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February 6, 2015 3:24 pm

From Comity to Commensality: Nudging the Needle of World Opinion Israelward

avatar by Brandon Marlon

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” – Elie Weisel

Oftentimes in our day and age it seems that world Jewry witnesses world opinion reflexively turning ugly against Israel, especially during its limited operations of self-defense against terrorist aggressors.

In the streets, mantra-chanting throngs foist their unsolicited views on passers-by and supply photographers and videographers with histrionic tonsil shots capturing their open-mouthed anger to underscore their adamance, which usually serves as a surrogate for the righteousness of their cause instead of being accurately identified as the mask distracting from its bankruptcy. Joining these notorious ranks are the useful idiots, some of whom were never neutral or impartial to begin with and whose anti-Semitism was merely in abeyance but never formally abrogated. These credulous conformists are cast as sign-wielding extras in the wide shots of anti-Israel sentiment.

Engaging the rabid haters and the delusional ideologues is a fruitless exercise.

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Moderates, however, are worth engaging because they are by definition open-minded, reasonable individuals who employ a levelheaded mindset with any given issue yet who acknowledge a fine distinction between striking a balance and succumbing to relativism. They recognize instinctually and intellectually that seeking balance does not mean imposing balance (e.g. moral equivalency); rather, it means shunning extremes in favor of the golden mean.

Still, people of decency and goodwill sometimes find it convenient to sit on the fence, especially when they observe the frothing hounds crowding the plazas of world capitals, full of vilification and vituperation, if not violence. Can you blame them? Who in his or her right mind would want to refute this vitriol and challenge a riotous rabble?

And so, the moderate multitude stands idly by as loud hordes asperse the Jewish state. Moderates may wish to join a counter demonstration with Jews and Israelis, but are fearful of taking a stand. They remain ever the sympathizer, never the participant. They do not bridge the chasm between sympathy and empathy. They go along to get along, assailed by the one-sided public discourse castigating Israel, reluctant to intervene as a countervoice in the public conversation. They dare not utter the nuanced truths on everybody’s mind, on nobody’s lips. Thus, those who fulminate do so with impunity, and lovers of Zion feel solitary and forsaken.

In the media, the dynamic in the arena is likewise lopsided, and the stakes are even higher given the realities of a repetitive, 24-hour news cycle. It would take immense strength of character and true heroism for an objective third party to stand up to the steady stream of bias and spin, of news reported and distorted, a seldom someone who might remain honest and modest amid loud ideologues and their unwitting tools in the guise of broadcast news anchors.

Indeed, even famously righteous figures such as the patriarch Abraham fell short in this regard, more than once. Consider the Tale of Two Vayayras in the Torah portion of that name. The Divine “appears” before Abraham; this first “vayayra” (וַיֵּרָא) is the eponymous one of the whole weekly reading. Early in the narrative, the Divine purposes to dispense with the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah; once Abraham gets wind of this, he challenges the plan and conspicuously stands his ground (עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד).

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” – Abraham

But then there is a second, different “vayayra” (וַיֵּרַע), when Abraham is told to cast off his concubine Hagar and first son Ishmael, and this directive “seems evil” to Abraham. Notably, however, he does not protest or negotiate with the Almighty, as he did on behalf of strangers in the prior case of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is all the more odd since Abraham had already advocated on Ishmael’s behalf in the previous Torah portion of Lech Lecha (לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ). This time Abraham is conspicuously silent, though the text tellingly registers that the task did not sit well with him.

What soon follows is the binding of Isaac episode, where the instruction descends from on high, as it were, and nary a word is uttered by Abraham against the filicidal demand. The text does not record any perception of injustice in Abraham with regards to the distasteful task. This episode is presented as a trial, a test which the stalwart Abraham apparently passes.

But what if he failed? What if the real, repeated test was always to challenge the challenge, to protest injustice? What if all three episodes in close vicinage – Sodom and Gomorrah, Ishmael’s expulsion, and the binding of Isaac – were tests with similar aims?

Abraham’s sequential reactions amounted to this: protest, grief, complicity. First he stood his ground in the face of perceived injustice, then he gave ground when he perceived injustice, then he went along quietly with an injustice no loving parent could possibly fail to perceive. His early righteousness incrementally gave way to later resignation.

This is but one among many valid interpretations. Yet when read in this light, there is a salient lesson to glean: those who do not protest injustice time and again in time become party to injustice.

It is one thing to admire Israel at a distance, as many already do; it is another to defend Israel against the popular onslaught, a periodically recurring tidal wave of injustice calibrated to demonize the Jewish state. Emphasizing the aforementioned message, and inviting all to view and experience Israel directly themselves, may help motivate moderates on the sidelines to progress from comity to solidarity to sodality to commensality. It can encourage moderates who offer moral support from afar to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel and Jewry, whether in community rallies or op-ed pages. If moderates the world over can identify with and relate to Israelis living their day-to-day lives – if they can empathize, not just sympathize – they may be moved to speak up next time the media and mobs unjustly question Israel’s right to exist and defend itself.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is a responsibility to protect and a responsibility to protest. Standing up for fairness and advocating on behalf of the condemned – whether a single Jewish child or the singular Jewish state – is a daunting but mandatory summons for all persons of conscience. It is the right thing to do and so is rightly to be expected. And as Abraham illustrates, challenging injustice is an ongoing responsibility that haunts those who shirk it.

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