By DONNIEL HARTMAN
As Jews, we are taught the power of words. The world is created through words and can be destroyed through hateful and harmful speech. The Jewish tradition teaches that the expression "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me" is a lie. We are taught to be careful of our words and the damage they can cause. To embarrass somebody with words is akin to murder, and conversely tzedaka is most complete when it is accompanied not merely by financial assistance but with gentle and kind words.
Jewish history and experience in the Diaspora have also taught us the power of words. Anti-Semitism almost always starts as an act of speech. Pogrom after pogrom was fueled by callous, evil, and at times merely foolish talk.
As a powerless people we learned that words have dire consequences and that idle threats are rarely idle. Just as we often put legal fences around our behavior to prevent us from even approaching a prohibited act, so too do we demand that fences of caution be placed around the use of hateful speech out of the fear that it will catalyze destructive action against us. Jewish history has taught us that such caution is necessary.
As a powerless people, our preferred mode was that nobody should talk about us at all. Even praise could generate bad consequences, for the line between admiration and jealousy is profoundly thin. We even characterize too much attention as anti-Semitism itself.
The fundamental question is how our return to statehood and power changes the above equation. For many, in particular for some not living in Israel, it generates profound angst and psychological distress. To have power and to wield power is to take up space and to attract attention. Sovereignty, which entails the control of a particular place, places a constant spotlight on Jews and our actions. Power and sovereignty have placed the Jewish people on the world stage together with the public discourse that accompanies it. For many, this is too dangerous and disconcerting, giving birth to the phenomenon of "embarrassment" from Israel and by Israel. Frequent, obsessive following of all speech about Israel, concern for public relations, and preference for leaders who appear well in the media, are all symptoms of a similar anxiety.
As a sovereign, powerful nation we not only receive attention that we would rather avoid, but we are also often the object of hate speech by our enemies. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provides a regular dose which is challenging unto itself. The recent vile words of Hamas leader and Palestinian Authority presidential wannabe, Khaled Mashaal, regarding the killing of Zionists and the eradication of Israel, constitute the latest installment. Many in Israel were more bothered by the international community’s lack of response to these words than the words themselves. In our world of associations, a world shaped by 20thcentury events, this silence echoed prior silence, a silence that symbolized the isolation and the loneliness of the Jew, a silence that ultimately allowed the destruction of so many of our people.
As a sovereign nation, within our own borders, we also encounter speech from some leaders of national minorities which express hostility toward Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and toward some of its policies. These are particularly challenging when the words align the spokesperson with the policies and interests of our enemies. In these instances, the lesson of the past regarding the consequences of silence motivates a call to action to silence such voices. In our home, the claim is, we do not have to tolerate the dangerous speech that in the past we were powerless to control.
One of the serious questions that we now face is the extent to which our past ought to define the present, and the extent to which we continue to understand our present, and the extent to which we continue to understand our present reality and respond to hateful words through the prism of the Holocaust. There is no doubt that its uniquely horrific nature and the extent of its catastrophe naturally cast a wide shadow which will shape and cloud Jewish perception for the foreseeable future. There is a difference, however, between "shape and cloud" and "define." Words do harm you. However, they harm the powerless far more than the powerful, and we today are powerful.
As the People of the Book, we developed a unique ability not merely to analyze the word but also to live within the word, and at times even to see the word as the world. While the modern State of Israel does not eradicate our past, it does expand our world of consciousness. We are still the People of the Book – but not only the book. We are now a people in the world, a people who understand the difference between words and reality, between praying for our safety and building an army, between speaking about social justice and implementing policies which embody it, and even between the hurling of words and the firing of missiles, and between verbally aligning oneself with the policies of our enemies and actively engaging in terrorist or subversive acts.
As the People of the Book, we will always respect the power of words, to build and to destroy. As a people who emerged out of Auschwitz, we will always fear hateful speech and call attention to the inadequacy of silence as a response and the dangers it can bring forth. However, as a sovereign people, our front line is no longer the word; it is a border, defended by a coalition of a strong army, sound policy, and steadfast friends. As a sovereign people in a democratic state, we are strong enough to allow even the speech that we find harmful. Words alone do not penetrate a border, nor do they undermine our sovereignty.
Words poison the environment and shape consciousness, and as such ought never to be ignored. They are no longer, however, an existential crisis. For a powerless people dependent on the goodwill of others they are. From the perspective of the Holocaust they are the fertile ground which justifies the killing of Jews. We have come a long way. We are commanded to remember the past and to learn from it, not to relive it. A powerful people whose destiny is so much in their own hands has the luxury of both acting against words and of putting them in a different context and controlling our response. To paraphrase David Ben-Gurion, as a powerful people it is important to remember that what "we do" should matter more than what "they say."
As players on the world stage, people are always going to say things about us – words that in a just world would never be uttered. The challenge and opportunity of Israel is that we now have the ability to respond. One of the gifts of power is that it enables one to not allow words to define reality. One of the challenges of power is to not permit the words of others to define our consciousness. The world will become too lonely a place, and our neighborhood too uninhabitable if as a sovereign people we act with the consciousness of the powerless. We need to judge people’s words but hold them accountable for their actions. We need to always remember the lessons of the past but at the same time live within the present and accept its new challenges and opportunities.