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Jewish Journal

Where Lies the Real Cause of Anti-Semitism?

by Hillel Halkin

May 22, 2003 | 8:00 pm

When we ask ourselves whether anti-Semitism is essentially one thing or many, just as when we ask ourselves whether or how it will cease -- when we ask, in other words, what must change to make it cease -- are we not really asking whether the real cause of anti-Semitism is to be found in the Jews or in the world?

Before anyone protests that even to inquire whether the Jews might be the cause of anti-Semitism is an abject capitulation to the anti-Semites, I would remind you that the belief that they are the cause of it has been traditionally shared by anti-Semites with Jews.

Why are the Jews like the fruit of the olive tree, ask the rabbis in the Midrash. "Because," they answer, "as all liquids mix with each other, but the oil of the olive does not, so Israel does not mix with the gentiles.... And as the olive does not yield its oil unless it is crushed, so Israel does not return to God unless it is crushed by affliction."

Being chosen and set apart exacts a double price. It makes an envious and indignant world persecute the Jews, and it makes a pedagogical God allow this to happen. Historically, this is the normative Jewish point of view. Classical Zionism, too, viewed the Jews as the cause of anti-Semitism.

Here is Leo Pinsker's "Auto-Emancipation," published 14 years before [Theodore] Herzl's "The Jewish State": "Among the living nations of the earth, the Jews occupy the position of a nation long since dead.... If the fear of ghosts is something inborn and has a certain justification in the psychic life of humanity, is it any wonder that it asserted itself powerfully at the sight of this dead and yet living nation...? The misfortunes of the Jews are due, above all, to their lack of desire for national independence...."

Zionism understood the Jews' misfortunes differently from rabbinic Judaism, which made it more optimistic about overcoming them. And yet there is in all self-blame a peculiar sort of optimism that helps to explain why, starting with the biblical prophets, there has been so much of it among Jews. For if you are the cause of your own suffering, you have the ability to rectify it, as you do not if it is caused by something or someone outside you.

Imagine that in its early years, Zionism had declared proudly and defiantly: "Do not blame the Jews! It is not their fault that they have become the scapegoats of a sick mankind, which has projected onto them, and will continue to project onto them, all its fears, hatreds and phobias."

Such a Zionism would also have had to say: "Because mankind will always have fears, hatred and phobias, there will always be anti-Semitism, which no Jewish State can put an end to. On the contrary, such a state will simply become anti-Semitism's new focus."

How many followers would a Herzl who said this have attracted? If anti-Semitism has a single cause -- the Jews -- it is a dragon that can be slain. If it has many causes -- as many as the world has fears, hatreds and phobias -- it is a hydra: Cut off one head and it will grow another. Is that, then, what we are asking when we ask whether the new anti-Semitism is or is not just the old one all over again -- whether we are fighting a dragon or a hydra?

I have two friends who I wish were at this conference (on "Anti-Semitism in the West"). They have thought more passionately about anti-Semitism than anyone else I know personally, and they disagree about it so sharply that we've missed a chance to see some sparks fly by not having them.

They are the scholar and critic of Jewish literature Ruth Wisse and the novelist A.B. Yehoshua. Wisse rejects the notion that the Jews have caused anti-Semitism, except insofar, perhaps, as they have not been militant enough in combating it. Jewish self-blame, she thinks, is a habitual introjection of anti-Semitic attitudes that turns the anger of Jews inward at themselves, rather than outward at their enemies.

Anti-Semitism is hydra-headed, and its latest form of hatred of Israel should be viewed not primarily as another round of "discrimination against Jews or even persecution of Jews," but as "a political instrument to oppose liberal democracy by harnessing ancient prejudice to brand-new fears."

The battle for democracy -- the one form of government under which Jews have always prospered -- and the battle against Israelophobia, Wisse therefore argues in a book she now is writing, are one and the same, since Israel is "democracy's fighting front line."

Yehoshua is writing a book, too. In it he maintains that the ultimate reason for anti-Semitism is the Jews themselves. Although this does not, needless to say, excuse or justify prejudice against them, the Jews have throughout their history, Yehoshua believes, baffled and exasperated the world. They have done this by taking two ideas that were their contribution to civilization and by which civilization subsequently organized itself -- the idea of monotheistic universalism and the idea of national particularism -- and fusing them in a way that has subverted both, thus ironically making them in the world's eyes the symbolic enemy of humanity and of the nation alike.

It is this fusion or confusion, Yehoshua argues, that has enabled the Arab states to turn a political and territorial conflict with Israel into a successful anti-Semitic campaign, since Israel's failure to distinguish clearly between religion and nationality -- that is, between Jewishness and Israeliness -- makes it an anomaly among democracies and exposes it to charges of racism and discrimination.

I don't wish to comment in these brief remarks on the intrinsic merits of either Wisse's or Yehoshua's position, each of which draws on a broad hinterland of thought. I would merely point out that if we ask ourselves the question put to this panel, "Has the sovereignty of Jews in the State of Israel and the flourishing of Jews in America permanently changed the context for the analysis of anti-Semitism," Wisse says "yes" and Yehoshua says "no," while if we ask, "Do the Jews have the power to put an end to anti-Semitism," Wisse says "no" and Yehoshua says "yes."

Yehoshua's "yes" is based on the conviction that if Israel and Diaspora Jewry would pursue the Zionist revolution to its logical end, they would finally disentangle the Jewish confusion of religion and nationality that has rankled mankind for over 2,000 years, leaving us with two discrete identities -- a Jewish religious one and an Israeli national one.

Since such a Judaism could no longer be suspected of supranational allegiances and such an Israel could no longer be accused of undemocratic practices, Type 6 anti-Semitism would fade and -- in the absence of a cause for Type 7 -- anti-Semitism would pass at last from the world.

Wisse would object to this strongly. She would counter, I suppose, that Judaism without Jewish nationhood would not be Judaism, just as a non-Jewish Israel would not be Israel, and that Yehoshua's approach simply demonstrates the illusion of thinking that, short of disappearing themselves, the Jews can make anti-Semitism disappear.

We have, then, two opposed analyses. Yet, curiously, they converge on one belief, which is that a vigorously democratic Israel in an alliance of values and interests with democratic forces around the world is the best way of combating contemporary anti-Semitism. And while you needn't doubt that if they were at this conference, Wisse, who is on the political right, and Yehoshua, who is on the political left, would be fighting tooth-and-nail over just what such an Israel and such a Jewish politics entail, they would fully agree on the need for defending and promoting them.

This is encouraging. It suggests that however differently we may answer the questions put to this panel, our operative conclusions may turn out to be similar. It is a little as if two oncologists, after arguing how and whether a new malignancy in a patient is related to a previous one, found themselves agreeing on the broad outlines of its treatment, if not on the specific drugs or techniques of surgery to be used. The history of medicine indeed tells us that successfully combating an illness need not depend on identifying its root cause.

"Why the Jews?" will go on being asked, not because the question is resolvable or because we cannot act without answers to it, but because our anguish in the face of continued anti-Semitism makes us ask it. This anguish is especially great for those of us who have believed, and go on believing, that Zionism and Israel were the most appropriate and farsighted of all Jewish responses to modernity, a heroic effort on the part of the Jewish people to rejoin the family of man.

That this effort is now widely represented, so soon after the Holocaust, as a new argument for excluding the Jews from humanity's ranks is a bitter blow. One could easily be driven to despair by it. That is why it is important to keep in mind that, nevertheless, we know what needs to be done.

Hillel Halkin, a journalist and essayist who publishes often in Commentary and The Forward, is the author of "Letters to an American Jewish Friend" and "Across the Sabbath River." The column above is excerpted from a speech given at a recent international conference in New York, "Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-Semitism in the West."

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