That Jews have many enemies cannot be denied. Indeed precisely because the threat posed by those enemies is so great must we think very carefully about defining anti-Semitism and about when to play the anti-Semitism card. Every time we cry anti-Semitism, especially about trivial matters, we diminish the power of the charge, and inadvertently play into our enemies hands.
For instance, I could not care less whether Winston Churchill believed, "The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jews is that the Jew is ‘different.’ He looks different. He thinks differently. He has different tradition and background. He refuses to be absorbed." At one level, those words actually reflect a certain spiritual sensitivity – the recognition that the Jew is different. I only wish that more Jews today were so confident of that difference, or that the refusal to be absorbed more accurately characterized their lives.
At worse, Churchill’s remarks (or those of a ghostwriter, according to his biographer Sir Martin Gilbert) reflect a social discomfort with Jews. Here too, I wish that more gentiles today felt some vague discomfort around Jews, and were as little inclined to marry us as they once were.
Many of the gentile rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust harbored sentiments about Jews considerably less friendly than those expressed by Churchill. But those sentiments neither led them to harm Jews nor prevented them from close friendships with individual Jews. And ultimately they did not prevent the rescuers from risking their lives to save those of Jews.
That is not to say that the old-fashioned genteel anti-Semitism was without consequences. The American State Department, the British Foreign Office, and the French Quai d’Orsay were (and in some cases continue to be) populated by genteel anti-Semites for decades. And that fact had an immense impact on the foreign policy of these countries towards Israel, and, no doubt, contributed to the reluctance of America and England to take in Jews fleeing Hitler, ym"sh, during World War II.
Moreover, had Churchill actually published the words quoted above, rather than just confided them to his diary, they could have been justly criticized. For such sentiments publicly expressed can be expected to be read by more violent anti-Semites as providing sanction for their hatred, and even for acting upon that hatred.
BUT THE MAJOR THREAT today does not come from those who feel that Jews are somehow different. Rather the threat comes from those who are obsessed with Jews. For obsessive anti-Semites, Jews are truly diabolical and at the root of all that is wrong with the world.
With virulent, obsessive anti-Semitism we cannot make peace and must be constantly on alert. And we do not have far to look for it today. It is all about us – in the Moslem world, on the Left and far-Right in Europe, and at the U.N.
That obsession with Jews is today most often expressed as an obsession with Israel. Israel is singled out from all the nations of the world as the greatest violator of human rights and the Palestinians as the most victimized people in the world. Enlisted in the campaign to advance this view are several large and generously-funded U.N. bureaucracies, including the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which has gone so far as to sanction terrorism against Israeli civilians, British academic and professional unions, and elite opinion-makers in Western Europe. And that campaign has been remarkably successful. When asked to identify the greatest threat to world peace, Western European polls consistently place Israel at the top of the list.
Yet while it is almost irresistible to view the obsession with Israel as nothing more than a metamorphosis from the ancient obsession with Jews, rarely will the best way to combat attacks on Israel be to cry anti-Semitism. Critics of Israel, even the most irrational among them, have learned the effectiveness of portraying themselves as brave defenders of truth, under siege from the "Jewish community" or the "Israel Lobby," which seeks to suppress all criticism of Israel by tarring its critics as anti-Semites.
Of late, the fiercest critics of Israel – think ex-president Jimmy Carter or Professors Walt and Mearsheimer, the authors of "The Israel Lobby" – have had great success with this tactic. As a rhetorical devise it has proven a brilliant strategy: the more Jews attempt to refute the claims made by Carter or Walt/Mearsheimer, the more vulnerable they are to the charge of attempting to suppress criticism.
Crying anti-Semitism thus plays into their hands. Far more effective is demonstrating in meticulous detail the dual standards at play in judging Israel. Ma'ariv op-ed editor Ben Dror-Yemini has been doing that for the last several months in a series of comparative studies. One study compares the death toll of Moslem on Moslem violence throughout the Mideast over the past several decades and shows how that number dwarfs the small numbers of Moslems killed by Israel, which is regularly accused of "genocidal" intent vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Another of Yemini’s studies compares the treatment of 38 million persons displaced by ethnic conflict over the last century and their subsequent absorption in areas controlled by those of the same ethnicity to the way that the Arabs displaced during Israel’s War of Independence have been given permanent refugee status for themselves and all their descendants. In yet another recent piece, Yemini demonstrates that the gaps between Moslem and non-Moslem populations are much higher in Western Europe than in "apartheid" Israel, and that the rate of emigration of Arabs from Israel is far lower than the rate of emigration from any nearby Arab state.
Yemini’s empirical studies, Alan Dershowitz’s patient dissection of the shoddy scholarship of the Walt/Mearsheimer paper "The Israel Lobby", and Trevor Asserson’s statistical analyses of BBC Mideast coverage are far more effective than just shouting anti-Semite. At most, Dershowitz points out that Professors Walt and Mearsheimer draw heavily on secondary sources found at neo-Nazi websites.
To say more just plays into the hands of Israel’s critics by allowing them to deflect attention from their distortions of fact and logic to the tactics of those refuting them.
IT IS CRUCIAL THAT JEWS DO NOTHING to make the case for those who claim that Jews are hyper-sensitive and see anti-Semites everywhere. That is why the charge of anti-Semitism is usually better left unstated even where other explanations don’t leap immediately to mind.
When we cry anti-Semitism about matters that are trivial or in response to those mean us no harm, we create a boy who cried wolf problem for ourselves and make it that much more likely that we will go unheard when we complain of real anti-Semitism.
A recent incident involving Republican presidential candidate Tommy Thompson provides a ready example of the type of hyper-sensitivity that we should be careful to avoid. Ha’aretz’s Shmuel Rosner described Thompson’s appearance before the Religious Center Action of Reform Judaism.
In the course of his speech, Thompson described himself as earning good money in the private sector for the first time in his life. Earning money, he opined, is "sort of part of the Jewish tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that. I enjoy that."
After being told that his remark had offended many in the audience, he returned to the podium to explain that he had been talking about "the accomplishments of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. You have been outstanding business people and I compliment you for that. . . ." The clarification went down no better.
Perhaps Thompson can be faulted for poor staff work and not knowing his audience better. To the ultra-liberal Reform group, he would have probably been better off touting the Jewish leadership role in every modern movement for "social liberation" rather than Jewish entrepreneurship. But he is, after all, a Republican presidential candidate, not a Democrat.
More surprising, however, was this paper’s editorial condemnation of Thompson. "Thompson’s ill-spoken words reveal a shallowness that makes him unworthy of the office he aspires to hold. Worse, they can be used to . . . fuel anti-Semitism," said the editorial. It then went on to lecture Thomspon that freedom of speech does not cover yelling fire in a crowded theater. He was also taken to task for listing success in business as among the "accomplishments of the Jewish religion."
That reaction strikes me as way overblown, and calculated to play into stereotypes of Jewish hyper-sensitivity.
Clearly, Thompson was not trying to offend. Successful political candidates do not make a habit of insulting those who have invited him to speak. And he is not some kind of bumpkin to be summarily dismissed for his shallowness. A week later, George Will, one of America’s most respected columnists, described the four-term governor of Wisconsin and former Secretary of Health Education and Welfare as the Republican candidate with the most impressive resume.
Will also praised Thompson’s innovative ideas on a range of national and international issues. His welfare reforms as governor of Wisconsin provided the model for the national welfare reforms during the Clinton years.
Not only did Thompson not seek to offend, but there was nothing the slightest bit anti-Semitic about what he said. He did not suggest that Jews control all the world’s wealth, or that we manipulate world stock exchanges and financial markets for their own gain. He simply said that Jews have been economically successful in America. And that is true.
(In my recent interview with Malcolm Hoenlein, excerpted in these pages, he told me that we Jews should not complain when others accuse of us of being successful or influential, and stop projecting an image of Jewish weakness.)
Nor did Thompson say that economic success was the sole contribution of the Jewish religion to the world. He was speaking as a political candidate, not as a theologian talking about the Jewish gift of monotheism.
And as a matter of fact, the Torah does take a far more favorable attitude towards the accumulation of wealth than does Christianity. There were Tannaim and Amoraim of great wealth as well as great poverty, and neither state was viewed as conferring moral superiority. With wealth goes responsibility, but those responsibilities do not undercut property rights; they are found in Yore Deah not Choshen Mishpat. The ymearly Church fathers, by way of contrast, viewed the accumulation of more wealth than one needs for his basic subsistence to be sinful, akin to theft.
My own guess is that some of the shrill campaigns of the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman have caused more negative feelings about Jews than the contrary. His is not a bandwagon the Torah community should be eager to board.