Antisemitism: Will Jews always be the other?


In this week’s episode of “Wondering Jews,” hosts Noam and Mijal explore the nature, history, and implications of antisemitism. They grapple with questions of agency, responsibility, and resilience, offering nuanced perspectives on combating antisemitism while navigating the complexities of Jewish identity and community.

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Noam: Hey everyone, welcome to Wondering Jews, where we will wonder.

Mijal: I am Mijal Bitton. I’m a Jewish spiritual leader, a sociologist, and someone who loves asking questions and having new experiences.

Noam: I’m Noam Weissman, I’m an educator and the host of another podcast, Unpacking Israeli History. And this podcast is our way of trying to understand the Jewish world and the world around us, how to understand our present, our history, our ideas, and everything else.

Mijal: Every week, one of us is going to lead the other one in conversation about a topic that we’ve been thinking about, struggling with, maybe even arguing about. It’ll be respectful, but also hopefully honest and provocative.

Noam: Before we dive into this week’s episode, let’s get to know each other a little bit. So usually we’re going to take questions from our audience. This week from a listener named Jacob. You ready, Mijal?

Mijal: Go for it.

Noam: What’s the most interesting job you’ve ever had?

Mijal: Probably, I worked as the head counselor for a camp in the south of Israel. And I was in charge, you’re smiling, Noam. I was in charge of, of a group of college students who were running a camp for high schoolers and we happened to have a lot of teenagers who had a lot of challenges.

So I had to deal with the police, I had to deal with social workers, I had to deal with some pretty intensive stuff and it was also just really fun and amazing and wonderful.

Noam: Wow. Very cool.

Mijal: What about you?

Noam: Well, obviously this job is pretty cool. I make content, make podcasts, videos, all that, it’s pretty cool. But if I had to go back into history, I worked at a deli.

Mijal: That’s very Ashkenazi of you, Noam.

Noam: Well, today, on a call by the way, someone asked me if I’m half Sephardic. I gave my standard cute answer, no, but my palate is.

Mijal: Only half, your palate is only half Sephardi.

Noam: No, well, I’m willing to entertain some Ashkenazi foods. I don’t like that the Ashkenazi world has for some reason been peppered with this specific dish of gefilte fish. That is not something I ever eat, neither did I grow up eating that.

Mijal: So in your job at the deli, was that gefilte fish?

Noam: No, no gefilte fish, just delicious meats, like amazing meats. It was incredible. I lasted two weeks. I don’t think I was cut out for it. I don’t think that I really had this skillset.

Mijal: For cutting meat.

Noam: I just, you gotta know what you’re good at. And that was not one of the things I was good at. I feel like your job was much more interesting than mine, but I kind of still like my job. It’s interesting.

Mijal: Yeah, yours probably tasted better, or was more fun. So Noam, let’s get into some questions. And I’m going to try right now to present a set of questions that I’m struggling with. So I’m just going to try to ask a big question through three questions, actually. So when thinking about this tremendous rise of antisemitism, what’s the right way to combat it, to confront it? That’s one question. A secondary question that comes together with this is, the job for Jews. Like, is it actually up to Jews to us to fight antisemitism? Or is this something that’s really not in our control? And it’s up to non-Jews for them to take it on. And then a third question that relates to this is, are there any pitfalls to focusing so much on antisemitism? For Jews.

Thousands of New Yorkers joined community leaders and city and statewide elected officials in Foley Square at the No Hate. No Fear. solidarity march in unity against the rise of antisemitism. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Noam: These are great questions. So how do we combat antisemitism? Number one, by realizing we’re never going to combat antisemitism. The way I view antisemitism in the real world is that it is an ontological problem, meaning it is a problem that’s part of existence, it’s a problem that’s part of nature, that if it’s not the Jewish people that are hated, some group that is the representative of the Jewish people, meaning the other, the group of people that is part of the world, but slightly different from the world, that group of people will always be hated. I think we have to recognize that as a reality. And you could be upset at me and you could say, Noam, that’s too negative, that’s too cynical. But this is step number one to me, is recognizing there will always be antisemitism.

Mijal: Okay, So I’m hearing you say two things. One thing I’m hearing you say is, this is like a challenge or a problem that’s part of existence. And it’s not necessarily caused by specific things, but it’s just part of human existence.

Noam: I absolutely think that that’s the case. But let me explain why I think that’s the case. The first is that it predates the Jewish people. Historically, antisemitism predates the Jewish people. That there was oppression against the Jewish people before the Jewish people became the Jewish people. The Jewish people, I think, became the Jewish people at the revelation at Sinai in our tradition, which comes after the oppression of this group of people called the Jewish people in Egypt.

And then what we see is throughout history, there have been all these different reasons for why antisemitism exists. Whether it’s religious antisemitism or it is identity antisemitism. We have two different models. We have the Purim model of antisemitism that says the Jewish people are scattered across the world and they are slightly different and therefore they should be physically annihilated and then you have the Hanukkah version of antisemitism which is that the Jewish people could exist but the Jewish religion shouldn’t exist. And throughout history there have been all these different types of antisemitism and no matter where they are they’re going to experience that, the Jewish people.

Mijal: Hold on a second now. I’m just gonna note a couple of things, cause I don’t know if I agree with all the assumptions you just made. So I’m just gonna name them.

Noam: Go for it. Go for it.

Mijal: One assumption you just made. So you just used, maybe a different question we should ask a different time, is how do we define antisemitism?

Noam: Yeah. Well, no, that’s going to be point number two for me.

Mijal: Because right now you used it in what I would call a pretty broad fashion, kind of including their, you know, Egypt and Haman and modern and ancient.

And then the other thing you said, and I find this interesting, I wanna make sure that I understand this, when you were arguing there’s something almost eternal, maybe let’s call it existential about this, you said that it’s either about the Jewish people or about some other group who’s the ultimate other. So are you saying here this is not so much about the Jews, but about a human antipathy or struggle with the other?

Noam: Yeah, I think so.

Mijal: Can you say a little bit more?

Noam: I think that the world, people in general, struggle with people who are different than them, struggle with people who they don’t understand, struggle with people that they see but are different, and they therefore turn that person into something that is scary, something that is problematic, something that is a ghost-like being and body. And the Jewish tradition, the Jewish history, has always been that the Jewish person has represented that ghost. And the fact that people like Theodor Herzl, I’m going fast-forwarding in history, they believed that the Jewish problem of antisemitism would disappear, would disappear!, if there is a state of Israel, they didn’t call it a state, it was a Jewish state whereby the Jewish person would not be any different than everyone else. And that was their hypothesis. And that was their thesis. Now, Jabotinsky saw it very differently. He didn’t think that antisemitism would ever be cured. He thought that there would be a way to protect Jewish people against antisemitism. But both of them are just fundamentally wrong. And the antisemitism is something that will continue to exist for lots of different reasons.

Mijal: So I want to continue going along with you on this being like a problem that is ontological, but I do also just want to name one more thing, maybe we should keep discussing a different time, which is you said that Jews have always been like the ultimate other.

Noam: Yeah, yeah.

Mijal: We might be able to find moments in history or civilization in which that wasn’t the case. I think that until very recently, we felt like in America, for example, that wasn’t the case, you know?

Noam: What do you mean by that?

Mijal: One way to understand it is that America has been like an exception to history with regards to its Jews. And one of the ways it’s been an exception is that it was found, it was founded in a way that at least in theory did not place the Jew as the other, because from its foundational moment there was religious freedom. And if Judaism is a religion in the American story, then from its inception, the Jew is not the ultimate other. But keep going. So it’s a, you think it’s a problem that’s always gonna be here.

Noam: I do. I do. And again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce antisemitism. But to end antisemitism, that’s why I’m answering the question quite literally, it’s important. Now, point number two though on this is, to reduce antisemitism, I think that this gets to your second question, it is an issue in some ways of ignorance.

I believe that people learned more about Judaism, that people knew the history better, that people knew what it meant to be antisemitic and understood the definitions of it. For me, when I’m, I could only think in an egocentric way. When I’m taught, I ask people to teach me very often. Like if I’m part of a culture that I don’t know very well, I say, I’m gonna make mistakes and I probably am gonna come at this with some assumptions. But if you teach me, what is the cultural norm? What are the expectations? I’m going to get it very quickly, but you need to teach me first. We’re not spending nearly enough time exploring the history of antisemitism, exploring the definitions of antisemitism, with what is Judaism. And I think if people learned more about these things, it would reduce the feelings of otherness and reduce the feelings of antisemitism.

Mijal: I don’t think I agree, Noam. I think that maybe I have just a different understanding of what purpose antisemitism serves. And because of that, and it’s a little bit raw.

Noam: It’s okay. Don’t write your thesis on it, but give me the raw thoughts.

Mijal: I’m compelled by thinking of antisemitism as this like way to, you have a prominent minority that can come and answer questions about who’s to blame for problems in society. So I am compelled by the notions that say that the more that a society is in stress, is destabilized, like something major happened, change is happening, there’s a loss, you need to try to explain, you need to try to blame someone, the more that we see a rise in antisemitism. So that’s not something that you can necessarily fix with knowledge.

Noam: I agree. That’s one of the reasons I think that ending antisemitism, combating antisemitism is Sisyphean to the extreme. I don’t see that as a goal. Because I think you’re right. I think that will always, that is a scenario that antisemitism will emerge. But why antisemitism? Why not hatred of another group?

Mijal: I think that because Jews have often been a very visible minority. So the fact that you’re a minority means that you’re small enough that you can serve as like a good scapegoat and the fact that you’re visible means that you’re prominent enough that you help explain things. You know what I mean? Like this is in the spiritual DNA of who Jews are, you can see it as what happened throughout history that we developed in a way that we became this very prominent visible minority no matter where we went.

Noam: Very interesting. Can I give you a definition of antisemitism that I heard recently that I liked? I’m going to read it to you and I want to hear your thoughts on it.

Mijal: Don’t tell me who said it.

Noam: I won’t say who — Simpatico. I literally was about to say I’m not going to tell you who said it. Okay, good.

Mijal: Okay, good.

Noam: Okay, here we go. Antisemitism is the process by which Jews are turned into the Jew, and the Jew becomes the symbol of whatever a given society or civilization regards as its most loathsome qualities.

This is a fun game. Guess who I could play like A, B, C, and D. I’ll say names and you say, if this was the person who said it. Here are the names, four names. Number one, David Baddiel. Number two, Deborah Lipstadt. Number three, Jonathan Sacks. Number four, Yossi Klein Halevi.

Mijal: Yossi Klein Halevi said this.

Noam: Boom, nailed it.

Mijal: Yossi and I are good friends. No, but I think I agree with Yossi. I just think this doesn’t capture the kind of like, common everyday xenophobia, the thing you described before, like you’re a little bit different. So let’s work this out. So if we have these theories, like ultimate stranger, most loathsome quality.

Noam: Yep. I also think it’s a third thing, it’s conspiracy theories.

Mijal: Right, okay.

Noam: I think that human beings are prone to conspiracy theories, because what we want to do is if we see a big problem, we have to assume that there’s a big reason for that problem, as opposed, to it’s just the problem, and I don’t have the big explanation to match the big moment. Now that’s an idea from Dan Ariely. And if you’re prone to conspiracy theories, the greatest conspiracy theory all time, of all time, is antisemitism, is that the Jewish people control everything.

Mijal: Right, so Noam, but let me ask you a question, because we just put a bunch of stuff on the table. If you believe that it’s something endemic, won’t really go away ever, it could be reduced, but it’s not gonna go away. If it has to do with human things like xenophobia, conspiracy theories, things like that, then what do we do as Jews? Do we set for ourselves like the goal to try to reduce it? Do we just say, it’s up to non-Jews to deal with it? Should this be one of the things that we set up ourselves to fight against?

Noam: One of the things that we do is we support the state of Israel. I think that having the Jewish people defending and standing up for their own sovereignty, their own identity and their own autonomy, all of that is one way to deal with antisemitism. Not to end, not to cure, not to protect, but to deal with it and to say, this is us forging our own identity.

Mijal: Noam, I don’t disagree with you, but why do you say that? I could play devil’s advocate.

Noam: I’m sure you can.

Mijal: There are those who say that actually that if you look at what’s happening now with Israel and Zionism, that support of Israel ends up endangering Diaspora Jews.

Noam: Yeah, I think that is the ultimate red herring. I think that’s what keeps on anything that the Jewish people do becomes the reason for antisemitism. There was a great rabbi, by the way, his name was Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg in Germany. And he wrote these letters that people found after his death in which he said, there are some times where the Jewish people behave in ways that are untoward and that lead to antisemitism. 

And I have a real problem with that because I think that what it does is it shifts the blame from the culprit to the victim and I think it’s a misunderstanding of where the hatred is coming from. That is not to say that Jewish people shouldn’t behave better and more ethically and more morally in general because they should be. But not because somehow believing that if Jewish people do A, B, C, and D, it will lead to lack of hatred from antisemites who are looking to hate the Jew for whatever reason.

Do you disagree with that? Do you think if there was one fewer Bernie Madoff, do you think that it’s the case that there would be less antisemitism, Mijal?

Mijal: So I’m struggling with this question. I’m struggling with it because I think that on the one hand, I find what you’re saying compelling, that we shouldn’t kind of like blame the victim, right? Their actions for being hated. On the other hand, you can make the case that there’s always things that people can do to make things better. And sometimes kind of like viewing the world in this way is right, like they all hate us forever, no matter what, can stop us from doing things to mitigate the problem. So I don’t know, for example, I don’t know what would happen if there were, if certain things were different in Israel. I’m not talking about the crazies who like, you know, hate so much, but people maybe in the middle. I don’t know what would happen if American Jews would behave, you know, in different, I don’t know. I don’t know, I think it’s an important question.

Noam: So you’re saying it’s very possible that the undecided voter, whatever that means, might look at Israel and the Jewish people more favorably if the position of the Israeli government was different.

Mijal: I do think so.

Noam: You do think so?

Mijal: I do think so. I think that just the relationship between America and Israel has been harmed in the past few years due to things that could have been avoided. But I think I’m saying something a little bit deeper, Noam, which is not only about Israel. I think I’m saying that generally I am nervous, or I disagree with the attitude that makes us feel like we have no agency in making things better.

Noam: But see, Mijal, I’m gonna push you on this now. Let’s use racism. Is it the black community’s job to end racism from people who are white, who have whatever hangups they have or implicit biases they have or whatever issues? Is it the black community’s job? Or is it the white community’s job to say, you know what we’re gonna do? We’re going to make sure that we teach the history of racism in our schools. We’re going to make sure that we teach the history of slavery in our schools. We’re going to teach the history of Jim Crow to the American audience in the schools. We’re going to teach a history of apartheid in our schools, and we’re going to learn the history very clearly.

And so it might be, to use an ed psych term, internal locus of control. Our internal locus of control can be to go to these major private schools across the globe, in major public schools across the globe and say, hey listen, we really think you need to be teaching about this in your schools. But then it’s the school’s job to do it, not the Jewish community’s job to solve this.

Mijal: Yeah, I think what you asked is provocative. I don’t know if I would ever say it’s this community’s job to end racism or xenophobia against it. And at the same time, if you think about the civil rights movement in America, and if you think about the leadership and the heroism of civil rights warriors who really reshaped America, even though it shouldn’t have been their burden, right, they led movements and they were able to change things. So I think if they kind of said, well, this is never gonna change, then things might not have changed. So I think we need to walk this fine line between internalizing kind of victim blaming and between putting ourselves in a place in which we feel we have no agency.

Noam: I’m putting my history cap on for a second-

Mijal: And you were just in Alabama also, so I feel like you just…

Noam: Yeah, I mean, I was in Alabama, and so I have a lot, I mean, you’re right, that is very much so on my mind. And it was amazing to be in Selma and to cross the bridge where they crossed and they marched. It was amazing, it was amazing to be where MLK was, where Heschel was, that was very special, very special.

But I wanna ask a darker question perhaps. The JDL, the Jewish Defense League in the United States of America that was considered quite the extreme group, their argument, I think, I’m not a scholar in the history of the JDL, reminds me a lot of the history of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers of Jewish pride, black pride, and our job is not to get you to stop hating us. Our job is to make sure that everyone understands that we’re strong and that we’re proud. Is that a fair historical comparison?

Mijal: Well, there is some scholarship that shows not just JDL, but a lot of different parts of the Jewish community that were actually affected by the rise of black pride and black power. So I think that’s one way in which American Jews were shaped by this. I’m not advocating for that necessarily.

So I think that the methods, we can have a conversation about the methods. Okay. How do you defend yourself? What do you do? Should you use the law? Do you use self-reliance? How antagonistic do you become towards others? That’s a big question. But regardless of that, you have all of these groups and examples, but they believe they can change things.

Noam: This is a question of nature, whether or not human nature changes. And so if you look at the history of the civil rights movement as an analog, I know it’s different, but as an analog to the story of antisemitism, the civil rights movement, I think, changed policies and did a great job of enacting better policies to ensure that there was equality before the law. And there’s still a lot of work to be done in the United States of America. But it was about enacting laws and making change.

Did it reduce racism? I’m not trying to be provocative for provocative sake. I don’t know that it reduced racism. I’m not sure at all. So there was a TV show that Mr. Rogers, where he put his feet in water, in bath water, with a black man. Do you know what I’m talking about? And because there was this, by the way, something that I didn’t even know, that there was some fear of white people being in the same pool as black people. And I only learned about that by watching this documentary about Mr. Rogers. But it’s the subconscious human moment of seeing a white man and a black man put their feet in a pool, that together, that will subconsciously allow the person to say, there’s nothing wrong with black people. Get rid of your implicit bias. Get rid of your implicit racial issues. That to me is the type of thing that will psychologically reduce racism. And if we’re able to do that with antisemitism, so what does that look like? Spending more time together, working together, accomplishing something together, understanding each other, being at each other’s events. And I do think that the more time is spent, the more time people will actually feel, you know what? It’s good to be part of the Jewish people and it’s good to be friends with Jewish people.

Mijal: So Noam, it sounds like…

Noam: Shabbat, shabbat!

Mijal: I was going to say the opposite. The solution to reduce antisemitism is almost like the opposite from like Orthodox life.

Noam: Why?

Noam: Because Orthodox life sets up a social structure which does not promote the kind of integration that you’re imagining. You have Jewish day schools. You eat kosher food that you can’t share. Like, you have all of these things that actually-

Noam: You can share kosher food, why can’t you share kosher food?

Mijal: No, no, no. Let’s be honest for a second.

Noam: Let’s be honest the whole time!

Mijal: Of course we can share kosher food, but the need to eat kosher food puts a social barrier to this kind of integration.

Noam: Mijal, I was just asked at this major company when I was giving a talk on antisemitism to their DEI group. One of the questions I was asked on this call was whether or not keeping kosher leads to antisemitism.

Mijal: Well, I didn’t say that right now. What I’m saying is that according…

Noam: I will say it reminded me of it.

Mijal: No, but I don’t think I agree with your solution, but that’s where things…

Noam: So what’s the solution?

Mijal: Okay, so I’m thinking about a couple of things right now. Well, first of all, I agree with what you said before. For me, a thriving and strong state of Israel is really important. I think that even though I agree with you about the limitations of legal protections, I think continuing to double down on what the state could do to protect Jews and other minorities. That’s really, really important. And there’s still a lot of work to be done there, not just in legislation, but in enforcing the law. So that’s really important.

And then I’ll say two other things. One of them is, for me, I think the fight to combat or reduce antisemitism is tied with the battle to have a healthier America, like to fight polarization. To have a country, a society, that feels less destabilized, to have less stress in our society. I see a lot of almost like alignment between people who want to have a better America, a healthier, kinder, more decent, more united America, those are, I think, the conditions that allow antisemitism to flourish.

And the last thing I’ll say, Noam, I think we both spend a lot of time just working with young Jews, I think that we need to work on our ability to be resilient and to be joyful. You know what I mean, just to be together and it’s not only about fighting those who hate us.

Noam: Love it. Yeah, of course. Absolutely.

Mijal: Okay, so Noam, one takeaway I have from this conversation. I mean, there’s a lot of them, but just one going back to the very beginning is that I think we need to almost like return to first principles, like we need to understand what antisemitism is and why it’s caused, to kind of figure out what it means to confront it right now.

Noam: I guess the thing that’s most fun for me about the show is I had no idea that was going to be your takeaway. So good to know that that’s what emerged for you.

Mijal: What did you think was gonna be my takeaway?

Noam: I had no idea. I just didn’t see that one coming. My takeaway is… I’m going to pivot because it’s a thought that just came up. There is this rabbinic idea, basically, that non-Jews hate Jews. It’s called in Hebrew, eisav soneh et yaakov. That the non-Jewish world is going to always have a problem with the Jewish world. And Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, I think he basically said just because that may or may not be true, doesn’t mean that therefore the Jewish people have to have issues with the non-Jewish world. And I really think that the more the Jewish people look internally and say let’s not ever act in a way that is beneath our dignity, that the result of that’s going to be a net positive for the Jewish world and the broader world.

Mijal: So it’s almost, Noam, I’m just thinking about the Ben Gurion quote with the British. So it’s almost like love your community as if there’s no antisemitism. Something there.

Noam: Yeah, I see. It’s something like that. Something there.

Mijal: Yeah, well, I think that I can just be in my head a lot and pay a lot of attention to antisemitism when I see it. And maybe one action item is that next time that I feel this like, you know, reaction to seeing it, to actually at that moment, maybe do some Jewish learning, invest in us and who we ought to be.

Noam: I love it. I’ll follow your lead. Mijal, that was so awesome. Got me thinking a heck of a lot. Thanks for having the conversation with me.

Mijal: Thank you Noam, I’m excited to meet again and not over. Sorry, I’m just thinking. I was just thinking about gefilte fish and your deli work. The answer to antisemitism.

Noam: Is good deli, is good deli. Okay, with that, I bid you adieu.

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