Can Jews Engender Anti-Semitism?

Larry Levin

So now we have a dialogue (ok, at least two letters) with diametrically opposed viewpoints. One says Jews can be responsible for causing anti-Semitism through our words and deeds. The other says that very statement is itself anti-Semitic. Is either viewpoint correct or incorrect?

A little over 10 years ago, billionaire financier George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, said in a speech to a Jewish audience that the policies of the Bush and Sharon administrations in the United States and Israel contributed to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. (In the same speech, Soros indicated he also contributed to the stereotype about successful financiers being Jewish).

Needless to say, the proverbial stuff hit the fan. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, for instance, said that Soros’ words were “absolutely obscene… “He buys into the stereotype,” Foxman said. “It’s a simplistic, counterproductive, biased and bigoted perception of what’s out there. It’s blaming the victim for all of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s ills.”

What do you think about what Foxman said?  Is it impossible for the acts of Jews to foster anti-Semitism?

Let’s consider a few hypotheticals:

1. Bernie Madoff: One Jew commits financial crimes that allows those who are already anti-Semitic to say, “see, there’s another greedy Jew.” In this case, nothing Madoff did in committing the crime was linked to his Jewishness (other than exploiting Jewish clients and contributing to Jewish charities). Therefore, his acts can’t logically be said to contribute to anti-Semitism.

2. Agriprocessors: A Jew is convicted of many counts of financial crimes in the administration of a kosher meat processing operation. Here, the crime is related to the production of food specifically aimed at a Jewish audience.  But again, as with Madoff, the illegal acts are not sanctioned by any Jewish body, and while there was debate about whether the convictions and sentences were motivated by anti-Semitism, it would be very difficult to say that there was anything notably Jewish about breaking the law. So again, no dice on anti-Semitism.

3.  Haredi hurling stones in Mea She’arim. This conduct took place in the Israeli area that set off our original letter writer.  The group of Jews who committed these egregious acts believed and claimed they were acting with the force of Judaism behind them. And since they so believed, there is reason to suppose that observers of these actions might believe it true as well. Could such actions, if branded as “Jewish,” result in others becoming more anti-Jewish? It certainly is possible. Here’s what an Israeli Orthodox Jew, Michael Hirsch, wrote in the Jerusalem Post about the Mea She’arim matter:

“Throwing dirty diapers and stones at police officers on Shabbat? Calling members of the riot squad Nazis? Setting public facilities on fire? What warped sense of Judaism allows one to desecrate the Sabbath in order to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath? How does one who knowingly injures a fellow Jew acquire the moniker “haredi”? I seriously believe those who are careful in their adherence to the kashrut laws should question the validity of kashrut supervision provided by an organization (Badatz) which condones and implicitly supports such anti-religious behavior.”

Hirsch’s point, as I take it, is that the conduct of this group is distinctly NOT Jewish, since it undermines core principlies of Judaism. But the problem is, the rest of the world may not know that! So ostensibly, one who was neutral on the matter of how they felt about Jews could arguably be influenced into believing that there is some intrinsically Jewish behavior that they find offensive, and thus could develop some anti-Jewish tendencies. Which, of course, would be very bad indeed.

When someone acts in a way that is purported to be on behalf of an entire group, and his or her action if patently offensive, then the chances of an observer making stereotypical conclusions can rise. Take Hamas, for example. It purports to speak as the democratically-elected leadership of Gazans. Hamas has advocated the destruction of Israel. Are some likely to be less supportive of Palestinians as a group because of Hamas’ leadership? Most certainly, it happens daily.

As individual conduct morphs into groupspeak, the risk of generalization increases.  If all Jews in the world said, “We hate X,” would X be entitled to think badly of all Jews? Of course. Is that a ridiculous example? Equally of course.

But that absurd hypothetical points to why the actions of the Israeli government as they pertain to world opinion about Jews pose such an interesting case.  The elected officials of the Jewish State purport to represent millions of Jews (and non-Jews, for that matter) who live in Israel. Do their political decisions, and support of those decisions in the diaspora, represent some statement about what organized Judaism thinks about moral and ethical issues?  If so, does this give observers the right to extract conclusions about Jewish leadership, or about Jews in general, from Israel’s decisions?And if they do, is that considered anti-Semitism?

These are questions that no doubt evoke a plethora of responses inside the Jewish world. But more on that a different day…