Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 82 (April 1998): 10-13.
In a Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River, a young woman I know lies awake at 5 a.m., wondering if the sun will rise. That fear has gripped her on more than one occasion recently. This is what happens. She is awakened by the sound of her children crying. Once she has quieted them down, she gets back into bed and looks out the window and thinks, What if the sun doesn’t come up this morning? She is entirely sane, I assure you, but the idea terrifies her until the sun actually does rise through her window, and she can fall asleep again beside her husband.
The other day she happened to mention this to me. I felt that I should console her, even half-playfully. But how?
While giving all due respect to her anxieties, I tried to present a cool, rational view. On the one hand, I said, it has to be admitted that nature is in God’s hands. The meaning of the phrase used in insurance contracts, "Act of God," is precisely that nature does not always follow predictable rules. The blessing we Jews say before recitation of the Sh’ma each morning acknowledges that the Lord m’chadesh b’chal yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit: God renews the work of creation every day, continually. Theoretically, it’s possible that God might choose to withhold the sun from us tomorrow morning. In the past, on at least one occasion, He has indeed halted the course of the heavenly bodies (see Joshua 10:13). In short, anything could happen.
On the other hand, I told her, clearly there is nothing to worry about. I could show you photographs going back decades of the sun rising over the East River each and every morning. It has never failed to do so. Forget about it.
I thought afterward, however, that I had taken the wrong approach. When someone is irrationally afraid of something, it makes no sense merely to reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. Usually, the smart thing to do is help him step back from his fears and view them at a distance. Let him ask himself: Why is it that I worry about a problem that isn’t there? What is the subterranean meaning of my fear? When a rational person suffers from an irrational terror, the terror serves some purpose, probably an unhealthy one, in the dark attic of his soul.
I thought of the young woman who was afraid the sun wouldn’t rise when I came across an item recently in the New York Times. Bear with me. It won’t be immediately apparent what she has to do with ultra-Orthodox hasidic Jews in New Square, New York.
The Times reported that some hasidim up in Rockland County had been indicted on the charge that they had defrauded the federal and state governments in a multimillion-dollar scheme involving student loans and housing subsidies. Subpoenas had been served at 6 a.m. to ensure that the subpoenaed individuals would be on hand to receive the documents personally. Getting woken up at such an early hour scared the children, the Jews claimed, and was "remindful of the Holocaust that many in this community endured decades ago."
For many of us Jews lately, everything and anything is "remindful of the Holocaust." The truth is that anti-Semitism has become an obsession with us. You’ve heard the phrase "anti-Semitism without Jews," to describe the hostility to Jews felt in countries like Poland that don’t have any Jews. In the American Jewish community we’ve got anti-Semitism without anti-Semites. Or almost without anti-Semites. In a country as big as America you are inevitably going to find nuts and cranks, haters and despisers, of every description—if you look hard enough.
It seems every month the Anti-Defamation League denounces some piddling Army bureaucrat who said "Jew" out of the wrong side of his mouth or some evangelical religious group that had the temerity to hire one man and a secretary to undertake the quixotic task of converting every Jew in America to Southern Baptist Christianity. We follow these developments with eyes opened wide in horror. I regularly receive a big black fundraising envelope from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, with promises of dark tidings for the future of the Jewish people: "Outbreaks of a virulent new strain of anti-Semitism around the world confront you with a choice. Urgent: Early reply requested." Or I receive a business-size, fund-raising envelope from the ADL—or is it the World Jewish Congress?—with a photo of two mangy-looking teenage skinheads with a Nazi flag in the background and the caption "We protect your kids from these kids." In reality, of course, American Jewish children are in far greater danger of getting run over by drunk drivers, or electrocuting themselves by dropping a plugged-in radio in the water when they’re taking a bath, than they are of getting so much as a hair on their heads plucked out by a neo-Nazi.
Our preoccupation with the ultimate symbol of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, has become notorious. There is no end in sight to the Holocaust history books, Holocaust novels, Holocaust television shows, Holocaust magazine and newspaper articles, chairs in Holocaust studies at universities, Holocaust museums, Holocaust poems, Holocaust paintings, Holocaust sculptures. In fact the flow seems to be picking up speed. Every self-respecting synagogue and Jewish Community Center must now have its Holocaust memorial, the more elaborately grotesque the better. I was driving in a leafy suburb of Seattle recently and passed some sort of public building with a huge, eerie, black concrete cylinder out front, with what looked like devils’ faces on it. Who had erected this sinister totem? Yes, of course, it was the neighborhood JCC proudly displaying its Holocaust memorial.
Whenever something unpleasant happens to us, whenever we are criticized or judged, whether fairly or unfairly, we tend, as a community, to view our discomfort from the perspective of the Holocaust. We operate under the assumption that anti-Semitism is forever threatening to boil up under the surface of American life and bring another trial like that one on us. Otherwise, what would be the point of remembering and remembering, and accusing and accusing, as we do? Like the woman who is concerned the sun won’t rise, we are afraid without a rational reason to be afraid.
If I had the opportunity to console the Jews who fear that another Holocast, or any lesser trial, may be around the corner, I could say: I understand your fears of anti-Semitism. After all, there was indeed a Holocaust fifty years ago. Yes, it could happen here. Theoretically, anything could happen to anyone anywhere.
On the other hand, as Professor Leonard Dinnerstein wrote in his 1994 book Anti-Semitism in America, "Today anti-Semitism in the United States is neither virulent nor growing. It is not a powerful social or political force. . . . The obvious conclusion is that it has declined in potency and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future." I would add that in America today there is probably less hostility to Jews than in any country anywhere, including the State of Israel, at any time in history.
I could stop right there and say nothing more.
It would be better, though, if I tried to do what I should have done for my anxious friend. I could say, I am not going to address the content of your anxiety. Rather, I will offer a hypothesis, a proposed explanation of it. You could call it a meta-analysis. I want to know what it is in Jewish culture that accounts for our obsession with anti-Semitism.
Is it, in fact, another Holocaust that we fear? When we scour the printed and broadcast statements of our non-Jewish fellow citizens for the slightest hint of hostility to us, is it omens of a Nazified America we are really searching for? That would be the conventional answer. And as soon as the Holocaust is invoked, all discussion of an impious, questioning kind is expected to cease immediately. That answer, however, is an insult to American Jews. It suggests we are too dim-witted to tell the difference between Europe in 1938 and America in 1998. Instead, I offer you the hypothesis that, when we indulge our obsession with phantom anti-Semitism, we do something deeply related to what is unique about our Jewish souls.
When we want to understand the Jewish soul, religious and secular Jews alike can agree that there is no better way to do so than to read the Hebrew Bible. Some Jews, including me, believe that the Bible comes to us from God and His prophets. So it is obvious why that book can tell us more about ourselves than any other source, even the New York Times.
Jews who don’t believe in the Bible, who think it is a mere pastiche of ancient propaganda tracts culled together by rather unskilled editors called redactors, can still agree that it embodies the essence of what Jews are. After all, it is our national literature. We wrote it, and we have embraced it, however fraudulently, as God’s own word for more than three thousand years. It defines us, and always has. What, then, does the Bible tell us about anti-Semitism? The answer is nothing, and everything.
For, to put it simply, the Bible has never heard of such a thing as anti-Semitism. Naturally it records stupendous disasters that have befallen our people: none greater than the destruction of the First Temple by Babylonian invaders, when Jewish mothers were compelled to cook and eat their children in the streets of Jerusalem, as the Book of Lamentations so appallingly records.
But in Lamentations, and throughout the Bible, there is a striking difference between the way biblical Jews understood the hostility of non-Jews and the way we understand it. When the Jewish people suffer in the Bible, it is almost exclusively at the hands of non-Jews. Occasionally God will send a plague, but, for His own reasons, he prefers to work through Gentile aggressors. The difference between us and the Jews of the Bible, and indeed the Jews of every generation until a century or two ago, is this: They understood Gentile hostility to be an expression of God’s displeasure with us as a community. We understand it to be essentially meaningless.
What’s more, however difficult it is for us to square this mystery with our modern assumptions, they understood that God punishes the People Israel as a community. They believed in collective responsibility. That means that when individual Jews do wrong and bring punishment down from Heaven, innocent Jews may get caught up in the maelstrom. In fact, the guilty may escape punishment in this world altogether, while the innocent die and must wait for their reward in the world to come.
Take that time, recorded in the Book of Joshua, when God stopped the sun in its course. That happened during the conquest of Canaan, when the Israelites emerged from the desert after their wanderings. Shortly before that, we find a typical incident that reflects the authentic Jewish view of collective responsibility. When the Jews besieged Jericho, God instructed them to refrain from looting the ruined city. One man disobeyed. His name was Achan. As a result, when the Jews went out to make war on their next target, a modest little Canaanite city called Ai, they got chased away and lost thirty-six apparently innocent men in the battle. But Achan was not killed. It was only after Joshua had punished Achan that the Israelites could resume their campaign undeterred.
There is perhaps no better example of this dynamic than the Holocaust. It would be a presumption to assert that God caused the Holocaust, or allowed it to happen, in order to punish European Jewry for their increasingly widespread devotion to secularism. In any given historical event, we can never know God’s true intention. But it would also be a presumption, and a worse one, to assert that such a punishment was not what He had in mind. It is that latter presumption of which most Jews, including many religiously observant ones, are guilty today. Anyway, if He did intend that event as a punishment, a warning, or a lesson, it would fit the Bible’s pattern neatly. The Jews liquidated by Nazi Germany were not only, or even mostly, Reformers and secularists. Many deeply pious Jews perished as well, for they were often the last to seek escape from rising Nazi power. Which makes sense. God views the People Israel as an eternal community, not merely as disconnected individuals. All are responsible for all. And as the story of Achan and his friends demonstrates, maybe to emphasize our deep interconnectedness, the Lord does not practice precision bombing.
We modern Jews have entirely lost the consciousness of collective responsibility. A Conservative rabbi called Harold Kushner has crystalized our thinking in a series of bestselling books of contemporary "spirituality." He asserts that God can do nothing to prevent our suffering, whether it is caused by Gentile aggressors or raging cancer cells. Like President Clinton, the Lord of the Universe feels our pain. Otherwise, Rabbi Kushner pictures Him impotent, weeping quietly in some corner of Heaven, plucking tissues out of a Kleenex box the size of Jupiter.
We are ready now to put the modern Jewish cult of victimhood on the couch. Let’s psychoanalyze ourselves. We agreed earlier that when a person fears something that he has no reason to fear, he would be wise to ask himself, as any good psychologist would do, what subterranean need he is fulfilling through his fear. What is it that we Jews gain, today, by obsessing over phantom anti-Semitism?
The key can be found in another classic statement of the authentic Jewish view of anti-Jewish persecution. It is in the Torah, in parshat B’chukotai. Here, in the Book of Leviticus, God explains to the Jews the ways He will reward us if we guard His commandments, and punish us if we do not. All of us, together. Among the punishments, there is an interesting line that describes the condition of modern American Jews perfectly: "the sound of a driven leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as one flees from the sword; and they shall flee when none pursues."
It is hard to think of a Jewish community in history that has been in much worse spiritual shape than our own. The universally lamented 50-plus percent intermarriage rate is only a symptom. The failure is not of the children who marry Gentiles, but of the parents, the grandparents, even the great-grandparents. We have quit teaching our children that God lives, that He loves us, that He wants a relationship with us—but that He wants something from us in return. That is not merely to be nice people, as some liberal rabbis would have us believe, but to observe the entirety of His Torah as almost all Jews did until about two hundred years ago.
We American Jews are not as ignorant as we seem. We know, in our souls, that we have gone astray; but, to borrow a hackneyed phrase of psychological jargon, we are in denial. We have a guilty conscience. We are unhappy about that. What can we do, what defensive strategy can we adopt, to lift the weight of guilt?
Fortunately for us, in the 1960s the Cult of Victimhood made its appearance. Black Americans were the first to embrace it. Its premise was that any ethnic or racial group that has suffered persecution is, by virtue of its victimhood, lifted to a state of moral superiority over everyone who has not suffered as much as they have. Soon homosexuals got in on the act. Even, incredibly enough, some Asian Americans have sought to compete for the honor of being named certified victims of America. I was intrigued recently by a subway advertisement for a gay cultural event that memorialized AIDS victims. The ad bore an image of a winged being in a white robe and halo, with the slogan underneath: "Another angel has gone to Heaven." In other words, anyone who suffers from AIDS can be considered, merely because he carries the disease, morally superior even to a supernatural extent: an angel. Victimhood used to be considered something about which a normal person would feel ashamed. No longer. Amid the clamoring of would-be victims we find—ourselves, American Jews.
The Cult of Victimhood performs two valuable services for us Jews with our guilty consciences. First, as it does for everyone else, it assures us that, whatever we know we are doing wrong, we are really angels. Our moral failures are turned into a guarantee of moral perfection. That’s quite a relief.
But it does something else for us, which it may not do for other groups. We believe that any hostility we can detect on the part of non-Jews is entirely unmerited. We have done nothing to deserve it. God isn’t angry with us. And even if He were, He couldn’t send dangerous Gentiles against us. Our God is the impotent Harold Kushner God, if we choose to acknowledge a God at all.
The function of our obsession with anti-Semitism is to remind us, on a daily basis, that that is the God we sort of, kind of, barely believe in. Every ADL newsletter; every big black fundraising envelope from the Simon Wiesenthal Center; every obsessive discussion of what Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson may have said about Jews fifteen years ago or through some hack ghostwriter; every Holocaust book, film, poem, and painting; every monstrous Holocaust memorial in the parking lot of a JCC—they all declare, to our great relief, that anti-Semitism is meaningless. They declare this by failing to name God in any discussion of anti-Jewish persecution. They say that anti-Semitism is demonic. It doesn’t come from God. God, if He exists, is in Heaven, weeping on His pillow.
We don’t live like Jews, but that’s alright. God doesn’t mind. He isn’t going to punish us for our disobedience. Our fear of Gentiles who don’t like us, our made-up, manufactured fear, is the greatest comfort we can give ourselves.
The impulse to see anti-Semitism where it isn’t is so powerful it infects Jewish culture at every level, among religious and secular Jews alike. Even New Square hasidim have absorbed this secular ethos from the Jewish society around them. If God, the true God, were to put us on the couch, I think that is what He would tell us. He would tell us there is no such thing as anti-Semitism, at least not the way we understand it. We American Jews aren’t suffering at all right now. For us, life couldn’t be better.
But anything can happen. And it just might.
David Klinghoffer is Literary Editor of National Review.