Why do they hate us?
The flood of anti-Semitism that erupted since October 7, can’t be explained by politics; not even the inflammatory politics of Israel/Palestine. The expressions of hate have been too raw; the emotions unleashed too primal. Academics were exhilarated at the news of massacred civilians and raped women. One Palestinian professor, responding to reports of Israeli children burned to death in ovens, wondered if the children were incinerated “with baking soda or without?” That’s not something a normal person says. So what is it about Israel – and by extension, Jews – that makes people lose their minds?
I suggest that these charged emotions are rooted not in politics, but in religion; specifically, the notion of Jewish chosen-ness. This is usually understood to mean resentment by non-Jews at the idea of the election of the Jews to a special status. But I’d suggest a somewhat counter-intuitive spin: anti-Semites don’t hate us because we believe we’re the chosen people. Rather, they hate Jews because they believe it. That is, it is the Jew-haters who are haunted by an unconscious fear that somehow, the Jews really are a special people. And that anxiety drives them mad.
This twist on the standard narrative might be difficult to swallow, so let me illustrate the dynamic with an analogy. Imagine you are traveling with a friend through rural America, and come across the following road sign: “Welcome to Pleasantville. Population 5,382. Home of the world’s greatest apple pie.” Cute, you think; a little bit of local pride. But imagine that your companion is unexplainedly triggered by the sign. He is incensed. He swears that there is no way this town can have the best apple pie in the world! He calls his attorney and initiates legal action – at considerable cost – to have the town remove the sign. How can you explain his reaction? It doesn’t make sense – it’s just a silly sign, after all; just ignore it. But he can’t. The notion of this small town assigning itself global importance just drives him to distraction.
Let’s be clear: do Jews think they’re special? Of course they do! Doesn’t everybody? Doesn’t every nationality preserve traditions boasting the unique virtues of their particular group? Don’t the French think the French are great? Likewise the Japanese. But no one accuses the French or Japanese of racism. Any chauvinism on their part is naturally understood as ordinary national pride. Nothing to get excited about. Only with the Jews is this pride perceived as something uniquely sinister and threatening.
Why? Where did all this start? Let me offer my take:
About three thousand years ago, some tribal people living in Israel wrote a collection of tales recounting the story of their people. They scarcely imagined that any outsiders would pay these stories the slightest attention. But by a weird fluke of history, these stories somehow became incorporated into the foundational narratives of almost one third of Earth’s inhabitants. They form an inseparable part of the hallowed religious traditions for over two billion Christians and Muslims.
What is the narrative thrust of these traditions? For despite significant differences in theology, the narrative arcs of both Christian and Muslim stories are remarkably similar: once upon a time, there was a people called the Jews, to whom God revealed Himself and whom He chose with a mission: to spread knowledge of the One God throughout the world. At some point though, God changed His mind, and the Jews forfeited their special status, which was then conferred – thru the agency of Jesus or Mohammed – to the new “chosen” group. You don’t have to be Freud to see how this story might trigger a good deal of anxiety in a believer. After all, their own tradition acknowledges that the Jews were – at least at one point in history – chosen. To some adherents, the story of their subsequent replacement by the “true” religion may seem a bit too contrived. After all, does God really change His mind? What if the Jews were right all along? As noted, this anxiety is unconscious and therefore unacknowledged. And it’s certainly not true for the majority of either Christians or Muslims. But for a considerable minority of both believers, I believe it may explain a lot.
Where does that leave us today? We can’t change the past, and it’s true that habits of mind rooted in religion are much more durable than those shaped by politics or intellectual fads. But I sincerely believe that any peace between Israel and the Palestinians must be part of a broader reconciliation of Jews and Muslims. And this must address the hostility which Islam has traditionally displayed towards Judaism and other faiths. But we must remember that despite our differences, our religious traditions share much in common, and try to build on that. Perhaps if religious leaders take the lead, they might pave the way for the politicians to follow. We’ve tried almost everything else; what do we have to lose?