August 16, 2007
You have the right to feel offended
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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