While walking to shul recently, I had one of those fleeting encounters that are significant beyond their moment. As I walked up the street, a man approached from the opposite direction on the same sidewalk and when he neared, I saw that his face, neck, and arms were covered with Nazi tattoos. As we passed each other, he caught my eye and said, “Good morning. Nice weather, huh?” Clearly, he didn’t know he was exchanging pleasantries with a Jew, and I suppose at a glance I didn’t fit his preconceived image of one – I didn’t have a beard, my kippah was under my hat, and I was walking along a busy thoroughfare near the business district. For all he knew, I could have been some professional on his way to the office to put in a few extra hours.
What struck me was that for someone who wore his antisemitism so publicly on his sleeve, he was unable to identify the target of his hatred from a distance of two feet. Antisemites often pride themselves on being able to spot the Jew in a crowd, but I flew completely under his radar; the most threatening comment he could muster was a mundane observation about the weather.
And it got me thinking about the nature of stereotypes – and not only those foisted upon Jewish people by hateful bigots and aggressive missionaries. I also thought about the stereotypes that secular liberals ascribe to antisemites and to themselves as Jews.
Not all antisemites are tattooed thugs or white supremacists; indeed, many are evolved progressives, urbane policymakers, liberal entertainment moguls, professional athletes, minority activists, and woke academics who see in the Jews and Israel the same sinister caricatures found on the pages of “Mein Kampf” or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Those who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge increasing Jew-hatred on the left and among its anointed identity communities (consistent with law enforcement statistics) are blinded by their own partisan biases and misunderstanding of traditional Jewish values. They also tend to be awash in self-ignorance regarding the essence of Jewish identity.
Not all antisemites are tattooed thugs or white supremacists; indeed, many are evolved progressives, urbane policymakers, liberal entertainment moguls, professional athletes, minority activists, and woke academics.
This moral dissonance was epitomized by an interaction I had with a professional associate who informed me of his conversion to Judaism – or more specifically Reform Judaism. When I asked about his motivations, he waxed eloquent about Judaism being the fulfillment of liberal political values. Interestingly, however, he said nothing about belief in G-d, Torah, or prophetic tradition. He also failed to mention anything about Jewish observance, belief in Moshiach, or the centrality of the homeland to Jewish identity. Though he underwent a process labelled conversion, it was not halakhic and apparently did not teach the importance of Jewish law; and when it was completed, he felt no obligation to observe Shabbat, the holidays, or kashrut, attend synagogue, or maintain any semblance of a Jewish lifestyle.
All Judaism meant to him was the sanctification of a political worldview he held anyway, which intrinsically had nothing to do with Jewishness.
His attraction to Judaism – or rather to what he thought constituted Judaism – was not predicated on any recognition of G-d’s special relationship with the Jewish people or their mission to be a Mamlechet Kohanim v’Goy Kadosh (kingdom of priests and a holy nation). Rather, it was based on a need to sanctify secular ideals as proxy religious values and thereby demean opposing viewpoints as banal, coarse, or unholy.
Upon reflection, it struck me that this concept of Jews and Judaism was just as much a false stereotype as the derogatory images imputed to Jews in classical antisemitic literature, Christian scripture, and traditional Islamic society. Indeed, associating Jewishness with eating bagels, reading the Sunday New York Times, and voting Democratic is an assimilationist cliche unsupported by scriptural or rabbinic tradition.
Despite efforts by non-Orthodox movements and communal organizations to reconceive Judaism as a liberal ideology, secular political ideals are neither synonymous with tradition nor consistent with Torah, and progressive social justice in many ways contradicts core Jewish values. The political left, in fact, is virulently anti-Israel and, yes, often antisemitic. By equating Jewishness with progressive values – many of which contravene Torah law – they have created an unsustainable construct incapable of assuring Jewish continuity.
Nevertheless, these political ideals have been adopted by non-Orthodox and secular Jews as guiding moral principles and are often presented – quite falsely – as the fulfillment of prophetic tradition or tikkun olam. But authentic prophetic tradition is apolitical; and whatever else tikkun olam might be, it is not a vehicle for politicizing science, forcing progressive indoctrination on children, enforcing censorship, restricting the use of gender-specific pronouns, validating Palestinian mythology, or falsely accusing Israel of apartheid. The sacralization of liberal politics cannot fill the inevitable spiritual void created when Jews abandon tradition, observance, and the common sense of self-preservation.
Classical stereotypes of the Jew as financial manipulator, global conspirator, poisoner of wells, and eternal stranger are imposed from without, but the stereotype of the Jew as self-rejecting rationalist is inflicted from within based on the erroneous premise that western progressivism comports with tradition and reinforces the Jewish spirit. Such presumptions are wrong, but worse, they desensitize secular and non-Orthodox Jews to leftist antisemitism that sanctifies crass and odious cliches. As a result, it blinds them to Jew-hatred within protest movements they support, culturally diverse communities they promote, and liberal administrations they endorse.
Although mainstream establishment organizations are finally starting to admit the rising tide of American antisemitism, they generally refuse to acknowledge that the most significant increases seem to come from the political left and minority communities. They are also reluctant to chastise progressive Democrats in Congress, including members of the “squad,” for bigoted comments insulting to Jews and Israel. They minimized violence perpetrated against Jews and their institutions during progressive anti-police riots two years ago. Some communal leaders even denied that assaults committed against Jews and their property in Los Angeles and elsewhere were antisemitic, despite irrefutable photographic and video documentation and eyewitness accounts.
Identifying the symptom but not the cause provides no hope for cure. It does little good to lament the rise of antisemitism in American colleges and universities, for example, without identifying the perpetrators. White supremacists have little if any presence on college campuses, where antisemitism is taught by tenured faculty, acted out on the campus street by progressive students, and facilitated by complicit deans and administrators. The antisemitic imagery promoted by leftist professors – whether directed at Jews as individuals or collectively as a nation – is no different from the medieval stereotypes hawked by the Church and resurrected in Nazi Germany on the pages of “Der Sturmer.” Nevertheless, mainstream liberals are skittish about publicly exposing progressive and minority Jew-hatred because (a) they are often politically allied with its purveyors and (b) it doesn’t fit their preferred narrative that all antisemites are right-wing zealots or white supremacists.
The difficulty in combatting antisemitism is that it often hinges on distinguishing between stereotypes applied by antisemites to Jews, Jews to antisemites, and Jews to themselves.
They refuse to acknowledge the threat of progressive antisemitism because of their false belief that liberalism is innately Jewish and something to be spiritually elevated. Thus, secular liberals today are similar to those Jews who were criticized by the Prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) 2,600 years ago for turning their backs on the Sanctuary, bowing eastward towards the sun, and neglecting the “rock of their salvation.” (Yechezkel, 8:16.) According to Torah giant known as the Chasam Sofer, they did this in the mistaken belief that it was beneath Hashem’s dignity to worry about the mundane affairs of man, and that they should therefore bow in respect to the instrumentalities He created to sustain the world. Chasam Sofer says this logic was flawed because those Jews had lost all connection to Torah, from which they would have understood G-d’s ongoing role in the lives of His creations.
Like those Jews admonished by Yechezkel so long ago, today’s progressives may believe they are acting in accordance with the Divine will, but their belief is not justified by the Scripture and traditions they have largely forsaken. To paraphrase the Prophet, Jewishness cannot be sustained without Torah. And without Torah, stereotype and illusion cannot be distinguished from reality.
And so it goes.
Matthew M. Hausman is a trial attorney and writer who lives and works in Connecticut. A former journalist, Mr. Hausman continues to write on a variety of topics, including science, health and medicine, Jewish issues and foreign affairs, and has been a legal affairs columnist for a number of publications.