Vigil in NYC
Vigil in NYCAmericans Against Antisemitism

The case for engaging with anti-Semitic ideas

The Jewish people have good grounds to fear antisemitism. As a non-Jewish friend of Israel and the Jewish people I will make the case that the conventional Jewish approach toward this phenomenon has had grave consequences for the Jewish people and for the Jewish state.

It would be a tedious exercise to draw a line between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Jews and between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel. Even Jews cannot agree about this matter. That is the reason there is so much intra-Jewish bickering about anti-George Soros rhetoric and why proud Jews are found both among the fiercest critics of Zionism and among its staunchest supporters.

It is thus easier to inquire into the psychological and institutional origins of hostility towards Jews. Antisemitism can be triggered by the feeling that Jews are worse than ourselves and our group, or just as much (or even more so) by the feeling that Jews are stronger and better. Hostility usually morphs into hatred only in the latter case.

That is the main reason antisemitism is both so insidious and widespread. People are seduced by anti-Semitic ideas because these ideas serve as great equalizers. As long as Jews are accused of murder, theft and racism, non-Jews feel reassured that Jews are just as flawed as themselves. In its essence, antisemitism is not a gratuitous phobia: it is a pathetic attempt to assert the equality of all nations, cultures and religions.

Only once this is clear, does the contemporary left’s fascination with antisemitism become logical. Leftists are often short-sighted, naïve, foolish, or worse, but I don’t think we should deny the sincerity of their anti-racist convictions. If we are to understand how leftists, a generation ago among the staunchest friends of Jewish communities, have morphed into a threat for Jews, we need to look back at what occurred in the last thirty years.

During the 1990s, Holocaust awareness approached its zenith. As a result it became almost taboo to criticize Jews or Judaism in many Western societies. This did not make anti-Jewish sentiments vanish, but made them socially unacceptable in polite society. One side-effect of turning antisemitism into a taboo is that anti-Jewish sentiments were channeled into hostility toward Israel.

Nevertheless, turning anti-Jewish opinions into a political and social taboo had a second more toxic consequence. As soon as anti-Jewish opinions became taboo, eventually so did opinions critical of all other religious and ethnic minorities. After all, why should only Jews get a pass from criticism?

The consequence of these dynamics is visible today in the fact that political correctness has become the Western civic religion and that academia, the mainstream media and politics barely tolerate heretics. Understandably, there is merit in shielding minorities from open bigotry and racism. The problem is that whereas criticism of Jewish communities was mostly malevolent and unwarranted, criticism of other communities often is not.

Therefore, starting from the late 1990s, Western societies no longer hold an open debate on different festering social and cultural issues. Thus, for example, the social and security problems incubating in the suburbs of European cities are not addressed, because doing so would single out a religious minority.

In inner-city America, social problems such as absent fathers, unwed mothers and stunning juvenile crime rates are downplayed by the mainstream media in order to perpetuate the myth that racism is the main reason all communities are not equally wealthy. Thus, the most promising approaches to solving the woes of America’s socioeconomically underperforming communities have been discarded by policy-makers.

Ironically, not discussing these social ills has not shielded Jews from a recrudescence of anti-Jewish actions.

Firstly, as seen in too many European cities, these social ills have morphed into deadly threats to Jewish lives. Secondly, the mainstream media, true to its progressive philosophy, insisted during many years that terrorism bore no connection to Islam. Once reality successfully challenged this narrative, the mainstream media needed a new strategy. In order to save its holy grail of equality among religions it started to emphasize every Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish misdeed in order to create a level playing-field among world religions.

Abuses against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar were presented as evidence that Buddhism has a sinister side; Hindus who support the current Indian government are routinely portrayed as Fascists by the Washington Post and the New York Times; Evangelical Christians are depicted as intellectual troglodytes eager to establish a theocracy; to close the circle, Israel is increasingly presented as an apartheid and racist state guilty of horrendous crimes.

The media’s approach has succeeded. According to recent surveys, most American Jews feel that Evangelical Christians pose the greatest threat to Jews. Likewise, many consumers of mainstream media, particularly in Europe, think that Israel is a willing executioner of Palestinians.

Before being tempted to assume that anti-Israel media coverage is just fueled by antisemitism, we should bear in mind that politically correct journalists feel an ethical duty to convince readers that all nations, religions and cultures are equally good (or bad). This progressive ideological dogma has found its way in a media coverage that is disproportionately unkind to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews and that tries to frame the appalling crimes committed in the name of Islam, another world religion, in the most prosaic possible terms.

In other words, the constraints of political correctness go a long way in explaining why media coverage of Israel and Orthodox Jews is so negative. And the fight against antisemitism goes a long way in explaining the hegemony of political correctness in contemporary discourse.

In the light of this analysis, I hold that Jews should engage with anti-Semitic opinions, rather than demanding that these opinions be taboo. Not only would doing so allow these opinions to be openly discussed and publicly discredited, but doing so would provide the Jewish people with a golden opportunity to highlight the goodness and uniqueness of its culture and identity.

There are many ways in which the former could and should be done. For example, one common anti-Jewish trope is that “Jews love money”. The instinctive reaction of Jewish organizations is to quash this statement as anti-Semitic and to highlight how many Jews are underprivileged.

A wiser approach would be to acknowledge the fact that a remarkably high number of Jews are in upper income brackets and highlight how Jewish culture teaches that honestly-earned wealth makes the world a better place. The corollary of this approach would be to highlight how many hospitals, schools and orphanages wealthy Jewish philanthropists have established. In other words, rather than flatly rebutting the anti-Jewish charge, Jews should seize the opportunity to teach how wealth promotes social spending through charity and higher tax receipts.

Analogous approaches can be used to address other anti-Semitic tropes like that of Jews being the driving forces behind Communism, Liberalism, Global Finance, Cultural Decadence, anti-Islam agitation and what not. Thanks to the internet, these charges can be undermined both honestly and intelligently.

At this point, it could be objected that Jews spent the better part of 2,000 years justifying themselves and that doing so did not prevent the Holocaust. The emotional power of this argument is hard to overestimate.

Nevertheless, this argument is wrong for three reasons:

The first reason is that the Holocaust happened due to centuries of institutional backing for antisemitism in Europe at all levels of society. In the West, until 1945 (and even later), churches taught antisemitism, armies taught antisemitism and schools taught antisemitism. All of these institutions had no interest in the rational arguments Jews made because they profited from hostility towards Jews: Clergymen in order to assert the supremacy of Christianity, army officers in order to immunize conscripts from Jewish anti-militaristic values and schools for both of the reasons listed above.

In the 21st century, the major institutions of the West, including its major churches, have a greater affinity for traditional Jewish values such as hostility to war, racial, national and religious supremacism and class privilege than many assimilated Diaspora Jews did a century ago. It is for this reason, that Jews need not take it for granted that engaging with and discrediting anti-Jewish ideas would once again be futile.

The second reason to engage with anti-Semitic ideas is that owing to the internet these ideas are in any case around. Censoring these ideas only fuels the perception that Jews are too powerful to be criticized. The ubiquity of Voltaire’s sentence in anti-Semitic circles proves this point perfectly: “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize”. Unfortunately, the conventional approach to tackling antisemitism has created a counter-cultural movement that sees confirmation for its prejudices in the way Jewish organizations approach the problem.

The third reason Jewish organizations should engage with anti-Semitic arguments is that they can be discredited. Recently, the Jewish world was alarmed that a British law proposal might have provided a platform for Holocaust deniers at British universities. I think that providing such a debate platform would be wonderful! If Jewish (and non-Jewish!) students and academics were given a chance to challenge and discredit these Holocaust deniers on campus, doing so would go a long way toward discrediting Holocaust denial on social media and all over the internet.

Doing so is especially important considering that the alternative to these unpalatable university debates are safe spaces where nothing except politically correct orthodoxy is tolerated. Yet will Jewish communities really be safer if all communities of all religions are shielded from criticism, including those that are rife with religious extremism, antisemitism, homophobia and misogyny? Will the Jewish values of truth and intellectual honesty be served if our universities and media are not forced to reassess their politically correct piety?

Antisemitism is toxic and harmful, yet pretending that Israel and the Jewish world do not pay a heavy price for the way it has been handled, is even more toxic and harmful. The time has come for Jews to feel confident that they can win the battle of ideas. The best way of doing so is to portray the Jewish people neither as flawless nor as everybody else, but as its uniquely Jewish and very human self.

Rafael Castro is a Noachide Italian-Colombian who graduated from Yale and Hebrew University. He resides in Berlin where he teaches English and Politics in a public high school. He can be reached at [email protected]