Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin: Why the Jews?: The Reason for Antisemitism; Simon & Schuster; New York.
The authors identify “the first recorded reference to Jews in non-Jewish sources” as a report an Egyptian king caused to be written 1200 years before Christ. “Israel is no more,” it boasts. Israel has proved somewhat more resilient than this early critic estimated. The futility of Jew-hatred, which obviously has a long history, results primarily from the strengths of Jews. Those strengths cannot originate in unrefined nature, for no one imagines Jews to be physically stronger than others, and few today posit an innately superior Jewish intellect. They must come from Judaism itself. Traditionally, Jews have regarded this source of their strengths as the real object of Jew-hatred. But, as the authors observe, many contemporary explanations of anti-Semitism explain the haters without serious reference to the hated. Scapegoating, economic envy, prejudice, and psychosis may tell us some thing true about anti-Semites, or they may not. What the explanations presented do not tell us is, why the Jews? They lead us to Sartre’s conclusion, duly cited, that Jews were invented by anti-Semites.
The authors defend the traditional understanding that Jew-hatred is about Jews, not merely about hatred and haters. Judaism provokes anti-Semitism, a variant of evil, in at least three ways: by challenging the validity of the non-Jews’ god(s), laws, and national allegiance; by exhorting Jews to act to change the world, not only contemplate it; and by teaching the chosenness, or divine election, of Jews. The authors also make a fourth, much more dubious suggestion. “As a result of the Jews’ commit ment to Judaism, they have led lives of a higher quality than their non-Jewish neighbors”; better educated, more temperate, more charitable, with stronger families, Jews provoke resentment. The evidence presented that Jews do enjoy such advantages may convince, but without evidence that non-Jews somehow recognize these advantages the argument fails. Mein Kampf contains no hint that Hitler resented Jewish virtues, or even recognized them as such. The dilute anti-Semitism we all encounter asserts Jewish peculiarity and inferiority, except in anything involving money. Fortunately, this quality-of-life argument disappears after it is made.
The book’s second half contains a survey of Western religions and ideologies, in chronological order, showing their relation to the three plausible provocations to anti-Semitism. The authors contend that Judaism differed from the ancient religions by insisting on its validity for all peoples, denying the imperial relativism Malraux praises when he writes, “Rome welcomed into its Pantheon the gods of the defeated.” Furthermore, they say that ancients who disliked the contemplative universalism of the early philosophers could scarcely tolerate the active universalism of Jews, and the doctrine of chosenness exasperated even the sturdy Tacitus.
Later religions imitated Jewish universalism and therefore opposed Judaism all the more vehemently.
If Judaism remained valid, then Christianity was invalid. Therein lie the origins of Christian hatred of the Jews, the most enduring Jew-hatred in history.
A Christian must reply that Jesus teaches hatred of sin and the love of sinners—including alleged “Christ-killers.” Insofar as one follows Christianity, one cannot accept the Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah, the Jewish rejection of the Gospel. But a Christian cannot extend his rejection of these aspects of Judalsm to a hatred of Jews themselves and remain fully Christian. That many Christians sin by making just that extension undeniably true and far from trivial.
Islam, equally universal and far more sanguinary, presents a more menacing face than Christianity. But the authors agree with contemporary Arab publicists who contend that Moslems have nonetheless treated Jews better than Christians have done. The further claim of such publicists, that Moslems have treated Jews well, does not withstand serious examination. The authors observe that Yemen, the one Moslem country never colonized that harbored Jews, presents a reasonable “test case.” Yemen fails that test, as it featured religiously sanctioned stonings, laws compelling Jews to dress as beggars, and the forced conversion of Jewish orphans. The latter two practices survived as late as the 1940’s, when Jews solved the Yemeni “Jewish problem” by emigrating to Israel.
Modern political philosophy resulted in that popular thought-system, or ideology, called “the Enlightenment” by its publicists. Also universalists, Enlightenment partisans offered what is figured as Jewish emancipation in exchange for assimilation, the abandonment of Judaism. Many of the philosophes including Voltaire and Mirabeau, attacked Judaism; a few did not. This suggests that Enlightenment anti-Semitism was not entirely accidental.
Most modern Jews, themselves secular, have believed that the demise of religion would lead to the demise of antisemitism. Yet the twentieth century, the most secular century of history, has been the most antisemitic.
Neither has it been especially enlightened. The authors concede that “No violence accompanied Enlightenment anti-Semitism,” but observed that both inheritors and critics of the Enlightenment—the former mostly on the left, the latter mostly on the right—added anticapitalism to anticlericalism on the list of encouragements of Jew-hatred. “By the twentieth century, virtually every popular ideology in Europe wanted the Jews to disappear.”
The authors sensibly avoid claiming that earlier anti-Semitisms caused the Holocaust.
Over the preceding decades and centuries essential elements of Christianity, Marxism and socialism, nationalism, and Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought had ruled the existence of Jews to be intolerable. In the final analysis they all would have opposed what Hitler had done, but without them Hitler could not have done it.
After combining post-Enlightenment, “scientific” racial anti-Semitism with the “cultural” anti-Semitism of Wagner and German nationalist anti-Semitism, Hitler concluded that the final solution to the “Jewish problem” is not to convert the Jews but to kill them.
World War II destroyed the extreme right as a world power. The Holocaust shocked citizens of the commercial republics comprising what is considered the West—heirs of Christianity and the Enlightenment—into abandoning much of their anti-Semitism. It is perhaps a measure of the differences between the religion and ideology of the West and those of the East—Islam and Marxism Leninism—that partisans of the latter pair have if anything increased their anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism, “the first form of Jew-hatred to deny that it hates Jews,” adds hypocrisy to the anti-Semites’ ragbag of cherished vices. (“In the Museum of Religion and Atheism in Leningrad, an exhibit about Zionism and Israel designates the following as anti Soviet Zionist material: Jewish prayer shawls, tefillin (phylacteries) and Passover Haggadahs.”) While the authors can hardly be accused of fostering complacency about any source of anti-Semitism, they insist that the principal threats to Jews today no longer come from the right but from the left and from Moslems allied with the left. They argue that efforts to counteract anti-Semitism should be focused there.
Of five “possible response[s]” to contemporary anti-Semitism, the authors reject assimilation as an accommodation to evil. They regard Zionism as worthwhile but limited because Israel remains “the most hated country in the world.” The central and most controversial response, seeking converts, is apparently dismissed: “As Judaism does not hold that it is the only way to God…missionizing is neither necessary nor desirable.” Fighting anti-Semitic outbreaks by political and other means they judge effective only in regimes of liberty. The final and preferred response is to “affect the values of non-Jews” by disseminating “ethical monotheism”: “The Jewish role is not to bring mankind to Judaism, but to universal moral law.” Judaism, which provokes anti-Semitism, can also overcome it.
This paradoxical claim needs elaboration. The two basic principles of ethical monotheism are that “ethics need God”—that is, no ethical system can survive without a metaphysical foundation—and that “God’s major demand is ethics.” Ethics without God yields relativism, which yields defenselessness against the secular fanaticisms ofleft and right. “God without ethics” yields just such fanaticisms, and religious ones as well—”crusades and Qaddafi.” Allegedly divine or substitute-divine prerogative (“God” or “History”) inflame ambition, denigrate moderation, invite carnage.
To distinguish between “universal moral law” and Judaism while calling both variations of “ethical monotheism” requires a careful definition of both ethics and God. The doctrine of chosenness, the third of the three plausible Jewish provocations to anti-Semitism, becomes crucial here. The authors quote Yakov Malik, Soviet ambassador to the United Nations in October 1973, who cited this doctrine as “proof” that Zionism is racism. If public opinion polls are accurate, they show that Americans also dislike the claim of chosenness more than any other Jewish doctrine. The authors contend that chosenness does not entail superiority or privilege but obligation and suffering, that anyone who converts becomes a Jew and thereby becomes chosen. One may find a resemblance here to the Christian doctrine of grace or even, much more remotely, to the Marxist doctrine of class consciousness.
Chosenness is where Judaism and “universal moral law” can collide. Anti-Semitism “is ultimately a hatred of higher standards,” the authors write, a vague formulation that comports well with “universal moral law.” If Jew-hatred is hatred of people insofar as they partake of Judaism, and if Judaism teaches that some people choose God and that God chooses some people, impersonal laws or “standards” do not constitute absolute reality. Chosenness means not just a God-as-standard, a Platonic or neo-Platonic god, but a God who chooses. This is the only possible basis of the claims that “ethics need God” and that “God’s major demand is ethics”; choice and ethics are inseparable. Not any choice, but the right choice: Judaism requires the God and the chosen people of Judaism. Upon reflection, then, the authors’ rejection of “missionizing” turns out to be less than convincing—unless they prefer “universal moral law” to Judaism. If so, it is difficult to see what they mean.
For law does not necessarily imply a lawgiver in the traditional sense. Modern scientists, who act on principle as if atheism were true, seek “laws of nature,” a nature without purpose. In a book that contains a discussion of anti-Semitism ranging from antiquity to the present, it is astonishing that there is not a single mention of Spinoza. A philosopher has described Spinoza as “the greatest man of Jewish origin who had openly denied the truth of Judaism and had ceased to belong to the Jewish people without becoming a Christian.” What Spinoza became, of course, was a proponent of universal natural law. He is the first modem anti-Semite of Jewish origin. He leads political philosophers farther along the road that leads to Marx’s class consciousness as a replacement for chosenness and grace. As with so much anti-Semitism, this has been futile.
Why the Jews? does not finally answer its own question. To do so would be to account for God and for rebellion against God. Judaism itself does not “account for” these. It praises and condemns; it asserts, refusing to suggest that human beings can explain the fundamental. We can explain some things partly, however, and these authors do better in that than most of their contemporaries. They do so by trying to take Judaism seriously in terms resembling its own terms instead of terms imposed by its enemies. We begin to understand anti-Semitism only if we rediscover the terms of Judaism.