I read a comment to a Blue State Conservative article one day to the effect that “I’m tired of reading about Hitler and the Jews.” That troubled me greatly.
In my years of teaching philosophy and religion I would on occasion make a rhetorical point about Judaism and Christianity by holding up one side of a necklace pendant I have worn since my marriage on August 21, 1982. It displays the Christian cross. And I would say, “One cannot possibly understand the full meaning of this without a deep and abiding understanding of this,” whereupon I would flip the pendant and show the Star of David on the other side.
Over the years that little demonstration had greater and greater meaning for me as I developed a course on the Shoah, a more appropriate Hebrew term for what is generally referred to as the Holocaust.
The first half of the course would be spent exploring Jewish traditions and beliefs with a guest rabbi, the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the early Church, and the anti-Jewish legislation of early Church councils and secular governments. We would review how, over time, Jews were restricted in where they could live, how they might make a living, banned from owning land, ordered not to converse with Christians, prohibited from appearing in public during Christian holidays, denied education in the professions, forced to wear distinctive clothing so everyone would know them to be a Jew, and more.
Raul Hilberg in his The Destruction of the European Jews notes that there is a logic – a tragic one – to hatred of Jews. The early Church essentially said, “You shall not live among us as Jews.” Hence the attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, sometimes forcibly. In the Middle Ages that was transformed to “You shall not live among us.”
This was the period of either forced expulsions or the ghettoization of Jews. This was followed logically by the next step: “You shall not live.” Which brings us to Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews in the Shoah.
One voice of anti-Jewish rhetoric needs to be highlighted. In 1543 a truly malevolent attack on Jews was written by the elderly Reformation leader Martin Luther after his attempts at converting Jews to a de-Catholicized Christianity were rejected. The title of the pamphlet is The Jews and Their Lies. In it, using the most risible insults imaginable, Luther lays out what he believes should be done with the Jews.
It is a seven-fold plan, including 1) the destruction of synagogues and Jewish schools, 2) the razing and destruction of Jewish homes with Jews forced to live in communal barn-like structures or barracks, 3) the taking away of all prayer books and Talmudic writings from Jews, 4) rabbis henceforth forbidden to teach on pain of death, 5) the safe conduct for Jews on the highways of the land ended followed by their being forced to remain indoors, 6) usury eliminated for Jews as it is for Christians and Jewish wealth through moneylending confiscated, and 7) a recommendation that tools be placed into the hands of Jews and that they be forced to work.
When you look at that list, it kind of looks like Nazi actions against Jews in the Third Reich, including the concentration camps, doesn’t it? Not an extermination camp (Vernichtungslager), to be sure, but the typical work camp (Arbeitslager). In fact, one of the defendants at the Nuremburg war crimes trial, Julius Streicher, editor of the notoriously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, defended himself at trial by claiming he merely advocated and did what Martin Luther recommended be done.
Simultaneous to the ravaging of Jews verbally and theologically there was anti-Jewish legislation passed by Church councils and synods as well as secular governments. To name just one, in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council it was proclaimed that all Jews in all provinces must wear distinctive clothing so that all who see them in public will know them to be Jews.
This may come as a shock to those who think Hitler started that policy with his ordering Jews to wear the Star of David in public.
A critical turn in attitudes toward Jews takes place with the coming of theories of race in the nineteenth century. Up to then, the problem with Jews from a Christian perspective was “bad thinking” and “spiritual blindness and stubbornness” which leads to their ongoing rejection of Jesus Christ. Theories of race introduce the notion that it’s not bad thinking, but bad blood. Thus the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the past is transformed into anti-Semitism.
Joseph Arthur comte de Gobineau was an early nineteenth-century French aristocrat who became known for advocating white supremacy and developing a racialist theory of the “Aryan Master Race” in his book The Inequality of the Human Races. He set the stage for what came to be known as the “Nordic Theory.”
The Nordic Theory, prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Western Europe and the United States, was a major influence on Nazi leaders, including Hitler. The theory claims that Nordic peoples constitute a “master race” because of their “innate racial capacity for leadership.”
The chief representative of the Nordic Theory in America was Madison Grant, who lived from 1865-1937. He was a eugenicist who employed the Nordic Theory in an effort to restrict entry into the U.S. of Mediterraneans and Eastern Europeans. He declared the mixing of the races to be “race suicide.” Unless eugenics was practiced, he claimed, the Nordic race in the U.S. will be supplanted by the “inferior” races.
One of the greatest practitioners of this form of eugenics is Margaret Sanger, the founder of what is today Planned Parenthood with its emphasis on abortions as eugenic control of the population, particularly of black babies. For Sanger, there is nothing wrong with eliminating “inferior” people.
This kind of thinking came to a head in the Supreme Court decision Buck v Bell in 1927. The issue before the court was whether a state had the right to compel sterilizations of those considered unfit “for the health and protection of the state.”
The decision was viewed as an endorsement of “negative eugenics” in that it allows the state to eliminate from the gene pool those deemed defective or otherwise unsuitable.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, to his everlasting shame, delivered the majority decision, including the now classic line of eugenics: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” He couched his decision as a health policy issue, declaring sterilizations were like immunizations against possible contagion.
The Nazis already had a contempt for the Jews. With eugenicist theory and justifying it on health policy, the Nazis began their T4 program of killing the institutionalized feeble-minded and other “life unworthy of life” (Leben unwürdig des Lebens).
Eventually, the problem of the Jews was presented by the Nazis as a massive public health issue. This is why Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, would produce films like The Eternal Jew, which compares Jews to rats (note the narrative at the 15-minute mark of the film). One exterminates rats for health reasons, the argument would go, and so, too, should the Jews be exterminated.
During this modern period the Jew is being rhetorically ravaged on every level. If one was a defender of capitalists and bankers, the enemy of all was the Jewish communist or socialist agitator feeding the fire of revolution. If one was an oppressed worker, the enemy of all was the Jewish banker or capitalist oppressing
No matter where one stood on the political spectrum, the Jew was the universal enemy.
There was no escape for Jews.
An historical event such as the Shoah has many elements that go into the making of it. Certainly, the anti-Semitic discourse in Germany played a major role, as did the onerous conditions placed on Germany in the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles.
The development of technology such that the capability of exterminating masses of people becomes possible certainly plays a role as well.
The modernist views on race and eugenics, however, cannot be ignored as part of the explanation. In Germany it helped create a virulent ideology of eliminationist anti-Semitism which, again, justified its actions through science and the needs of public health.
This racialist ideology is still with us and still advocating for the elimination of Jews. It may not be Germany, anymore – though recent events in Europe does give one pause – but one has but to look at what is happening in the Islamic world to see eliminationist anti-Semitism at work. Not to mention what is happening on American campuses.
Yes, there are anti-Semitic voices currently in the land – not just in the Middle East but in Europe and the U.S. – demanding the blood of Jews. This may be from a misguided support of “the oppressed” against their “oppressors” mixed with a belief in moral equivalency, or it may be the curdling voice of contempt spawned by generation after generation of hatred. Regardless, it is an anti-Semitic appeal to the bestial in the human heart.
Academia plays a role with its attempts to isolate Israel and its Jews through support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. George Orwell, in a 1944 letter to John Middleton Murry, wrote that the test for intellectual honesty is a willingness to criticize one’s own position.
It is that lack of intellectual honesty among academics pushing the BDS movement that is bothersome. Of course, they will defend themselves by saying they are not anti-Jewish, but anti-Zionist. Is that true?
Since advocates of the BDS movement admit being anti-Zionist, it would help if we knew just what they mean by “Zionism.” It is clearly desired that their criticisms of Zionism be seen as just that – criticisms of Zionism and the creation and ongoing existence of Israel and not of Jews per se.
The real question, of course, is whether that is truly what motivates the movement. Is it merely political criticism or does it bleed into what many charge the BDS as being: a modern-day heavily cloaked appeal to anti-Semites everywhere?
In dealing with this question, it is necessary to explore the “three D’s” of the BDS movement: the attempts to Demonize Israel, the application of Double Standards when comparing the behavior of Israel with other nations in the region, and the endeavor to Deligitimize Israel at every opportunity.
But before even this can be discussed it is important that we fully explore the issue of just what Zionism refers to, its history and its psychological and spiritual importance for Jews through the years.
I have come to learn that Zionism is a multi-faceted, very nuanced movement with a wide variety of beliefs and actions toward the creation of an independent, sovereign state.
To begin, there were many Jews – many – absolutely opposed to the Zionist enterprise. I still recall in my naïve youthful ignorance my shock at a scene from the film The Chosen (go to the 1:08:55 mark). It takes place before Israel has come into existence and after the brutality of the Shoah has been revealed.
The Hasidic Jewish rabbi Reb Saunders, played by Rod Steiger, talks in general dinner conversation in his Brooklyn home that when the Messiah comes, Jews will then be gathered. A young friend of the rabbi’s son, himself a Conservative Jew whose father is working for the establishment of Israel, adds to the conversation: “There are some people that say we shouldn’t have to wait for the Messiah, that Palestine should become a Jewish homeland now. Some people say we should build a homeland for ourselves.”
The Reb Saunders character, intensely emotional, erupts in ever more passionate outrage, as only Rod Steiger can portray:
And who are these people that say they should build their new land? Who are these people? It is written that the Messiah and the Messiah only will bring the Jews to the new land. Only the Messiah when he comes will bring them. And God will help build their new land. That’s what’s written: God, not Ben-Gurion and his henchmen. No! NEVER
Today I realize why many Orthodox Jews resisted the establishment of Israel and the notions of Zionism that sustain it. There currently exists Neturei Karta rabbis who still reject Zionism and Israel as a sovereign state, even to the extent of attending and being a featured speaker at Iran’s Holocaust denial conference in 2006 hosted by its President Mahmoud Ahmedenijad.
Assimilationist Jews in the United States, as well, felt no urgency for a Jewish homeland. This is also true in Europe, where many Jews felt they had successfully assimilated, though not so much in Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement in Russia where Jews were often subject to pogroms at the hands of government officials.
This divergence is expressed, in part, by contrasting the more genteel approaches to Zionism of early leaders like Chaim Weizmann and Louis Brandeis working out of England and America, respectively, and the bare-knuckled aggressiveness of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky who grew up in Odessa, Russia, where neighboring Jews were being killed for being Jews.
This divergence can still be seen and is exemplified in Israel today with the first generation of Labor leaders of government, with roots in the more socialist and liberal agrarian-based Zionists, like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir with their Ashkenazic roots, and the more conservative and currently in power Likud Party and affiliates of Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose party historically is an outgrowth of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism and supported more by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. The animosity between the two is palpable to this day.
This raises the question: How can one criticize Zionism if you don’t really know what it is. Which brings up the first point: it is more accurate to speak of Zionisms than it is to speak of a singular and unified Zionism.
In exploring Zionism one comes to learn of the diverse factions and advocates within the general movement of Zionism, like Political Zionism which is associated with Theodor Herzl; Practical Zionism which advocated building up Palestine and Jewish aliyah (immigration) to Palestine; Religious Zionism which rejected secularism and urged the essential confluence of Judaism’s core belief in God’s commandments with any future national state; Socialist Zionism, also called Labor Zionism, which saw the future of a Jewish state in Palestine’s native born Jewish youth (sabras) and life in the kibbutzim with a tendency toward socialist models of government; and Revisionist Zionism which sought a more militant stance to revise the moderate Political Zionist approach of Chaim Weizmann in order to influence the future of any Jewish state in the British Mandate of Palestine.
Other Zionisms include American Zionism, Christian Zionism, Messianic Zionism, Spiritual Zionism and Territorial Zionism. Clearly, it is a complex, yet utterly fascinating, subject.
So, when activists in the BDS movement say they are critical not of Jews, but of Zionism, it would be fruitful to ask of just what form of Zionism are they critical. If they bother to answer at all, what they say will likely be superficial and have little to do with Zionism as it actually existed historically or exists today.
Their next move is to say they are critical mostly of Israel. One will often then hear Israel saddled with charges of apartheid, genocide, violations of international law and of basic human rights and the like. But then one has to ask, why is Israel held to a different standard than other countries when such charges are made?
Does anyone seriously want to argue that Israel’s record when it comes to human rights, adherence to international law, or any notion of apartheid or genocide, is worse than that of its Middle East neighbors? Seriously?
The argument will then often go to the essential point that Israel is an illegal state. But why should only Israel be held to that standard? Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq were also created by diplomatic fiat through the Sykes-Picot and San Remo agreements dividing up a defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I into French and British mandates.
If Israel is illegal, then those countries should be illegal as well. But that, of course, would be silly. Each of those countries have operating governments – well, Syria . . . – and boots on the ground. They are a reality. So, too, Israel with an operating government and boots on the ground. That’s the reality. Deal with it.
Of course, the reason for such objections has nothing to do with mere political criticism. The reason why Israel is singled out, plain and simple, is because that’s where the Jews are.
Is the BDS movement filled with anti-Semitism? You betcha! It is undeniable, regardless of the number of academicians who try and say otherwise.
That said, there are arguments to be made, and let’s not fool ourselves otherwise, against some of the actions and policies of Israel, particularly of its policies in the West Bank. There are arguments and criticisms to be made on a number of issues. It is not a slam dunk for either side.
Criticizing Israel is not the problem, but the attempt to isolate with an ultimate goal of eliminating Israel is. The simple fact is that such attempts to delegitimize Israel, not to put too fine a point on it, is an attempt to delegitimize and eliminate Jews.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.