They are the vanguard of world anti-Semites. And there are no more self-inflated Jews than the same self-hating Jews, for which the author of this article is a perfect example.

Jojo says:

People like Liel Leibovitz like nothing more than to show off how so morally superior (they think) they are to all these ugly Jews that don’t blame themselves for all the bad in the world.
What they do not understand is that self hatred is not a moral position and it is not legitimate criticism – this is just a mental sickness and nothing more.
These people are crazy, there is nothing that we can do for them. The only question is – why are they so many nut jobs among Jews, and American Jews in particular ?

i am amazed by this essay. i thought i was actually going to have someone who told people on the left to get a little self-critical about themselves, and instead got another example of the left feeling victimized even as they participate in the victimizing (the numerous blanket condemnations that readers above have already commented on). this is really depressing. but, let’s not be pessimistic. the author says he wants to engage in an “illuminating conversation” that presumably is based on self-criticism.

so here’s my question to you Liel: do you think there’s any boundary over which it is illegitimate for a jew to step in criticizing his fellow jews/israelis in public (ie MSNM, internet, etc). if so, how would you define that boundary and how would you suggest that boundary be respected?

can you read the following sentences and understand them as an indictment of those people that Mearsheimer calls “good jews” (which i suspect has a significant overlap with what you call “real jews”):

Borrowing a favorite turn of mind from the self-infatuated hordes, I can say that self-infatuation and intolerance of criticism are fundamentally non-Jewish traits; real Jews, like Moses, admit their own shortcomings and embrace their passionate kinsmen [eg settlers] even if the latter are defiant. Real Jews know how to tell prophesy from piffle. Real Jews reject thundering statements—in a website’s comments section or on the floor of Congress or in demonstrations against “right-wing” speakers —in favor of difficult, often cantankerous, but always illuminating conversations.

this can work in both ways: if calling someone a nazi is illegitimate then is it so on both sides?

or is it illegitimate to criticize someone like you but not a settler who really is a nazi?

is someone like norman finkelstein merely “cantakerous” and “always illuminating”

r

one other question. What on earth does “real jews can tell the difference between prophecy and piffle?” what do you have in mind?

VHJM van Neerven says:

Well done, Leil, and thank you for giving me a glimmer of renewed hope after I read a long line of comments from the bearded ones on Facebook. Even among my ‘friends’ there, it turns out, there are so many who rather look into the mirror in proud self-congratulation, than out the window to the wider world.
I take it that that’s all you ask for. With your palmares, you have the right to ask as much.
If only you had departed from somewhere else than Poland! As I read your quotes from Kapuscinski, I feel my stomach turning and my heart leaping violently in my chest.
I am a European, for better or for worse. I also belong to the world. I travel widely and when not, here in Mokum Alef not a month goes by without my meeting people from all (all!)continents. In my limited view, I simply hold K.’s utterances to be utterly false, mean, racist. He definitely crossed the line, from European to provincial redneck.
Not uncommon in his parts, I must say. Israel knows it.

Starting there, your column is too open to derailment on the way. It saddens me that so many here love to make the train tumble, instead of giving a timely warning sign: just like you did with this parasha of Moishe.

We can all us a warning. Draw the circle wider, forget Europe, Africa, Asia. Let the whole world ask for and accept help from 70 directions, seven times seventy, and more. Let no one stand in the way of those wo proffer their gifts for the good of all.
Who cares whence they come? There is but one Master of the Universe, one Creator of all humankind. Let us then also be one, as is HaSjem. His people is not of blood and soil (yes, you may read that in German), but of the spirit of obedience and allegiance, first sworn in Sinai, since then over and over again.

Once again: Thank you, Liel

Katz says:

Dear LIel
you are indeed too good for us. Have you ever considered a career in Iranian intelligence? Also, have you accepted Mr Ahmadinejad as your personal 12th mahdi? Please feel free to step from wretched Judaism to the bright shining light of Shia Islam. No one is stopping you

Well Liel, there you go again, daring to suggest that the voices of the self-infatuated are drowning out the possibility of dialogue. Gevalt! I think the Jews of the right have drunk from the chalice of the Tea Party, which has successfully used lies and outrageous claims to blot out reasoned conversations about anything even vaguely controversial. I am thankful that there are still voices like yours, like the embattled Brad Burston at Haaretz.com, who dare to stand in the spittle and hot air and risk the opprobrium and libel in order to simply suggest that people may want to chill out a bit and listen. You are saying, “Come let us reason together.” And when the self-infatuated continue to bark and yell, “Reason together? That’s treason!”, tell them, “No actually that’s God in Isaiah 1:18″
Kol Hakavod haver. You aren’t alone.

Carrie says:

So now Liel Leibovitz and Peter Beinart are the moral authorities and the rest of us Jews who see things differently are self-infatuated? Umm, ok, if you say so Liel.

In any case, Liel Leibovitz is the typical “do as I say, not as I do” type. It is clear from this article where he basically says his positions (and those of the fringe left’s hero, Beinart) are correct and the majority position is incorrect.

Jason says:

Leibovitz and Beinart are the “fringe left”??? You’d have to be an evangelical Christian to think that (i.e. wishful thinking).

Rather than say “Leibovitz and Beinart are the “fringe left”” maybe it should be Leibovitz and Beinart are the “extreme left?”

Carrie says:

Jason, their positions are the minority, while Beinart tries to portray them as the majority. Look at any recent major poll of American Jewish opinion towards Israel and you will see what I mean.

the “left” (progressives) are so out of whack since the second intifada that they’re now way off the track. they went there (and continue to protect themselves from any awareness of it) by exiling anyone who warns them about their derailment, as “right-wing neo-cons.” that’s why many people see them as either fringe or extreme left. i actually think they’re on the right given the way they identify with (non-jewish) aggressors and work (largely unconsciously – but that’s a problem of lack of self-criticism) to encourage war.
the roman proverb reads “si vis pacem para bellum” (if you want peace, prepare for war). the “left” has turned it on its head: “si vis bellum para pacem.”
“What, me want war?!? how dare you? I only want peace. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to…”

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Scream Cycle

Forget the self-hating Jew; as everything from Internet comments to political speeches shows us, and as this week’s parasha reminds us, it’s the self-infatuated ones we need to look out for

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