“The Jews” stand in people’s minds for so many things that you can find their despisers in places where there are not many Jews around to hate—or even enough to attract much attention to begin with. Take, for example, that outlying fringe of the settled world, New Zealand, where I spent last summer (winter in the Southern Hemisphere).
The closest spot on earth to the Antarctic, the South Island suffers a harsh winter, with cold gales sweeping up from the south; its population, gathered in just a few towns and cities on the East Coast, enjoys not only nature’s grandeur—the magnificent Southern Alps, the rain forests on the West Coast and the Tasman Sea—but also nature’s earthquakes on a very regular basis. The people breathe air as polluted as Denver’s and, looking longingly to the warm sun to the north, endure a winter gloom that compares with Labrador’s.
It was here—among a people with impeccable manners as well as a cold intolerance of difference, who are patronizing to the Maori, scarcely pretending to tolerate Chinese and Indians and Jews (American accents don’t fare all that well either)—that I encountered incidents that some may class as anti-Semitic, and encountered them often (three times in one month), personally, and directly. What I heard were, if not anti-Semitic, then at least gauche and stupid remarks about Jews and Judaism untempered by even a trace of embarrassment. This led me to reflect on the varieties of dislike of the unlike regarding Judaism. But, as always when it comes to the Jews, even Jew-hating gets complicated—because there are haters and then there are haters.
Since few Jews live in Christchurch—there is a synagogue with scarcely a hundred members, most of them secular and merely ethnic, many of them intermarried and unlikely to raise another Jewish generation—nothing prepared me for my first encounter. Now, the fact that I’m Jewish is something that most people take as an integral part of me, but like my nose or my left-handedness, not something requiring comment. The initial incident took place at the University of Canterbury, where I was a visiting professor for a couple of months (a wasted spell at a boring commuter college of no great distinction in most subjects). In the faculty lounge, I was introduced to a colleague from one of the language departments.
“This is Jack Neusner, visiting from America.”
“Oh, you’re the visiting Jew [emphasis his]!”
“What?” I said. “Oh, I mean, the wandering Jew!”
“Don’t you know people don’t talk to each other that way?” I replied.
I wish I had thought of something more devastating to say, but the experience of being told “Oh, you’re the Jew” proved so alien that I had not the wit to respond in kind. “And you’re the local Kiwi bigot, out of the museum of South Pacific curiosities?”
People later reassured me that the man is a Quaker and (therefore!) wouldn’t hurt a flea, but is also the most gauche person they know. Anyhow, his comments weren’t anti-Semitic, just dumb. I put it down to the isolation and provinciality of a professor in the outerreaches of civilization. It was an odd fellow, nothing more—until Dunedin, further still toward the polar ice cap, settled by the Scottish Presbyterians when the English Anglicans started Christchurch.
There, visiting friends at a dinner party, I was seated—as co-baby sitter, I found out, along with a young Canadian law professor from Otago University—next to a woman who clearly could not stop talking to save her life. She was a lawyer, paid to babble I reckon, the third generation in her family’s law firm, Dunedin-born and-bred, speaking that nearly unintelligible patois that my Canterbury friend, who is an English professor, called “demotic Kiwi,” meaning, English spoken with so bizarre an accent (for American ears at least) as to form a private, antipodean language— Presbyterian pidgin, really. Since on the other side of her sat a lawyer, she commenced to tell her “lawyer jokes,” which rivaled in stupidity the old Polish jokes that mercifully have gone into oblivion.
Then, turning to me at her left, she announced, “Well, I have told my lawyer jokes. Now tell me your Jewish jokes,” by which she clearly meant jokes at the expense of Jews. I said as coldly as I could, “I don’t know any and have never heard any. People don’t tell me that kind of joke.” Without a pause, she turned to her right and asked the young law professor, “Well, you tell me your Jewish jokes.” I had the sense that he would not have minded dropping dead on the spot, but between the two of us, we managed to steer her in the direction of a monologue on some—any—other subject.
This, too, I wrote off not as anti-Semitism but as just another example of how far we Americans have come in cleaning up our ethnic act. A woman such as this gives a bad name to feminism, which I favor, and a good name to political correctness, which I despise. But, no, it was not anti-Semitism. My third encounter was. As a professor at Waikato University in Hamilton, on the North Island, explained to me, a student of his who, in the context of a class discussion about religion, identified her faith as Judaism had been told by another professor, “No, Judaism is not a religion—it’s just a certain attitude toward money.”
When I heard that icy judgment (I’d gotten hints of the same thing among students at Canterbury University), I began to reflect on the difficulty with distinguishing the varieties of ethnic and religious bigotry that encircle Jews and our religion: Jew-hatred, anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, Jew-baiting, anti-Israelism, or anti-Zionism, and the various other species of the common genus. I did not fully trust the judgment of my native informant, who used the last tale as evidence that New Zealand is an anti-Semitic country with a fascist government, neither of which is true.
We lump all Jew-haters together and class them as guilty of “anti-Semitism.” But this is misleading. It is like not knowing the difference between a headache and a brain tumor. Each should stand on its own terms. People label as anti-Semitism anything from the casual (“Jewish jokes”) and merely stupid (“wandering Jew, I presume”) to the vicious (“attitude toward money”) and dangerous. This makes the trivial and the consequential into the same thing.
People may impute to Jews a set of qualities they do not like. That’s Jew-hatred, common for example in America’s black community, and to a lesser extent in the white community as well. Classify this as dislike of the unlike.
For nearly 20 centuries, faithful Christians have maintained that Judaism died at Calvary, meaning, Jesus Christ replaced Judaism and Christianity superseded it. This is anti-Judaism. Until Vatican II (for Catholicism) and its counterparts in Protestantism, that view prevailed universally. Classify this as the quite familiar theological warfare—all against all in God’s name.
People say things they know will offend Jews, for example, ridiculing our supposed ethnic traits or our religious practices. That’s Jew-baiting. Some think Patrick Buchanan has occasionally not just disagreed on matters of public policy concerning Israel but gone out of his way to bait Jews (Israel’s “amen corner” in the United States Senate, for instance); others write off such comments as mere colorful language aimed at accomplishing a polemical goal. No one I know who knows him personally takes the former view. Classify this as verbal bullying.
People who hate Jews may condemn the state of Israel in terms they do not use for any other country and impose a standard that no country can reasonably hope to meet. This is a form of anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism, and it yields its own cruel vocabulary, comparing Israelis to Nazis, for instance. Classify this as politics poisoned by bigotry.
None of these trivialities changes the world very much. None qualifies as anti-Semitism, because, by themselves or all together, none can have led to the holocaust of World War II. Only anti-Semitism, which encompasses all of the above, so focused an entire civilization—Europe, East and West, North and South—that the holocaust happened. But anti-Semitism is not the same thing as casual bigotry, mere dislike of the unlike, let alone theological animus or a spiteful form of politics. Unlike the rest, anti-Semitism sets forth a worldview, a philosophy of life and culture and politics, like communism or socialism or fascism or democracy or Christianity.
According to anti-Semitism, Jews are a separate species within humanity, peculiarly wicked, responsible for the evil of the human condition. A political philosophy formulated in the world of late 19th-century Germany and Austria, anti- Semitism formed the ideological foundation of political parties and served as the basis for public policy. It provided an account of life and how the Jews corrupt it. It offered a history of Western civilization and how the Jews pervert it. It formulated a theory of the world’s future and how the Jews propose to conquer it. People make sense of the world lay appealing to anti-Semitism, and in World War II, millions of Germans willingly gave their lives for the realization of their country’s belief in an anti-Semitic ideal of national life and culture.
An encompassing worldview, anti-Semitism stands by itself, not to be confused with expressions of intergroup hostility (such as Howard University’s famous football chant, “Who killed Nat Turner? The Jews! the Jews! the Jews!”); inter-religious conflict over religious truth (the centuries-long struggle between Judaism and Christianity, as in “his blood be upon our heads and our children’s”); simple dislike of the unlike in the setting of civil conflict (the Senate’s “amen corner”); and even impatience spilling over into unreasonable irritation with one foreign country or another. All these are irritating, but trivial. Confusing with them that wholly other philosophy, theology, and metaphysics that constitute anti-Semitism trivializes the latter and imparts importance to matters of little consequence.
When I was recently a visiting professor in Finland, some young men spent an estimated 15 hours of hard labor, using heavy construction equipment, to destroy the hundreds of headstones in the Jewish cemetery of Abo/Turku. When they were caught, the local Swedish-language paper interviewed me on whether I thought that this act of Jew-hatred meant Finland was an anti- Semitic country. I said no, not at all; like Serbia, Finland could never be compared to Poland, Hungary, Russia, Austria, or Rumania, where vast segments of the population express to polling agencies a variety of hair-raising anti-Semitic (not just anti-Judaic, not just anti-Jewish) opinions; I doubted that anti-Semitism in any organized form exists in Finland, the way it does elsewhere. As allies of Germany from 1941 to 1944, Jewish Finns did fight side by side with SS troops against the Bolsheviks, but this hardly signifies an anti-Semitic country (though it makes one wonder about the Jewish Finns of that day).
In response to the interview, an easily provoked figure in the local Jewish community wrote an outraged letter to the same paper, accusing me of trying to “Bagatellize” (the Swedish word bagatelisera has no equivalent in English) the deep-rooted anti-Semitism expressed by the vandalism. 1 had, of course, done no such thing. But the fellow who wrote got to vent his anger and call his neighbors names. And that’s what set me thinking about the need to sort things out and to find the right words for the right things. For surely when we invoke the memory of Auschwitz in the context of a debate about Israeli foreign policy, or compare the work of a few vandals to the activities of the SS, or convert an ephemeral disagreement about religious truth into a renewed conflict in which Christians like Martin Luther demonize the Jews and Judaism, we lose all perspective.
So, when visiting New Zealand the following year, I had to recognize the difference between a gauche Quaker professor or a provincial Dunedin lawyer, on the one side, and those dark and formidable forces active in many countries—and powerful in today’s Russia and Austria and Croatia and in parts of the Muslim world even now—that could lead to the continuation of Hitler’s plan. When sales of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion flourish in innumerable languages, from Russian and Arabic, to Japanese, we had best know one Jew-hatred from another, take seriously what should be given weight, and set aside what is inconsequential.