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Heaven Help Us

Eytan Kobre

Writing about anti-Semitism should rouse, not soothe

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

W

hen I encounter a new book or article on the topic of anti-Semitism, I don’t know how well-written or erudite it is. But I know it will usually be wrong.

Now that I’ve made my bold statement, I should qualify it in two ways: If it’s something written by an author lacking a Torah worldview, I know it will be wrong, at least in part.

I’ll go a bit further. So misunderstood is the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, sometimes even by Jews who ought to know better, that it may well be the only topic on which a Jew taking the traditional Jewish attitude toward it can himself be seen, even by fellow traditionalists, as trafficking in a kind of anti-Semitism.

Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory University professor of Jewish history who is best known for her April 2000 victory over Holocaust denier David Irving in his defamation suit against her, has written a book called AntiSemitism: Here and Now, and Bret Stephens reviews it in the New York Times Book Review. He likes the book, which, he writes, “combines erudition, clarity, accessibility, and passion,” and whose most valuable contribution is its thesis that “the resurgence of anti-Semitism owes as much to its political enablers who aren’t openly bigoted as it does to its ideological practitioners who are.”

But, Stephens says, Ms. Lipstadt misses something important

by insisting that anti-Semitism “has never made sense and never will.” Not quite. However irrational, cynical, or stupid anti-Semites may be, most Jews nonetheless can be said to stand for certain ideas and attitudes. A particular concept of morality. A reverence for law founded on the idea of truth. A penchant for asking nettlesome questions. Skepticism toward would-be saviors. A liberal passion for freedom.

Anti-Semites tend to have the opposite set of views, for reasons that may be repugnant but are perfectly rational. The fundamental truth about anti-Semitism isn’t that it’s necessarily crazy. It’s that it’s inevitably brutish.

But can most Jews nowadays truly be said to “stand for certain ideas and attitudes”? I don’t think so, unless Mr. Stephens can provide alternative ideas to those on his list. Morality? Reverence for law? The public perception is that Jews have been at the forefront of many of the industries and movements responsible for much of what is immoral, illegal, and anarchistic in society and, tragically, that’s not quite mistaken.

Skepticism toward would-be saviors? Liberal Jews have had their share of the latter, albeit sans the long robes and sandals. Asking nettlesome questions? Yes, chronic noodging can be deeply aggravating, but it’s a long way from there to mowing down innocents with automatic weapons.  

And surely, the Jews involved in the Women’s March and those to be found on the streets of Boro Park have virtually no shared conceptions of morality or truth or freedom, yet both groups have been subjected to virulent Jew-hatred.

In insisting, contra Professor Lipstadt, that anti-Semitism is not inherently irrational, Mr. Stephens is not incorrect. But his explanation for why it’s rational is deficient, and the same is going to inevitably be true of any essay or book tackling the topic that doesn’t take its worldview from the Book of Books authored by He Who created Jews, anti-Semites, and all else.

Opining on anti-Semitism without resort to what the Torah says about it is no different than theorizing about Jewish history or a Jewish state without an authentic understanding of Jewish nationhood or, for that matter, developing a model of the human psyche without acknowledging the soul. All these efforts will necessarily fail, not because they’re logically flawed but because they lack an awareness of indispensable aspects of reality; they’re akin to performing surgery while oblivious to the existence of the heart or other vital organs.

A final problem with Mr. Stephens’ approach to anti-Semitism is that it ends up broadening it so much as to lose all of its Jewish particularity. Jews, after all, don’t have a monopoly on morality, reverence for law or a passion for freedom. From Stephens’s own stated conclusion that “the enemies of the Jews, whether in Tehran or Virginia, will always be the enemies of liberalism — which is why the fight against anti-Semitism must also be a fight for liberalism,” it’s only a short jump to the contemporary predilection to turn the Holocaust into a lesson about “intolerance of the unlike” or bullying or whatever, anything but the annihilation of the Jews.

 

SO MUCH FOR WHAT ANTI-SEMITISM ISN’T. The real excitement begins when one endeavors to present the Torah view on what it is, which for most of Jewish history would have been an unremarkable given. But to contemporary ears, the notions that gentile hatred for us could be a Divine vehicle for ensuring our separateness and preserving our unique identity or a wake-up call from On High to draw near, not to mention the unmentionable — a punishment — are beyond the pale.

The writer David Klinghoffer published an essay in First Things, which I’ve cited here before, on this very point, writing that

to put it simply, the Bible has never heard of such a thing as anti-Semitism…. there is a striking difference between the way biblical Jews understood the hostility of non-Jews and the way we understand it. When the Jewish people suffer in the Bible, it is almost exclusively at the hands of non-Jews. Occasionally G-d will send a plague, but, for His own reasons, he prefers to work through gentile aggressors. The difference between us and the Jews of the Bible, and indeed the Jews of every generation until a century or two ago, is this: They understood gentile hostility to be an expression of G-d’s displeasure with us as a community. We understand it to be essentially meaningless….

We believe that any hostility we can detect on the part of non-Jews is entirely unmerited. We have done nothing to deserve it. G-d isn’t angry with us. And even if He were, He couldn’t send dangerous gentiles against us. Our G-d is the impotent Harold Kushner G-d….

The function of our obsession with anti-Semitism is to remind us, on a daily basis, that that is the G-d we sort of, kind of, barely believe in. Every ADL newsletter; every big black fundraising envelope from the Simon Wiesenthal Center; every obsessive discussion of what Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson may have said about Jews 15 years ago…; every monstrous Holocaust memorial in the parking lot of a JCC — they all declare, to our great relief, that anti-Semitism is meaningless. They declare this by failing to name G-d in any discussion of anti-Jewish persecution. They say that anti-Semitism is demonic. It doesn’t come from G-d. G-d is in Heaven, weeping on His pillow.

We don’t live like Jews, but that’s alright. G-d doesn’t mind. He isn’t going to punish us for our disobedience. Our fear of gentiles who don’t like us, our made-up, manufactured fear, is the greatest comfort we can give ourselves.

The torrent of invective Klinghoffer’s words released in the letters section was fun to read, but not nearly as much as his response, which began

Good heavens. Well, any reader in search of high drama in the genre of letters-to-the-editor has come to the right place. In the above responses, along with the article I wrote I am tagged with such words as “horrible,” “ghastly,” “blasphemy,” “appalling,” “racist,” “heartless,” “impious,” “hateful,” “primitive,” “cruel,” and “evil.” Not since college, when I criticized the Third World Center in the campus newspaper, have I been the target of such a hail of colorful nouns and adjectives.

Deborah Lipstadt’s book may be fine so far as it goes, but it won’t help Jews change how they live. Writing about anti-Semitism isn’t supposed to soothe; like anti-Semitism itself, it’s meant to rouse.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 748. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

 

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