The Best Response to Anti-Semitism

The Shabbat between Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut, marking the transition between commemorating our greatest modern tragedy and celebrating our greatest modern miracle, naturally invites reflection on the Shoah, Zionism and the State of Israel – particularly in the light of the current crisis surrounding anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

There is much to say about the current crisis. I have read what many commentators have had to say and found particularly helpful an interview with Howard Jacobson on the BBC, part of which appeared on Newsnight. I’d like to mention three points which personally I find particularly salient:

  • Zionism is simply the idea of a Jewish State, the notion that there should be a national homeland for the Jewish people. There is no justification for anyone opposing that notion. To the objection that Judaism is just a religion and religions do not have national homelands, it must be replied that Judaism is a unique combination of religion and nationhood. The Torah’s vision is clearly that of a people living in a particular land, Eretz Yisrael, according to a particular code of behaviour which has religious and moral elements. The word for a people, am, appears often in the Torah. The modern Hebrew word for ‘religion’ is dat, which does not appear in the Torah – the Torah has no word for ‘religion’. To deny the Jewish people, alone among nations, the right to national self-determination is discriminatory and anti-Semitic.
  • Criticism of particular Israeli government policies or indeed of a particular government itself is legitimate, but what we encounter so often is not criticism at all. Criticism implies objectivity, ‘critical distance’. What we encounter far more often is not criticism but an excessive use of language which aims to delegitimize and even demonize Israel and Israeli Jews – the use of terms such as ‘genocide’ and ‘apartheid’. Not just the nature of the language used about Israel but its quantity too is egregious. The intensity of focus on Israel is obsessional, as if democratic, decent Israel were the stand-out villain among all the countries of the world.
  • To use Holocaust-related imagery and language to criticise Israel is cruel and anti-Semitic, using the most terrible Jewish suffering as a stick with which to beat the Jewish people further.

How should we respond to recent events? The first thing is not to panic. Comparisons with, for example, 1930s Germany are out of place. In 1930s Germany the state authorities instigated anti-Semitism.  In the UK today the state authorities are our allies in fighting anti-Semitism. We are fortunate to live in contemporary Britain in a malchut shel hesed, under the sovereignty of lovingkindness.

But the most important response is not to allow our Jewish identity to be defined by anti-Semitism. In a famous 1940s essay, Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre argued that to be Jewish is essentially to be on the receiving end of anti-Semitism. That is not the case. The essence of being Jewish is being heir to a wonderful and rich heritage. The best response to anti-Semitism is to be a prouder, more intense and more complete Jew. Another mitzvah, more Torah study – that is the most powerful comeback to anti-Semitism.

The Midrash, filling in as always the gaps in the text of the Torah, asks where the stone came from on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. It answers: the stone used was that on which Moses sat when Israel fought against Amalek, when Aaron and Hur held Moses’ arms aloft and the Israelites looked up to Heaven and prevailed. To take the Amalek of anti-Semitism and turn it into a stronger Jewish identity is the best response.