Monday, February 20, 2012

Phyllis Goldstein's A Convenient Hatred: A Short History of Antisemitism Reviewed

Impervious to Truth

With some one-thousand books currently in print on the subject, does the world desperately need another tome on anti-Semitism? Who will read it and what difference will it make? After all, in Europe prejudice against Jews persists in its historic ebb and flow with anti-Israelism joining the roster of "reasons" why Jews are held in contempt. Across the Atlantic, 35 million Americans reportedly hold deeply anti-Semitic views. And worldwide 90 percent of Muslims surveyed by the Pew Research Center hold negative attitudes toward Jews.

What makes the appearance of Phyllis Goldstein's A Convenient Hatred: A Short History of Antisemitism nevertheless timely is that she writes not primarily as a historian or polemicist but as a teacher of tolerance. It is left to Sir Harold Evans's foreword to acknowledge outright that anti-Semitism "is a mental condition conducive to paranoia and impervious to truth." Still, the hope seems to be that the book, published by the liberal-minded "Facing History And Ourselves" educational foundation, can inoculate against incipient anti-Semitism among high-school and college students. On the premise that human beings are capable of both good and evil there is every incentive to continue this battle no matter the odds of victory.

Writing in a lucid style that is accessible without being condescending, Goldstein synthesizes and contextualizes the history of the Jews as she describes the relentless hatred they have confronted. Did anti-Semitism begin because Jews stood apart refusing to embrace the same Gods that more powerful civilizations did? Or did it start when they lost their sovereignty and were scattered onside the boundaries of the Land of Israel in the Diaspora? Both possibilities are proffered.

This much the author makes clear: anti-Semitism is as ancient as the Jewish people. The first pogrom – or regime orchestrated rioting against Jews – dates to Greek-dominated ancient Alexandria which also has the distinction of spawning the first blood libel. Soon enough Greek and Roman stereotypes "dehumanized and demonized Jews as a group."

By 325 C.E. as Roman Christianity solidified its hegemony, Church fathers taught their flock to detest the Jews. St. Augustine initially preached they should not be destroyed completely so that they might serve as an example for Christians about the consequences of rejecting Jesus. With the birth of Islam in Arabia (circa. 570), Jews found themselves at the mercy of yet another imperial empire which mostly tolerated them so long as they accepted their place of dhimmi inferiority and paid tribute. Within 200 years of the religion's emergence, 90% of all Jews lived under Islamic rule. "How Jews were treated in a particular place always depended on who was king or caliph. A ruler who was tolerant of Jews …might be followed by one who was greedy, cruel, or just weak," writes Goldstein.

Later, when Christian crusaders sought to roll back Islamic advances Jews invariably paid the price. Between 1096-1149 scores of Jewish communities in Europe were decimated by Christians on their way to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. For Christian civilization subjugating the Jews wasn't enough. Over a 300-year period beginning in 1144, Christians in England, France and Germany promulgated the calumny that Jews needed the blood of Christians for ritual purposes. When in 1347 bubonic plague struck in Italy the Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells. Without a country of their own, a perpetual defenseless minority, thousands of Jews were scapegoated and murdered. Take the French Christians who marked St. Valentine's Day in 1349 by burning Jews alive. Barred from owning land and with many professions prohibited to them all Jews were demonized because a minority turned to the "sin" of money lending. All the while, fanatical Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit orders competed in their cruelty against the Jews.

In the rogues gallery of haters, Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella go down in history as having ordered the forced deportation in 1492 of the Jews from an Iberian Peninsula newly liberated from Muslim control. Yet, as Goldstein shows, this expulsion was by no means unique; Jews were repeatedly expelled from France, Germany, Hungary and Lithuania and once from England. They headed for the Muslim countries or toward Eastern Europe. Neither offered safe haven for long.

In Europe, by 1537 the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther only deepened Christianity's teaching of contempt against the Jews. Paradoxically, there were interludes when the Catholic Church found it expedient to protect Jews under its domination. And yet when Polish rulers in 1200 invited Jews to settle in their towns hoping their presence would bring economic prosperity, it was the Church that preached against granting them even limited rights. Jews who settled further east in rural areas of the Ukraine faced a no less malicious and violence-prone Orthodox Church.

With modernity came the prospect of acceptance. If only Jews would acculturate, even assimilate, anti-Semitism might atrophy. Yet, to paraphrase Napoleon, even where Jews abjured claims of nationhood they were nevertheless not fully accepted as individuals. European Jews who converted to Christianity in hopes of blending in discovered that "the 'age of enlightenment' ended some of the isolation, discrimination, and humiliation Jews had experienced" even as new obstacles surfaced. Nationalisms emerged that viewed the Jews, conversions notwithstanding, as foreign within the body politic.

Goldstein paints on a broad historical canvas though with welcome vignettes of human interest. We meet Wilhelm Marr who invented the term "antisemitism" not to describe pathology, but to explain his hostility to the Jews. Economics, too, played its role then as now. The dislocation engendered by the industrial revolution made Jews the target of antagonism. And readers are reminded that Jews are hated for fomenting capitalism and communism; for being clannish and cosmopolitan.

Old lies never fade away they just metastasize. Though the Russian Czar's secret police fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1907 this nefarious conspiracy falsehood has thrived ever since first under the Nazis (and with a small push from Henry Ford in the United States) and today remains widely fashionable in the Muslim Mideast. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt hardly invented the insinuation that Jews are culpable of dual-loyalty. That falsehood was in vogue already by the end of World War I when German Jews were charged with helping the enemy and stabbing the Fatherland in the back.

Wisely, Goldstein does not dwell on the Final Solution beyond reporting what is necessary in the context of the overall narrative. While not overlooking the alliance between the Palestinian Arab mufti of Jerusalem and Hitler, she moves swiftly on to post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Her capsule history of the Arabs' rejection of Israel is meticulously fair-minded reporting that in the course of the 1948 fighting Palestinian Arabs became refugees while noting that "less attention" has been paid to the 875,000 Jews in the Arab world who were forced from their homes. Nor does she gloss over the continuing Muslim penchant for anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories including the cant that Jews carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The torture murders of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and Ilan Halimi in a Paris suburb are given their due.

Goldstein also covers left-wing anti-Semitism born in Stalin's USSR at the start of the Cold War and now morphed into the "progressive" anti-Zionism most glaringly on display at the 2001 UN's Durban Conference. "Nearly every slander hurled at Jews over the centuries was expressed," at that forum she writes. Anti-globalization sentiment on the right is explained by its xenophobic opposition to "the opening of national borders to ideas, people, and investments." The author might have said more about the no less dangerous left-wing strain.

This is a remarkably concise work (360 pages) covering an extensive period so there is room to quibble. About, for instance, Goldstein's kumbayah description of the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States as a largely ecumenical affair; her view that the movement enjoyed the support of American officialdom is at variance with secretary of state Henry Kissinger's determination to put détente first. Goldstein's rather facile description of the five-year first intifada as "dominated by young Palestinians who threw stones at soldiers" underplays a violent frenzy that claimed 160 Israeli lives and over 1,000 Arab dead (many murdered as "collaborators" in internecine slaughter).

None of this detracts from Goldstein's central thesis: "Words have power, and the link between the language of extremism and actual violence remains as strong as ever." Ultimately, she argues, what has made anti-Semitism "a convenient hatred" is that it serves to mobilize and unite otherwise disparate haters behind a common cause diverting attention away from their own shortcomings.

Over the millennia, anti-Semitism has taken on a metaphysical character making it "impervious to truth." It may be hoisting hope over experience, but let A Convenient Hatred be read worldwide in schools committed to teaching broadmindedness and combating bigotry. Even the jaded have a right to wish that this worthy book will contribute to overcoming the terrible lies told about the Jews.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

How Jewish are Israelis?

Stick an average alumnus of the Israeli public school system into a synagogue during morning prayers and chances are they'd be bewildered. Even if they could, what good would it do them to recollect an arid Bible class they might have been required to sit through?

Israel's secular founders were on the whole Jewishly literate. But for all their practicality they supposed that somehow through osmosis their progeny would be equally versed in the Jewish canon. Few secular politicians pushed for teaching Judaism broadly defined in the public schools. As for the Orthodox political parties, they are happy to direct monies for Jewish education to the network of parochial schools their children attend.

The result has been that what many Israelis know about Judaism and specifically the Jewish religion is refracted through the prism of ignorance, folklore and the handiwork of the taxpayer funded obscurantist religious establishment. Yet despite these self-inflicted wounds, the findings of the latest "Portrait of Israeli Jews" report, produced jointly by the Avi Chai Israel Foundation and the Israel Democracy Institute, confirms that Israelis appreciate in overwhelming numbers that the religion of Israel is a cornerstone of Jewish statehood. Media coverage of the report has spotlighted the findings that 80 percent say they believe in God; 56% believe in an afterlife; 51% in the coming of the messiah and, more curiously, 24% have sought spiritual solace at the graves of righteous figures.

On closer examination, and as the study makes explicit, the data is replete with internal contradictions. For one, secular Israelis are probably not becoming more observant. Of course, even carefully crafted surveys – this one was done in 2009 and released only now after thorough analysis – are only snapshots frozen in time; surveys taken in 1991 and 1999 revealed slightly different attitudes. Moreover, this survey was conducted before the latest swell in tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. Its nomenclature is necessarily imperfect; insular haredim and those who are scrupulously observant are basically lopped together under the rubric of "ultra-Orthodox." Demographically, the ultra-Orthodox and haredi population is growing while the numbers of secular Israelis is declining.

That said the 121-page survey profitably illuminates Israeli attitudes on identity, religious affiliation, ritual behavior and attitudes toward peoplehood. Among the findings, about half of Israelis of all ethnic backgrounds says their Jewishness trumps any other identity. Though there are sectoral divisions with secular Israelis attributing greater value to their Israeliness and haredim attaching virtually none. Those who define themselves as traditional attach the most importance to their Jewish identity. Broadmindedly, 92% of Israelis agree that level of observance does not equal being a good Jew. Despite cultural differences and a clear sense that Jews in Israel are a different nation, 73% of Israelis express a sense of common destiny with Diaspora Jews.

Unsurprisingly in a country where only state certified Orthodox rabbis can conduct weddings, half of the respondents want to see a civil marriage alternative. A majority also want non-Orthodox streams to enjoy equal status under the law. Most appear able to live with the Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly on conversions yet would not necessarily expect the converts to live Orthodox lifestyles – though this is precisely what is required by the conversion authorities. Some 48% would even accept Jews who convert through the liberal streams were this legal.

In terms of religious affiliation, 46% of Israelis including most immigrants from the former Soviet Union think of themselves as secular; though only 16% say tradition plays no role in their lives and a miniscule 3% are anti-religious. Seven percent said they were haredi; 15% Orthodox; and 32% broadly traditional. In practice, 14% assert they "meticulously" observe tradition; 26% say they do so "to a great extent" while 44% do so "to some extent."

Yet contradictions abound. Almost all Jewish Israelis attach value to religious life-cycle events from circumcision to Shiva. Similarly, 85% like that traditional Jewish festivals are observed even if they are selective in their own practice. For instance, Israelis cherish Shabbat as a day of rest though not necessarily in ways that are meaningful to the Orthodox. With school on Fridays and Sunday a regular workday, Shabbat is the weekend, so Israelis seem to favor a Golden Mean. Most watch television or listen to radio and dedicate the day to family; many have a special Friday night meal and light Sabbath candles. But they by and large don't want their cinemas and cafes shuttered on Shabbat or for public transportation to come to a halt, or have restrictions placed on cultural or sporting events.

Here's a further indication of Israelis' traditional bent: most eat only kosher food -- at home and outside -- and 72% never let pork cross their lips. This does not mean they approve of the rabbinate's policy of withholding kashrut certificates from technically "kosher" restaurants that are open on Shabbat.

What does all this add up to? It suggests that if we want Israelis to have a deeper appreciation for Judaism – as religion and as a civilization – greater investment is required. The Israeli advantage of Hebrew literacy does not offset a disturbing lack of Jewish learning. There is small comfort in knowing that most Israelis believe in God if they are woefully ignorant about the sacred history that should inform that belief. The good news is that most Israelis are Zionists and most want Israel to be both a Jewish and democratic state. One way to pull all these strands together and strengthen them is to rethink the way Israelis are exposed to Judaism. The survey found that Israelis are not fond of the country's either-or school systems of being forced to categorize their children as either "Orthodox" or "secular" from kindergarten. Many want the option of sending their children to integrated schools. The good news is that demand for pluralistic, traditional public education is real. Too bad, then, that such curricula receive precious little government backing.

A Portrait of Israeli Jews Asher Arian and Aayala Keissar-Sugerman, Avi Chai and Israel Democracy Institute.
Most Israeli Jews feel a sense of affinity to their country and the Jewish people.

My Archive