The Quakers: Another Round

"Stag Hunt" Paul de Vos (b. ca. 1596, Hulst, d. 1678, Antwerpen)

“Stag Hunt” Paul de Vos (b. ca. 1596, Hulst, d. 1678, Antwerpen)

The Quakers: Another Round

Last week we met again with the small group of Quakers that’s been holding anti-Israel placards in the town square once a week all year.

This is the third such meeting. I’m thinking, if you want to pick on somebody, pick on the Jews. You’ll live longer. The worst that’ll happen by way of pushback is that they’ll ask to meet with you and have a “dialogue.” Pick on somebody else and you might end up decapitated.

The choreography of these meetings has been turned over to a sweet-natured Quaker woman credentialed in “conflict resolution.” The danger of this for me is that a conflict about justice and injustice will be translated into group therapy. All that will count as discussable will be private feelings, not the unfairness of one-sided public defamations.

Had they been invited to tea as our guests, our adversaries would be much too genteel to carry their placards into our living rooms. But in a larger sense, the shared space of the town is also our “living” room, and they have taken it over as if it were theirs alone, not ours as well. This is our space, they are saying in effect.

We own it. You don’t. Move over.

A few months after the placard-holders did their takeover of the public space, a Jewish family in the area discovered “Jews Move” painted on their garage door. Quaker leaders were quick to denounce the bigoted vandalism and to voice their sympathy.

My thought? The scrawler – not quite so genteel as they – perhaps understood the practical meaning of their message better than they did.

A few of us met at the Rabbi’s office several hours before the Third Dialogue was to take place.   It seemed we were trying to help our adversaries by acquainting them with the side of the story they are missing. But meanwhile they continue to march around with their placards, which hurt us. You can’t effectively help someone at the same time that he’s hurting you. Because he’ll think you’re a fool to try, and he doesn’t see how a fool can help him!

The Rabbi reminded me that I’ve lobbied for this meeting, perhaps longer than anyone. This is what negotiation is like. You might not get what you want. But you for sure can’t get it if you won’t come to the table.

This time the focal point of the dialogue was one of the vigil-ers, who was slated to tell us why she “vigiled” and to take questions. Under the constraints of “conflict resolution,” we had to confine our questions to the realm of feeling. So I asked,

“Do you FEEL that the nation of Israel has any right — legal, moral, historical, religious, spiritual or Biblical – to exist?”

Only if no other people are displaced.”

“Do you FEEL that the same requirement should be applied to India and Pakistan or Germany and Poland, where similar upheavals displaced millions of people? Do you FEEL that those countries have no right to exist?”

So it seemed one could make telling points, as long as they were couched in the language of feeling. “It’s like painting with a limited palette,” I remarked to a co-religionist afterward. “You can still delineate the basic shapes, even if you use only three colors.”

Our Quaker respondent for the evening seemed an almost tearfully well-meaning person, who’s placed herself in the forefront of one “current conflict” after another, always taking positions sanctioned by the fashionable opinion of the day. To my eyes, she was woefully uninformed and unfamiliar with the practice of following out the implications of a view.

I would like her to stop hurting me. I believe it would help her if she stopped. When, at an earlier dialogue meeting, she protested to me that she and her fellow vigil-ers “are not demons,” her use of that odd locution signaled to me that, on some level, she knew she was involved in one of the practices of the world’s longest hatred – which was demonic, for a fact.

You can understand the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, by discerning the form Jew-hatred takes in each era. It’s like a key to the era. For instance:

For the Christian era ~ the Jews (all of them, now and always) kill Christ.

For the Enlightenment with its universal laws of reason 

~ the Jews are tribal, backward, not capable of universality.

For the Romantic era, with its folk genius, rooted in land and language

~ the Jews are rootless cosmopolitans. 

For the Darwinian era, with its natural selection and race breeding ~

the Jews are the toxic race that must be liquidated.

For the post-Nazi era with

its European Union, its U.N.

and its multiplicity of equally valid cultures ~

Israel’s resurrected people, land and language  

is the “racist” nation 

against which genocide may be threatened with impunity.

Can anything be clearer? To imagine that one can play with this longest, most shape-changing of human hatreds and keep it within one’s control is short-sighted. It will control those who play with it. It will involve them in its own trajectory, for which the apt word is “demonic.”

So I am trying to help those who are trying to hurt me. I hope they won’t think me too much of a fool for trying and that they will take my help.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to The Quakers: Another Round

  1. wernercohn says:

    Thanks, Abigail, for this thoughtful comment regarding the Quaker “Friends.” We were in Israel when it appeared, so I couldn’t comment earlier. All the best, Werner

    • Abigail says:

      I’m so delighted to hear from you, Werner. The forces — social and moral — that are at work in any such conflict are a particular study of yours — a courageous study from which I’ve benefitted repeatedly.

  2. Abigail says:

    A reader who was sent the column privately had this Comment, which she kindly gave Abbie permission to quote:

    “Brilliant beyond brilliant, and knit with such subtle irony that I fear your soft-hearted (also soft-headed) interlocutors, confronted with the brutally besieged stag (and likely being dog lovers, the kind that inter their beloved companions in pet cemeteries), would feel acutely for the stag in the painting, while at the same time wondering whatever this sixteenth-century image might have to do with the subject under discussion. They, with their peaceful and civilized “vigil,” certainly aren’t in the business of tearing living flesh to pieces! Isn’t it Quakers in particular who portray themselves as sensitive to cruelty? Look, no raucous arguments! Why, then, does their “conflict resolution” (and not only theirs) have a funny way of taking sides with the cruel?

    … The Yiddish phrase, m’ret tsu der vant, talking to the wall, doesn’t apply. At least the wall has some rigor. What you’re describing is more like talking to the fog.”

    A Reader

    • Abigail says:

      Dear Reader,

      Your words, coming from a writer for whom I have the highest esteem, are more than generous. They illuminate the scene.

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