Keep Jews Interesting: It’s Time to Stop Being Defined by Anti-Semitism

Members of the Jewish community and their supporters hold a "Jews Say #CloseTheCamps" protest and vigil to demand an end to the Trump administration's detention of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers on August 11, 2019. Image credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Of all the days in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur is the time when Jews seem drawn, either by obligation or guilt, to gather with other Jews and mark a day in which all appear to be equal. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is a day of accountability and teshuva and thus all are not equal; some are better, some are worse, some repent, and some don’t. But Yom Kippur, as a day of atonement, it is about purification not rectification, as the Talmud teaches “the day itself atones.” As such, it offers an opportunity to think more carefully about things that are often troubling, and it should enable to us explore how we put the world together and how we, as a Jewish community, understand where we are in this moment.

Over the past few months, there have been a few incidents, thankfully not violent ones, that have brought to the surface a question that has dogged Jews for millennia. I will refer to two such incidents, and then explain why I think they should give us pause on a day which is truly about self-reflection and purification. Both are unfortunately somewhat banal, but they point toward something more substantive.

Bedbugs and a Bari book

The first is a tweet by a Georgetown professor in response to a report that the New York Times offices were infested with bedbugs. The tweet consisted of five words, “Bret Stephens is the bedbug.” This was ignored in the Twitter world until somehow Stephens, who was not tagged, found it and then wrote an email to its author and the dean of his university deriding the tweet and calling it offensive, even anti-Semitic.

The author of the tweet then tweeted Stephens’ email, causing a firestorm on social media. Let’s forget for the moment that the author of the tweet, a media studies professor, said he had no idea Stephens was Jewish (neither did many other people, it seems), and that he meant it as a critique of Stephens’ views on the op-ed page, not of him as a person. Stephens responded in an op-ed the following week by drawing a connection between this five-word tweet and the burning of the Warsaw ghetto when one Pole was overheard saying, “Oh look, the bedbugs are burning.” He suggested, in other words, that calling a Jew a bedbug, here in the United States in 2019, is somehow similar to watching people burn to death.

The argument collapsed when people viewed the testimony of the Pole in context, collected in Emanuel Ringelblum’s Warsaw ghetto archives, and learned that the Pole in question was actually referring to real bedbugs, as there was a bedbug infestation in Warsaw that, authorities surmised, began in the ghetto. But the point was made, and the context became irrelevant.

The episode quickly died down in the dizzying news cycle, but the issue brought to the surface an open secret: We Jews have a love/hate relationship with anti-Semitism. What it is, why it exists, and who is guilty of it.

The second event, a bit more elaborate, was the publication of a new book by New York Times op-ed writer Bari Weiss, called How to Fight Anti-Semitism, followed by a widely read op-ed. I don’t want to dwell on the book itself, which I read with a fair amount of frustration, not because I didn’t like it—which I didn’t—but because this is such an important issue that requires careful and cautious thinking that I think was absent in the book.

More interesting is the phenomenon that gave rise to the book, and others like it, and what its implications may be for 21st-century American Jews who are the most privileged community in the history of the Jewish diaspora, yet are still dogged by the fear of anti-Semitism. And I think we are literally tied up in knots over what to think or do about it. So, when a book like How to Fight Anti-Semitism comes out, we run to read it because we want to know the answer. But sadly, as Max Horkheimer and Samuel Flowerman noted in their book series Studies in Prejudice, “Prejudice is one of the problems of our times for which everyone has a theory but no one an answer.”

For American Jews, the problem is that anti-Semitism has become so ingrained, so much a part of our identity, that we need an answer not simply to know what it is, but to keep it alive in our own consciousness. The Jewish historian Arthur Hertzberg once said, “The only thing more dangerous for Jews than anti-Semitism is no anti-Semitism.” The absence of anti-Semitism would require Jews, most of whom have already abandoned religion as their primary form of Jewish identity, to figure out why they should remain Jews. When French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said “the anti-Semite defines the Jew,” he was not as wrong as we’d like to think.

So, many American Jews who are going about their lives in a state of what one might call low anxiety—perhaps the best we can hope for—are suddenly awakened when some professor inadvertently and jokingly refers to a public figure, who happens to be a Jew, as a bedbug, followed shortly after by the publication of a book about how anti-Semitism on the left, masquerading as anti-Israelism, is more dangerous than anti-Semitism on the right captured on video including the chant “Jews will not replace us.”

Suddenly we wake up and take notice? Why is that? It’s much like the experience we all have when we see some horrific accident; we don’t want to look, and yet we can’t take our eyes off it. We want anti-Semitism not to exist, but then we try desperately to find it when it’s not in front of us, when it’s “disguised.” When we see it, we say, “Why do they hate us?” and when we don’t see it we say, “They must really hate us but aren’t saying it.”

‘A grand unified theory of everything’

In her book, Weiss, quoting the historian of anti-Semitism Deborah Lipstadt, writes the following: “a philo-Semite is merely an anti-Semite who likes Jews.” On one level, we know what she means. Defining group identities, even positively, can be an expression of something negative, like in a stereotype: “Black people sure can dance!” or “Asian people are smart!” And the same can be said, one would surmise, of any group, such that saying something ostensibly positive about Black people or Asian people can still be racist.

But Weiss doesn’t accept that. She continues, “[Anti-Semitism] is not just a form of hatred, one that happens to be directed against Jews rather than against lesbians or Koreans or left-handed people. It is a grand unified theory of everything.” A grand unified theory of everything. This is where stuff gets weird. If people who dislike Jews and people who like Jews come together in this “grand unified theory of everything,” and this is categorically different than any other form of group hatred, is this not simply another iteration of Jewish exceptionalism that we have promoted for millennia from the Hebrew Bible to today?

It is, in a way, the dark side of chosenness. If we say, “God, who is the creator of the universe, chooses the Jews above all others,” and promote that view by pointing to holy scripture, is it surprising that some of those others will hold negative opinions of us? This is what Spinoza argued. If you think this sounds provocative, it’s actually sewn into our very tradition. The midrash, for example, states openly that the covenant at Sinai will evoke hatred in the gentiles. Or when the sages proclaim a general principle, “Esau hates Jacob,” meaning that Edom, or Christendom, hates the Jews. That is a proclamation, not an observation; it’s stated as doctrine, not circumstance.

This is not to say that we Jews are responsible for anti-Semitism; it’s merely to point out that the sages knew quite well that the structure of how the Jews see themselves in the world would evoke a response, often negative. And of course, the whole argument is circular; the more the gentile hates the Jews, the clearer it is to the Jew that we are doing something right because the fallen world is not ready to hear the true word of God.

Of course, we don’t really live in that theological universe anymore. For the most part, we are Jews who are fully children of the Enlightenment; we fight for justice and equality for everyone, and we don’t live in a world where we assume everyone hates us. Or do we? The tweetstorm in the wake of bedbug-gate and the new book by a public Jew on the ubiquity and ever-presence of anti-Semitism, tells us that while we may have shed our cloak of piety and religiosity (and while we may even find those who maintain such views problematic for their xenophobia, misogyny, etc.) many of us still retain an attitude about the world that such religiosity gave birth to. Not necessarily because we believe it, but because we can’t seem to not believe it. Upon what foundations would our Judaism stand if the attitude that “anti-Semitism is the grand unified theory of everything” simply were not true?

Thus, Israel can then never quite be evaluated like any other country because hovering over a deep critique of it is the shadow of anti-Semitism. So when many Jews argue that Israel is treated unfairly or exceptionally (and in many cases that is true), defense of the state also often contains its own exceptionalism: If you’re anti-Israel, you’re anti-Semitic.

Here, I think, lies a dilemma deeper and more pressing than whether the leaders of the Women’s March are (or were) anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic; or whether the left’s Third Worldism that holds Israel accountable is doing so because they want to deny Jews the right of self-determination or because they want to promote Palestinians’ right of self-determination. The British historian Arthur Toynbee, himself quite an anti-Semite, once said that history is “just one bloody thing after another.” It seems, from reading books like Weiss’s, that Jewish history is “just one bloody anti-Semitic thing after another.”

The truth is, this is not of her own making. A whole school of Jewish historians have made that argument including, interestingly, Ben Zion Netanyahu, the father of Benjamin Netanyahu, and Holocaust scholars such as Robert S. Wistrich, especially in his books A Lethal Hatred: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, and Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred. Even the titles should be jarring. Joining together people who lived 3,000 years ago to people today as if it’s all just one bloody thing? Erasing all substantive distinctions between ancient Egypt (before there were even Jews!) and modern-day Iraq? Historically, there’s something obscene about it, and yet this is viewed as a normative position: Even before there were Jews, people hated the Jews.

Even Jon Lovitz’s Hanukkah Harry character, which had its Saturday Night Live debut in 1989, reflects this. When he mistakenly climbs down the chimney of a non-Jew’s house, the girl, played by Victoria Jackson says, “Well I guess in the end we’re all kind of the same,” to which Hanukkah Harry shakes his head and says, “Well, not so much.” If Santa were to say that to a Jewish girl in response to the same sentiment, many would probably say, “sounds like anti-Semitism to me.”

Salo Baron, one of the greatest Jewish historians in the 2oth century who occupied the first chair in Jewish history in America at Columbia University, is today almost unknown in the public domain. His career of more than half a century changed the scope of understanding of Jewish history, and yet if we read books like those of Weiss’ or Wistrich’s, one would never know it. In an essay called “Newer Emphases on Jewish History,” published relatively late in his career in 1963, Baron wrote:

All my life I have been struggling against the hitherto dominant lachrymose conception of Jewish history because I have felt that an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the whole picture of the Jewish historic evolution and, at the same time, badly served a generation which had become impatient with the nightmare of endless persecutions and massacres.

Baron coined the term “lachrymose history” to define a view of Jewish history that amounts to “one bloody anti-Semitic thing after another.” His work showed that, while persecutions, massacres, etc., certainly occurred, there were also long stretches where Jews enjoyed fairly comfortable lives and were not plagued by overt anti-Semitism. The lachrymose picture was, he argued, simply an expression of either a deeply felt anxiety about instability or, in another register, a justification that Zionism was the only answer for Jewish survival (Baron himself was a Zionist). If we want to understand the Jews, and thus understand who we are today, we have to step out of this historical orbit where we move from one anti-Semitic incident to another. That is not easy to do in part because so much of what it means to be a Jew today, even in our secular framework, is founded on that very principle.

Thus, we have trouble distinguishing between the anti-Semitism of “Jews will not replace us!” and a Palestinian-American woman being anti-Israel (why shouldn’t she be?). We can’t, not only because Israel is so important to many of us, but because criticizing Jews is never really, or only, about criticizing Jews; it’s also, or primarily, about negating Jewish existence, whether that’s made explicit or not. This is captured in Weiss’ notion that anti-Semitism is “the grand unified theory of everything.”

This puts us in a no-win situation, which in some sense is exactly where normative Judaism would like us to be. We lose until the messiah comes to redeem us. Our hope is not the eradication of anti-Semitism; after all, how does one eradicate something that has existed since the time of the Pharaohs? The hope rather is to ensure that anti-Semitism remains at a low flame while we wait for the winning ticket. There’s an old Jewish-Hungarian adage that says, “Anti-Semitism is when the goyim hate the Jews too much.”

I articulate this position not because I agree with it but because I think it underlies much of what we are struggling with, from the bedbug tweetstorm to Bari Weiss’ “greatest hits of anti-Semitism” book. The neo-Nazis are the anti-Semites we know; the progressive left are the ones we don’t know. Be afraid, be very afraid.

We can argue these points, and I’m sure some—or many of you—do not agree with me. But if we want to create a viable Judaism for the future, we should take Salo Baron’s advice and begin to think outside this lachrymose historical view. Yes, anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism, or whatever we want to call it, has existed for a long time; but not always, and not in everyone. And everyone who has a beef with the Jews, or Judaism, or Israel, is not anti-Semitic. It’s funny that we Jews can mock and make fun of Christianity all we want—there’s an entire Jewish literature spanning centuries that mocks the virgin birth, the incarnation, saint veneration, and more—and yet if a Christian says, “You know, I don’t care much for Judaism, I don’t happen to think it’s a very good religion,” we scream, “anti-Semite!” Maybe that’s the right of a disempowered people, but we are not as disempowered as we appear to believe.

Weiss’ solution to anti-Semitism is what she calls “leaning into Judaism.” That is, one can fight anti-Semitism by being a better Jew, or more Jewish. Anti-Semitism as a tool of “kiruv” (Jewish internal proselytizing)! Again, I’m not sure that’s the answer. As my colleague Chaya Halberstam, from an Orthodox family, said on Facebook, “Well, my grandparents in Europe leaned pretty heavily into Judaism and it didn’t turn out so well for them.”

More seriously, let’s consider the implications of Weiss’ view that anti-Semitism should inspire us to be more Jewish. In this scheme, we aren’t encouraged to think more deeply about how we understand anti-Semitism or Jewish history; anti-Semitism becomes a negative source of inspiration. I find this very troubling. As a scholar of Judaism and a rabbi, I too would like to see Jews find meaning in Judaism and be more deeply engaged in Jewish life and practice. I would love to see a Jewish renaissance in America. But not as a response to anti-Semitism. The Judaism that would result from such a response would only be a Negative Judaism. A Judaism that says, “they hate me so I will be more Jewish.” How can something positive come from that?

What comes from that is not a healthy expression of spiritual sustenance but a bitter perpetuation of Jewish anxiety—a lachrymose Judaism, a Judaism of self-hatred. Or, if you like, a Humpty Dumpty Judaism, fragile and forever in fear of falling off the ledge. And how does that approach fight anti-Semitism when it doesn’t even try to understand the parameters of what it’s responding to, but just reflexively accepts the notion that anti-Semitism is “the grand unified theory of everything”? Many are familiar with the old Jewish adage, “If you shake a goy an anti-Semite will fall out.” I dare to say that much of our Judaism is founded on that horrible joke. And that doesn’t fight anti-Semitism at all—in fact, it makes it a requisite component of one’s Jewishness.

Keep Jews interesting

If we want to fight anti-Semitism, we have to begin by making distinctions and recognizing that the view of Judaism and Jewish history that we have received from our forebearers was deeply flawed and began as a response to their experiences, and not as some essential idea that goes back to Pharaoh. Like everyone else, we are a historically contingent people. As such, we should take from the past what resonates with us and understand that the rest is a by-product of a world that is no longer our world. There is nothing gained by sanctifying anti-Semitism, which then justifies viewing everyone around us as overt or covert anti-Semites. This, to my mind, doesn’t fight anti-Semitism; it perpetuates it and makes it some essential character of the goy. It disables us as a people in a world that has welcomed us and given us the gift of freedom.

We will soon forget bedbug-gate, and, in my view, Bari Weiss’ passionate study (though it may make her a lot of money as she’s saying what too many of us desperately want to hear). But rather than move us forward, it just entrenches us more deeply in a mentality that, with all the power we have, with all the successes we have achieved, we are still the victims. It prevents us from making distinctions, and distinctions are the very bedrock of thinking.

We stand at yet another crossroads. Not of physical or even existential survival, but one of accountability. Let’s not create a Negative Judaism depicted in the joke of the abbreviated Passover Seder: “All of Jewish history can be captured in one sentence. They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”

If we could only revive Salo Baron and begin to think much more carefully, more accurately, and less self-servingly about the complexity of the Jews, of our history, of what anti-Semitism does and does not mean. Of course, this work isn’t easy because it takes us out of our collective comfort zone, demands accountability, and makes some of the attitudes of our forebearers that which prevents our progress. But if we can begin to do the work—if we can think about the positive and not negative reasons for being a Jew—we have the chance to create something different.

The final word goes to the American scholar of Judaica Jacob Neusner. In his 1981 book Stranger at Home: The Holocaust, Zionism, and American Judaism,  Neusner argued that an obsession with the Holocaust or anti-Semitism, painting the Jew as a victim—the foundation of American Jews’ civil religion—is essentially an act of Jewish self-hatred because it perpetuates derogatory Jewish stereotypes.

The solution to this self-hatred, then, is to create a Judaism that undermines these stereotypes. Jews have been labeled self-absorbed, self-interested, and parochial. A Judaism that reaches out to the world, that takes the world seriously, that shows it cares about and is invested in contributing to matters of global concern as well as self-preservation, would counter the stereotype that Jews have come to believe about themselves. As Neusner suggests, acting from self-hatred by focusing on anti-Semitism may enable Jews to survive but they will cease to be an interesting people. Let’s try to keep Jews an interesting people.

A version of this essay was delivered as a sermon on Yom Kippur eve at The Fire Island Synagogue in New York.