Anti-Semitism & Our Common Future

Author: Neuhaus


by Richard John Neuhaus

With a somewhat wearied sense of necessity one turns, yet again, to the question of what is and what is not anti-Semitism. One does so knowing full well that it will not be the last time. Jewish-Christian tensions and the attendant charges of anti-Semitism are a staple in American public life, and will be that for as long as some Christians view Jews as alien and many Jews view Christianity as threatening. Of course these perceptions feed one another. At a level deeper than the perennial contretemps over antiSemitism, and in keeping with St. Paul's reflections in Romans 9 through 11, the continuing tension has nothing less than an eschatological horizon. As weary as we sometimes might be of the subject, Christians must continue to pay attention. Jews, given their demographic marginality joined to their societal influence, have no choice but to pay assiduous attention.

The current round of controversies has everything to do with the political shock of November 8, 1994, and alarms over the perceived ascendancy of the Religious Right. As a result, some Jews have ratcheted up to an almost painful degree their antennae for the detection of anti-Semitism. A few months ago, one of our local newspapers, the , went ballistic when the London ran a little article on the self- described dominance of Jews in Hollywood. The somewhat naive author thought he was doing nothing more than reporting an interesting circumstance and, as it turns out, was in large part relying on what Jewish writers had said about Jews and Hollywood. The young man did not understand that, according to the rules of the more extreme members of the anti-Semitism patrol, nonJews are not supposed to notice when Jews publicly celebrate Jewish influence and success. As Ann Douglas has recently described in her acclaimed account of New York in the 1920s, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the central role of Jews in American popular entertainment goes back to the nineteenth century and, far from being a secret, has been frequently extolled in film and song. With weeks of letters and commentary in the , our British cousins had great fun with this little squall, chalking it up as yet another instance of American hypocrisy about our professed devotion to free speech.

Exploiting Suspicions

Another young man, hardly so innocent, has been doing his partisan best to exploit the political potential of Jewish-Christian suspicions. Some years ago Michael Lind fell in with those notorious neoconservatives and for some time was an editor of the before he decided to unleash his arrested outrage and go over to the opposition. Having secured a berth with Lewis Lapham's Harper's, Lind's attacks on his erstwhile friends have been popping up with remarkable regularity in publications large and small. He pushed the button for big-time attention when he rabbled the readers of the with a slashing indictment of Pat Robertson, who, according to Lind, runs the Christian Coalition, the Religious Right, the Republican Party, the pro-family movement, and just about everything else that Mr. Lind doesn't like about America. The charge, as best we can understand it, is that Robertson's vast conspiracy is exceedingly dangerous because Robertson believes there are vast conspiracies.

Mr. Lind thought he hit pay dirt with the 1992 book, , in which Robertson tells you everything you wanted to know, and more, about how the world got into its present sorry shape. Robertson's eccentric and sometimes bizarre account of modern history gives a prominent role to, among others, "European financiers" who allegedly have been pulling the strings of global politics for a very long time. Lind pounces on the fact that some of the sources cited by Robertson are also cited by anti-Semites who explain modern history by reference to the machinations of "Jewish bankers."

That Robertson refers to them as European rather than as Jewish is clear evidence, to Mr. Lind, that Robertson is not only anti-Semitic but is trying to disguise his anti- Semitism. He is the worst kind of anti-Semite, the kind that refuses to criticize Jews. The ever-so-devious Robertson also cultivates Jewish leaders, invites them to speak at his public meetings, and has a Jewish attorney heading his religious freedom organization. Is more evidence of his anti-Semitism needed?

This is not to let Robertson off the hook. True, in justifying his use of notorious sources he invokes the authority of a respectable professor at Georgetown University who uses the same sources, and he notes that President Clinton has on occasion invoked the authority of said professor, who apparently taught him when he was at Georgetown. But none of this gets us anywhere helpful. The fact is that some of the sources employed in are manifestly anti-Semitic, and Mr. Robertson would have saved himself a lot of sorrow by clearly and explicitly repudiating that anti-Semitism in his book. Even better, he should not have used such sources in the first place. The conclusion remains, however, that while Pat Robertson is guilty of writing bad history, there is no ground whatever for accusing him of anti-Semitism.

All the Dirt That's Fit to Print

Nonetheless, Frank Rich, columnist for the , picked up on the Lind article to demand that the media dig into the dirt of Robertson's, and the Christian Right's, putative anti-Semitism. Rich has been described as the Times' attack dog, which, while not very nice, is apt enough. He comes across as a toy Doberman in perpetual snit. His attack elicited an extended response from Robertson which, to its credit, the published. Robertson explained that was written at the height of the Gulf War when he was worried about the compromise of U.S. sovereignty and Israeli safety in a "New World Order" under the aegis of the United Nations. "I do feel," wrote Robertson, "that only someone who is desperately attempting to cause mischief would make the unfounded allegations about me or my book that have recently appeared in the ." He continued: "All who know me, Jewish and Christian, recognize that I have been one of the strongest friends of Israel anywhere in the world. In 1974, when Israel appeared threatened and alone as a result of a worldwide oil crisis, I made a vow that I have kept to this day: I promised to use my influence, and that of the institutions I founded, to vigorously support Israel and the Jewish people. I have kept my vow. My comments on my daily television program have been pro-Israel. In fact, during the Gulf War, I was one of the few voices in America speaking out regularly in support of Israel. I have lobbied for Israel, and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Jewish interests and organizations. By every public word and deed, I have kept my promise."

Frank Rich was not impressed. A few days later he barked back with a column imaginatively titled "The Jew World Order," in which he notes that Louis Farrakhan accuses "international bankers" of nefarious doings and so does Pat Robertson. So there. "Our two most prominent extremists of the 1990s," wrote Rich, "are both dipping into the same well of pseudo-history that once served Father Coughlin and Henry Ford." This is high hysteria even for a toy Doberman. Pat Robertson has as much in common with Farrakhan as Frank Rich has with ordinary decency. The circle of extremists is extended as Rich notes that, at the Christian Coalition convention last fall, "Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, and Elizabeth Dole, standing in for her husband, all kissed Mr. Robertson's ring."

Lest he overlook anyone, Rich concludes with the shocking report that Patrick Buchanan wrote in a publication of the Christian Coalition that Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury, supported the Mexican bailout to enrich his old investment firm of Goldman, Sachs. (Rubin, Goldman, Sachs. They all sound Jewish. Therefore Pat Buchanan is an antiSemite.) Never mind that many critics of the Mexican bailout, including perhaps a majority of members of Congress, claimed that its chief purpose was to save Wall Street from its own investment follies. Never mind that in the very same issue of the television critic Walter Goodman gave a favorable review to Bill Moyers' role as commentator on NBC nightly news, noting that he injected a note "more populist than partisan" when "he criticized the bailout of Mexico as benefiting mainly [U.S.] investors."

While critics, including some conservatives, believe that Buchanan has in the past toyed with anti-Semitic sentiments, his polemics against the Mexican bailout are solidly within the mainstream of political debate.

Bigotry or Paranoia?

As one story triggers another, the has this big item by Jonathan Kaufman on Jews who see "a rise in bigotry." A Jewish woman in Birmingham, Michigan, reports that parents in her son's sixth-grade class have complained that the children can't sing "Silent Night," and a classmate told her son he didn't like having to learn about Hanukkah. " Mrs. Wagenheim," reports the , "watched with growing alarm as Washington politicians proposed reintroducing school prayer." "'I thought I could be like everyone else,' Mrs. Wagenheim says. 'But now we seem to stand out more. I never felt like this before."' Apparently it has only now occurred to her that 98 percent of Americans are not Jewish, with more than 90 percent claiming to be Christians of one sort or another. If one belongs to a very high profile minority that constitutes no more than 2 percent of the population, standing out should not come as a surprise. It might even be cherished as a distinction.

Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of New York's Central Synagogue says, "To be a Jew is not to be anymore in the mainstream of America. You watch the Republican convention, you read the 'Contract With America,' you listen to talk radio. Before I could have accepted that, as a Jew and as an American, my yearnings were going to be harmonious. Now, I'm not so sure." It would seem that the rabbi's anxieties have nothing to do with being Jewish and everything to do with being politically liberal. For many liberal Jews, however, the two are hardly distinguishable. (Seventy-eight percent of Jews voted Democratic last November.) The cites other instances of the perceived rise in "bigotry." In Phoenix, Arizona, some Jewish homeowners found advertisements put on their doorknobs promoting a free video on the life of Jesus. A rabbi who represents the American Jewish Committee in Phoenix reports that a woman complained to him that her son was handed a book by a fifth-grade classmate and told, "Read this." The book was about Jesus. Says the rabbi, "People are starting to talk in terms of, 'We are being persecuted."' A little boy wants to share his faith with his Jewish classmate. Can pogroms be far behind?

Differing Jewish Perspectives

The Journal suggests there is now a "role reversal" between the Orthodox and what it calls mainstream Jews. Mainstream Jews, it says, never felt anti-Semitism was a part of their lives, while the Orthodox were ever alert to anti-Jewish expressions. This is very dubious history. In the past and at present, it is liberal and secular Jews who chiefly support the hypersensitive institutional alarm systems that flash "Anti-Semitism!" at the suggestion that Jews are not just like everybody else. The Orthodox have always known that being Jewish makes a difference, and should make a difference. There is nothing new in the view of the traditionalist rabbi who, according to the , is inclined to "welcoming the religious right and scoffing at suggestions of bigotry." "Moving to the right is a blessing for the country," says Rabbi Joseph Gopin of the Chabad movement. "The government should support religion."

Jews who are astute analysts of the American scene have a similar take on what is happening. William Kristol, the Republican strategist, observes that alarm about anti- Semitism "often does verge into paranoia among Jews." As for his own view, Kristol says, "I prefer the Christian right to the pagan left." Norman Podhoretz, the retiring editor of (Who ever would have thought to describe Norman Podhoretz as retiring?), observes that conservatives don't hate Jews. "They hate liberals. As it happens, most Jews are liberals." Midge Decter's 1995 Erasmus Lecture (to appear in a forthcoming issue) is titled, "Being Jewish in AntiChristian America." If the choice is between a dominantly anti-Christian elite culture and the majority culture of Christians, it is suggested, Jews have compelling prudential and religious reasons to side with the Christians.

Another piece of nastiness that has received almost no attention in this country is a controversy generated over Human Life International, a pro-life organization based in Maryland that this spring held its convention in Montreal. B'nai B'rith of Canada launched an all-out campaign against HLI, charging that it is an extremist organization guilty of antiSemitism. The campaign received major media attention in Canada, and some went so far as to demand that the government stop HLI delegates from crossing the border to attend the convention. B'nai B'rith also pressured the Archdiocese of Montreal, unsuccessfully, to refuse HLI the use of the cathedral for the convention's opening Mass. The prime exhibit in support of the claim that HLI is anti-Semitic is a chapter in a book by Father Paul Marx, . Marx is a Benedictine priest and founder of HLI, and in that chapter he deplores the prominent role of Jews in the pro-abortion movement, arguing that Jews, of all people, should recognize the consequences when human life is devalued.

The chapter in question may be injudicious, and some points of fact may be disputed, but it is hardly anti-Semitic. No reasonable person will dispute the fact that Jews are disproportionately represented among the promoters of abortion, and drawing analogies between abortion and the Holocaust is hardly "extremist." Without taking a position on abortion, a number of prominent Canadian Jews courageously challenged the slander perpetrated by B'nai B'rith. In this country, Msgr. George Higgins devoted his column, which has a wide readership in the Catholic diocesan press, to the HLI affair. Msgr. Higgins, usually a more fair-minded commentator, accused HLI of engaging in a "flirtation with antiSemitism," and says that the fact that bishops are associated with HLI makes it difficult for Jews "to distinguish the preachments of HLI from the official teaching of the Church, which clearly condemns forays into anti- Semitism." The Catholic Church does indeed condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, but, pace Msgr. Higgins, there is no evidence that HLI is guilty of flirting with anti- Semitism. Promptly upon the appearance of Higgins' column, the interreligious affairs office of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League issued a press release commending him for his bold opposition to antiSemitism.

Anti-Semitism in Decline

The happy fact, documented by every serious study, is that anti-Semitism in America has dramatically declined in the last fifty years, and even more so in the last twenty years. It is kept alive at the margins by fringe groups such as Aryan Nation and by racist skinheads broadcasting their hate messages via Internet. Regrettably, it is also kept alive by institutions such as the Anti-Defamation League. The purpose of ADL is to counter defamation of Jews. If there is no defamation of Jews, ADL has no reason to exist. It is an organization that operates by demand-side economics. It has a built-in institutional need for a dependable supply of antiSemitism in order to maintain itself. Its fund-raising depends upon sustaining a high level of Jewish anxiety about anti- Semitism. One is reminded of a recent report from the Midwest about a volunteer fireman convicted of arson. The village was going to close down the volunteer fire department, and he wanted to provide a convincing reason for not doing so. We do not suggest that groups such as ADL and B'nai B'rith of Canada are deliberately creating antiSemitism, but by setting off false alarms they seriously reduce the believability of the anxiety upon which their existence depends.

The above-mentioned account in the reports the views of Daniel Levitas, described as a liberal Atlanta Jewish activist, who invokes memories of czarist Russia. "The Jews used to have a response when the Cossacks came to town," he says. "You close the doors, you batten down the hatches, and you shutter the windows. Eventually the dust will settle and you can come out again. The Jews used to say 'This too shall pass.' This time it's not going to pass." Such sentiments reflect the paranoia to which William Kristol refers and, not so incidentally, are an outrageous insult against non-Jewish Americans. The United States in 1995 is not czarist Russia and the American people are not Cossacks bent upon killing Jews. Whatever his own intentions, statements such as those of Mr. Levitas cannot help but exacerbate Jewish-Christian relations, inflaming anti-Christian feelings among Jews and anti-Jewish feelings among non-Jews.

But he got one thing half-right: "This time it's not going to pass." If the "it" in question is the freer expression of religion and religiously grounded moral convictions in public, a major and lasting change does seem to be underway. Given that this is America, such expression will be predominantly Christian in character. This circumstance is understandably worrying to many Jews, but the challenges that it entails can be explored by Jews and Christians in a manner that does not threaten but strengthens our common participation in the American experiment. This was recently demonstrated by a symposium at Harvard marking the fiftieth anniversary of at which Midge Decter and this writer, among others, spoke.

In the last quarter century, it was pointed out at the Harvard meeting, there has been a dramatic change among Christians-from Catholics to evangelical Protestants-in the understanding of Christianity's dependence upon Judaism. Not simply the Judaism of what Christians call the Old Testament but the living Judaism that continues in mysterious relation to God's election and unbreakable promise. References to a "Judeo- Christian" moral tradition, for instance, are not merely a euphemistic trope employed to avoid offending Jews, although that may sometimes be the case. There is a much deeper level at which Christians are coming to understand their providential entanglement with Jews and Judaism, an understanding that has slight precedent in the two millennia of interaction between Jews and Christians. This growing understanding should be carefully nurtured by Jews and Christians alike.

From Birmingham, Michigan to Atlanta to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, many Jews have assumed that the more secularized America is, the safer it is for Jews. In this view, Jewish security and success has been achieved the fact that America is a predominantly Christian society. This view, which is probably shared, at least intuitively, by a majority of Jews, is of relatively recent vintage. An alternative view is that Jews are secure and successful this is a predominantly Christian society. All too obviously, there have been predominantly Christian societies in which Jews have been anything but secure. But the argument is that Christianity in America really is different, that it has internalized the imperatives of tolerance as a matter of religious duty, and that, more recently, it has come to see Judaism as an integral part of God's purposes in history. In a forthcoming historical study of Jewish attitudes toward "Christian America," sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Rabbi David Dalin of Hartford University and Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University examine earlier Jewish perspectives that are newly relevant to our changing religio-cultural circumstance.

A More Embracing Sensitivity

It would be a tragedy of historic proportions were the opportunities of this new circumstance to be wasted in politicized rantings against the public assertiveness of conservative Christians. In a time when we are called to be "sensitive" to every grievance and discontent, a measure of sensitivity is due also those Christians who say that they want to take back their country. With the exception of a few kooks on the margins (who bear close watching), people who talk that way do not mean that the country must be taken back from Jews. They do have opponents in mind-"secular humanists," "the pagan left," "the cultural elites," "the mainstream media." In sum, the people and institutions that have in the past portrayed, and still do portray, millions of Americans as dangerous aliens, as strangers in their own land. These newly activated Americans are fed up with being put on the defensive because of what they see as their adherence to Christian belief and morality. This populist resurgence is undoubtedly driven by a degree of resentment, and it, too, may sometimes "verge into paranoia." For the most part, however, it is a perfectly understandable reaction to be being treated with disrespect, even contempt, by the champions of secularism.

Frank Rich and others of fevered imagination to the contrary, the reaction has nothing to with antiSemitism. Unless, of course, Jews and Judaism are equated with, inter alia, promoting abortion, eliminating religion from public schools, advocating homosexuality, denigrating marital fidelity, shocking traditional sensibilities, and depicting Christians as potential perpetrators of genocide. Those who slander Jews and Judaism by making such an equation are indeed guilty of anti-Semitism, and it makes little difference whether the slander is peddled by Jews or by Christians.

If our reading is correct, the political culture has been dramatically changed in recent months and years, and more dramatic changes are in the offing. The deepest and probably most long-lasting change is the rediscovery of the free exercise of religion, and the assertion of religiously grounded moral conviction in the public square. This is a change that can be welcomed by both Jews and Christians-as citizens devoted to a free society, and as children of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. This change is understandably feared by determined secularists, Jewish and other, who are taken by surprise that American history is not turning out the way they had confidently expected. The vibrant resurgence of public religion forces them to reexamine their basic assumptions about America and the course of modernity, which is a difficult and painful undertaking.

The Uncertain Future of American Judaism

There is reason to believe, however, that the next generation of Jews in America will more readily cope with, and even welcome, the free exercise of religion in public. A new study by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, (Harvard University Press), examines the ways in which Jewish ethnic identity is fast eroding. Given the rate of intermarriage with non-Jews and other factors, it is quite possible that a few decades from now only half as many Americans will identify themselves as Jewish. Jewish identity that is based upon ethnicity, anxiety about anti- Semitism, and concern for Israel is, say Lipset and Raab, a fragile thing. The Jewish future in America will be secured not by "Jewishness" but by Judaism, and Judaism is, most importantly, religion. "The central core of Jewish identity has been religion, even though an ethnic culture is built into that religion. It is that religious core which provides a special edge of separatist cohesion for Jews."

Those who have constructed Jewish identity on the foundation of political liberalism have, according to Lipset and Raab, built upon sand. "Some want to believe that an intrinsic quality of Jewish life consists of such universally benevolent 'Jewish social values' as equality, social justice, and world peace.... But however strongly held, most of those social values are no longer particular to the Jews, and have clearly not provided the glue which can keep the Jewish community together." As the Jews of tomorrow are more religiously observant, they will also be more socially and politically conservative. And that is because, as these scholars and many others point out, there is a strong connection between religious commitment and conservatism on a very broad range of questions.

Anti-Semitism is a very serious business. Christians, too, are responsible for seeing to it that it is watched assiduously and countered forcefully. That will not happen, however, if anti-Semitism is equated with opposition to the liberalism that many Jews believe to be the essential core of their "Jewishness." It will not happen if fair criticism of the behavior of some Jews, or many Jews, is recklessly condemned as anti-Semitism. And it will not happen if the dominant voice of Judaism in America is that of secular agencies whose stock in trade is to accuse non-Jews of anti-Semitism. Within American Jewry, there are a growing number of thinkers-including but hardly limited to those mentioned above-who point to a more promising way for the flourishing of Jews and Judaism in America. Jews will decide how their message is received, but the rest of us, as Christians and as citizens, have a deep interest in the revival of a Jewish identity that transcends the political partisanships of this historical moment.

Jews who are indifferent to the religious core of Judaism may, as Lipset and Raab suggest, be assimilated into the sector of secular Americans who are equally indifferent to Christianity. There they may maintain for a time an attenuated sense of ethnic identity, much in the way that others are vaguely Italian, Irish, or German "by extraction." But extraction means separation, and identities by extraction are by definition tenuous and short-lived. The interesting and promising future of Jewish-Christian relations rests with Jews and Christians who, in mutual respect and reverence, seek to discern and obey the will of the One who is, through Israel, the light to the nations, and not least to these United States of America.

This article appeared in the June/July 1995 issue of "First Things." To subscribe write First Things, Dept. FT, P.O. Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834-9847, 1-800-783-4903. Published monthly except bimonthly June/July and August/September for $29.00 per year.