Why antisemitism is so hard to discuss
I have a confession to make: I am obsessed with antisemitism. Try as I might, I can’t get away from it.
It chases me. It pursues me. It invades my thoughts. Thanks to Google Alerts, it clutters my email inbox.
Over time, I’ve come to see this as something less than natural. Then again, obsessions seldom are.
That goes for me, in particular. You see, I didn’t grow up Jewish. I wasn’t raised with the flicker of black and white newsreels or magazine pages illustrating the mass extermination of the Six Million embedded in my consciousness. I didn’t listen to my family recite with grim certitude that axiomatic declaration from the Haggadah that we read this week: Ve hi she’amda: In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. I was spared feeling umbilically connected to that baseline truth: “They will always hate us. They will always come after us. This is our lot in life: Shver zu sein a yid — It’s hard to be a Jew.”
Instead, I had to learn that particular lesson. Sometimes I feel that I am still learning it.
Hate is hate — dress it up, make it elegant, use fancy words — but if you are at all sensitive to it, you feel it
It wasn’t meant to be this way. I had chosen to become a Jew — for all the right reasons. I certainly didn’t embrace Judaism because I signed up to what one of Howard Jacobson’s characters mordantly refers to as “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness”. I did it because I believed in the transcendent, edifying ideas of Judaism, of Jewish thought, Jewish history, Jewish custom and, with time, the most transformative Jewish concept of all: Jewish peoplehood.
In retrospect, my first encounter with the burden of antisemitism was actually quite comical. When I told my Catholic mother that I was converting to Judaism she told me: “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. The hatred, the discrimination… you’ll find it hard to get a job.”
I could barely conceal a wry smile. You see, at the time I was working on my PhD in Jewish Studies.
“Actually, Ma,” I retorted, “I think it’s just the opposite. If anything, I think that it will help.”
Now, while it turns out that my mother was arguably wrong insofar as becoming Jewish may have contributed beneficially to my career path, she was right about the hatred and the discrimination.
And, for years, I resisted it. I refused to be defined by those who hate us. I shunned fellow Jews who always seemed to play the “victim” card — for whom the “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness” served as the dark sun around which their Jewish planet revolved.
I cringed at what sometimes accosted me as congenital jingoism, reflexive fatalism, and a sense of the inevitable — the unassailable conviction that it will all end badly in the bitter by-and-by.
Not for me. I was drawn irresistibly to Judaism’s greatness, its contribution to ethics, Western philosophy and by the imperative of tikkun olam: repairing the world one human being, one act, one mitzvah at a time.
And then 9/11 happened. The world changed. The hatred, the lies, the venom and the “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness” — no, the ideas and the ideologies that drove those millennia of oppression — were no longer distant and fixed historical phenomena but broke through to the chaotic present and erupted into a global consciousness that is still being felt today.
This is also, I would maintain, a key reason why I found myself discussing it a recent symposium organised by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism. Because we know that it didn’t go away — and that in retrospect we may have been naive or deluded to think that it would.
And the more this particular recognition sinks in, the more we realise just how very difficult it is to talk about antisemitism.
If you think I’m joking, just try having a conversation about what somebody like me was doing at that JSA symposium.
Chances are, in a nanosecond you’ll find yourself discussing definitions of antisemitism. Then, after you’ve introduced the topic, I’d be very surprised if you didn’t find the words “Holocaust” and “Israel” slipping into the same conversation.
As for me, I discovered long ago just how much of a hot potato talking about antisemitism was — about how even using the word can throw people into conniptions, make them defensive and derail their thought processes. How discussions frequently turn into arguments that sound like one or more versions of what David Hirsh neatly describes as the Livingstone Formulation — the so-called “use” of the charge of antisemtism as a way of rendering all criticism of Israel as taboo.
So that is why it is necessary to learn, to study, to analyse, to examine, to forensically investigate, to diagnose and hopefully find an antidote for something that has been around for a very, very long time.
But studying it, learning about it doesn’t automatically lead to a cure — whatever that means. It can, instead, cause a person to become — there’s that word again — obsessed by it.
Because once you start digging into it, drilling down, parsing it, dissecting it, only then do you start to see how deftly it has adapted over the ages — Anthony Julius uses the term “inventive” — in order to manifest itself in a variety of guises and recensions.
In turn, this capacity to morph and adapt creates pitfalls all of its own.
I sometimes think that the study of antisemitism can lead to a kind of conversionary experience, like wearing infra-red glasses. It enables you to see it where you never thought it existed before. You begin to connect the dots.
An expression of antisemitism in passing, even in the form of “genteel” metaphor, can be seen as causally connected to the deepest, most invidious motivation — a mentality so marinated in hatred that it is willing to exterminate itself and innocent men, women and children in a Jerusalem pizza parlour or a hotel in Mumbai.
Question: If the antisemitic meme is toxic, is any strain safe?
So just what it is that makes the discussion of antisemitism so difficult? I break it down into three broad categories.
The first is that antisemitism is difficult to talk about because it is conceptually difficult. Because of its complexity. Because of its component parts — so many of which have been around for so very long — emerging from antiquity and historical circumstances hugely different from our own, but nevertheless identifiable in their essence.
To this aspect of complexity we can add its historical provenances, its regional and folkloristic accretions, its conspiratorial role in apocalyptic and millennial thinking and its ability, as a baseline hatred and fear of the Jews, to mutate, adapt and somehow grow in complexity without ever really going away.
Think about it: How many of us fail to find ourselves gobsmacked — startled to the point of breathlessness — at the way some of the most ancient of libels about the Jews have resurfaced in the contemporary public space? It sometimes seems as if the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, scientific revolutions and other advancements in technology and thinking, simply never happened.
And then there seems to be the utter irreducibility of these new forms of hatred — equally resistant to human progress — whereby one manifestation lays down its marker, only to be picked up on a conceptual and programmatic level years, even centuries later, with new tools of implementation?
I remember the first time I read Robert Wistrich’s discussion of English antisemitism, when he laid out in all its brutal simplicity the fact that, after the Expulsion, the idea of physically removing Jews — a novel “solution” to the Jewish problem of its day — amounted to paradigm shift in hatred, one that would see its logical and mechanised implementation in the Final Solution as a harbinger to the Thousand Year Reich.
Which brings me to the second category, which is antisemitism’s emotional charge. Antisemitism is emotionally difficult to talk about. As a form of hatred, it’s nearly impossible to encounter it, regardless of who you are and what faith you were raised in, without being affected on a very human, kishke, level.
Hate is hate — dress it up, make it elegant, use fancy words — but if you are at all sensitive to it, you feel it. As Jews, for whom the historical narrative is so paramount to our faith, we feel it more than others. Our history is imbued with it. Our antennae are attuned to it. Ve hi she’amda.
But it is equally emotive for others, and sometimes we forget that.Like it or not, most people associate antisemitism with genocide, with the Holocaust. It is this “genocidal shadow” or “Holocaust penumbra” that hovers over the word, making it sometimes difficult to utter in any kind of company.
And then, of course, there is the pitfall of being accused, when you do bring up the word antisemitism, of wearing your “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness” on your sleeve, of being pegged as someone suffering from post-Holocaust trauma syndrome, someone who always spoils the party with incessant talk about death and annihilation.
But it’s not just because of its genocidal associations that talking about antisemitism is difficult. For Jews, I believe it also triggers something deeper, more insidious and what I would call genetically hurtful.
If you look hard at the fictions and libels of antisemitism that emerged with the early Church, the Middle Ages, and deep within the recesses of Islam — in other words, embedded within every faith that competes for supremacy and supersession in relation to Judaism — you begin to identify a kind of theological toxin: if the New Faith is an elixir, the Old Faith must be poison.
Moreover this “logic” has its own declension: Antisemitism becomes an evil mirror of the very axioms and tenets of Judaism which are — dafka — of the most sublime and nuanced nature.
Take the concept of “chosenness” — at the best of times a difficult idea to understand, but at its basis and in rabbinic thinking, a moral mandate for humility. Warped and twisted, it becomes Jewish supremacy and apartness. Or the concept of kedusha, and the laws of kashrut that derive from it: the exalted concept of holiness as seen in Judaism’s attitude towards the sanctity of blood and life itself.
Warped, twisted and mutated, these concepts coalesce and become the Blood Libel. Antisemitism turns Judaism’s sublime precepts into sublimely hurtful ideas.
And the third difficulty when talking about antisemitism is the political component — a dimension that we are all too familiar with, and that dominates most of our thinking on a daily basis.
This includes the lack of symmetry when raising the issue of antisemitism as opposed to racism, the impossibility of mentioning the phenomenon without someone bringing in Israel’s policies, conduct and foundational principles. And let’s not even start with the difficulty of explaining how anti-Zionism acts as a carrier for antisemitism to someone who barely has a clue as to the origins or definitions of either term.
So these three difficulties — conceptual, emotional, political — make talking about antisemtism a supremely challenging task.
But that, I suppose, is why, after all the Haggadah seeks to remind us of the perennial nature of the enmity Jews face: So that we may find the tools, the concepts and the perspectives that enable us to talk about it in a way that others will understand.
In doing so, perhaps then we’ll be able to change our relationship to the phenomenon from obsession to a full-on, evidence-based and scientific commitment to keeping it in check.
Winston Pickett is the former director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and member of the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of Antisemtism. This essay was adapted from a paper delivered at JSA’s London Symposium in December