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Is anti-Semitism (in moderation, of course) good for the Jews?

by Tom Tugend

August 16, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Eugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh

Is anti-Semitism good for American Jews?

Yes; in moderate doses it may be the antidote to assimilation and declining support for Israel among American Jews, argues UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

Actually, with biased criticism of Israel added to modest amounts of anti-Semitism, the mix "can strengthen [Volokh's italics] American Jews' self-identity as Jews," Volokh proposes. In turn, heightened self-identity will fortify the American Jewish community, a sense of common Jewish fate, and support for Israel, he adds.

As another overall positive, Volokh says that some fear of anti-Semitism reminds American Jews of the values of preserving American Jewish institutions and of "protecting Israel, in case one day American Jews may need refuge somewhere, just as European Jews once did."

Volokh's background is interesting. His family left Kiev and came to the United States when he was a 7-year-old academic wunderkind. He graduated from UCLA at 15, at the same time making his mark as a computer programmer and co-founding his own small software company. Now 39, he teaches constitutional law, including free speech and state-church issues, and has evolved into something of a conservative iconoclast in legal circles.

His thoughts on the beneficial effects of mild anti-Semitism were first published on his widely read blog The Volokh Conspiracy, then picked up and printed as an op-ed column by the Wall Street Journal and expanded during an interview in his UCLA office.

Volokh, who describes himself as "a relatively assimilated Jew," is at pains to emphasize that "I don't think it's wonderful to have anti-Semitism and if it vanished overnight, I certainly wouldn't have a problem. The question is how to deal with it."

He also makes it clear that anti-Semitic acts or violence should be fully prosecuted and punished, but that suppressing the free speech rights of anti-Semites or bigoted critics of Israel would be counter-productive. Even if stifling of such speech were successful, it would only lull American Jews into a false sense of complacency, he argues. On the other hand, "publicly identifying and condemning such speech will remind American Jews that there is anti-Semitism out there and must be fought."

Taking as an example recent tirades by Muslim speakers against Israel and Jews at the University of California, Irvine, Volokh defends their free speech rights but urges that videos of their rantings be widely distributed to warn the Jewish and general publics of the speakers' true intentions.

Two veteran analysts of American Jewish life took issue with Volokh's thesis when contacted by The Journal.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom questions Volokh's assumption that American Jews are too complacent about anti-Semitism or growing indifferent to the dangers facing Israel. He believes that, on the contrary, American Jews and their institutions are highly sensitive to anti-Semitic expressions, and, far from losing interest in Israel, are often "blinded by their adoration of the Jewish state."

Schulweis urges careful distinction of motives among critics of Israel. "I think criticism of Israeli policy by Peace Now is not anti-Semitic," he says. "On the other hand, boycotts of Israel advocated by British academics are largely motivated by anti-Semitism."

Schulweis rejects the argument that a little anti-Semitism is good for Jewish survival, saying "It's like prescribing just a small dose of poison."

Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, a theology professor at the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) questions Volokh's views on a number of points.

First, "there is no such thing as mild, controlled anti-Semitism," says Berenbaum, and secondly hatred of Jews is always an indicator, the canary in the coalmine, of hatred of other people and races. If it is true that external hostility is required to maintain the internal cohesion of the Jewish people, "we should deeply bemoan" such a fact, he observes.

For his part, Berenbaum prefers to define his Jewishness on positive, meaningful terms. "When I have a cicumcision for my son, or a naming ceremony for my daughter, they are 3,000 years old and heirs to our history," he declares. That said, Berenbaum acknowledges that asking whether the Jewish community can survive in freedom is a valid question.

"My answer," says Berenbaum, "is yes."

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