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A.B. Yehoshua responds to critics; Richard Pipes, etc.




The Root of Antisemitism 
TO THE EDITORS:
A.B. Yehoshua’s erudite essay “An Attempt to Identify the Root Cause of Antisemitism” (AZURE 32, Spring 2008) contends to have found the common element that underlies Jew-hatred in all ages and places: Jew-haters are motivated by fear. Although I cannot disagree with Yehoshua about his fear hypothesis, I am less willing to relinquish a concern with particular historical contexts and political moments than is he. As a historian, both time and place are of considerable importance to me. It is precisely the existence of particular social, economic, or political conditions that animates antisemitism, resulting in ostracism or, worse yet, murder.
I must, however, contest two of Yehoshua’s points. First, that antisemitism is uniquely the product of a fear grounded in the virtual reality of the victim in the mind of the oppressor. The history of racism in the Western world is a tale of fears grounded in imagination.
As the late professor of history and African-American studies Winthrop Jordan observed in his masterful book White Over Black (1968), the association of “blackness” with ignorance, backwardness, the absence of illumination, and just plain evil in writings such as the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, and other Western classics conditioned European minds to reject the humanity of Africans and their potential for development. Thus, fear of the black person and the resulting persecution derived from the fear of a virtual “blackness.” It was this racism that led to the defining of a people as subhuman and, as in the case of the Jew, the notion that this inferior people could nevertheless pose a danger to the biological existence of others and to civilization as a whole.
What was the origin of blackness? Some believed it was God’s curse upon Ham and his descendants; others, such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, an eighteenth-century colonial physician, thought of blackness as the residual impact of leprosy upon the body. Similar to the behavior of antisemites, racists behaved in a myriad of ambiguous ways. For example, in the period before the American Civil War, Southern physicians experimented on the bodies of black slaves in order to acquire knowledge helpful in treating whites, while at the same time maintaining that black bodies were categorically different (read: inferior) to those of whites. Under the “one-drop rule,” the blood of one great-grandparent was sufficient to “contaminate” an individual and define him as black regardless of his appearance. Blackness, like Jewishness, existed separate from time and place. Societies influenced by the power of racist fears could allay those fears only by means of separation, enslavement, or annihilation.
My second reservation concerns Yehoshua’s solution to the virtuality or indeterminateness of Jewish existence in the mind of the antisemite. Yehoshua posits that even Moses would be willing to have his secret burial place known and elaborately marked so that Jews would be inclined to remain close to that place, their identification with it made permanent for all to know and see. Jews committed to existing in a definite place with concrete defining characteristics—a land, a language, etc.—would be less frightening. And so, the solution for Israelis becomes to dissociate themselves from the diaspora experience, to cease blurring Israel’s borders—a process Yehoshua dates to the 1967 war—and to distance themselves from a “deeply symbiotic and ill-defined relationship with the Palestinian people and, through this, with the greater Arab and Muslim world.” To fail at these tasks might promote rather than dissipate a regression into the indeterminateness that fosters antisemitism, shudders Yehoshua.
It is appealing, albeit naïve, to think that Israel, nestled in its 1948 borders, can be the instrument of Jews’ final liberation from antisemitism and break the link in the chain of historical symbiotic hatred—and all this through nationalism! How regrettable that the author posits nationalism as a solution at the very historical moment when nations across the globe are losing their determinateness. Borders—both physical and cultural—are less significant than ever before: Countries share common currencies and are involved in each other’s economies via the Internet without the need for migration. Even though countries still have different languages and cultures, almost all share in corporate cultures that transcend boundaries.
While it is unlikely that Israel can dissipate antisemitism in the way that Yehoshua suggests, few can argue with the brilliance of the author’s insight that the hatred of the Jews is rooted in the virtual or indeterminate identity they possess in the non-Jewish mind. It echoes African-American novelist Ralph Ellison’s observation that to the mind of the racist, the black man is invisible. And as both Ellison and Yehoshua remind us, what we cannot see or clearly make out is often the most frightening.
Alan M. Kraut
American University
Washington, D.C.
 
TO THE EDITORS:
A.B. Yehoshua’s essay on the root of antisemitism offers a provocative answer to the question of why so many different groups across so many different periods have hated Jews. However, I would like to raise three issues in response to Yehoshua’s arguments. One relates to the question of Jewish uniqueness, one to the functions of group hatred, and last to the Jewish responsibility to respond to historical antisemitic realities.
While I am persuaded that Jew-hatred is based on the projection of one’s own fears onto the unknown other, I am not sure that Jews serve as a target because of their indeterminacy. A look into racism directed toward African-Americans may shed some light on the issue. Although the black community is hardly indeterminate the way Jews are, scholars of African-American history have found much the same phenomenon that Yehoshua does: The projection of fears onto a group of unknown others. Those fears differ by region and time, but the traits or dangers most feared by whites were always projected onto black people—even when few black people were actually present. Therefore, racism is caused by whites projecting their fears onto non-whites, just as antisemitism is caused by non-Jews projecting all that they hate onto Jews. This is not to justify either kind of bigotry, of course, but to observe that projection seems to be a human characteristic—not of all humans, but of all human communities. In general, unassimilated “others” are always the repository of communal fears, whether those others have chosen to remain separate or have been forced to do so. Jews and those of African descent, forcibly dispersed from their ancestral homeland, serve that purpose admirably, but it is not their own indeterminacy that causes it.
Racism does not operate just in the minds of individuals, or even just in the minds of communities. Racism serves a number of functional purposes: It justifies discrimination and exclusion, which allows the lion’s share of social goods, services, and opportunities to go to the white majority. It also allows powerful white people to prevent vulnerable whites from joining forces with similarly exploited non-whites. Racism is not merely a psychological response to fear, but also a method of maintaining or extending power and control without visibly seeming to do so. Similarly, antisemitism has served to justify and maintain the power of non-Jewish elites, allowing them to rally otherwise discontented citizens or subjects in a variety of times and places. Neither of these observations—that antisemitism is not unique, and that group hatred is not only psychological but political—challenges Yehoshua’s points, but rather seeks to embed them in a broader dialogue about the operation and function of bigotry across time and space.
On the question of how to respond to the challenge such bigotry poses, however, I must disagree altogether with what I take to be his proposal. Yehoshua’s suggestion that if Jews somehow become less vague about their identity, if they give up the fantasy that there is some bond uniting Jews across time and space and, instead, root Jewish identity more firmly in nationhood and the land of Israel, they might be able to shake antisemitism loose from its foundations, is unacceptable to me—not as a historian or as a scholar, but as a Jew. If indeed group hatred is a human pattern, rooted in fear and projected onto others, then it is impossible to uproot it with rational argument. Yehoshua himself points out that if rationality worked, antisemitism would have died along with the first Jews to be slaughtered without repercussion. Furthermore, to the extent that antisemitism is often sustained by the desire to maintain the supremacy of the group in power, Jewish indeterminacy is irrelevant.


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