Antisemitism is rearing its head again. Sometimes it is a tragi-comedy, like saying that Israeli politician Tzipi Livni has smelly feet, a ridiculous notion derived from the medieval claim that Jews have a stench. More often it is a tragedy with no trace of comedy, when Jewish shops, synagogues and cemeteries are targeted, and Jews are murdered.
Antisemitism’s long history evolved in three stages. In ancient times, the superpowers found the Judeans an obstinate, inconvenient people. The second stage was unleashed by Christianity, which claimed that Jews were punished for rejecting Jesus by being cursed by God. The fact that Jesus and his disciples were all Jews was inconvenient to acknowledge. Judaism allegedly led people astray. It was accused of being a Synagogue of Satan. If Jews remained Jews they had to be kept down and removed, though if they changed their faith they could change their fate. 19th century antisemitism advanced a quasi-scientific form of Jew-hatred, claiming that Jews were genetically flawed and could never escape their taint. The Church was no longer so powerful, but it had made the Jew into a devil. It had laid foundations for an increasingly secular doctrine of Jew-hatred which transferred the demonization of the Jew to the secular world. As Jules Isaac put it, the Jew had become the eternal negative symbol of history.
The Holocaust was not caused by Christians as such but they made an inexorable contribution towards its advent. Some churches rang their bells and genuflected before Hitler. When asked to protect innocent Jewish blood, they said that Jewish blood was never innocent. Yet Nazi antisemitism was not just an attack on Jews but an attack on Christianity, and the Jewish Jesus would have been one of the first victims. The Nazis dethroned God, discarded the Biblical doctrine of man’s dignity, and worshiped the gods they had created for themselves. The Holocaust was an outrage against Judaism, an attack against Christianity, an insult to ethics, and a menace to Man.
Voices were sometimes raised in Britain, America and other lands suggesting that it must be the fault of the Jews. Jewish and gentile publications defended the Jewish record. Obviously they quoted Churchill. They also quoted Tolstoy, who called antisemitism “a mad passion,” and said, “The Jew is the emblem of civil and religious toleration. The Jew is the pioneer of liberty. The Jew is the pioneer of civilization.” Woodrow Wilson noted “how very much besides religion we owe to the Jew.” Lloyd George said, “Of all the bigotries that savage the human temper there is none so stupid as the antisemite. No good has ever come of nations that crucified Jews.” Field Marshall Jan Smuts acclaimed “the Jews’ contribution to the well-being of the world.”
Lists of Jewish contributions to society, however impressive, are ineffective as counters to antisemitic prejudice because it is in the nature of prejudice not to follow reason or logic. The beast once unleashed knows no rational red lines. An excellent book by Denis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, argues that it is the principal elements of Judaism that lie behind Jew-hatred: the world is challenged and shamed by the Jewish God, and the Jewish ethic of law, education, truth, charity and justice. No one liked the Jewish message so they attacked the messenger.
All very true, but Prager and Telushkin think people are fundamentally reasonable. If they were, they would know that smelly feet are precisely what Jews don’t have because they are scrupulous about health, hygiene and cleanliness. They would know that Jews don’t have hooked noses – and even if they did, so what? They would know that Jews have no designs on world government other than the messianic aspiration for mankind to attain high ethical standards. They would know that Judaism teaches resourcefulness, and enabled countless Jews to be creative. But people who dislike Jews are unlikely to be persuaded to drop their prejudices.
They are also unlikely to admit that if there are Christian and Islamic states there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a Jewish state where, as the historian Lewis Namier said, “Jews can live, work and amuse themselves as they please, be good, bad, great or ridiculous.” Nor are they likely to see how inappropriate it is to call Israel an apartheid state when there is a world of difference between apartheid South Africa and the way that minorities are treated in Israel.
They do not see the incongruity in trying to defend the Palestinians and attacking the so-called settlements. They opposed Israel, Zionism and Jews long before the Palestinian issue and before international vocabulary spoke of settlements (though to be just, they had some respect for the idealism of the kibbutz). You don’t have to be a prophet to foresee that even if Israel and the Palestinians made peace, even if there were no settlements, antisemites would still find a reason to oppose Israel. Indeed even if there were (God forbid!) no Israel at all, they would still traduce the Jewish people.
What do they have against the Jews? Their prejudice is self-contradictory. They oppose Jews because they are rich and because they are poor, because they are right-wing and because they are left-wing, because they are communists and because they are capitalists, because they are patricians and because they are plebeians, because they are entrepreneurs and because they are backbenchers, because they are universalists and because they are nationalists. They used to say, “Jew, go back to Jerusalem!” Now they say, “Jew, get out of Jerusalem!”
They are not sure what they are hating – Jews or Israel. They shoot Jews praying in an American synagogue and they think this will change Israeli government policies. They attack Jewish children at a French day school and they think this will give the Palestinians a capital in east Jerusalem. What an irrational animal is the antisemite.
Let’s posit a theory of antisemitism. The antisemite is not looking for an inhabitant of a block of flats in (say) Manchester, Moortown or Melbourne who happens to be Jewish, buys meat at a kosher butcher, sends his children to a Jewish school and prays at a certain rabbi’s synagogue. The antisemite is not looking for a specific Jewish person or a real flesh-and-blood Jew. He wants a bogeyman, a scapegoat to blame for his and his society’s problems. For him, “Jew” is a symbol, but it could be any other “different” group. In his vocabulary, an enemy who is to blame is called “Jew”. The word “Jew” is dredged up out of folk memory, but it could just as easily have been a red-head, a unionist, a talk-show host, a cricketer, a bus driver… who knows, who cares?
Popular prejudice has come to his aid and said, “Call your bogeyman a Jew!”
“Jew” used to be defined in dictionaries as a person known for meanness and mendacity. Now it is code for “the person I blame”… “I blame the Jew for whatever ills I and my society suffer from”. Elsewhere, the problems are different, maybe even the opposite of mine. Every antisemite has his own Jew. That’s why a one group’s Jew is the opposite of another’s. If you don’t want to be responsible for the ills of your society, find a bogeyman, find a scapegoat, find a Jew.
It’s a shame there are real Jews who have to bear the burden of all this nonsense. They certainly don’t enjoy their fate. They’d much rather you chose someone else, that’s if you really needed a bogeyman. They’d much rather you faced up to your own problems and took your own share of the blame. In the meantime, while you are working it out in your own mind, give the real Jews a break, and get on with the long hard task of rooting out bigotry and blame-casting.
Raymond Apple is the emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.
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