The Paradox of anti-Semitism

What do Baruch Spinoza, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, Albert Einstein and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common? All of them and many others as well argued that anti-Semitism has played a historic role in determining Jewish identity and preserving the Jewish communal framework - a discouraging existential philosophy, but apparently a historical fact.

Avi Becker
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Avi Becker

What do Baruch Spinoza, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, Albert Einstein and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common? All of them and many others as well argued that anti-Semitism has played a historic role in determining Jewish identity and preserving the Jewish communal framework - a discouraging existential philosophy, but apparently a historical fact.

The unexpected reawakening of anti-Semitism in the 21st century merely strengthens this impression. In Europe, the United States and even in Israel, it is now possible to find both Jewish intellectuals and public opinion polls which state explicitly that Jewish identity and consciousness have been strengthened by the anti-Semitic phenomena of the last few years. Many say that anti-Semitism proves that the Jew remains "the other," and therefore it is necessary to invest in strengthening the community and in Jewish education. And indeed, there has been an impressive increase in investment in education and in communal frameworks.

In the 17th century, Spinoza argued that only thanks to anti-Semitism did the Jews continue to exist as a separate people. More than 200 years later, Albert Einstein made a similar remark.

Between them in the mid-19th century, Rabbi Hirsch, the leader of Germany's Orthodox Jews, wrote that anti-Semitism is the tool through which the God of Israel preserves his people. Hirsch discussed the biblical dispute between Isaac's shepherds and those of Abimelech, the king of Gerar. This could be described as the first anti-Semitic incident, since Abimelech demanded that Isaac leave because his success was provoking jealousy. According to Hirsch, had it not been for that jealousy, Isaac and his family would have abandoned themselves to a life of ease and forgotten their spiritual destiny. That jealousy, wrote Hirsch, is "one of the great vehicles of salvation... that warns [the Jews] again and again" against assimilation.

These remarks - which are like a pitcher of cold water to those who wave the banner of spiritual choice and pluralism - were reiterated by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre immediately after the Holocaust. Assimilated Jews, wrote Sartre, are not preserved by their faith or their common past, but by "the Christian who suddenly halts the [Jew's] process of assimilation and creates a special role for him."

Anti-Semitism's historic role in preserving the Jewish people is essentially a sociological phenomenon that is also found among other collectives: External hostility crystallizes group identity and nurtures unity and solidarity. What makes anti-Semitism unique is that it is not only the oldest hatred in human history, but that it also continues to exist even when the Jews abandon their identity and assimilate.

Until a few years ago, Jews in Europe were engaged in redefining their identity in light of the process of European unification, which the vast majority interpreted as encouraging Jewish integration. The underlying assumption of many Jews has always been that mergers among states and the increasing acceptance of universal views - both processes that undermine nationalistic tendencies - would be good for the Jews. The shock therefore was all the more intense when it became clear that as the European Union expanded, expressions of anti-Semitism increased, especially on the part of Muslim minorities but also by intellectuals and the media. Hatred of the Jews once again, as in the past, became "hatred of the other," as French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut put it.

It is hard to accept anti-Semitism as a fact of life, but it is important to understand that this has significance and ramifications for the Jewish reality that are impossible to escape. Herzl wrote in his diary that "we are one nation - because that is what our enemies have made us, against our will ... And if they had left us in peace," we would have merged into the surrounding environment and disappeared. The fact that anti-Semitism helps to preserve Jewish identity is no comfort, and it must not prevent Jewish education from stressing the positive aspects of this identity. Nevertheless, it once again raises questions about the mystery of the Jews' eternal existence.

Dr. Becker is a former secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.

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