An uncertain future without anti-Semitism

March 31, 2006

Past persecution has not only failed to destroy Judaism, it has united a people in shared traditions and has reinvigorated Jewish life, argues Dan Cohn-Sherbok.

I am a professor of Jewish theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter, a small liberal arts university. The university is located in a tiny Welsh town surrounded by green hills. My wife and I and our two cats live in an old coach house in the Welsh countryside. Our nearest neighbours are sheep. They have no interest in my religious views. Neither do the few Jews who live in the area. Hence I will not be besieged by either our neighbours or the local Jewish community for arguing that anti-Semitism and Jewish survival are interrelated.

My students are equally unperturbed by my opinions. In an introduction to Judaism course, I told them that I was writing a book about anti-Semitism. Today, I explained, Judaism is in chaos. No longer are Jews bound by the religious traditions of the past. All this, I went on, is the result of assimilation. In the past, Jews were subject to prejudice.

Lacking social and economic opportunities, they were isolated from the outside world. The Enlightenment changed that. Jews have gained civil and social equality and, as a result, have largely abandoned the Jewish heritage. What is missing in contemporary society is Jew-hatred. Without such prejudice, I explained, it is difficult to see how the Jewish people will return to their ancient traditions.

My students wrote this down without a murmur. But at the end of the lecture, one of the students, a curvaceous blonde with a tattoo on her arm, put up her hand. "Rabbi Dan," she said with a puzzled expression. "I don't get it. I just did your Holocaust course, and you said that the Nazis created a racial state. They wanted to kill all Jews. If they'd succeeded, there wouldn't be any Jews left. How can anti-Semitism be a good thing?"

I stressed that I was in no way endorsing genocide nor was I encouraging hatred of the Jewish people. My point was that in the past, Jewish survival and Jew-hatred have been interconnected. In the modern world, it may be that the absence of such contempt may paradoxically lead to the disintegration of the Jewish heritage.

My answer caused a degree of consternation, but my students wrote down what I said and asked no further questions. In Wales, I am safe from criticism.

But this will not be so in the Jewish world. I know it will cause outrage to view anti-Semitism in positive terms, no matter what the reason. I have been a rabbi on four continents and am used to Jewish sensitivities. For understandable reasons, Jews have welcomed the opportunities offered by the Enlightenment and do not wish to return to a ghetto existence. They do not desire to suffer discrimination, even if the Jewish heritage is at stake.

Instead, they are determined to live a comfortable existence, secure and protected.

As a Reform rabbi, I am familiar with the affluent, assimilated lifestyle of middle-class Jews. The congregations I served after I was ordained were representative of communities everywhere. The president of Temple Beth-El in a town in Pennsylvania where I was a summer rabbi was a typical example of the people in those congregations, and I can imagine what his reaction would have been had I told him that anti-Semitism can have positive benefits. Even if I explained to him the ways in which prejudice motivated Jews to preserve their heritage, he wouldn't listen. He would get angry. He would call me an anti-Semite.

This is just the reaction I had when I discussed my book with an old friend who had been my classmate at the Hebrew Union College in the US more than 30 years ago. Currently he is a rabbi in Manchester. I thought I ought to gauge what my rabbinical colleagues might say. I told him that I wanted to discuss my theory about Jew-hatred. After a brief explanation, he grunted.

"That's the most ridiculous thing I think I've ever heard," he said.

"You mean you don't agree."

"Agree! How could I?"

"But, look," I continued. "I think you've missed the point. Of course anti-Semitism should be condemned. Being targeted by Jew-haters is an evil.

But if you look back over Jewish history, I think you'll agree that our people did not just cave in. In the face of oppression, Jews embraced the traditions of our people and were determined to live Jewish lives no matter what the cost. They did not give in to our enemies; instead, they flourished. Anti-Semitism made them more determined and resolute."

Of course, in the past there have been periods when Jews were relatively secure and there was an efflorescence of Jewish culture. During the Golden Age of Spain, Jews prospered under Muslim rule. In such a milieu, Jewish civilisation flourished. C"rdoba, the capital of the Ummayad caliphate, became a vibrant centre of Jewish culture, attracting poets, grammarians and yeshivah students from throughout the diaspora. During the l2th century, biblical commentators, theologians and rabbinic authorities made major contributions to Jewish learning.

Although there were such periods of religious vibrancy in a relatively peaceful environment, these periods of calm were exceptions. In addition, they were invariably interrupted by anti-Jewish outbreaks. At the end of the 11th century, for example, Spanish Jewish life was disrupted when the Almoravides from North Africa were invited to Spain to lead an attack on Christian communities in the north and persecuted the Jewish community as well. A century later, the golden age of Spain came to an end when the Almohades, a Berber dynasty from Morocco, came to defend the country and simultaneously persecuted the Jewish community. Jews were forced to convert to Islam and synagogues were closed.

It would be a mistake to argue that Jewish religious intensity cannot exist unless Jews are persecuted. The point is rather that contempt for the Jew has in fact had positive benefits. Throughout Jewish history, antipathy toward Jewry has paradoxically reinvigorated Jewish life and driven Jews back to their traditions. Anti-Semitism is an evil; this is undeniable. The community should make every effort to thwart any form of racial hatred. But we should acknowledge that Jewish survival and Jew-hatred are paradoxically interrelated, and that without anti-Semitism, Jews may not be able to withstand the pressures of the modern world.

It is thus a misapprehension to believe that the persistence of Jew-hatred has had only a negative impact on Jewish life. What modern Jews have failed to grasp are the benefits of anti-Jewish hostility. Frequently, contempt for the Jew has united the Jewish people. Shunning the attractions of the Gentile world, they have drawn together. Through centuries of persecution, Jews remained faithful to their ancient tradition. It is a delusion to believe that the elimination of Jew-hatred by itself will save the Jewish people. The paradox of Jewish life is that hatred and survival have been interrelated for thousands of years and that without anti-Semitism, we may be doomed to extinction.

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok is professor of Jewish theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter. The Paradox of Antisemitism is published this month by Continuum, £14.99.

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