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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Attempting to explain the world's oldest hatred, to my new friends















I was sitting in Cafe Aroma with my new French friends - two people I met while on a tour in Jerusalem - having a really enjoyable conversation...the kind you often have on vacation, especially long vacations where you're more likely to throw your usual social caution to the wind..when, the liberation you feel by being so far from everything and everyone you've ever known allows a greater daring, a willingness to take more risks. Though I'm not technically on vacation, being nearly 6000 miles away from home for, at the very least, a very extended period of time, has definitely put me in a mood similar to what I felt when I was backpacking across Europe in my 20s - the sense of limitless possibilities.

I think the three of us ended up talking for like 2 hours, a conversation which revolved around many things, but politics and religion took up most of our time - which seemed quite natural given their obvious erudition and genuine curiousness (I, believe it or not, do try to avoid politics if I sense folks are not interested). My new friends genuinely seemed to have more questions - about Judaism, Israel, the U.S. - than answers, assumptions, or specific opinions, which made for an unusual encounter.

They, after all, were not Jewish, not evangelical Christians or religious in any sense, not in any way connected to the Jewish state in the usual way and only visiting Israel out of curiousness...the kind of visitors most countries take for granted but for Israel is at least a bit unusual, and which made me think through my answers a bit longer than I normally would have. I felt that - especially when the conversation touched on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Zionism, and, American Jewry - I was, simultaneously representing my strong national identity as an American, my new Israeli identity, as well as my identity as a (American) Jew more broadly.

I must admit, my answer to the question, ''why did you move to Israel'' is a bit different when posed by a non-Jew, both in the discourse I use, broadly speaking, as well as in terms of the language I use. How many non-Jews, for instance, know what the word ''Aliyah'' means? To what degree do I need to defend/explain the Israeli Right of Return? Even the word, ''Zionist'', for instance, tragically, often has negative connotations for many in the non-Jewish progressive community - which caused me to wonder if much of what I was going to say would be lost in (political) translation.

Further, while conversing with my new friends I was trying hard to take them and their questions at face value, and not put them in the pre-assigned category of progressive Europeans viscerally hostile towards Israel - and, indeed, there was nothing even remotely indicating they held this view. And, in fact, I found their erudition quite refreshing -that even though they may not be overly informed on the topic of modern Zionism, their education and open-mindedness allowed them absorb what I was saying with a broad understanding of the political, cultural, and religious themes I was exploring. They were truly European in the very best sense of the word. However, though their English was excellent, and I don't think they missed much of what I was saying, there is, when discussing complex matters with non-native English speakers, always the fear that some of the nuance of the words and phrases you use may get lost or even slightly misinterpreted.

The most interesting part of our conversation was when my new friend asked me - during the course of the talk which touched on issues of perceived Jewish power in the U.S. - to provide any insight I had over the broad phenomena of anti-Semitism. ''Why do you think it occurs'', was what he was wondering.

Boy, there's a topic!!! (And, sure, I realize that some of my friends may be asking "G-d, why couldn't you have kept the conversation a bit lighter? There's so much to discuss that isn't so controversial and emotional...art, music, sports, or Croissants! But, what can I say, these conversations seem to follow me. As someone once said, "I is what I is''.)

Anti-Semitism is an issue which has shaped much of my professional and intellectual life, and one which I have spent a lot of time contemplating, as well as reading and writing about. There were so many angles I could have tackled the subject from, as anti-Semitism has gone through different stages over the years, and varies widely depending on the part of the world where this phenomena takes place. For instance, early Christian anti-Judaic polemics - predicated largely by Jews' rejection of Christ, and the related charge that Jews were responsible, as a group, for the death of Christ (deicide) - dates back to the first or second century CE, and certainly is/was quite a different creature than 20th century secular incarnations, such as the racially-based anti-Semitism of the Nazis.

However, there were two themes which I thought worth commenting on, having decided to speak broadly on what I believe to be at the root of much (but, obviously not all) of the modern manifestation of anti-Semitism. The first one pertains to the reaction of many non-Jews to a very particularistic Jewish identity in a world increasingly under the influence of post-identity politics (which, for the sake of brevity, I didn't explore), and the other, which I chose to elaborate on, was the reaction to the perception of Jewish power in the world.

Put simply, I explained - and as I touched on in my blog post about Tisha B'Av and Jewish power - classic anti-Semitism (such as the Jewish conspiracy posited in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) was predicated upon the fear of Jews (Judeophobia, as such) as aliens, different, the other who can't be trusted and who, it was supposed, meets in secret with other Jews with some malicious intent, so that anything undersirable, economic or political could be projected upon the them. In the Middle Ages, Jews, to use but one example, were accused of being behind the Black Plague.

Today, however, while such wildly conspiratorial narratives pertaining to the Jews, sadly, still have currency in many parts of the world, by and large, such views have lost credibility in most of the West, and has instead morphed into a general fear of Jews insofar as they - who have achieved a good deal of economic and educational success - are perceived to posses power which is, in this view, disproportionate to their numbers. Indeed, a poll taken during the height of our current economic downturn in the U.S. indicated that 25% of Americans believed that Jews were primarily responsible for the downturn. Jews were no longer accused in polite circles of ''poisoning the wells'', but, as representing in the eyes of many, the ruling class and perceived to to be the group who has benefitted most by our system, they could be associated with other modern social and economic miseries which, even for the well-educated, often defy simple explanations.

This perception of Jews as wielding a disproportionate degree of power and influence in the world can also be found in critiques suggesting that Jews wield too much power over the course of our nation's foreign policy. The book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which argues that many of our nation's foreign policy decisions (such our support for Israel, as well as the recent decision to go to war with Iraq) was only made possible as a result of the disproportionate influence of the organized Jewish community, is the intellectual ground zero of such a narrative.

This is obviously a much longer discussion, but, I think that our modern political culture has come to almost fetishize powerlessness, and, indeed, much of our discourse seems to almost lionize those perceived to be victims. Its as if the status of being perceived to be an ''underdog'' is assumed, a priori, to carry with it a positive moral dimension - a position which (though when applied to, say, sports is understandable and quite innocent) often allows political actors in the world arena perceived to be weak to get a sort of moral get-out-of-jail-free card. After all, they're so weak...how could we possibly ask as much from them as we do their stronger competitor? (Hamas may have an openly anti-Semitic founding charter, and be at its core, a a totally reactionary political movement, but, it is often argued, at least implicitly, ''who are we to condemn their use of civilians as human shields in their war with Israel''? ''What can we expect from them''? ''Look how much stronger the Israeli military is than those ''rag-tag'' fighters in Gaza''.)

And, as Jews in the West have shown that an historically oppressed minority can indeed overcome their oppression and succeed and prosper, they are, tragically, now often on the wrong side of this political paradigm. For, taking this politics of victimhood to its natural end, if the weakest members of society are weak for no reason other than the arbitrary machinations of a system which oppresses them, then the inverse would naturally be true - those who benefit most from this same society must invariably reap these benefits by some nefarious undertakings or at least owing to some inherent systemic injustice. Much of modern anti-Semitism, I argued, is only one component within a broader Western political current which, at its core, is about our perception of the relationship between power, personal (and group) responsibility, and success.

I don't know if I necessarily converted my new friends to my view, but they did genuinely seem interested in what I said, and, as they departed, we exchanged contact information (and even became Facebook friends). I don't normally ''hold court'' like this, and really hope I didn't come across to them as defensive, accusatory, or haughty, (this wasn't my attempt at some sort of ''Jáccuse'' moment). But, what can I say? They asked!

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