So sang the American satirist Tom Lehrer, himself a Jew, in his 1965 classic “National Brotherhood Week,” and his words are the ones that came to mind Saturday night after my Twitter feed exploded with news of the attack on the Chabad of Poway, California, just hours after that same Twitter feed informed me of an odious, antisemitic cartoon that appeared in the august, liberal and enlightened New York Times.
“Shavua tov [good week],” I sardonically said to myself.
No, not everybody hates the Jews. Far from it. But Lehrer was a satirist, and exaggeration is the bread and butter of parody. And Lehrer, with this parody, hit on something very true: the fear and hatred and exaggerated power and influence attributed to the Jews – antisemitism – unites disparate parts of humanity.
It always has. Historically, universalists – beginning with the Hellenists – as well as nationalists – such as the Nazis – found common ground in their Jew hatred. The communists and fascists had little in common, but they both detested the Jews. David Duke and Louis Farrakhan have little in common, but they both hate the Jews. Britain’s Labour head Jeremy Corbyn and Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have little in common, but are both antisemites.
Gustavo Perednik, an Argentinian-born Israeli author, summed it up well in his book, Judeophobia. “The Jews were accused by the nationalists of being the creators of Communism; by the Communists of ruling Capitalism. If they live in non-Jewish countries, they are accused of double-loyalties; if they live in the Jewish country, of being racists. When they spend their money, they are reproached for being ostentatious; when they don’t spend their money, of being avaricious. They are called rootless cosmopolitans or hardened chauvinists. If they assimilate, they are accused of being fifth-columnists, if they don’t, of shutting themselves away.”
The New York Times cartoon – which featured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog leading a blind US President Donald Trump wearing a yarmulke – did not cause the Poway attack any more than Trump’s remark about the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia riots – “very fine people on both sides” – lead to the murders at the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation last year in Pittsburgh. But such cartoons and comments – by seemingly mainstreaming antisemites and antisemitic sentiments – create the atmosphere where antisemitism can thrive.
The San Diego shooter was probably not a subscriber to The New York Times. But what his alleged pre-shooting rant posted on social media and the pernicious Times cartoon had in common was a belief in a fantastical power of the Jew: the Jew as the manipulator of the world, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
There is an unfortunate tendency after each act of antisemitism anywhere – be it abroad or Palestinian antisemitic terrorism in Israel – to politicize it, to score political points, point fingers, blame someone else, place responsibility at the feet of one’s political opponent.
But antisemitism is bigger than all that. It plagues the Left, just as it plagues the Right. It is an ever-present motif in the Muslim world, and even exists, as it has historically, on the fringes among Jews themselves – not in anywhere near the same degree, but it is there on the margins.
And, sadly, it’s not going anywhere. We can wring our hands about antisemitism. We can despair its resilience. But it is a fixture of humanity. Or, as it says in the Haggada that we just read a week ago, “v’he sha’amda”: In every single generation people rise up to destroy us.
The second part of that phrase continues, “But the Holy One saves us from their hands.” Believers will find comfort in that sentiment, non-believers will think it, perhaps, a bit quaint and even naïve. But whatever one’s predilection, Jewish history is a testament to the survival of the Jews – despite the ever-present hatred of Jews that spans centuries and morphs from one form to the next.
Wednesday night marks the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Netanyahu, for the 11th consecutive time since taking office in 2009, will give a speech at Yad Vashem. This is generally one of his most powerful speeches of the year, even though it is often predictable.
He will likely talk about the rise of antisemitism around the world, and about Iran, and then – as he has so many times before – will say that what is different today is that the Jews have a state, an army, and the ability to defend themselves.
And while that state, army and ability to defend itself did not save Lori Gilbert-Kaye in Poway on Saturday from a white nationalist antisemite, any more than it protected the Union Temple in Brooklyn last November from a Brandeis-educated African-American antisemite who defaced it with epithets of “Jews better be ready” and “Die Jew rats we are here,” things are different.
If history has taught anything, it is that antisemitism will not disappear, regardless of what the Jews do or what ideology they do or do not embrace. It needs to be fought with all tools possible. The difference today is that – as Netanyahu will likely say on Wednesday evening, and as he has said many times in the past – the Jews today do have the ability to stand up for themselves and protect themselves and defend themselves to a degree unthinkable a century ago.
The emergence again of antisemitism on the Right and the Left shows that Jew-hatred never dies, and – oddly – unites those at opposite extremes of the political and ideological spectrum.
But the condition of the Jews as a collective has changed fundamentally – as has their ability to speak up for themselves and defend themselves – and that is something to keep in mind even when mourning the attack outside San Diego and fretting about where the next one might take place.
Hatred of the Jews might not have changed; but the Jews have.