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Rabbi’s Word: Antisemitism

Currently, antisemitism is considered a swear word; very few people will openly admit that they are antisemites. There are, of course, various synonyms of this term, which, in contrast, are widely used; but since World War II people no longer talk openly about antisemitism. Still, this phenomenon is quite widespread, even when not defined as such, and antisemitic ideas are expressed quite often. Every now and then certain politicians start preaching about the Jews’ control of world economics, politics and mass media.

The fact that there are so very few Jews in the world does not seem to disturb those who embrace antisemitic ideas. A survey recently held in the European Council shows that a high percentage, perhaps even the majority, of interviewees believe that the State of Israel (with close to 7 million Jews) is the greatest threat to world peace, more than any other country, and especially threatens peace in the Middle East (with its 120 million inhabitants). Another popular belief, maybe even held by our nextdoor neighbors, is that Jews have tails and that they grow horns. Do people really believe that? And if they do, are they insane?

A saying, attributed to a number of famous people, is that an antisemite is one who hates Jews more than they deserve. As nice as it sounds, yet it raises the question: why Jews, of all people, and not bikers, or bald people, or redheads, deserve hatered? Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of antisemitism is that it is more widespread than the belief in the existence of devils, and it exists even in places that have no contact whatsoever with Jews, or among people who are less likely to meet a real Jew than to encounter a devil. In other words: although a lot of right things, both positive and negative, can be said about the Jews, antisemitism itself is an inexplicable and illogical phenomenon.

For generations, various people, both Jews and gentiles, have tried to explain the nature of antisemitism. Often, contradictory explanations have been offered simultaneously in different places. Here are some examples:

In many Western countries, all Jews were suspected of being closet communists, and therefore one should be wary of them, and they should be banished from the land; at the same time, in communist countries, Jews were suspected of being cosmopolitans and anti-communists.

Theodore Hertzl, the founder of political Zionism, believed that root of antisemitism is in the anomaly of Jewish existence as a nation without a state, and therefore he and his followers established the State of Israel. But today it is evident that antisemitism has nothing to do with the Jewish state. In fact, the establishment of the State of Israel has not lessened antisemitism; the only difference now is that rather than being directed at the Jews, as a nation dispersed throughout the world, antisemitic feelings are now directed against the State of Israel. Furthermore, even Jews in different countries who have no connection whatsoever with the State of Israel, suffer, are beaten, and sometimes also killed – just because they are identified with “their” State.

Some two hundred years ago, some people thought that Jew-hatred was a reaction to their different dress-code, or to the fact that they had no general education and were not involved in the life of the countries where they resided. Nowadays, most Jews no longer wear the special Jewish clothes, have acquired general education, and have also proven that they can very well integrate into the cultural, economic and political life of whatever country they live in; but this not only has not lessened antisemitism: it has increased it.

In some countries, the Jews looked different from the general population: dark-haired and dark-eyed among a blond, blue-eyed population. In such places antisemitism was explained as xenophobia. However, there is a fair number of countries where Jews look just like all the rest of the population, and yet they are hated.

It seems, then, that all these and other explanations of antisemitism, both logical and illogical, reasonable and insane, do not stand the test of reality. Antisemitism stems from other, deeper strata of Jewishness juxtaposed to the rest of the world.

In an interesting book called “Conversations with Hitler” by the ex-Nazi Hermann Rauschning (first published in 1938) the author wrote, among other things, about antisemitism. He asked Hitler: “We both know that all of the German antisemitic propaganda (which the Germans took care to spread widely) is untrue; what is your real reason for hating the Jews?” To which Hitler replied: “I cannot forgive them for having brought morality to the world.” This reply takes the reasoning for antisemitism from the mundane, rational reality to a different sphere. It points out that the source of antisemitism is not in simple, prosaic causes but in deeper layers of the human soul. It doesn’t mean that every little antisemite living in France or China has profound thoughts and full understanding of his or her feelings; what it does mean is that just like in so many other phenomena, one can resort to trivial arguments to explain feelings which true origin is deep and unknown.

One of the most significant aspects of antisemitism is that it is, by definition, ambivalent. The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. Both love and hatred share a profound interest in, possibly also a great appreciation of their object. There are many things in this world that people dislike, some of which even create a feeling of disgust or even a measure of fear; but people who dislike cockroaches or mice, for instance, do not hate them, because they are not important enough to deserve a strong emotion such as hatred. Antisemitism is similar to that. People who do not care enough about Jews or who do esteem them in any way would not harbor love or animosity toward them. One may, therefore, say that what the Jews themselves and the greatest antisemites of all generations share the awareness of the great importance of Jews in this world, which makes them a worthy object of either love and identification – or sweeping hatred.

Indeed, antisemitism is mysteriously tied to the secret of Jewish existence. Jewish existence (throughout history) is an inexplicable phenomenon. Kant is supposed to have said that the presence of the Jewish nation is one of the things that made him tend to believe in God. Indeed, in whatever way we may try to explain Jewish existence – be it with theological arguments or in any other way – we will eventually get to a mysterious point that cannot be entirely explained rationally.