October 17, 2019

Judea Pearl: Jews of Discomfort

What makes fog float in midair, while raindrops fall straight down to earth? Physics teaches us that it is all a matter of “surface-to-weight ratio” — a simple parameter that determines whether soap bubbles rise or fall and how many passengers a jet plane can carry. The larger the surface, so the theory goes, the easier it is for an object to lift its weight against gravitational pull.

The analogy came to mind this past week, on Tisha B’Av, when I pondered the fate of the Jewish people and tried to assess our collective surface-to-weight ratio.

It was a particularly cogent day to compare the amount of energy we spend at the boundaries of our existence, facing outward to defend our being, vis à vis the resources we waste facing inward, on self-congratulation, finger-pointing and other forms of added weight.

Take the protest march on behalf of Gilad Shalit last month. Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the roads, tens of thousands stood by roadsides feeding the marchers, and millions watched the marchers on Israeli TV. I have not seen any of it on CNN, for it was aimed inward, toward the Israeli government. We would have surely seen some of it had this enormous energy been directed outward, say, as a protest against the United Nations or the Red Cross or foreign embassies for not doing their share in stopping the most blatant human rights violation of our generation.

Or take Peter Beinart’s much-debated article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” (The New York Review of Books, June 10). Judging by the number of invitations I received to attend his lecture in Los Angeles, one would think that this creative intellectual has finally discovered a formula for peace or a new weapon to silence rockets without hurting civilians or, at the very least, an Arab intellectual willing to accept Israel. None of the above. Reading his article again and again, all I hear is how uncomfortable he feels being a Jew at a time when Jews are accused of supporting a nondemocratic entity called Israel, and how we can now extricate ourselves from this discomfort by speaking out, not against the distortions, but against a leadership that places its faith in the solid democratic character of Israeli society. I hear a desperate son coming home screaming: “Mother, the boys at school called you dirty names again. I hate you for causing me to face those bullies, and I hate you for making me feel so inadequate, unable to defend your honor except by joining them in amplifying your blemishes.”

Beinart was treated royally in Los Angeles because he is the prophetic voice for many Jews of Discomfort; they love him because he takes their discomfort and elevates it to a noble feeling of moral purity. They used to feel guilty for Israel’s actions while conscious of her problems; no more. Elevated in virtue, they now see every blemish on Israel’s face as “the litmus test” for her impure personality — hers, not theirs.

Observe another Jewish intellectual, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who is perhaps further to the left than Beinart. He, too, feels uncomfortable with some of Israel’s actions, and he, too, proposed ways to correct them. Yet instead of pointing fingers at the Jewish establishment, he takes to the trenches and, using his column on The Huffington Post, he tells his leftist colleagues: Stop this madness, look at yourself in the mirror. Is your liberalism dead when it comes to Israel? (June 7, Huffington Post).

It is all a matter of surface-to-weight ratio, says my physics book: Jews of spine confront their maligners, Jews of Discomfort blame their leaders.

Deep inside, Levy knows, perhaps, that ours may well be the last generation in which Jews can earn respect in academic and intellectual circles; pro-coexistence scholars are already pariahs in academia, forced to hide their sentiments from colleagues. (See my column in this newspaper, “Our New Marranos,” March 19, 2009), and if Israel goes under, Jews of Discomfort will certainly find themselves exorcised by the elite they now seek to appease. They would be remembered not for their discomfort, but for what they really were: members of a people who once supported a mistake called Israel — ruling elites do not easily forgive “mistakes” they labored to undo.

I will end with a request to readers. If you agree with my views or share my concerns, do not simply succumb to the temptation of sending this article to another member of your synagogue. Take to the trenches and face outward. Knock on the door of your gentile neighbor or officemate and say: Remember, Joe, how I used to go along with all your sarcastic criticism of Israel? Times have changed, Joe. My people are in trouble, and there are things I must do even at the risk of testing our friendship. I want to tell you how strongly I feel about Israel, what is factual and what is malice in what you hear, and why our world will not be the same without that tiny, shining spot called Israel.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.