“Why Do They Ask The Impossible Of The Jews?”

Anne Frank’s Diary Read Today

I recently finished reading the Diary of Anne Frank.

Toward the end of book, Anne describes how the people of Holland (where she is hiding) have started to become more antisemitic, even as they are all hoping to be liberated from the Nazis.  She writes:

To our great sorrow and dismay, we’ve heard that many people have changed their attitude toward us Jews. We’ve been told that anti-Semitism has cropped up in circles where once it would have been unthinkable. This fact has affected us all very, very deeply. The reason for the hatred is understandable, maybe even human, but that doesn’t make it right. According to the Christians, the Jews are blabbing their secrets to the Germans, denouncing their helpers and causing them to suffer the dreadful fate and punishments that have already been meted out to so many.  All of this is true.

But it was the next part that struck me as particularly prescient during these confusing times:

But as with everything, they should look at the matter from both sides: would Christians act any differently if they were in our place? Could anyone, regardless of whether they’re Jews or Christians, remain silent in the face of German pressure? Everyone knows it’s practically impossible, so why do they ask the impossible of the Jews?

Echoes of all that I have been hearing over the last few weeks, the exact lines I had heard from Jews defending Israel hit me like a hurricane.  The lines that used to bother me, mostly because they sounded so typical.

“What would America do if Mexico started shooting rockets into Texas?!”

“How come we don’t hear about all the civilians dying in Syria?!”

“Would you act any differently?”

20,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan since terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers. 100,000 civilians were killed over the course of the war in Iraq.  America is considered to have been a huge contributor to these numbers.

Whatever we think of these wars, most of the world understands that the fight against terrorism has been an essential one, even if it has been flawed.  One that is still not won; one that will inevitably cause massive civilian casualties.

And yet, Israel’s war against Hamas is expected to last not years, not months, not weeks, but days.  We are called on by the world to enact an “unconditional cease fire”.

This goes for the Gaza blockade as well which is used to justify Hamas’s rockets into our nation.

But before the Gaza wall was built, before the blockade enforced, Hamas sent suicide bombers, into Israel’s cafes, into bar mitzvahs, into buses… and killed us… children, women, elderly, Arabs; it made no difference.

Anne’s words echo again: “…would Christians [or anyone else] act any differently if they were in our place?

The Nature Of Antisemitism

The most common complaint against Israel you hear these days is that it has made Jews infinitely more powerful than they were during World War II, or any other time.  Not just Israel, but the “Israel lobby”.  AIPAC, the ADL, etc.

This is hard to argue with, I think.  We are certainly more powerful than we used to be.

But Anne helped me understand this.

Why did the “Christians” Anne describes expects the impossible from the Jews of her time?  Why, in fact, have most cultures had such an irrational fear of Jews?

It is because we are continually seen as having an outsized amount of power for the amount of people in our population.  We are seen as more powerful than our numbers indicate.

From the time before we became slaves in Egypt (when the Pharaoh worried that we were becoming too powerful) to our time in Germany to the creation and success of Israel as a nation, people have not seen us as weak or pitiful: they have seen us as incredibly powerful.  Oppressive.  A small nation dominating the masses.

Even in Anne’s world, as Jews were being deported to concentration camps, killed in droves, and hiding in attics for years to avoid being killed, the people in her country expected the Jews to somehow do more than they would expect from themselves.

And part of this is based on objective truth: Jews, as a people, have truly been more successful than one would expect from such a small group.  Israel has historically been much more powerful than you would expect from such a small country.

But we’ve only become more powerful for one specific reason: we never would have survived otherwise.  Why did we succeed in our professions even in countries that oppressed us?  Because we recognized that we needed money if we were ever going to “make it” in those places.

It is because of our size that we have made ourselves powerful.  It is because the world is so much bigger than us that we have had to succeed, to accomplish so much as a people, a religion, a nation.  

Israel’s strength is simply an extension of that.

Why has Israel built an unparalleled army?  Because without such an army, it would have been wiped out.  Why do AIPAC and such organizations have such influence?  Because there is a much bigger lobby, the lobby of historic antisemitism, that has existed for ages, and that needs to be fought with a small but powerful army of lobbyists.  Because the US is the only filter in the UN that stops a gang of nations who want to see Israel destroyed.

But the problem is that the world has then taken that success and expected not just more from us, but the supernatural, the infinite, “the impossible”.

And so the world doesn’t compare us to Syria.  They don’t even compare us to America. They compare us to the vision they have of Jews: beyond nature, able to do the “impossible” (as Anne put it), able to be completely selfless and passive.

Just as in Anne’s Holland (where every single Jew was expected to supernaturally keep their lips sealed) Jews in Israel are expected to somehow deal supernaturally with people who are determined to exterminate them.

We are expected to fight wars, urban wars, without killing civilians.  Our wars are expected to last days.  In order to have peace with our neighbors, we are expected to cut the capital of our country in half and hand it over.  Expected to take down the wall that protects us from murderous assassins who want to kill us all.

Modern “Antisemitism”

And so I think what is happening today, though, is not strictly antisemitism, as many of these people are good, honest, folks that are riding the wave of historical thinking that has lasted for thousands of years.  Rather, we are living in an age of unknowingly embracing the echoes of antisemitism past.  People who do not necessarily see Jews as evil, but expect the impossible from us.

I do not want to see the world as evil.  I want to believe that this is just echoes, not true hate, like Anne, “I can’t understand how the Dutch, a nation of good, honest, upright people, can sit in judgment on us the way they do.”

Replace the word “Dutch” with “the world”.  The world is good.  But history is powerful.

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  • HS

    A fascinating analysis of the meaning of power and weakness in the Middle East:


  • I think there’s another factor. Although much of the West is now post-Christian, I think Christian images of Jews still exist culturally, often not consciously, just as negative perceptions of other minority groups can continue unconsciously.

    You may be familiar with the feminist critique of the Madonna-whore complex, according to which men see women as saintly mothers or degraded sex objects, but not normal people they can relate to in a healthy way.

    I think there is something similar in the Christian and post-Christian perception of the Jews, which I call the Jesus-Judas complex. Jews are expected to be as morally perfect as the Son of God (no matter that ‘turn the other cheek’ is not a Jewish ideal, nor one that Christendom ever lived up to for long). If we fail at this, we are seen as Judas the Christ-killer, the worst possible criminal. There are no shades of grey, no middle ground: we must achieve moral perfection or be completely corrupt.

    Interestingly, I think even in extreme anti-Zionist and post-Zionist critiques of Israel by Jews, this same perception is present. The political scientist Emmanuel Ottolenghi wrote an article in Commentary years ago in which he documented the thoroughly Christian language used by Jewish anti-Zionist historians and commentators in attacking Israel: phrases like “Israel was born, tarnished, besmirched by original sin” or that “Not content with the thirty pieces of silver, these people insist on retaining for Israel the crown of thorns” and so on – metaphors that are meaningful for Christians, but which simply do not exist in Judaism. (I’d post the link, but whenever I do that, disqus eats the comment!)

    I don’t think this explains what you describe in its entirety – I think there is a lot more going on in the way the world perceives Israel and the Jews, the influence of post-colonialism, postmodernism, post-nationalism, the vestiges of Marxism and so forth, but time and space prevent me turning this into a dissertation, which is probably just as well…

    • Dude, always love your comments and insights. Didn’t I tell you you should be a blogger? 😉

      And yes, I’m sure there are many, many historical factors at play. Too many to count. I think that’s why so much of this is just about consistently showing the “truth” as we see it to the world, to continue to combat it, rather than demonizing and getting angry at every turn.

      BTW, read your Orwell essay. AMAZING stuff.

      • Well, when I had my own blog, no one read it. I guess I just have to piggy-back on your blog 🙂

        • Tuvia

          i read it a couple of times. it was pretty significant stuff…and i’m full on secular…

          • Thanks! But I have another reason I stopped, namely lack of time!

  • bat Sarah

    “But we’ve only become more powerful for one specific reason: we never would have survived otherwise. Why did we succeed in our professions even in countries that oppressed us? Because we recognized that we needed money if we were ever going to “make it” in those places. It is because of our size that we have made ourselves powerful. It is because the world is so much bigger than us that we have had to succeed, to accomplish so much as a people, a religion, a nation.”

    I’m not quite sure this Darwinistic approach is true. It is a bit presumptuous to assume this to be the reason, especially since we have hardly been powerful in oppressive countries. Perhaps the success that inspires such fear is merely our impossible existence over thousands of years. I do not think that we have made ourselves succeed. I think it’s a miracle that we have – and that is fearsome.
    But this too is just speculation.

    • I think both are true and are not mutually exclusive. Hashem helps those who helps themselves.

      • bat Sarah

        I’m not sure about that; I don’t recall Jews having been disproportionately successful too often throughout history.

        • http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-chosen-few-a-new-explanation-of-jewish-success/

          “Between 750 and 900, almost all the Jews in Mesopotamia and Persia — nearly 75 percent of the world’s remaining 1.2 million Jews — left agriculture, moved to the cities and towns of the newly established Abbasid Empire, and entered myriad skilled occupations that provided higher earnings than as farmers.”


          “The key message of “The Chosen Few” is that the literacy of the Jewish people, coupled with a set of contract-enforcement institutions developed during the five centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, gave the Jews a comparative advantage in occupations such as crafts, trade, and moneylending — occupations that benefited from literacy, contract-enforcement mechanisms, and networking and provided high earnings.

          Once the Jews were engaged in these occupations, there was no economic pressure to convert, which is consistent with the fact that the Jewish population, which had shrunk so dramatically in earlier times, grew slightly from the 7th to the 12th centuries.

          Moreover, this comparative advantage fostered the voluntary diaspora of the Jews during the early middle ages in search of worldwide opportunities in crafts, trade, commerce, moneylending, banking, finance, and medicine.

          This in turn would explain why the Jews, at this point in history, became so successful in occupations related to credit and financial markets. Already during the 12th and 13th centuries, moneylending was the occupation par excellence of the Jews in England, France, and Germany, and one of the main professions of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, and other locations in western Europe.”


          “With these assets, small wonder that a significant number of Jews specialized in the most profitable occupation that depended on literacy and numeracy: finance. In this sector they worked for many centuries. As they specialized, just as Adam Smith would have predicted, they honed their craft, giving them a competitive advantage, right up to the present.”

          Hope this helps. I can dig deeper if you want more examples.

          • linmalki

            I have read that one reason the medieval Jews became moneylenders is that Biblically, interest was not supposed to be charged to one’s own community. So Gentiles could borrow from Jews, and vice versa, as a money economy grew. And there were more Gentiles than Jews, so it became obvious that it was a good opportunity for Jews.

          • bat Sarah

            Thanks for that. I actually thought you were saying that the Jews were politically powerful, which they were mostly not, throughout history.
            I did read the article though! It’s quite fascinating – though I think some of its premises may be baseless assumptions or unanswered questions (for example, how could Hebrew literacy enable business that requires literacy in other languages). It’s possible, though, that these are answered in the book itself…
            Anyway – thank you

          • Yeah, I hear. Was mostly sharing because it pointed out a lot of moments Jews have done well economically, etc.

          • bat Sarah

            yup thanks

    • jj

      “we’ve only become more powerful” because we capitalized on the nativity of the western world in to them believing that supporting us is like supporting their Lord Jesus, by us covering each other’s rear and not worry about anyone else, and solely be dependent in US as our Source. Now that we are at a climax of our haftiness, we got to watch out out for the real God who loves ALL to not come after us. That may be a better way to state the reality or how A true loving God would look at All of the Israel’s actions since 1947 would say or expect Israelites to be conscious of and be prepared to say.

      • bat Sarah

        Though I can, I refuse to turn this into a political argument, because it is not at all the topic under discussion – here.
        That said, I cannot refrain from asking you to check your facts.

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  • jj

    The impossible things for Israel are:

    1) To love neighbors as themselves as God asks them to.
    2) To consider themselves to be equal to all the rest if the world as one big sinners.
    3) To not be dependent on humans Like US but only ask God in true sense of the world and ask Him or Listen to him as to what he meant by Love and Help your Neighbors as yourself and in this You will Fulfill ALL the Laws.

  • tanyam

    I’m sorry, but this is not a case. As others have said, bombing a whole other territory to smithereens — collective punishment, — is not the only option. When England suffered continual terrorist attacks from Irish separatists, it did not choose to bomb Ireland. While we can tell the story of anti-Semitism in the 20th century, who will tell the story of the people who once called Palestine home — and who had for generations? I fear that Christian imaginations which had finally, finally began to address their anti-Jewishness (yes, that’s a good thing, but let’s call it that, because all of the people involved are semitic) have failed to grasp the history and current conditions of the people who once lived in Palestine, who have had their land confiscated, who have no real political power and have been collectively punished over and over, –and who, in vast numbers — have been living in poverty and in refugee camps in Jordan or confined to small strips of land now for several generations.
    And why has Israel become so powerful? Um. because the US and its allies collectively pour billions into its defense. It served nicely as a an ally in the region, which western nations cared about because of its oil. Israel is not strong because somehow the Jewish people are just that much more plucky than the rest of humanity. Take away the billions in foreign aid and they would be in deep trouble. Those of us who are asking for justice for Palestine are not riding a historical wave of anti-Semitism, we’re reading today’s newspaper. The incredibly powerful army was not Israel’s own making. Why hasn’t Israel been negotiating in good faith during the (relative) times of peace?

    • Let’s start from the top:

      1. Irish separatists are not comparable to Hamas, although they used similar tactics. They weren’t interested in the destruction of everyone in England.

      2. Jews were also natives of the land of Palestine.

      3. Palestinians were offered a state in ’48. Unfortunately their leaders refused, went to war, and the people were displaced. This was an absolute travesty, as we see the consequences it has had on their people.

      4. The above trend has continued to this day. The PLO was offered a state multiple times under incredible terms (most specifically with Ehud Barak). They turned it down. Hamas was given all of Gaza. Instead of building a nation and using the aid they received to build homes and infrastructure, they used almost every cent to build up their military infrastructure.

      5. Israel is not powerful because of the aid from the US. It certainly helps. But Israel has focused on building a strong economy from the beginning. Rather than put all their energies into fighting those around them, they have devoted significant energy to their success. The high tech sector is just one example.

      6. To imply that Israel is somehow to the only one to blame throughout the peace process is just over the top. Read “Son of Hamas” to see how Arafat not only actively destroyed the peace process, but was quietly aiding terrorist attacks throughout the time he was negotiating. Also, I suggest reading this recent article about the peace process that sheds light on just how complicated these things can be: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118751/how-israel-palestine-peace-deal-died

      7. Of course, none of that has anything to do with the fact that Israel is simply unable to negotiate with Hamas since Hamas is devoted to the destruction of both Israel and the Jewish people as whole.

      8. This isn’t about collective punishment. It’s about how war works, which was my point. No one claimed America was doing “collective punishment” when it attacked Afghanistan and 20,000 civilians were killed in the process. It was war. Israel is somehow expected to go into war and suspend the reality of war. Not to mention the way in which Hamas, again, has not spent a cent on protecting its citizens (as Israel has), and, in fact, continually puts them in danger in order to raise their death toll.

      • Further to point 1. The IRA never bombed Britain on the scale seen by Hamas recently. The IRA never set off 71 bombs in a day or 2,500 in three weeks as Hamas has done.
        And the British did indeed use harsh methods against the IRA, including detention without trial, letting hunger strikers die and possibly also assassination (officially denied, but widely believed to have happened). They also essentially put part of the UK under martial law for thirty years, with streets policed by armed soldiers allowed to kill.
        (I also have to add that if all the US cares about is Arab oil, then supporting Israel is a REALLY stupid move (which was why President Truman’s advisors advised against recognizing the new state).)

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