By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“There is an uninterrupted tradition of Jewish history throughout the millennia that is one of justice and righteousness.” So writes Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer in El Pais in an article on the “Righteous of Israel.” There is always something distasteful when people who are not Jewish write about how they found the “good Jews”. Other groups are subjected to this, the outsiders who found the “good” moderate Arabs, the liberals, the tendency among westerners to find the right sort of people among the natives. The subalterns to inform them, the admirable noble savages.
But when writing about Jews, Europeans and western writers tend to have a strange relationship. They write about the “good” Jews who are critical intellectuals, as Llosa says, those Jews who emerge in crises and with “indifference to popularity”, do something good, and presumably speak for justice and the kind of morality that Llosa identifies with. Llosa’s list of the righteous Jews, has its precedents. Someone created an entire website to come up with a list of Jews who are “good”. Presumably they don’t have a list of “good British” or “good Russians” or “righteous Muslims”, only Jews. John Mearsheimer, an academic, also became obsessed with finding “righteous Jews” after he co-authored a book about the Israel Lobby in 2006. “To give you a better sense of what I mean when I use the term righteous Jews, let me give you some names of people and organizations that I would put in this category. The list would include Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Tony Karon, Naomi Klein, MJ Rosenberg, Sara Roy, and Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss fame, just to name a few,” he said. He even wrote a longer essay claiming that Jews had a choice, either they could be on the “righteous” list or they were the “new Afrikaners.”
No other group of people gets put on these strange lists. “Righteous Americans or the new Nazis.” No. Only Jewish people.
Llosa’s article comes complete with a stereotypical cartoon of a “Jew”, which means an ultra-Orthodox religious Jewish man with a top-hat, like the kinds of cartoons one might have seen in the early part of the 20th century.
Ostensibly the article is about Israel and how in Israel there are many “righteous” Jews who stand up for Palestinian rights. He goes through a list of a few whose-who in the world of activism in Israel.
Reading the “list” I realized that it appears to consist solely of privileged, Ashkenazi Jews of European descent. What Llosa, and others who parrot this view, are saying is basically only if you are white, privileged and have the connections to work as a volunteer in Palestine, or to get a job at an NGO, are you considered one of the “good”. Those are very high standards to put the bar for being “righteous.” Those that are poor, who are single-parents, who make 5,000 NIS a month and pay 3,500 NIS for rent and pay 1,000 NIS for day care and have debt, and live without basic necessities, and eat at soup kitchens, they cannot be righteous. Because they are poor.
This creates a reinforcing self-fulfilling prophecy. The privileged and wealthy in Israel are born often into families who already have connections in the “good” Israel. Dad is a judge, mom works at a university, uncle is a journalist. A career as a “social justice” activist is there for the taking. It’s also self-fulfilling in terms of the values provided in education to the privileged. To the privileged is given the better education, reading Noam Chomsky, Ahad Ha’am, and other “righteous” voices. One reads the right voices, one speaks the right language, one joins the right club, one goes to the right army unit, not the “thugs” in the Border Police, but into a nice unit, with common values of righteousness. Then the righteous move to a communal social-justice righteous community, passing the acceptance committee that only allows those with these pre-existing “values” in. Shared values, shared privileged background, shared European background, and then eventually shared work at an NGO that fight for the rights of Palestinians.
The rest of society are excluded from this life, as much as they are excluded from the segregated, gated, community where these people come from. They can’t attend the segregated high school. They get worse grades on standardized tests and go to the army units their friends go to, and choose the careers available to them.
So from the day one is born, one is born into “righteous” or non-“righteous” backgrounds based on one’s class, or ethnicity. To fight for social justice as a volunteer is a form of white privilege. The poor, who are the ones being “saved” by the social justice workers, can never join the ranks of the “saviors”, the white saviors.
There is something strange about prizing and giving credit to a “white savior” more than the other people. The savior is doubly privileged then, not only with the born privilege, but then given credit for saving others which came about solely due to the pre-existing privilege. Why should people get patted on the back for “saving” when it is not only their job and profession, but one that was handed to them in such a way that the job’s very existence is self-congratulatory. You’d think maybe the Palestinians suffering deserve more credit than those “saving” them? But like the Jewish poor in Israel, they are not the “righteous.” Righteous is a code word for “one of us”, “one of my class” and “my ethnicity.”
The nature of poverty is that one cannot be “righteous”, cannot “seek justice” or be “courageous”, will never get profiled as someone doing good and helping, never be given a prize. But the poor are a righteous as the privileged. They don’t abuse Palestinians and steal their rights. They work and live a normal life. For some reason a kibbutz built on top of a destroyed Palestinian village whose residents are refugees in Gaza, is “social justice” and has “coexistence workshops”, but the poor who live nearby and work in construction, they are not “social justice”.
Why didn’t Llosa find any “righteous” Jews among minority, non-European, Israeli communities? The graphic accompanying the article is of a religious Jew, his mouth and eyes held shut, as if religious Jews cannot be righteous? No Mizrahim or Ethiopian Jews allowed in the “righteous Israelis” category. Why? NGOs don’t recruit Jews from poor communities, they tend to recruit people from among their cohort, and those who have the time to be full-time volunteers, the wealthy and privileged, therefore can go to the West Bank to do “justice” for Palestinians. The poor cannot.
Llosa tells us he found the “righteous”, but it seems he never looked beyond the tiny, privileged, bubble, he never met the workers, the people who clean toilets in Israel, the people who make no money as cashiers, the people who are single mothers, the people who work in concrete, the people who fix sinks, and change the oil of cars; but they are the righteous. A few privileged, rich, white people in the West Bank, who jet back and forth and drive in nice cars, and live in villas, and enjoy a good life do not deserve accolades for doing the bare minimum to do justice. They did the minimum. They have less justice than the poor and the victims, the marginalized, those without voices, those for whom daily life is a struggle, for which a bank account with a positive balance at the end of the month would be a major privilege.
If you stand with the victims and the marginalized, and you expect to get credit for doing so, you are not “righteous”, you are just seeking recognition on the backs of others. That’s not righteous. It’s probably immoral.