We are all too familiar with the rhetorical currency of anti-Semites. Jews control the human and material resources of every society in which they are found, the anti-Semites say, no matter how few in number we may be in said society. They maintain an international conspiracy. They meet secretly, presenting a pleasant and cooperative face to the world, but using hidden teachings of their sacred books to plot the overthrow of societies they consider hostile. They say one thing publicly and the opposite in private. They have learned how to “pass” in society, but even the most “assimilated” Jew may be an operative in disguise. They are quick to cry bigotry, but ignore the teachings of contempt within their own synagogues, schools, and sacred books. They never criticize each other. And, of course, they wish to frustrate the public expression of faith by non-Jews.
Anyone inside the Jewish community would laugh at the suggestion that these tropes are true. Presented with “evidence” (including the occasional refugee from Jewish life turned anti-Jew), we deploy defense organizations, scholars, and private citizens to debunk the claims that Jews pray for the disappearance of other faiths, terrorize innocent dissenters, teach their children that other people are inferior (so it is therefore permissible to deceive them), and insist that a Jew who turns on his people may be murdered. Sure you can find such practices and values in some expressions of modern Judaism, but most Jews and most expressions of Judaism explicitly reject them all.
Yet anti-Semitism and all of these canards persist. Why? The uncomfortable answer is that some people choose to believe the lies. Sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of an unpleasant personal experience, sometimes out of hostile teaching, and sometimes out of stubbornness, the blanket stereotyping of Jews and Judaism lives in the hearts of some individuals. So convinced are they of the truth of their beliefs that they persuasively present them to sow the seeds of doubt among others. They employ the trappings of scholarship and academia, the skills of effective communication and, overwhelmingly, the incestuous resources of websites and social media to nurture bigotry, all the while protesting that they have nothing against any particular Jew – they are merely exposing Judaism and its corrupt proponents.
I make an assertion now that is beyond the scope of my professional training, but not my 30 years of experience as a rabbi: People who elect to believe hateful affirmations about others mostly reveal their own human shortcomings.
(And I will not deny the other versions of that statement, including that people who elect to believe any generalized affirmation about people, God or the material world reveal their own insecurities. Guilty as charged.)
Does it mean that anti-Semites should be dismissed as mere neurotics? Of course not. Jewish history is filled with examples of collective madness that resulted in murder and mayhem committed against our children. Even today, many human beings who have never met a Jew or encountered anything organically Jewish support and encourage the homicidal and genocidal rage of hate mongers. Absent our attention to their intentions and, more importantly, absent the attention of non-Jews of conscience to the intentions of home-grown anti-Semites, Jews will die unnatural deaths.
I hope every reader finds that result unacceptable without exception.
It is easy for Jews as intended victims to maintain a sensitivity to those out to do us harm. Perhaps we may be accused of hypersensitivity. We need and expect constant reassurance that the non-Jews of the world are prepared to address the anti-Semitism in their midst. No matter how well-armed or well-outraged we are, when an angry bigot sets out to act on his hatred, it is almost always too late to prevent disaster. Expressions of regret and contrition after the fact are cold comfort. Better a child who grows into an indifferent Jewish adult than one who is the subject of a moving and meaningful memorial.
So what are we to do when we discover the Jews in our midst who are practicing the same kinds of misanthropy as those who hate us? At what point in their rhetorical representations are we as Jews to challenge them publicly, and even read them out of a place among our leadership?
I am not referring to extreme anti-Zionist Jews who offer their credentials to the enemies of the State of Israel. When they present themselves as “experts” to advocates of BDS or the dissolution of the country, and even the more so when they run guns to terrorists, we have no trouble whatsoever repudiating them to our people and to others. It does not matter whether they are darlings of the political left or the (literal) religious beards for anti-Zionism from the far right; we are united in our rejection of their authenticity. [Before engaging your microchips to write letters of protest over the term “religious beards,” please look up the meaning of the word beard. â€“ Ed.]
I am instead alarmed at the willingness of our community to tolerate and even celebrate the leaders, advocates, and, to my great shame, rabbis who encourage a systemic form of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry among Jews and others.
I do not much use the term “Islamophobia,” just as I reluctantly employ “Islamist” to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims. Compartmentalizing objectionable behavior and ideas removes the necessary imperatives for Muslims to tend to their own bad guys. I hope that we never offer even a temporary pass to any society, including Muslim societies, from addressing anti-Semitism and Jew hatred.
Thus, the rabidly anti-Muslim Jews in our midst must be ours to claim, as well. Their assertions about Islam and its adherents fit the same pattern as the anti-Semitic representations mentioned previously. There is just enough legitimacy in their rhetoric to sow the seeds of doubt among Jews who do not know many Muslims, and just enough in their disclaimers to allow them the cover speaking generally rather than specifically. “Of course, not every Muslim is a terrorist,” is the usual introduction. “But you never know who is.” The statement is clear: don’t trust any of “those people.”
Most of the advocates of these anti-Muslim positions claim to have read a book. Some of them have actually written a book about the evils of Islam, exhaustively researched (although, of course, to justify a pre-existing conclusion). The only legitimate sources of information are those that prove the point, especially those that come from ideologically rigid think tanks and websites that feature “advocacy journalism,” breathless exposes of vast conspiracies and nefarious infiltrations. They all claim to blow the lid off of the great Muslim deception, and highlight as mainstream and immutable the objectionable principles present in every faith tradition, but somehow inherent only in Islam.
Here, for example, is the use of the notion of taqqiyah. The practice of religious dissimulation (lying about your religious beliefs) is indeed rooted in some forms of Islam. It has been used by Muslims who concealed their allegiances to protect their own lives, and it has been promoted in some circles as a tactic to conceal malicious intent. Anti-Muslim advocates have elevated taqqiyah to a central characteristic of the faithful Muslim’s spiritual life. So, the logic goes, the more authentic the Muslim, the less reliable is anything he or she says.
Now imagine this Catch-22: a Muslim terrorist murders innocent Jewish children. A horrified American Muslim issues a public letter of condolence and renunciation. The response from an “educated” rabbi, however, is this: Either he is not an authentic Muslim leader, or he is practicing taqqiyah.
Actually, do not imagine it. This really happened.
Our anti-Muslim advocates have also become proficient in character assassination and guilt by association. In the wave of investigations after 2001, there was barely a Muslim American institution that was not painted with the broad brush stroke of being labeled a haven for fellow travelers. In some cases, the phrase “unindicted co-conspirator” was attached; in other circumstances, religious lectures on Islamic law were excerpted to place the epithet “jihadist” on the speaker; and in many cases, people with dangerous ideas who held positions in mosques and Islamic centers tainted everyone who attended worship or social events as an enemy of the United States and Israel.
(I take no issue with the results of those government investigations, by the way. To the credit of most Muslim organizations, they were cooperative with authorities, and, from local mosques to national organizations, they undertook internal inventories of their shortcomings.)
Just let a Jewish leader, however, engage in public activities with any Muslim who was alive in 2001! If the Muslim ever belonged to any group, before or since, not only is the Muslim a suspected terrorist, but the Jew is either a dupe or a self-hater – or both. Rabbis in American cities large and small have been excoriated in well-funded publicity and anonymous whisper campaigns for the crime of interfaith dialogue.
And where does the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric of Jewish advocates lead?
Well, that is a question that remains unanswered. If we cannot trust them, if we should not talk to them, if they are out to get us and if there is no way to dissuade them, then what is left? I have not heard a suggestion from those advocates with which they will publicly associate themselves.
I am going to say it explicitly, but you do not need me to do so. We know where that rhetoric took the anti-Judaism, anti-Jew advocates of the last century. We know where it took the anti-Japanese advocates of America in the 1940s.
“What is left is to eradicate that flawed, incorrigible, and false religion called Islam. And if its adherents refuse to give it up, then we have to deal with them, too. And the horse they rode in on.”
I have named no names in this essay. Our first responsibility is to offer unequivocal reproof to the purveyors of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim prejudice within our community. We should do so through local engagement, not through shaming, or vigilante actions. Truth and faith in partnership, when practiced consistently and collectively, are always stronger than demagoguery and deception. The same approach is necessary among Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Sikhs and a hundred other communities with rabid tendencies, and we ought to demand it. But for Jews, it is necessary first among Jews.