Jew hatred is having a revival in the West. The honeymoon period, a one or two generation hiatus in antisemitism following the Holocaust, is over. Jews, perhaps more successful and noticeable than ever before, seem to be (at least in the popular view) running everything. Add to that the effective, ubiquitous antisemitic propaganda that Islam (especially the Palestinian Arabs) promulgates non-stop. The result: disparagement of Israel as an apartheid state, and hatred of Jews as militant occupiers of so-called Arab land.
Jews are an ancient people, who have always been relatively small in numbers but large in influence. Indeed, a recent poll found that nearly a quarter of Europeans believe Jews have too much global influence and that Israel (and Jews) are aggressors. For this and other reasons, Jews have been hated and vilified through the ages, despite the fact that the foundational beliefs of Judaism are the bedrock of Western values.
The recent Torah portion (parsha) Vayishlach relates the continuing story of Jacob, the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. Jacob (Yaacov) means “heel” in Hebrew, because he was born into this world clutching the heel of his first born, twin brother Esau. And at times, Jacob acts like a heel.
Jacob was a mild, contemplative, “smooth” man, preferring his mother Rebecca’s tent to the outdoors. Esau was the opposite, ruddy and rough, given to hunting and living in the moment. After Jacob cheated his brother of the honor of receiving their father’s blessing, he ran away, fearing Esau’s wrath. Jacob stayed for many years at his uncle Laban’s house, where he married two wives (+ 2 concubines), but eventually he and his household returned to his birth place, despite Jacob’s fear of Esau’s wrath.
The Torah portion (from Genesis 32) says: [One night during the journey home] Jacob was left alone, and a man [or an angel] wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When the man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, he dislocated Jacob’s hip socket. And the man said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but Jacob answered, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.” The blessing: “No longer will your name be said to be Jacob, but Israel, for you have exercised mastery with the divine and with men, and you have prevailed.” From then on, Jacob became known as Israel, which means “he who prevails over the Divine.” (If indeed the “man” was an angel, he was a messenger of God.)
Jacob’s struggle was both internal and eternal. His descendants, the Jews, share that struggle, most evident in the millennia-long struggle against those who rise up against them, with arms or more subtly with hatred and prejudice. These battles have included being expelled from the Land of Israel by the Greeks, expelled from our eternal capital Jerusalem by the Romans, murdered by Muslim invaders, then Crusaders, then again by Muslims, then pursued by the Inquisition for our religion, numerous pogroms, all culminating in the slaughter of 6 million by the Nazis and their allies.
In the 15th century, Jews and crypto-Jews found a haven in the New World, especially around the Caribbean Sea. The independence of the United States provided the safest haven of all, as exemplified by President George Washington’s letter (1790) to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI, which stated in part: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Unfortunately, Jews are still being made to feel afraid, even in the United States. The recent massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue was a rude awakening to many, Jews and Christians, that antisemitism is as virulent in America as in Europe and the Middle East, if not as deadly (yet?).
There’s much for American Jews to be concerned about, from all sides. There’s the garden variety antisemitism, which is always nasty, but sometimes just snide. This was the case when the excellent film, A Gentleman’s Agreement, was made in 1954. It tells the story of a reporter (played by Gregory Peck) who pretends to be Jewish in order to write a story on antisemitism. He quickly discovers the true depths of bigotry and hatred that he didn’t know existed.
Then there’s blatant right wing antisemites (neo-Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, etc.) who hate Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Hispanics, and anyone not like them. These antisemites are dangerous, but not insidious, because they wear their hatred on their sleeves for all to see.
Those right wing groups are not likely to influence college kids. But they are being brainwashed by progressive left movements such as BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction), JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace), If Not Now, Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine (CJPIP), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), American Muslims for Palestine, Code Pink, National Students for Justice in Palestine, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights … and more.
American Jews, face it: the fastest growing and most insidious antisemites are on the far left, and probably are quite common at the college which your children or grandchildren attend. These groups, especially the more virulent Jewish ones like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and If Not Now, influence Jewish students to hate Israel and by extension, to hate being Jews. Less virulent ones like Open Hillel and J Street use more subtle strategies to undermine admiration for Israel. Then there are the professors for whom universalism is the goal and Jews an undesirable tribe.
There has been a shift in antisemitism from hatred of Jews to hatred of Israel. In fact, Israel is identified as the “Jew” of nations. The “kosher” anti-Zionism is just a more fashionable kind of Jew-hatred, because of the connection between Jews and Israel. If the idea is to make American and Canadian Jews ashamed of the Jewish country, and by extension, of their Jewish heritage, it is working.
American Jews aren’t used to struggling. Like Jacob, they prefer to stay safely in the “tent,” passively hoping to blend into America’s mainstream. But also like Jacob, Jews must struggle to survive. When Jewish students are confronted by pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators, many will back off rather than stand up against it. Their parents, in many cases, have compartmentalized their Judaism to a few synagogue visits per year or membership in a health club at a Jewish Community Center. Also, many Jewish families have no Jewish connections, making it very easy for their children to disassociate themselves from their heritage rather than champion it.
Jews are destined to be a unique people. Many of them fall away because they don’t perceive that its price is worth the rewards, but a core group of Jews will endure and continue our very worthy traditions.