A Victim Becomes a Bully

by Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton

A victim becomes a bully.

It is not a new story.  After years of teasing, abuse, intimidation and humiliation, something transforms the victim, puts him in a new situation, allows her to fight back, sometimes even more viciously.

And the cycle continues.

This is the story of a cycle of violence.

But sometimes the cycle is broken. Something allows the bully to see the humanity in his victim, in himself. Something triggers the neural pathway away from dehumanizing aggression towards compassion, towards seeing the hurt she is inflicting in herself with every insult, every blow, to the one being insulted, pummeled, beaten.

This paradigm applies between peoples, not just children, adolescents, or criminal perpetrators. Whole nations or populations have transformed themselves into bullies – terrorizing neighbors of another ilk, or size, or social standing. And sometimes, even a nation, a people, has been triggered to take a radically different path, to experience the shared humanity between victim and bully, and live in accordance with that realization.

What, though, about clans, even siblings? What is the story there? What happens when a pair of brothers, the descendants of long-ago ancestors, succeeding generations on a fabled family tree, maintain the feud, so long buried in retellings that they no longer even recognize that they are living into their shared family story. Hardly anyone else does either; the few who call out to the bullying or retaliating brothers are shoved aside, or, perhaps unwittingly, drawn into the brawl.

In this paradigm, where do the Jews of the Diaspora, the cousins of the bully who still love him and recognize him as a member of the clan, deal with their recognition of the behavior? And what about the rabbis?

This reflection comes as we are nearing the end of the Omer, the counting down towards the ultimate symbol of our peoplehood, the receiving of the gift of Torah at the base of Mt. Sinai. During this “countdown,” one date is celebrated by one brother’s clan as a day of Independence, of victory, liberation and self-determination, while the other brother’s clan mourns that same date as a day of Naqba, of mourning in loss.

I am of the clan that celebrates that date. I am of the clan that yearns to meaningfully mark the festival of Shavuot, to learn Torah in community, to reap through reading, celebrate the yield of the first fruits of spring.

I am also of the callers-out. I stand with my siblings in this clan who are also callers-out, who cry out “No More Bullying In My Name;” who whisper: bend towards compassion; who keen: people, my people, see yourselves in the one beside you.

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4 thoughts on “A Victim Becomes a Bully

  1. Thanks Liz for the honesty & clarity! it is past time for American Jews who love the tradition to speak out for justice for Palestinians and equity – security for all in the world!

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