In the UK alone, antisemitism seems now to be running at the rate of one major public scandal per week.
As usual, when such incidents occur, there are the standard condemnations from those who must be seen to issue them, as well as reflections – some better, some worse – on the nature of antisemitism and its ‘surprising’ re-emergence in the modern tolerant climes of contemporary UK left-liberal society.
Why does antisemitism persist? Why does it seem so resistant, including to ‘left-liberal tolerance’ which, as is well known, otherwise offers a magic potion that solves the whole spectrum of societal ills?
Here’s my hypothesis which I think is different from other theories I’ve come across (and apologies if I missed something)…
Antisemitism persists because very few people – gentile and Jew alike – really understand what Judaism is about: what it is trying to achieve, why it takes the form it does, and how it is different from other religions and philosophies (please see my previous blogpost below for more on this theme). Therefore, to ‘defeat’ antisemitism, Jews need to be more open, more proud, more direct, in presenting the nature of Judaism in the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
How does antisemitism manifest itself as a result of this lack of understanding?
People fill this void in their understanding by projecting their own prejudices onto Judaism. This in turn manifests in hatred for Jews as the (supposed) practitioners of Judaism. (And in the case of Jews with distaste about the nature of Jewish religious observance as they perceive it, this may, in some cases, manifest in a more narrow kind of hatred against religiously-observant Jews).
Based on this hypothesis, it can be argued that a general lack of understanding about Judaism has underpinned the various manifestations of antisemitism throughout the ages.
Just to give one example, by this line of argument, Christian antisemitism was able to emerge because Jews were not able or willing to challenge Christianity, as it emerged, or thereafter (including, to some extent, into the present day), on fundamental issues of belief. This is why Christianity throughout the ages has been able to fill this void in understanding by providing the masses with a distorted perspective of Judaism – for example, comparing itself favorably as a ‘religion of love’ against Judaism as a ‘religion of vengeance’, a claim that is manifestly false, both in theory and in practice. (And why, in a different context, antisemites have been able to portray arguably among the most charitable of peoples as stingy and mean.)
Why has this lack of understanding arisen?
Fear…in two forms:
Form one – fear of persecution: For nearly two thousand years, Jews have been in exile. At the same time, we have been subject to massive intellectual and philosophical subjugation. With few exceptions, we have been unable or unwilling to present Judaism clearly in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ because we have feared that being seen in any way to challenge our oppressors’ religions or philosophies may intensify our persecution.
Instead, we celebrate Chanukah with a passion. Chanukah remembers the last time we had the courage to proclaim our faith to the whole world, complete, with truth, and why the focus of these celebrations is light. Every year when we light our Chanukah menorahs, by our windows, but also, increasingly, in public squares around the world, it is our symbolic substitute for actually venturing out and sharing the light of our ideas with the world.
Form two – fear of assimilation: Our protective mode during these two thousand years has been to retreat into ourselves like the turtle inside its shell. We may be afraid of persecution but we are more afraid that so many people may actually be attracted to Judaism if they only knew. In the days of the Roman Empire that didn’t turn out so well either.
The very nature of Judaism makes it difficult to accommodate others who may seek to enter the Covenant on their own terms, whereas the very point of Judaism is the nullification of our will before G-d’s timeless commandments, and thus the fear of assimilation also breeds the fear of persecution if such a flood of converts were to be rejected. (Who knows, they may even start up their own competing religions because of it…)
To reaffirm our retreat from the marketplace of ideas, we hang onto our mantra – ‘a nation that dwells alone’ – and we stick to it. (This promise comes from Numbers 23:9, which – as per my previous blogpost – is just one of many promises made in Torah thousands of years ago that continue to be realized into the present day for only one among many other hundreds if not thousands of small tribal groupings from the ancient Middle East, but not even closely for any other.)
The ghetto actually suited us quite well for this purpose and it was quite the irritation when those annoying left-liberals of the 19th century came and emancipated us! (This explains why the Alter Rebbe, the founding rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, famously preferred the Czars of Russia – who oppressed us – over Napoleon, who came supposedly to liberate us…)
Which brings us to a nice metaphor about where we stand today. We have been mostly emancipated from the physical ghetto but we have not yet been emancipated from the intellectual and philosophical ghetto. In fact, it is we ourselves who are choosing to keep our ideas imprisoned within that ghetto.
Unfortunately, until we are ready to become 21st century Maccabees, according to my hypothesis at least, antisemitism will persist.
Which brings us to this week’s parsha.
Says the Torah: “Command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually” (Leviticus 24:2).
Says the Torah again, next verse: “Outside the dividing curtain of the testimony in the Tent of Meeting, Aaron shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning continually. [This shall be] an eternal statute for your generations.” (Leviticus 24:3)
And for good measure, says the Torah again, next verse: “Upon the pure menorah, he shall set up the lamps, before the Lord, continually.”(Leviticus 24:4)
Why three times ‘continually’ when only once would have done? In Jewish thought, three times establishes a ‘chazakah’ – giving weight to the obligation. I believe the Torah is telling us, yes, we may still dwell alone (‘Jews don’t count’), but even though we may be crushed, in fact precisely because we are crushed, we have an obligation to take our light to the nations continually, not just on Chanukah…