Barry Newman

Facing the harsh reality of antisemitism

The antisemitism that is raging like an uncontrollable wildfire throughout the world reminded me of a book review I came across several years ago. It did not take long for me to Google it since it had a most intriguing title: People Love Dead Jews. The author, Dara Horn, prepared and put together a series of wide-ranging essays focusing on the fascination the world had had, historically, with Jewish deaths rather than respecting and benefitting from the lives and culture of living, vibrant Jewish communities.

In subsequent interviews Horn, a Harvard-educated novelist and professor of literature, clarified that although she tried to provide a perspective and understanding of why western society prefers embellishing the deaths of Jews rather than celebrating the vitality and richness of Jewish life and culture, she did not in every sense mean “dead” literally, although I’m sure that there are more than a few of the current demonstrators and protesters who would indeed, if pressed, admit that they would prefer to see Jews six feet under rather than freely walking and breathing.

What she in essence meant was that the world would rather have Jews remain passively on the sidelines and not be at the forefront of science, technology and art. Better, in other words, that Jews should be perceived as pareve and unremarkable rather than as overly high achievers. Or, stating the issue in her perspective, better dead than alive.

She has, you know, a point. Throughout much of history, the destruction of world Jewry is the compelling focus of academic study and research while the ever-spreading disease of antisemitism is, for the most part, minimized. Even nothing more than cursory research would confirm that considerably more attention has been given to the destruction of Jewish communities and civilizations than to those that have defied the odds and remained viable.

Although her collection of essays does not touch on the independence or existence of the State of Israel, the arguments she stands behind are very much relevant to the unprecedented hatred that has dominated headlines for the last several months. The initial atrocities of October 7 – the kidnapping and murder of innocent Jews – were internationally met with outrage and sympathy. The abrupt and aggressive change came about only after Israel responded to the outrage and attacked Gaza. Concern over the hostages quickly transformed into antisemitism once the focus shifted from dead or imprisoned Jews to a highly skilled and accomplished Jewish army. The world, it seems, is still very much influenced by the virtually lack of resistance to the Nazi genocide; Jews refusing to remain passive is very much a disruption to the existing mindset.

Educational paradigms throughout western society emphasize the destruction of Jewish life –inquisitions, pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust – and give little attention to the contributions Jews have made throughout the cultural and scientific spectrum. Antisemites footnote this by pointing out the insistence of Jews to remain separated from the communities in which they resided, and have stubbornly maintained different religious, national and social traditions. In the mind of the bigot, it makes little difference that throughout the world many if not most of the Jews have assimilated to the point that there is virtually nothing Jewish in their thinking or lifestyle. They have become dead Jews, in other words, that society readily welcomes and embraces.

What cannot be overlooked is that the “Jewishness” of Israeli Jews and observant Jews both stand out. Both are distinctively different than the assimilated, unaffiliated Jews that the world is most comfortable with. Notably, Horn opens People Love Dead Jews with a story from the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. A museum employee arrived one morning wearing a kippah. He was requested (or, rather, told) to cover the kippah with a cap. A spokesperson later explained that the museum felt it necessary to achieve “neutrality” and that a kippah-wearing employee would severely upset this very delicate balance. Several months later the policy was rescinded and the kippa was allowed out of hiding.

That something like this could happen in a cultural center established to honor the memory of one of the most well-known Jews who was forced into hiding is indeed ironic. In the eyes of the world – that is, international tourists – the Nazi-executed Anne Frank is regarded as a courageous heroine. An openly observant Jew, on the other hand, is viewed ambiguously, and is confronted with the same hatefulness that Israelis are facing right now. Both are very much subjected to the same antisemitic question: why are you not dead, or at least why are you not making your Jewishness invisible. And are being challenged if not blatantly threatened to abandon their singularity and embrace, for want of a better term, universalism.

While the premise behind Horn’s thesis may be somewhat overstated, it would be dangerously wrong to dismiss it as folly. One need only look at the vile placards being waved and displayed at the most enlightened universities on all five continents. In many cities, the physical safety of Jewish communities is being seriously threatened, Jewish institutions are being defaced, and Jews are being advised to camouflage their Judaism. Calls to destroy Israel from the river to the sea are, for all practical purposes, updated versions of what went on over the last two millennia.

Jewish civilization is by no means on the brink of destruction. Despite the offensive behavior going on incessantly, Jewish life and achievements will continue unabated. Let’s, though, not delude ourselves. Once the hostilities in Gaza are over, the vehement hatred, too, will quiet down. But only until “next time.” By threatening to hold back from Israel arms essential to bring the war on all fronts to an end, President Biden may very well be confirming what Dara Horn provocatively dared say: people do indeed like dead Jews.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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