Opinion |

Jews' Existential Dread About Antisemitism Is Deep – and It's Warping Our Judgment

The trauma of the Temple's destruction, the foreboding, is always in our consciousness. But that doesn't mean we should worship at the Third Temple of hysteria about antisemitism

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
A man holds an Israeli flag during a rally on "No Fear: a Rally in Solidarity With the Jewish People" on the National Mall in Washington, DC earlier this month
A man holds an Israeli flag during a rally on "No Fear: a Rally in Solidarity With the Jewish People" on the National Mall in Washington, DC earlier this monthCredit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Two thousand years ago, give or take a decade, the moneyed classes of Jerusalem had a new exclusive club or, as they would have called it, a triclinium. In two matching suites, they would lounge on sofas, be served refreshments, while a massive ornamental fountain provided a soothing, burbling background.

The best bit was that the VIP area wasn’t hidden away. It was right next to the main entrance to the Temple. I mean, why not flaunt it as the dusty pilgrims and the plebs go by?

According to Dr Shlomit Weksler-Bdolach, the archaeologist who directed the dig which uncovered the Jerusalem Temple Club, there’s absolutely no mention of its existence in any historical source on the twilight of Judean Jerusalem. Not so long before it was built, the site had seen major construction under King Herod, when a dam-wall had been built there.

And what’s even more intriguing, the place doesn’t seem to have remained active for very long. One of the tricliniums was dug up after about 20 years and then used instead as a mikva (ritual bath), probably fed by the waters of the fountain, for the purification of those about to go into the Temple. The mikva wasn’t in use for very long either, as a couple of decades later, the Great Revolt against the Romans broke out and in 70CE Vespasian’s Tenth Legion destroyed Jerusalem, covering the Temple compound and its surroundings with rubble.

You can see what’s left of the triclinium, the fountain and the mikva in a newly-opened section of the Western Wall tunnels, which are always worth a visit. The nationalist-Haredi management of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site, were overjoyed to have a new attraction there, though they’re less interested in delving behind the religious and political implications of the new find.

Second Temple period public building considered to be one of the most luxurious found to date, part of recent archaeological excavations in Jerusalem's Western Wall tunnels Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

Since visiting there, I’ve been thinking about little else.

Who were those local power-brokers who built their private club on Herod’s dam, at the entrance to the Temple? And who then forced them to tear half the place down and replace it with a public religious facility? Was this yet another, familiar political clash for prime Jerusalem real estate? And were any of the Jewish sects vying for control of the city in those years even slightly aware they were teetering on the brink of a desolation that would sweep away all their designs?

This Sunday, many Jews, devout and less so, will mark Tisha B’Av, the 1951st anniversary of the Temple’s destruction. Sometimes it feels that the trauma of the hurban is still over-present in our discourse, with every political and religious debate overshadowed by a foreboding, existential threat.

It was there over the last few years in the long battle over Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate, with his opponents warning that should he be allowed to perpetuate his rule, it would mean the end for Israel’s democracy, such as it is. And it was there in the insistence of his fervent supporters that après Bibi, le deluge - and before long Israel would be stricken by the pandemic or the Iranians, or both.

Since Netanyahu’s downfall, it’s the ultra-Orthodox leadership which has taken up the cry: That a government, which to their horror does not include their representatives, spells the end of all that is Jewish and holy in the Holy Land.

Perhaps they’ll get used to a sojourn in opposition, after all a normal part of parliamentary life, but a month into the Bennett term and the berserk rhetoric hasn’t died down. Israel hasn’t gone back to the parameters of normal political discourse and you start to ask yourself, deafened by the decibels emanating from the Knesset channel, perhaps this is the new normal?

Head of Oposition Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Prime minister Naftali Bennett shake hands following the vote on the new coalition at the Knesset last monthCredit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

And it doesn’t help when you try to convince yourself and others that this isn’t Judea in the tumultuous days of Jesus or of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and by every possible historic index, this is without doubt the period in which Jews in their sovereign homeland and around the world have enjoyed their highest level of security and freedom ever. Because the hysteria is always in our consciousness. And it’s not just in Israel. The Diaspora is just as bad.

A couple of weeks ago I was at an event held under "Chatham House Rules," meaning I’m not supposed to directly attribute anything said there. So I’ll just say I heard a "fairly well-known Diaspora Jewish leader" whom, hitherto, I would have regarded as a wise old man, declare that "Antisemitism is right now at its highest point in any time since 1945."

I couldn’t help myself and rather rudely I interjected, asking how he could say that, a man who in his lifetime, and in the Western country where he was born, there were schools, colleges and clubs where Jews were either barred from membership or limited by a quota? How he could say that when, since 1945, we’ve seen Jews massacred at Buenos Aires' AMIA, Toulouse's Etz Ha'Torah and Pittsburgh's Tree of Life?

The "fairly well-known Jewish Diaspora leader" was a bit taken aback by my outburst. But instead of ceding that he may have been slightly exaggerating, he mumbled something about people calling Israel a racist colonialist state, which I think only served to bolster my argument.

A menorah is installed outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in preparation for a celebration service at sundown on the first night of Hanukkah, December 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh.Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP

I have to add here, without adding any identifying details, that the "fairly well-known Jewish Diaspora leader" has always been pretty centrist in his political affiliations, which just goes to show how deep our existential hysteria is – and how it can warp our judgment.

Last Sunday, a few hundred Jews and a handful of non-Jews turned up in Washington D.C. for what was billed as "No Fear: A Rally In Solidarity With The Jewish People." The title hardly hid its historical contradiction in terms: When Jews have nothing to fear, they don’t need to rally in solidarity with the Jewish people.

The proximate reason for the rather poorly-attended rally (maybe it was because the Euro2021 final was on and apparently even in the U.S., there are more Jews interested in what they mistakenly call "soccer" than solidarity) was the spike of antisemitic attacks last month during and in the wake of the Gaza conflict. But seriously, you’ve only woken up now to the fact that whenever there’s violence in Israel, antisemites will use that as their excuse for attacking their Jewish neighbors?

A man holds up a sign during the "No Fear: a Rally in Solidarity With the Jewish People" on the National Mall in Washington, DC Credit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS - AFP

If anything, if we take a more meta-perspective, we are living through a period with one of the lowest rates of antisemitism since 1945. More Jews have full civil rights and political representation than in any previous century.

During half of the time since the end of WWII, millions of Jews living in the Soviet bloc had to hide their Jewish identities, were imprisoned for studying Hebrew and celebrating chagim, were kept out of senior positions, and prevented from emigrating. In more recent years we’ve had waves of Islamist terror targeting Jews in Europe and then antisemitic white supremacist terror in America.

I’m not writing this to belittle the ugliness of the latest ripple, but let’s see it for what it is.

The hysteria of Jews who feel that the criticism of Israel on social media and in a few headlines in The New York Times is an existential crisis, is about as ridiculous the other side of the Diaspora coin – the Jews who feel that the injustice done by other Jews living thousands of miles away to the Palestinians is the core existential crisis for their Jewish identity and for humankind.

Whether you’ll be fasting and saying kinnot on Tisha B’Av or not, it's worth a moment of reflection, some space to regain a sense of proportion. A lot has changed in 1951 years. The Romans are not at the gates. Let's stop worshipping at the Third Temple of hysteria.

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