General Antisemitism

Explaining anti-Semitism (and Israel) to progressive Europeans

I was sitting in Cafe Aroma with my new French friends, a young couple I met while on a tour in Jerusalem, having a really enjoyable conversation – the kind you often have on vacation, especially long vacations where you’re more likely to throw your usual social caution to the wind.  It’s the kind of liberation you feel as the result of being by so far from everything and everyone you’ve ever known.  Though I’m not technically on vacation, making Aliyah (6000 miles away from the place I called home for most of my life) has definitely made me more prone to the mood I was in while backpacking across Europe in my 20s – the sense of unlimited possibilities.

I think the three of us ended up talking for over 2 hours, a conversation which revolved around many things, but politics and religion took up most of our time – which seemed quite natural given their obvious erudition and genuine curiosity. My new friends genuinely seemed to have more questions (about Judaism, Israel, the U.S.) than answers, assumptions, or specific opinions – all of which made them quite pleasant interlocutors.

My friends were not Jewish, not evangelical Christians or religious in any sense, and not in any way connected to the Jewish state in the usual way.  They were simply visiting Israel out of curiosity.  They were secular Europeans on vacation – the kind of visitors most countries take for granted but, in Israel, is at least a bit more unusual.  Indeed, their background made me think through my answers a bit longer than I normally would have. I felt that – especially when the conversation touched on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Zionism, and, American Jewry – I was, simultaneously representing my identities as an American, a new Israeli, and a Jew more broadly.

I must admit, my answer to the question, ”why did you move to Israel” is a bit different when posed by a non-Jew, both in the broader discourse I engage in, as well as in the specific language I use. How many non-Jews, for instance, know what the word ”Aliyah” means? To what degree do I need to defend/explain the Israeli Right of Return? Even the word, ”Zionist”, for instance, tragically, often has negative connotations for many in the non-Jewish progressive community – which made me wonder if much of what I was going to say would be lost in (political) translation.

Further, while conversing with my new friends I was trying hard to take them and their questions at face value, and not put them in the pre-assigned category of progressive Europeans (of the Guardian reading variety) who are hostile towards Israel – and, indeed, there was nothing even remotely indicating they held such views. And, in fact, I found their erudition quite refreshing.  Even though they may not be overly informed on the topic of modern Zionism, their education and open-mindedness allowed them absorb what I was saying with a broad understanding of the political, cultural, and religious themes I was exploring. They were truly European in the very best sense of the word. However, though their English was excellent, and I don’t think they missed much of what I was saying, there is, when discussing complex matters with non-native English speakers, always the fear that some of the nuance of the words and phrases you use may get lost or even slightly misinterpreted.

The most interesting part of our conversation was when my new friend asked me – during the course of the talk which touched on issues of perceived Jewish power in the U.S. – to provide any insight I had over the broad phenomena of anti-Semitism. ”Why do you think it occurs”, was what he was wondering.

Boy, there’s a topic!!! (And, sure, I realize that some of my friends would likely ask, “G-d, why couldn’t you have kept the conversation a bit lighter? There’s so much to discuss that isn’t so controversial and emotional…art, music, sports, or Croissants!”  But, what can I say, these conversations seem to follow me.  I, after all, took on this job with CiF Watch for a good reason.)

Anti-Semitism – what historian Robert Wistrich has referred to as the world’s longest hatred – is an issue which has shaped much of my professional and intellectual life, and one which I have spent a lot of time contemplating, as well as reading and writing about. There were so many angles I could have tackled the subject from, as anti-Semitism has gone through different stages over the years, and varies widely depending on the part of the world where this phenomena took place. For instance, early Christian anti-Judaic polemics – predicated largely by Jews’ rejection of Christ, and the related charge that Jews were responsible, as a group, for the death of Christ (deicide) – dates back to the first or second century CE, and certainly is/was quite a different creature than 20th century secular incarnations, such as the racially based anti-Semitism of the Nazis. And, the modern “progressive” anti-Semitism has some correlation to classic anti-Semitism, but, in many other respects, varies widely from that dynamic.

However, there were two themes which I thought worth commenting on, having decided to speak broadly on what I believe to be at the root of much (but, obviously not all) of the modern manifestation of anti-Semitism. The first one pertains to the reaction of many non-Jews to a very particularistic Jewish identity in a world increasingly under the influence of post-identity politics (which, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t explore), and the other, which I chose to elaborate on, was the reaction to the perception of Jewish power in the world.

Put simply, I explained – and as I touched on in my CW post about Tisha B’Av and Jewish power – classic anti-Semitism (such as the Jewish conspiracy posited in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) was predicated upon the fear of Jews (Judeophobia, as such) as aliens, different, the other who can’t be trusted and who, it was supposed, meets in secret with other Jews with some malicious intent, so that anything undesirable, economic or political could be projected upon the them. In the Middle Ages, Jews, to use but one example, were accused of being behind the Black Plague.

Today, however, while such wildly conspiratorial narratives pertaining to the Jews, sadly, still have currency in many parts of the world, by and large, such views have lost credibility in most of the West, and has instead morphed into a general fear of Jews insofar as they – who have achieved a good deal of economic and educational success – are perceived to possess power which is, in this view, disproportionate to their numbers. Indeed, a poll taken during the height of the economic downturn in the U.S., in 2008, indicated that 25% of Americans (including 1/3 of those identifying as Democrats) believed that Jews, as a group, were primarily responsible for the downturn. Jews are no longer accused in polite circles of ”poisoning the wells”, but, as representing in the eyes of many, the ruling class and perceived to be the group who has benefitted most by the capitalist system, they could be associated with other modern social and economic miseries which, even for the well-educated, often defy simple explanations.

This perception of Jews as wielding a disproportionate degree of power and influence in the world can also be found in critiques suggesting that Jews exercise too much power over U.S. foreign policy. The book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy – which argues that many of America’s deleterious foreign policy decisions (such as their support for Israel, as well as the decision, in 2003, to go to war with Iraq)  was only made possible as a result of the disproportionate influence of the organized Jewish community – is the intellectual ground zero of such a narrative.  (The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele published an essay in August advancing this ugly narrative of the corrosive effects of organized Jewry on the American body politic.)

This is obviously a much longer discussion, but, I think that our modern political culture has come to almost fetishize powerlessness, and, indeed, much of our discourse seems to almost lionize those perceived to be victims. It’s as if the status of being perceived to be an ”underdog” is assumed, a priori, to carry with it a positive moral dimension – a position which often allows political actors in the world arena perceived to be weak to get a sort of moral get-out-of-jail-free card.  Thus, denied the moral agency (the responsibility for one’s moral actions) that we assign to all other political actors, we can’t possibly ask as much from them as we do their stronger competitor? (Hamas may have an openly anti-Semitic founding charter, and be at its core, a totally reactionary political movement, but, it is often argued, at least implicitly, ”who are we to condemn their use of civilians as human shields in their war with Israel”? ”What can we expect from them”? ”Look how much stronger the Israeli military is than those ”rag-tag” fighters in Gaza”.)

And, as Jews in the West have shown that a historically oppressed minority can indeed overcome their oppression and succeed and prosper, they are, tragically, now often on the wrong side of this political paradigm. For, taking this politics of victimhood to its natural end, if the weakest members of society are weak for no reason other than the machinations of a system which oppresses them, then the inverse would naturally be true – those who benefit most from this same society must invariably reap these benefits by some nefarious undertakings or at least owing to some inherent systemic injustice. Much of modern anti-Semitism (and, to some degree, anti-Zionism), I argued, is only one component within a broader Western political current which, at its core, is about our perception of the relationship between power, personal (and group) responsibility, and success.  Modern Jewry, and the state of Israel – in their example of a historically oppressed minority who (through their own grit and determination) overcame their weakness and victimhood and now generally thrive (socially and economically) both as a people and as a nation – runs counter to the post-colonial paradigm which often lay at the core of “progressive” politics.  Many truly seem to resent the Jews for having emerged from their immemorial weakness – the mission “assigned” to them since the first diaspora – to achieve, by any standard, to a degree immensely disproportional to their numbers.  Once seen as powerless (the wretched of the earth), Jews are now accused of being arrogant, domineering, and immensely powerful.

I don’t know if I necessarily converted my new friends to my view, but they did genuinely seem interested in what I said, and seemed open-minded to my explanations.

CiF Watch can only hope that the ideologically dogmatic essayists  (and their readers) who often display a seemingly reflexive enmity towards Israel and their Jewish supporters – a dynamic this blog is dedicated to exposing – will one day be equally as open-minded in their analyses, a bit more self-critical, and tread more carefully on rhetorical ground that has been claimed in the service of such a historically lethal hatred.  I don’t think this is too much to ask of a powerful European media enterprise claiming such an elite “progressive” pedigree.

14 replies »

  1. Allow me to add to your article, the 14-century-long anti-Semitism of the Muslim world, ably documented in Martin Gilbert’s recent book, In Ishmael’s House.

  2. A very acute analysis regarding the fetishizing of powerlessness. This was brought home to me very forcefully in my campaign to get the Quaker Friends’ House to stop hiring halls to pro violence entities such as Hizbollah and the like, which is against Quaker principles as embodied in their lettings policies.

    The response among some Quakers in discussing this issue in their forums, indicates that even their sacrocant principle of peace is subservient to this fetish: they suggest that adherence to the principle of peace should not be at the cost of supporting the oppressor (Israel).

  3. The anti-Semitism documented in Gilbert’s book may be interpreted through the same eyes that you reflect upon in your excellent piece, eyes that see the oppressed as lacking the moral agency demanded for yourself. Do Muslims share the same guilt for hating Jews that some gentiles do, when the hatred is not of their making, not within the alterable moral parameters of their lives, for they are obliged to hate Jews, or at the very least humiliate them, not because their innate inhumanity leads them to, but because they attempt to imitate the will of God?
    The Anti Semitism of the liberal left can never be recognised by its sufferers, for it is still shameful to hold such depraved views. The anti-Semitism of the Muslim is however honourable, and worn with pride.

  4. Of course, the key to understanding how Jews can objectively be perceived as wielding disproportionate power is the fact that Jews are taught to read from an early age and remain focused on literature in a different language from their own until “adulthood”. Therefore a much higher proportion of Jews are education-oriented than is the case with non-Jews and the literary biligualism has a beneficial effect on brain-power. Thus they tend to succeed at school and at university and get good jobs with influence. Israelis in particular are in the forefront of industrial and IT technology and the number of Jewish lawyers, doctors and financiers far outnumber others as a proportion of their total population..

  5. Jews are no longer accused in polite circles of ”poisoning the wells”

    A couple of months ago there was a documentary film on German TV about letters written to Hitler from everyday folk. Most of those cited were requests to meet the “man” in person. Shocking enough.

    But the other day we saw the preview for a repeat broadcast on another channel. My German better half avoids politics and documentaries like the plague – but immediately said “God, do you remember that one letter?”

    She was referring to a letter by a 12-year-old, asking Hitler to “liberate us” and claiming that “at Easter the Jews come to kill the Christians”. Was this written in e.g. Munich in 1943 after 10 years of indoctrination (in this case from the cradle)?

    No. The letter was from a young ethnic German in one of the Baltic states the very week after Hitler came to power.

    Of course this was decades ago – but it was only decades ago and had as such nowt to do with the Nazis.

  6. Juliantheprostate :

    “…and the number of Jewish lawyers, doctors and financiers far outnumber others as a proportion of their total population..”

    you make it sound like being a lawyer is a good thing…

  7. juliantheprostate

    Jews are taught to read from an early age and remain focused on literature in a different language from their own until “adulthood”.

    Sorry, can you expand on that, i.e. what “different language from their own”?

  8. what “different language from their own”?

    The principal cultural and religious requirement for Jews coming of age (at thirteen) was literacy in Hebrew and familiarity with the religious literature in Hebrew, in addition to knowledge of their “own” secular language (German, French, Polish, Russian, Arabic) and often Yiddish or Ladino as well.

  9. It seems interesting that, with the Jewish emphasis on and valuing of education, other presumably educated people do not see that their education could be a levelling link.

    Maybe antisemites aren’t able to benefit from education?

  10. Gentile Zionist

    The principal cultural and religious requirement for Jews coming of age (at thirteen) was literacy in Hebrew and familiarity with the religious literature in Hebrew …

    When and where was this?

  11. “When and where was this?”

    One wonders at such complete ignorance of Jewish culture.

    The Bar Mitzva is not simply a point in time (thirteenth birthday), nor a celebration, but at core is the ceermony of calling the child to the synagogue stage to prove his literacy in Hebrew, by publicly reading aloud and discussing the week’s Torah portion.

    From the Talmudic era (and likely from the Yavneh Sanhedrin period even earlier), the Jewish communal practise was introduction to religion at three or so, introduction to the aleph-bet (written Hebrew) at five or so, and above all public proof of full [Hebrew] literacy to the community at thirteen (otherwise known as “Bar Mitzva”).
    “Judaism is a religion dedicated to media literacy. The initiation to adult practice is not an act of faith, but a demonstration of literacy called a bar (or bat) mitzvah”
    “the obligation of universal literacy, at least among Jewish males, made Hebrew accessible not just to the priests, as became true of Latin, but to everyone who ever attended elementary school and recited daily prayers.” p. 47
    “Indeed universal literacy in Hebrew and familiarity with the Biblical text were communal ideals for all males, and many communities provided basic instruction in reading [of Hebrew] for girls as well.”
    “Upsherin day [third birthday] also includes learning the Aleph-Bet [Hebrew alphabet] with the child. A beautiful way to do this is to get a plastic-coated Aleph-Bet card, and place a bit of honey on each letter. Then have the child lick the honey while saying each letter. This is so the Torah should be “sweet on his tongue!””
    “The Rabbinic tradition maintains that we access God’s wisdom through the study of holy books. Spirituality demands literacy. The first Jewish public school system was established by Joshua ben Gamla in the first century. Child development was conceived by the Rabbis as a curriculum of holy texts to be learned at the appropriate ages: Bible by five, Mishnah by ten, Talmud by fifteen. Above all, schooling was to be an experience of sweetness. A child’s first day of school was celebrated by the entire community with symbols of sweetness.
    “the initiation of boys at the age of five or six into Hebrew studies. Dressed in his best clothes, the boy was escorted to the synagogue and was fed eggs, fruit, and cakes of honey. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet were written on a slate and read to the boy. Then the letters were covered with honey, which the boy licked. … Owing to the primacy of ritual in traditional Judaism, instruction of children focused on the attainment of ritual literacy as its central goal. In the Talmudic era, boys attended elementary school or studied with a tutor from the age of five, six, or seven until the age of twelve or thirteen. … Fourteenth-century sources describe a boy being called to [read the] the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath that coincided with or followed his thirteenth birthday; in sixteenth-century Poland, the ceremony developed into a bona fide rite of passage.”

  12. I have also met secular Europeans who have no animus toward Israel, in fact who like and support Israel just because they like Israel and Israelis, and can tell Israelis are the good guys in the war against Islamofascism. It’s refreshing.

  13. @ Gentile Zionist

    Erm … do you actually have any Jewish friends? You want to watch out with your accusations of “complete ignorance” …

  14. Fundamentally , all theories as to the reasons for the world’s longest hatred can most succinctly be ascribed to Mark Twain’s famous quote, ” Antisemitism is the swollen envy of pygmie minds.”