“I’m a Jew and I’m a Member of the Alt-Right” is the provocative title of Joshua Seidel’s article in the Forward (August 25, 2016). The articulate Seidel is a member of the ‘Alt-Right’ which opposes illegal immigration and gun control in the U.S.A and often targets the Jewish community. Writes Seidel in response to the obvious question as to how he can belong to it:
“I enjoy the nasty talk in the Alt-Right. I enjoy spending rhetorical time with people who might otherwise hate me. The Alt-Right has energy, it has vitality, it’s something NEW and creative, it’s honest and forthright. It’s also the only viable political movement that is explicitly fighting for that nebulous concept of ‘Western Civilization’.”
It’s easy to dismiss Josh but he was once a self-aware leftist, a student of Philosophy, and a liberal. So he writes: “So, I could have ended up a nice liberal Jewish boy, but my wandering nature put an end to that. I’ve seen too much, experienced too much, to be bothered by the memes of the Alt-Right. I’ve lived with and befriended people most Jews would dismiss, and found that the meanest and the roughest can hold forth with truth. As a community we’re quick to ignore certain speech because of who the speaker is. I focus on the speech.”
Seidel minimises the issue of the Alt-Right’s anti-Semitism by suggesting that it is hyped up by the “liberal Jews and Trump critics” and is basically innocuous, a mere “deluge of frog memes”, humorous frog images copied and spread rapidly by internet users. The real problem of anti-Semitism, he contends, is systematic institutional threats mainly from the left such as discrimination and the attack of Jews in universities. He also disingenuously distinguishes between the man and his words; a dangerous and fallacious assumption. He seriously underestimates the destructive power of words and how the energy of bigotry and hatred ultimately consumes the purveyor and the recipient.
Of course Seidel is correct in identifying the rise of anti-Semitism in Western democratic educational institutions and the failure of authorities to counter it. There is also the insidious conflation of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda. He is right that the Arab and Islamic world today is, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts, “awash with Judeophobia”. In May 2014 the Anti-Defamation League found that 74% of those surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa had anti-Semitic attitudes as opposed to 24% in Western Europe and 19% in the Americas.
The problem, with Seidel (and his ilk) is simplistic, black-and-white thinking. The problem with Seidel is the problem of extremism. It is the sickness of our age and like any virus it is dangerous, disturbing and potentially devastating. It is a spirit that is alien to Judaism and our religious sensibility. It has its roots in what is called dualism (as opposed to monotheism). Many people today would be more familiar with this kind of thinking if they’ve read even a little about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the sect that produced these manuscripts. Among the Qumran scrolls is one that describes a war between the children of Light and the children of Darkness. It’s about Us and Them, a force of all-good versus all-evil. It’s the kind of stuff evident in Star Wars, Harry Potter and to a lesser extent in The Lord of the Rings.
This is an ideology antithetical to Judaism. It is what Jonathan Sacks calls “pathological dualism” as opposed to theological or moral dualism. Moral dualism sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose, pathological dualism see humanity as divided into the “unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad”; you are either one or the other; either one of the saved, the chosen, or a child of Satan, the devil’s disciple.
Dualism is dangerous because it leads to regressive and violent behaviour. It dehumanises you and demonises your enemy, it encourages a sense of victim-hood and ultimately it erodes the moral sense, destroy empathy and foments violence, cruelty and even murder.
Black and White, Right and Left, Right and White. These are the warning signals of our time Judaism has always chosen paradox over paradise, diversity over duality, complexity over simplicity. The world is a blend of subtle colours, the Torah is a multi-layered text, human being are a melange of multiplicity.
The rise of the extreme ‘Alt-Right’ is as worrying as the extreme left. We ignore at our peril the musings of Josh Seidel: memes may be innocuous but they are also warning signals, the Alt-Right isn’t just about homeless froggy cartoons, it’s about hating Jews and all Muslims, rejecting democracy and tolerance. It’s about legitimising hatred and glorifying radicalism. It’s about vocal attacks on Jew in Charlottesville, murderous attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh. It’s about toxic antisemitism across Europe. It’s about identifying or flirting with extreme right wing parties in Australia. Be careful who you befriend for your very closeness to them makes you vulnerable to the same vicious behaviour.