No Need for Shame

07.10.12 8:00 PM ET

On Friday, Lara Friedman asked where the American Jewish shame is regarding Israel, contrasting it with the collective “visceral sense of shame… over the behavior of Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Jack Abramoff” and Bernie Madoff. As an American Jew, I want to state loudly and clearly that I feel no shame for the actions of Madoff, Weiner, Spitzer, or Abramoff. None. No shame at all. Shame and pride are simply not things all Jews should feel about the reprehensible and praiseworthy acts of all other Jews.

Friedman proves that most American Jews feel shame for other Jews’ actions by the fact that there are 2.8 million hits for the Google search “is George Zimmerman Jewish.” She omits that two of the top ten hits are articles about why it doesn’t matter whether he is Jewish, and that another is for the website “,” the header of which is “White Pride Worldwide.”

More importantly, Friedman ignores the possibility that Jewish interest in Zimmerman’s religion might stem from a fear of being painted with the same brush as him, and a concern that anti-Semitism might increase if he were Jewish. This is not shame but fear of the reactions of non-Jews; which, given Jewish history, is not absurd. And this history is not dead: Elite Daily, an online magazine describing itself as “the premier online destination for aspiring men and women of Generation-Y,” mentions Madoff in an article about dating Jewish boys. Alongside pros such as “they are rich,” Elite Daily includes cons like “they are cheap,” explaining: “the Jewish man can be greedy for more money as well. Just look at Bernie Madoff.” And no, this article is not a joke.

To feel shame for the actions of other Jews is to internalize this kind of anti-Semitism. Others may connect between Madoff and other Jews. That is anti-Semitism. If we feel shame for Madoff’s or Spitzer’s actions then we have drawn that connection ourselves, and come to believe this generalization that is inherent to all forms of racism.

Certainly, there are some generalizations of blame (and shame) that make sense. People who worked for or with Madoff should perhaps ask themselves whether they turned a blind eye to signs that something was not right. Politicians might feel shame for their profession because of Edwards, Spitzer, Weiner, Craig—and voters might feel shame that they elected these officials. It makes sense to feel shame only if one carries part of the blame. Saying that I should feel ashamed that Anthony Weiner sent someone a picture of his boxers is as absurd as saying that all men should be ashamed since he is also a man.  

Likewise, there is no reason for American Jews, who did not vote for Israel’s government or serve in Israel’s army, to be ashamed of Israel’s actions. Nor should they be proud of its record on gay rights and the freedom its press has to criticize the government. They did not do anything to bring these things about. Rejoicing or lamenting Israel’s actions makes sense for those who care about Israel, but shame and pride are the wrong emotions, and a gateway to anti-Semitic generalizations. American Jews who affect Israel via donations or political activism have the right—or obligation—to feel ashamed or proud; but simply being a Jew is not enough of a connection to warrant these reactions.

There is a two thousand year old Jewish phrase that Friedman might relate to: “kol Yisrael arevim ze la-ze”—all Jews are responsible for one another. It literally means that all Jews are responsible for each other’s debts—that is, must pay for each other’s sins. But the prevailing rabbinic interpretation is that this only holds true only when one could have protested before the sinner and been heeded (BT Sanhedrin 27b). Members of a group have a responsibility to keep one another far from crime; but once a crime is committed, they are only responsible for it if they could have prevented it from taking place. Merely being a Jew is not enough to confer blame for Israel’s actions, and thus not enough to cause shame.

So I do not feel shame for the soldier’s actions. I have not earned that right, nor do I deserve it.