The History and Paradox of Anti-Semitism
People hate Jews.
This is not a radical or innovative statement. It’s a reality that all students of Jewish history and contemporary Jews understand on one level or another.
Nor is the statement that people hate Jews a new one.
Anti-semitism reaches as far back as the Greeks over 2,300 years ago. Greek writers and philosophers often note that the Jews, no matter how hard they were pushed, would not give up their archaic traditions and join mainstream society. In turn, throughout Greco-Roman rule, laws were often passed to stymie Jewish practice as things like Sabbath observance, circumcision, and public Torah readings were forbidden. Most historians actually think that the book of Esther, about an attempted genocide against the Jewish community, was written to convey Jewish fears living under Greek rule. And, if we remember from the book of Esther, Haman wanted to kill the Jews because their “laws are different” (Esther 3:8).
Of course, anti-semitism took on a completely new identity under Christendom. If we can label the Greco-Roman anti-semitism sociology based (they disliked Jews because we act differently) we can label Christian anti-semitism religious in nature.
The Jews rejected Jesus. This is the fundament of Christian anti-semitism. Plain and simple.
And, given that Jesus is the source of all good and morality, if the Jews rejected Jesus then they must be the most evil and unethical group of people in the world. A people so evil that not only did they reject Jesus, but they also must have been the ones to kill him. A people so evil that they are the logical suspects every time a young child goes missing or a plague spreads throughout the wider society.
The religious anti-semitism of Christianity taught that Jews were tainted, not because they were fundamentally different, but because of their specific religious beliefs. But there was, however, a possible respite. Jews who had converted to Christianity could “save” themselves both from the inherent immoralities of Judaism and from the Church’s torture. It was not Jews that were inherently bad, but rather Judaism.
Modern, post-enlightenment anti-semitism, however, has taken on a completely new form that neither the ancient Greeks nor the Christians would have been able to grasp. Anti-semitism in its post-enlightenment iteration has taken on a racial form where Jews, as a race, are inferior.
It is important to understand just how fundamentally different this racial form of anti-semitism is from its other predecessors, for in this distinction lies the ultimate paradox. Unlike the anti-semitism of the Greeks, Romans, or Christians - racial anti-semitism is something that is immutable about the Jew. In this version, Jews are not singled out because of any specific actions or beliefs, rather they are fundamentally tainted with a myriad of pathologies endemic to their inferior race.
The spread of racial anti-semitism, coincided with the proliferation of political and economic theory throughout Europe. It was a match made in Jew hatred heaven. At the exact time where people were attempting to come up with scientific theories about economics, international politics, and sociology - nascent scientific theories about Jewish inferiority were beginning to blossom. The Jews, as Untermenschen (sub-humans), must be responsible for all of these societal pathologies. Economy collapses - it must be the Jews. War spreads throughout Europe - it must be the Jews.
Racial anti-semitism teaches that the Jews are a cancer, and only by extermination will their infectious disease be eradicated. And no Jew, whether through conversion or renouncing her Judaism, was safe.
But Jews had an answer. If the world won’t let us forget that we are Jews, then we must reclaim the fundamental essence of our Jewishness. A nation comprised of people spread throughout the world with a 3,000 year history going back to ancient Israel. The only way we will be safe is if we return to the national roots of our Judaism, a Jewish country where we will be in control of our own self-determination and can live out our highest virtues as a people.
And herein lies the paradox of modern anti-semitism.
While I do not wish to rehash the debate about the intersection between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, it is important to point something out about today’s anti-Israel discourse.
For fervent anti-Zionists, the Jews who founded Israel are really just white Europeans who have come over to colonize Israel. The Idea of Jewish nationhood is a fiction. There is no Jewish “nation” only a religion with no shared history amongst its adherents. And a religion, they teach, doesn’t need its own country!
Rejecting the status of Jews as a nation, and thereby denying our history, identity, and tradition, is inherently an act of anti-semitism.
For the racial anti-semites, the type that Israel was created to protect against, the Jews are a race (not a religion) and there is something within their blood or essence that renders them deficient. For this reason they will never fit in with mainstream society.
But for the anti-Israel community the Jews are a religion (not a race or nation) and therefore should receive none of the benefits or protections from racism that all other races or nations deserve.
As a Jewish community we are sandwiched in between two conflicting versions of anti-semitism, the synthesis of which creates an extremely precarious position for the modern Jew.
Today, without oversimplifying things too much, the different types of anti-semitism along with the fight over the modern definition of Judaism underpins much of the Western discourse surrounding Jews. We have religious anti-semites supporting Israel because they believe that it is only when Jews return to the Holy Land, that the rapture can occur and Jews be rightfully punished. Ditto for racial anti-semites (mostly on the far-Right) supporting Israel because they specifically want the Jews “out of the West.” On the other hand it is not rare for anti-Zionists to tell Jews things like “get out of Israel and go back to Europe!”
But many anti-Zionists will stick by Jews when religious or racial anti-semitism strikes. So long as Jews are being maligned because of their religion or race, they will help. But the second the Jews as a nation or national movement comes into question they often become the anti-semites.
It seems that no matter what we can’t win. Whatever Judaism is (a social group, religion, race, or nation), people won’t like it. The real question is: can Jews put their politics aside and call out anti-semitism, in all of its iterations, whenever it arises.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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