Anti-Semitism seems to have existed almost as long as Jews have. And today, with events flaring up in the Middle East, we are seeing an alarming rise in anti-Semitic incidents around the world.
Peace movements worldwide also show stunning hypocrisy in defending the rights of practically every group on earth except Jewish victims of terrorism.
And anti-Semitism is most evident today in the double standard by which Israel is judged, which defies any rational explanation.
Many explanations have been attempted, but none seems to capture the problem at its root. The "scapegoat" theory, that it is easier to blame Jews for society's problems than to face those problems directly, does not explain why the Jews in particular have so often played that role. Neither does the suggestion that the Jews are hated because they brought ethical monotheism into the world and so have become the world's hated "conscience." People do hate and rebel against their conscience. But Christianity holds the same ethical values, and the world does not hate Christians the way it has hated Jews.
The problem of understanding anti-Semitism may be too large to overcome, but can we at least make some sense out of it? What could possibly explain the irrational obsession that the world seems to have with the Jewish people, and the undeniable special hatred directed towards the Jews?
The Jews have been known throughout history as the "Chosen People." This designation has been the cause of considerable controversy, and also much resentment. It is also a major clue to the mystery of anti-Semitism.
Let us first look at its biblical basis. Here is what the Bible has to say:
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:6)
For I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43:20-21)
Important questions arise: What does chosenness mean to Jews? And what does chosenness mean to non-Jews?
"Chosenness" has been given many interpretations. The Bible takes pains to point out that Israel did not earn this designation on account of any special claim to righteousness (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). The precise meaning of the designation is a mystery; we do not know why God "chooses" one group of people rather than another. But this much is clear: if one accepts in any way the authority of the Bible, one must admit that in some sense the Jews were chosen. The Bible is, after all, the story of the discovery of God through the experience of the Jewish people. And the Bible has perhaps been the most influential book in the history of Western civilization. For this reason even those who are not religious must recognize that in some sense the Jews have been chosen, if not by God, then at least by history.
The concept of "chosenness" is one of the Bible's great paradoxes. It seems to fly in the face of every democratic or humanistic ideal that modern society holds dear. Some strands within Judaism itself, for example Reconstructionism, are embarrassed by the concept of "chosenness," thinking (I believe mistakenly) that it implies a lack of egalitarianism. And so they want to wipe the idea out of Jewish tradition. This misguided gesture towards spiritual democracy not only falsifies history, it also makes it impossible to understand the true nature of anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is inextricably connected to the idea of the Jews as chosen. But the connection is not as obvious as it might seem. One might think it is simply a matter of envy, or of resentment of some Jewish sense of superiority. But this does not explain the depth and the virulence of anti-Semitism.
It is true that the early Christian church envied the Jews and wanted the designation of "chosen" for itself. It is also true that many non-Jews have resented this idea as suggesting that Jews think themselves better than everyone else. But if this were enough to explain anti-Semitism, one might expect anti-Semitic attitudes simply to take the form, "Oh those obnoxious Jews with their delusions of grandeur. They are certainly annoying, but best not to take them too seriously. Just let them stew in their snobbery." Certainly nothing in this explanation makes it possible to comprehend the genocidal violence perpetrated against the Jews repeatedly in the past and even today.
The simple dismissal of an annoying Jewish attitude is not what we find in anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitic attitudes tend to be far more extreme. On the one hand, we find Jews treated as the lowest creatures on earth, less than vermin, as the Nazis especially liked to portray them. On the other hand we find Jews feared as possessing some fantastic, almost supernatural power, controlling the government, the media, the schools, and even conspiring to take over the world. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an old fabrication about just such a Jewish conspiracy, is enjoying a revival, as well as rumors of Jewish complicity in plots including the bombing of the World Trade Center. Jews are often seen as the collective incarnation of the devil, a threat so serious that they must be obliterated from the face of the earth.
Such extreme attitudes go way beyond resentment or envy. They come from the most primitive layers of the human psyche. To understand their origin we need to revisit the biblical idea of "chosen."
Why were the Jews chosen? All we can say is that the ancestor of the Jews, Abraham, questioned the religion of his time and persisted in a search for the one universal noncorporeal God. Abraham was careful to pass this concern to his descendants, who recorded the whole story in what is now known as the Hebrew Bible. Abraham was told: "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). The God that Abraham found is not for Jews only. The message of the Jews is not meant for Jews only. It is meant for the entire world.
And so Jesus, a Jewish prophet, was given the task of bringing the knowledge of the God of the Jews to what has become known as the Christian world. And by extension, this relationship with God is available to all those who desire it and seek it.
So the Jews were never meant to have any exclusive or superior relationship to God. The task for which they were chosen was to be God's messenger: to witness to the world, through their own history, the activity of God in the lives of all human beings.
It is important to notice where we find anti-Semitism. We do not find it everywhere. There is little anti-Semitism among Buddhists, or among Hindus - that is, among groups for which Jewish "chosenness" has no meaning. We find the most anti-Semitism among Christians and Muslims, as well as within a segment of the Jewish population itself. In other words, we find anti-Semitism flourishing most in communities that are aware of the Jewish designation as the "chosen people" and who take it seriously.
Christianity and Islam have taken Jewish chosenness so seriously that they have been at great pains to negate it, to show they have superseded it and have themselves become the chosen ones. And so in both Christianity and Islam, including the New Testament and the Qur'an, we find the charge that the Jews have proven their unworthiness by persecuting and killing their own prophets. But the power of the Jews persists, and so Christians and Muslims have each, at different times in their history, felt the need to suppress Jews and Judaism.
Those in the Christian community who hate Jews do so not because they deny the chosenness of the Jews but because they believe it. Those in the Muslim community who hate Jews do so not because they deny the chosenness of the Jews but because they believe it. Their belief that the Jews are divinely chosen makes them attribute to the Jews all kinds of amazing powers and conspiratorial intentions. And so the Protocols, a classic of Christian anti-Semitism, has now become very popular in the Muslim world. And so too has the blood libel, the slanderous charge that Jews have used the blood of Christian, and now Muslim children to bake their holiday pastries. The Jews, a tiny minority on the face of the earth, will control the world if left unchecked - this is what many anti-Semites sincerely believe.
They believe that the Jews, having received special power through being chosen by God (just as their scriptures tell them), are now using this power in the service of evil.
But there is much more behind the attribution of all manner of evil to the Jewish people.
The Jews were not chosen because they are better than everyone else - and the Bible says as much. Furthermore, God holds the Jews to exactly the same standards as everyone else (Leviticus 18:24-28). Then why were the Jews chosen? There is no rational answer to this question, at least none that we can fathom. But the Jews were not chosen for special privilege, but rather to witness to the world that in a deep sense all are chosen and loved by God.
In other words, the Jews were chosen by God as the representative of humanity, through which the Covenant was to be revealed. As the representatives of humanity in spiritual history, the Jews play a precarious role in the collective consciousness of human beings. In biblical language the Jews themselves are ben adam, the "son of man," the prototypical human being with whom God forms a relationship. But human beings are split within themselves. There is a part of us that cannot accept closeness to God, that cannot accept being chosen. Just like Adam when he discovered how much lower he is than God, we are ashamed. We are divided against ourselves. We hate the darker side of ourselves, the destructive impulses and failings that remind us how far short we fall of the divine image in which we were created. Becoming close to God is like approaching a great light, which illumines everything about us, including our darkness. We cannot bear to see this darkness - so we displace it onto the human prototype, the one whom God has "chosen" as the symbol of humanity.
The virulence with which the Jew is hated is nothing other than the virulence with which anti-Semites hate themselves. There is a dark side of ourselves that we hate and wish to expel, especially if we want to be in relationship with God. The Jews came as witness that ultimately all are chosen and that God wants to be close to every one of us. The existence of the Jews therefore stimulates self-hatred, in non-Jews and even in Jews themselves, because it reminds us of the light of God's vision that makes us see ourselves. The existence of the Jews reminds us that God knows us and sees our darkness, sees what we ourselves cannot tolerate seeing.
One of evil's defining qualities is the absence of self-questioning. Those who are caught up in evil refuse to question themselves - for if they did question themselves they would escape from their evil. And so one cannot reason with an anti-Semite; logical arguments and rational ideas are of absolutely no avail. The anti-Semite avoids the need for self-questioning by disowning the dark side and projecting it onto the Jew. And so those who hate the Jews are convinced of their own righteousness.
The Jews are hated precisely because God did choose them. God chose the Jews in order to proclaim that all are chosen. But people cannot accept their chosenness. They cannot accept themselves, so they cannot accept that God accepts them. And so they target the Jews, who are 1) the representative of humans to God, and 2) have brought the consciousness of God close to human beings. This is what anti-Semites cannot tolerate - the light that would expose their darkness.
In an odd way the anti-Semite actually identifies with the Jew, because the Jew is the symbol of the self that the anti-Semite cannot bear and has rejected. And so the Jews are associated with every degraded image - that which people see in themselves but cannot tolerate. And the Jews are also associated with the power of God, who chose the Jews and whose closeness is intolerable. Thus the contradictory double-image of the Jew in the mind of the anti-Semite: lower than dirt, but powerful as a demon.
The heart of the matter is this: that in Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition the Jews have served as the symbol of humanity itself, with the story of God's appearance in time told through their history. And so not only has God chosen the Jews, humanity (or at least the part of humanity influenced by this tradition) has also chosen the Jews as the symbol of its own split-off lower nature. In this sense the Jews really do bear the sins of the world. They carry the projection of the world's dark side.
This was already very well understood by the prophet Isaiah. In describing the metaphorical "suffering servant of God" he proclaims:
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
Christianity has traditionally explained these verses as referring to Christ, but such interpretation is not true to the text. Isaiah himself tells us who the "servant" is: "Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant" (Isaiah 44:21). The one who has been chosen to witness to God's presence in the world is God's "servant." And the world is "made whole" by casting its transgressions upon the servant, and admitting into consciousness only that part of its image with which it feels comfortable.
In the collective consciousness the Jews, playing the role of humanity in the divine-human encounter, have come to represent those parts of human nature that cannot be consciously admitted, including the human capacity for evil. If we get rid of the Jews, thinks the anti-Semite, we get rid of evil. But what is the real evil? Perhaps the greatest and most dangerous evil of all is the refusal to face the evil in oneself. And one who cannot accept oneself cannot bear to be close to a God who knows one intimately.
This difficult role that the Jew plays is only further complicated by the emergence through Jewish prophecy of the capacity for self-criticism. My previous article, "Jewish Self-Criticism and Anti-Semitism," describes this in detail. Jews are hated in large part because they brought self-criticism to the forefront of human consciousness. Human nature strongly resists self-criticism and resents the one who suggests it. And so the Jewish message of self-criticism has been effectively nullified by turning Jewish self-criticism against the Jews themselves. The human mind, unable to accept the Jewish message, plays a trick on itself. Jewish self-criticism becomes a validation of the anti-Semitic mind's cherished pastime: projecting its own darkness onto the Jews themselves. So the Jews want to criticize themselves? That's no sign of greatness, say the anti-Semites - it's an admission that the anti-Semites were right all along! The Jews blame themselves for everything, so why shouldn't everyone else blame them too?
The thesis of the previous article dovetails with the thesis of this one. The anti-Semitic mind projects its own failings onto the Jew as symbol of humanity. And Jewish self-criticism not only causes further resentment, it provides a justification for the projection!
The Jews, unaware of how their position in history has made them a psychological target, give their enemies ammunition through their own self-honesty. And unfortunately many Jews participate in this deadly game, continuing to direct their criticism primarily or even exclusively toward themselves while their enemies, totally lacking in conscience, are only too happy to use the Jews' self-criticism against them. Self-criticism is an essential quality for one who would live a moral life, but it must be balanced by a careful assessment of the dangers one is facing.
How does it help to understand this? The anti-Semitic mind is impervious to reason. Understanding it will not change that mind, at least not directly. But it can give Jews more confidence and a better sense of direction. Here are the benefits:
This last point is crucial. It depends on a proper understanding of what "chosenness" means. It does not mean favoritism. It does not mean superiority. It means having played the role of witness to the reality of the one universal God to whom all living creatures belong. If Jews use the chosenness idea to make themselves feel they are in any way above others, or to claim special entitlements from God, then they fall into an anachronistic theology that will only make them a target for the lethal projections of the anti-Semitic mind. The Jews' witnessing role was meant not to save only themselves but the entire world. "For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isaiah 56:7).
And so Jews are rightly entitled to a sense of significance, if not a sense of pride, for the role their tradition has played in spiritual history. If this role should ever be obscured, losing the message of self-criticism and of witness of God's closeness to all humanity, then the world will suffer a deep spiritual wound from which it may never heal. Israel's enemies know very well how to use the Jewish conscience against itself. We must never lose that conscience, but at the same time we must become aware of the dangers that surround it and threaten it and that would turn it into an instrument of destruction.
Jews have a right to know that for all the difficulties it entails, the role they have played in history has been invaluable. We cannot choose to be chosen, or not to be. It is an existential fact. But we can understand what it means, so that we need not accept the darkness imputed to us by the God-rejecting mind.
Peace with Realism