In September 2019, I published these reflections on the resurgence of anti-Semitism. With the renewed attention to racial and ethnic prejudices, it’s a good time to give it another look.
Why is anti-Semitism on the rise?
The last two years have witnessed the Pittsburgh massacre and the San Diego shooting. Grotesque caricatures in a Belgian parade and the New York Times. The proliferation of BDS. Proposed legislation in Ireland criminalizing tourism in Israel. Synagogue and cemetery desecrations. Openly anti-Semitic epithets from within the American Congress and the British Parliament. Unprovoked threats and physical assaults.
After decades of dormancy, why now? The question is impossible to answer unless we understand why Jew-hatred exists at all. And that question has been debated almost from the moment the Jewish people came into existence.
Sigmund Freud (like many before him) identified cultural “otherness” as the source of Gentile animus toward the Jews. However, history refutes Freud’s hypothesis. The violent oppression of the Syrian-Greeks following the rise of Jewish Hellenism, the auto-de-fe of the Spanish Inquisition following the conversion of the marranos, and the incineration of countless acculturated German Jews in Hitler’s crematoria all prove that assimilation intensifies, rather than inhibits, anti-Semitism.
In fact, that very “otherness” has earned the Jews admiration and praise. The non-Jewish historian Paul Johnson echoed sentiments expressed by John Adams, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill when he wrote in his History of the Jews,
To [the Jews] we owe the ideas of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience, and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience, and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal, and love as the foundation of justice; and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.
Why should such high-minded idealism produce hatred? The answer can be found in the schoolyard.
In 2008, bestselling author Jodee Blanco embarked on a campaign to eradicate bullying. In Please Stop Laughing at us… One Survivor’s Quest to Prevent School Bullying, Ms. Blanco attempts to deconstruct and quantify the social dynamics that divide children – and sometimes adults – into predators and prey.
Based upon countless interviews and observations, Ms. Blanco arrives at an intriguing hypothesis: she describes the typical bullying victim as an ancient child, an individual possessing a more developed sense of empathy than his or her peers. By consciously or unconsciously flexing their “compassion muscle,” these little adults set themselves apart from their less-sensitive peers who may come to feel inferior in the presence of greater emotional maturity and threatened by a response mechanism that they cannot understand. Once a tormentor targets a victim, other children readily fall into line.
Ms. Blanco suggests that bullies are afflicted with empathy deficit disorder, an underdeveloped level of sensitivity that inhibits their ability to feel compassion. The tragic irony is that the victim, unable to conceal his own hyper-developed sense of empathy, becomes despised for his atypical maturity by the individual who stands to benefit most by learning from his example.
On a national and historic level, are not the Jews the ancient child, the small, upstart nation that challenged the pagan values of might makes right and moral anarchy? What happens when the gift of moral maturity is not appreciated, when it demands a higher level of responsibility than the recipient is willing to accept? Won’t that gift inevitably become a threat, a curse, and a source of profound resentment?
Beginning with the biblical account of the nation of Amalek attacking the Israelites as they fled Egypt into the desert, history records a litany of cultures all seeking to crush the descendants of Jacob. Why? Because the Jews stood for an ideal those cultures despised: the rejection of moral autonomy, and the assertion of moral duty to live a life of virtue.
So it was with the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Syrians, and the Romans. So too with Spain, France, Turkey, Poland, Russia, and Germany – each warmly welcoming the Jews at first, then turning viciously against them.
THE FINAL FRONTIER?
At last, America offered refuge for the Jew. Building upon principles introduced to the world by Jewish teaching, the Framers fashioned the first pluralistic society founded upon the ideals of meritocracy, human rights, and human dignity. The community of mankind responded by gradually beginning to acknowledge the nobility of every human being, the value of collective responsibility, the obligation upon every citizen to help carry the yoke of those too weak to carry their own. Liberal sensitivities began to take hold until no clear-thinking person dared argue with such fundamental progressive values as social justice and charity – values that flowed forth from the ancient teachings of Jewish tradition and Jewish law.
And when the Nazi Holocaust confronted the world with the ghastly handiwork of unbridled evil, the world embraced the Jewish people as the poster children for the overarching moral standards that govern civilized society. The innate empathy of mankind began to emerge. Anti-Semitism became as indefensible as infanticide.
Tragically, the pendulum has swung back again.
In part, memory fades. More significantly, politics has come to replace religion as the guiding doctrine of mankind. The principles introduced to the world by the Jews have been hijacked and conscripted to defend an ideology of irrational utopianism. Judge every person favorably has mutated into non-judgmentalism. Charity has morphed into entitlement. Liberty has devolved into libertinism. Civility has been weaponized into political correctness.
Most perversely, Israel has been compared to Nazi Germany.
As moral autonomy supplants moral duty, the traditional values of Judaism become worse than irrelevant; they become a threat. The mere suggestion of higher moral authority annuls the right of the individual to define his own moral code. Traditional values become a form of heresy, and all heretics must die.
Nuance, reason, and compromise are supplanted by inflexible dogma. Ideologies become entrenched. Truth becomes subjective. Civil discourse disintegrates. Rhetoric becomes weaponry. Society descends into empathy deficit disorder.
Inevitably, violence follows as bullying becomes the new normal.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The resurgence of Jew-hatred, therefore, is a symptom of the moral decline of man, not into immorality but amorality, the rejection of moral absolutes and embrace of moral relativism.
Ironically, anti-Semitism has much more to do with non-Jewish society than it does with either the Jew or his Judaism. It is the bully’s reflexive response in the face of moral maturity on the playground of human society.
That’s why empathy deficit disorder extends to every form of ethnic, racial, religious, cultural, and ideological prejudice. We don’t want to be forced to think. We want our feelings vindicated. The rise of identity politics and cultural tribalism is turning us all into victims, paradoxically granting us license to bully our perceived oppressors.
People of color are victims of white privilege. Whites are victims of reverse racism. Women are victims of male domination. Men are victims of militant feminism. The poor are victimized by disparity of wealth. The wealthy are victimized by wealth redistribution. Rather than moving forward to combine our strengths by building bridges, we use our differences as an excuse to attack the foundations of civilization, and one another.
Is there a solution? Of course.
We need leaders secure enough to engage their opposition without resorting to misinformation, hyperbole, or character assassination. We need a citizenry that refuses to support candidates who subvert the ideals of intellectual and personal integrity. We need a media with the ethical courage to set aside ideology in favor of both factual and contextual truth. We need to confront the vicious circle of empathy deficit disorder and take responsibility for disrupting its relentless advance.
The battle for the soul of Western Civilization will be won when voices of rational debate and civil discourse join together against ideological extremism on both sides of the aisle. Only then will hatred in all its forms begin to lose favor. Only then will the ancient ideals of human nobility prevail.
You can be a bully or a victim. You can be both. Or you can be neither.
Which will you be?
What a lovely remembrance, Darlene. Thanks so much for sharing it here. You remind me of Stephen Carter’s tale of moving into an all-white neighbor as the only blacks. No on acknowledged their arrival except the Jewish family across the street. The mother showed up at the door with a platter of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Professor Carter say he can still taste them.
Yonason, these are such important discussions. Unfortunately, your marvelous, captivating way of teaching us here is only falling in front of the eyes of those who have an appreciation for your perspective and are inclined to agree with your meticulous way of presenting your thoughts. History is passe and irrelevant and not needed to too many. The prevailing thoughts of today are mouthing the empty words and sentiments that are trending on “Twitter.” Where there is a regard for history, there is countervailing disdain for recounting any of it and a steadfast resistance to any of its lessons. History is inconvenient for many of us. Our personal histories are dotted with inconsistency, failure, hypocrisy and injustice. While we try to learn and improve from our imperfect past, there are those who use the past as a bludgeon to disqualify any further action. Mistakes and injustice of the past must be met with cancellation and burning down to start over.
Empathy requires that we are able to shine a light on our past to put ourselves in touch with feelings and emotions and occurences which would create a closeness with what is happening to someone else. If we torch that past and don’t allow it any daylight, we can sit in sanctimonious judgment of everyone else and make everything conform to an empty template based on fear, half-truth, innuendo and bankrupt ideology. There’s a reason that we refer to modern civilization being based on Judeo-Christian principles… and we all know that Christianity is a derivation of Judiasm. Thousands of years of history and wisdom have been brought to bear with the enlightened way that our society operates now. It is not perfect, we need to continually work to improve it.
There is so much hope in all that you say and how you present it. If only there were more of us paying attention. Thank you for your primer in these important matters.
Thank you for your considered comments, Tom. Orwell taught us the dangers of rewriting the past rather than learning its lessons. Before Orwell, Hegel observed that the great lesson of history is that no one learns from it. All we can do is keep trying to do our best.
Oh Yonason, this was remarkable. Thank you for giving us context around a subject of which I have no comprehension. It is incomprehensible to me why someone would hate. Of course you outlined possible reasoning here, but it’s still something I have a difficult time understanding. Why it would be so core to human nature to despise what is missing within ourselves, makes absolutely no sense to me. But I suspect it’s because it isn’t rational at all. It’s reflexive. It’s survivalist. It’s base and animalistic. As I unravel this in my mind, it helps. Empathy is something that needs to be employed to every player in the scenario to truly understand what is at the root. Even though my judgmental mind prefers to reserve empathy for the “deserving,” how is that truly understanding? You ALWAYS make me think!
You make a tantalizing observation, Kimberly, suggesting that refusal to confront our shortcomings is a survivalist impulse. That’s equivalent to pain-avoidance as a survivalist impulse. In fact, pain is a warning sign that we need to go into protection mode, which means pain-avoidance is anti-survivalist. If we don’t train ourselves to understand our visceral responses, our reflexive reactions intended for self-protection lead us toward self-destruction. Thanks for sparking these thoughts. There’s another article here for sure.
I have so much to say, but I will try but probably will not be succinct. First and foremost, without the Israelis and Jewish people, there would be no western civilization in my humble but well-read opinion. Thanks to the moral code developed by the Chosen People long ago, some of the ideas in our constitution are connected.
My affinity for the Jewish Community goes as follows:
1) My mother had a difficult life. Her mother was a single parent, and they were poor. She went to work at the corner store for Hymie Bindman who was so kind to her.
2) Hymie’s sister, Irene, became friends with my mother. She took her to NYC where my mother with delight saw Broadway shows such as Kismet. I met Irene who would give us gifts at Christmas.
3) My parents met at Hymie’s corner store.
4) I met one of my closest friends who is Jewish in graduate school. We have been friends for almost forty years. She and her husband introduced me to my husband.
5) A few years ago, I did a DNA test. I am 37 percent from my dad who was Irish. The rest is from my mother who was Syrian. That part included 15.6 percent of Sephardic Jewish. I was most pleased. When I told my friend and she told her children, they asked, “Are you surprised?”
I told my other Jewish friends and colleagues that I was honored.
Unfortunately, this friend was not aware of BDS. I told her about it. Antisemitism is a cancer based on envy. I agree that it is a sign of trouble in a society when it rears its ugly head. We must continue to fight it. If it continues, so goes Western civilization, again in my very humble opinion.
Thank you so much for this.