Benjamin Blech

Why do they hate us?

I first asked this question when I was a young boy, fleeing the Holocaust on the last boat out of Europe. Now I have an answer
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists march in central London on December 9, 2023. (HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists march in central London on December 9, 2023. (HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)

Ever since I was a young boy, fleeing with my family who managed on the eve of the Holocaust to somehow escape on the very last boat of refugees from Europe to the safety of the United States, the question has consumed me: Why do they hate us?

My father, a prominent rabbinic scholar, who in my mind knew everything, avoided answering me. But soon, he assured me, I would no longer be victim of the antisemitism that swept through my birthplace. Soon, America would prove to me that hatred of Jews was a disease that was curable, a profound sickness of the soul whose expiration date would coincide with the defeat of Hitler and his Nazi demons.

And in large measure, he was right. America increasingly began to live up to the promise of the words inscribed as welcome on the Statue of Liberty. Jews found unparalleled freedom, respect, equality — the hallmarks of a civilized society. Until now! Until “genocide” — a word invented to express the unique horror perpetrated against the Jews — is used as an accusation of the victim; bestially slaughtering and raping Jews is exempt from criticism, depending upon “context”; and a people with a 3,000-year history of linkage to the land of Israel, as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom the land was biblically promised, is condemned as “colonials,” by followers of a religion whose founder was born in the sixth century!

Once more I need to ask: Why do they hate us?

Anne Frank, in the Broadway play adapted from her classic diary, according to the  playwright Meyer Levin, wrote: “Why are Jews hated? Well one day, it’s one group, and the next day another….” But that is not what she said at all. It was the play’s author who wanted to de-Judaicize antisemitism. Her words were far more profound: “Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason only do we now suffer.”

Perhaps we will never really understand. Perhaps Emil Fackenheim was right when he sought an explanation for the Holocaust: “There will never be an adequate explanation. The closer one gets to explicability, the more one realizes nothing can make Hitler explicable.” Perhaps to offer reason for the unreasonable is a step down the path of Spinoza’s famous maxim that “to understand all is to forgive all.”

But there is one explanation that just may be the most valid because it came from Hitler himself. It is the confession of the prime prototype of the antisemite used to justify its application to six million victims. Indeed, it is the very debt of the world to Judaism’s discovery of ethics and morality that for some necessitate its destruction.

These are the words of Hitler himself: “Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I am freeing man from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge, from the dirty and degrading self-mortifications of a false vision called conscience and morality…The Ten Commandments have lost their validity. Conscience is a Jewish invention; it is a blemish like circumcision.”

It is an insight long ago expressed by the Talmud: Why, the Rabbis ask, was the Torah given on a mountain called Sinai? Because the Hebrew root of the word Sinai is “sinah” — the Hebrew word for hatred. The message of Sinai is the essence of Judaism: God places moral demands upon us. These obligations define us as human beings created in the image of our Maker. And for that, Jews continue to be hated, and presumably will be until the world acknowledges conscience not as curse but as blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, and lecturer.
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