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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tisha B'Av and Jewish Power (Published on CiF Watch)

A revised, and more fleshed out version of the essay I published last year on my blog:

“People resent the Jews for having emerged from their immemorial weakness and fearlessly resorted to force. They thereby betrayed the mission that history had assigned to them – being a people...that did not get tangled up in the obtuse narrowness of the nation-state.”
– Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt

Soon, Jews in Israel and around the world will observe Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout their history on the same date on the Hebrew calendar – the ninth day of the month of Av in the Hebrew Calendar. Tisha B'Av primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, but on this day we also reflect on the many other tragedies which occurred on this date, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Like many in Jerusalem, I intend to spend some time on this day at the Kotel participating in what represents a public bereavement for the many victims of our collective calamities. Typically, however, in addition to such mourning, I can’t help but reflect on this painful annual recollection of suffering and catastrophe in the context of the Jewish community's often ambivalent relationship with power. And, such ruminations are only heightened by my new citizenship in the modern Jewish state, a nation often forced to exercise power in order to prevent additional tragedies from befalling the Jewish people.

Indeed, Israel's creation can be seen as a direct response to these calamitous events – an attempt to turn history around and act instead of being acted upon. Whether defending itself in war, or aiding/rescuing endangered Jewish communities around the world, the Jewish collective has had at its disposal for the past 62 years – and for the first time in over 2000 years – a state apparatus with the means (logistically, politically, diplomatically, and militarily) to protect its people’s interests, just as other communities represented by nation-states have had through the ages.

However, with this organized exercise of power comes a price, a unique moral burden that many Jews seem unwilling or unable to bear - as any exertion of power, any control over your own fate, inevitably carries with it a the loss of innocence often projected upon people perceived to be powerless.

Israeli military power (exercised against terrorism and small scale regional threats, and in actual wars against state actors, and its territorial repercussions), and the relative success and political power of Jewish communities in the West – as well as the influence of a broader political culture which selectively eschews particularistic moral sympathies which fall on the wrong side of the arbitrary post-colonial divide – seems to instil in many Jews a loss of identification with their community. This chasm often finds expression in the need to identify in a way uniquely separate from such seemingly crude “ethnocentric” expressions of political and military power. Many Jews today find it more ethically comforting to identify with non-Jewish "progressive” causes than with their own community – which today carries with it the continual necessity to defend a nation (one representing a very particular identity) in all the complexities and compromises that are invariably associated with even the most progressive national enterprises.

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