Op-Ed: Defining One's Self - Crucial to Conflict Resolution
Rabbi Berel WeinRabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired...
Individuals, societies and nations are always pursuing the elusive goal of self-definition. God’s question to Adam “Where are you?” can easily be interpreted as also being the question of “Who are you?” The search for our true inner self is the single most complicated and psychologically difficult pursuit of the human soul. Many people unfortunately define themselves only in terms of others. They feel that only in differentiating themselves from others or in slavishly imitating the mores and behavior of others can they somehow come to a definition of themselves.
The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (Halperin) pointed out the fallacy of such thinking in his pithy statement: “If I am I and you are you, then I am I and you are you. However if I am you and you are me then I am not I and you are not you.”
The problems of egocentricity and exaggerated self-esteem are serious personality defects. But low self-esteem and feelings of persecution and paranoia, mental depression and poor self-worth are even more serious personality problems. The history of the Jewish people has been characterized by the ability of a small, persecuted and seemingly powerless people to remain proud, steadfast and resilient in the truth of its faith and traditions.
Individual Jews throughout the ages have fallen off of the wagon and become “others” but the Jewish people as a whole have never wavered in their understanding of their special self-definition. And that has been the true source of Jewish survival over the long and mostly bitter exile of millennia.
The main obstacle as I view it in the decades long struggle with our Arab neighbors is that they define themselves almost exclusively in terms of the “other” – namely the Jews and the State of Israel. There is no real drive within them to really create a state of their own. They only want to destroy and inherit our state.
Their educational system is based almost exclusively on incitement and hatred towards Jews. There is no drive to produce a productive culture of their own, an economy not dependent on UN and European Union largesse and handouts. Destruction of the “other” is not a basis for positive self-identity or nation building. No resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly can in any way contribute to any form of self-definition.
As the words themselves indicate, self-definition and self-worth must arise from one’s own self. Many revolutions, while apparently successful initially, descend into chaos, anarchy, violence and end up as tyrannies simply because there is no basis for further development of self-worth after the “other” has somehow been eliminated.
That was the reason for the failure of any Arab state to arise next to Israel over the past many decades. And that continues to be the reason that prospects for any sort of resolution of the Israeli-Arab dispute in the near future remain very unlikely. It is not only that we don’t have a partner to deal with. It is that our proposed partner does not know what its goals are except for the destruction of the State of Israel. It is well nigh impossible to conduct meaningful negotiations under such circumstances.
To be a Jew requires a clear sense of self-identity. That self-identity can only be achieved through a basic knowledge of Judaism and tradition. Knowing the story of our people can contribute to this necessary sense of self-identity and personal understanding that guarantees the Jewish future.
Unfortunately many in the Jewish world define themselves currently in terms of vague, high-sounding humanistic values, which do not relate to the practicalities of the world that we live in – certainly not to the position of the Jewish people and state in that world. Such Jews again define themselves in terms of the “other” and the result is that they eventually become that “other” and are lost to the Jewish fold.
More sadly, those that become the “other” have a terrible tendency to criticize and incite hatred against the very people that they themselves sprang from. Such behavior eventually destroys not only the object of its hatred but the haters themselves as well. Jewish history is littered with the debris of those who lost their self-definition and forgot… ‘I am I and you are you’ – the arrangement that guarantees mental and social health for both ‘I and you.’