Too Tough Jews

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Henny Youngman, Place, and date of performance unknown, (c. 1970), screen grab.

Shame and guilt

Israel’s war against Hamas has been so cruel as to invite the question: “Have you no shame?” But given that Israel is a Jewish state, the inquiry might be rephrased, “Have you no guilt?” Isn’t guilt supposed to be deeply ingrained in Jewish culture and psychology — the Jewish mother’s secret weapon? If so, it failed to constrain leaders of the Jewish state from dropping 2,000-pound bombs on apartment buildings, blowing up hospitals and killing almost 20,000 people so far – a third of them children.

I’m reminded of the Summer of 1977. After the serial killer, David Berkowitz, (aka Son of Sam), was finally arrested, Simon Weber, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, described the general feeling of relief, but added: “The Jewish population, however, received news of the arrest of the suspected murderer with feelings of shame due to the arrestee being a Jewish young man.” That’s what my family felt: “A Jewish serial killer? With a gun, no less? A real shonda.” Because of his psychopathology, Berkowitz was incapable of shame; because he had no moral compass, he felt no guilt either. He killed six and wounded seven others. Benjamin Netanyahu is like the Son of Sam, but with vastly more victims.

Shame can be distinguished from guilt. The former is imposed on someone who breaks a cultural taboo, while the latter is generated from within, the consequence of violating a personal conviction. According to some anthropologists and sociologists, shame is more likely to predominate in the Mideast, Africa and Asia, and guilt in Europe and North America. The locus classicus of this perspective is Ruth Benedict’s once popular, book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946). According to her, Japan was a shame culture, and the U.S. a guilt culture. The book was written during World War II for the U.S. Office of War Information, and so was clearly intended to uphold American values of individualism (guilt) against supposed Japanese conformism (shame). Benedict never traveled to Japan, didn’t know the language, and mostly interviewed captured Japanese soldiers who were trained to follow orders, so her conclusions should be doubted. (Many post-war Japanese embraced Benedict’s thesis because it suggested they had a unique and coherent national character of which they could be proud.) The grotesque irony of Benedict’s book is that mere months before its publication, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, undermining its thesis: U.S. political leaders admitted no guilt for their wholesale killing of civilians in wartime.

So, if cultures can’t easily be situated on the shame/guilt gradient, where does that leave the matter of Jewish guilt? The most plausible answer is that Jews are no more prone to feelings of guilt than anybody else, and that the shamelessness – or guiltlessness — of the current regime in Israel is typical of far-right, ultra-nationalist or falangist parties. Interwar fascist states including Italy, German and Spain (1922-45), the Greek military junta (1967-‘74), Chile under Pinochet (1973-’90), Guatemala under Rios Montt (1982-83), Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) and India under Modi (2014-present) all claimed legitimacy based upon myths of national or ethnic unity and infallibility, and all freely deployed violence to advance their visions. None ever expressed feeling of guilt. Israel has grasped its chief ally’s mantle of “exceptionalism,” the idea that the nation was born immaculately, and its destiny charted by God. In fact, both the U.S. and Israel were the product of catastrophe: the genocide of Native Americans in the one case (plus the traffic in slaves); and the killing and displacement of Palestinians (the Nakba) in the other.

The sooner we are rid of distracting stereotypes of guilt and shame the better. They only serve to blur insight, hinder dialogue, and make resolution of the conflict in Palestine more difficult. On October 8, a day after Hamas attacked and killed about a thousand Israeli children, teens and other civilians, a pro-Israel demonstrator in New York condemned pro-Palestinian activists: “In their place, I would be very ashamed to show my face here today….I would be ashamed and stay home. I would also say ‘I’m sorry.’” After denying Israeli responsibility for the bombing of al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said, “Shame on the media who swallow the lies of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — broadcasting a 21st-century blood libel around the globe. Shame on the vile terrorists in Gaza who willfully spill the blood of the innocent.” Following a resolution by the U.N. Security Council calling for a ceasefire in Palestine, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, called the American veto “a mark of shame that will follow the United States for many years.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a packed hall in Istanbul: “Israel has carried out atrocities and massacres that will shame the whole of humanity.” And last week, Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro called U. Penn President Liz Magill’s failure to clearly reject (hypothetical) calls for genocide against Jews, “shameful and unacceptable.”

The grilling of the presidents

I feel considerable sympathy for the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania for the public chastisement they received following their congressional testimony last week. They were in a tough spot. Already convicted in the court of public opinion for not adequately condemning the attacks of October 7, and failing to constrain pro-Palestinian demonstrators, they were called to testify before hostile members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The Republicans wanted to make the ostensibly liberal university presidents look as if they turned a blind eye to antisemitism. A few days before, the House voted in support of a resolution “condemning the drastic rise of antisemitism around the world.” Among the many philo-semites voting in favor were Paul Gosar, the Arizona Republican who attends white nationalist conferences, and last April promoted a website that denied the Holocaust and praised Hitler as a “man of valor.” Another “aye” vote was cast by Marjorie Taylor Greene who regularly spouts antisemitic conspiracy theories and has compared Covid protection measures to the Holocaust.

The presidents were in a tight spot, but they also had a great opportunity to explain to the nation why anti-Zionism is not the same as antisemitism, and why pro-Palestinian students on campuses should have the same right to express their views as Zionist (or pro-Israel) students. They also could have discussed the legal difference between free speech at public versus private colleges and universities. (In the former, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution governs; in the latter, it doesn’t.) And they could have described the history and function of speech codes on private campuses, like their own.

But they didn’t do those things, or at least not well enough to distract from their failure to answer the simple question posed by fourth-ranking House Republican Rep. Elaine Stefanik of New York: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [Harvard’s, Penn’s, MIT’s] Code of Conduct?” Their answers were legalistic at best, with weasels about “context,” “targeted individuals,” and “severe and pervasive.” Admittedly, the three were tricked. Stefanik, who herself has endorsed white nationalist “replacement theory,” first softened them up by challenging them to label as antisemitic and genocidal calls for “intifada.” Since the word means “uprising,” the presidents sensibly demurred while still condemning its use. Near the end of the five-hour-long flogging, however, Stefanik posed the genocide question and demanded a yes or no answer. That’s when the three presidents screwed up.

Stefanik is a liar and a hypocrite but still deserves her due. She’s right that speech codes on private colleges have been used to ban even the vaguest expressions of harassment or intolerance, so why not the genocide of Jews? At my own (former) campus, Northwestern University, the Student Handbook proscribes “any act of conduct, speech, or expression to which a bias motive is evident as a contributing factor.” Faculty speech prohibitions are similarly vague, and all sorts of professors have been caught in their dragnet, including – most notoriously – the feminist writer Laura Kipnis, and me when, as Faculty Senate President, I spoke up to defend her. (The charges against Kipnis and me were eventually dropped.) Harvard’s policy is less sweeping than Northwestern’s, but still expansive:

“Discriminatory harassment is unwelcome and offensive conduct that is based on an individual or group’s protected status. Discriminatory harassment may be considered to violate this policy when it is so severe or pervasive, and objectively offensive, that it creates a work, educational, or living environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive and denies the individual an equal opportunity to participate in the benefits of the workplace or the institution’s programs and activities.”

It seems fair, or at least plausible, to conclude that calling for the genocide of Jews is “objectively offensive” and “intimidating.” But when presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard, Elizabeth Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbuth of MIT answered Stefanik’s hypothetical question they retreated to the legalese they’d been tutored on by the law firm of WilmerHale. But why? If the question had been “Does calling for the genocide of [Native Americans or Blacks] violate your Code of Conduct” would the answer have been the same? I’d never want to agree with Rep. Stefanik, but I have my doubts. Antisemitism exists, even in the Ivy League, and the three presidents were caught in a waffle. Worst of all however, was their failure to correct the premise of the Republican House member’s question. There have been no calls on any campus anywhere for “the genocide of Jews”. That idea was mooted only by Stefanik herself.

Me and Woody Allen

In the mid 1980s, I used to frequent a bar in Pasadena, California where Johnny Otis was a regular performer. He sang his old hits, like “Hand Jive,” played boogie woogie piano, and told stories. I usually sat close to the piano, at a long table with other customers. It was great. But this isn’t an anecdote about the late, great, Rhythm and Blues pioneer.

One night, in between sets, a tall, dark-haired man in his late 20s leaned across the table and said to my (then) wife, Mary: “Hey, is that Woody Allen you’re sitting next to?” Mary, confused, said “Huh? Who?” He replied: “You heard me, Woody Allen!” I quickly realized the man was drunk and suggesting that I either looked or sounded Jewish. In fact, I bear no resemblance to Woody Allen (I swear!), but I have a detectable Queens accent (“newspapah”) and an ample nose. For an antisemite, that’s enough. I started to stand up to challenge the drunk to repeat his comments to me, but Mary – who understood my triggers — pulled me back to my seat and told me to ignore the bigger man. As my grandmother would have said, “Gott sei dank.

Later that night, and for weeks after, however, I was upset that I didn’t fight back. I grew up in a family that admired tough Jews, not self-victimizing ones, and I felt I’d let down the team. My father, Bert, who served in Europe in World War II, frequently said he’d have “taken plenty of Nazis with me,” if he’d been a Jew in Germany in the 1930s. My mother was more likely to shake her head and tear-up at the thought of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but she’d been a communist in her youth, and was no pushover. And my grandpa Phil was a tough old SOB in the years I knew him, shaking off illness after debilitating illness, and working into his 80s as a messenger on Wall Street. (The messages couldn’t have been urgent.) His version of dementia, age 85, was accusing his wife, 80-year-old Bess, of having an affair with the 30 y.o. Puerto Rican building superintendent. Phil shuffled down to confront the younger man, but my dad was alerted and intercepted him.

Though I loved Woody Allen, I didn’t want to be anything like him. In films like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Annie Hall, Woody’s character is a nebbish, though clever and heroic in his way, like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, upon whom he’s partly modeled. In Love and Death for example, Allen’s Boris Grushenko is challenged to a duel by Anton Ivanovich, played by Harold Gould. But Boris is a coward by inclination and a conscientious objector by necessity, so he fires in the air when he has the chance to kill Anton. (Boris is wounded by the falling bullet.) Anton is so moved by his adversary’s gesture, that he refuses the chance to shoot again, and in fact renounces violence. Boris thereby wins the right to marry his beloved cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton).

Today, age 67, I understand as I didn’t in Pasadena at age 30, the practical and political value of victimhood. Victims are morally unimpeachable; indeed, they are considered virtuous by dint of their suffering, more so if they foreswear vengeance, (or fight back stealthily), and make light of their predicament. That last capacity, of course, was the pride of American Jewish comics, including Woody Allen, which is why his fall from grace was so great. Though officially exonerated of the charge of abusing his daughter Dylan, the accusation destroyed forever the image of Allen as the schlimazel. “When I was kidnapped, my parents snapped into action,” Allen joked in one of his early routines, “they rented out my room.” At times, Allen sounded like the biblical Job: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering,” Allen wrote, “and it’s all over much too soon.”

For at least 50 years after its creation, Israel maintained its image of virtuous victimhood – not quite Woody Allen, but plucky, resourceful, and smart. For American Jews especially, the Nakba, military occupation, and nuclear arsenal were overlooked. Even after the Six-Day War in 1967, it was possible to joke about Israeli assassinations without disturbing that image of innocence. In 1969, the Jewish comedian, Henny Youngman, told the following joke:

A pair of Israelis hate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, so much, they decide to kill him. So, they find the restaurant where he eats lunch every day and stake it out. They bring with them guns, bazookas, and hand grenades – and they wait. On day one, no Nassar; day two, no Nassar; day three, still no Nassar. Same thing on the fourth day, so finally one Israeli looks at the other and says “Geez, I hope nothing happened to him.”

That joke would be impossible today because Israel has now become a symbol of state sanctioned violence and indifference to the suffering of others. It’s a country of bullies – of Jews who are too tough. The image of Jews in the diaspora has also changed, making antisemitic speech and acts more likely. Where’s Woody Allen when we need him?

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. His next book with the artist Sue Coe The Young Person’s Illustrated Guide to American Fascism‘will be published late this summer by OR Books. He can be reached at: