Barrie Wilson
Barrie Wilson

The Three Weapons of Antisemitism, Part One

Jew-haters employ 3 weapons to hurt Jews. An ancient writing provides valuable clues.

Antisemitism is an attack on Jews as Jews, focusing either on Jews individually, the Jewish religion or collectively on the Jewish nation-state. Jew-hatred is not new and, surprisingly, the oldest written record of antisemitism sounds contemporary with anti-Zionist rhetoric spilling over into global Jew-hatred.

This oldest document portrays the nations of the world getting together to target Israel. Larger, more powerful nations are obsessed with how best to destroy this small state. In spite of its size, Israel seems to be the focus of world attention as world leaders collaborate on its destruction. This writing sounds very much like the United Nations passing resolution after resolution against this country, and only this country.

But it’s not.

That oldest record also depicts people all over the world raging and roaring with empty rhetoric. Like world leaders, they, too, are obsessed with Israel, alone of all the nations of the world. Their intent is to destroy the government of the Jewish state. That, too, sounds like today’s news, with protesters in the streets of many North American and European cities marching and chanting violent slogans.

But it’s not.

Anti-Israel Plots and Rhetoric

The oldest record of Jew-hatred is not contemporary. It’s at least 2,500 years old. Probably older. It’s a document that was penned well before the racist stereotypes in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Well before the Christian Gospel of Matthew with its blood libel passage. And well before the biblical Book of Esther which addressed antisemitism in the Persian Empire.

The oldest testimony to Jew-hatred is one of the psalms, Psalm 2 specifically.

Like the other psalms, it is attributed to King David (roughly 1000 BCE). It’s not known if he himself personally wrote it or whether one of the choir masters in the First Temple period (11th – 6th centuries BCE) did so. The psalm is a song that would have been chanted on the accession to the throne of one of King David’s successors. Scholars call it “an enthronement psalm.”  It’s a liturgical piece that raises the spectre of Jew-hatred and the destruction of the Israelite kingdom. Surprisingly it places the formation of a new government squarely in the context of worldwide hostility and condemnation.

Psalm 2 begins with an astounding question: Why are the nations of the world enraged? Why are they coming together, plotting how to destroy the regime of the new Davidic king?

It’s an bold question, particularly for its time some 25-30 centuries ago. Were the nations of the time – Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt in particular – the same configuration of nations that exist today — upset that one person of David’s lineage had been installed as the new head of state in Jerusalem?  The Israelite king is God’s “anointed” agent, that is, his messiah. That’s what the psalmist says.

What was the world press of that time saying? How is the ruler of this puny kingdom a threat? What is it that the world leaders feared?

The Israelite nation was a thorn in the side of the powerful Middle Eastern nations of the time. It stood geographically right between Mesopotamia and Egypt, right in the center of the Fertile Crescent, along the highway connecting north and south. It was in the way of their expansion, either Egypt upwards or Mesopotamia downwards. The psalmist knew the geopolitical situation and sensed that the new Israelite king would be caught in a complex power squeeze between expansionist nations.

People in other countries are upset. As the writer indicates, they are entertaining “vain” or “empty” things. The charge sounds surprisingly current as people chant meaningless hateful slogans concerning an Israel they know nothing about. They rant that it’s a colonialist occupying entity that suppresses people.

Psalm 2 is remarkable: it pictures Israel and Jew bashing on a worldwide scale. It’s not a reference to Jesus as some Christian commentators would have it. Nor is it a prophecy about today’s events. Rather Psalm 2 represents a profound insight in the composer’s own time as to the role of the Israelite nation on the world’s stage. Hostility to Israel is nothing new.

For the song-writer, Psalm 2 focuses on Israel in the context of Jew-hatred having surfaced on a worldwide scale. We are told what the nations and peoples are attempting to do, and why. Again, the diagnosis is surprisingly modern.

Psalm 2 indicates that the nations and peoples are angry with God and with his anointed king, that is, with the government in Jerusalem. The country at the time was a constitutional monarchy, the powers of the king being curbed by the precepts of Torah with God as the ultimate King. It was not an absolute dictatorship, unlike the political arrangements in neighboring countries. There were constraints placed upon the king to act justly and to view his power as delegated power from God.

Break the Bonds

The psalmist doesn’t dwell on the constitutional point of difference between the Israelite kingdom and its neighbors. Instead the composer of this song focuses on the strategy of the rebellious heads of state and their populations against the Israelite nation state. As a result of their collaboration, these world leaders are depicted as saying, “Let us break in pieces their bonds and cast away from us their cords” (Psalm 2:3).

“Bonds” is open to interpretation. Is it the bond that the king enjoys with God through the Covenant? The successor of David, about to be enthroned as king in Jerusalem, is said, metaphorically, to be “God’s son.” From time to time the nation as a whole and not just the king is said to be “God’s son” as in the following passage: “[ Moses] say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:22). That, too, is metaphorical. The king operates within the parameters of the Covenant with God just as is the case with the people of Israel. Torah is the context for royal sovereignty, government and ordinary life.  So one of the bonds is religious, trying to detach the nation state of Israel from its religious foundation, Judaism.

“Bonds” may also refer to bonds within the Jewish community. At the time of the psalmist, that would mean the bonds between the tribes. In modern terms it would be the internal bonds between Israelis of various political and religious persuasions and externally between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora.

Weapon #1 of Jew-Hatred: Division

Breaking the bonds between Jews is very much a contemporary strategy. Many anti-Israel protesters are anti-Zionist, thereby trying to detach Jews from Israel as the Jewish homeland. We see this currently in the ideology of intersectionalism: progressives can either be progressives and anti-Israel or else pro-Israel but not a progressive. Socially-minded Jews thus face a conundrum. According to the ideology of intersectionalism, it’s an either-or situation: either support Israel or else support the cause, not both. That divides Jews from each other and it separates Jews from those who support such causes as BLM, LGBTQ, Green Party Environmentalism or Feminism.

Division is the first component of Jew-hatred. Setting one group of Jews against others. Setting Jews in the Diaspora against Jews in Israel.

This has several important consequences.

For one thing, division makes Israel the issue, not the challenges faced by the specific movement to which the progressive is committed. Thus a progressive would have to become familiar not only with BLM or LGBTQ or Environmental or Feminist issues but also with the complexities of Middle East policies and politics, an immense commitment if taken seriously – months if not years of investigation. Solving the political landscape of the Middle East seems a long way from making the world a better place for Blacks, Gays, Lesbians, Transgendered individuals or Women.

Division also creates a new ghetto. According to the divisive ideology of intersectionalism, Jews are not – and cannot be — part of the major social causes of our time. Jews are separate, outside the gates of these movements, confined to quarters. It’s an old manoeuvre and terribly familiar to anyone with a sense of history. It’s an attempt to forge a new Jewish ghetto. Divide. Isolate. Jews not welcome.

There’s a strong theological component to Psalm 2. According to its author, hostility towards the government of Israel is fundamentally rebellion against God and is therefore ultimately doomed to failure. This theological conviction underlies the beliefs of religious Jews and today’s Christian Zionists. However one construes the unfolding of history, division presents a very powerful weapon in the hands of antisemites. Division has played an important — and devastating –role in Jewish history. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus, for instance, credited the downfall of Jerusalem in 70 CE to the many internal divisions within the city-state of the time.

Division is destructive and highly toxic. Lessening the bonds between Jews and Israel, between Jews and Torah, between Jews and other peoples and between Jews of differing persuasions is very dangerous. Uncoupling the triad of peoplehood, nation and religion tremendously weakens Jewish presence and involvement.

There are two other weapons in the Jew-hatred arsenal as well. More to come.

About the Author
An award-winning educator, Barrie Wilson, PhD, is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto. An investigative historian, he specializes in Early Christianity. Publications include How Jesus Became Christian (2008) awarded the Tanenbaum Prize for History at the Canadian Jewish Book Awards (2009); The Lost Gospel (2014) co-authored with the Emmy-award winning Canadian-Israeli film director and producer Simcha Jacobovici; Paul vs James (2018); Searching for the Messiah (2020). Wilson is a member of Beth-Tzedec Congregation, Toronto.
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