Growing up, anti-Semitism was a constant topic of discussion. When I became a Rabbi more than two decades ago, I thought we were done. Jew hatred was the attention grabbing remnant of an earlier world. We had moved on -- Judaism was now about who we are, not about what others think. Foolish youth.
Reliably, once every few weeks there will be an issue in the news that casts anti-Semitic shadow. Most of the time it involves Israel, but often it is another issue -- the defacing of a synagogue, the banning of kosher meat in parts of Europe, the odious outburst of a Hollywood star or the anti-circumcision campaign marked by an ugly comic book with Jewish caricatures.
Again we are dragged into the morass I thought we had all left long ago. When I write something suggesting anti-Semitic undertones in these controversies, a chorus of oversensitivity accusers snaps unfailingly into action. Jews are too thin-skinned, we are told. Criticisms of Israel are not anti-Semitic. The synagogue was defaced by delinquents, not anti-Semites. Circumcision bans are about intactness, not antipathies. This predictable roundelay is repeated so many times that I feel as though I could just fill in the words and dance the steps for each side and be done with it.
But it keeps coming. Ugly speech is easy to find; there are examples high and low, from the university and the gutter. You would think the educated would be more delicate but cultural counter-examples abound: From Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin ("another little Palestinian boy/ trainer jeans and a white teeshirt/ is gunned down by the Zionist SS") to Caryl Churchill's widely discussed play in which the Israeli adult explaining how to portray the conflict to a child, says: "Tell her we killed the babies by mistake." The closing lines are: "Tell her I don't care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it's not her."
I choose these because they are the products of influential, educated, modern European writers. Anyone who monitors speech in the Arab world will find endless examples of Jews depicted as bloodsuckers, pigs, devourers of babies, etc. The specifics remind us of the shocking realization that deep, visceral antipathy toward Jews and Judaism is real and not confined to a single spot in the world. Judging by some of the discourse in Western Europe and especially Arab lands, the murder sixty-five years ago of one-third of the Jewish people did not eliminate or even diminish it. A Jew looking at the world from the perch of privilege, because certainly in America and in Israel Jews generally live very well, feels that the patina of self-confidence is layered over a fear not of what was, but of what is.
Anti-Semitism has never gone away. Still, how does one judge? When people clamor for justice in Israel but ignore massacres in Syria, Libya, starvation in North Korea, on and on -- are they interested in criticizing only if the malefactor is a Jew? Is it justice or hostility that the United Nations has censured Israel more than any other nation on earth, including nations where widespread rape, massacre and even genocide has been a feature of recent history such as The Congo, Bosnia and Rwanda? I understand the counter arguments. But I also know with a certainty that sickens me that in publishing this article there will be a flurry of hate filled responses. If I published an article on China, or Albania, or North Korea, or Ireland, or Russia or any other country on earth, there would be no cascade of hastily penned hatred toward its inhabitants.
Equilibrium is not easy when faced with relentless contempt and even homicidal rage. What would happen, I have often wondered, if the surrounding Arab nations had a superiority in firepower? Israel would face not merely defeat, but wholesale slaughter. Knowing that makes it impossible to dismiss the ripples of hatred elsewhere.
Of course not all criticism of Israel or even of Jews is anti-Semitic. In a tinderbox world, though, who has the confidence to dismiss the kindled match?
We would all like to believe that the ugliest parts of our history have been laid to rest. Each day furnishes consistent evidence to the contrary. So when Jews detect the whiff of anti-Semitism in campaigns that are ostensibly not about Jews (like the circumcision debate) is it really so irrational? Once you have faced a near-fatal illness, every twinge is a warning.
Follow Rabbi Wolpe on Facebook.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more