Emancipation, empathy and America
September 13, 2019
(JNS)—In an interview with my colleague Benjamin Kerstein last week, Rabbi Eli Cohen, the executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn, N.Y., said something about the state of anti-Semitism in America today that’s worth revisiting.
Commenting on the continuing spate of brutal attacks against visibly Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, perpetrated mainly by African-American males, Rabbi Cohen remarked, “You know, white supremacists out somewhere in the United States, I don’t see any common denominator between that and someone picking up a rock and attacking a Jew in Crown Heights.” Elaborating, he explained, “They’re certainly not part of the same causality, and I don’t see them coming from a reaction of one to the other.” True, the rabbi acknowledged, there is a general tendency towards extremism across our society, yet “I think it’s more important to look for solutions more locally, while at the same time still being aware of the national environment.”
If we’ve learned anything from the torrid, often ill-informed debates about anti-Semitism over the last year—whether inside or outside our borders—it’s that the hatred of Jews comes in bewildering varieties. So much so, in fact, that there is frequently disagreement over who or what is anti-Semitic. For example, in the last fortnight, U.S. President Donald Trump has been excoriated by some writers as the greatest living threat to the Jewish people, while being hailed by others for being their greatest savior.
Neither of these claims is remotely true. As Rabbi Cohen implies, it’s time to get away from the politically loaded assessments of anti-Semitism (and its oddball cousin, philosemitism) into a more analytical mindset. Only then will we grasp that the varieties of anti-Semitism we encounter come from the right and the left, from Muslims and Christians, from people with black and brown and white skins, from people speaking Arabic, Polish, French and dozens of other languages—all brandishing hostile tropes about Jews that resonate both locally and globally.
The point here is not that everybody hates the Jews; far from it. It’s that in many cultures and across many different communities, there are dense pockets of anti-Semitism. Whether in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn or in the heavily immigrant-based Neukölln district in Berlin, many of the same prejudices will be uttered in different accents and tongues: Jews are greedy exploiters, Jews are clannish, Jews are weak, Jews do not belong among us. There will also be important differences: a deadly clash in the Gaza Strip is unlikely to trigger anti-Jewish violence in Crown Heights, but the same cannot be said for certain neighborhoods in certain European cities.
Faced with these complexities, we are in a better position to realize the futility of certain arguments: Is left-wing anti-Semitism worse than right-wing anti-Semitism? Are the Socialists who loathe Israel a bigger threat than the nationalists who admire the Jewish state, but not the Jews in their own midst? It isn’t a competition, and it is in no one’s interest to make it so.
The core challenge posed by anti-Semitism hasn’t really changed since the emergence of the modernist form of Jew-hatred 150 years ago. Is anti-Semitism something we can eradicate, or is it more prudent to seek its containment? To my mind, there is no more eloquent or provocative insight on this question than that provided by Max Nordau, one of the early Zionists, in his speech to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, when the buzzword among Jewish communities was “emancipation.”
“The nations which emancipated the Jews have mistaken their own feelings,” said Nordau. “In order to produce its full effect, emancipation should first have been completed in sentiment before it was declared by law. But this was not the case.” As a result, he continued, the “emancipation of the Jews was not the consequence of the conviction that grave injury had been done to a race, that it had been treated most terribly, and that it was time to atone for the injustice of a thousand years; it was solely the result of the geometrical mode of thought of French rationalism of the 18th century.”
In other words, the various laws and conventions that slowly, but surely, enabled Jews to vote, to attend public universities, to serve as elected representatives and so on, were all, according to Nordau, the consequence of a cold mathematical calculation that accepted the Jews as citizens without rejecting the baggage of anti-Jewish prejudice. Even if it wasn’t quite as icy and one-dimensional as Nordau made out, his broader observation—that emancipation and empathy are two very different things—is what stands out.
The historical process described by Nordau here doesn’t apply to the United States, where there was no issue of “emancipation” because there was never a political Judenfrage (German for “Jewish Question”) to generate a movement for emancipation in the first place. But the deeper matter of what Nordau calls “sentiment” (public opinion is a close enough translation) is highly relevant.
The struggles against anti-Semitism that have become increasingly central to Jewish communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are boosting the general perception that Jews are a separate community with distinct, and sometimes competing, interests. This is unfortunate, but to be blunt, there isn’t much that can be done to correct it. Thankfully, we no longer live in a time when we are obliged to note the advice of a type that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called the “democratic anti-Semite”: someone who implores the Jews, for their own good, to be a little less particular and a lot more universal. Even so, if we are going to bring more heat to the battle, let us shine some much-needed light as well.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.