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Jewish Journal

You have the right to feel offended

by Judea Pearl

August 16, 2007 | 8:00 pm

A conference organized by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem last month dealt with anti-Israel attacks in the United States that constitute, according to organizers, a "long-term threat" to Israel's standing.

Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz told Ha'aretz that American academics are at the forefront of those denying Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and admitted: "I see no combined effort to fight this by the Jewish organizations, and, in truth, I myself don't know how this could be done."

I doubt whether organizational efforts could stop anti-Israel attacks, but two incidents in the past few weeks have suggested for me a grassroots approach that, if pursued vigorously, might well slow down their growth.

The approach calls for exercising honesty, moral assertiveness and personal indignation against attacks on Israel's legitimacy.

The incidents I am talking about started with a rather routine scenario. In fact, it has probably happened to you so many times that it did not leave a memorable mark.

Like many of us, I am on the e-mail lists of friends and colleagues who occasionally call my attention to an article worth reading.

So it was that on one of these bright California mornings, I received a message from a colleague with an article and a comment: "Palestinians, with all their suffering under the Israeli apartheid regime, have never been Holocaust deniers."

It is, by today's standards, a rather commonplace remark -- one that could have been written by any of my friends from the far left or the Muslim community. I would normally either brush it off with a head shake: "There he goes again, the same old rhetoric," or start an argument on whether the comparison to apartheid South Africa is appropriate.

I do not exactly know what it was that morning that compelled me to do neither of the two but resort, instead, to what I normally refuse to do -- take offense. It may have been the recent vote in the U.N. Human Rights Commission, calling for a ban on "religious insults" or it may have been the latest press blitz on the moral ills of Islamophobia.

Whatever the cause, somehow an invisible force jolted me into writing my colleague thus: "The word 'apartheid' is offensive to me. In fact, it is very, very offensive. And, since I am not situated on the extreme end of the political spectrum, I venture to suspect that there are others on your e-mail list who were offended by it and who may wish to tell you that this word is not conducive to peace and understanding. It conveys anger, carelessness and a desire to hurt and defame. Hence, it shuts off the ears of the very people you are attempting to reach."

After a short exchange of polite messages, in which my colleague explained that, echoing his idols, President Jimmy Carter and journalist Amira Haas, he used this word not to offend but to evoke a sense of justice among his Jewish friends, I realized that I handled it correctly.

I realized that taking offense is a statement of conscience that shifts attention from the accused to the legitimacy of the accusation. It calls into question the accuser's choice of words, his assumptions, his worldview, as well as his intentions, and, thus, turns the accuser into a defendant, at least for a short moment of reflection.

For a split second, I even ventured to imagine how powerful it could be if each one of us were to implant a moment of reflection into the mind of an anti-Israel colleague, but I soon forgot about the incident, and I received no further messages from this colleague. Evidently, he had either deleted my name from his mailing list or had taken note of our exchange and become more conscientious of what he sent and to whom.

A few weeks later, a similar incident occurred. This time, harsh anti-Zionist slurs were scattered throughout an essay authored by the sender -- a history professor at an American university. Essentially, the author blamed Zionism for being the evil force that drives Bernard Lewis' "anti-Muslim diatribes."

Emboldened by my previous experience, I sat down and wrote this man -- let's call him Mahmoud -- a message, this time a little longer. I explained that I had found his contempt of Zionism deeply offensive and that given that I consider myself progressive and open-minded, others may share my feeling but were too polite to say so.

"I hope," I said, "that as a writer who spends pages describing how offensive Orientalism and Islamophobia are to Muslims and Arabs, that you will be able to understand other people's sensitivities and accommodate them in the future."

I then went further and explained to Mahmoud that, for me, Zionism is the realization of a millennium-old belief in the right of the Jewish people to a national home in the birthplace of their history, a right that is no less sacred than that of the Palestinians or the Saudis. Additionally, I wrote, it pains me to see my hopes for peace being spat upon. Such hopes require that all sides accept a two-state arrangement as a historically just solution, and anti-Zionist rhetoric, by negating the legitimacy of this solution, acts as an oppressor of peace.

Mahmoud explained that he did not mean to delegitimize Zionism or the two-state solution. His portrayal of Lewis' Zionism as the mother of all evils was apparently triggered by a speech delivered at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in March of 2007, in which Lewis pitted Europe and Islam against each other, coupled with AEI (and Lewis') one-sided support of Israel. Personally, I have never understood why a one-sided support of Israel, which to me is tantamount to a one-sided support of a quest for coexistence, would be considered a crime, but this takes us away from our main story.

The point of my story is that, again, I felt invigorated by exercising an almost forgotten right -- the right to be offended. I also noticed that personal indignation has the magic power of shifting the frame of discourse from arguing Israel's policies to the very core of the Middle East conflict -- denying Israel's legitimacy -- an issue where Israel's case is strongest and where Israel's adversaries find themselves in an embarrassing and morally indefensible position.

More pointedly, I felt invigorated by practicing what I have been preaching for months: Religion has no monopoly on human sensitivity; Zionophobia is no less revolting than Islamophobia.

Here I have exercised my right to be offended not against abusers of my religious beliefs -- this I can stomach -- but in defense of a more pivotal part of my identity -- my people, our history, our collective memory and our collective aspirations -- in short, in defense of Zionism.

Some claim that Zionism is not entitled to such defense, since "Zionism is a political movement, not a religion," or "Zionism is a recent phenomenon, a product of 19th century European nationalism."

These claimants know little about Jewish history or Jewish identity or how Jewish history and identity were shaped for centuries by the Zionist idea of the "return of the exiles." They certainly have not read the Mishna, or Nahum Sokolov's "History of Zionism (1600-1919)" or my grandfather's siddur (e.g., Veholichenu Kommemiut Leartsenu -- "and thou shall walk us in sovereignty to our country" [Birkat Hamazon]).

We tend to forget that the right for protection from religious insults emanates not from sanctity of religious beliefs but from empathetic concerns for all intellectual resources that shape one's identity. The Jewish experience in the 20th century proves that secular historical narratives can unleash unifying and identity-shaping forces far stronger than religious beliefs in deities, prophets, messengers or the afterlife. Israel, the focal point of these narratives, therefore deserves all the protection that human sensitivity can provide, and we are perfectly entitled to accord her this protection with the same ferocity that we fight religious defamation.

We, as Jews, have been grossly negligent in permitting the dehumanization of Israel to become socially acceptable in certain circles of society, especially on college campuses. Our silence, natural resilience to insults and general reluctance to confront colleagues and friends have contributed significantly to the Orwellianization of campus vocabulary and the legitimization of the unacceptable. Most of our assailants are even unaware of the shivers that go down our spines with utterances such as "apartheid Israeli regime" or "brutal Israeli occupation."

But if we take seriously the moral basis for our right to take offense and exercise that right broadly and consistently, a reverse process of de-Orwellianization will ensue. If instead of avoiding confrontation, swallowing our insults or letting ourselves be dragged into defensive arguments, we simply halt the conversation and assert with honesty and dignity, "Sorry, this is offensive to me," or "This is unacceptable," we will reclaim the respect that our adversaries plan to trample. History and decency have given us that right. If we act on it proudly and resolutely, the word will quickly come around that good company no longer accepts smearing Israel with apartheid or bashing Zionism as a crime.


Judea Pearl gives commencement address at the University of Toronto, June 21



Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation http://www.danielpearl.org. He is a co-editor of "I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish Lights, 2004).

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