The Paradoxes of Anti-Semitism and How to Resolve Them

By David Ramírez

Photo credit: Artist unknown.

Photo credit: Artist unknown.

The ever increasing rise of physical attacks on Jews and Jewish property in both Europe and the United States has rekindled, once again, a cascade of Jewish commentary on the never dying ‘disease’ of anti-Semitism. As it is almost common in these commentaries, pointing to the disease is the norm, but hardly ever its causes. An article I recently read, reminded me of how the issue is dealt ad nauseaum, as if done by copy/paste from some master book. The said article had it all, and it went as follows:

  • That anti-Semitism is as ancient as mankind itself.
  • That it is the result of Gentile’s irrational paranoia.
  • That it is a form of victimization on a harmless and such productive people.
  • That how is it possible that we as Jews, with such a long-standing culture to love and respect others and the sanctity of human life, get such hatred in return.
  • That how is it possible that a people that has given so much to humanity in the realm of ethics, law and science gets this hatred in return.
  • And the latest addition: How is it that such a wonderful, successful and democratic country as it is the state of Israel gets so much envy and hatred, a country whose only wish is to live in peace and offer a safe haven for Jews everywhere.
  • Why, in sum, has humanity persistently hated, and wanted to destroy us across the ages.

And the said article, at one point, asks the wrenching question: “How can we teach love in a world filled with hatred?”

The way the answer is addressed as the obvious and irrefutable option is that it is all because of gentiles’ own shortcomings and failures, and since they are unwilling to blame their own faults on them, the convenient scapegoat is the Jewish people.

In the end, the programmed carbon-copy discourse of the article continues, we the Jewish people will prevail because we “are faithful to our tradition” and “our collective Jewish memory.”

Not to say that the former laundry list does not contain any grain of truth, but it does such a huge great disservice to the Jewish people on how to come to grips with anti-Semitism, and does much less on instructing anyone on how to manage it.

My own interest in my family’s Sephardic history has brought me face to face with the heart tearing history of anti-Semitism in Spain in its many facets, before and after the Expulsion of 1492. The term “anti-Semitism” is very modern, and it was only coined in the 19th century, but the currents informing such hatred as we know it today may date back to the 1st century of our present era, and before.

There have been many definitions and rationalizations of the term, however, in its pure and simplest expression, it is only the hatred of Jews for the sake of hating Jews, for the simple reason we are of a people called the Jewish people.

Studying Jewish, and particularly Sephardic, history and Jewish Law has allowed me to know how lay and religious community leaders have dealt with the issue in the past, which is literally a quantum jump from the way Jewish leaders deal with it today. Faur’s seminal writings on the subject have been extremely illuminating.

In his “Antisemitismo en la mente sefaradí,”[1] Faur relates how Sephardic Jews retain an idyllic memory of Spain, even though we have been subject to the most horrid crimes in history.

“Besides the vices of greed and arrogance, they [Sephardic Jews] were imputed with libertinage, homosexuality, disloyalty and being corruptor of sacred books. As the object of religious hatred, they were imputed with the ritual murder of children.” (My brackets)

Citing J.D. Abramsky commentary on Salomón ibn Verga’s (1460–1554) master piece Shebet Yehudáh,

“The problem that we formulate, and whose solution is the main objective of this study is ¿why did the Sepharadí refused to accentuate its tragic experiences in Sepharad, instead of presenting us with an idyllic frame? ¿What is the strategy of this optimistic historiography?”

Referring to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflexions sur la question juive (1946), Faur points how the aggressor and victim establish a level of cooperation, “They both stimulate and identify as the «adversary» and the cause of his own disgraces… they mutually use this as a scapegoat to evade all personal responsibility.”

The aggressor acquires the identity of the victim, and the victim acquires the role of the aggressor. The Sephardic and traditional Jewish strategy against anti-Semitism is precisely to avoid establishing this reciprocity.

Sephardic grandparents’ memory and Sephardic historiography is replete with overly optimistic stories. Spain is a flowery paradise, where Jewish religious, literary and scientific learning flourished; the majority of kings, nobility and the people loved and protected us, and we only had very few enemies that God dealt with fulminating fury; even the “«Expulsion» is marked by portentous miracles, which protected the exiled, and cleared any obstacles that could be presented.”

At the root of the Sephardic strategy against anti-Semitism, says Faur, is the recognition of the absolute autonomy of the People of Israel—guaranteed by the berit, or Alliance, between God and Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. This autonomy makes the People of Israel absolutely responsible for our own destiny. To make other nations guilty for Israel’s own tribulations is equivalent to denying Israel’s own autonomy. The anti-Semite, Faur explains, “must be conceived as a mere «instrument»—not as the cause—of Israel’s suffering.”

This attitude in fact harks back to a warning Moses gives to the People of Israel (Deut. 28:15-16, 25 et al),[2]

“15 But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee. 16 Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field… 25 The LORD will cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies; thou shalt go out one way against them, and shalt flee seven ways before them; and thou shalt be a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth.”

Through history, the Rabbis have given different reasons for the tragedies of the Jewish people. The destruction of the second Temple by the Romans is attributed to baseless hatred among two Jews, which gave the wrong impression to the Caesar and backfired on us (TB Gittin 56a). The death of Rabbi ‘Aqibá’s students was because they did not conduct themselves with respect to each other (TB Yebamót 62b). The rabbis in Spain attributed the persecutions to Jewish men sleeping with harlots, given to avarice and self-aggrandizement. In more modern times, Faur points in his article, the animosity between the Christians and Jews of Rome was due to some bad customs and undignified behavior rooted in the Jewish community.[3]

Rather than giving some sort transcendent eschatological reason for Israel’s sufferings, the Rabbis and their successors—following in the footsteps of Israel’s Prophets— were trying to seek very down to earth explanations that would bring to center Israel’s responsibility.

Jewish ethics is a carefully calibrated system that is centered on behavioral patterns built on reciprocity, kindness, sobriety, abnegation and self-restrain. No other book in Jewish tradition synthesizes those outcomes better than Maimonides’ treatise Hilekhót De‘ót. For the Mamonidean-Gaonic system drawing lessons from the Talmudic Sages and Biblical personalities, the end-game of Jewish orthopraxis, the observance of Biblical and Rabbinic precepts, is to build a better society through better individuals. Since the Biblical precepts in and of themselves do not give the reasoning behind them, it is encouraged to think of the possible positive and beneficial purposes for their existence, which in the end all of them are summarized as, “all ways of the Toráh are peace.”

Jewish orthopraxis establishes the ethical relationships among Jews, as well as those between Jews and non-Jews. Since the time of the Patriarchs, the Jewish ethos has been concerned about its own standing in the midst of a non-Jewish majority, whether in the Land of Israel in the midst of all nations or in the Diaspora in the midst of a non-Jewish majority. This is not just a matter of diplomacy, but just basic human decency and mutual respect.

It is in this way that the jurisprudence of Israel has carried laws like the ban of interest on loans to Jews to be limited just to interest for sustenance when done with non-Jews; or to outlaw arrogant outlandish dressing in the midst of a non-Jewish environment, so not to raise their envy.

Because of these anti-corruption Jewish legal strictures, during the Middle-Ages, Jews were wholly trusted as bankers and in commercial transactions by non-Jewish rulers and populace in Muslim lands. However, the break of the Talmudic rule to charge marginal interest on loans to non-Jews by the Ashkenazi tradition, which derived on usury, has brought awful consequences to Jewish life, yet to be fully explored and mentioned widely and publically in current Jewish scholarship and media channels.

These are the ways in which Jewish tradition has managed Jewish/non-Jewish relationships, so not to establish the mental reciprocity between victim and aggressor. Today, the current secular-and-religious-right-to-right-Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish leadership has nearly, if not completely, abandoned these time-bound traditions, wholly absorbing the ways of victim-aggressor reciprocity in non-Jewish history.

The current Jewish side of the paradox of anti-Semitism is not to realize that the current ethos at work in the Jewish world has indeed established this mutual reciprocity, which attempts to excuse Jews of any responsibility, whose preferred mantra points are perfectly described at the beginning of this article.

On the non-Jewish side, the issue is far more complicated. People do not change overnight. This much Maimonides knew in the 12th c. Psychologists have re-confirmed it since the 19th c. There is a reason why modern psychology has come up with methods to reform from bad habits, called “therapy.” Toráh, the Jewish tradition, is a 3,500 year-long therapy to recover from the bad ways of ancient Pagan humanity, which currently our Jewish leadership—be it religious or secular— has forgotten or completely abandoned. The exemplary behavior of this Toráh therapy is the “light unto the nations,” which works in concert with all humanity, in my own humble opinion of Jewish tradition, as the Merkabáh— the divine chariot—directing human destiny. We have the choice to either self-destroy or maintain-and-develop our existence.

Anti-Semitism in Western civilization has a complex history, but it is based on the basic idea of civilized-holier-than-thou “Us” versus lesser-than-detritus “Them,” which had been part of the Greco-Roman ethos for centuries. Christianity only came to clad it with a new rhetoric which targeted Jews specifically, and from there it evolved into all sorts of accusations and legends aimed at oppressing and persecuting Jews.

Although Western civilization became secularized during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, by moving towards the separation of church and state, the xenophobic elements underpinning its ethos remained unchanged. This came more than evident in the Nazi era.

The planned genocide of Jews, and other undesirable minorities and dissidents, by Nazi-Germany was a shock to the European psyche after the war. The general question then and still asked by Western intellectuals was: How was it possible that liberal and secularized Germany could have sunk to such depths of depravity? Several apologetics and polemics have ensued ever since, but all lacking any major psycho-historical depth.

Having seen a few documentaries on how Germans have dealt with the issue, it appears the Holocaust is a subject Germans prefer not to talk about. It traumatizes them. It is a cognitive dissonance they are unwilling or unable to mentally process, between the self-image of themselves and the atrocious realities of the Holocaust.

Even though there is no other country which has made more public apology gestures for the atrocities of WWII, built more monuments to commemorate the memory of Jews perished there, even outlawed public Holocaust denial as free-speech, collectively Germans seem to carry a bottled-up guilt complex, without ever devising any therapy for a way out of it. Ironic, being that Germany is the land which gave birth to the most brilliant psychoanalysts, and much more ironic when knowing that many of them were Jews.

Outside the German collective, the European collective has not dealt with the issue of anti-Semitism-leading-to-genocide, since they were not per se “active” in the “Final Solution,” even though they passively saw Jews being rounded-up for relocation; some few knew what was being done to them.

As one acute observer once noted, none of that would have happened without the millenarian hatred towards Jews embedded in Western culture via Christianity.

On the Jewish side, most Jews ignore what may be the cultural-psychological issues leading to such hatred. Beyond pointing out Anti-Semitic hate as hate for hate itself, the pundits of our Ashkenazi-dominated leadership, from every ideological stripe, do not even think to inquire the sources generating that hatred, which is glossed over with the events developing in the latter part of 20th century. This in spite that there have been brilliant Jewish scholars analyzing this very issue.

Within the modern who-is-who of Jewish important personalities in areas of wide influence, there exists a number of war-hawks, Wall Street bandits, even faux-religious sex molesters, who not only give Jews a bad name, but who are even protected by interest groups within the community at large. To make matters worse, there is the conflation of Anti-Zionism as Anti-Semitism, where any criticism to the state of Israel, whether from left-right-or-center, is equated with anti-Semitism. These moves attempts to absolve Jewish wrong-doers of any responsibility and the Jews who dare speak against the corrupt ways of the bad apples are duly persecuted, shut down, effectively neutered or driven to the margins of Jewish society.

In sum, there exists a deep cognitive denial on both sides of the Anti-Semitism question. Europe does not analyze the profound causes of anti-Semitism in its history, and the current Ashkenazi-dominated leadership absolves Jews— and the state of Israel— of any wrong doing or creates elaborate apologetics.

Back in the days when Jewish communities were self-contained and self-regulated societies, there were measures to control the behavior of Jews who may put in peril the good name of the community within a non-Jewish environment. The case of Benedict Spinoza perfectly illustrates this point.[4] The advent of secularized societies “liberated” Jews from conforming and being dependent to the community’s ethical standards.

The advent of the state of Israel made religious leaders subservient to the whims of secular leaders, for whom the niceties and protocols of tradition-bound Jewish ethics are worth zero.

The huge amounts of Western sympathy and support gained after WWII have been wasted in favor of advancing stubborn territorial ends. We could have used such an historic opportunity to assist in the healing the Western demons of xenophobia.

The West just put a lid on the demons, and let them fester. Now we see their ugly heads rearing back up again.

To repair the damage done through years of self-interest and neglect it would take a gargantuan realization on behalf of the public at large, be it non-Jewish or Jewish, in order to eject the gremlins-passing-as-leaders who have encouraged and allowed such state of disrepair, and put back to center the reasonable voices who seek and build true peace and mutual understanding.

Otherwise, the paradoxes will remain, whose ends we are all with too familiar.


[1] Faur, José. “Antisemitismo en la mente sefaradí.” La Rassegna Mensile di Israel terza serie, Vol. 49, No. 5/8, La Cultura Sefardita (Maggio-Giugno-Luglio-Agosto 1983), pp. 394-418. Published by: Unione delle Comunitá Ebraiche Italiane. All translations into English are mine.

[2] The Hebrew Bible in English according to the JPS 1917 Edition. 2002. Web. January 10 2015.

[3] See R. Roberto Bonfil, «Temuroth l’minhagim ha-datyim shel Yehudei Roma bitequfath kehunato shel R’ Israel Mose Hazan», Scritti in Memoria di Enzo Sereni (Jerusalem, Editrice Fondazione 5aI1y Mayer: 1970), pp. 228-251. Cited in Faur’s “Antisemitismo en la mente sefaradí,” p. 411.

[4] Please read José Faur’s In the Shadow of History (State of New York Press, 1992), pp. 142-175.

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