The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre happened a week ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I am not sure why – I live in Israel and we’ve had worse massacres. I have friends who lost children in suicide bombings. My son was first on the scene of a bus that was bombed. It’s always horrifying, whether there are one, ten or thirty victims.
I once lived in that Squirrel Hill neighborhood, but it was for a short time many years ago and I barely remember it. I think the main thing that causes my emotional response is that it was a small Conservative shul with mostly older members, like the one I went to for 25 years in Fresno. I know those people – the guy that comes early on Shabbat to open up and lead services, the one that greets people at the door, even the 97-year old woman. The average age of the Pittsburgh victims was over 80 years.
Imagine the hate that must be in the murderer, that made him open fire at such people. Who hates like that? Maybe Samir Kuntar, who bashed the brains out of a four-year old Jewish child with his rifle butt. Maybe some of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
I have always been fascinated (not in a pleasant way) by extremes of hate, especially toward Jews. That is not to suggest that black slavery or the various genocides are not also horrifying, but they are different phenomena with different motivations and manifestations. I think it’s more illuminating to look at the details of each case than to try to generalize about multiple forms of inhumanity. Indeed, I find the standard liberal response to atrocities like Pittsburgh, which always must include mentioning racism, “Islamophobia,” and multiple forms of gender-related bias, offensive. It pretends that Jews are basically treated like everyone else (because who isn’t the victim of some kind of prejudice?) and that all we have to do to end it is to convince everyone that all humans are siblings. “Hate is not welcome here,” say the signs.
But it’s not the same. There is no hatred that is at the same time as pervasive (in both time and space), as intense, and as murderous as Jew-hatred. There is no other hatred that flourishes even where its targets can’t be found, or which transmogrifies itself to stay in existence despite variations in social, political, or religious environments. Yes, there was a nasty Armenian genocide which happened at a particular time and place, but there have been countless massacres, expulsions, pogroms, terror attacks, one almost-total genocide, and several wars motivated by genocidal intent over all of recorded Jewish history and everywhere that Jews lived. Jew-hatred initially took (and still takes, in some contexts) a religious form, then a national/political/economic one, and ultimately the murderous and inescapable racial configuration of the Nazis.
The form of Jewish nationalism known as Zionism developed during the 19th century as a result of the refusal of Western European nations to allow Jews to integrate into their societies by maintaining legal and social restrictions on their educational and occupational opportunities, and the continued vicious physical and economic persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire. It was a combination of the hope that in a state of our own we could be a normal people, which would result in our being treated like any other nationality; and the despair that the quality of our existence in the diaspora would never be acceptable. But the diabolical force of Jew-hatred was cleverer than the Zionists, and as the center of gravity of the Jewish people shifted from the diaspora to the State of Israel, our state also became the focus of Jew-hatred.
Almost all of my life in America I lived among non-Jews, and I experienced a varying amount of anti-Jewish feeling. When I lived in an ethnic neighborhood of Long Island, it seems to have depended on what church someone went to. In Central California, many people had never met a Jew before, and while nobody asked me about horns, sometimes they seemed to come close. I was used to hearing the expression “Jew him down,” and a good friend actually tried gluing a nickel to the sidewalk (I wasn’t fooled and told him to pick it up). One of my best friends was a Mennonite, and his church – and politics – were strongly anti-Zionist. He asked me once what I thought, he listened, and we agreed not to discuss it.
His church once hosted a vicious Holocaust denier – I went to the event and wrote about it here. Never in my waking life did I feel more in the presence of the darkest evil than on that day. I won’t forget it.
I called the mimetic institution of Jew-hatred “diabolical.” It’s often compared to a virus because of the way it spreads and mutates, but I prefer the analogy of diabolical possession because of the way it twists its victims and causes them to commit acts of unspeakable evil. Who would have thought that the Pittsburgh shooter was capable of gunning down a 97-year old woman?
Paradoxically, the effect of this demonic affliction is to make the possessed attribute a demonic nature to Jews. The great historian Bernard Lewis made a very illuminating remark in a short essay from 2006 that is one of the best things I’ve read about Jew hatred. He said that there are two distinguishing characteristics that set Jew hatred apart from ordinary antipathy to the Other: one is holding Jews to a higher standard than anyone else, and the other is the “accusation of cosmic, satanic evil” to Jews or their state. The double standard sometimes appears in other forms of prejudice, but the attribution of diabolical evil is unique.
Lewis argues that this follows from the root of Jew-hatred itself, the accusation of guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus. Interestingly, he notes that although Jews were looked down upon and oppressed to a greater or lesser degree in the Muslim world, the attribution of demonic evil was not found among Muslims until it was imported from Europe, beginning in the 19th century, and then promulgated wholesale in the Middle East by the Nazis. Today, of course, the traditional memes of Jews and Israel being the root of evil in the world are as popular among Muslims as Christians, and have been absorbed by Israel’s antagonists in its unending conflict with its neighbors.
Lewis goes on to say that the behavior of the international community, especially as embodied by the United Nations, has done a great deal to validate the most extreme anti-Jewish acts of the Arab world, including ethnic cleansing of Jews in the parts of Palestine that came under Arab control, and of their own Jewish populations after 1948. The UN, in a word, never said “boo” about any of this, while expending great resources to aid Arab refugees (or more correctly, to aid the Arab states in exploiting Arab refugees as a weapon against Israel).
While it’s hard to see an institution as possessed by demons, the shameless acquiescence to demonic anti-Israel narratives by developed nations that should know better makes one wonder about the leadership of those nations. Perhaps their cabinets should include a Minister of Exorcism that could intervene in the most egregious cases?