Anti-Semitism may be the oldest hatred, but it still comes up with horrifying surprises. One of them is a spike in anti-Semitism, stoked by a President who seems wildly pro-Israel and even has a Jewish daughter. This crazy dynamic climaxed yesterday when 11 Jews were murdered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Throughout history people have slaughtered Jews for every reason under the sun. But we still need to attend to their reasons.
The shooter, according to media accounts, was obsessed with immigration, and the broad support that more open immigration policy enjoys among Jews, an immigrant group with a long memory. Even Donald Trump was too much of a softy for him, but the shooter’s worldview is the metastasized version of Trump’s cynical weaponization of immigration as the Mother-of-All-Wedge Issues, the diversionary proxy for every bit of white working class social, economic, and cultural resentment he can milk from it for the sake of his deepest love: profitable, personally useful political theater, not to exclude theater redolent in allusions to violence. So POTUS can’t play dumb when his vultures come home to roost.
What is it about Jews that drives some people so crazy, and in such opposite and contradictory directions? Jews are evil capitalists and Jews are evil socialists. Jews are religious fanatics and Jews are godless atheists. Jews are overly ambitious and Jews are lazy parasites. Jews want to control the world and want to keep too much to themselves. How can this all be?
In no small part, it is because Jews are imaginably all of the above in different ways in different times and in different places. So is all of humanity. Jews live out some of the deepest quandaries of being human, on a small scale and on a large stage certainly in the past few centuries. Above all, they live out the endless drama starring the universal and the particular.
A central feature of Jewishness is an attempt to synthesize the particular and the universal. This has its origins in the deepest theologies of the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical God is the universal Creator of the world and giver of the universal moral law. He enters into a covenantal relationship with one specific people who He commands to live by that moral law for their own good and the good of all humanity. They are to take that universal truth and weave it into the fabric of their particular communal life. A deeper—and deeply challenging—message here is that there is at heart no contradiction between universality and intimacy. Passionate love and universal reason can go hand-in-hand, in nations as in families. But it takes a lot of work and the road getting there isn’t easy. It isn’t even, often enough, what military types call a permissive environment.
This creative tension has run through Jewish life for millennia. Modernity torqued it, twisted it, and released both its creative and destructive energies. When 19th-century anti-Semites said the Jews were capitalist money bags and socialist revolutionaries both, they were right. Jews were deeply involved in both, as both represented a new kind of transnationalism, detached from traditional communal structures that the modern nation-state had undone. (This is part of why George Soros, the liberal Socialist hedge fund billionaire, is such an inviting target; with him you get two for one.)
Anti-Semitism of the Left and the Right has each seized on one piece of the equation. Right/Trumpist anti-Semitism despises universalism, loves nationalism. Left/Corbyn anti-Semitism despises nationalism, loves universalism. The Jews stand to get it in the neck from both directions. This is how we can have a popular Israeli Prime Minister of the Right who seems in many ways increasingly indistinguishable from today’s authoritarians; both are working with an extreme end of the national-universal divide.
Go back a few decades and it was the Global Left that was spearheading anti-Semitism. The players change, the divide stays more or less the same—and real live, flesh-and-blood Jews pay the price.
Islamic anti-Semitism partakes of this, too. Islam is itself a universalist religion, even if the universalism it espouses regularly speaks in tones very different from those of Western liberalism. At the same time, it is deeply connected by and to a language, Arabic—and language is the matrix of all cultural and national life, even when endowed with sacred status, just as Hebrew is for Jews.
And the President with the Jewish daughter? As I’ve written elsewhere, Trump’s entourage is a retreat from modern Jewish politics, a return to Court Jews. It is deeply disempowering, for it makes Jews, yet again, individual pawns in a gentiles’ game.
There is a difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of Jews, including reasonable criticism. The reasonable critic of Jews takes into account internal differences among Jews, and also takes into consideration how Jews understand themselves. The anti-Semite sees them all as one monolithic block, and couldn’t care less about how Jews see themselves. And all too often, unfortunately, this is how we Jews criticize one another. This is how the farther ends of anti-Semitism and some of the farther ends of philo-Semitism can meet—or rather collide.