Anti-Semitism without Anti-Semites

By Klinghoffer, David | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 1998 | Go to article overview
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Anti-Semitism without Anti-Semites

Klinghoffer, David, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

In a Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River, a young woman I know lies awake at 5 A.M., wondering if the sun will rise. That fear has gripped her on more than one occasion recently. This is what happens. She is awakened by the sound of her children crying. Once she has quieted them down, she gets back into bed and looks out the window and thinks, What if the sun doesn't come up this morning? She is entirely sane, I assure you, but the idea terrifies her until the sun actually does rise through her window, and she can fall asleep again beside her husband.

The other day she happened to mention this to me. I felt that I should console her, even half-playfully. But how?

While giving all due respect to her anxieties, I tried to present a cool, rational view. On the one hand, I said, it has to be admitted that nature is in God's hands. The meaning of the phrase used in insurance contracts, "Act of God," is precisely that nature does not always follow predictable rules. The blessing we Jews say before recitation of the Sh'ma each morning acknowledges that the Lord m'chadesh b'chal yom tamid ma'aseh bereishit: God renews the work of creation every day, continually. Theoretically, it's possible that God might choose to withhold the sun from us tomorrow morning. In the past, on at least one occasion, He has indeed halted the course of the heavenly bodies (see Joshua 10:13). In short, anything could happen.

On the other hand, I told her, clearly there is nothing to worry about. I could show you photographs going back decades of the sun rising over the East River each and every morning. It has never failed to do so. Forget about it.

I thought afterward, however, that I had taken the wrong approach. When someone is irrationally afraid of something, it makes no sense merely to reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. Usually, the smart thing to do is help him step back from his fears and view them at a distance. Let him ask himself: Why is it that I worry about a problem that isn't there? What is the subterranean meaning of my fear? When a rational person suffers from an irrational terror, the terror serves some purpose, probably an unhealthy one, in the dark attic of his soul.

I thought of the young woman who was afraid the sun wouldn't rise when I came across an item recently in the New York Times. Bear with me. It won't be immediately apparent what she has to do with ultra-Orthodox hasidic Jews in New Square, New York.

The Times reported that some hasidim up in Rockland County had been indicted on the charge that they had defrauded the federal and state governments in a multimillion-dollar scheme involving student loans and housing subsidies. Subpoenas had been served at 6 A.M. to ensure that the subpoenaed individuals would be on hand to receive the documents personally. Getting woken up at such an early hour scared the children, the Jews claimed, and was "remindful of the Holocaust that many in this community endured decades ago."

For many of us Jews lately, everything and anything is "remindful of the Holocaust." The truth is that anti-Semitism has become an obsession with us. You've heard the phrase "anti-Semitism without Jews," to describe the hostility to Jews felt in countries like Poland that don't have any Jews. In the American Jewish community we've got anti-Semitism without anti-Semites. Or almost without anti-Semites. In a country as big as America you are inevitably going to find nuts and cranks, haters and despisers, of every description--if you look hard enough.

It seems every month the Anti-Defamation League denounces some piddling Army bureaucrat who said "Jew" out of the wrong side of his mouth or some evangelical religious group that had the temerity to hire one man and a secretary to undertake the quixotic task of converting every Jew in America to Southern Baptist Christianity. We follow these developments with eyes opened wide in horror.

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