Dr. Amy Neustein
Dr. Amy NeusteinCourtesy

The ICJ’s decision last week on curtailing Israel’s right to pursue its counter-offensive strike in Rafah – specifying the necessity to meet certain conditions aimed at lessening civilian hardship – produced a maelstrom of media reports throughout the world wholly condemning Israel’s military operation in Rafah altogether, without considering these mitigating factors that informed the court’s evidently nuanced opinion. Not surprisingly, the anti-Israel media gave its own spin to the decision far afield from what the justices of the World Court actually said.

The shrill of protest against Israel’s strike on Rafah was only compounded by the subsequent fire set off in the Palestinian Arab refugee camp last weekend when it was at first thought that a piece of shrapnel accidentally hit a fuel tank causing a major explosion, as reported by major news networks. Though two Hamas commanders were reported to have been successfully taken down in the IDF’s attack on the nearby Hamas compound, including a major figure in the transfer of funds for terror activities and in the direction of terrorist attacks in the 'West Bank', a media vortex decrying Israel as brutal and inhumane occurred just as rapidly as the fire in the Palestinian refugee camp. (Ed. note: 1. Turns out the fire was almost 2 km from the Israeli attack and was caused by Hamas ammo stored there. 2. One of the Hamas commanders killed is the terrorist who killed MK Limor Sonn Har-Shemesh's husband, a murderer who was freed in the Shalit deal.)

In just over seven months since the October 7 massacre of 1,200 innocents in southern Israel and the taking of 240 hostages, universities have descended into turmoil, streets have been rife with vociferous protests, and airports, bridges, and tunnels have been temporarily shut down as these “howling hunters of hysteria” took control of our major arteries of transportation.

How is Jewish identity, safety, and self-esteem affected by this rising tide of wrath that we see today directed at Jews? And how do we measure the emotional toll exacted on Jewish communities throughout the world?

According to early Twentieth Century sociologist (and founding member of the American Sociological Association) Charles Horton Cooley, individuals develop their concept of “self” by observing how they are perceived by others. This concept, coined by Cooley as “Looking Glass Self,” inspired studies of many sectors of the population; consequently, a body of literature was built showing how this phenomenon predictably affected an individual’s self-worth. In essence, the looking-glass self describes the process wherein individuals base their sense of self on how they believe others view them.

Using social interaction as a “mirror” of oneself, people use the judgements they receive from others to measure their own self-worth. At the same time, an individual cannot be defined as tabula rasa either– a blank slate upon which impressions can be easily emblazoned. We naturally form our own identities and value systems that we use to eschew or denounce criticisms and assaults on our moral character. Nevertheless, because social interaction is inescapably a fluid, evolving, and recurring process, perceptions of self-worth are neither stable nor fixed, as much as we like to think otherwise.

Not surprisingly, those who study human social behavior have shown that we continually negotiate, navigate, and interpret our roles as members of society in our ongoing social encounters with other members, both within our own social group and outside. These processes are naturally “taken for granted” by social interactants as they go about their daily activities of engaging with other members. However, the sudden reemergence of virulent antisemtism in the aftermath of October 7 has transformed this rather routine process of negotiating one’s role and identity in the social world into a painful and emotionally charged undertaking. This is because Jews have quickly encountered serious challenges – heretofore rarely experienced in their lifetime – to their self-esteem, integrity, and moral character.

In a recent New York Times essay, Tablet magazine writer James Kirchick pointed to the sudden blackballing of Jewish authors perceived as an anathema in the eyes of their colleagues. Subject to the baseless charge of “complicity in genocide,” Kirchick showed how Jewish authors are now at risk of being turned away by literary agents and publishing houses, as they are anathematized by their professional associations: Opinion | A Chill Has Fallen Over Jews in Publishing - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Suddenly ambushed by a torrent of antisemitism, Jews across all professions, religious affiliations, socio-economic groups, and social strata sought to gather among colleagues, family, and friends to share stories and sagas, while referencing historic events that help to give meaning and context to the inexplicable prejudice they are experiencing today. Participating in these informal gatherings, I made note of two repetitive “defensive” themes that I began to hear across different demographic groups, behavior that evinces the strenuous effort of group members to navigate their self-worth in the midst of emotional turmoil.

First, I hear protestations about Israel’s right to exist, namely as a safe haven for Jews tormented and tortured throughout history and as a biblical right in accordance with God’s decree of the Land of Israel as belonging to the Jews. Second, I hear a recitation of the accomplishments made by Jews in Israel in science and technology which has greatly benefited and bettered the world. In all candor,

I am deeply, deeply troubled when I hear so much “defensive” and “justificatory” dialog from my fellow Jews.

Why should one have to justify one’s nationality, identity, group affiliation, or existence? I ask myself: “Why are we so defensive?” But then I take a step back to examine the larger picture. When a group is faced with a pernicious threat to its self-worth, it is natural to become defensive. Fundamentally, we navigate our self-worth by shedding, resisting, and challenging the negative beliefs and judgements of other social interactants, lest we adopt their views and descend into a culvert of self-loathing.

Unfortunately, such persistent and heightened navigation of one’s self-worth constitutes a sociological defense mechanism, prevalently seen in the Jewish community following the catastrophic tragedy of October 7. Truly, this is a very sad reflection of the zeitgeist. But why must we succumb to defensive navigation of our self-worth amidst the rising tide of antisemitism?

Amy Neustein, Ph.D. (sociology) is the author/editor of 16 academic books. She is working on a second edition to From Madness to Mutiny to be published by Oxford University Press. Her prior works have been published in prestigious book series, including the Jonathan Sarna Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life (Brandeis University Press), and reviewed in Tablet magazine, New York Law Journal, Journal of Contemporary Sociology, and other journals. Her opinion columns have appeared in JNS.org, Aish.com, Israel National News, The Jerusalem Post, City Journal (Manhattan Institute), The Jewish Press, Washington Jewish Week, Newsweek, Jewish News of Northern California, Yated Ne’eman, and other venues. She lives in Fort Lee, NJ