Michael Chighel
Dean of the Ashkenazium

Softcore Anti-Semitism

A substantial part of my education consisted in learning to be nice. Which is to say, I grew up in Canada. Since making Aliyah three years ago, consequently, I have experienced the rather miraculous personal redemption of not having to be so nice. It’s an existential liberation.

In Machane Yehuda, the shuk where I buy fresh bread each morning, I rush about, without smiling, sometimes bumping into people without acknowledging the faux pas. After paying for my loaf or bagels, I mumble an often perfunctory todah, yom tov, and rush off. Again, without smiling. Sometimes, especially on Fridays, when the shuk is bedlam, I go so far as to be a veritable curmudgeon. My wife is shocked at how I have pulled my cart full of groceries over people’s toes without so much as turning around apologetically. It is, I confess, mea culpa, a sublimely mischievous little pleasure not to care too much. In Machane Yehuda, after all, nobody cares too much. It’s only on occasion that I have pay for these wicked little negligences with deservedly dirty looks the clear meaning of which is to compare me, along anatomical lines, to a type of sphincter muscle.

Now I can’t say I like to be compared to a type of sphincter muscle. And yet, the occasional proctological analogy is infinitely more welcome than another silent comparison, the kind I used to endure when I lived in Canada. (To say nothing of my years in Austria.). In Canada, whenever I happened to be inconsiderate for whatever reason of a fellow citizen’s feelings — if I carelessly cut someone off in traffic, if I spilled something on a supermarket floor, if I spoke a little too loudly on the subway — the dirty looks directed at me were never satisfied with anatomical synecdoches. I was not merely sphincter-like. No, I was a dirty sphincter-like Jew. No Canadian ever said that to me out loud. Obviously not, Canadians are far too polite to do that. But the word “Jew,” the cussy version of this word, the version that is not so much expressed as it is expectorated, was clearly legible in their eyes. This version of the word “Jew” is never to be seen or heard or felt in Machane Yehuda. I am never anything more than just one more instance of sphincter with legs. I exist redeemed.

Some of my American and Canadian friends in Jerusalem know what I am talking about. Some don’t. I reckon it’s a question of a peculiar sensitivity, a sensitivity amplified and rendered self-transparent by a certain conceptual grasp of the term golus. I believe that in my own case this sensitivity was most decisively developed and honed during the seven years that I lived in Austria right before making Aliyah with my family. Living in Vienna as a visible Jew — sporting in public my untrimmed beard in all its glory and apparelled in the full regalia of kippah, tzitzit, and sabbatical black kapote and Borsalino — I endured the daily pressure of nasty looks. Not exactly the hardcore gazes whereby the grandparents of these Viennese citizens used to bear down on the generation of my grandparents, gazes that finally found their full cathartic expression in the construction and operation of gas chambers in Mauthausen. But not the softcore anti-Semitic gazes I used to get in Canada either. I remember the shock to my system, and not just to my Jewish system but also to my pluralistic Canadian sensibilities, when I was first accosted by the look in the eyes of a Viennese pedestrian who was shocked for his own part and thoroughly dismayed to see me walking on the same sidewalk to which he evidently had a special claim. The horror-stricken look said: “Ihr seid noch da?! You’re still here?!” The great double-edged blessing of having lived in Vienna was the rude awakening within me of a sensitivity that had been relatively anaesthetized in the much friendlier, more multicultural, nicer Toronto. Ironically, it was the harder-core anti-Semitism of the Viennese that made it possible for me to recognize, and to begrudge, all in retrospect, the softcore anti-Semitism of more than one Canadian, to count the least, with whom I had everyday dealings.

But just to be perfectly clear: I am by no means unthankful to Canada. The land of the free and the home of the brave has an eternal spot of love and deep gratitude in my heart. The image of a red maple leaf always makes me smile with joy. If you can live anywhere in the world, live in Canada. Except of course—this is the “argument” implicit in my humble testimony, after all—except if you are a Jew who desires to live as a visible Jew and utterly free of the slightest hints of anti-Semitism, even the softcore type. Not every Jew requires this, of course. Perhaps only the very sensitive ones, perhaps even only the kafkaesquely sensitive ones, like me.

How it is that life in Israel offers the Jew such an extraordinary degree of inner relaxation, even as Israelis are notoriously rude, can be easily explained. The freedom to be less than nice, less than on one’s best behavior, is a freedom one enjoys in family life. At home, it is not only permissible to take off one’s shoes and stretch out one’s toes — if one is too worried about taking such liberties one is not really at home. Every Jew knows that in Israel one is among family. For better and for worse. For worse because only family can feel so carefree and so “at home” as to be so rude. And for better because only family can forgive rudeness on the deepest level, the level where one has one’s very identity, so as to make room for a carefree existence. (Obviously there are limits to such license both in public and at home. But this is so obvious that it hardly deserves more than a parenthetical note.)

As the anecdotal musings of an idle philosopher, the question of my personal experience of life in Israel ends here. Like me or dislike me, that’s a altogether private matter between us. Where the private matter seems to me to reflect a very public matter, indeed where it becomes a res publica, a political issue, is the point that niceness or likeability becomes a criterion, usually an unspoken criterion, on the issue of Israel’s right to exist.

The issue is something I sometimes discuss with non-Jewish intellectuals in Canada and America, very smart and very decent folk typically of Anglo-Saxon Protestant or Catholic extraction. As often happens in such discussions, an axiomatic depth is reached at which it is very difficult to abstractly leave out the deepest and most personal convictions. Thus I find that such interlocutors are quite unable, through no ill-will, to grasp my passionate need for an existential carefreeness, a need that is an axiom of my Zionism. I have non-Jewish friends in Canada who are quite dear to me who simply do not understand why a good Canadian like me who happens to be Jewish should be so obsessively and fiercely committed to a life in the Jewish state. But in political discussions, this incomprehension is quietly insinuated into the moral objections regarding the Jewish state’s treatment of the Palestinians and even regarding the intrinsically “apartheid” concept of a Jewish state altogether. After all, Canada is not a Christian state. Must not every modern liberal political arrangement disencumber itself of any alignment with a specific creed? Or as is the fashion among some journalists to ask: Can a state be both Jewish and democratic? Is that not a non sequitur?

The political question is of course very complex. I am only interested in making one observation here — an observation that rests on the point where the question of my likeability as an individual, which question should be limited to the judgment of other individuals, crosses over into the political domain where individual likeability should no longer be an issue. Good Canadians, humanitarian, liberal, multicultural, justice-loving Canadians are able to sympathize with the plight of Palestinians, no less than they are able to sympathize with the plight of the First Nations people who continue to live as a colonized people in their midst. This sympathy is perfectly genuine, and it is especially admirable when it is followed through by actual political activism. But in the final analysis it is nothing more than sympathy. Sympathy too, genuine sympathy, has its limits. The most perfectly genuine sympathy remains a kind of luxury. For the good Canadian WASP or WASC is never caught in the “gaze” (le regard d’autrui, much discussed by Sartre, de Beauvoir and Foucault) of someone looking down at them. The indignant Algonquin native or Afro-American or Asian or Jew living in Canada can certainly throw back an angry glance, and it may well be the sting of such a counter-glance that prompts the conscience of a WASP/C Canadian into a stance of genuine sympathy. But even the angriest glance is a glance shot upwards, a resentment burning in the eye of an inferior aimed up at a superior.

In Israel, I live a life free of such resentment. I live not simply as a Jew, but as a man. The great privilege of living as a man is something no amount of sympathy can provide.

In Israel, the Jew lives as a visible Jew, visible and yet not imprisoned in any identity-judging “gaze.” It’s not by accident that the term politeness is etymologically cognate with political existence. As I said, one can afford to be impolite with one’s family. Your family’s love for you is always stronger than the petty injuries you cause them. And, more importantly, your family knows that your bad mood is not really you. But in social interactions beyond the familiar familial circle, politesse is the rule. Which is why, after all, there are limits to how rude even an Israeli is allowed to be in public. But all of this falls short of the additional burden of extra politesse expected of a Jew in a non-Jewish political setting. A Jew living in the diaspora is always obliged to make an effort at being polite over-and-above the efforts of the citizenry that belongs to the host culture if the Jew is to be viewed as a valid citizen. And I would stress the term “viewed” here, rather than “accepted,” because the latter term can have the minimal significance of legal tolerance and acceptability. For a Jew in diaspora, being nice is not just a personal choice. It’s an extra, superfluous yoke.

None of which is to say that this blessed freedom of experiencing one’s full humanity while emphatically identifying oneself as a Jew in the State of Israel can be purchased at the expense of the same full experience of human dignity to which every Palestinian has as a God-given right. My right to enjoy a carefree Jewish identity is in no way a privilege that can be enjoyed without care and concern for the rights of Palestinians. Like all great privileges it comes with great responsibility. And I am the first to admit that the State of Israel has a long way to go in accommodating Palestinian rights and dignities.

But — this failing on the part of the State of Israel can in no way justify an attitude toward the state that undermines its intrinsic validity, no more and no less than the injustices that continue to be suffered by First Nations people in Canada and the United States is grounds for questioning the validity of the sovereign states of Canada and the United States.

So when Canadian and American friends voice certain judgements of the State of Israel which extend beyond fair criticism of the state apparatus and encroach upon its “constitutional” right to exist, to exist very specifically and programatically as a Jewish state, such criticism, to my newfound and much-treasured Israeli sensibilities, must be emphatically characterized as anti-Semitic. It is an anti-Semitism of the softest type, to be sure. An anti-Semitism of the “squeeze the Charmin” type. But an anti-Semitism nonetheless.

To insist on characterizing such criticisms as anti-Semitic is not a rhetorical strategy for deflecting all criticism of the state and putting the state beyond censure. It’s simply to demand, or better still to take, to take without any shame or apologetics whatsoever, the dignity that was taken by the original Zionists when the Jewish state was founded.

And, to be clear again, I do not suspect such critics of any egregious or insidious form of Jew-hatred. I don’t believe in such caricatures. The critics in question are good folk who have Jewish friends, who may be married to Jews, who may well be Jewish themselves. The criticism of the Jewish state does not stem from any racism or any actual hatred. The defining line between hardcore anti-Semitism and softcore anti-Semitism is precisely that the former is hateful and the latter is free of hate. Softcore anti-Semitism is simply the “humanist” attitude that begins only after the outer limits of genuine sympathy have been reached, an attitude that simply does not understand, because it simply cannot understand (and which need not be explained ad nauseam, except perhaps to the non-Jewish voice within the Jew), that a Jew desires to feel the absolute validity of his Jewish identity and is willing to build and maintain and pray for the strongest possible army to protect this feeling and this desire. And, alas, the Israeli Jew agrees to live with the tormented conscience of enjoying full possession of his own dignity even while the dignity of other human beings who care just as much about their own cultural and national identity is compromised and while much work remains to be done by way of securing the highest standards of human dignity for even the “lowest” of the Palestinians.

The late Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to concede, tragically but firmly, that the state of Israel embodies the right of the Jew to make his own mistakes, to make mistakes as a Jew. Which includes the paradoxical right to fail to provide perfect justice to all in the land.

Any criticism that attacks this paradoxical right, a right enjoyed by every Canadian and American citizen vis-à-vis the First Nations peoples in North America, is a criticism that patronizes the Israeli Jew and is therefore tantamount to a bona fide anti-Semitism, howbeit soft.

About the Author
Michael Chighel earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto for his dissertation on the Book of Job. In Canada he taught in the departments of philosophy and of Jewish studies at the universities of York, Queen’s and Waterloo. There he also produced and hosted "Passages" and "Messages" for eleven seasons on Canadian television (CTS). From 2008-2015 he held the Rohr Chair of Jewish Studies at the Lauder Business School in Vienna. From 2015-2020 he produced video series for, including "Your Backstory" and "Parsha Perks." Among various publications, his most significant to date is "Kabale. Das Geheimnis des Hebräischen Humanismus im Lichte von Heideggers Denken" (Klostermann, 2020). Presently he is the dean of the Ashkenazium in Budapest.
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