Should American Jews Stop Trying to Defeat Antisemitism?

Should we, American Jews, stop trying to defeat antisemitism?

It is a question I’ve been pondering as I recently spent a month traveling through Europe and experiencing Jewish memory. And it is a question I’d love to hear from others about: Should we, as an American Jewish community, stop carrying the fight to “end” antisemitism in our country?
Why do I ask this question?

Because antisemitism – prejudice and hatred targeting Jews – has been a reality of Western Civilization going back for the better part of 1,500 years. As James Carroll laid out in his monumental Constantine’s Sword some twenty years ago, antisemitism is an enduring and defining feature of Western Christian civilization. To experience Europe’s history is to be reminded that antisemitism is our civilization’s constant, ever-evolving vehicle for defining what it means to belong to the West by defining the “other” within, i.e. the Jew, as something else.

We Jews attempt to adapt and conform to evolving European projections of belonging within the larger collective, only to experience a consistent response in which the collective is redefined in order to ostracize and exclude Jews. The examples are endless: When we considered ourselves to be as authentically Spanish as the Catholic Monarchs themselves, they determined Catholicism to be a defining feature of Spanish identity. When Enlightenment Protestants defined the modern nation-state, and relegated religion to the personal and private sphere, we adjusted our public identity accordingly, categorizing Judaism as religion (an ahistorical primary definition of Jewish identity) so that we might belong to the nation. But then, in Germany and elsewhere, we experienced, with devastating results, the re-centering of a racial national identity, with the Jew as the outsider once again. And, when Jews unified around the political nation-state as the fulfillment of our national being, post-nationalist elites made Israel, “the Jew amongst the nations,” the singular target of their anti-nationalist fervor.

We as Jews in the Western diaspora have always experienced and lived with antisemitism. If we think we can defeat it, we are deluding ourselves. As American Jews, we’ve become complacent in recent decades, when we embraced the notion that antisemitism was behind us. We did so because for a very brief moment in this nearly 2,000 year old civilization – from sometime in the mid-1980s to the early part of this century – and in our one truly exceptional country, antisemitism ceased to be part of our lived daily experience; it was largely banished from social acceptability and from the laws of the land.

If the current moment feels abnormal for a generation of American Jews who came of age in the last quarter century, what we are experiencing is in fact a return to the normal we’ve known for over a millennium.

If this is an accurate assessment, then what is to be done?

First and foremost, we must continue to insist – as we must insist for any oppressed minority – that we are the only ones who get to define our oppression. Others have no right to tell us what is antisemitic, nor how we should feel in response to it.

We as Jews need to be honest with ourselves about the enduring nature of Western antisemitism (and yes, I’m fully conscious that there is also non-Western antisemitism, including that within Muslim civilization. But the taxonomy of that antisemitism differs from that of the West. Since I’m writing specifically in the context of our US domestic challenge, to the extent that it is socially and politically tolerated, it is done so within the context of the larger challenge of the West. So, I’d like to defer and unpack that challenge on its own another day).

But antisemitism ought not and need not define us as a Jewish people. What should define us is our work of advancing the continued renaissance of our people as a force for good in the world (to paraphrase Avraham Infeld).

Antisemitism is not our disease. It’s the disease of our larger society. It is not we who need to visit the doctor and take the antibiotics. It is the society in which we currently reside.

This is not to suggest that we should stand down. Nor should we shut down our defense organizations. Far be it. We have a particular role, as a Jewish community, in tracking incidents and identifying the problem; in providing education and support to those who seek to eliminate its expression in their schools, workplaces and other settings. And, we as a Jewish community need to be focused on the specific challenge of securing our institutions and spaces so that we may gather as Jews in safety; our partnerships with government and law enforcement must be leveraged to that end.

But it must be the work of faith and civic leaders beyond the Jewish community – our elected officials, our Christian neighbors, and others – to root out this virus. The emergency strategy meetings within our community about fighting antisemitism (of which I have attended many) need to be supplemented by the emergency meetings of the leaders of every Christian denomination, by special sessions of legislatures, by the urgent and sustained action of our society’s leaders.

Jewish tweets and statements of condemnation will not beat this hate (though there is value in our articulating to others what we are experiencing and why we feel the fears that we do). What is needed is the amplified public voice of others amidst this rash of violence and targeting of our people.

I am reminded of the words of French prime minister, Manuel Valls, in 2015, following the attack on the Hyper Cacher market. He said that: “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

If the US would be judged a failure for no longer being a place where Jews can live in safety and security, then who will be judged and who will be the failure? It is not us, the American Jewish community. It will be the failure of the nation as a whole, and of those who stood idly by as expressions of this ancient hatred flourished once again.

And so we Jews must go on doing what we’ve always been doing: Being a people of “joy and not oy” (as Dr. Deborah Lipstadt puts it), building communities of caring and meaning, teaching the Jewish ethical tradition to our children, and bringing its wisdom and power into our society.

We as a Jewish community should fight antisemitism in America because of what it means for this nation, of which we are a part, to which we pledge our allegiance, and that we love no less than any other Americans. We must, in the words of President Washington, “give to bigotry no sanction” because we are Americans and because it undermines the ideals of our nation.

But we need not be defined by antisemitism. And we should be taking note when the nation of which we are a part is failing to rise to its challenge.

I would welcome a conversation about this approach.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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