The Palestinian attempt to join the International Criminal Court to pursue “war crimes” charges against Israel represents the sort of vile and groundless smear employed by Jew-haters throughout history. The Israelis didn’t begin last July’s “Operation Protective Edge” in order to inflict “genocide” on innocent civilians but to stop the rocket fire on their own civilians. Before the Hamas terrorists began their concentrated attacks on Israeli schools, homes and hospitals, relative quiet had prevailed; that quiet returned as soon as the rocket assaults ceased, and the Israel Defense Forces destroyed most of the terror tunnels designed to conduct jihadist killers into Israeli communities.
The very notion that the Jewish state launched an unprovoked war out of some atavistic bloodlust against helpless Palestinians reflects one of the oldest and most toxic anti-Semitic themes, and lessons from combating that earlier charge can assist friends of Israel in responding to the current accusations.
For nearly a thousand years, the enemies of the Jewish people aggressively pedaled the ancient “blood libel”: the notion that religious Jews slaughtered guiltless Christian or Muslim children and then, like vampires, drained their blood to bake into their unleavened bread for Passover. The first mass slaughter based upon these accusations occurred in England in the 1100’s, and within two hundred years this preposterous charge spread throughout Europe, bringing bloody pogroms, legal expulsions, rapes, pillage and, not infrequently, genocide. As recently as 1913, Mendel Beilis faced a Czarist jury on utterly baseless accusations that he had murdered a Russian lad for ritual use of his blood. In our own time, Islamist extremists have revived the ancient accusations and even created a popular mini-series for Arabic TV dramatizing the notion that Jewish observance requires butchery of gentile innocents.
From the beginning, this vile superstition ignored incontrovertible facts about Jewish law. Not only does the Torah forbid murder unequivocally, but Jewish dietary rules strictly prohibit consumption of even animal blood. Kosher laws insist that after humane slaughter of any beast, blood must be drained entirely before the meat is cooked. The notion of Jews using any sort of blood to bake ritual bread- let alone human blood – counts as repugnant and absurd.
How could communal leaders ever see such slander as a source of strength and uplift for Jewish identity? During a worldwide flurry of blood libel charges in 1892, the Zionist thinker Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (better known by his Hebrew pen name, Ahad Ha’Am, or “One of the People”) penned an unforgettable essay entitled “Some Consolation.” In it, he discovered an invaluable lesson in the persistent defamation.
“This accusation is the solitary case in which the general acceptance of an idea about ourselves does not make us doubt whether all the world can be wrong, and we right, because it is based on an absolute lie,” he wrote. “Every Jew who has been brought up among Jews knows as an indisputable fact that throughout the length and breadth of Jewry there is not a single individual who drinks human blood for religious purposes. We ought, therefore, always to remember that in this instance the general belief, which is brought to our notice ever and anon by the revival of the blood-accusation, is absolutely wrong; because this will make it easier for us to get rid of the tendency to bow to the authority of ‘everybody’ in other matters…’But’ – you ask – ‘is it possible that everybody can be wrong, and the Jews right?’ Yes, it is possible: the blood-accusation proves it possible.”
This observation from 123 years ago deserves recollection in light of the recent onslaught of vicious anti-Israel propaganda around the world. On college campuses in particular, Jewish students and other friends of Israel must confront “Israel Apartheid Week” demonstrations and BDS (“Boycott, Divest and Sanction”) activism singling out Israel as the worst human rights abuser on the planet. These contemporary charges of Jewish malevolence stop just short of the ancient blood libel. The media provide extensive coverage to the ubiquitous lies: that Israel has perpetrated genocide against Palestinians (despite the fact that Palestinian population has grown exponentially in the 66 years since the founding of the Jewish state); that Israel relentlessly abuses its Arab residents (regardless of the reality that the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who identify as Arab count as the only Muslims in the Middle East with untrammeled religious liberty). The attempt to demonize Israel in the International Criminal Court represents only the latest step in an ongoing process to delegitimize the very existence of a Jewish state.
Some American Jews prefer to ignore abusive distortions about the world’s only Jewish-majority nation while others may eagerly join the accusatory chorus in hopes of burnishing their credentials as purportedly enlightened leftists. Most, however, know better: aside from the 30% of American Jews who have actually traveled to Israel even once, a probable majority can identify family members or friends who are Israeli. They therefore recognize the cruel distortions in common caricatures of youthful IDF soldiers as sadistic brutes bent on wanton cruelty and pointless killing. Israeli society may be stressful, hyper-caffeinated, edgy, earthy and rude, but it is also tender, generous and incurably obsessed with moral questions. The coruscating hostility to the reborn Zion will leave most Jews un-persuaded, while encouraging some of them to deeper explorations of the truth in Israel’s present and past.
Inevitably, this means more contact with religious tradition, especially in light of the surging spiritual revival powerfully animating Israel itself. The epic story of Jewish exile, endurance and, ultimately, return may strike skeptics as nothing more than grand coincidence but others will note the close correspondence to both warnings and promises in Biblical text. Though most American Jews below the age of 30 have been raised in secular homes, and despite the fact that the modern state of Israel was led in its early years by secular socialists, a deep engagement with the Zionist project involves an unavoidable spiritual component. Could the unparalleled patterns in Jewish history truly count as wholly random and accidental?
Which brings us back to Ahad Ha’Am’s uncomfortable question: “Is it possible that everybody can be wrong, and the Jews right?” For American Jews in upscale neighborhoods where secular liberalism represents the reigning orthodoxy, that question could be paraphrased: “Is it possible that everybody can be wrong, and religious believers right?”
The fatuity and malice of the widely-supported anti-Israel extremists suggest an answer of “Yes, it is possible.” And in fastening on that reply, Jews who encounter their own authentic traditions for the first time can also find joy and encouragement in common cause with Christian believers who love Israel and risk derision while pursuing their own journeys of rediscovery. Beleaguered troops consigned to the same foxhole, facing wave after wave of relentless attack, will forge their own durable bonds, whatever their cultural or even theological differences.
In this sense, the agitators who smear the Jewish state and cheer the most appalling acts of Arab terror, may end up making their own unintentional contributions to Jewish reconnection and development of broader faith communities in hostile media and campus environments. As Achad Ha’am sagely observed more than a century ago: “It is fitting that we should always look for the useful lesson hidden in the evil that comes upon us, and find thus at least some consolation.
This piece draws on ideas developed in an essay that will appear in the Spring, 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review