First Things. (October 14, 2011.)
As an angry mob has amassed in New York’s financial district, and countless other cities, promising to “Occupy Wall Street [Or Your Location Here],” I have felt a discomfort that grows more insistent by the day. Not because I am one of the nation’s wealthiest one percent (I am quite far from it indeed), nor because I would oppose higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations (I would likely favor them, depending on the particular proposal). No, my discomfort stems from a source much more primal than any theoretical policy analysis: I am uncomfortable with the angry mob because I am a Jew.
My people has some experience, you see, with angry mobs—more specifically, we have a great deal of experience with angry mobs in times of economic distress who are fed up with suffering while greedy moneylenders prey like leeches on society, oppressing the majority while enjoying the unjust protection of the aristocratic powers that be. My people have heard that song before. It was sung countless times during the long history of Europe, by countless ordinary citizens who boldly resisted the orders of princes and bishops and took matters into their own hands. We still remember that the ghetto walls were originally built to protect us from the genuine will of the majority. We remember that the voice of the people need not be a voice of reason.
Yes, it is true: there are Jews Occupying Wall Street —not only in the banks, but at the barricades. The High Holidays brought hundreds of such Jews together for an Occupy Yom Kippur service, where the righteous radicals preached atonement—not so much speaking about themselves, of course, but rather about those sinful titans of industry across the street. (It’s very easy to get into the spirit of Yom Kippur when you’re talking about someone else’s need for repentance.) Plans are underway for Occupying Sukkot. Surely, it might be claimed, this is proof that my Jewishly motivated wariness is entirely inappropriate. How could the Occupiers be echoing antisemites of old, with so many Jews in their midst?
On one level, this is a fair point. I have no reason to believe that the Occupy Wall Street movement is antisemitic, and I make no such claim. What I do insist, however, is that Jewish history ought to teach us the dangers of finding an easy scapegoat for a problem, rousing the anger of the people, and taking to the streets for the purpose of confrontation. These dangers persist even in the absence of antisemitism itself, and the fact that Jews have joined in with the marching and shouting does not erase them.
The problem is not with large numbers, nor with passion; the problem is with anger.
Maimonides, who generally favored moderation in all things, made an exception for anger. One “should teach himself not to become angry even when it is fitting to be angry,” he wrote:
The early Sages said: Anyone who becomes angry is like one who worships idols. They also said: Whenever one becomes angry, if he is a wise man, his wisdom leaves him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him . . . This is the way of the righteous: They accept humiliation, but do not humiliate others; they listen when they are shamed, but they do not answer; they do this with love and are joyous in their sufferings.
I do not believe the individuals at Occupy Wall Street are fools, but I fear that in anger their wisdom may leave them. I do not believe they have nothing of value to say, but I fear that in anger their prophecy may leave them. I am perfectly willing to assume that the protestors are, by and large, good people, but I take James Madison’s dictum seriously: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Of course, it would be too simple to declare that every angry mob is necessarily wrong. A thorough look at history would certainly uncover numerous events about which it can be said with absolute sincerity: “That angry mob was right.” Picture an angry mob of workers marching out of a factory in a spontaneous strike, provoked into righteous anger by one more cruel deprivation. Picture an angry mob of slaves rising up in violent revolt against their captors, driven to rage by one more murder of one more of the enslaved who would not submit to one more subhuman indignity. Picture the angry mob that converged on Tahrir Square this very spring, venting decades of fury pent up under Hosni Mubarak’s tyranny.
In the broader history of angry mobs, however, cases like these must be counted as exceptions, not as the rule. Show me a large group of angry people marching and chanting things in rhythm, and chances are fairly good that I can show you a group far removed from all nuance, far removed from all compassion, and with whom it will be nearly impossible to reason.
Seth Chalmer is Assistant Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. The opinions expressed here are his own.
David A.M. Wilensky, Inspirational Yom Kippur at Occupy Wall St.
Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot Chapter 2.
Publius (a.k.a. James Madison), Federalist No. 55