In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud recounts a conversation with his father Jakob, when he was 10- or 12-years-old. Jakob said to his son: "While I was a young man, I was walking one Saturday on a street in the village where you were born; I was handsomely dressed and wore a new fur cap. Along comes a Christian, who knocks my cap into the mud with one blow and shouts: "Jew, get off the sidewalk." "And what did you do?" "I went into the street and picked up the cap," was the calm answer." This response upset Sigmund Freud; he wrote that "(it) did not seem heroic on the part of the big strong man, who was leading me, a little fellow, by the hand." Freud was embarrassed that his father was a coward; he was embarrassed that his father did so little to stand up to an antisemite.
Hannah Tessler | Shira Tessler
The allegation of Jewish cowardice has a long history, one which begins with the generation of the desert. The spies return from a reconnaissance mission to the promised land with a negative report; they had reviewed the strength of the Canaanites, and concluded that “we cannot attack those people, for they are stronger than we are.” That night, the entire nation cried, grumbled, and plotted a return to Egypt.
Without question, the spies lacked self-confidence. A revealing verse offers a window into their fears and worries; in it, the spies declare that in comparison with the Canaanites, "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” The Midrash notes that the spies engage in mind-reading, and instantly assume that the Canaanites see them as weak and small as well; this negative assumption speaks volumes about the spies’ inferiority complex.
From the moment they left Egypt, the Jews were plagued with a lack of self-confidence. Every difficult moment brings fear and worry; so much so, that the Torah explains that God didn’t take the Jews on a direct path to Israel, because of a concern that the Jews would flee back to Egypt if they faced war immediately. Many of the commentaries to the Torah explain this lack of self-confidence as being a product of a slave mentality. Ibn Ezra offers the following observation regarding the panic the Jews had at the banks of the Red Sea, when being pursued by the Egyptian army:
One may wonder how such a large camp of six hundred thousand men would be afraid of those pursuing after them; and why did they not stand up and fight for their lives and for their children? The answer is that the Egyptians were the Israelites' masters. And the generation that left Egypt was trained from its youth to tolerate the yoke of Egypt and had a lowly soul… (and they were) weak and not trained in warfare. And God… brought it about that all the males of the people that went out of Egypt would die, as there was no strength in them to fight against the Canaanites; (the Jews would first enter the land) after a new generation…that did not see exile and had a confident spirit, arose...
Ibn Ezra says the Jews had a “slave mentality”; they were still held emotionally captive by the Egyptians, and unable to build an independent life. This theory is embraced by the Rambam and multiple other commentaries. The first generation of Jews in the desert are the original Jewish cowards, people who would rather remain slaves than fight for their own future. And Jews in exile often saw a reflection of themselves in the generation of the desert.
Ultimately, the image of the cowardly Jew becomes a staple of antisemitic propaganda; but sadly, Jews adopted this self-image as well. Some of the nastiest and harshest depictions of Jewish cowardice come from inside the Jewish community. Consider the following bitter Jewish joke about what is considered to be “celebration for the Jews.”
One year, in an East European town, a child was found dead on the night of Pesach. All the Jews knew well the rage, rioting, and killing that would soon befall them. They gathered in the synagogue and engaged in fervent prayer until one Jew rushed into the synagogue and joyously proclaimed: “Der mes is ah Yid – the dead child is Jewish!” Good news … we had nothing to worry about. There will be no pogrom! Der mes is ah Yid – a simcha bei Yidden - a celebration for the Jews.
This joke is so vicious, I thought for a long time before deciding to include it in this article. But it authentically represents a profound Jewish fury at their own community, a fury that they were too eager to accept discrimination and persecution. But by the late 19th century, many young Jews saw themselves as the opposites of their ancestors. Much like the second generation of Jews in the desert, they felt that they needed to make a complete break with the past. In a speech memorializing Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky called on young Jews to restart Jewish history. (Here too, the rhetoric is harsh; Jabotinsky used the antisemitic slur zhid in the text; it has been replaced with Yid.) He calls on the community to transform itself from the slavish old Jew of the past:
Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent. The Yid is despised by all and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to charm all. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command. The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: "I am a Hebrew!"
This idea was adopted by multiple Zionist thinkers, and called shlilat hagolah, “the negation of exile.” The dream was for a generation of new Jews to replace the fearful, cowardly old Jew. The Jews of the early 20th century could only leave the desert of exile if the new Jew unlearned the bad habits of their forebears.
After the Holocaust, some extended this rhetoric to attack the victims of the Holocaust; they were seen as weak and fearful, people who didn’t fight back, and went like sheep to the slaughter. Raul Hilberg, one of the first historians to research the Holocaust, reinforced the stereotype of Jewish cowardice, and he ignored all forms of Jewish resistance. But other historians recognized that this picture was distorted, and further research brought many instances of active resistance to light. But a large part of this reevaluation came from a new definition of resistance. To resist did not require the taking up of arms, which in most cases was both impossible and futile. Instead, there was a growing recognition of the importance of spiritual resistance; and for those under the crushing oppression of the Nazis, the determination to raise one’s spirit and to pursue life was nothing short of heroic. Hilberg mocked this theory that heroism included the "soup ladlers and all others in the ghettos who staved off starvation and despair." But today, there is broad recognition of the significance of spiritual resistance. In the hell of the concentration camps, the will to live on required profound strength and determination.
A similar reevaluation is needed for the Jews in the desert. The Torah highlights their flaws and their failures; but perhaps the evidence of a few negative episodes over 40 years is insufficient to render a final verdict on an entire generation. The generation of the desert did follow God for 40 years in the desert; and in the Book of Jeremiah, their devotion is highlighted, where Yirmiyahu says: “I remember the devotion of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer argues against the prevailing view, and says that the generation of the desert were pious keepers of the Covenant. Yes, at times some of them grumbled, at times they were afraid. But they followed Moses for 40 years in the desert, and they raised a generation of children that would ultimately enter the land. Their case deserves a second look.
This reevaluation also explains a mystery: How is it that after 1900 years of exile, the cowardly Jew became the pioneer and soldier? How did this new Jew arise, as if out of nowhere? Perhaps the answer is that the new Jew and the galut jew are not all that different. Yes, they look different; the new Jew is the very portrait of a knight in shining armor, unafraid to do battle, while the galut Jew is a hunched man in rags, being heaped with abuse as he walks in the street. But one needs to look past the externals; what is more critical is the inner values. Both the new Jew and the galut Jew were guided by the goal of am Yisrael chai, ensuring that the Jewish people live on. Sometimes that goal can be pursued with pride; but sometimes survival on its own is good enough, even if it requires enduring humiliation. And when he finally got the chance, the galut Jew grabbed the opportunity to return home.
This reevaluation of the galut Jew is now widely accepted; in recent years, the hearts of the two generations have been brought closer to each other. On Yom Hashoah, many Israelis take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Jews who survived during the Holocaust. They are not seen as weaklings; instead, they are respected as heroes. And each year on Yom Hashoah, the IDF, the Israeli army, shares the stories of Holocaust survivors together with their grandchildren who are serving in the Israeli army. One of the stories featured Holocaust survivor Hanna Tessler, 96, and her granddaughter Shira, a parachuting instructor in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade. The caption included what Hanna said to Shira that day:
As a child, I hated soldiers in uniform. They scared me very much. I never thought there would be a time that I would love soldiers. As you hold my hand, while wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, paratrooper's wings pinned on your shirt, and a pair of paratrooper’s boots on your feet, I am overwhelmed with emotion that I can't keep inside. You're a paratrooper and I float in the air, pinching myself to make sure it's not a dream. My heart is filled with pride and such incredible love. I feel like a soldier myself – I fought for my life, I fought for my sanity, I fought to be a person again, and I really fought and dreamed to have a big family. So today, I stand up tall and salute you.
This photo is of two generations side by side, holding each other in mutual admiration and love. The Jewish people wouldn’t be here without the determination of previous generations, and we wouldn’t have returned to Israel without the courage of a younger generation. And thanks to the sacrifices of Jews past and present, we can continue to say am Yisrael chai.