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Once, while I was attending Vanderbilt Divinity School I heard something in a class that I simply never expected to hear in an enlightened academic and religious community like that. In a course on Jewish-Christian relations, we were discussing the long history of mistreatment of the Jews by Christians. At one point, a student whom I knew to be rather pious and overtly religious asked, as part of a question, if it were not possible that the Jews themselves contributed to their own persecution.
I could not believe my ears! Was this question really being asked? I imagined (or at least hoped) that the ears of the African-American students in the room pricked up at that question too. Classic "blame the victim" hyperbole in such a setting? Unimaginable, but yet, there it was.
I of course responded how abhorrent I found the suggestion that any persecuted minority was responsible for their persecution.
Let's imagine the rationales:
1. Jews killed Christ.
Well, this one has been dealt with, but somehow there are still Christians who believe it. And Mel Gibson's movie hasn't helped things any. While I won't deny the plausibility that elements of the Jewish leadership could have been complicit in insuring that this rabble-rousing rabbi be dealt with, perhaps even so far as to engineering a sure fate of death, to equate this with all Jews who were alive then, and all who live now, is ludicrous.
2. Jews financially oppressed others.
In the middle ages, secular political leaders utilized Jews in their power struggles with the Church. They set them up as their business arm. But Jews were limited in the professions they could go into, could not own land, and didn't really have much choice as to what else they could do. In addition, church law prevented Christians from loaning at interest-as a result, Christians found no impetus to make loans, and so Jews became the source of loans needed to keep all the Christian business, kingdoms, secular leaders (and perhaps, even Church) economically viable. This makes us responsible for our own persecution? (My thanks to Professor Amy-Jill Levine for this analysis.)
3. By refusing to accept Christ, Jews are a roadblock to Gds plan.
The big stumbling block. The Jewish position towards Christians and others is that Gd does not require them to be Jewish or keep the Jewish covenant-Gd only asks them to keep the Noahide covenant. Christians, however, insist that Christ is the only way. So, if we Jews stubbornly refuse, then we must accept whatever fates befalls us as a consequence. (For you academics out there, this is just the remnants of the Marcion Heresy, which is, unfortunately, still with us. We are the children of the bad Gd.)
4. And so on.
[fill in your own scenario here.]
But this is a musing on Torah, not academics and politics. When an issue confronts me, it always seems that a look into Torah provides some illumination. And this week is no exception:
23:1 - lo tisa sheima shav; al tashet yadecha im-rasha l'hiyit eid khamas.
"Do not (ever) carry false reports; You should not join your hands with wickedness to be a witness for violence. "
I read into that a clear injunction against "blaming the victim" for doing so is siding with the wicked in their defense of violence.
Without the complicity of their fellow Africans, the Europeans could not have managed the slave trade. The Nazis utilized kapos in the camps. Shall we then witness for the Nazis and the slave-traders?
What saddens me most is how some marginalized and persecuted groups accuse other marginalized and persecuted groups of "siding with the wicked." Somehow, Jews, who have been persecuted and maltreated for a millennium now are now just lumped into being part of the "oppressive colonialist center" or worse yet, cited as "master manipulators" of everyone else.
No one has a greater call to be for justice for the oppressed than the Jews. Yet now, too often, we are vilified. And we are sometimes guilty of the same generalizations. We demonize the outspoken Black Muslims (and don't get me wrong, I think Louis Farrakhan IS a demon) and as a result categorize the entire African American community as anti-Jewish. We demonize the entire Palestinian people for the (admittedly horrendous) acts of extremists. Something tells me the average Yosif Q. Palestinian is just worried about feeding his family. HOWEVER-to some extent, the Palestinians forfeit our sympathy because by failing to stop the terrorists in their midst, they are joining their hands with the wicked. When we fail to stop the wicked Jews in our own midst, we are no less guilty.
At the time, I waited for others in my class to express the same righteous indignation at the "blaming the victim" remark as I had. Sadly, I waited in vain. At least there were a few head nods. But this showed me how even people actively engaged in active study of morals, ethics, theology and religion have failed to remember this all important Torah verse.
And we would all do well to heed the words of Reverend Martin Niemoller:
"First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out; Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out; Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak on my behalf."
This Shabbat, and at all times, do not allow yourself to be a witness for evil. Be instead a doer of goodness and righteousness. Speak up on behalf of the oppressed, always remembering that you and your ancestors were oppressed. Be an eid ha-tov, a witness for good.
©1999 and 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence
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