Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Overcoming Antisemtism or Jew-hatred: Stop Absenting Judaism

Ye’s words show us that today’s Jew-hatred punches upward rather than downward. I don’t know why I’m surprised at the enduring perception that Jews control the world, that we continue to be the scapegoat to explain away the insecurities and ills of civilization after civilization. If we have learned anything from the most recent bout of this social disease, it is that it will not go away.

Jews have been portrayed as devilish for two thousand years. While present in Christian thought from Paul to Luther to today’s evangelicals, it is also present in secular political and philosophical thinkers. Marx equated Jews with the evils of capitalism in his early work. The Czar published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Despite the fact that there were few Jews in France, the French philosophes devoted more space to blaming Judaism for the ills of their 18th century days than the English, with whom France was at war. Jew-hatred also exists where there are no Jews. It shocked me the first time I saw copies of both The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf at a Cairo curbside bookstore.

Jew-hatred has endured, but curiously it has made a marked reappearance in the last several years, following a decades long respite in response to the Holocaust. Jews make up less than 2% of the American population, yet 55% of the acts of violence against religious groups target American Jews. We are hearing “Jews will not replace us” out of the mouths of U.S. white supremacy groups, who believe that American Jews are bringing in immigrants from Mexico and Central America to replace white U.S. Christians. This is hardly a fringe belief, as it regularly emerges from the mouths of major network commentators like Tucker Carlson and elected officials like Marjory Taylor Greene.

What is especially worrisome is not only the general apathy Americans have toward all vulnerable groups, but the overt antipathy for minorities in general among groups gaining strength. Jews know they are in particularly deep trouble when things get ugly. Because of the eternal scapegoating, American Jews will always be among the first targets. Lots of Jewish Israelis show little concern for this….but they should.

Many Jewish Israelis’ love of the American right is as delusional as the right’s loathing of American Jews. Israel worries about the American left when it should be worried about American right-wing, ethno-white, Christian nationalists. They don’t get that American support for Israel would diminish if white supremacy continues to undermine democracy, as many apathetically watch it slip away.

Why is the tide of Jew-hatred rising? Because Judaism has been rendered alien by being absented from our curricular knowledge. Despite the fact that Judaism is a foundational civilization in the history of human beings, all Jewishness has been violently stripped from the narrative we are taught and socialized into.

Western thought and values are packaged as “Judeo-Christian,” but we are merely the wrapper you tear off and throw away before eating the Christian candy within. The Talmud, for example, is one of the grand ethical texts, yet few know anything about it. Some universities do have Jewish Studies programs, but they are often intellectual ghettos. Few classes outside of Jewish Studies talk about how Jews lived–when we do appear it is often to discuss how Jews died. Jew-hatred doesn’t come from Judaism, the bigots have no ideas about Judaism.

Until we understand Jews are a noun, and not just a prefix, Jew-hatred will continue. Jews aren’t just any group. We are a living instantiation of an ongoing civilization that blazed the trail for western civilization, and which continues to evolve and contribute while surviving from and  being different than Christian civilization. We are (arguably) the first group to posit animal rights and human equality before the law. Our prophets spoke for a God who liberates the vulnerable from oppression. It is a civilization that focuses its energy on justice in the here and now, not averting our eyes from suffering in hopes of salvation in an afterlife.

The habitual apathy of our curricula offers little hope for overcoming Jew-hatred. At one time, the absenting of Judaism was intentional. Today, it has become habit. The anti-Judaism of the early Church and resulting Jew-hatred may be things we study as part of our past, but our perpetual absenting of Judaism from our knowledge does the work of early Christian anti-Judaism and subsequent antisemitism. I’m not sure if I see a difference in kind.

There is an emerging trickle of hope. While reading about responses to Ye and his white supremacist followers, I came across one I didn’t expect to hear: that of an independent school in the Los Angeles area, The Oakwood School. The head of school, Jaime A. Dominguez, issued a statement that promises to not let this go, showing understanding that this is a curricular issue. “Through our ever-evolving curriculum and focus on equity, we are providing young learners with the skills and conviction to transform the world for the better. “After researching the school, I’m not surprised. Oakwood exercises a human rights curriculum. It also accepted Jews when others banned them. (Fun fact: Oakwood was founded by novelist Jessica Ryan in her backyard. Her husband was film noir, Western… movie star Robert Ryan, who quietly helped black listed Jews during the red scare.)

It is only when other schools follow the path of Oakwood and include Jews as part of the complex story of the world, when children are taught of Jewish contributions, that we will find a home in their minds as a living culture, as a valuable member of the global community. Only then will Jews no longer be a mere prefix that vanishes before the noun. As people like Ye and the white supremacists supporting him from a highway overpass in Los Angeles yearn to once again go “death con 3” upon us, our continued existence may depend upon it.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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