So, here’s a problem: what image do I use here that doesn’t make things worse? What can I do that doesn’t exploit the history of antisemitism just to get attention? I don’t want to equate this email to any real atrocity, but I’m backed into a corner. I have to have some kind of illustration here. This is another way in which antisemitism traps Jews. Even the mere act of deciding what picture to use to begin a blog post is fraught with danger. Whatever I use, I can be accused of taking advantage of other people’s suffering for my own personal publicity.
This past weekend we broadcasted a Why? Radio rerun, an interview with Danial Jonah Goldhagen called “How to think about antisemitism.” I had my reservations about running it again because the first time we did, we lost a bunch of listeners. People who regularly wrote to the show sent emails in advance, asking why Israel was evil and other questions that were, at minimum, phrased problematically. The guest and I discussed them, addressing, in particular, the accusation that Jews all think that criticizing Israel is itself anti-Semitic. (Goldhagen’s answer was, first, that most Jews do not think this and second, that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. What is, he argued, is holding Israel to a different standard than anyone else. We’ll come back to that at the end of this discussion.)
During the show I mentions that as a host, I was scared because although I wanted to address listeners’ questions, some of the replies were going to be critical and I didn’t want to alienate a loyal audience. This turned out to be prescient. I never heard from some of them again.
But, politics being what it is, I thought it was an important episode to rebroadcast. Plus, I think it’s a really good episode, one of our best, most compelling, and most sophisticated ones. So I reran it and, predictably, today (11/16/2016) at 7:12 pm, I got the following message via my personal website.
“Name: Douglas Sczygelski
Comment: Look at Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, and go to the index and look up Maimonides, and you will see that Maimonides thought it was no sin to murder gentiles. This is why there was so much anti-Semitism in Europe for centuries. Would you want to live next door to people who openly teach their children that it is not immoral to break into your house in the middle of the night and cut your throat?
You can read more stuff like this in the book “Jewish History, Jewish Religion” by the famous Israeli human rights activist Israel Shahak. Or you can look up Shahak in Wikipedia.
And why didn’t you point out that Goldhagen was lying when he said the Jewish authorities didn’t kill Jesus? In the Babylonian Talmud, the Jews openly admit they killed Jewish, and say they were right to do so, and that he is now in Hell. If you haven’t got time to read the Babylonian Talmud, you can read about this on pages 15-16, 63-65, 75-77, and 85 of the book “Jesus in the Talmud” by Peter Schafer, published by Princeton University Press.
Antisemitism was also caused by the fact that so many Jews were prominent in organized crime. Look at Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and so on. Because of the Mafia there is anti-Italian sentiment, so why would there not be anti-Jewish sentiment because of Rothstein, Siegel and Lansky? Did you ever hear of any Norwegians in the Mafia? I haven’t. Any Swedes, Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans? I haven’t. Dutch Schultz was a Jew. His real name was Arthur Flegenheimer. You can read about this in Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews.”
Saul Friedlander admits on page 109 of his book “The Years of Extermination” that Jewish swindles in France in the 1930s greatly increased anti-Semitism. Unsophisticated people keep reading in the newspapers about Jewish swindles, so they jump to the conclusion that all Jews are crooks.
So why are you and that idiot Goldhagen surprised by anti-Semitism? It is easy to explain.”
First off, I don’t know for certain that the name and email attached to the message are the author, but when I searched for them, I got an article about someone by that name being fired for sending racist letters (notice that he lives in my town, and now I have to worry about dealing with him in person), and a site advertising reactionary ramblings lending credence to the signature. I’m pretty confident it is him.
I rebroadcast a discussion of antisemitism and I got an antisemitic attack in response. This is not surprising to anyone who follows this sort of thing. But this is not what I wanted to talk about here. Instead, I wanted to answer the email directly, not to the author, but to my audience who actually matters to me. I want people to see what a Jewish public figure (and not even a famous one) has to do to counter such attacks.
Why is this email anti-Semitic?
There are many reasons why what he wrote is antisemitic, here are the main ones:
It claims that all the hatred, violence, and oppression against the Jews are their own fault. If they had been better people, it says, they would have been fine. This is a very common mode of attack.
It claims that all Jews are identical—that one Jew should be held accountable for the crimes of all other Jews, as if their Jewishness unites them above all else. Charles Manson was a mass murderer. Should I imprison my white neighbor because of it? If not, why should I hold one Jew accountable for something another Jew did.
It claims that the Jews killed Jesus. This is a position that even the Catholic Church has repudiated. If you take the Gospels as historical truth, something you have to do to even make the accusation, it is still the case that the Romans, not the Jews, killed Jesus, even if some Jews approved of it. Pontius Pilate made the decision, regardless of his self-deceiving desire to wash his hands of it.
But let’s pretend for a second that Jews of the time did collectively kill Jesus (which, again, they didn’t). What does a a murder in 33 CE have to do with Jews who were born in Germany in 1900? Again, this only makes sense if every Jew, in every place, at every time in history, is morally and metaphysically interchangeable.
It claims that the mafia was actually made up of Jews who framed Italians. Sure, there were Jewish gangsters, the email names the most famous ones. But there were Italian ones too, as well as Japanese ones, Mexican ones, Russian ones, and lots of others ethnic and nationally affiliated syndicates. Why should Jewish actions be the only ones that inspired hatred? And how can it possibly be believable that all the history books about organized crime are deceived enough to focus on the Italian mafia? I assume the emails author would claim it is the result of a Jewish media conspiracy. It must not be much of a conspiracy if it doesn’t stop continuous attacks on Jews and if it is so obvious that even the author of the email knows about it. This is another common antisemitic claim:
It assumes that all Jews together are engaged in a conspiracy of lies.The only way most of his claims could actually be true is if every Jew was “in on it.” This would involve every rabbi, every Jewish child, school teacher, butcher, brewer, baker, steel worker, and prostitute. Is that in any way credible? Is it even imaginable?
It calls Goldhagen an idiot. This, in itself need not be antisemitic, but it certainly reveals a personal and unjustified hostility that hints at the author’s own personal antisemitism. For what it’s worth, Daniel Goldhagen is a brilliant scholar who profoundly affected his discipline. His entire career is dedicated to stopping all genocide. He taught at Harvard, has won great accolades and, not for nothing, I have gotten to know him as a friend since the interview and he is a wonderful person. Maybe he is wrong in some of his interpretations, but no scholar is completely right. Maybe he made mistakes in some conclusions, but no one is perfect. He is not an idiot and calling him one contributes nothing to the discussion. It betrays that the author of the email has no grounds upon which to stand.
So, the whole thing is antisemitic, but are its accusations true?
I checked my copy of The God Delusion and Dawkins does, in fact, cite both contemporary author Shahak and the medieval philosopher Maimonides. Dawkins’s book is problematic in many ways and he cherry picks from the history of religion. However, my main criticism of his book has always been that since Dawkins thinks like a practicing scientist, he only values the latest best-knowledge so far. He doesn’t understand the concept of an intellectual tradition and gives no credence to the fact that morality evolves over time. More on this is a minute.
Now, the Talmud, which is where Dawkins and Shahak’s claims ultimately originate, is not the bible. It is a history of scholarly disagreements—a list of different rabbi’s interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures that stops at 500 CE. It is not internally consistent. If one part claims that it is okay to kill gentiles, it does not mean that another part of it will say it’s not okay. That’s just not how the book works.
In other words, in attacking Judaism, the author cites Dawkins, citing Shahak, citing a medieval Jewish philosopher, who is himself citing the Talmud, a book that cites many different rabbis who themselves cite and interpret the bible. And on the basis of this, the emails claims that it’s the Jews’ own fault that they are hated and massacred? When put that way, it’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?
Does Maimonides actually say, in a book published in 1190 CE, that it is okay to kill the gentiles? There seems to be debate about this. One site I found argues that what Maimonides was actually arguing is that Jewish laws only apply to Jews, not to gentiles. Other sites suggest differently, but pretty much every one of them quotes Shahak, the person whose claims we are trying to investigate in the first place. He cannot be used as evidence of his own accuracy. I will pursue this with historians of religion in the next few days, but I wanted to get this off my chest today, and I didn’t want to wait. I will post an update if I get an answer.
But again, let’s pretend that Maimonides did say that it was okay to kill non-Jews and that the Talmud did actually support it. The fact of the matter is that virtually every moral tradition goes through a period in which moral rules apply only to insiders and not to outsiders. The classical Greeks thought that other Greeks should be treated humanely, but that non-Greeks—Barbarians—were exempt from this consideration. Christians were permitted to do horrendous things to non-Christians, sometimes in war and sometimes to save the heathens souls, as they did during the Spanish Inquisition. Muslims had similar periods, so did the Samurai, so did early 20th century Germans, and, frankly, so did George W. Bush and four Supreme Court justices including Antonin Scalia. We house people in Guantanamo Bay because the Bush administration believed that US law allows the government to treat non-Americans outside of America much worse than they are allowed to treat Americans themselves. This is straight out of the Classical Greek playbook.
So if everyone does it, why just attack the Jews for it? As “that idiot Goldhagen” said about Israel, there is nothing wrong with being critical of Judaism or individual Jews. The problem arises when you hold them to unique standards that no one else has to live up to. In its history of moral development, Judaism has many of the same faults as any other group.
Again, moralities evolve. We learn things. This is what Dawkins doesn’t understand. “An eye for an eye” feels evil to most people now, but when it was first introduced, it was a moral breakthrough. During a time when, in response to one murder, an entire family would be slaughtered, and during a period in which if one woman was raped, a whole town was brutalized in retaliation, a law against escalation is a glorious revelation.
What “an eye for an eye” asserts is: it is immoral to do more evil than has been brought against the original victim; one can’t cause more harm through retribution than one experiences. This is an imperfect principle, no doubt, but it is a hell of a lot better than what happened before. If Jews or Greeks or Christians didn’t understand this two millennia ago, they learned it eventually, and we should celebrate the discovery, not condemn an entire people for something one person allegedly said long before Europe even existed.
Reflecting on the response itself.
So that’s my rebuttal to the antisemitic email, but please notice something. This guy’s email was four short paragraphs without any context or explanation. It probably took him five minutes of breathless ham-fisted thumping on his keyboard to put it together. My response is more than least three times as long and, as I edit this document for clarity and errors, I have already devoted two hours to this post.
This is the why it is so hard to fight antisemitism and why it was hard to defend against populists like Trump. The truth always takes longer to explain than convenient fictions. “Jews are evil” and “antisemitism is the Jews’ own fault” are pithy slogans that cater to fear and ignorance, just like “immigrants take our jobs” or “all Muslims want to kill you” are. It takes a lot longer to explain the reality of Jewish history just like it takes a lot longer to show that economies actually do much better during period of mass immigration. It takes even longer than that to explain that there are Arab, Persian, African, Asian, European, and American Muslims, all of whom have radically different cultures, beliefs and practices, and that even among Arab Muslims, there is significant cultural variation and most are too busy with their own lives to even want to harm anyone, let alone actively pursue violence.
Lies are easy to tell. Truth is long, complex, and tiring. So the demagogues and propagandists always win. The Trumps and the Douglas Sczygelskis (the author of the email) have a tremendous advantage, even though they know nothing. They hide behind their accusations and bluster while I am going to get a lot of “too long/didn’t read” in response to this post. But what else can I do? Do I just stay silent? Do I let the bigots have their say? This quandary has been the great American question since 1776 and it has never been more relevant than now.
Finally, on a personal note, just two hours before I got this hostile, disquieting, and ignorant email, I posted the following tweet linking to a wonderful BB King performance:
I was trying to center myself after the election and a week of argument, hostility, anger, and fear. I was trying to transition to a more reflective mode and remember that many people whom I was fighting with on Facebook were actually my friends. I was trying to reaffirm beauty in the world.
Thanks to Douglas Sczygelski and his delusional rant, it didn’t work. And to add insult to injury, when he finds out, it will just make him happier because as far as he’s concerned, I’m just a Jew and I don’t deserve anything but the history of violence so far.
Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein