Not all antisemitism is equal


Frankly, I could not care less whether Winston Churchill wrote, “The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jew is that the Jew is ‘different.’ He looks different. He thinks differently. He has a different tradition and background. He refuses to be absorbed.” Certainly, nothing in those words detracts one iota from Churchill’s status as the greatest world leader of the 20th century, and the one to whom, more than any other, we owe our existence today.

I’m inclined to believe Sir Martin Gilbert that Churchill did not write the words quoted above, and that they were those of a ghostwriter. Ghostwriters — at least if they are any good — are paid to reflect the sentiments of their principal. And the sentiments expressed by Churchill, in my opinion, far from being contemptible, reflect a certain spiritual sensitivity – the recognition that the Jew is different. I only wish more Jews today were equally confident of that difference, and that more gentiles shared Churchill’s awareness of Jewish distinctiveness, and were as little inclined to marry us as they once were.

There is a great chasm between the genteel discomfort around Jews expressed by Churchill (and which by the way is by no means limited to the gentile half of the relationship) and the antisemitism of the Nazis or many lesser imitators today. If one studies the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, one finds that many of them harbored sentiments about Jews considerably less friendly than those expressed by Churchill. But those sentiments neither led them to harm Jews nor prevented them from close friendships with individual Jews. And ultimately they did not prevent the rescuers from risking their lives to save those of Jews.

Churchill has hitherto been known as something of a philo-Semite, and was certainly sympathetic to Jewish national aspirations in Palestine. Even in the article in question he (or his ghostwriter) expresses his admiration of Jews in various places.

Virulent antisemitism is an entirely different kettle of fish. The true Jew haters do not merely feel a discomfort with Jews; they are obsessed with them. For them Jews are truly diabolical and are at the root of all that is wrong with the world. Not that all those so obsessed, of course, are potential Nazis in waiting. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, for instance, recently advanced the theory in the Guardian that British foreign policy has been subverted to the interests of a foreign country – Israel. Walt/Mearsheimer warmed over for England.

Whatever the superficial plausibility of the Walt/Mearsheimer “thesis” for America, where Jews contribute a wildly disproportionate share to presidential campaigns and Israel enjoys the fervent support of tens of millions of evangelical Christianity, it is laughable when advanced in England, where Jews wield no political power, Israel is widely reviled, and there are scarcely any Christians left. All this marks Wheatcroft as someone obsessed with Jews. It does not mean that he will soon be looking around for new Oswald Mosely to follow.

WITH THE VIRULENT OBSESSIVE ANTISEMITISM, we cannot make peace and must be constantly on alert. And we do not have far to look for it today. It is all about us — in the Moslem world, on the Left or far-Right in Europe, and at the U.N. The latter is a virtual debating society for the passage of anti-Israel resolutions, and maintains several large bureaucracies whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the image of the Palestinians as the world’s most victimized people. In that, they have been successful. When asked to identify the greatest threat to world peace, Western Europeans overwhelming name Israel. Not Iran, not North Korea, but Israel.

The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women concluded its annual session in March. Only one country came in for specific condemnation: Israel. Not Iran where 33 women were recently beaten and arrested for protesting against polygamy and laws which deny women custody rights over their children; not Islamic countries where mutilation of female infants is widespread and “honor” killings go unprosecuted; not China where millions of pregnancies are forcibly terminated a year. Only Israel.

After the Holocaust, virulent antisemitism was assumed to be a thing of the past. But it has returned with a vengeance.

At least in Christian Europe, antisemitism seemed explicable, if not altogether rational. Jews, after all, denied the central “truths” of their host societies. But that cannot explain the fixation on Jews today when Christianity exercises no hold over the overwhelming majority of Europeans. And if we go back in history to the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans we find similar attacks on Jews and Judaism long before the advent of Christianity.

A number of commentaries explain Chazal’s statement, “It is a known halacha that Esav hates Yaakov,” to mean that that hatred defies any explanation, just like a “halacha l’Moshe M’Sinai.” The enduring, irrational and protean nature of the hatred directed at us in all generations and in all places is beyond any naturalistic explanation.

The irrational, and therefore irrefutable, charges thrown at us throughout the centuries deplete our spirits, and beyond that they have too often threatened our very physical existence. But they do something else as well: They confirm that we are truly a unique nation that has been chosen for its own singular mission in history.

As Chazal say, Sinai derives its name from sinah, hatred in lashon hakodesh. The giving of Torah, and our being thereby singled out from the other nations, is the key to understanding antisemitism. At a subconscious level, the nations of the world are acknowledging our centrality in the Divine plan by their fixation on the Jews, despite our negligible numbers…

The rapid metamorphosis of Israel-bashing into old canards about Jewish conspiracies and manipulation of all the world’s resources should at one level fill us with hope. It is but one more manifestation of what the late Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, used to describe as the way that Hashgachah is forcing us to acknowledge our own unique mission. The miracle of enduring antisemitism is one that even a non-religious Jew can acknowledge.

Our uniqueness is not something we can escape. Attempts to do so only worsen the hatred. At a recent lecture in New York, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson speculated that the spark that ignited traditional German Jew hatred into something truly murderous was rapidly increasing intermarriage, and the fears of racial contamination to which it gave rise. As Rabbi Chaim Volozhin said, “If the Jew does not make Kiddush – i.e., sanctify himself – the gentiles will make Havdalah. . .

Originally appeared in the London Jewish Tribune.

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One Christian's perspective
8 years 5 months ago

Maybe general tolerance is a special feature of America. I’d like a well-supported explanation sometime of why non-Jewish Americans often behave in an un-Esav-like way.

Comment by Bob Miller

I don’t think one can classify a people group as a single unity. Ori, said the US to a much larger extent than Europe bases nationality on shared ideals rather than shared heritage and this breeds tolerance to people of other heritages or religions as long as we follow the same ideals. Yes, I think this is true within the bounds of those ideals. Rabbi Lapin feels that there are two people groups in the US, if I understand him correctly. One groups ideals, if you will, is based on Judeo-Christian values while the other is based on mans values – secular liberal human values. The first group, to the extent of their awe of a Holy G-d in regards to their own standing before Him, views man as one created in the image of G-d and all that implies. The secular group views man according to a standard they have created or views man in the image of man at the exclusion of G-d. When G-d is out of the picture and out of the lives of men/women, a substitute is made (idol) to fill the void. Hatred of what is not man-made becomes their native language directed against those who don’t hold their values in high regard. Esav enjoyed mans ways and sold his birthright. Jacob saw the value of the birthright as something eternal and beyond the limits of man. Jacob/Israel chose G-d; Esav did not.

There is a large percentage of Jews and Christians in the US at this present time living together in harmony. Where there are large pockets of Christians living in other parts of the world – such as, Africa and China – there is not a large pocket of Jewish people. Europe and UK, OTOH, are places which Christians feel at the present time are very dark and devoid of G-d’s truth. Their hatred against Christians is growing while their acceptance of other ‘religious practices’ is increasing. Even in Denmark, the birth place of my father, the old Norse gods are being dragged out of closets and children are named after these same gods. My great great grandfather must be rolling over in his grave !

In conclusion, I would say Esav represents the Godless of the world and their behavior reflects who they serve.

Ori Pomerantz
8 years 5 months ago

The US, to a much larger extent than Europe, bases nationality on shared ideals rather than shared heritage. This breeds tolerance to people of other heritages or religions, as long as they follow the same ideals.

Read about this distinction from the eyes of an early 20th century English reporter

Bob Miller
8 years 5 months ago

I grew up in the 50’s and early 60’s in a largely Irish-American neighborhood on Staten Island. We lived on one block in a rented apartment and then a few blocks away in our own house. The neighbors showed the complete range of attitudes towards us as Jews. One family had a daughter who often called us “dirty Jews” whereas two of her brothers played football, etc., with me in the street or basketball in our driveway. One family was genuinely friendly in every possible way, and began shoveling our sidewalk and driveway later whenever it snowed, when my parents got older and were living alone. Others were standoffish but would at least say hello on the street. Much more often than not, we were treated decently.

Maybe general tolerance is a special feature of America. I’d like a well-supported explanation sometime of why non-Jewish Americans often behave in an un-Esav-like way.

Baruch Horowitz
8 years 5 months ago


I would guess that any differences between Rabbis Adlerstein and Rosenblum are in terms of degree and emphasis. BTW, Rabbi Adlestein wrote similarly this March in “Reciprocity and Specialness”:

“Those who believe that HKBH created anti-Semitism as an irrational reality common to the hearts of many ought to be able to believe that He could cure this irrationality at certain times and places.”

Even according to the view that anti-Semitism is irrational, I would add two points:

(1) We should distinguish between the individual and the group. Hashem might decree that there should be an irrational anti-Semitism, but individuals have free-choice not to hate. Otherwise, one has reduced people to the level of saro shel eisev who doesn’t have bechirah and responsibility.

(2) Concerns for “darkei shalom and eivah” shows that anti-Semitism can be intensified by our own actions or lack thereof.

I think that one can also make a limited comparison between anti-Semitism, to bad feelings by some chilonim towards frum people, and between less and more frum. It may reflect an insecurity, which is similar to the jealousy of Har Sinai. On the other hand, there is also the darchei shalom aspect; when chilonim read about out- of- control zealots, they are challenged to distinguish between different groups of charedim, which is what darchei shalom seeks to circumvent in the first place. Part of the picture may also be, that the less insular group’s perception is that the more religious group does not care about their feelings. There is also sterotyping and misinformation caused by the media, which applies in the case anti-semitism as well.

Bob Miller
8 years 5 months ago

Jonathan Rosenblum wrote above that
“A number of commentaries explain Chazal’s statement, “It is a known halacha that Esav hates Yaakov,” to mean that that hatred defies any explanation, just like a “halacha l’Moshe M’Sinai.” The enduring, irrational and protean nature of the hatred directed at us in all generations and in all places is beyond any naturalistic explanation.”

But see this other view:
Rabbi Adlerstein says there, in part,
“Those who see anti-Semitism everywhere usually point to the midrashic passage cited by Rashi (Genesis 33:4) that roughly reads: “It is a halacha and well established that Esav hates Yaakov…” Several factors point to this teaching something universal. The unusual use of the word “halachah” /law suggests an immutable part of nature. The use of the present tense – Esav hates, rather than Esav hated – implies that the Sages were talking about a phenomenon of an ungoing nature, rather than an episode in the lives of Yaakov and his brother. Most frequently, Esav is seen as morphing into Rome, then its successor in the Holy Roman Empire, and finally into Western Civilization. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer applied it to all non-Jews (Even HaAzel, Melachim 5:1).

On the other hand, the crucial word “halacha” is questionable. There are variant texts, which use “halo” in place of “halacha hi” as in Sefer HaZikaron. A search of a current version of Bar-Ilan shows not a single citation of the passage in the enlarged sense of Esav’s successors until the late 19th century. (This does not prove anything decisively. Many ideas fail to make it to print not because they were not available, but because they were so taken for granted, that they were not discussed. Nonetheless it is interesting that the medrash may very well have meant Esav the person to many people who saw it at earlier times in history.) The Netziv, who does accept an enlarged reading, nonetheless enlarges Esav’s reaction to his brother as well. He tells us that not only was Esav moved by sincere love for his brother, but that this would also recur in history, and that when it does, we should reciprocate it.

I am not going to be foolhardy enough to “prove” which reading is correct. I’ve been telling students for decades that virtually any question worth asking has a correct two word solution: machlokes rishonim/ it is disputed by the great medieval authorities. There may (or may not) be a real dispute here. The depth of regard and love for Jews I have seen in many non-Jews is so deep and widespread, that I would have a hard time believing that even the view that expands Esav beyond the Biblical individual means all non-Jews without exception.”