Jill Stein from the green party made it clear, she supports BDS as a form of “tough love” for Israel. She is not alone. A growing number of American Jews, see their main relationship with Israel as a loving, yet punishing parent. They call it “tough love”. They claim they pursue and punish Israel because of their Judaism– not despite it. Seeing one’s punishing abilities as redemptive and constructive, is a dangerous one, that has difficult precedents.
For me personally, punitive progressivism, strikes a powerful family memory. It was a cold morning in the late 1920s in the town of Velizh, a small town in the newly formed Soviet Union. My great grandfather, rabbi Eliezer Poupko–the rabbi of the town, who had insisted on serving his community despite the official ban on religion—was walking down the street. Suddenly, he heard a woman crying and shrieking in despair. Several of his own Jewish congregants, were dragging a widow from the community with a gun in their hands. “Where are you taking her?” my grandfather demanded to know. “Rabbi, we are taking her to be executed”, the response came. When my grandfather asked what her crime is and why she is going to be executed, the response was:” we found in this woman’s home 8 kilos of salt and the permitted ration under communist law is only 4 kilos of salt.”
My grandfather was appalled. “This woman is a widow with has several children at home-you cannot kill her”, he said, thinking his own congregants would his command seriously. “rabbi” they responded, ” we have a bullet for you too.” They dragged her on until a gunshot was heard in the distance and the widow’s fate was sealed.
These were not people who got up in the morning and decided to be evil. These were not people who had gotten up in the morning and decided to make this world a worse place. They had a deep conviction that they are making this world a better place (“tikkun olam“, if you so wish). And yet, they were committing the greatest moral atrocities one can imagine. They saw their role as “punitive progressives” and felt they were clearing the way for a more fair, decent, and honest world; one that is free of greed and inequality. They had clearly meant no wrong as they were committing the one of the greatest wrongs in human history.
How should the Jewish section of the communist have known that what they are criminals and not the moral champions they thought they are? Where did they go wrong?
Their mistake was, among many other mistakes, that pursuing and trying to punish other people, claiming that you are doing it of their own good, is a morally depraved and lethally dangerous one. It is OK to be for something. It is also OK to be against something, but a moral doctrine that includes on penalizing others-for their own good- is lethally dangerous, morally depraved, and illegitimate.
Sociologists have pointed out, that the reason communists and other radical progressive revolutions have been so violent, is because of their self-image as the messengers of progress. Once a person has such a compelling belief that all that is needed for world to emerge, is that others drop their resistance, targeting others is no longer seen as an act of violence, it is an act of promoting progress.
History remembers. The Jewish people remember. The Jewish people have a shared heritage of thousands of years. Together, we have survived the most astonishing persecution, the cruelest treatments, and the most severe discrimination. Much of our survival has been possible because of those who stood and supported one another. History remembers those who made kind and brave moral decisions. It also remembers those who didn’t.
Morality counts. As the challenges we face continue to grow, let’s take the right side of history. Let’s choose do the right thing and stand with one another-not against each other. If there is something good we think we can do for each other, let it be genuinely good-not a punishingly good-not patronizing, penalizing, or condescending good. Rarely–if ever–is tough love or a punishing favor, really good. This way we can tell our children with pride, we did good that was objectively good- we stood on the right side of history.
Published in The Jewish Journal, August 4, 2016