Reaction to Israel's latest faceoff with Hamas, like the debris spread by Grad and Fajir rockets, was, literally, all over the place. Global reaction ranged from support and understanding to denouncing Israel as an overreacting bully, lashing out against a Hamas underdog.
Why was there such diversity of opinion? Why the confusion, even as some basic facts were unassailable:
• There's been no "occupation" of Gaza for seven years. Not only was there a total military evacuation in 2005, but thousands of Jewish residents were forced to return to Israel proper.
• Hamas and other terrorists have been taunting Israel for months, even years. They targeted missiles, rockets and mortars at civilians, not in so-called "occupied" territories, but in Israel. In recent months, as many as one million people in southern Israel were under threat from Iranian-supplied missiles whose ever-expanding range and increasingly deadly payloads made normal life impossible.
• Israel's military actions targeted specific military targets. It showed obvious restraint in the face of Hamas' use of Gaza's human shields to provide cover for long-range missile barrages.
• As President Obama told the world: Israel has every right to defend herself and her citizens.
So why did so many people not get it?
Israel-bashers were certainly out in full force. The money quote of one participant in the anti-Israel street demonstration in San Francisco , looking straight into the camera: "F*** you, Jew! F*** you, Jew!" summed up that genre of event. The groupies of the global campaign to isolate Israel – through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) – had nothing but admiration for the beleaguered Hamas freedom fighters and condemnation for Israel's "Occupation" as the sole source for all Middle East woes.
For many in the media the narrative always begins – not with years of terrorist rocket attacks on Israel, but with the results of an unprovoked attack by Israel on the people of Gaza. Some European activists have recast centuries of animosity towards Jews into a social media-driven art form. Small wonder that a recent poll found that 38% of Norwegians believe Israel treats Palestinians like Nazis treated Jews.
But surely religious leadership put things in a clearer perspective?
Throughout the months of escalating attacks by Hamas, Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), had been silent about the rockets – until Israel smashed the hands on the firing buttons. "The occupation, with its oppression of the Palestinian population, is a form of systemic violence which remains a barrier to peace," he said. To Parsons and other church leaders, Israel – and the Occupation – is always to blame.
Why would he and his analogues in other denominations embrace such a mindset? Why are pictures of dead Palestinians more shocking than those of dead Jews?
Age-old religious stereotypes may provide a clue:
For centuries, churches served up a rich diet of Jew-hatred. The deicide charge, replacement theology, Adversus Judaeos texts – all contributed to contempt for Jews and Judaism. Hebrew Scripture was mocked by Christianity as superseded by the more enlightened message of the Christian Bible.
Thank God, most churches do not teach anything resembling that today, but urge tolerance of Jews, respect for the debt Christianity owes to Judaism, and viewing anti-Semitism as sinful.
Tens of millions of Christians have absorbed the new message. Some, however, have absorbed it imperfectly. They and their progeny – whether religiously oriented or not – reach an often subconscious accommodation between old attitudes and new teachings. Jews should be tolerated, even respected – but only if they live on a moral plane a cut above everyone else. Alternatively, Jews should be tolerated – but not if they act too strongly. As Bill Maher put it, "After WWII, everybody said, 'I don't understand the Jews. How could they have gone to their slaughter like that.' OK, and then when they fight back, 'I don't understand the Jews. Why don't they just go to their slaughter?'"
Such people are not anti-Semites. But they bear the imprint of the past. To them, dead Jews evoke much sympathy – but they recoil at the thought of Jews wielding real power. They respect Jews dealing with adversity, but not of Jews exercising authority. They could sympathize with the plight of Jews wandering without a homeland, but recoil from the proposition that they might be entitled, as Jews, to their own.
Sadly, many Jews also absorbed this narrative and chafe at any kind of pride in a Jewish state or notion of any Jewish exceptionalism.
The Bible, as so often, yields much insight. The narrative in Genesis relates that after years of strife and separation, Jacob meets up with his older brother Esau, who is intent on killing him. Ultimately, Jacob and Esau – in Jewish tradition, the father of Rome and Western civilization – go their separate ways. God sends an angel to assign Jacob a new name, Yisrael, or Israel. Israel literally means the one who fought, recognizing Jacob's transition from passive stoicism to a fighter – on both the spiritual and conventional battlefields.
Too many people are ready to accept a meek Jacob, not an empowered Yisrael.
In its 64 years the state of Israel has connected to the new/old Jew – Yisrael, the Jew of strength, the Jew who struggles, resists, fights back, builds a thriving economy, and uses his technological cunning to wage the "just war" that Jewish texts could only speak about theoretically when they first introduced the idea two millennia ago. An empowered Israel who never forgets that he is also Jacob, committed to also pursuing peace and justice.
Today's headlines confirm that Jacob's struggle with the angel – for respect and security – rages on.