The only thing Jewish people have to fear is fear itself

It is the most un-Jewish of feelings.

And yet, more than any other feeling, it dictates what goes on in the Jewish world today.


There is, in Jewish tradition, only one place for fear. Fear of God. And even that is seen as but a pale second to what should ideally be. Love of God.

Of course, some of our fear is understandable. You cannot have happen to you what has happened to us in so many ways in so many places over such a long period, without reacting fearfully almost as a reflex.

The problem occurs, however, when that reflex, instead of being useful and protective, becomes inappropriate and destructive.

That is what is happening to us today, in a world and under circumstances in which we have nothing to fear and much reason to embrace life, grab new opportunities, delight in new possibilities.

And yet fear is what we fall back on because it seems the safe response, the proven way to go.

We see it in so many of the fund-raising appeals from so many Jewish organizations who send us scary mail, invoke scary images, always draw the worst conclusions, always exaggerate threats because it gets us to open our checkbooks.

Which it does. But an unintended result is that it also gets us to close our hearts and minds. And gets more and more of us to run away.

We see it, too, in the way we continually overdo it in the way we remember and sanctify the Holocaust and its victims. As someone whose grandparents and assorted other relatives were murdered by the Nazis, I know how important it is that we never forget, that we honor the memories of those who fell.

But there is a limit. For at some point, we go from honoring the past to obsessing about it, from making sure the Holocaust has the place it deserves in our history to letting it overwhelm our present and distort our future.

And yet, we continue to build more Holocaust museums, put up more monuments, focus more attention on tying up every loose string from that time.

I was both saddened and yet not at all surprised when I recently read a story about efforts to build a Holocaust memorial in Albuquerque, N.M. Must every city in this country have one, must every Jewish community, no matter how small, devote so much in the way of energy and resources to yet another Holocaust monument?

There are enough. There is the wonderful Yad Vashem in Israel. There is the breathtaking Holocaust Museum in Washington. They tell the story completely and well. They honor the memories. They remind us of what was. And they are enough.

The best way to truly honor the six million is to make Jewish life more vibrant than ever. Not to mourn endlessly, to fear needlessly.

And yet, that is what we do more than anything. Fear.

We fear, for starters, each other. Fear, more than anything else, is at the root of the Jewish disunity that is tearing us apart.

I had that brought home to me once again recently when I was invited to appear on a CBS News program. The topic was religious pluralism in Israel and the guests were to be an Orthodox rabbi, a Reform rabbi and me, a journalist.

But when the Orthodox rabbi heard about the Reform rabbi, he said he wouldn't appear on the show if the Reform rabbi was there. And so, it was bye-bye, Reform rabbi.

During the show, I, being the gadfly journalist I am, brought up what had happened. The Orthodox rabbi was not happy I mentioned it and said the reason he took that stand was out of fear that if people at home saw him on a show with a Reform rabbi, they might think they are equal. He was afraid, he said, people would get confused, think that he was legitimizing the Reform rabbi.

Notice the role of fear in all that. This Orthodox rabbi, who talks in very firm language and is unbending about everything, makes like he comes from a position of strength. In fact, he's scared to death.

This Orthodox rabbi knows that about 90 percent of American Jews identify with the Reform and Conservative movements. He doesn't know what to do with that, and so instead of working together, which takes courage and self-assurance, he hides, takes the cowardly way out, lets fear overtake him.

It's always easier to say no, to be inflexible, to not face those different from you, those who frighten you.

The same dynamic is at work with the peace process. Listen to many of those who oppose it and on the surface you hear tough words, see macho posturing. Look under the surface and what you find is fear.

Fear of a new world and a new reality. Fear to take a prudent, careful chance. Fear to stop seeing the Palestinians as enemies or worse. Fear of letting go of hate as what defines who we are.

Making peace with the Palestinians changes everything. And for the good. It relieves Israel of the burden of sending generation after generation of its young men into the markets of Nablus to walk patrols at midnight, surrounded by thousands of people who have no hope, no future and so who do nothing but think of killing Jews.

It opens Israel to the world, to its neighbors and beyond, brings it commerce and contact, lets it play the role God wants it to play. It allows Israel to be creative, to build the country without being overwhelmed by the burden of trying to keep down another people, which rots our soul.

Still, despite all the good it has brought and will bring, there are those who fear it, for it requires them to change their way of thinking, and that scares them more than anything, for it calls on them to do things that take courage. And so, led by Prime Minister Bibi, they talk tough and act cowardly, do things they know will destroy the process while pretending it's not their fault.

And then, like the classic bully who acts tough but is really afraid of his own shadow, when the other side responds, they point fingers and say, See, we told you so. We told you we can't trust them."

What most fascinates me is how their fear leads to the very things they are most afraid of.

Opponents of the peace process say it will weaken Israel, that it is all part of a clever plot by Arafat to destroy Israel step by step.

Fearing that, they act accordingly. I have but one question then: If, in fact, this peace process is a plot by the Palestinians to destroy us in a new way, why is Hamas working so hard to destroy the process. If anything, you'd think they'd be doing everything to make it unfold, figuring once it did, Israel would be gone.

The answer, my friends, is that Hamas and their ilk, too, are afraid of peace. They want to destroy the process because they know if it succeeds everything changes, that their way will die, that Israelis and Palestinians living in harmony is a threat to them.

It is good they are afraid. For they are afraid of all the benefits it will bring, the good it will do, the new atmosphere it will create.

We must not help them in their fear by letting our own fear, by letting our defense mechanisms of the past, torpedo our future.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was no Chassid but about fear he couldn't have been more right. Fear is nothing but a lack of faith in God. And, just as important, a lack of faith in ourselves.

It is truly the only thing we have to fear.