When I was 9 years old my father died, and my world suddenly changed. Overwhelmed by loss and grief, only the support of family and friends helped me move through that dark period.
What was clear was that I had no control over the ultimate questions of life and death. In the years that followed I compensated by studying and working hard. I thought about God, studied Jewish history, theology, and tradition, became a progressive Zionist, and learned to speak Hebrew, all in the interests of finding safety in something greater than myself.
Indeed, the fear of death and the loss of control are powerful human motivators for both good and bad. Many of us, from fear, turn inward in self-protection against the “other.” We narrow our vision, constrict our hearts, minds and politics, and we focus on our self-interests assuming we have no choice because the “other” guy is a threat.
However, building our lives on fear has consequences. Yoda famously said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, [and] hate leads to suffering.” (Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace)
John Steinbeck opined along the same lines saying, “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
Both are right. Though fear is a natural response alerting us to imminent danger, many of us are so plagued by historically embedded fears that we imagine hostile phantoms when none exist.
The challenge is for us to be able to distinguish real and present danger from phantoms, and then be able to evaluate the true measure of the threat and respond appropriately.
Two emails came to me this past week that have drawn me to this consideration of fear. The first was a report circulating on the Internet that all the Jews of Norway had decided en masse (some 1300 souls, according to 2012 population surveys) to leave that country, saying:
“It seems what Hitler failed to achieve the Muslims have accomplished. In a few weeks Norway will be ‘Judenfrei.’ The last 819 Jews are leaving the country due to its rise in anti-Semitism…”
The implication, of course, is that the world wants the Jews dead, or to vanish. The problem with this Internet “report” is that it is a complete fabrication, according to the Norwegian Jewish Community and the ADL.
The second email came from a Israel advocacy organization that began:
“In a hostile and uncertain world, it is reassuring to know that two great democracies—the United States and Israel—continue to find security in their support of one another.”
Yes, of course, the United States and Israel are great democratic societies and strategic partners, but why is it necessary to start from a place of fear to motivate Jews to support Israel financially and otherwise in its legitimate needs?
For years many Jewish organizations have fed on Jewish fear, the Holocaust, Israel’s wars and defense against terrorism, to appeal for money rather than on the blessings of Zionism, our people’s historic and successful building of a modern state based on the prophetic principles of justice and peace as written in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
It is not surprising, of course, how successful these organizations are because there is in the Jewish heart a deep reservoir of fear. Our history is long and hard, even as it is remarkable and enriched. I believe it is time to stop the fear-mongering. (See my blog from April 15, 2013 – “Israel on Her 65th Birthday – Taking Pride in Her Accomplishments”)
Fear-mongering is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive because it blinds our people’s vision, focuses us on the short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy, divides Jewish community, alienates many of us and our young people, separates us from our allies and true friends, provokes inappropriate speech and action, and satisfies only the most extreme self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.
I take seriously the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”
In the coming weeks and months due to the important efforts of the Obama Administration to bring Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations to settle their conflict once and for all, Israelis, the Jewish people and the Palestinians, along with moderate Arab states, will be tested perhaps as never before. Will we continue to build fortresses against each other, or will we build palaces of peace side by side?
I know that either choice carries risk. The greater risk, however, is to do nothing because the status quo is unsustainable, and the longer it continues Israel’s democracy and Jewish character will be compromised. As long as both Israel’s and Palestine’s security needs are assured, the risks of making peace, I believe, will be worth it.