This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How to Think About Antisemitism” You can hear the whole episode online here.
People think that prejudice is simple, that it involves lack of thought. The most common response to someone’s bigotry is that the offender just “doesn’t know any better,” and that he or she simply needs to get out more, meet new people, and be open-minded. While it’s true that lack of experience can make prejudice worse, this kind of ignorance is anything but simple. It’s built on history, attached to our common texts, and supported by all aspects of our lives. Most of what justifies our prejudices is so familiar that it is invisible to us; this is particularly true about antisemitism.
I am, no doubt, the first Jew that most of my North Dakota students will meet. Most of them will not even discover my background until midway through the semester, when it comes up in discussion. When I taught on the East and West coasts, my students recognized Weinstein as a common Jewish name, but not here. Most have no idea. But these young men and women who have never knowingly interacted with a Jew before me, feel they have a strong understanding of what Jews believe, of what our place in history is, of what’s wrong with us. Most have been learning about Jews since they were old enough to understand what Christmas is, and all regularly encounter jokes and slights about us on the internet. Almost everyone has seen who we are framed as incompetent, neurotic, and dominated, in almost any Ben Stiller movie. Meet the Parents, There’s Something About Mary…lessons on how Jews simply don’t operate properly in the world.
Talking about antisemitism is made more difficult by the “greatest hits” aspect of the discussion; when we talk about prejudice against Jews, we invariably discuss Israel and the Holocaust. Israel is a fraught topic because people pretend that it is a nation of one religious belief and a singular political opinion in one unified community. Yet they also falsely claim that anytime they criticize Israel they are accused of antisemitism. All Jews are the same, they tell us, and no Jew is open to critique or public challenge.
The Holocaust is even more complex because people regularly assert that it was an anomaly and that this one guy forced otherwise innocent people to do unique and despicable things. In modern discussion, the Holocaust is the only event in history that has no causes. That’s not the case, of course, the Holocaust has many antecedents, but I’m reminded of Allan Bloom’s comment that Hitler was the worst thing to happen to ethics classes because now, anytime students are asked to give an example of evil, they name him. They no longer have to use their imaginations.
Bloom’s comments are particularly astute because any discussion of antisemitism is really about the power of the imagination in human life. We have all been taught that the literary idea of the Jew is the real Jew. That the character that is crafted for blame in the bible, Shakespeare, in art, music, and academic scholarship, is real and roaming the streets, that he is talking to you now. The imagination attaches false causes to events, it sees patterns where there are none, and it persuades us that our expectations have been realized when, in actuality, all we are doing is projecting false interpretations on the world. Antisemitism does an outstanding job of illustrating how persuasive the imagination can actually be.
All of this is to say that prejudice is not simple, and that antisemitism has had almost two millennia to create a framework that describes Jews as everything people fear and despise, even though most people have never known one. It is a point of view that declares that Jews are in complete control of the world, even though, in all of human history, there has only been one Jewish nation, and it has been under constant attack since its founding in 1948. In any other context, this nonsense would be dismissed as incoherent, but with antisemitism, our imaginations are primed so it all makes sense. And even when the extreme versions are dismissed as paranoia, many if not most people still think there’s some truth to them. Extremists attack the US because Israel occupies Gaza, the Jewish lobby has tremendous influence over America’s foreign affairs, Jews control Hollywood—bizarrely, these are not extremist claims. They are the moderate ones we see in the media all the time. Hell, if they weren’t true, Mel Gibson would still be making movies, right? Right?
Today’s episode is about antisemitism and the ways the past repeats itself. All I can do in preparation is to emphasize that it will not be a simple conversation and that prejudice, in any form, is complicated and deserves the same philosophical investigation as all other topics. Bigotry against Jews cannot be dismissed as ignorance, because it isn’t simply a lack of knowledge. It is, instead, a deep kinship with a worldview that, while deeply wrong, permeates most of the modern world. Truly understanding antisemitism involves getting to the core of history itself because, frankly, the two are inseparable. That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not. It’s simply depressing.