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Anti-Semitism Reconsidered and Reconsidered Again

The world’s store of outrage is highly selective, indeed almost entirely limited to outrage against the Jewish state

Photo: AP Images


ack in the days when I was still doing frequent speaking tours abroad, one of my set speeches was entitled, “Anti-Semitism: An Optimist’s View.” That speech had two distinct purposes. The first was to refute the commonly expressed opinion, “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism,” and to locate anti-Zionism as just another chapter in the long history of anti-Semitism.

That part of the speech is hardly needed today, when haters of Israel — and not just Muslim Brotherhood affiliates like Hamas — openly express their hatred for Jews. But it was always an easy matter to demonstrate that mass demonstrations around the world against Israel and its allegedly inhumane treatment of the civilian population of Gaza have next to nothing to do with a concern for civilians, even for Palestinian civilians, and everything to do with the chance to portray Jews as perpetrators of evil.

In the nearly two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has constantly targeted Ukrainian civilian targets, such as hospitals and schools, without the slightest attempt to conceal what it is doing or to make a claim of military necessity. And yet there have been no demonstrations against Russia in any major Western capital.

So perhaps you’ll say, in Whoopi Goldberg’s famous formulation, that’s because Russia versus Ukraine has nothing to do with race, just a bunch of white people going at it, and thus is of no interest to good progressives espousing intersectionality. But then what are you going to do with half a million black Muslims in the Darfur region of Sudan slaughtered by Arab Muslims between 2002 and 2006? Musa Hilal, the leader of the Arab militias, the Janjaweed, expressed the goal of ridding Darfur of African tribesmen. That’s two war crimes in one — real, not fantasized, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. But again, that slaughter aroused no one to demonstrate against the brutal treatment of black Muslims. What’s the story? Arabs can’t be the bad guys because they fight the Jews?

Between 350,000 and 614,000 Syrian Muslims were killed in the Syrian Civil War, and approximately 12.2 million people displaced from their homes, including 850,000 Palestinians. And Bashar Assad employed chemical weapons against his own population. Yet, again, there were no demonstrations against the Assad regime. In sum, the world’s store of outrage is highly selective, indeed almost entirely limited to outrage against the Jewish state.


THE SECOND PART of the speech, which was usually given to college students or other nonobservant audiences, was designed to force the audience to contemplate the reasons for “the world’s longest hatred,” and its protean nature. There are, of course, many explanations for Jew hatred. High among them, according to the great economist and historian of ideas Thomas Sowell, is jealousy: Jews succeed in ways that threaten the self-image of others, i.e., they succeed despite the odds being heavily stacked against them and in the face of societal prejudice. (Sowell’s work cites a number of other ethnic groups that have been successful in multiple countries, despite being members of small and discriminated-against minorities.)

Jealousy would certainly explain the hatred of the Arab world. Until very recently, Israel had no known natural resources, and yet it is a world leader in all forms of innovation, from high tech to medical and biological research to military technology to drip irrigation to desalinization. Many of the 22 Arab states sit on vast oil reserves. Yet if those 22 states were simply to disappear (but leave their oil), that disappearance would go almost unnoticed, so scant are their contributions to human advancement.

Jealousy also explains why Jews are anathema to purveyors of “systemic racism” as an explanation for differential group outcomes. They are a full refutation of the idea that all such differentials are the result of prejudice and discrimination.

Nevertheless, if one is looking for a unified theory of anti-Semitism, one cannot improve on the words of Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain in the late 1930s, and quoted by the great scholar of anti-Semitism Robert Wistrich in his classic The Lethal Obsession: “Israel... is to be found at the very heart of the world’s structure, stimulating it, exasperating it, moving it. Like an alien body, like an activating ferment injected into the mass, it gives the world no peace.... [A]s long as the world has not G-d, it stimulates the movement of history.... It is the vocation of Israel that the world hates.” In other words, the protean, unceasing nature of anti-Semitism reflects, in a perverse way, the world’s sense of Jewish chosenness.

That is what I tried to get my college student audiences to understand: They are privileged to be part of a chosen people, something that even — no, especially — anti-Semites understand. And that being the case, should they not spend a little time exploring precisely the nature of the world-historical mission for which the Jews were chosen? So much for the optimistic view.


NEVERTHELESS, I MUST CONFESS that I’m not feeling so optimistic about anti-Semitism just now. Indeed, the global explosion weighs heavily upon me. For one thing, we are not dealing with a genteel distaste for Jews, but what Wistrich called “obsessional” anti-Semitism, and it is lethal.

It took over 55 years after the Holocaust before a British lord confided to Penelope Wyatt of the Spectator, “Thank G-d, we can once again say what we think of Jews [because of Israel].” It did not take any time at all for college campuses to explode in celebration of the slaughter of Jews.

And what were they celebrating? Eighty percent of Hamas’s victims on Simchas Torah were tortured before they were killed. After watching the “gruesome” videos of Hamas’s rampage, Charles Lane of the Washington Post wrote, “What was revelatory — what you really do have to see and hear to believe — is the attitude of the terrorists. They are having the time of their lives. Some whoop with delight over dead civilians lying on a highway. A team of gunmen brings a dead Israeli soldier back to Gaza and stands triumphantly over his body, as a crowd spontaneously rushes forward to kick and stomp the corpse. Young, heavily armed members of Hamas’s elite Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades pose for a video selfie, shouting in Arabic, ‘That’s how it’s done.’ ”

Students and demonstrators around the world were thus celebrating a frenzy of bloodlust. They could do the same, given half a chance. And these are the future leaders of the West.

Jews around the world are now vulnerable, and the more identifiable, the more vulnerable. Police in London and Crown Heights tell Jews to remain inside because they cannot protect them. Israel’s Foreign Ministry is now warning Israelis against leaving the country, no matter where they are going, with the possible exception of Hungary. On campus, on the subways of New York, on a Los Angeles street corner, in Trafalgar Square in central London, on the streets of Lyon and in private apartments in Paris, Jews are in mortal danger.

Even worse, perhaps, the condemnations of Israel for responding in the only way possible in order to eliminate Hamas, and the calls for a cease-fire, if heeded, would provide Hamas and Hezbollah with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for both now and anytime in the future they want to strike Israel, home to nearly half the world’s Jewish population. As I have noted many times in the past, granting immunity to terror groups who embed their arms, missiles, and fighters among civilians is to render Israel incapable of defending itself and force Israel’s Jews to live under constant threat of a magnitude no nation can endure.

All this weighs heavily. Both the danger to Jews from lethal anti-Semitism around the world and the threat to all my loved ones and fellow citizens in Israel.


STILL, THERE IS ROOM for a tempered optimist’s view of anti-Semitism, as well. The nearly 300,000 Jews who poured into D.C. last week constituted the numerically largest expression of Jewish identity in American history. Perhaps equally significant was Tablet’s symposium “What Next?” on the outbreak of open and visceral anti-Semitism. I was moved to tears more than once by the 13 respondents. Here is Stephanie Butnick’s advice:

It’s simple: Double down on the thing that is setting us apart in this moment, the thing that marks us as different, that seems to be making people so mad.

Double down on being Jewish — and being proudly Jewish.

Instead of feeling like your Judaism is a target on your back, treat it like a badge of honor. Our Jewishness is something we should celebrate, a universe filled with beauty and meaning, an identity that can sustain us just as it sustained our ancestors for millennia.

You can start by learning a bit more.... You can also try to pick up a Jewish practice. Shabbat is a great place to start: It’s easy, delicious, and comes around every week. At the very least, you’ll thank me for the social media break.

Armin Rosen titled his response, “Get a Little More Religious. You Know You Want To,” and opened with a description of Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum’s address at the recent siyum on Seder Nashim: “Every Tosafos is a rocket. Every kapitel Tehillim is a bomb.” Accordingly, he advised even those, like himself, for whom the study of Gemara and Tosafos is still a closed book, to open up the ArtScroll Sefer Tehillim.

“Under the metaphysics the Queens-based rabbi alluded to,” he writes, “a Jew’s mere reading of holy words is powerful enough to answer deadly acts of evil, and to serve as a physical defense for strangers thousands of miles away.” Rather than dismissing that metaphysics, Rosen concludes, “Perhaps one legacy of October 7 will be a growing discovery that living without such seemingly wild notions of how and why we exist as Jews is impossible.

“In recent years, Jews of various backgrounds have discovered that Judaism actually makes a whole lot more sense if there’s religion involved,” writes Rosen. “[And] in the living nightmare after October 7, religion has become one of the few unifying forces for Jews around the world that is actually positive.” Amid the justified fear of what might be coming, Jews have both drawn closer to one another, “while also [being forced] to take account of what’s always been there, the sources of meaning that have endured through crises far worse than the current one.”

Meanwhile at The Free Press, Batya Ungar-Sargon acknowledges, “It’s not pleasant to find out that your classmates will not condemn the murder of your people, or to hear thousands of them gleefully chanting the slogans of a genocidal death cult committed to your erasure from this planet.” But she advises against allowing ourselves to fall into a victimhood mindset. Instead, remember, “It’s good to be unpopular with a mob whose worldview has done away with the concept of right and wrong and decided, with a Nazi-like commitment to racial ideology, that you are Jewish and therefore you are white and therefore you are bad.... It is good to be unpopular with people who cannot separate evil from power and virtue from skin color.... We don’t answer to them; we answer to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.”

Remember, each of these authors were writing for a largely non-Orthodox audience. Rav Chaim of Volozhin famously said, “If the Jew does not make Kiddush [i.e., preserve his sense of being distinct], the goy will make Havdalah [separate us from him].’ ”

The wisdom of those words stressing the protective function of anti-Semitism to preserve Jewish self-identity is fully borne out today.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 987. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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