Humanistic Judaism journal, “Colloquium ’03” Spring 2004
After the Holocaust, the specter of antisemitism hovers over any discussion of the Jewish-Gentile encounter. Six million Jews died. The Holocaust has emerged as the Jewish “crucifixion.”
But the reality of Jewish life in America today is hardly one of antisemitism. The rise of the Jews to economic and political power, the fashionableness of Judaism and Jewish culture, and the overwhelming phenomenon of intermarriage testify to widespread acceptance — and even love.
Ironically, both the love and the hate derive from the same source. While modern antisemitism certainly has its roots in the religious hostility of the Greeks and the Church, it also has more powerful roots in the economic and political transformation of the Jew in the Western world in the past two centuries.
The demonization of the Jew as “Christ- killer” still persists. But the image of the Jew as the evil manipulator of power in an urban- industrial society is far more pervasive. In a secular age of capitalism, religion is not the major grievance against the Jew. The word antisemitism arose in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria during an economic depression. It was not directed at the theology of the Jews. It was directed at the “race” of the Jews and their presumed hereditary disposition to sow social evil.
The world of capitalism provided Jews with emancipation, education, economic opportunity, and even social acceptance. The decline of religion and the rise of bourgeois culture established the foundation of toleration. Jews became prominent in the arts and sciences and in the evolving scene of the media and entertainment. This power was both attractive and provocative.
Philosemitism is the response of people who find Jews attractive and benign. In America there are millions of people who do. Increasingly they choose to marry Jews. It is the transformed, assimilated Jew that most philosemites love. And it is the very same Jew that most antisemites fear and hate.
During our Colloquium this past October on “Jews and Non-Jews: The Love-Hate Relationship,” our extraordinary presenters explored the meaning of this dichotomy. Now that the Colloquium is over, it is important for us to pick up the messages that were delivered and to summarize their implications.
Here is what I heard.
Be self-aware. Most Jews see themselves as an abused people who have been victimized by forces over which we have no control. The Holocaust has become, in Jewish eyes, the ultimate symbol of Jewish suffering and Jewish loss. But most antisemites and many philosemites see the Jews as an ambitious and powerful people who have reached the top of the economic, social, and political ladder, especially in North America. The truth of the matter is that we have been both a victimized and a powerful people. Jewish influence in business, academia, and the media is out of proportion to Jewish numbers. If we were content to accept any social status the fates dished out, antisemitism would rapidly decline. Ever since we chose to deny the existence of other people’s gods, ever since we became a commercial people in a peasant world (just like our Phoenician cousins), our ambition has been a source of confrontation and resentment.
We will not give up our ambitions simply because our enemies do not like them. Our success is mostly good for the world, not bad. And our success gives us the power to resist our enemies.
Do not exaggerate. Antisemitism is a source of Jewish annihilation, but it is also a source of Jewish survival. Hatred of the Jews forces Jews to remain Jews, and — if it is not lethal — reinforces community solidarity. Therefore, it is tempting for Jewish leaders to cry antisemitism even when it does not exist. In the free and assimilating environment of North America, the threat of antisemitism becomes an opportunity to mobilize Jews who otherwise would not be interested in their Jewish identity.
Just as it is urgent that we do not play Pollyanna and deny hostility when it rears its ugly head, so is it equally important that we do not see enemies where enemies do not exist. All challenges to our success and survival are not due to antisemites.
Be sensitive. Jews usually imagine that hostility is one-sided, directed by Gentiles at the Jewish world. The possibility that Jews, in turn, bear hatred toward the Gentile world is rarely acknowledged. The new reality of intermarriage highlights this “blindness.” Many non-Jewish spouses of Jewish men and women encounter a wall of rejection and exclusion that is puzzling, especially since the rejecting Jews see themselves as liberals embracing the ideals of love and human solidarity.
Jewish history has filled the Jewish heart with fear, hatred, and resentment. We must make sure that we do not choose to punish the people who love us. The price of Jewish survival is too high if it includes Jewish bigotry.
Do not be naive. In modern times antisemitism has been fostered by the political forces of the Right. The aristocracy, the military, the church have been the primary perpetrators of antisemitic violence. Add to their hatred the hostility of traditional peasants and the conservative bourgeoisie, and you complete the roster of enemies. The Left was always assumed to be a friend to the Jews. One of the reasons Jews chose the Left was that it offered resistance to antisemitism. During the fascist era many Jews chose communism because the communists seemed to be the most effective opponents of fascism.
But that is no longer true. The struggle between the Jews and the Arabs has changed the picture. In Europe and in many other parts of the world, Israel has become the new villain of the Left. The Palestinians are romanticized, and the Israelis are identified with Nazis. While it is certainly true that the behavior of the Israeli government and the Israeli army has often been oppressive, this fact cannot fully explain the hostility of the new Leftist propaganda. The Jews now find themselves besieged from both sides. The resentment of Pat Buchanan is now matched by the resentment of the leaders of the French and German Left. It is naive to assume that antisemitism is only a Rightist phenomenon.
Recognize the danger. Because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the center of world antisemitism has shifted to the Muslim world. Nazi-style anti-Jewish propaganda is now regular fare on Muslim radio and television. A region that had been historically mildly anti- Jewish has now become rabidly anti-Jewish. The leaders in this new fanatical hatred are the leaders of the new Muslim fundamentalism, more popularly known as radical Islam. Radical Islam is now responsible for most antisemitic activity in the world, whether in Argentina, where the Jewish central federation building was blown up, or in France, where Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. There are very few Jews remaining in Muslim countries, but there are millions of Muslims residing in Europe and the Americas.
Do not be ashamed of Jewish power. Jews are always uncomfortable talking about Jewish power. They are more comfortable talking about Jewish persecution. But Jewish power is the consequence of Jewish talent and Jewish diligence. Jewish political power in America is considerable. Neither Congress nor the President would choose to turn against Israel. And Holocaust awareness in America is no coincidence.
Jewish power is legitimate if it is used for legitimate ends. There is no virtue in cultivating weakness. And sometimes the fear of Jewish power can serve good ends. In Ukraine the government subsidizes Jewish institutions because the Ukrainians wish to ingratiate themselves with America and because they assume that Jews control America.
Be fair. Some hostility directed toward Israel and toward Jews is not antisemitic. It addresses present Jewish behavior. The plight of the Palestinians is real. Justice demands a Palestinian state that works. Screaming “antisemitism” when any negative criticism of the Israeli government is offered is counterproductive. Israeli extremism and Jewish support for it are wrong.
A fair peace settlement that allowed for a reasonably secure Israel and a reasonably viable Palestine would not only diminish Muslim resentment. It would also appreciably shrink the recruits of radical Islam.
Be open. One of the signs of philosemitism is the rising rate of intermarriage. Given the fact that Jews live in a free and open society, and given the fact that most Jews are not prepared to repudiate it, intermarriage will be an important continuing phenomenon of Diaspora Jewish life.
If that is the case, we have a moral obligation to respond to love with acceptance. We have a moral obligation to acknowledge every individual as a person, and not as a label.
There are many Jews who fear the new freedom. They imagine that a free and open society, like violent antisemitism, will lead to Jewish extinction. For them philosemitism is as dangerous as antisemitism; even a mild, nonlethal antisemitism would be better. At least it would preserve Jewish identity and the Jewish people.
Over the centuries we Jews have learned to cope with hatred. Now we are being forced to learn new skills, the skills for coping with love. The balancing act between survival and freedom is not easy, but the ethical quality of a future Judaism depends on the ethical necessity of never turning against love.