Why the Jews?
As the milkman Tevye says in the film Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?!“
The answer to “why the Jews” is that there isn’t one. Like any group that deals with marginalization, the Jewish community is simply one of many targets that people may choose when seeking a whipping boy. “Why the Jews” could also be “why African Americans”, “why women” or “why LGBTQ people”? There is no justification for hate, so the answer to “why the Jews” for a radical Jihadist, a white supremacist, an anti-Israel advocate, a Christian nationalist or any other bedfellow is simply, “why not the Jews?”
While injustice exists and will continue to exist for every people in every culture, the is something peculiar and particular to hatred of Jews. The questions we’ll ask ourselves in this unit are:
- Where does hatred of Jews come from?
- How does it manifest?
- What can we do about it?
A quick note on words: I rarely use the phrase antisemitism for a few reasons:
- Semite is a linguistics term to include languages like Hebrew, Akkadian, Ugaritic and Arabic. It has nothing to do with the Jewish people per se
- The phrase antisemitism came from Germany as an attempt to make hatred of Jews seem scientific and by extension normalized. This coincides with other “racial sciences” of its time. Rabbi Wikipedia can give you the story on that
- Even if we did accept this racist view and used the term antisemitism, what do we make of “semites” who hate Jews? It shows the utter failure of the term
- Hated of Jews is simply hatred of Jews — no academic term needed. Some have suggested Judeophobia — but that has not really taken off
Where Does Anti-Jewish Hatred Come From?
The best history of antisemitism can be found here.
My personal thesis, as cheeky as it sounds, is this: hatred of Jews is boring. Where hatred of Jews comes from may vary, but the justifications and how they manifest are always the same. Groups with wildly different cultures, languages, motives and politics hate (or have hated) Jews.
- Jew as Christ-killer/blood libel/Synagogue of Satan
- The “lost sheep”
- People who refuse to join the True Faith of [fill in the blank]
- People who refuse to secularize
- Jew as banker/usurer, money-obsessed
- Roach/rat living off of others productivity
- Non-creative actors in the economy
- Jew as the social inferior
- A people attempting to become superior through the “cabal” of other Jews/conspiracies
- Racist – Jews as an inferior “race” who hurt the majority through their very existence in society or through assimilation/diluting into the superior race and weakening it
- Ideological – Jews regarded as subversive or revolutionary, whether Pro or Anti-Capitalism
- Pro-Zionist antisemitism sees Jews as not fulfilling the Zionist mission correctly
- Anti-Zionist antisemitism sees Jews as having dual alliances or only caring about Israel at the expense of their other identity, or using the Israel-Palestine conflict as proof that Jews are [fill in the blank]
- Cultural – Jews regarded as undermining the moral and structural fiber of civilization
Notice how redundant this becomes. Hatred of Jews says that Jews are capitalists, unless we are socialist revolutionaries. Jews are the elites unless we are moochers. We’re too religious or not religious enough. Same nonsense, different day.
What’s the Mindset of Someone Who Hates? Zero-Sum Thinking
What is Zero-Sum?
“A..belief system about the antagonistic nature of social relations…based on the implicit assumption that a finite amount of goods exists in the world, in which one person’s winning makes others the losers, and vice versa…People who share this conviction believe that success…is possible only at the expense of other people’s failures.”(Rozycka-Tran et al. 2015, pps. 526–528).
A zero-sum game is one where there is a winner and a loser. The winner wins because the other loses. A non zero-sum game is one where everyone wins.
People who believe that “Jews are ___” do so because of a zero-sum mentality. Do Jews dominate the culture? It must be because they pushed someone out. Do Jews have more access to capital? It must be because they took it from someone. This is the thought process of someone who is angry and displaced.
This is not to say that all people who hate Jews have this kind of living-on-the-margins lifestyle. Plenty of rich and successful people also hate Jews. It is simply to say that a zero-sum view of life makes hatred of anyone easier. Again, this is boring stuff, because hate is irrational and uncreative.
Can We Change Hateful Thinking?
- “As God is holy, so too must you be holy” (Lev. 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26 21:8; Deut. 23:14)
- “I will make you a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3).
- “There is a principle that the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not link a bad thought to an action…one is not punished for thoughts alone” (Talmud Kiddushin 39b)
The role of the Jewish people in the world is to be a holy people. That does not mean “holier than thou” or finger pointing. It simply means that by our actions in this world, we help the world to come out of darkness. That can be through ethical monotheism, through social justice, by being stewards of the planet, through friendship across racial, ethnic and religious borders, etc.
We need to be careful not to attempt to police people’s words or minds. First, it can’t be done. Secondly, Jewish tradition dictates that whatever a person thinks, it does not lead to punishment by God. And third, it is much easier to simply be good and allow goodness to flow to you than to artificially force others into “joining you” in light.
While it is tempting to go online and comment on every hateful post, to make videos, podcast, and all kinds of other things, the simplicity of in-person kindness always seems to work better than trolling for cruel hearts.
Sometimes being present with people and offering friendship can lead to transformative change. See this amazing video on Daryl Davis for an example.
Another example: I officiated the funeral of a Jewish man who was also a biker. We’ll call him David. Needless to say, lots of interesting people at the funeral for David, with leather and bandanas all over the place.
One man in biker gear came up to the lectern to give a eulogy. He talked about his deceased friend with love and admiration. Then at one point he said, “I used to have an SS patch on my vest. David told me about being Jewish, let me ask questions. I don’t do that anymore and I support Israel. That’s what David did.”
David did not lecture this man. He did not tell him to “check his privilege”. They shared a common interest in motorcycle culture, and that was enough that when sprinkled with a little friendship led his friend down the path of healing. But nothing David “did” changed this man. It was simple that David “was”.
Relational Activism: A Different (More Effective) Approach
So if we cannot change people’s minds, what can we do? What is a practical approach to this?
- “Quiet Diplomacy” -Lubavitcher Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson. See also the story of Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper and David Abitbol below
- “Coming out” as Jewish at work, school, clubs, etc. Think David in the previous example
- Working toward the universal benefit of others
- Pro-Judaism as the antidote to Anti-Judaism
- “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief” (Rabbi Rami Shapiro based on the Tarfon commentary on Pirkei Avot).
- “It has been told you…Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Michah 6:8, based on the Talmud Makkot 24a:25).
- “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.” (Pirkei Avot 3:2)
- Jewish rituals: Shabbat/Sabbath, minyan/prayer groups, chavrutah/Torah study