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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

‘Why Not Me’ Antisemitism: The Wandering and Wondering Jew

With antisemitism widely rearing its head once again – even if its Christian incarnation is no longer central to the phenomenon – it is worth thinking about its deep-rooted sources, and not merely any specific current events cause for its viral outbreak.

I will offer two main causes that when combined lead to a third central factor. Think of them as the three Ws: Wondering; Wandering; Why not me?

The first major reason for the Jewish mindset is the Jewish People’s never-ending Wanderings. Think about the biblical narrative: The Jewish People’s founding father Abraham moved from Babylonia to Assyria to Canaan to Egypt and back to Canaan; Jacob went from Canaan to Northern Syria (Laban’s home), and then later moved his whole family to Egypt (and we know how that turned out); the Israelites left Egypt, sojourning in the desert for 40 years and then readied themselves to enter Canaan; ten tribes were expelled from their Northern Kingdom in the 8th century BCE and then 200 years later the last two tribes’ (Judaean) leadership was also forced into exile, this time Babylon, but they managed to return to the Holy Land after 50 years. Five centuries later in the post-biblical era, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and more expulsions ensued – this time to Babylon (again), Egypt (where many Jews had already moved peacefully over the previous centuries), and Rome. The next 2000-year period (until today) constitute(d) the Diaspora, with Jews ever on the move from one continent and country to another.

That’s why we are appropriately called “The Wandering Jew.” But all this Wandering has a by-product: it also leads us to Wondering i.e., wondering why we were not accepted almost anywhere, and also wondering (in the new place we settle) why “they” do things the way the way they do – and then pointing out to them how to do it differently (and usually better). So we’ve now reached the second “W”.

The Bible (“Old Testament”) is replete with “Jewish” arguments, starting with Abraham telling God that the Almighty shouldn’t destroy Sdom and Amorah if there are at least ten morally decent people living there; followed by protests (the Israelites in the desert); and sundry questioning of authority (the Prophets who didn’t hesitate to rail against nasty monarchical behavior as well as the public’s immorality). Not for nothing does God call the Children of Israel a “stiff-necked people”!

More than a thousand years later, Judaism took a radical turn away from the Temple cult (priests, sacrifices etc.), rendering Jewish Law scholarship as the highest value. Learning and education evolved and soon developed what came to be known later as the Talmud, a gigantic compendium – not of laws, but of Rabbis arguing. The questioning, debating, and disputing go on for page after and page, each camp or rabbi (many times more than two) utilizing all the tools of rhetoric and logic. After hundreds of years the Talmud – originally purely oral, based on memory – was finally written down around the 5th-6th centuries CE, creating a culture without parallel of learning through interrogation and verbal give-and-take.

All these Wanderings and Wonderings are interconnected, with anti-Semitism playing a decisive role for the past 2,000 years. When you are a foreign “arrival” passing through any nation’s shores or borders, you tend to be viewed as an outcast or “inferior” (in the Moslem world, that was called “dhimmi”; Christian antisemitic outbreaks were far worse). As a result, at some point you also begin to view yourself as an “other” – reinforcing an original predilection to “otherness.” Indeed, as noted above, Jews have viewed themselves as “other” from the very start – whether as “The Chosen People” or simply believing differently than everyone else around them (e.g., monotheism vs the ancient world’s pagan polytheism).

It is easy, then, to see how this played and continues to play into anti-Semitism. Jews Wonder i.e., don’t accept society’s “conventional wisdom.” This was reinforced by being an “Other” due to their forcible Wandering – viewing “the way things are done” with an outsider’s eye –compounded/reinforced by the fact that Jews were/are highly literate and educated compared to almost any other nation in which they found/find themselves. And that in turn has led – especially in the modern, post-Emancipation age, when the discriminatory shackles began to be removed – to economic, intellectual/academic, artistic, political, and ultimately social success, wildly beyond Jews’ proportion in any society they found themselves.

All this, of course, leads “naturally” to non-Jews’ anger, bursting forth in occasional violent, public antisemitism. Here is the third “W” – (mostly) less fortunate Gentiles asking: “Why not me?” Many Jews eventually leave that country, Wandering off to greener pastures, once again starting the same cycle, eventually leading to further expulsions and/or self-exile.

Yes, the Jewish way of doing (and thinking) is indeed “Wonderful” – as in “I wonder why it’s done that way?” That’s terrific for progress: scientific, technological, and even social (Jews were/are in the forefront of most major, modern social protest movements). But it also leads to “Wanderful”: sometimes a “push” by Gentiles, sometimes a “pull” with the Jew seeking out places more amenable.

In short, “wandering” has its benefits, the most beneficial among them is its encouragement of “wondering.” But lest we view this as an unalloyed blessing, the downside should be considered as well. This is not to suggest that Jews discard their penchant for wandering and wondering; such a national tradition has contributed hugely to the world at large (e.g., almost one fifth of all Nobel Prizes!). But it would be folly to ignore the ineluctable fact that nothing good comes without a price.

What’s true for individual Jews is also true for the Jewish state: a complete anomaly on the world scene as it is virtually the only post-WW2 country gaining independence and succeeding in joining the ranks as a world leader in several fields of endeavor. This seems to be especially irritating for large parts of the downtrodden Arab world, as well as “progressives” who think anyone “on top” has to have gotten there by devious means. What’s viewed as bad for the goose (successful individual Jews) is interpreted as bad for the gander as well (Israel, the Start-Up nation).

Herzl envisioned a future Altneuland: an old/new land. The State of Israel has indeed breathed new life into the Jewish People and contributed more than its share to the good of the world; unfortunately, by doing what Jews do best, it has also renewed age-old antisemitic feelings.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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