An Attempt to Identify the Root Cause of Antisemitism

By A. B. Yehoshua

A prominent Israeli author gets to the bottom of the world`s oldest hatred.

Haman’s first sentence expresses this difficulty of identification, this element that is honed with the passage of history, the invisible “essence” that Freud hoped would in time be explained by scientific research, while Talmon and other historians bowed to its mystery.
Here we find the word dat (religion, translated as “law” in the quote above), which Jews themselves sometimes hesitate to use as a legitimate description of their identity, alternately evading and returning to it through lack of choice, even though there are various linguistic alternatives, and one could, in principle, use such designations as “halachic,” “believing,” or “practicing” to describe this way of life. Yet, because of the universal validity of the word “religion,” Jews must continue to use it. The source of the word dat is Persian, and the translation “law” faithfully reflects the Jewish religion, which is based on laws of do and do not.
Haman goes on to say that not only is this people diverse from all the nations among whom it has settled, but its religion is exclusively its own and different from all the local religions. That is, the Jewish religion cannot be shared with a different nationality, unlike other faiths, such as the Hellenistic religions, which were common to members of many different nations at the time this text was written.
Here we must consider another nuance in Haman’s words, one that will emerge as valid and present throughout Jewish history and which will help me to clarify the thesis that I am attempting to present in this essay. Haman’s text speaks of the religions (or “laws”) of the Jews and not of the Jewish religion, using the plural and not the singular form. Ostensibly, it can be explained in a simple, philological manner—their religion in the sense of their customs. However, the Hebrew word for religion—dat—is so fundamental to Jewish identity that it has never been replaced by another Hebrew word, though this could have been done with ease. This fact, in my opinion, proves that the religion Haman refers to already possessed several basic characteristics of prevailing religious concepts. However, the moment the word “religion” appears in the plural, it indicates that even the singular religion of the Jews could, like the people, be “diverse,” that is, capable of assuming different spiritual forms, even without any connection to belief in God. Nevertheless, these different forms or interpretations of their spiritual configuration are also specific to the Jewish people, who apply them solely to themselves, engaging in what Freud, amazingly and almost absurdly, called “a common mental construction” of the Jews—as if a single mental construction could possibly be shared by millions of people who do not live in the same territory, do not speak the same language, do not know one another, and who include both the secular and the religious, the nationalist and the assimilated. After all, even the claim that the inhabitants of a single island like Ireland or Corsica have a common mental construction is refutable; how much more so in the case of the Jews. Yet Freud, continuing in language that lacks responsibility and accuracy, seemed drawn to imply something that he himself could neither understand nor define.
Another astonishing, shocking thing that emerges from an analysis of the text of Haman’s words is the expression that they may be destroyed. In other words-annihilate them. That is, at such an early stage of the appearance of Jew-hatred, the possibility of annihilation already arises. Not economic sanctions, not cultural sanctions, not even banishment, but—explicitly—annihilation. Clearly, the threat of annihilation that has materialized so terribly throughout Jewish history was indicated as a real possibility thousands of years before it actually transpired. In this context, Haman ben Hammedata continues to develop a motif present in the speeches of the Hebrew prophets, who never ceased to rain down dire visions of doom on the people of Israel. One might say it is no wonder that the eternal, unfortunate candidate for obliteration internalized the motif as an integral, immanent part of his historical destiny and perhaps did not work very hard to save himself from it.
There is one more puzzling aspect of the Book of Esther, and many have already noted it: God is not mentioned even once in the entire text. God is not relevant to this story, which is built entirely on the Jews’ realistic self-analysis of their own historical-geographical situation. The rescue at the end of the story is entirely disconnected from any metaphysical advantage that the Jews enjoy as a result of their Tora or their special relationship with God. And indeed, God (whether he exists or does not exist) will not deliver his Jews. This has already been proven numerous times over the course of history.
To summarize: For generations, the Jews themselves (speaking through the persona of Haman) have frankly and soberly elucidated the nature of their interaction with the nations of the world, clarifying to themselves the extent of the antisemitic menace. They speak of the uniqueness of a people whose religion, however multi-faceted, belongs solely to them. They are aware of their exotic separateness within the fabric of other nations, wherever they live. They also speak (in Haman’s voice) of the Jews’ refusal to accept the religions of the surrounding population, and they understand that this refusal might provoke the desire to destroy them. We will return to this shortly.
This essay is not a historical, philological analysis of an ancient text, but a cognizant analysis of a text that has been read and studied by many generations of Jews who have applied it to the reality of the Diaspora, beyond the historical kingdom of Ahashverosh. When Jews past and present come across the word dat in their reading of the Hebrew text, they are unaware of its Persian source, as mentioned above, and they naturally interpret it as referring to the Jewish religion, a religion that is crystallized, separate, and different from the religions of the people among whom they live.
This lucid passage, which was composed by Jews and holds an important place in the Jewish canon, expresses an idea which played a significant role in Zionist thought until recent times. Had the Jews fully understood the significance of the text they themselves composed, and had they used it for self-analysis, say the Zionists, they would not have had to wait over two thousand years for Theodor Herzl to elucidate the matter. Instead, they would have congregated in their homeland and prevented the dangerous dispersals and separations. In the Second Temple period, half the nation had already scattered to the four corners of the ancient world and was not living in the Land of Israel.
Put another way, this is the essence of antisemitism according to Zionist ideology, this is the root: not envy and not Christianity, not Islam and not economic relationships, not intellectual prominence and not the backward religion of the ghetto, but the dispersion, the alienation, the otherness, and the borderlessness of the Jews, which, in certain situations, can create a murderous antagonism toward them on the part of their host nations. (“Host” nations, by the way, according to the Jews themselves, who bear witness every year that they are only guests passing through other people’s countries, and next year they will return to their true home in Jerusalem, though this year is for some reason forever postponed.)
In recent years this theory, which for the sake of convenience we shall call classic Zionist theory, has become inadequate for determining the root of antisemitism. Even after a considerable part of the nation has now returned to its homeland, antisemitism does not appear to have abated either toward the ingathered collective or, of course, toward the still-existing dispersion. The same pattern of extreme Jew-hatred, of old antisemitic stances, is manifesting itself in the relationship between the sovereign nation living in Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors. This animosity goes beyond the limited arguments over small tracts of land or the occupation of disputed territories and discrimination against Palestinians. Though these factors fan the flames of conflict, they can by no means explain the force of the hatred and menace they arouse. The more so, since such absolute antisemitic stances existed long before the occupation of the territories in the Six Day War in 1967 and even before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The necessity to explore and understand the root cause of antisemitism does not arise only from the justified demands for liberation from the yoke of occupation: It arises from threats of annihilation and a seemingly bottomless racial hatred carried to the point of suicidal attacks, over and above the phenomena of dispersal and disparity that, however real and true, turn out to be inadequate explanations of its essence. Lately, the actual legitimacy of a Jewish state—not just its policies—is sometimes questioned by its opponents and critics, who refer to the establishment of the State of Israel as a “historic mistake.” This is a troubling development which even the most pessimistic Zionists did not foresee.

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