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Anti-semitism: the disease that won’t go away

An enduring mystery: Why is America somewhat immune?

One of the mysteries about anti-Semitism is: Why has the United States of America been relatively immune? Despite occasional anti-Semitic episodes here (think of Henry Ford and Mel Gibson), Jews have thrived in America as in no other country — excepting Israel itself.

An authority on anti-Semitism, Alvin H. Rosenfeld answers that intriguing question, as well as others — such as whether there is a fundamental anti-Semitic personality. He is professor of English and holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he has taught since 1968. He is also the director of the university’s new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is the director of Indiana University’s new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism.

The founder of the university’s Borns Jewish Studies Program, he served as its director for 30 years and is the author of numerous articles on American poetry, Jewish writers, and the literature of the Holocaust. His most recent study, “The End of the Holocaust,” is to be published in 2011.

Below are excerpts from a recent telephone interview.

Jewish Standard: Why has the United States of America been relatively immune to the disease of anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: America seems to be an exceptional country, in many respects. What makes it so?

One, we are genuinely diverse. Unlike many European countries, which have had a hard time absorbing mixed populations, America by and large has succeeded. We’re not free of problems, but by and large our record is good in that respect. The Jews have been integrated in America in ways that were not possible over the longest stretch of history in Europe.

Another reason is that Jews are well-known in this country. Lots of people have Jewish friends, colleagues, and business partners. Some have Jewish family members by now. So we’re not as strange as we used to be.

Also, Jews are in many respects an accomplished people, and while some may envy and resent us, a lot of other people admire and respect Jews.

Then there is the question of Christianity. This can cut both ways, but in contrast to most European countries, and, certainly most west European countries today (which have entered a kind of post-Christian phase), Christianity in America is a part of social reality. Many Christians in America have an appreciation of Judaism. They find the roots of their own faith in Jewish scripture, and they respect Jews, especially Jews who are faithful to their own religion.

Add one more thing: America doesn’t have a medieval past — we’re too new a country for that — so we don’t have the legacy of medieval Christian anti-Semitism that Europe has had.

J.S.: Like the “blood libel” — the medieval myth that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood to make matzoh?

Rosenfeld: That’s part of it, yes. American Jews have not had to contend with such myths in any chronic way here.

In addition, America has no history of respectable political anti-Semitism. Sometimes political figures arise, usually on the margin, who are openly anti-Semitic — David Duke [of the Ku Klux Klan], for instance, is such a figure. But some European countries have a history of politics that has included parties with explicitly anti-Semitic planks in their platforms. We’ve never had that in this country. On the evidence to date, we could expect people to speak out immediately and harshly against political anti-Semitism — and that is something that we as Americans can be proud of.

At the same time, it makes sense for Jews to continue to be watchful. At is most extreme, anti-Semitism is a tenacious and obsessive passion. It is less an idea than an ideology fed by an array of strongly negative feelings, such as envy, resentment, hostility, hatred, and fear, which people in this country, as in every other country, are vulnerable to.

America has done a much better job of keeping the lid on outbreaks of anti-Semitic hostility than other countries. But if we think back, say, to the time of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh, we can easily recall that there have been prominent figures in America who have been outspoken anti-Semites.

J.S.: Are there puzzles, mysteries, that scholarly research into anti-Semitism could solve? For example, whether there’s a typical anti-Semitic personality?

Rosenfeld: The biggest puzzle has to do with the persistence of anti-Semitism. Racial hatreds and social prejudices appear in many cultures, but they wax and wane. Anti-Semitism does, too, but its presence is more constant, and it dates back millennia. Why? What accounts for its persistence? There are no certain answers.

Scholars also struggle to clarify the forms that anti-Semitism takes — it doesn’t always look the same.

Over the longest run, in the Western world, for instance, the origins of anti-Semitism are located within the church. Hostility to Jews and Judaism has been deeply rooted in church teachings that have conveyed a whole set of prejudiced messages directed against Jews and Judaism. This inherited complex of anti-Jewish biases, sometimes held in check, at other times activated, persisted within Christendom for a long time. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, some major church reforms have helped to ameliorate the destructive power of Christian biases against Judaism and the Jews, but it is too soon to say that church-based anti-Semitism is altogether a thing of the past. It is not.

At the same time, scholars of anti-Semitism recognize that in the latter decades of the 19th century, Christian anti-Semitism, while not gone, was eclipsed or augmented by a relatively new kind of anti-Semitism, rooted in notions that Jews were both a racially inferior and racially threatening presence. Thus, while some might still accuse the Jews of being Christ-killers and condemn them for rejecting the religious claims in the Christian gospel, others embraced newer forms of anti-Jewish prejudice that were race-based. To these Europeans, it was not the religion of the Jews that was faulty and menacing but Jewish blood. Racial stereotyping took hold. But by and large, race-based anti-Semitism was not as prevalent a factor over the centuries as was religious, specifically Christian, anti-Semitism.

When, as happened in Europe in the 19th century, religious anti-Semitism was joined by racial anti-Semitism, what the Jews faced was profoundly lethal. It culminated in Nazi Germany’s determination to institute a “final solution to the Jewish problem”: genocide.

While there’s still some residual Christian prejudice against Jews and Judaism today, it’s not nearly as potent as it was before. And in post-Holocaust Europe, race-based anti-Semitism is considered to be not just out of fashion but beyond the pale. Most anti-Semites in today’s Europe are not going to accuse the Jews of being a racially inferior people — for Europeans know where such views lead: to Auschwitz. Nevertheless, Europe’s long and shameful history of Jew-hatred is hardly over. Rather, it has changed shape. We are seeing today the emergence of powerful strains of ideological and political anti-Semitism, which target not so much the individual Jew as the Jewish state. That’s a story unto itself, and very troubling.

J.S.: Is anti-Semitism increasing today? And if so, why?

Rosenfeld: Compared with 10 years ago, yes indeed, it is. Explanations vary, but some recent books by first-rate scholars are helpful. I strongly recommend “The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism” by a British scholar, Bernard Harrison.

As for the reasons, some intense and important debates are now under way. And it’s high time that they are, for anti-Semitism has been picking up force over the past 10 or 11 years and requires serious attention if it is to be understood and combated. Before 2000 it was not so robust. What happened? A number of milestone events. They probably began with the breakdown of peace talks at Camp David, and on the heels of that diplomatic failure, the unleashing of the so-called second intifada, which unleashed angry, murderous passions against the Israelis and Jews elsewhere.

Shortly afterwards, 9/11 brought the ferocious attacks on this country by al Qaeda terrorists. Weirdly, and in no time at all, throughout the Muslim world and also in parts of the West, that aggression was blamed on the Mossad. Some also blamed elements within America itself. Both charges are ridiculous; nonetheless, these notions caught on, and large numbers of people evidently believe them to be true.

Because anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism often go hand in hand, the attack on America almost immediately had anti-Semitic ramifications. People who think in these distorted terms believe either that Jews control America, and therefore hitting America is hitting the Jews, or — vice versa — that America uses Israel to suppress freedoms elsewhere. Both notions are preposterous, but they evidently have appeal and persist.

Shortly after these events, America went to war in Iraq. We are also fighting in Afghanistan. The result of all these things — the intifada, coming on the breakdown of the Camp David talks, the 9/11 attacks and terrorist attacks in Spain, London, and elsewhere, America’s entry by force into two major Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan — all of this helped to increase angry and aggressive passions already present within the Muslim world, much of which focused hostility against America, the Jews, and Israel.

J.S.: Have recent economic troubles — the stock market’s bloodbath, persistent joblessness — contributed to anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: It used to be thought — with good reason — that whenever the economy turns down, anti-Semitism turns up. And at the time of the Madoff affair, there was a good deal of concern in the Jewish community, given the prominence of Madoff’s crimes, that there might be a backlash against Jews, numbers of whom work in the financial industry. But in fact no such reaction emerged to any appreciable degree in this country.

J.S.: Is there any correlation between the rise and fall of anti-Semitism and war, economic crises, or widespread unemployment?

Rosenfeld: Whenever society becomes destabilized, in all the ways you’ve mentioned — socially, economically, as a result of wars — people look around to blame somebody. Who’s responsible for all these troubles? Jews traditionally have been a favorite scapegoat. Are such accusations observable today? Yes. There are weird conspiracy theories rising again, so we are seeing some scapegoating. It becomes troubling, for instance, to witness prominent voices in Washington, D.C., implying that the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan may be at risk because of the impasse in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, an impasse largely attributed to Israeli intransigence or bad faith. That’s a serious charge, and also a mistaken one. If it persists, it has the potential to bring forth trouble. But most Americans are fair-minded people, admire and support Israel, and are unlikely to follow the lead of erroneous charges, I believe. Depending on developments in Iraq and Afghanistan, these more benign reactions could change, but to date it has been our good fortune not to be broadly scapegoated.

J.S.: What can we do to lessen anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: A few things. One is legal. Countries need good laws against the public display of hatred, especially hatred that leads to violence, including anti-Semitic violence.

Effective education also is a must. Lots of people just don’t know very much about Jew-hatred. They’re not familiar with the history of anti-Semitism. It’s incumbent upon us to help them learn.

In the public sphere, whenever anti-Semitic voices speak in an ugly and threatening fashion against Jews, Judaism, or the Jewish state, they need to be called to task and, if warranted, to be decisively rebuked. One should never be quiet in the face of openly expressed anti-Semitism. Once Jew-hatred is allowed to become an acceptable part of normative speech, no end of troubles are likely to follow.

J.S.: Anti-Semites seem to have disappeared from the earth. But the number of anti-Semites who have vanished seems roughly equal to the number of people in the world who are ferociously, close-mindedly, and unalterably opposed to the State of Israel.

Rosenfeld: I don’t think they’ve vanished so much as that they’ve taken on a certain camouflage — that’s probably what you meant. What passes today as anti-Zionism often has nothing to do with Zionism as such and is just openly expressed hatred of Israel, and you can usually detect that by listening not just to the words of the arguments against Israel but to the tone of the arguments. People get worked up — they get angry, belligerent, intemperate, sometimes enraged. At that point, what you’re encountering is not a reasonable argument that might be critical (and maybe even properly critical) of a particular Israeli policy or action but outright defamation or vilification of Israel as such. The resort to hyperbole is often the tip-off. When people begin making arguments about Israel that liken it to apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany, when they accuse Israel of crimes of ethnic cleansing and even genocide, then you know what you’re dealing with are not people who may have good reason to object to a particular Israeli policy or a particular Israeli action. They just don’t like Israel, period; some of them would like to see it gone. Their quarrel is with the existence of the Jewish state as a Jewish state. They believe it has no legitimacy and should cease to be. The passions that fuel such death-wish fantasies are unambiguously anti-Semitic.

J.S.: Why are certain Jews anti-Israel?

Rosenfeld: I wish I could give you an answer to that question. Do you know such people yourself?

J.S.: Yes. My theory is they’re desperate for attention.

Rosenfeld: Some of it is exactly what you said — the need for attention reflects a kind of narcissism. I, I, I — the personal pronoun gets endlessly repeated, indicating a penchant for self-aggrandizement. Politics, in other words, becomes a form of self-indulgence, even self-love. Might we, in some instances, also be looking at Jewish self-hatred? You have to consider each case person-by-person. In some strongly pathological cases, Jewish self-hatred could be on exhibit. In other cases, the extreme behavior may be a function of a particular political stance. The further left or right you go, the more likely you are to find attitudes towards Israel that may begin as legitimate criticism but quickly escalate to angry and unreasonable accusations — and before you know it, end up in these analogies to Nazi Germany and South Africa. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s often the case that Jews are involved, and sometimes even in the forefront, of extreme anti-Israel movements. What drives these people? Probably a number of things. You pointed to one, the narcissistic need for attention. Self-hatred can also sometimes be involved. Political allegiances of an extreme leftist nature are often tied in. How so? Just as someone on the hard left is supposed to be anti-capitalist and anti-American and anti-globalization, he or she is also supposed to be anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. So it’s part of the whole political/cultural package, a perverse form of identity affirmation: one becomes a “good” Jew by stridently opposing the Jewish state.

Some of what I have been describing calls out for analysis by mental health specialists. I am not one. I can recommend an interesting book on this subject by a psychiatrist who is also a historian, Kenneth Levin. It’s called “The Oslo Syndrome.”

These are complicated matters and are being hotly, even bitterly, debated. What we know for sure is this: Israel’s enemies, including hardcore anti-Semites who are not Jewish, often showcase the words of Jews like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and any of a number of Israeli Israel-defamers and say, “See, it’s not just I who think Israel is an abomination, but I can quote lots of Jews who are saying exactly the same thing.” Sadly, they can.

J.S.: Is there a fundamental anti-Semitic personality?

Rosenfeld: We know a good deal about anti-Semitism and those who are drawn to it. But it’s hard to go from what we know to definitive analysis of anything like anti-Semitic personalities, let alone the implementation of programs that will lead to prevention. You can figure out time and again what angers and unnerves some people about the Jews, but it’s difficult to know what you can do to prevent them from being troubled in these ways and becoming anti-Semitic. And once the animus spreads beyond individuals and infects the culture as such, it becomes still harder to deal with. Even if one cannot fully understand what animates Jew-hatred, it’s critical to keep it in check, so it doesn’t become ultimately damaging on a large scale. We know it has the potential to do just that.

J.S.: Most anti-Semites, it seems to me, are closed-minded and simple-minded. They don’t engage in complex thinking; the word “nuance” is not in their vocabulary. And if Jews and if Israel are responsible for all or much of the evil in the world, life is easier for them to understand.

Rosenfeld: What you have just described is accurate and points to stereotyping and scapegoating. People who revert to such thinking have actually stopped thinking; they concoct and then remain within the closed bubble of their simple-minded explanations. Bogus though these arguments may be, such people will usually hold onto them passionately. “Jews are guilty as such and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in” — so says the anti-Semite.

J.S.: Have you ever even a victim of anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: Not in any serious way. Every once in a while I receive hate mail, but at least to date I have not run up against serious anti-Semitic hostility directed at me personally. I’ve been occasionally insulted and defamed by some cranky people, but episodically, not chronically. God willing, I’ll continue to be spared.

J.S.: Maybe your being spared is a result of your growing up in America?

Rosenfeld: No doubt, and I regard it as a blessing. My parents were both from Podolia, in the Ukraine, and knew anti-Semitism from their earliest years until they immigrated to this country. It was my mazel that my parents got out in time. I grew up in south Philadelphia — at a time when that part of the city was a bit like the lower east side of New York. There were lots of immigrant Jews, Italians, Irish, and others. It was a relatively poor, working-class end of town, but by no means a bad place, and, at least in my experience, it was not polluted by anti-Semitism.

Things have changed. We’re living now in an overheated time, a sour, divisive time. The economic turndown is far from over, American forces are engaged in two wars, terror threatens, and the hostility to Israel continues to intensify. The year 2009 saw a dramatic spike in anti-Semitic incidents on a global scale. In these circumstances, it is prudent to be vigilant.

Indiana University’s new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and the institute at Yale can be helpful in alerting people to what’s afoot. Of course I acknowledge the important work being done elsewhere, especially at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, and, in this country, by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In a time of resurgent anti-Semitism, even more attention is needed. If, as a result of our academic work, we can help educate people about anti-Semitism, open their eyes to its character, longevity, gravity, and threats, we will be doing something both needful and positive.

It’s also important that we let people know that while anti-Semitism initially targets the Jews, the hostility it unleashes doesn’t stop with the Jews. If this hatred goes unchecked, a large number of other people will end up being hurt, if not directly by anti-Semitism, then because of the damage to society that anti-Semitism inevitably brings with it. It’s always a toxic force and has the potential to spread widely and be hugely harmful. We probably cannot eradicate it, but we need to do what we can to lessen its destructive force.

J.S.: Thank you for an enlightening interview.


Curb your enthusiasm


Non-Jews as saviors of Judaism

Published: 05 November 2010
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