June 21, 2024

The War Against Antisemitism - Part One

Rabbi Haber

Originally published on the Times of Israel at: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-war-against-antisemitism-part-one

Earlier in the war, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Israel is fighting simultaneously on seven different fronts (Gaza, Judea and Samaria, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen). It’s now becoming increasingly clear that there is an eighth front, quickly becoming one of the most threatening: the explosively virulent hatred directed against Israel and Jews (regardless of whether they support Israel or identify as Zionists) all over the world.

This hatred can be seen in countries around the world, in international institutions like the United Nations and the (absurdly named) International Court of Justice, and of course all over the internet. Most shockingly for me, antisemitism is raging not only in places like Russia, South Africa, and Europe – but also in the United States, even in the heart of major Jewish population centers.

I hate to admit it, but I was wrong about this. I predicted the exact opposite, almost six years ago. Here’s the story:

Back in July 2018, I gave a lecture called “America: The Final Exile”. This was at the height of the Trump presidency, and – while emphasizing that I wasn’t taking any position either for or against Trump – I noted the simple fact that several highly significant positions in the US Administration, including some with direct impact on Middle East policy, were held by openly-identifying, observant, Orthodox Jews.  Marveling at the novelty of this situation, I mused that the concept of a Jew – even an observant one – being elected President one day no longer seemed inconceivable.

Comparing this situation to the past, I concluded that the Jews were accepted as equals in America on such a level that made it fundamentally different from any other place at any other time in history. Noting that at the time, around 45% of the Jews in the world lived in Israel and over 40% in the United States – leaving the rest of the world with less than 15% in total and no more than 3% in any one other country – I declared that the “exile,” historically speaking, was essentially over.  America, which I called the “final exile” was, I said, something else entirely: a place basically free of the antisemitism that had plagued us throughout history – the final stop on our return from exile (I tried to read this into a particular prophecy from the book of Ezekiel – if you are interested, the lecture is available online here).

Of course, I knew there was antisemitism in America, but I believed it was a fringe phenomenon that didn’t really define, or even significantly impact, the experience of the American Jewish community. And I was confident that it would stay that way indefinitely.

It’s now abundantly clear that I was very wrong about that. Antisemitism is far from marginal in America (and certainly in the rest of the world); it is resurging at an alarming rate and seems to be getting worse all the time.

The protest encampments on university campuses last month were the thing that finally pushed me over the edge, but in retrospect, I should have seen this much earlier. After all, just a few months after that 2018 lecture, the worst explicitly antisemitic terrorist attack in American history happened at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. That was followed about 6 months later by a similar (though thankfully less deadly) attack at a synagogue near San Diego, and then about 6 months after that at a different Jewish site in Jersey City. As these were happening, more “minor” incidents of hate crimes against Jews were also increasing very rapidly, to the point that they stopped even being newsworthy, and have continued unabated since then, right up to October 7.

Trying to come to grips with this, I asked myself where I had gone wrong. How did I so massively misread the situation? So, I listened to the lecture again, and I realized that – as naïve as what I said then seems now – based on lots of things we were seeing at the time, it really did seem to make sense.

What’s hard to understand is why things changed so suddenly. How did a country where Jews felt so secure and at home so quickly begin to sometimes look like Germany in the 1930s??

Searching for a framework to understand this, I picked up something I’d been planning to read for a while: Dara Horn’s 2021 book People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present.

Like me, Horn also once believed that America was different, that Jews were genuinely accepted there as equals. Her book is sobering and painful, filled with anger and bitterness, but she confronts reality head-on and states the plain truth: for Jews, America turns out not to be the paradise of equality and tolerance that we may have thought it was.

She too asks how this happened, and here’s her answer:

The last few generations of American non-Jews had been chagrined by the enormity of the Holocaust—which had been perpetrated by America’s enemy, and which was grotesque enough to make antisemitism socially unacceptable, even shameful. Now that people who remembered the shock of those events were dying off, the public shame associated with expressing antisemitism was dying too. In other words, hating Jews was normal. And historically speaking, the decades in which my parents and I had grown up simply hadn’t been normal. Now, normal was coming back. (p. 217; emphasis added)

Hating Jews is normal. The problem is simply that we Jews didn’t want to believe that, so we convinced ourselves otherwise. For a generation or two, the illusion may have worked. But now the bubble has burst and “normal” has “come back”.

In truth, our rabbis understood this already several millennia ago. The Midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 9:10, quoted by Rashi on Genesis 33:4) makes the following strange and dramatic statement:

“It is a halakha” – a fascinating word choice that generally refers to Jewish law, but in this context, means an immutable law of human society and history – “that Esau [representing the non-Jewish world] hates Jacob [i.e., the Jews].”

In other words: Hating Jews is normal.

The Midrash describes this reality but doesn’t explain it. One way to understand it, as Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik did in a 1966 essay, is to interpret it as something fundamentally illogical and spiritual:

One cannot explain on the basis of psychological or sociological principles why there is such a deeply rooted, inherent prejudice in the heart and mind of every non-Jew, be it the best of them, against Jews. It cannot be explained. It is a fact. In a book by a certain French journalist, he tells of an interview he once had with Thomas Masaryk, who was known as a great liberal and as an “Ohev Yisroel,” a great friend of the Jewish people…. Asked by the French correspondent whether in his heart he entertained any prejudice against Jews, Masaryk gave him the very honest answer: “In my mind I do not have any prejudice against the Jews. Whenever I feel that I am under the impact of pure logic, then I realize that the Jew should not be disliked. The Jew is as human as anyone else. But sometimes when the control of the logic of the mind loosens, and I fall prey to my feeling, then I take notice of the fact that deep in my heart there is a prejudice raging against the Jews. Why, I don’t know….” (“Jew and Jew, Jew and Non-Jew”, Jewish Life, May-June 1966, p.12)

According to this way of thinking, it’s pointless to try to fight against antisemitism, or even to understand it. We just need to accept that it exists. According to this theory, as his example of Thomas Masaryk (an early 20th-century Czech politician who actively fought antisemitism and supported Zionism) shows, gentiles can overcome their inherent feelings of antisemitism, but cannot eradicate them. By this way of thinking, Jew-hatred is indeed a “halakha,” an inherent law of nature, or at least of human nature.

There may, however, be another way of looking at it. We can perhaps acknowledge the historical truth that “Esau hates Jacob” but suggest a rational, this-worldly way of understanding it. In a different passage in her book, Dara Horn touches on just such an explanation:

[The theory] that the Holocaust drives home the importance of love is an idea…that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.

The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented – have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world—the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility. Then as now, Jews were cast in the role of civilization’s nagging mothers, loathed in life, and loved only once they are safely dead. (People Love Dead Jews, p. 190; emphasis added)

Haters often blame Jews for their problems, and/or identify Jews with whatever it is that they most oppose. This phenomenon – often known as “scapegoating” – has been well documented. The fact that it happens is true and understandable (although frustrating). But recognizing the need for a scapegoat doesn’t explain why it always seems to be the Jews who wind up filling this role! Scapegoating is an explanation for how antisemitism works, but it does not explain why it exists, at least so consistently.

In the short passage quoted above, I think Dara Horn hits the truth: antisemites blame and disparage Jews precisely because Jews represent something. We have always been the world’s conscience. Instead of taking responsibility for problems, it’s easier to blame the messenger. And if we can be portrayed as hypocrites who don’t live up to the values we represent, nobody else needs to be held accountable either (why worry about trying to stop the real genocides going on in multiple parts of the world when you can just blame Israel for an imaginary genocide in Gaza?)

This, too, was predicted by our ancient sources. The Torah itself enjoins us to be a “Kingdom of Priests” (Exodus 19:6), charged with bringing the messages of ethical monotheism (the charge to build societies based on justice, kindness, and holiness) to the rest of the world. It also tells us very clearly that we will fulfill this role in the world whether we live by these messages ourselves, or whether we don’t. History has demonstrated the truth of those predictions: as time has passed, the world has slowly but steadily accepted more and more of the principles that the Jews introduced to the world – and it has opposed, hated, and persecuted the Jews while doing so every step of the way.

So what are we to do?

Well, if we accept the reality that antisemitism can’t really be eradicated, and if we accept the idea that hatred of Jews is really resistance to the messages we bring, I think there’s only one thing we can do – work even harder to represent those truths even more faithfully. When the messages are finally accepted, the resistance begins to recede.

I have a specific suggestion of what to do right now, but we’ll leave that for part two of this post.

This is the first of a two-part series.  Read Part Two here.

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