Jews founded the modern state of Israel 65 years ago. For many people, this event proves the remarkable prophetic proficiency of Theodore Herzl, the visionary who dared to dream that those who were exiled for almost 2000 years would reclaim the land of their ancestors. And surely the remarkable story of Jewish resurrection after the Holocaust lends considerable weight to the prescient abilities of the founder of the Zionist movement.
But contemporary history forces us to acknowledge that Theodore Herzl made one major miscalculation. It is a mistake we need to acknowledge, even as we rejoice in our present day celebrations of independence.
What motivated Herzl to devote his life to the creation of a Jewish state was the Dreyfus affair in France. An assimilated Jewish writer and journalist, Herzl was shocked by the intense anti-Semitism he witnessed during the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, who was falsely accused of treason. He was especially shocked by the mob in Paris shouting, “Death to the Jews.” With the encouragement of the army leadership and the leadership of the Catholic Church, a wave of anti-Semitism had swept over France during the trial.
It was only years later that Dreyfus was proven innocent, but his trial and conviction led Herzl to conclude that the Jews are a distinct nationality which will never be fully accepted by their host-nations. He therefore decided that the only true solution to the problem of anti-Semitism was for Jews to have a state of their own.
Far from producing an end to anti-Semitism, the existence of Israel has spurred Jewish enemies to ever greater heights of hatred.
“Once we begin to execute the plan,” Herzl wrote in The Jewish State, “anti-Semitism will cease at once and everywhere. For it is the conclusion of peace.”
But that part of Herzl’s dream has turned into a nightmare. Far from producing an end to anti-Semitism, the existence of Israel has spurred Jewish enemies to ever greater heights of hatred, as they disguise their enmity to the Jew in political terms as simply being anti-Zionist.
What has always marked anti-Semitism throughout the ages was its fundamental resistance to reason. The Rabbis of the Talmud put it well by way of an incident involving the Roman Emperor:
A certain Jew happened to be walking in the street when the Emperor rode by. The Jew greeted him. “Who are you?” asked Hadrian. “I am a Jew,” answered the man. The Emperor flew into a rage. “How dare a Jew greet me? Let him be executed for his impudence.”
The next day another Jew chanced to be walking as the Emperor went by. The man had learned of the previous day’s incident and did not dare greet the Emperor. Hadrian again showed his anger. “Who are you?” he demanded. The man did not answer. Hadrian then shouted: “What impudence of this fellow to walk past me and not acknowledge me. Let him be executed for his disrespect.”
His counselors then said: “Sire, we do not understand your policy. Yesterday a man was executed for greeting you. Today another man is executed for not greeting you.”
Hadrian replied “Why do you try to teach me how to behave toward the Jews? Whatever they do is wrong.” (Lamentations Rabbah 3:41)
So Jews are too liberal or too conservative, too cheap or two spendthrift, too passive or too pushy, too charitable or too selfish, too religious or too secular – pick any characteristic and Jews have been blamed either for possessing too much of it or not having it at all. Jews are the scapegoats for the sins of every political system. Max Nordau, the great Zionist leader, had it right: “The Jews are not hated because they have evil qualities; evil qualities are sought for in them because they are hated.”
Can anyone rationally explain the contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism camouflaged as anti-Zionism?
There is a worldwide movement which is known by the capital letters: BDS - Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The movement calls for just that … to boycott, divest from and place sanctions on only one country in the world: the state of Israel. Only Israel is considered so morally corrupt, so criminally insane, that there are calls to “shun” it, isolate it and boycott it. College campuses call upon administrations to boycott Israeli academics from conferences. Supermarkets in many European countries refuse to sell products made in Israel.
Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only UN member state whose right to exist is regularly challenged, whose elimination from the world map is the aim of at least one other UN member state (Iran), and whose population centers are deemed fair game by Hamas-controlled Gaza and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.
None of the countries that are serial human-rights violators – not Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Sudan, or any of the others – gets anything near the relentless, obsessive, guilty-till-proven-innocent scrutiny that democratic Israel receives from UN bodies, with their built-in, anti-Israel majorities, in New York and Geneva.
Indeed, Israel is the only nation in the world which has a permanent, separate agenda item at the UN Human Rights Council . All other countries in the world are lumped together under another agenda item.
Roger Waters, Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Stevie Wonder … they and many other entertainers all refuse to perform in Israel. They all canceled tours to Israel. Alice Walker, the noted writer and author of The Color Purple, not only refuses to set foot into Israel, she refuses to allow her book to be translated into Hebrew.
Let no one misunderstand the true nature of this hatred. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. correctly pointed out, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.”
Indeed, no other country but Israel is the target of such non-stop, well-funded, and highly-organized campaigns to discredit, delegitimize, and demonize a sovereign state. No other country faces systematic attempts to launch boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions against it. All behind these efforts claim to speak in the lofty name of human rights, even as they studiously ignore places like Syria, where more than 70,000 have been killed in the past two years alone and numberless more wounded, homeless, exiled, and detained. Why pick on Israel and not Syria? Because Israel is the homeland of the Jews - and it is the Jews who continue to remain on the very top of the list of those the world wishes to be rid of.
Theodore Herzl thought it was because we were a nation without a land. Now we know that is not true. The land of Israel has not protected us from anti-Semitism; in fact it has exacerbated the problem. Because the truth is Jew hatred was never rooted in Jewish statelessness. It was almost certainly far more the result of Jewish saintliness.
Hitler dared to verbalize it as justification for his plan for genocide of the Jewish people: “Conscience is a Jewish invention like circumcision. My task is to free men from the dirty and degrading ideas of conscience and morality.”
We are hated not because we are bad but because we persist in reminding the world of what it means to be good.
The Talmud perceived this idea in the very name of the mountain on which the Torah was given. Sinai in Hebrew is similar to the word sinah – hatred. It was the Jews’ acceptance of a higher law of morality and ethics that was responsible for the world’s enmity.
Anti-Semitism stands in opposition to the very idea of civilization. It detests Jews because it acknowledges that Jews are the conscience of humanity and the lawgivers of ethical and moral behavior.
For that reason, we ought to consider anti-Semitism as a badge of honor. It reflects the universal recognition of our God-given mission to be “a light unto the nations.” It bespeaks peoples’ struggle with their conscience. We are hated not because we are bad but precisely because we persist in reminding the world of what it means to be good.
Perhaps Theodore Dreiser explained it best: “The world’s quarrel with the Jew is not that he is inferior, but that he is superior.”
The true answer to anti-Semitism then is not, as Theodore Herzl thought, that Jews acquire a land, but rather that we persist in fulfilling our mission to serve as the world’s conscience until all of mankind learns to acknowledge the beautiful truths of our heritage.