Project of IISHJ

Antisemitism: A Force for Jewish Survival


Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1985, (vol. 13 no.1, p7-11)

In the century of the Holocaust, it would seem both insensitive and malicious to say anything positive about anti-Semitism. How can a social force which has mercilessly destroyed so many millions of people for so many hundreds of years be designated as anything but evil?

But a moral evil such as anti-Semitism may have consequences that its perpetrators never intended. While it may destroy some of its victims, it also may motivate the survivors to affirm a stronger group identity.

This observation has nothing to do with the proponents of the “suffering is good for you” ideology, who are always able to find something positive in pain and humiliation. Nor is this observation connected with the “evil is often a necessary prelude to good” theme. Some Jewish commentators have pointed out that, without the terrible devastation of Hitler’s war, the state of Israel would never have come into existence. These boors are reminiscent of the Chinese in the Charles Lamb short story who accidentally discovered roast pork when a house with a pig in it burned down and who then deliberately repeated the incident every time they wanted to savor crackling.

The observation is more reflective of Arnold Toynbee’s thesis that the skills of great civilizations never emerged in tranquil, protective environments. They developed in response to harsh challenges which forced people to mobilize their talents and energies to find solutions. The flooded Nile and infertile Greece, not the tropical paradise of the South Sea islands, were the setting for quantum jumps in human advancement.

The observation also reflects the insights of Konrad Lorenz and Arthur Koestler, both of whom maintained that external hostility reinforces internal bonds. The stronger the hate from without, the stronger the love from within. Hatred, if it is not totally lethal, can stimulate survival responses.

Of course, many nations throughout history were destroyed by the hostility of their neighbors. Especially if they were enslaved and thus had no control over their own institutions, they could be overwhelmed by terror. But pariah people, such as the Jews, who were outcasts rather than servants, generally fared better, developing the convenient skills of

outsiders. The difference in the success of blacks and Jews in America is a testimony to the validity of this distinction.

Positive Survival Skills

Anti-Semitism , whatever its source — whether pagan, Christian or Muslim — stimulated among Jews a series of survival responses which would never have come into existence without it. These responses became so important that they ultimately defined the self-image of the Jew. Some of these skills have positive value from a humanistic point of view. Some of them have negative value.

Six positive skills come to mind.


Insecurity is one of the best stimuli for ambition. Safety and contentment produce satisfaction with the status quo and reluctance to make changes. But hatred and threats drive pariahs to strive for the security of money, fame or power.

In the post-Enlightenment society of the West, where anti-Semitism did not significantly interfere with educational and entrepreneurial opportunity, Jewish anxiety produced a swift success unequalled by any other ethnic group. The army of Jewish physicians, lawyers, and other professionals who emerged from deprived economic backgrounds make the Jewish community in North America a powerful political and social force.

Community support

The hostility of enemies and the inability of Jews to rely on the goodwill of the outside world forced them to organize an internal defense structure. The more burdensome the external pressure, the more intense the community effort to protect and sustain itself.

The willingness of American Jews to impose upon themselves a form of internal taxation unparalleled in any other established community is directly attributable to the legacy of anti-Semitism. The well-organized power of Jewish Welfare Federations and United Jewish Appeals to recruit Jews for charity would never have emerged without Hitler and earlier oppressors.

Liberal democracy

Although the rabbinic tradition is an authoritarian one, most modern Jews are devotees of a liberal democratic political philosophy. Outside of Israel, even the Orthodox are wary of autocracy.

The affinity for liberal democracy did not occur because the Jewish masses became avid readers of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. The devotion of the Jews to the liberal parties of Western Europe and North America was the result of two motivations: liberal parties were ardent champions of capitalism and individual enterprise; these parties embraced anti-clericalism and championed the separation of church from state.

Even when liberal parties switched from free enterprise to state welfare, Jews, in large part, stuck with them because of the second issue. The Jewish vote for Mondale in the 1984 presidential election was not stimulated by economic concerns but by the blatant influence of the Religious Right in the Reagan camp.

Where Jews are a vulnerable minority, they support liberal democratic regimes as a safety measure, even though they may accept different behavior in the Jewish state.

Alliances with vulnerable minority groups

While the persecuted throughout history have displayed more self-pity than sympathy for other sufferers, self-interest often dictates alliances with groups who endure similar persecution.

Jews and blacks share few cultural or economic interests. But the people who dislike Jews also tend to dislike blacks. The result is that, while Jews and blacks in America at times have incompatible agendas, they end up in political alliance with each other. The alternative of separation gives too much power to their shared foes.

It must, however, be pointed out that, for reasons of security, Jews often have identified with ruling ethnic groups against oppressed majorities. The alliance with the Germans and Hungarians in the Austrian Empire, the connection with the British in Quebec, and the attachment to the Turks in Greece and the Near East are examples of this identification. Sometimes the ruling power seems to offer more safety and opportunity than the downtrodden masses.


The established ideology of the Jewish people extols faith, humility and obedience. Yet the modern Jew seems to reflect these presumed virtues far less than members of other ethnic groups.

This dichotomy flows naturally from the experience of the Jewish people. While their literature promised divine protection, success, and victory, the Jews were victims of unending disaster. Although it was dangerous to publicly challenge the goodness of God, the average Jew ultimately internalized the challenge. Skepticism became part of the Jewish personality.

This skepticism could be safely directed to secular objects: authorities, governments, rosy predictions about the future and assumptions about human nature. Shrugging the shoulders was the Jewish answer to naive faith.

When the secular age arrived, this personality trait served the Jews well. As skeptical outsiders who had no vested interest in preserving the old order, they could be boldly creative in ways their contemporaries could not. Marx, Freud and Einstein — with the freedom that “outsiderness” brings — were the products of this Jewish condition.


The essence of a sense of humor is the awareness that the world is crazy. People who recognize the absurdity of the universe, who notice that the fates are unconcerned with the human agenda, tend to laugh more easily than those who imagine that an important purpose lurks behind every event.

Anti-Semitism is the major contributor to the Jewish sense of the absurd — and, consequently, to the famous Jewish sense of humor. Jewish piety found relief in Jewish laughter. In the face of a destiny which no longer responded to Jewish crying and wailing, humor became the only decent alternative. Besides, laughter can have a slightly hostile edge — a comforting outlet for a people compelled by tradition to praise the ultimate author of their misfortune.

Without the Jewish sense of the absurd, both the Jewish people and modern culture would be seriously diminished.

Negative Survival Skills

While many of the survival responses provoked by anti-Semitism are humanistically positive, others are humanistically negative. Humanistic Jews must both live with them and resist them.

Hostility to the outside world

Despising your enemies is an age old group preservative. Jews often responded to the hostility of their neighbors by returning the hatred. The more they were despised, the more they came to despise. In time, contempt became a formidable barrier that prevented Jews from friendly and empathic intercourse with their Gentile neighbors even after the legal restrictions faded away.

In Jewish folk culture the goy, the shegets, the shiksa became intruders or strangers to be mocked and excluded.

Claims of superiority

It is normal for people who are labeled inferior to respond with apologetic claims of superiority. Just as Russians have a need to prove that everything important was invented by Russians, just as blacks have a need to demonstrate that they are more compassionate and more caring than whites, so do Jews have a need to prove that they possess a unique edge.

The claimed advantage frequently is the mirror image of the accusation the enemies hurl. Since Jews often are accused of shady dealings, the apologist maintains that Jews invented morality and ethics. Since Jews are often denounced for clannishness, the defender asserts that they were the first to conceive of brotherhood and the Messianic age. Since Jews are often blamed for arid intellectuality, the apologist claims that they are a God-intoxicated people.

The defenses are familiar. They are the historic menu of interfaith banquets and the copy for antidefamation literature. They are embarrassing ego props for people who really do not need them, since our real achievements speak for themselves.

Religious identity

In the era of the modern nation-state, dual loyalty is a secular sin. Until the recent emergence of “ethnic power” in America and other Western countries, minorities were afraid to be too ethnic lest they be accused of greater loyalty to their homeland than to their host country.

In response to this threat, many Jews in the nineteenth century began to deny the national character of Jewish identity. They felt safer advertising themselves as a religious denomination. “Germans of the Mosaic Faith,” “Americans of the Jewish persuasion” — these were familiar inventions of frightened assimilationists who believed they could deceive their enemies by pretending to be what indeed they were not.

In America, even today, many Jews whose Jewish attachments are primarily ethnic and cultural have difficulty fitting into the Jewish community because the powers that be maintain that being Jewish is tied up with believing certain things about God.

Making survival the ultimate value

Historically speaking, group self-awareness preceded individual self-awareness. Until modern times, most people believed that group survival — whether that group be a family, clan or tribe — was more important than individual fulfillment.

In our modern urban culture, where affluence and opportunity have reduced group tyranny over the life of the individual, some nations have come to acknowledge the primacy of the person through the creation of political regimes that maximize individual choice and self-reliance. Jews have been pioneers of such systems.

But anti-Semitism has made Jews ambivalent. On the one hand, they value their newfound freedom. On the other hand, they are consumed by fear that the Jewish people, in this age of intermarriage and life style options, will not survive as a people unless they subordinate their individual welfare to group demands. They are reluctant to give their enemies the satisfaction of voluntary disappearance.

Persecuted minorities often survive by making group survival the ultimate value. But in so doing, they undermine the quality of individual life which makes the group worth preserving. Judaism no longer exists for Jews. Jews exist for Judaism.

The result of this survival response is that any strategy becomes palatable, so long as it promises Jewish survival. Segregation, the suppression of religious diversity, restrictions on the right of Jews to marry whom they choose — even the expulsion of Arabs from the Jewish state — become justified when no value transcends group preservation.


Anti-Semitism continues to have a powerful influence on the survival responses of the Jewish people. It is our moral  obligation as Humanistic Jews to deal with these effects selectively, resisting the negative and encouraging the positive.



Related Categories

Related Tags

Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.