Over the centuries, hostility against Jews has repeatedly erupted in terrible violence. Again and again, Jews have been driven out of countries where they’d been living. Why does anti-Semitism exist? And why has rage against Jews broken out, again and again, in the most varied nations, eras and cultures? Closely related to this is the broader issue of relations between Jews and non-Jews – a subject that many writers and scholars have called “the Jewish question.”
All too often, discussions of anti-Semitism and the “Jewish question” have been distorted by prejudice, bigotry and lack of candor. But this important subject deserves careful, informed and honest consideration.
Prominent Jewish leaders claim to be puzzled by the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment and behavior. Insisting that anti-Semitism is a baseless and unreasonable prejudice, they often compare it to a mysterious virus or disease.
Elie Wiesel is one of the best-known Jewish authors and community figures of our age. His memoir of wartime experiences, entitled Night, has been obligatory reading in many classrooms. He’s a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and for years has been a professor at Boston University. Wiesel is considered to be an authority on anti-Semitism, but he says that he’s puzzled by it. The source and endurance of anti-Semitism in history remains a mystery, he told an audience in Germany in April 2004. /1 In another address he described anti-Semitism as an “irrational disease.” Speaking at a conference in October 2002, Wiesel went on to say: “The world has changed in the last 2,000 years, and only anti-Semitism has remained … The only disease that has not found its cure is anti-Semitism.” /2
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is one of the world’s largest and most influential Jewish-Zionist organizations. It considers itself the foremost center for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, and educating the public about this dangerous phenomenon. In his 2003 book, Never Again?: The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, ADL national director Abraham Foxman expressed grave concern about what he sees as rising hostility toward Jews: “I am convinced we currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s – if not a greater one.” /3 Remarkably, he too claimed to be perplexed about the reasons for the origin and durability of discord between Jews and non-Jews. “I think of anti-Semitism as a disease,” Foxman writes. “Anti-Semitism also resembles a disease in being fundamentally irrational … It’s a spiritual and psychological illness.” /4
Charles Krauthammer, an influential Jewish-American writer who is a fervent defender of Israel, is similarly puzzled by the endurance of anti-Jewish sentiment. “The persistence of anti-Semitism, that most ancient of poisons, is one of history’s great mysteries,” he wrote in a Washington Post column that also appeared in many other newspapers across the country. /5
Wiesel, Foxman and Krauthammer, along with other prominent Jewish-Zionist leaders, are unable — or unwilling — to provide an explanation for the persistence of anti-Semitism. They believe, or claim to believe, that because it’s an entirely irrational and baseless “disease,” there’s no relation between what Jews do, and what non-Jews think of Jews. In their view, the strife and tension between Jews and non-Jews that has persisted over the centuries is not caused by, or is even related to, Jewish behavior.
Fortunately, a reasonable explanation for this enduring phenomenon has been provided by one of the most prominent and influential Jewish figures of modern history: Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. He laid out his views in a book, written in German, entitled The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat). Published in 1896, this work is the basic manifesto of the Zionist movement. A year and a half later he convened the first international Zionist conference.
In his book Herzl explained that regardless of where they live, or their citizenship, Jews constitute not merely a religious community, but a nationality, a people. He used the German word, Volk. Wherever large numbers of Jews live among non-Jews, he said, conflict is not only likely, it’s inevitable. “The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in noticeable numbers,” he wrote. “Where it does not exist, it is brought in by arriving Jews … I believe I understand anti-Semitism, which is a very complex phenomenon. I consider this development as a Jew, without hate or fear.” /6
In his public and private writings, Herzl explained that anti-Semitism is not an aberration, but rather a natural response by non-Jews to alien Jewish behavior and attitudes. Anti-Jewish sentiment, he said, is not due to ignorance or bigotry, as so many have claimed. Instead, he concluded, the ancient and seemingly intractable conflict between Jews and non-Jews is entirely understandable, because Jews are a distinct and separate people, with interests that are different from, and which often conflict with, the interests of the people among whom they live.
Anti-Jewish sentiment in the modern era, Herzl believed, arose from the “emancipation” of Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries, which freed them from the confined life of the ghetto and brought them into modern urban society and direct economic dealings with middle class non-Jews. Anti-Semitism, Herzl wrote, is “an understandable reaction to Jewish defects.” In his diary he wrote: “I find the anti-Semites are fully within their rights.” /7
Herzl maintained that Jews must stop pretending — both to themselves and to non-Jews — that they are like everyone else, and instead must frankly acknowledge that they are a distinct and separate people, with distinct and separate goals and interests. The only workable long-term solution, he said, is for Jews to recognize reality and live, finally, as a “normal” people in a separate state of their own. In a memo to the Tsar of Russia, Herzl wrote that Zionism is the “final solution of the Jewish question.” /8
Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, expressed a similar view. In his memoirs, he wrote: “Whenever the quantity of Jews in any country reaches the saturation point, that country reacts against them … [This] reaction … cannot be looked upon as anti-Semitism in the ordinary or vulgar sense of that word; it is a universal social and economic concomitant of Jewish immigration, and we cannot shake it off.” /9
Such candor is rare. Only occasionally do Jewish leaders today explain anti-Semitism as a reaction to the behavior of Jews. One of the wealthiest and most influential figures in today’s world is George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire financier. Generally he avoids highlighting his ties to the Jewish community, and only rarely attends purely Jewish gatherings. But in November 2003 he addressed a meeting in New York City of the “Jewish Funders Network.” When he was asked about anti-Semitism in Europe, Soros did not respond by saying that it is an irrational “disease.” Instead, he said that it is the result of the policies of Israel and the United States. “There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that,” he said. “If we change that direction, then anti-Semitism also will diminish,” he went on. “I can’t see how one could confront it directly.” /10
Jewish community leaders reacted angrily to Soros’ remarks. Elan Steinberg, senior adviser at the World Jewish Congress (and former executive director of that influential organization), said: “Let’s understand things clearly: Anti-Semitism is not caused by Jews; it’s caused by anti-Semites.” Abraham Foxman called Soros’ comments “absolutely obscene.” The ADL director went on to say: “He buys into the stereotype. It’s a simplistic, counterproductive, biased and bigoted perception of what’s out there. It’s blaming the victim for all of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s ills.” /11
Most people readily accept that positive feelings by non-Jews toward Jews have some basis in Jewish behavior. But Jewish leaders such as Foxman, Wiesel and Steinberg seem unwilling to accept that negativefeelings toward Jews might similarly have a basis in Jewish behavior.
Along with all other social behavior over time, conflict between Jews and non-Jews has an evident and understandable basis in history and human nature. The historical record suggests that the persistence of anti-Semitism over the centuries is rooted in the unusual way that Jews relate to non-Jews.
Israeli and Jewish- Zionist leaders affirm that Jews constitute a “people” or a “nation” – that is, a distinct nationality group to which Jews everywhere are supposed to feel and express a primary loyalty. /12 Some American Jewish leaders have been explicit about this. Louis Brandeis, a US Supreme Court justice and a leading American Zionist, said: “Let us all recognize that we Jews are a distinctive nationality of which every Jew, whatever his country, his station or shade of belief, is necessarily a member.” /13 Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and of the World Jewish Congress, told a rally in New York in June 1938: “I am not an American citizen of the Jewish faith. I am a Jew … Hitler was right in one thing. He calls the Jewish people a race, and we are a race.” /14 In keeping with this outlook, Israeli leaders also say that the Zionist state represents not just its own Jewish citizens, but Jews everywhere. /15
While affirming — usually only among themselves – that Jews are members of a separate nationality to which they should feel and express a prime loyalty, Zionists simultaneously insist that Jews must be welcomed as full and equal citizens in whatever country they may wish to live. While Zionist Jews in the US such as Abraham Foxman speak of the “Jewish people” as a distinct nationality, they also claim that Jews are Americans like everyone else, and insist that Jews, including Zionist Jews, must be granted all the rights of US citizens, with no social, legal or institutional obstacles to Jewish power and influence in American life. In short, Jewish-Zionist leaders and organizations (such as the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee) demand full citizen rights for Zionist Jews not only in “their country,” Israel, but everywhere.
Major Jewish-Zionist organizations, and, more broadly, the organized Jewish community, also promote “pluralism,” “tolerance” and “diversity” in the United States and other countries. They believe this is useful for Jews. “America’s pluralistic society is at the heart of Jewish security,” wrote Abraham Foxmam. “In the long run,” the ADL director went to explain, “what has made American Jewish life a uniquely positive experience in Diaspora history and which has enabled us to be such important allies for the State of Israel, is the health of a pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive American society.” /16
For some time, the ADL has promoted the slogan “Diversity is Our Strength.” In keeping with this motto, which it claims to have invented, the ADL has devoted effort and resources to persuading Americans — especially younger Americans — to welcome and embrace ever more social, cultural and racial “diversity.” /17
This campaign has been very successful. American politicians and educators, and virtually the entire US mass media, promote “diversity,” “multiculturalism” and “pluralism,” and portray those who do not embrace these objectives as hateful and ignorant. At the same time, influential Jewish-Zionist organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) insist that the US must recognize and defend Israel as a specifically Jewish ethnic-religious state. /18 Pluralism and diversity, it seems, are only for non-Jews. What’s good for Jews in their own homeland, Jewish-Zionist leaders seem to say, is not pluralism and diversity, but a tribalistic nationalism.
What Jews think is important because the Jewish community has the power to realize its goals. In a remarkable address in May 2013, Vice President Joe Biden said that the “immense” and “outsized” Jewish role in the US mass media and cultural life has been the single most important factor in shaping American attitudes over the past century, and in driving major cultural- political changes. “I bet you 85 percent of those [social- political] changes, whether it’s in Hollywood or social media, are a consequence of Jewish leaders in the industry. The influence is immense,” he said. “Jewish heritage has shaped who we are – all of us, us, me – as much or more than any other factor in the last 223 years. And that’s a fact,” he added. /19
Biden is not alone in acknowledging this clout. “It makes no sense at all to try to deny the reality of Jewish power and prominence in popular culture,” wrote Michael Medved, a well-known Jewish author and film critic in 1996. /20 Joel Stein, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in 2008: “As a proud Jew, I want America to know about our accomplishment. Yes, we control Hollywood … I don’t care if Americans think we’re running the news media, Hollywood, Wall Street or the government. I just care that we get to keep running them.” /21
Even though Jews have more influence and power in US political and cultural life than any other ethnic or religious group, Jewish groups are uncomfortable when non- Jews point this out. In fact, says Foxman and the ADL, one sure sign that someone is an anti-Semite is if he agrees with the statement that “Jews have too much power in our country today.” /22 For Foxman, apparently, there can never be “too much” Jewish influence and power.
Anti-Semitism is not a mysterious “disease.” As Herzl and Weizmann suggested, and as history shows, what is often called anti-Semitism is the natural and understandable attitude of people toward a minority with particularist loyalties that wields greatly disproportionate power for its own interests, rather than for the common good.