My Own Experience with Anti-Semitism (and Anti-Semites)
I was born in August, 1946 in the city of Vitebsk, Belarus. In that summer, the second after the end of World War Two, life was slowly hobbling back to normalcy, in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War. But half my family did not get to say those quieter days. They were gone, extinguished by the Nazi killing machine. The Nazis didn’t send them to Auschwitz; they simply turned part of my city into a ghetto, and exterminated the Jews right there in their home town.
Although I was born after the war, the specter of the Holocaust followed me throughout my childhood and even through my teens. Many in my town and in my family chose never to mention the Holocaust, but it was somehow always present.
While we were struggling to recover from the torment and reclaim our lives, many of my Russian peers still degraded Jews and treated them with scorn and contempt. I couldn’t understand it. Why were they so hatreful? What unforgivable wrong had Jews ever done to them?
When I applied for aliyah (immigration to Israel), I encountered a wall of anti-Jewish bureaucracy. For two years I was a refusenik (Soviet Jews who were refused exit from the USSR). As soon as I received my exit permit I packed myself, my wife and son, and we literally fled through Vienna and eventually to Israel.
But the sore that anti-Semitism had left within me did not heal until much later. The question about its existence kept haunting me. Being a scientist by training, I searched for answers there. But science deals more with how things happen, and less with why they happen. So I began to search elsewhere. I tried philosophy, religion, and numerous other avenues, but none offered what I perceived as a complete and unequivocal answer.
In 1979, I began to study authentic Kabbalah with the Rabash, the firstborn son and successor of Rav Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag, known as Baal HaSulam (Owner of the Ladder) for his Sulam (Ladder) commentary on The Book of Zohar. Here, in Baal HaSulam’s final pages of his “Introduction to the Book of Zohar,” I finally learned why there is so much antagonism toward Israel, toward Jews in general, and what we need to do about it.
What Anti-Semites Taught Me
Anti-Semitism, so I learned, is a sore in the heart of humanity, an echo of an unhealed pain that the world has been carrying for many centuries. Baal HaSulam’s texts, and the explanations of Rabash, gave me a complete answer, but initially, I could not reconcile myself to it. I resisted it with all my heart because it held me accountable for the hatred toward me, and stated that I could reverse it.
In the writings of Baal HaSulam I learned that anti-Semitism is the unspoken demand of the nations that we do our part, fulfill our role toward them, and be a light of peace, love, and unity for all the nations. But only when I came face to face with die-hard anti-Semites, and read some of their most notorious publications, did I begin to realize how genuine and how deep that demand truly is.
Today we define ourselves as Jews in many ways: by common heritage, observance of Jewish laws, lineage, or by a combination of all or some of the above. But many years back, before the ruin of the Temple, Jews were defined first and foremost by their spirit—the spirit of camaraderie and mutual responsibility. “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the great klal (“rule,” but also “sum total”) by which we lived. It was a rule that included within it every other precept, the pinnacle of human spiritual achievement.This is why we, Jews, became a nation only when we pledged to be “as one man with one heart” at the foot of Mt. Sinai. This is also what allowed us to develop the humane society that we had cultivated for centuries, and which has given the world so many of its cultural and moral assets.
In my encounters with anti-Semites, they keep returning to that point in time and to those values. Their words echo that need, and the demand that we finish what we started, and share these morals with the rest of the world.
Around the year 2001, a man from Sochi (the Russian resort city where the 2014 Winter Olympics were held) approached me by mail and we began to communicate, first by mail and then in person. He was part of a group that used to be hard-core anti-Semites. One day, looking on the internet for evidence of Jewish wickedness, they stumbled upon my site, and started to read. The more they read, the more they understood the meaning of Judaism, and the more their anti-Semitism faded. The group remained together, but instead of being anti-Semitic, we now often collaborate in ventures aiming to spread unity and mutual responsibility in Russia.
A shorter, but no less fascinating was my meeting with one of Russia’s most outspoken anti-Semites, Alexander Prokhanov, editor-in-chief of the extreme-right newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow). The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch offers vivid descriptions of Prokhanov sentiments toward Jews: “An organization that monitors media coverage of Mideast/Israeli issues describes Mr. Prokhanov, who once met with the U.S. former Ku Klux Clan leader David Duke: ‘Alexander Prokhanov states openly that Jews are the cause of Russia’s misery. Warning that ‘we will not sit tight with our arms folded idly if the Jews continue to pressure Russian nationalists,’ Prokhanov threatened to ‘answer them with a fist.’”
And yet, in our televised conversation (Russian), there was none of that fearfully reminiscent of past horrors rhetoric. Instead, we engaged in warm and open conversation. He said very clearly, “I think that humanity feels very acutely the need for love. …It is an intolerable longing that the whole of humanity feels, and it is related to people’s need for love. They want to love the other (person) as they love themselves.”
There were many other memorable moments in that candid dialogue, but perhaps the one that struck me most was when he said, “It seems to me that the Jews have already united the whole of humanity. Globalization was built primarily by Jewish consciousness, and this passion for money, possessions, and power … Humanity is already united, but on what basis? … We can say that the first part of the work [uniting humanity] has been achieved, so don’t be so hard your people,” he surprised me with rebuking my own criticism of my people. “What remains,” he add, “is to fill that connectedness with a different filling, to extract from this composite the dark essences [greed and power struggles] that fill it. …Indeed, your people [Jews] have already done part of the work.”
At about the same time I met with Prokhanov, I came across very similar words in a completely different medium. Henry Ford’s notorious anti-Semitic publication, The International Jew—the World’s Foremost Problem, provided me with much food for thought concerning the world’s willingness to grasp the message of unity and the role of the Jews in achieving it.
Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, was not only a revolutionary industrialist, but also a perceptive and eloquent anti-Semite. He was not the bully type bigot I had seen in my home town, but a sophisticated individual, who thoroughly studied Jewish history and values, and structured his arguments with this information in mind. It is easy to find in his writings that more than he was hateful of Jews, he was angry with them for failing to perform the task he had believed they must.
Ford had high regard for Jewish morals and values, and believed that it would work to humanity’s best interest to implement them. In his words, “Modern reformers, who are constructing model social systems on paper, would do well to look into the social system under which the early Jews were organized.”
However, Ford not only thought that these values were worthy, but that it’s the job of the Jews to impart them to humanity. He stated that “[The] Jewish religion supplies the moral structure for both of the other great religions,” and demanded that we share it: “The whole prophetic purpose with reference to Israel seems to have been the moral enlightenment of the world through its agency.”
The Jewish Moral Everyone Wants, and No One Wants to Work For
Today it is so common to say that if we only love each other all will be well, that if you say it people dismiss you as being trite. These days even science supports it. In recent decades, huge amounts of data have been gathered, supporting the intuitive sensation that “All you need is love.” From the “love hormone,” dopamine, through network science, to globalization, everyone around us seems to be talking about how we are all connected, and how we have to behave responsibly because we’re all dependent on each other.
The problem is that we don’t know how to connect in a positive way because this type of connection means that we implement the motto, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and we cannot bring ourselves to do it. If we knew the benefits of such relationships, and knew how to establish them among us, the world would not be treading its current, self-destructive trajectory.
The world has no idea how to connect, but there is a certain people who were once connected. That people once lived in brotherly love, and established a moral society that to this day, its greatest enemies admire. The society that the Jewish nation implemented was based on the great klal (rule) of the Torah, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, this people must now revive that love among them and offer it to the world. This is what the world requires.
We must begin among us, since we possess the latent “memory” of unity, and at the same time welcome anyone, from any nation, who shares this view of unity. Subsequently, it is our obligation to—as Ford put it—cease our exclusiveness and begin to fulfill the ancient prophecy that through us the nations of the earth will be blessed—with unity and brotherly love.
Our growing alienation, mistrust, and self-centeredness have brought the world into a global crisis. In crises, the blame is turned toward the Jews. The way to counter the blame is with a potent antidote—the remedy of unity—the only drug against self-centeredness and alienation. There are many ways we can unite, but the important thing is to remember to stick with it despite all obstacles because our lives depend on it, and because the well-being of the world requires it, and requires that we pass it on to everyone.