We incorrectly assumed that a barbaric massacre, rape, torture and kidnapping of innocents would provoke worldwide sympathy and awaken moral clarity. Some situations are so binary and so black and white that they leave absolutely no room for moral maneuvering or for multiple narratives. We thought the brutal massacre of our people was such a situation. We thought wrong.
Over the past two weeks, even before the bodies were buried and before many of them were even identified, antisemites came pouring out of the woodwork to accuse us of moral crimes, and, evidently, though it is shocking to imagine, support the murder of Jews. It didn’t take long for the oldest of all hatreds to rear its ugly head. This monster is still alive in 2023. It just dresses in different clothing.
Weapons and Tongues
Facing a 12th century Islamic movement determined to murder or convert to Islam, the crestfallen Yemenite community turned to Maimonides for support and guidance. In his response, known as the “Letter to Yemen,” Maimonides cited a verse in Isaiah chapter 54 which assures us that “any weapon fashioned against you will fail and any tongue raised against you will be thwarted.” Our enemies attempt to destroy us both through physical and verbal weaponry. In addition to actual violence, they spin false narratives to vilify us. Those diabolical and filthy tongues are, currently, working overtime.
Rabbi Sacks compared antisemitism to a virus which cannot survive independently but needs to parasite its resources from a host organism. Similarly, antisemitism must adopt or distort a contemporary cultural narrative to justify the hateful venom it spews. The cover story for antisemitism changes in each generation, but the hatred doesn’t change.
Medieval Christian antisemitism employed the false accusation of blood libels to foment the murder of Jews. By the 19th century, as organized religion had collapsed, a religious narrative for antisemitism would no longer be effective. Instead, antisemitism adopted a more contemporary narrative: that Jews were a sub-Aryan race which needed to be purged from the broader society. In the wake of Darwinism and a world characterized by selection and survival of the fittest, social Darwinism envisioned the same selection process for human society. Eliminating weaker races was necessary for the survival of humanity at large. Antisemitism’s new clothing was 20th century racial theory.
The horrors of WWII debunked social Darwinism, forcing antisemites back into the laboratory to fabricate a new false narrative to support their endless loathing. They invented a powerful geo-political narrative that the Jews are foreign colonialists who invaded indigenous Arab populations and illegally established a state. In truth, we inhabited this land thousands of years before colonialism and returned home with full international backing. Every generation casts a new false narrative to support their antisemitism, but the underlying hatred remains the same. In every generation.
Ironically and tragically, many of these accusations falsely denounce us for violating the very values we hold dear. Ancient antisemitism was based, largely, upon our challenging the world to monotheism. Paganism, with its multiple gods involved in an endless moral carnival, doesn’t demand moral accountability. Monotheism, based upon moral regulation and the structure of commandments is a more difficult, but more ennobling way of life. We were hated because we demanded a break from the riotous revelry of a pagan lifestyle.
After the destruction of the First Temple, our pagan enemies ravaged the ornamental golden cherubs, paraded them through the streets of Jerusalem, and taunted us that we were, in fact, paganists. The easiest way to deflect our religious challenge was to accuse the Jewish people, the messengers of monotheism, of the crime of paganism.
Similarly, medieval blood libels were also a ridiculous but painful projection of Christian crimes upon our own people. The Torah repeatedly forbids consuming animal blood, let alone human blood. Consuming blood is anathema to us and to our strict dietary regulations. Similarly, we are repeatedly cautioned against any murder. For centuries we showcased a higher standard of hygiene, education, family, community, morality and general dignity than the general European population. Unable to face this challenge, medieval Europe accused us of drinking blood and of murder. The easiest way to deflect our moral message was to accuse us of their own crimes. If we drank human blood we were, obviously, hypocrites, whose moral message could be ignored.
We are now facing the most warped version of this antisemitic “deflection strategy.” We were placed on Earth to live a higher moral standard, to model a life of covenant and commandment, and to showcase how a religious lifestyle enhances the human condition. During periods when we didn’t live up to moral expectations, we were evicted from our land. We had grossly failed in our mission.
We have now returned home and hope to continue this historical mission. We aim to create a model state of ethics, compassion, community, patriotism, historical legacy and spirituality. One day we hope these values will morph into religious expression. Hopefully, we will live up to these ambitious expectations and serve as a moral example to any who are willing to be inspired.
Those who refuse to be inspired are now projecting their own worst crimes upon us. Supporters of Hamas bestiality are busily deflecting their own moral decay upon us. They deceitfully associate us with unjust policies such as apartheid and with horrific monsters such as Nazis. The easiest way to avoid the message is to deflect your own crimes upon the messenger. Nothing has changed.
Witnessing higher universities across the United States serving as hotbeds for vitriolic antisemitism has been especially galling. By not explicitly opposing these despicable riots, university administrations have lent silent accreditation for murder. These criminal assemblies of hate and violence occurred in institutions which were previously referred to as “prestigious.” Evidently, we must rethink who and what we view as “prestigious.”
Ideally, the pursuit of higher knowledge should incite the development of higher moral awareness. Ideally, the more knowledge studied the greater the moral conscience. Unfortunately, this is not always true, as, tragically, the acquisition of higher knowledge sometimes erodes moral spirit. Over-intellectualization can blur the boundaries between good and evil and, all too often, intellectuals are unable to preserve basic moral clarity which even common and uneducated people instinctively recognize.
Additionally, students of higher knowledge can become cocky and condescending, arrogantly assuming they are in possession of a higher moral code which ordinary people are incapable of understanding. Finally, the tolerance for hate on university campuses is being misrepresented as a defense of free speech and free thought. Democracy offers every citizen equal footing in the ballot box and equal legal rights. It doesn’t offer moral equivalence to any and every moral position, especially those which threaten the lives of others. But democracy has intoxicated modernity with freedom: freedom from family, freedom from gender, freedom from values and now freedom from morality. Democracy is slowly murdering moral clarity.
This cultural debacle should provide a cautionary tale. Don’t revere intellect for its own sake. Don’t admire people simply because of their intelligence or their ability to convey it to others. Instead, gauge whether intellectual achievement has galvanized moral clarity and behavior. These institutions should never be referred to as prestigious. They have forfeited any moral high ground and any claim to public respect.
Kafka put it best: “The destiny of the Jews is to absorb the potentialities of Mankind, purify them and give them higher development … [but] the world opposes him with the cry of antisemitism … They beat the Jews and murder humanity.”
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.