Populism and the Jewish Question

We seem to be going through a populist moment, not only here in the United States, but in much of the world.  If you have any sense of history, that should scare the hell out of you.  Populism has never been good for the Jews.

I cannot define populism precisely, but (with apologies to the late Justice Potter Stewart), I know it when I see it. It involves one or more demagogues exalting  the common man, putting forth simplistic solutions to complex problems, creating a narrative that purports to offer an explanation for  grievances real or imagined and to deflect the resulting popular rage by  turning it against convenient scapegoats. When a populist movement is successful, it usually creates a cult of personality for its leader, insists itself to be the only source of truth, disparages any attempt to ascertain objective facts and persuades large numbers of people to go along.  Not every populist movement succeeds, of course, and not all of them display all of these characteristics, which is why it is difficult to define precisely.

Not surprisingly, over the course of history, many demagogues have made Jews their scapegoats of choice.  They were often convenient both because they were viewed as  “other” — “a  people that dwells apart”  (Num. 23:9) — and because foreign rulers often found Jews to be convenient middlemen.  The use of Jews as middlemen and scapegoats goes back to the beginnings of the Jewish  people.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Biblical narrative knows that the Egyptian Pharaoh appointed  Joseph to a high position of state so that he could store up food during the seven years of plenty that could be used to feed the people during the years of famine that would follow.  We pay less attention to how Joseph performed that task (which happens to appear in Parshat Vayigash, which is this week’s Torah reading):

 Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace….And when that year was ended they came to him and said to him “We cannot hide from my lord that with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our land.”…So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh.

(Gen. 47:14,18, 20, JPS translation).

Note that both the money and  the land were placed in the possession of Pharaoh.  There is nothing in the text to suggest that Joseph himself gained anything from the transaction but Joseph’s was the face that the people saw.  Is it any wonder that when a “new king” arose in Egypt who didn’t know —  or pretended not to know — of Joseph’s loyal service, he found it easy to persuade the people to enslave and attempt to annihilate them? As the Torah recounts:

And he said to  his people, “Look, the Israelite people are too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”

(Ex. 1:10, JPS translation).

The story of Joseph is a paradigm that has been repeated often in Jewish history.  In the Middle Ages, in part because they were barred from other occupations and in part because of their universal literacy in a mostly illiterate age, Jews were often called upon for service to kings or nobles for roles as middlemen.  Local rulers took advantage of their talents but often allowed them to be the objects of peasant fury during hard times.  Some rulers protected them for a while, but in most places sooner or later, one way or another, the party ended, and the Jews were slaughtered or expelled.

Modernity has been different — but maybe not as different as we’d like to think.  Jews are no longer barred from other occupations, but old habits, and the stereotypes they breed, are often hard to break.  In Europe many countries have gone through periods in which populist movements have thrived.  Jews have often — though not always — been early victims of these movements.  The defeat of the Nazis in World War II and the subsequent realization of the enormity of their crimes made scapegoating Jews socially and politically unacceptable for a while. There are signs, however, that as memories of Nazism fade, anti-Semitism  is once more rearing its head.  The growing Muslim population in many European countries has further complicated the picture.

Here in the United States, our experience has been different. Jews have been equal citizens from the country’s beginning; we never had to be emancipated because we were never oppressed.  Because of America’s unique civic identity, we have enjoyed here an unparalleled safety and prosperity.  Anti-Semitism has not been unknown here, of course, but it’s rarely involved serious violence.  That’s why we were so shocked by the attacks in Pittsburgh  and Poway, California, and more recently in Jersey City and Monsey.  We’ve grown complacent.

It is tempting to view the rise in anti-Semitism as a phenomenon entirely separate from the growing power of populism, but Jews with a knowledge of history should know better.  One reason that populism has not, historically speaking, been a major problem for American Jews is that the founders of our country wisely embedded safeguards against it into our system of government.  They may not have known the word “populism”, but they surely understood the danger of mob rule.  They wrote a Constitution that created a federal republic — a  system of government containing checks and balances designed to prevent both individual and majoritarian tyranny.  That system has endured for more than two centuries, at some points more precariously than others.  Only once has it failed to the extent of civil war.

Observers may differ as to the reasons for our current populist moment.  Economic stagnation and cultural conflict are the underlying drivers of discontent.  Modern communications technology makes it far easier than ever before to create mobs and thus presents a particularly difficult challenge to our constitutional republic.  The result has been the simultaneous rise of populist movements at both ends of the political spectrum.

Populism is not exclusively a phenomenon of any particular ideology.  It can exist on either the left or the right.  In twenty-first century America, it exists on both sides of the political spectrum.  On the right, it has been harnessed by President Trump and his base.  On the left, it is visible in the rhetoric of many who call themselves progressives.  Except on the lunatic fringes, neither has so far targeted Jews, and there are Jews to be found on both sides of the mainstream political battle.

That is as it should be.  I am not suggesting that Jews cower in fear, reluctant to assert our rights as equal citizens, and unwilling to take firm stands on other issues.  Even if that were feasible, it would be signify profound ingratitude to the country which has given us so much.  We have every right to stand up for our own interests and advocate for them, and both a right and a duty to take stands on issues that  affect the welfare of all of our  fellow citizens.  Inevitably, we will not all agree on the issues of the day.

What I am suggesting is that Jews on both ends of the spectrum should retain — and where necessary revive — our instinctive fear of populism.  As Jews we should be especially wary of overheated rhetoric, whatever its source.  The casual use of phrases like “enemy of the people”, “civil war”, “war criminal” and “revolution” serve to fan the flames of conflict that threaten to get out of control.  As a matter of both principle and enlightened self-interest, Jews should encourage a reduction of the temperature of our political invective.  Far from conflicting with our obligations as American citizens, a more balanced approach enables us to bring our sensitivities as Jews to bear for the benefit of the country to which we owe so much.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.