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The Spiritual Roots of Anti-Semitism

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

If the world hates the Jews, here's what can be done to respond.

Rising anti-Semitism is a hot topic. This month the subject was blazoned across the covers of such disparate magazines as U.S. News and World Report, Tikkun, Commentary, and Foreign Policy. A recent poll in which 59% of Europeans labeled Israel as the primary threat to world peace and a subsequent Italian poll in which 17% thought Israel should cease to exist and 22% declared that Jewish Italian are "not real Italians," has set off an alarm – and a host of attempts to explain the source of “the world’s longest hatred.”

After all, anti-Semitism is more paradoxical than an Escher staircase. As the seminar "Why the Jews?" so aptly points out:

  • Jews are hated for being a lazy and inferior race – but also for dominating the economy and taking over the world.
  • Jews are hated for being capitalist exploiters – but also for being socialists and communists.
  • Jews are hated for their Chosen People mentality – but also for their cringing inferiority complex.

To that we must add the newest flavor of anti-Semitism: Jews were hated for 2,000 years because they didn't have their own state; now they're hated because they do.

Natan Sharansky, writing an epic-length article in Commentary, traces the transmogrifications of anti-Semitism from ancient Rome to modern anti-Zionism. His theory for the root of anti-Semitism is that it is the result of Jewish rejectionism of the prevailing religion/morality/mores of the surrounding society. He quotes the Roman historian Tacitus:

Among the Jews, all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral... The rest of the world they confront with the hatred reserved for enemies. They will not feed or intermarry with gentiles... They have introduced circumcision to show that they are different from others... It is a crime among them to kill any newly born infant.

And what of Jews who whole-heartedly embraced the prevailing ethos? After all, German Jewry in the century preceding the Holocaust was the most assimilated Jewish community in history (until the present American Jewish community). Before the passage of the Nuremburg laws, forbidding Jews to co-habit with Aryans, the intermarriage rate was 42%. Conversion to Christianity was also widespread, with cultural luminaries such as Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn, and Gustav Mahler the most prominent examples. This did not, however, prevent the Nazis from burning Heine's books and gassing his descendents.

What is so embedded in the fabric of his being that a Jew is hated even when he looks, dresses, and acts indistinguishably?

Mr. Sharansky explains the phenomenon of targeting non-rejectionist Jews: "The modern Jew was seen as being born into a Jewish nation or race whose collective values were deeply embedded in the very fabric of his being. Assimilation, with or without conversion to the majority faith, might succeed in masking this bedrock taint; it could not expunge it."

The point is more profound than Mr. Sharansky may realize. What is so "embedded in the very fabric of his being" that a Jew can be sniffed out by anti-Semites even when he looks, dresses, and acts indistinguishably from non-Jews? What is this "bedrock" essence that cannot be expunged, denied, or eradicated even by conversion? Judaism would say: the Jewish soul.

Chemistry of the Soul

The Jewish soul, which is really a cell of the collective soul of the Jewish people, is eternal and immutable. Once someone acquires a Jewish soul, either by inheritance from one's mother or by halachic conversion, one can no more renounce one's Jewish soul than one can renounce one's DNA. Souls are not generic. The Jewish soul, like the soul of every nation, has its own specific properties, some of which are compassion, altruism, and shame (the source of Jewish guilt!). The Talmud goes so far as to say that if you see a Jew devoid of compassion, you can legitimately doubt that he's a Jewish soul.

One of the properties of the Jewish soul is that it cannot bond with any other type of soul. This is why intermarriage is ultimately a denial of one's essence. Marriage is a union of souls, not just bodies and hearts. A Jewish soul cannot unite with a non-Jewish soul any more than a helium atom can bond with any other atom. Not because helium is clannish or racist or snobbish – or any worse than a hydrogen atom, but because chemical inertness is simply one of its essential properties.

The Covenant

Assimilation means forfeiting one's own Jewish identity and adopting the behavior and values of non-Jews, whether Catholic or communist, Protestant or secular humanist. According to the Torah, God's design for the Jewish people is to be separate, discrete, "a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations." (Numbers 23:9)

Jews are bidden to be "a light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6) A light stands separate from that which it illuminates. The Divine charge to the Jewish people is to "be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:1) This is a mission from which we cannot resign because it is embedded in the Covenant between God and the nation of Israel.

The Covenant, which God introduced in His promises to the Patriarchs, which was accepted by the entire Jewish nation at Sinai (where all Jewish souls were present), and which was renewed on two other occasions in Jewish history, stipulates the following:

  1. On God's side, He promised:
    • That the Jewish people will never cease to exist (Genesis 17:7).
    • That He will never totally abandon the Jewish people (Leviticus 26:44).
    • That the Jewish people will inherent the Land of Israel (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 15:18).
  2. On Israel's side, we promised:
    • That we will be faithful to God and keep His Torah (Exodus 24:7).

Unlike most covenants, this one is unconditional. Even if Israel reneges on its obligation, God, in the merit of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, will never annul His Covenant with us.

In her recent book, The New Anti-Semitism, feminist author Phyllis Chesler writes:

My heart is broken by the cunning and purposeful silence of progressives and academics on the subject of anti-Semitism and terrorism. I write "silence" to be kind. What I'm really talking about is the betrayal of the Jews… by western intellectuals, some of whom are also Jews themselves. Perhaps like me they do not want to give up the larger world in order to retain their religious, racial, and cultural identities as Jews. After all, who willingly wants to wear the yellow star?

Ms. Chesler is not oblivious to the Covenantal mission of the Jews. A few pages later she describes the Jewish people as "an eternal translator between realms: God's messenger." However, her aversion to "the yellow star," combined with her attraction to "the larger world," define the twin forces that have always drawn some Jews (in smaller or larger numbers) into the black hole of assimilation.

Since assimilation is antithetical to God's design for the Jewish people, what can God do to keep His promise that the Jews will never become extinct? A cornerstone of Jewish monotheism is the insistence that everything – everything – comes from God, the one and only source. At the same time, He has given human beings free choice in the moral realm. Humans may not be able to choose what happens to them, but they are always choosing between right and wrong, good and evil. So, what if all the Jews in any given generation choose to assimilate into extinction?

Assimilation is not the antidote to anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism is the Divine antidote to assimilation.

That's where anti-Semitism comes in. Anti-Semitism is the Divine equivalent of the parent of a diabetic child locking the cookie jar. A Jew in 15th century Spain or 20th century Germany or 21st century America may want to blend in with the surrounding society, but anti-Semitism is a sealed door, strong and black as iron, which keeps him out – and separate. Anti-Semitism keeps the Jewish people from dissipating into oblivion.

The ubiquitous effort to trace the source of anti-Semitism to the Jews remaining different and aloof – implying that assimilation cures anti-Semitism – is an inversion of the truth. Assimilation is not the antidote to anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism is the Divine antidote to assimilation.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Expulsion is a case in point. The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, after five centuries of Spanish Jews' flourishing – professionally, politically, and economically – was the greatest catastrophe in European Jewish history prior to the Holocaust. As Rabbi Berel Wein described the Expulsion: "The disaster that befell the wealthiest, most sophisticated and stable section of world Jewry plunged the Jewish people everywhere into a state of depression."

The common understanding of the Expulsion is that Catholic antipathy toward the Jews in Spain grew until, in April, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella proclaimed the Edict of Expulsion: Jews had the choice to convert, leave, or be burned at the stake. Thus started the Inquisition.

The true story of Spanish Jewry is quite different. In 1391, a full century before the Expulsion, anti-Jewish violence erupted. The response of large numbers of Jews, including some of the leaders of Spanish Jewry, was to convert to Catholicism. ("After all, who willingly wants to wear the yellow star?") In the course of the next fifty years, more than half of Spain's Jews converted, many of them continuing to secretly practice Jewish rites. As historian Maurice Kriegel writes of the pre-Expulsion period:

The combination of intimidation with the promise of integration [into Spanish society] was indeed difficult to resist. Members of the Jewish intellectual elite, inclined to a certain philosophical indifference towards the external manifestations of religion, could thus justify their acceptance of baptism… Thus, by the mid-15th century, New Christians outnumbered those who continued to profess Judaism despite persecution and temptation.

Both the Inquisition and the Expulsion were meant to solve not the Jewish problem, but the problem of the assimilationists, the conversos, who were suspected of secretly adhering to their former religion. According to Paul Johnson's History of the Jews, all of the 700 people (some sources put the figure as high as 2,000) burned by the Inquisition between 1481 and 1489 were conversos. As Johnson writes: "A marrano was thus much more unpopular than a practicing Jew because he was an interloper in trade and craft, an economic threat; and, since he was probably a secret Jew, he was a hypocrite and a hidden subversive too." (p. 224)

The goal of the Expulsion was to eliminate the influence of practicing Jews on the conversos. Again to quote Kriegel: "So long as there was a large and active Jewish community on Spanish soil, they [the Spanish inquisitors] said, all the Inquisition's attempts to deter and punish Judaizing Christians would be of no avail." The conversos were the catalyst that led to the Expulsion, historically and spiritually.

The Expulsion obliterated the Jews in Spain, but saved Spanish (Sephardic) Jewry. Of the 200,000 overt Jews in Spain in 1492, 150,000 chose to leave. They set up new communities in North Africa, Turkey, Holland, and Palestine. These communities became thriving, creative, energetic centers of Jewish life. The mystic community of Safed in the 16th century, for example, was wholly comprised of descendents of Spanish exiles. What would have happened to those 150,000 Jews if they had been allowed to remain in Spain, a land where waves of conversion had already claimed most Jews, including rabbis and community leaders?

This is not to say that all the persecution Jews have suffered during our 2,000-year-long exile is the result of assimilation. Suffering can be caused, at times, by many kinds of spiritual lapses, beyond the ability of human beings to discern. The Talmud explicitly states that the destruction of the Second Temple and the concomitant exile, considered the central tragedy of Jewish history, was caused by unwarranted hatred among Jews. (A cautionary statement for our times as well.)

The concept that God engineers anti-Semitism to ensure the survival of the Jewish people does not mean that anti-Semites are exonerated from the evil they perpetrate. Anti-Semites, like everyone else, have free choice to choose between good and evil, and they bear the responsibility for their choices. However, as the Midrash states, "God has many bears and lions." If not Arab terrorists, there are always some European leaders, academics, assorted anti-Zionists…

Glowing in the Dark

I was recently walking home with my son in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter long after the darkness of night had driven most tourists back to their hotels. Just past the falafel shop, we were detoured by a sign which promised: 3D ART. By the side of the pedestrian walkway, we saw a table sporting a picture of a Jerusalem cityscape propped up on a wooden box. In the box was a special kind of fluorescent light which made the white paint in the picture glow in the dark, creating a three-dimensional effect.

"How do you do it?" my son asked the young artist.

"I have special glow-in-the-dark paint," he replied.

The artist told us that he had just, two months before, made aliyah from South Africa. I could see that he needed a sale, but we had no money, and the young locals sitting around tables by the falafel shop were clearly not art patrons. I opened my mouth to advise him: If you want to sell pictures, you should really set up here during the day, when the tourists are out in full force. They're your natural clientele.

But before I uttered a word, I realized that these pictures could not be displayed to advantage in daytime. In the light, the special effect would be lost. The particular beauty of these pictures shows up only in the dark.

The Jewish soul is coated with a special glow-in-the-dark paint.

Anti-Semitism is an encircling darkness. When Jews view "Kill the Jews" signs at American peace rallies or read a respected academic in the New York Review of Books opining that the Jewish state has no right to exist, we feel fear in the pit of our stomachs. As Ms. Chesler so graphically expresses the dread we all feel: "'Tis a season of blood that's upon us. I knew it from the moment the two Israeli reservists were lynched in Ramallah in the fall of 2000… I wept because I understood that Jewish history was, once more, repeating itself. How foolish I'd been to think that we had finally escaped it."

The Jewish soul, however, is coated with a special glow-in-the-dark paint. The darkness is not our foil, but our challenge, our opportunity to shine. The purpose of life is to dance in the dark.* Only in the dark does the greatness of a soul manifest. And what of the light? It's there to show us where the stairs are, so we can learn to navigate them. But the soul's true test is when the lights go out.

Jews must not be intimidated by the venom, the hatred, the calumnies of our enemies. Being popular is not a Jewish value. Being true to God's Covenant is.

*As heard from Rabbi Leib Kelemen, based on an essay by Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, of blessed memory.


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