by Rabbi Michael Lerner
Actually, we shouldn’t even call it anti-semitism, a label given to Jew-hating by WASP 19th century racists who sought to see every group of people in terms of their “race,” though subsequent biological and sociological research has shown that the concept of race itself lacks scientific legitimacy.
Hating Jews has a long history and multiple levels of causation. Thus, a campaign to challenge and undermine that hatred has to understand and uproot all the levels.
It started hundreds of years before Christianity emerged. In almost every ancient society, class rule and patriarchy were sustained not only by force and violence, but also by teaching the powerful and literate that there is no alternative to their existing orders, and that in some way the class and patriarchal divisions are built into the structure of the universe itself. Just as it was ridiculous to think that we humans could change the cycles of the sun or moon, so it would be ridiculous to think that slavery and patriarchy could be replaced. No wonder, then, that major thinkers of Roman and Greek imperialist societies hated the Jews. A core teaching of Judaism is that there is a power in the universe, Yud Hey Vav Hey, that makes possible the transformation from “that which is” to “that which ought to be”; and that we, the Jewish people, are the living proof of that possibility of transformation because we ourselves were slaves and then through our attachment to that force became free—proving that the class structures could be transcended. However imperfectly we embodied that in Ancient Israel or now in modern Israel, the reality is that Jews in the Roman and Greek empires were the single most consistent participants in attempts to overthrow the existing imperialists, and have been that ever since.
There were, of course, many Jews who tried to cuddle up to the existing elites and tell them that our liberation struggle wasn’t something we took seriously, that it was “merely a religion that we will contain to our Sabbath rituals,” but the elites were not buying this story because the central story of the Torah was/is a revolutionary story. So even if Jews didn’t believe it, others who heard it from the Jews would be moved by it (as happened throughout history, for example in the way that African slaves exposed to the Biblical story identified with Moses and the liberation story of the Jews). No wonder, then, that ruling elites have frequently taught their own people that the Jews are perverted, evil, embodiments of the devil, or in other ways a dishonest and selfish people who cannot be trusted at best, and at worst are a poison in the society that needs to be exterminated.
And because Jews were legally prevented throughout the Middle Ages from entering most occupations or owning land, many Jews lived lives of extreme poverty. The few that were allowed to engage in trade were seen as dishonest because they had bought goods at a cheaper price than what they sold them for.
Along with this came Christianity’s turn from a religion of love to a religion embraced by the Roman empire under Constantine, and then by most European societies during feudalism. Christianity taught that Jews had been responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, and that it was therefore a sanctified religious act to either massacre them (as one strand of Christianity taught and put into practice every year after Good Friday sermons) or, as Saint Augustine advocated, to keep them in poverty and misery to demonstrate what happens to a people that rejected Jesus and “killed God” (whatever that could possibly mean). And when Luther sought to reform Christianity and create what became Protestantism he magnified teachings about the evil of Jews (teachings that helped legitimize Hitler’s Jew-hating programs, laws, and extermination policies). Similarly, when Stalin and the elites of his faux-communist regime felt insecure, they turned on their Jewish population in Eastern Europe to purge them from the Communist Party in almost every country that the Red Army had conquered during World War II. Hatred of Jews had transcended every other aspect of communist and socialist beliefs in much of the formerly Christian world and is often an element in right-wing movements, even those to which some ultra-religious Jews have been drawn by their even higher attachment to capitalism.
All ancient history? Nope. How many times have you heard someone say something like “that person tried to Jew-down the cost of something I was selling” or “those Jews care only about money” or the like. The put down of Jews has remained in the mass culture of most societies that have had a legacy of Jew-hating from aspects of Christianity and some parts of the Koran, and has frequently been called upon when current elites want to deflect the upset of people living in class societies by blaming the problems on the Jews.
It was only when many Jews, escaping oppression in Europe, sought refuge in the US that this Jew-hating temporarily decreased because there already was a “demeaned other” in the U.S., namely African Americans, so hatred of Jews became a secondary weapon for ruling elites. But when the Civil Rights movement, aided by significant Jewish participation, succeeded in convincing many Southerners that racism was no longer a basis for defending their class divisions, some sectors of Southern elites joined with others who had never left Jew-hatred behind. Yet these elements, mostly marginal in American society for the half century following the 2nd World War, have now reemerged in the Trump-inspired Right, and could play a more mainstream role in the West if elites grow increasingly insecure about their ability to hold on to power. The surge of antiwar, feminist, anti-racist, and environmental consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s drove those elites to use a pop movie star named Ronald Reagan as a way to temporarily recredit the key to their rule, namely the celebration of wealth coupled with the demeaning of the poor and working class people and their labor unions, and the repurposing of racist ideas about African Americans who they demonized as “lazy” and “living off welfare monies that they had not earned”.
But when that celebration of selfishness led to the collapse of the investment firms and banks that had enriched the top 1% during the “Great Recession” of 2007-2012, some of them momentarily suspended their racism in order to embrace the anti-ideological and “no drama” Obama to bail them out. Once the meltdown had been stabilized, and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement was marginalized and then largely disappeared, the most frightened of the elites helped fund the Tea Party’s take-over of the Republican Party, as a more explicitly prowealthy, pro-corporate force. So, when another mass media actor and wealthy realtor named Trump managed to recredit racism against Mexicans and African Americans, it wouldn’t be long before he and his supporters would insist that the Jew-haters and racists who demonstrated in Charlottesville were some of the “good people on both sides”. This opened the door for fascists and Jew-haters to feel a welcome part of the Right.
Why then did not the liberal and progressive forces step in and do the kind of mass consciousness raising campaign against anti-Semitism that they have done for the past decades against racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and more? Here are a few of the reasons (you can find a fuller exposition in my book The Socialism of Fools—anti-Semitism on the Left).
First, the Left still retains a crude materialistic definition of oppression—you are oppressed either because your rights are being systematically denied or because you are economically suffering. Just as the Left, due to this limited understanding of oppression in Germany in the 20s and 30s, was totally unprepared for the kind of targeting of Jews in the decades before the Holocaust, so too today, they are similarly unprepared to really take on the task of educating people about contemporary forms of Jew-hating.
Second, the Left sees Israel as “the Jewish state” and given what it has been doing in the past several decades to deny the human rights of Palestinians, it is no surprise that some leftists blame “the Jews” for Israel’s policies. And since many Jewish institutions either support or at least refuse to condemn Israeli human rights violations, these leftists tend to see Jews as supporters of oppression rather than as actual or potential victims. Moreover, the presence of Jews in high positions in the economy, the media, academia, the scientific, medical and tech world make it hard for many on the Left to imagine that Jews could ever be in real danger in the U.S., Western Europe, the U.K., or Canada, despite the wave of murders and physical assaults on Jews in recent years.
These attitudes are a product of massive ignorance of Jewish history (including by many Jews born after the Holocaust) in two important respects:
(1) The notion that having high positions in the economy, the culture, the political system, or the media offers protection was the fantasy nurtured by many Jews in pre-Nazi Germany. But that illusion has now been adopted by many in the West who think that because Jews as a group have more economic success than many others they need not worry about Jew hating.
(2) In regard to Israel, the distorted way Israelis treat Palestinians has been shaped to a significant degree by the massive post-traumatic stress disorder generated by two thousand plus years of oppression and Jew-hating which leads Israelis and many Jews around the world to feel great distrust for non-Jews. That distrust was easily applied to Palestinians who had in the 20th century engaged in armed struggle to prevent the Jewish people from reclaiming what we perceived to be our ancient homeland. It is this distrust that led Benny Gantz, the supposed alternative to Prime Minister Netanyahu, to decide to join the Netanyahu government even though he had more votes than Likud. Gantz refused to embrace an alliance with Israeli Arab political parties which could have given his Kachol ve Lavan (Blue and White) party the seats to form a government.
This racism against Arabs is disgusting. I don’t excuse Israelis and fellow Jews for their failure to reject the Trump-Netanyahu plans to further take land from Palestinians by annexing parts of the West Bank. I believe all Jews ought to help Palestinians create a viable Palestinian state that includes the West Bank and Gaza, or give all Palestinians living under Israeli rule equal rights including the right to vote for the Knesset and local elections. Yet none of this is likely to happen as long as the Israeli rightwingers and their allies in the U.S. and Europe can point to the insensitivity toward Jewish fears about the growth of anti-Semitism in the Right and in the growing Left culture that sees Israel as nothing but a colonial venture while ignoring the legitimate fears after one out of every three Jews alive in the world in 1940 were murdered by 1945 while most countries of the world shut their gates to Jews seeking refuge.
Tikkun has been a consistent critic of how the Zionist movement created Israel and its denial of the human rights violations during the Nakba and in the subsequent decades. These abuses have been documented for several of those decades by B’tselem—the Israeli Human Rights Organization, continues to be challenged by Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel and by the courageous work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman and his Torat Tzedek organization, analyzed in the pages of Tikkun and in our book Embracing Israel/Palestine—free copies of which are available for you, your synagogue, church, mosque, social change organization, or local library if you pay the postage—email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how many you want for people in your book club or community and we’ll tell you what it costs for us to ship it to you free except for the cost of postage.
We cannot keep quiet about the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, and the way Israel almost daily tramples on their human rights, ignoring the most frequently repeated command in Torah, namely, “when you come into your land, do not oppress the stranger/geyr, remember that you were ‘the other’ in the land of Egypt.” And since we take this command to be the defining command of Judaism, we don’t accept the notion that Israel is “the Jewish state” but instead see it as a state with a lot of ethically and psychologically wounded Jews. We care about them, pray that they can get healed, but do not believe that what they are doing to the Palestinian people is anything less than a striking violation of Jewish ethics and Jewish law.
To see the world in a more complex way is part of what I try to teach to the Left in my book Revolutionary Love. It does not involve accepting or apologizing for the racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes, or Jew-haters that populate part of the Right (and possibly part of the “moderate” Democrats). But it does insist that some of those who are not yet with us are drawn away from the Left not because they have always been influenced by these evil and hateful ideas, but rather because they perceive the liberal and Left forces as hating them, scorning them, acting like we have all the wisdom and those who are not with us are either stupid or suffering from one of these hatreds.
We need to take a different approach to that segment of the population that have aligned themselves with racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic politicians not because those hateful ideas are what move them most, but because in some ways those who really are haters have managed to speak to their other psychological and spiritual needs in ways that the Left has not yet really tried to do. I don’t expect this to be immediately obvious to many on the Left, at least not till they read Revolutionary Love and take Cat Zavis’ Prophetic Empathy training (click here). I know there is a certain relief in calling all these people stupid or evil—it relieves us of any responsibility except to throw epithets in their direction. And of course some of these charges do actually fit for a section of those who are part of the Right. But as someone who lost major parts of my family to the Nazis in the 1940s, I wish there had been a movement of anti-fascist Germans who could have sought to speak to the hearts of the German people before they had voted for Hitler in 1932. Some of it might have been useless, but some of it might have had the impact of undermining the Nazi movement before it was too late. It’s far better to assume that some people can be split from the Right than to spend our time denouncing everyone who is not yet with us. Of course, this path doesn’t involve accommodating to Jew-hatred or any other form of racism—but it does involve creating a grassroots empathic movement to speak to those who once voted for Obama or Sanders and now feel drawn to the Right.
Jew-hating will not totally disappear until class societies are transformed into the next step for the human race, what I describe in my book Revolutionary Love as “the Caring Society— Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.” You can order that book from one of the online book stores, if your local bookstore doesn’t carry it, or from Tikkun at www.tikkun.org/buyrevlove. But one thing seems certain to me: even if Bernie had won the nomination and subsequently had been elected president and took office, the Western versions of the Left can never lead us into the caring society until it, itself, becomes a movement that treats all social change activists and others (even those whose positions and policies we despise) with respect and love. We can and should challenge their ideas, and we must work overtime to repeat that we care and respect them, that we repudiate Hillary Clinton’s self-destructive and Left-destructive message that at least half of those who are not with us are a “basket of deplorables”.
Our message must be this: we see all people as deserving respect and caring even as we disagree with many of the programs the leaders they vote for have endorsed and even as we disagree with the hate-filled language used by some of them and those they support.
Third, we must encourage the Left to take leadership against Jew-hating just as it took leadership against racism and homophobia. It is time for us to re-educate each other about the depth and breadth of anti-Semitism in the Left and insist that it be challenged. Until that happens, and in a massive way in liberal and progressives circles so that it is visible to everyone outside the liberal and progressives worlds, growing numbers of Jews will feel alienated from the Left and thus withdraw their support from Left movements.
Religio-phobia is deep in the Left and at this point the best I can say is read Revolutionary Love and you will understand why making people feel ashamed of their religious commitments or their national pride is the surest way to help Right-wing white nationalists expand their power in the US and in countries from Israel to Germany and from Russia to Chile. Tikkun is not a fan of any form of nationalist chauvinism or religious fundamentalism. However, we recognize that nationalism and religions often give many people a sense of identity and a way of seeing themselves as part of something bigger and more valuable than the struggle for individual power and money or identification with the corporation for which they work. So, we need to help create a larger global identity that allows people to affirm their historical culture and religion, while rejecting any more national military or economic conflicts. To the extent that people seek an enemy, let the coming environmental destruction of life on earth and the remnants of selfishness and materialism generated by class and patriarchal societies become our shared enemy.
Toward that end, nation states whose politics and culture have been shaped by corporations, domination, patriarchy, oppression of minor ity populations, and/or extreme inequalities of income and/or religious extremists (those who deny the legitimacy of other religions) are an impediment to global environmental planning, distract attention from building international solidarity, and keep people stuck in mind frames which have led to bloody wars in the past few centuries. We favor replacing nation states as political entities with democratically constructed environmental districts that can more easily develop regional and global plans for what kinds of products we need and which are the best uses of the resources of Earth which are compatible with survival of the life support system of Earth and caring for future generations. In developing a global economy that gives attention to the real needs of all people on earth, not just those who have had greater national military or economic power, the replacement of nationalist concerns with concerns to build “the Caring Society: Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth” can guide us. It is unrealistic to think we can save life on this planet without dismantling the power of corporations and the power of nation states. Thus, while we want to respect identity groups that have formed around religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and various nation states, we want to separate all of these particular identities from the instruments of economic and political power, which instead should be put into the hands of all the people of the earth equally. And that can only work if a democratic and environmentally sensitive reconstruction of politics is governed by the New Bottom Line in which every institution gets judged efficient, rational, and productive to the extent that it maximizes our human capacities to be loving and generous, kind and compassionate, environmentally responsible and ethical, capable of seeing every human being as a manifestation of the sacred, and capable of seeing the earth not just as a “resource” but also as our mother who evolved life and deserves to be approached with awe, wonder, and radical amazement. It is only in such a society that Jew-hating will be looked at as a disgrace from the past like racism, sexism, classism, and all the other remnants of our long-abandoned and deeply flawed past.
As taken from, Hating Jews—the Enduring Curse | Tikkun