Making Sense of Antisemitism

Posted on Mar 21, 2019

It’s hard to read the news these days without encountering evidence of a significant rise in antisemitism. In Alsace, France, gravestones are defaced with swastikas a day after members of the “yellow vest” group hurl insults and threats at a prominent Jewish intellectual during a rally in Paris. In Britain, several Labor MP’s resign from the party in protest against its failure to root out longstanding prejudice against Jews by local activists and party leader Jeremy Corbyn. In Belgium, a carnival float features puppets that portray a pair of scowling ultra-Orthodox Jews with giant noses and moneybags at their feet. Here in America, a Muslim congresswoman is pressured to apologize for an attack on the Israel lobby that feature well-known antisemitic stereotypes—and Bernie Sanders offers her his support. 

What’s going on? Should Jews be worried in this country, as many are in Europe? Why are we seeing and hearing antisemitic incidents, threats, and verbal assaults that Jews of my generation never expected to witness again in our lifetimes? We need to step back from the near-daily barrage of incidents and insults, I believe, and think seriously—as our community has not in some time—about the renewed and age-old practice of singling out Jews for attack.

My personal concern with antisemitism began in childhood. I’ve always loved Passover: the boisterous singing and lively discussion around the Seder table, the time afforded over eight days of holiday for long visits with family and friends, the special foods (including matzo farfel stuffing for the turkey) eaten only at this season of the year. But the annual retelling of the exodus from Egyptian slavery has also occasioned troublesome questions and a certain amount of anxiety. 

Why would Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler on earth, hate my ancestors so much, fear them so irrationally, that he ordered their persecution, enslavement, and death? The Biblical account offers little help in understanding the king’s motives. This was a new Pharaoh, we are told, one who “did not know” the Israelite patriarch Joseph, who had served as viceroy to an earlier ruler. For whatever reason, Pharaoh declares that the Children of Israel “are too numerous and powerful for us.” Egypt had better watch out for them, he warns, lest the Israelites increase further, and “if war breaks out, join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground” (or, in an alternate translation, “go up out of the land”). 

The king’s declaration is not logical. Demagoguery rarely is. How could one small clan threaten the welfare of mighty Egypt? How and why would Joseph’s descendants join with Egypt’s unnamed enemies? Is Pharaoh afraid of the Israelites somehow gaining power in Egypt—or of their leaving it? Tyrants who say such things and enact such policies, in any time or place, against any powerless minority, rarely employ reasoned argument. Think of the way Haman persuaded the king of Persia to permit the murder of his Jewish subjects, recalled annually by Jews on the holiday of Purim. “There is a people, scattered and isolated among the nations, their laws different from any other people’s, who do not obey the king’s decrees.” Haman, like the Pharaoh, strikes emotional chords hidden deep inside his nation’s psyche. Both arouse fears of the Other and loose violent impulses to lash out against a powerless minority in their midst.  

I knew even as a child that the power of the Passover and Purim stories lay in the fact that they were true. There might or might not have been a real Exodus from Egypt by an actual group of Israelites sometime back in the 13th century BCE, let alone a wicked royal counselor foiled by the beautiful queen Esther. My parents did not seem to care very much one way or the other. But I knew that Jews had been persecuted, expelled, and killed time and again over the course of history. Other peoples too had suffered such a fate, of course, including African-Americans who identified their story of slavery and redemption with the Passover narrative. But Jews were the victims who mattered most to me, growing up. I knew that a bare 10 years before the first Passover Seder that I can remember, Jewish children like me had been killed by the Nazis alongside their parents. Hitler had drawn upon antisemitic stereotypes and resentments that had long been part of his nation’s religion, politics and culture. 

So I could not help but be concerned about antisemitism. There were no Holocaust victims or survivors in my immediate family. I felt safe in America: shielded by two oceans from the hatreds that had ravaged Europe for many centuries. But several members of our synagogue had numbers tattooed on their arms. My grandparents had come to America because of antisemitic persecution by the Tsar and the poverty that went along with that persecution. What is more, I had indirectly encountered antisemitism firsthand, when accompanying my father on business calls to golf courses. (He sold the superintendents wetting agents and chemicals that made the grass grow green.) He could not join some of those clubs because they did not admit Jews as members.  We entered their grounds through the back door but could not go in through the front.

These were facts of life for me, the sort of thing a child picks up from random comments heard while driving in the car, or from listening in on adult conversation. I knew that Northeast Philadelphia was a Jewish neighborhood but that there were others, both wealthy and not-so-well-off, where Jews (and blacks) were not welcome. Some politicians were sympathetic to Jews, and some were antisemites. There were Catholic priests who taught parishioners like my friend Diane to hate us, and there were good priests who taught love and tolerance. We sat on the stoop with Ukrainian neighbors whose son was my best friend for a while—a far cry, my parents said, from the old country, where antisemitism was pervasive. I knew by the time I got to high school (where I suffered antisemitic insult only once) that some careers, like engineering, were still difficult for Jews to enter, while others, such as law and medicine, had by then opened their doors wide. Lots of Jews had attained public office, even though people who had not voted for JFK because he was a Catholic probably would not support a Jewish candidate either. The old Jewish lady who lived next door to us said she too would never vote for a Jew—lest the antisemites hold all Jews responsible for their mistakes. 

When I became a scholar of American Judaism some years later, I came to appreciate just how much Jewish thought and behavior in the United States had been shaped by antisemitism and fear of antisemitism.  Mordecai Kaplan—founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and for more than half a century a professor and dean at JTS—startled me with the statement in his masterpiece, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), that the main cause of “the present crisis in Judaism” was the loss of belief among Jews that they were God’s chosen people, combined with the fact that “Jewish origin brings with it nothing but economic handicaps and social inferiority.” The result, Kaplan wrote, was that “the Jew rebels against his fate. This is the fundamental reason for the change in his attitude toward Judaism.” 

Was that really the case in Kaplan’s day, I wondered? Is that why so many Jews had rejected affiliation with the Jewish community and with Judaism? My dissertation research confirmed that hatred of Jews was virulent and widespread in America during those years. Fortune magazine conducted a study in 1936 to learn if Jews actually were guilty, as charged, of dominating major sectors of the American economy. I was shocked to see with my own eyes (on microfilm) the want-ads in New York newspapers saying that Jews need not apply, and no less shocked to learn that Americans during World War Two consistently expressed more hostility to Jews (and blacks) than to Germans or the Japanese.   

A lot has changed in America, thankfully. Overt discrimination on the basis of color or creed has been outlawed, even if not entirely eliminated. Surveys of Americans’ attitudes toward various ethnic and religious communities report that Jews are perhaps the most respected and well-liked group in the nation today. High rates of intermarriage with Jews testify to our desirability as romantic partners. Assimilation, not antisemitism, has for several decades posed the greater threat to the Jewish community. Overt prejudice against Jews has dipped to all-time lows. The lessons of the Holocaust seem to have been learned:   politicians regularly proclaim zero tolerance for expressions of racial, ethnic or religious hate, lest they lead to violence. Suspicion and hostility toward Jews seem for the most part confined to the political and geographical margins. Such antisemitism as remains seemed until recently to be a function of Arab and Muslim opposition to Israel and of related protest by some on the “left” against Israel’s alleged “colonialism” or “apartheid.” Criticism of Israel has sometimes shaded—or jumped enthusiastically—into prejudice against Jews. This has notably been the case on some campuses, where Jewish students and Hillel groups have been excluded or vilified because they support Israel—or because they are Jews.

“The Jewish community needs to remain vigilant in the face of these developments,” I said to anyone who asked my views in recent years, “but we should also count our blessings.” This was not the 1930s. Jews could rest easy at our Passover Seders. Pharaoh’s minions were not about to strike us. Haman had been soundly defeated. As the old joke put it, “What is the meaning of Jewish holidays? They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

It’s much harder to laugh at that joke today: hard to say, for all the success and safety Jews enjoy in 21st century America, that “we have won” out over antisemitism, and utterly impossible to claim that we have won once and for all. True: The United States is still a very different place from the European countries which were historic breeding grounds of Jew-hatred. The vast majority of Americans—Christian, secular, or Muslim—do not harbor deep-seated prejudice against us. Their views of Jews are overwhelmingly favorable. Our allies far outnumber our enemies. There is absolutely no reason for panic at the apparent surge in antisemitism (the latest ADL report shows a 57 percent rise in 2017). But there is ample cause for wariness—and for determined action to strengthen both communal alliances and communal defenses. 

The torch-light parades outside the synagogue in Charlottesville in August 2017 cannot be ignored. Jews should not remain silent in the face of shouts by gun-toting men dressed in white capes and hoods that “Jews will not replace us.” It is no surprise that those marches climaxed in the death of a woman struck down (apparently deliberately) by a vehicle that rammed into a crowd protesting against the neo-Nazis. The Pittsburgh synagogue shootings this past October, in which 11 Jews were murdered while at prayer, the killer spurred on by websites featuring screed after antisemitic screed, resulted in an outpouring of sympathy and resolve by laypeople and clergy from Pittsburgh churches and mosques. It resulted, too, in the posting of    security guards, some of them armed, at the entrances to many more synagogues and other Jewish institutions across America.   

Antisemitism once again seems to many American Jews a clear and present danger rather than a fact of the distant past or of Jewish life in other countries. Jewish educators are wondering how to explain to Jewish children why the synagogues in which they worship need guards outside the door, but the churches down the street do not. Adults who have never thought much about antisemitism, because they never had to, are pondering how its recurrence should affect their identity. Politicians from both major parties have wondered whether the coarsening of rhetoric in the White House and the Congress has given new license to extremists. Jewish leaders, including me, have found it necessary in recent weeks to exhort one another never to allow antisemitism to interfere with alliances between Jews and non-Jews, or to rob Jews of trust in humanity or in God, or to cause them to doubt that the tradition they teach, and the people they lead, have done nothing to cause the hostility of which they are the victims. I’ve found myself recalling Theodor Herzl’s lament in The Jewish State that “if only we were left in peace. But I think we will not be left in peace….”   Antisemitism seems to be a fact of life that will not leave Jews in peace, even in America, for some time to come.

What shall we do—and not do? Three lessons are to my mind especially crucial for understanding the prejudice against Jews that we see in America today and for calibrating the most proper and effective Jewish response.

First: as always, hatred of Jews has multiple causes, and so must be addressed on multiple fronts. Scholars seem agreed that the modern varieties of antisemitism from the “left” and “right” of the political spectrum—particularly those that are sponsored or abetted by governments—are very different from medieval or ancient strains of Jew-hatred that had focused almost entirely on Jewish refusal to accept the dominant pagan, Christian, or Islamic faith. One still hears the old religious taunts and calumnies from antisemites: Jews are godless, or serve a primitive God of vengeance rather than the ethical God of love and mercy; Jews are stubborn, refusing to accept what everyone else knows to be true; Jews killed Jesus or rejected Mohammed. The “you will not replace us” chant may express, in a demagogic reversal of logic,  ancient charges that Jews have rejected the claim that their “Old Testament” has been superseded by the New Testament or the Koran.

One venerable element in the modern arsenal of antisemitism, sounded loud and clear again in recent months, is economic resentment of Jewish influence, prominence, and success in business and finance.  Jews do have an outsized presence relative to our numbers on Wall Street, in university departments of economics and business, and in the halls of government. This serves as “factual basis” for the charge of world domination through money. Jews are blamed for the ills of capitalism—witness the hostility to Wall Street that seems a coded message of hostility to Jews. We are blamed by some on the opposite extreme for supporting socialism and other forms of government regulation. 

A related form of antisemitism, now as always, is political: Jews are alleged to wield too much power, or to wield it secretly or mysteriously; we are said to maintain “dual loyalties” to America and Israel, or America and the Jewish people. Jews remain “outsiders,” “cosmopolitans,” “do not fit in” “never can fit in.” We are a bloc, a lobby, a conspiracy. Economic and political arguments often merge—just as they did in the rhetoric of Haman, Pharaoh, and European antisemitic movements at the start of the 20th century.   

Religion continues to interact with these themes—a phenomenon especially disconcerting to Jews or Gentiles who believed that secularization and the rise of science would relegate such hatreds to the history books. To some white nationalists, America is a Christian country; Jews, like Muslims, cannot legitimately claim equal citizenship.  Some Christian antisemites cannot abide the sheer fact of Jewish power in the world (rejection of Christ should have led to eternal wandering and persecution). They are especially troubled by Jewish control of the holy land where Jesus walked. One still occasionally hears militant atheists blaming Jews for the continuing power of religion in the world, even as some militant Christians and Muslims blame Jews for the rise of modern, secular, liberal culture.

None of these age-old arguments is likely to go away any time soon. It is important for Jews to recognize them and their expression in classic images and tropes. It is urgent that we understand how to answer them. And it is essential that we know—and teach our children—that these claims about Jews are false.  

Second: Jews must not allow our people or our tradition to be blamed for antisemitism, as we have been so often in the past. (In the 1930s and 1940s, it was not unusual to hear antisemitism, or even Nazism, traced to the biblical claim that Jews are “God’s chosen people.”)  Jewish students must understand that the number of Jews in Congress, disproportionate to our share in the American population, is not evidence of “conspiracy” or “world domination.” Nor is the number of Jews in the financial sector, more disproportionate still. Support for Israel by the US government, which has held steady for the past half-century over Republican and Democratic administrations and congressional majorities alike, is based in shared ideals and interests, not in “Jewish money.” Objectionable Israeli policies or governments do not justify the charge—made against no other country—that it has no right to exist. Successful political organizing within the rules of the American democratic process not surprisingly arouses resentment by some on the losing side of these debates. Jews should feel no guilt at this political success—or at the “privilege” America has afforded us.  We should certainly not cower in fear that success, influence, and privilege will lead to restriction of our liberties.

Let’s maintain perspective: respond in measured fashion to verbal or physical attacks. We should by no means discount progress made in the past or despair of progress that can be made in the future. We should never forget that Jews have allies in other communities, need those allies, and need to stand by other groups in their time of need, both because it is the right thing to do and so that those groups will stand by us. We should—and did—express our outrage at the recent attack at a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque, and reach out to comfort and stand with our Muslim neighbors. The attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston also drew immediate Jewish response. We know firsthand that this support makes a difference. It was moving to Jews all over America, and reassuring, that Christians, Muslims, and civic officials in Pittsburgh, including the Steelers, rallied immediately and massively to support Jews following the shootings at Tree of Life Congregation.

Those who deny that our people has enemies or maintain that the threats we face are wildly exaggerated, or believe that the Jewish people can have no enemies and face no threats because its existence is a “fiction” maintained to generate support for Israel or funds for Federation—are wrong. So are those who argue that antisemitism would gradually disappear if only the “fiction” of Jewish peoplehood were permitted to languish. I have met Jews at the opposite extreme who mistakenly believe that Jews are surrounded by enemies, have no true friends in the world, and can trust only Jews—and not all Jews at that.  All of these responses to antisemitism, like much of the prejudice to which they respond, have their roots in the 19th century. They have long since been proven false and ineffective. Let’s not go down those roads again, lest precious truths of Judaism be lost and with them Jews who, because of antisemitism, choose not to affiliate with Jewish tradition or the Jewish people.

That is the third major lesson to be drawn from Jewish history, one that points to what to me is the most important effort required in the face of antisemitism. We must do our best to make sure that Jews do not run from Jewish commitment, or seek to hide their Jewishness, lest they be marked literally or figuratively with the yellow star, or identified with the God of the “Old Testament,” or vilified for their loyalty to Judaism or to God. By the same token, we should not allow Judaism to be regarded merely as a way to foil the antisemites. Emil Fackenheim, one of the best-known Jewish theologians of the previous generation, famously posited that Jews are bound by a “614th commandment:” not to “grant Hitler posthumous victories” by giving up Jewish faith or affiliation. I recognize the emotional power of that notion, but believe it is ultimately destructive. Jews should not choose Judaism in order to defeat the enemies of Judaism or the Jewish people. Antisemitism must not stand at the center of Jewish belief and practice. That stance will quickly prove ineffective. 

Jews should take hold of Torah—and hold onto it for dear life—because the Torah teaches a profound and joyful path through life, a proven source of Community and Meaning, a path of great wisdom that has made and continues to make everlasting contributions to the world.  That is why Am Yisrael Chai—“the Jewish People lives,” where other nations and civilizations of the past do not, and will be around for a long time to come.  

It’s an incredible privilege and blessing to live as a Jew, and particularly to do so in America, the greatest diaspora Jews have ever known, alongside the Jewish State amazingly revived in the Land of Israel.  There is so much to celebrate, so many reasons for pride, so much joy and meaning to be had in Jewish life—all of which constitute the strongest defense against antisemites that we can deploy.