Question number one: What do Terrill Owens, France and the Palestinians have in common? Answer: They provide an opportunity for schadenfreude. Question number two: What is schadenfreude? It is spelled s-c-h-a-d-e-n-f-r-e-u-d-e. It's a German word that us Brooklyn guys don't throw around lightly. You rarely hear this word being used but recently it was featured in two editorial pieces across the country, one in the Wall Street Journal and the other in the Los Angeles Jewish Observer.
The German word "schadenfreude" takes seven English words to define it. It means: "malicious satisfaction in the misfortune of others." In recent weeks it has become popular amongst Jews because of an article written by Si Frumkin, a journalist and Jewish activist in Los Angeles. He wrote about the sense of schadenfreude he know feels when looking at the situation in Gaza. At least 6 people emailed me a copy of the article! Internet surfers have surfed it, bloggers have blogged it
and us non-geeks have just read it.
Frumkin starts off by citing a famous historian, Peter Gaye, a Jew in Germany during the Nazi era, who experienced schadenfreude when he watched the Germans lose gold medals in 1936. Watching the German lose, Gaye wrote, "can be one of the great joys of life."
Frumkin goes on to tell about the schadenfreude he felt when Israel was disengaging from Gaza and there was a disagreement over what should be done with the "hot houses" which the Israeli farmers had used to grow flowers and vegetables. Should they be destroyed, or should they be left for the Palestinians to cultivate? And along came a group of wealthy American Jews and paid the Israeli farmers $14 million to leave the hot houses for the Palestinians. You remember what happened next? The Israelis left
the Palestinians come in and burnt the synagogues down and then trashed and vandalized many of the hot houses which the American Jews had paid for. Frumkin writes: "And so I have schadenfreude. The Palestinians will not export flowers to Holland or food to France. The greenhouses will not be rebuilt. The Palestinian economy, such as it is, will continue to be mired in corruption, hatred and violence. They will suffer schadenfreude but still they'll never admit that it was their own fault. And I have schadenfreude toward the naοve rich Jews who thought the Arab reaction to their gift would be based on logic and not on inbred hatred. You silly people! Didn't you hear that this is the Middle East, where scorpions sting even if this means their own destruction? You lost $14 million and you know, I am glad you did."
That's a classic example of schadenfreude. And who can better understand that feeling than we Baltimoreans citizens of "Charm City," in watching what has happened to Terrill Owens. Do you remember two years ago when the Baltimore Ravens were a professional football team? They felt that they were one wide receiver away from getting to the Super Bowl, and so they signed Terrill Owens, acknowledged as one of the best football players in the league. And what happened? Owens turned them down! Owens said he didn't want to play for Baltimore. Owens was known to be a bit of a non-conformist and one who spoke his mind. And he told everyone loud and clear: he would not play for the Ravens. And he never did. We had to trade him to Philadelphia, where he went on last year to help lead them to the Super Bowl, bad foot and all! This year, time and again, he has put his foot in his mouth, alienating all of his teammates and management. And now the Eagles want to dump him. Tell the truth
as a Raven fan, didn't Owens' troubles give you a little feeling of schadenfreude?
Now all this pales in comparison to the sense of schadenfreude many of us feel these days when hearing what is taking place in France. The rioting in France provides a double-barreled sense of schadenfreude; one for us as Americans and one for us as Jews. On Sept. 5th the Wall Street Journal had an editorial entitled, "The World's schadenfreude." It described the gloating of many countries around the world in seeing how America was struggling to deal with the havoc brought about by Hurricane Katrina. And no country seemed to be enjoying America's nightmare more than France.
For years now for decades France has thumbed its nose and maintained a holier-than-thou approach both to the American people and to the Jewish state. No country on the European continent was more antagonistic toward America than France. No country on the European continent has been more antagonistic toward Israel than France. And it certainly shouldn't have been this way. Just go to Normandy as I did and see the American cemetery there, and you'll understand France's debt to America.
Indeed, France had been a friend to Israel, fought side by side with Israel in 1956 but then sold Israel down the drain for barrels of Arab oil. In recent years, whatever Israel did to combat the Palestinian Intifada, France criticized. And as for America, France in recent years has prided itself in poking America in the eye whenever it could. Hurricane Katrina provided a marvelous opportunity.
France's widely read LeMonde Newspaper wrote: "Despite its military and economic potential, which it is quick to deploy abroad, the hyper-power is incapable of dealing with an internal catastrophe of this dimension. Is it reasonable to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fight in Iraq when America is incapable of protecting its own citizens?" Oh, there was plenty of schadenfreude in France just two months ago when it came to America. But now, who is "schadenfreuding?"
Now, when France finds itself having to deal with its own Intifada, with its own underclass, with those who would seek to undermine and destroy it.
Yes, there is enough going on in this world for schadenfreude to take hold. But it shouldn't. Getting satisfaction from the troubles of others is no way to live. It gives you a warped perspective on life. After all, think about it
should we as Americans feel good about France's troubles with its Muslim youth? Should we as Jews feel good about the Palestinians finding it difficult if not impossible to establish a civilized society? There may be some instant gratification in all that, but in the long run we will all be the losers.
If France can't overcome its Islamic problems then such problems have the potential of sweeping across Europe with its rising Muslim population. Will that make us feel good? The Palestinians, in their inability to put down their terrorists and establish law and order is a danger not just to them but for Israel as well. These people are right next door! Would we feel good if Hamas which calls for Israel's destruction takes control of the Palestinians? No! schadenfreude is like smoking and drinking
it may feel good while you're experiencing it, but the long term effects can be dangerous to your health.
Perhaps that's why Jewish law forbids it. In The Ethics of the Fathers we are taught that Shmuel Ha-katan taught: "Binfol oyevacha al tismach when your enemy falls do not rejoice." In other words: Thou shalt not schadenfreude.
This lesson regarding schadenfreude is an important one for us as Americans to keep in mind on this Thanksgiving weekend because, unfortunately, in recent months I have seen a spirit of schadenfreude taking hold within our country in regard to our country. The war in Iraq has taken a toll that no one could have anticipated. Every day the body count rises. Every day we hear more things that are cause for concern, from questionable intelligence to torture of prisoners. Whether one supported the war as I did, or opposed it
whether one is pro-Bush or anti-Bush
should make no difference. Our country faces a difficult road ahead.
Can anyone feel good about that? Some do! Look at the headlines on some articles across the Internet: "The Neocons are Losing." Another writer writes, "The United States has lost the war in Iraq and that's a good thing," and goes on to write, "As a U.S. citizen I welcome the U.S. defeat for a simple reason: it isn't the defeat of the United States, but of that empire. And it is essential the American empire be defeated and dismantled."
Let me ask you: If, in fact, America is an empire
has it been such a terrible empire? The same Ethics of the Fathers which teaches us "when your enemy falls do not rejoice," also teaches, "al t'hi rosho bifnei atzmecha do not be wicked in your own sight."
America is not the evil empire!
In the past, America was criticized for supporting dictators. Now we are criticized for advocating democracy. But the reality is the people in the Middle East are closer to tasting democracy than ever before because of America! America is depicted as being the "bad guy" in Iraq, but have you noticed the behavior of those we are seeking to defeat? They are people who blow up cafes, behead civil servants, murder women and children and send suicide bombers into mosques.
Certainly America has made mistakes and has its problems, but don't make us out to be worse than we are just so that you can have a sense of schadenfreude. It's one thing to be against a war your country is fighting, another to hope that your country, G-d forbid, is defeated!
The fact of the matter is, no country debates its flaws more publicly than ours does. No country spends more blood and money to uphold the freedom of complete strangers than America. No country rushes to the aid of international victims of disasters more than America does. No country has welcomed more immigrants fleeing oppression than America has done. And, on this Thanksgiving weekend, let us as Jews remember
no country has been more accepting, more supportive, of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than the United States of America.
Around the world, people still read and accept the canard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which describes how the Jews are conspiring to control the world's economy. Here in America the person who controls our economy is the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. That person, Alan Greenspan, is now retiring. Greenspan is a Jew. He is to be replaced by Ben S. Bernanke
Ben Bernanke, whose father was a kosher butcher and whose middle initial stands for "Shalom." As Harry Golden would put it, "Only in America!"
G-d bless America!
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JWR contributor Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg is Senior Rabbi of Baltimore's Beth Tfiloh Congregation. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
An Orthodox rabbi's Christmas sermon
Thanksgiving: Let us not be warped in our perspective
© 2005, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg