The recent Gaza/Israel conflict has exposed misinformation about Israel originating not only in Arab Islamism but also in Russian/Soviet antisemitic propaganda that has infected many media outlets and a large part of academia over the past fifty years.
A World War II-era Slovak propaganda poster exhorts readers not to “be a servant to the Jew.”
Bradley Martin has reviewed this sad history in his recent article, The Soviet Roots of Far-Left Antisemitism. He writes, “In 1955, the USSR would begin to sell weapons to Arab countries. Even the cause of Palestinian liberation and statehood was largely invented by the Soviets, considering the blueprint for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Charter was drafted in Moscow in 1964 and approved by 422 Palestinian representatives hand-selected by the KGB, according to Ion Mihai Pacepa. Such “liberation fronts” were “seen by the USSR as centers of Marxist indoctrination and opposition to democratic and capitalist movements,” states an article in the Stanford Review.” Ever since, the antisemitic calumnies, promoted by the Soviet Union and adopted by the Arab League, and many UN members, has been disseminated by professors and students promoting this pro-Palestinian Soviet ideology at top universities, Oxford, Columbia, Yale and sadly many many others all over the world in the name of free speech. It has gotten so bad that lists of these biased professors have now been compiled by the AMCHA initiative, along with databases of antisemitic incidents on many campuses.
These notions, “Zionism is racism,” “Israel is an apartheid state,” and a “colonial power,” have become so familiar that it almost proves the saying sometimes attributed to Goebbels that, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, often enough, people will eventually come to believe it.” These lies have invited and condoned ugly incidents of antisemitic terrorism towards Israel and Jews worldwide. These lies, antisemitic tropes are geared to arouse hatred towards Israel and Jews.
In his book, Not In God’s Name, Confronting Religious Violence *1, Rabbi Jonathon Sacks examines the psychological roots of ideological violence that appear in many disparate ideologies. He calls these ideologies altruistic evil. Unfortunately, most people are so appalled by the violence of the Shoah, Jim Crow laws, and Jihadism that they prefer to avoid looking at and analyzing these phenomena.
Rabbi Sacks starts with the premise that as humans, we are all vulnerable to psychological issues that lead to ideologies that demonize the other, such as Islamic jihad and antisemitism. They are insidious and powerful because we all want to be on the right side of aiding our countrymen. These ideologies of “altruistic evil” powerfully manipulate our very human characteristics:
“Sibling rivalry” is natural in childhood. Every child is angry with the seeming loss of attention from parents at the birth of a sibling. Murderous impulses towards siblings are well documented and often undergird these ideologies of hatred.
Hostility towards the out-group: Co-operation is the basic survival mechanism for any group, but an equally potent survival mechanism is banding together against the outsider – “Us against them.”
Scapegoating: When one’s problems are blamed on the other/outsider and not addressed: By focusing blame on an outside party, attacking a scapegoat obscures all internal problems. Still, it imprisons those who choose this route to unity since scapegoating simply unites hostility towards the outsider, never addressing any real problems of the in-group or the outgroup and is also liable to lead to the prison of victimhood.
Victimhood: Scapegoating generally imprisons the scapegoater in the “prison of helplessness” that is the inevitable outcome of scapegoating – “the prison of victimhood”. Blaming the other is a convenient way to avoid self-reflection that can lead to remedies and healing. As one Holocaust survivor expressed it, “I may have been victimized, but never was I a victim!”
The ideology of dualism vs monotheism: This is a more abstract issue: Dualism – dividing the world into forces of good vs evil, tends to lead to demonization and hatred rather than interaction and negotiation. Let me explain: Dualism, dividing the world into Forces of Good vs Forces of Evil, creates a universe in which the Satanic forces wage war against the Godly forces: an all-good vs all-bad dichotomy inevitably leads to an “us against them” war of the worlds.” “We” are the good guys, and “You are the bad guys. Monotheism posits that the One God is the source of all that exists in the world: He is the source of both good and evil. All of humankind, created in the image of God, has the potential for both good and evil behaviour. We are all created with the potential to assess and to choose between good and evil: This capacity to understand and choose offers all of us a path toward achieving peace and reconciliation. Jews call this path “striving for the world to come,” striving for the “messianic times” when all will live in harmony.
Rabbi Sacks explains succinctly the role antisemitism plays in legitimizing evil behaviour towards Israel and towards Jews.
By fulfilling the role of the scapegoat, Jews can be blamed for everything bad that happens to the group. As the mysterious, omnipotent, all-embracing evil enemy, hatred towards Jews unites the group, silences dissent, distracts from painful truths and enables otherwise utterly incompatible groups to become allies by banding together against the scapegoat.
Antisemitism is only contingently related to Jews. The real targets of Christians in the age of the Crusades were the Muslims, not the Jews. The targets of Nazi Germany were the European nations that had defeated Germany in the First World War. The real targets of the Islamists are other secular Islamic regimes and those who defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and divided up its spoils. The current spate of antisemitism in the US is an attempt to vilify and delegitimate the American government from the left and from the right, using the emotional hooks of us-against-them, good vs evil, conspiracy theories to energize their adherents.
The significance of antisemitism, however, is its effect not on Jews but antisemites. It allows the antisemites to see themselves as victims. It enables them to abdicate moral responsibility. Whatever is wrong in the world ‘it isn’t our fault; it’s theirs! They did it to us. After all, they control the world.’
Antisemitism did not help Christians win the Crusades or the Nazis win the Second World War, nor will it help Muslims destroy Israel or build just societies.
The Israel/Gaza conflict is not simply political: It bases itself on Hamas’ ideological claim of the supremacy of Islam over all other religious ideologies, and its precise aim, stated in its charter, is to annihilate the state of Israel simply for being Jewish. In this way, Hamas legitimates war against the State of Israel and legitimates assaults both symbolic and physical against Jews, in New York, Montreal, Toronto, London, Paris, and anywhere Jews step globally. Hamas’ Islamic Jihad is a clear example of Rabbi Sacks’ term “altruistic evil” – misguided altruism couched in political terms.
Antisemitism matters not just because it assaults Jews but because it assaults our common humanity. It is the paradigm case of fear of the outsider, the stranger, the one who is not like us. It resolves conflict within the group by projecting all evil onto the hated group. Rabbi Sacks derives these ideas by interpreting the text of the Bible and the stories of Cain and Abel, Issac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. He demonstrates via careful analysis of the Biblical text that God never favours one brother over the other but loves and provides for each of us equally and ultimately wants us all to care for each other as He does.
Is there a solution to this problem?
Rabbi Sacks says emphatically, “Yes, there is!”. He brings as an example the reconciliation between the Jewish community and the Vatican since the Shoah/Holocaust.
“Pope John XXIII and his successor Paul VI, reflecting on the Holocaust, read the work of the historian Jules Isaac who showed how ‘the teachings of contempt’ of the Church towards the Jews had given rise to a history of libels, false accusations, forced conversions, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, expulsions, ghettoes and pogroms.
The result was a historic change in relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews, initiated by the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965. Pope John Paul II deeply identified with that process and carried it forward. That took courage, honesty and humanity — the qualities that made him loved and admired within the Church and beyond.”
Rabbi Sacks warns that issues like antisemitism can never be resolved through war/power/dominance alone but only through education. As humans, we are all vulnerable to the virus of demonization of the other such as antisemitism and racism. Yet, for the same reason, we also all share the potential for insight and healing of these tendencies.
Jews call this healing “the process of teshuva,” “repentance,” or, more precisely, “a reconsideration of one’s path.” To achieve a world where all diverse individuals and groups can begin to see themselves as brothers is the ultimate redemption that Torah education envisions. And this can be achieved not through war or domination but only through vigorous discussion, negotiation, and study of our holy texts.
All people of goodwill must oppose the malignancy of Jew-hatred and racism in any form that it reasserts itself, but before one can oppose it, one must understand it and recognize it for what it is.
1.Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Schocken Books, 2015