Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Fear and Shame at the Heart of Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism

Why do so many people who identify as progressives or liberals harbor antisemitic and anti-Zionist attitudes as core tenets of their belief systems? This is not a simple question to answer, and there may not be one definitive answer, but fear and shame are major components of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. These are not the only factors, nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive, but for clarity's sake we will look at each factor separately.

The Fear Factor

In an article titled "My Neighbor Freud" by Bruno Weiser Varon (published in the September/October 1999 issue of Midstream), Varon quotes from a letter that Sigmund Freud wrote to a colleague who had asked Freud for advice about dealing with antisemitism. Freud wrote, "Discrimination acts as a spur rather than a hindrance for gifted people. The fact that as a Jew it will be more difficult for you may, as with all of us, have the effect of stimulating your productivity." Varon comments, "Why was I pleased? Because growing up in the same Vienna where Freud had come to his conclusion, I had, as a youngster, written down a thought that, unbeknownst to me, resembled that of my famous neighbor: I compared my life as a Jew in the first Austrian Republic, meaning from 1918-1938, with a series of 100-yard dashes, in which the Jew had to give the Austrian non-Jew a five-to-ten yard advantage. And I attribute to this extra effort, made necessary by antisemitism, the extraordinary achievements of so many Austrian Jews."

This normative Jewish response to antisemitism--to work harder, to achieve more, to overcome all obstacles--appears to arouse fear, shame, and resentment among non-Jews. Why are Jews disproportionately represented among such diverse categories as Nobel Prize winners and elite chess players? An objective person might consider that a possible answer could be found in the sentiments expressed in the previous paragraph, but there are those who draw the bizarre conclusion that the success of some Jewish people proves that there is no antisemitism, and there are those who assert that the success of some Jewish people proves that collectively Jews are a powerful group whose members succeed unfairly at the expense of others.

Fear and resentment of the success of individual Jews often extends to fear and resentment of the success of the State of Israel. It is puzzling that every developing nation in the world does not look with admiration at Israel. Israel, arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust as a tiny, besieged former British colony that is not blessed with vast oil or mineral reserves, has emerged as an open, democratic society that ranks among the world's leaders in science, technology, medicine, and many other fields. As Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary, Mortimer Zuckerman examined the country's history and accomplishments:

From the Arab and Palestinian world there is a continual incitement to hatred that makes indiscriminate Palestinian terrorism against Israel palatable. Those who suggest a moral equivalence for a cycle of violence to describe Israel's response to terrorism fail to distinguish between the arsonist and the firefighter.
The Jews who became Israelis have built a thriving economy, based to a large extent on their human capital. They revived as a spoken language an ancient language, Hebrew. They have integrated new arrivals from around the world and resolutely maintained a vibrant, free, and democratic society; they have created the political and economic infrastructure of a nation; and they have survived in war after existential war as Psalm 129 foretold. "Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me." They have cultivated desolate lands with one of the world's most innovative agricultural economies; they have established legal systems that protect civil liberties against the backdrop of the most lethal security threats. They have made a home for the world's largest Jewish population, passing America by about 1 percentage point. They have fulfilled Israel's destiny to give Jewish communities threatened from without, or assimilated to the point of extinction from within, a place to survive and thrive. This is the dream that has come true. Even though Israel seeks no allegiance and loyalty from anyone who is not an Israeli citizen, the realization of the dream and the remarkable historical event that Israel represents with its rebirth have evoked the spirit of kinship and emotional and association with those who share the Judeo-Christian community throughout the world.

Israel has accomplished so much in just a few decades despite being surrounded by large, hostile neighbors who have repeatedly attacked Israel with the stated goal of destroying Israel--and several of the countries in the region still actively finance and foment terrorist attacks against Israel and against Jews around the world. 

Why has Israel been so spectacularly successful while so many other former British colonies are mired in poverty and ruled by totalitarian regimes? Israel's neighbors--and developing countries around the world--too often do not look at Israel as a role model, but rather as a success story that they fear, and that makes them feel ashamed at their own failures. As a result, many have decided to demonize Israel and to discount Israel as an illegitimate country whose successes are not the product of hard work and ingenuity. Israel has become the personification of the Jew in the world. The irrational fears that many people have about the disproportionate success of individual Jews have now also been directed against the disproportionate success of the Jewish State. 

In the February 1988 issue of Commentary, Hilton Kramer noted that deep-seated hostility toward Israel often emanates from "the political culture of the international Left. It is based on, among other things, that lethal combination of guilt, fear, cynicism, and sentimentality toward the Third World that is now one of the most destructive and disabling issues in world affairs--destructive and disabling, that is, to the democracies (It is a boon, of course, to totalitarianism.). As a model of post-colonial democratic government, Israel is a standing reproach to the ongoing political debacle of the Third World. That isn't the only reason Israel has become a target of the international Left, but it is one of the primary reasons."

It is not a coincidence that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are connected to anti-American sentiments, because those who hate America are often jealous of America in much the same fashion that those who hate Jews and/or Israel are jealous of Jews and/or Israel: "Jealousy is a powerful human emotion. Hatred is a tremendous emotional release. Blame is cathartic. At this time in history, the United States is humane, free, and powerful. The Arab Islamic world is just the opposite. Our success is infuriating to people who value their own culture, who love their traditions even though they no longer work, and who look at our enormous success with inchoate envy...In the future, we'll get around to recognizing the neuroses, if not psychoses, that are far too prevalent within the Arabian heartland of the Islamic world...The transition from women as property to women as full participants in society has been the greatest revolution in human history, and its reverberations will be felt for centuries. Repressive cultures are horrified by it because it calls into question their most fundamental biological, sociological, and religious ideas. However, the oppression of women anywhere is not only a human rights violation, it's a suicide pact with the future" (Ralph Peters, "The Shah Always Falls," interviewed by Fredric Smoler in the February/March 2003 issue of American Heritage).

The Shame Factor

Freud once wrote that Jews are not really hated because of the Christian accusation that the Jews killed God but rather because the Jews created the concept of God by giving humanity the monotheistic idea. Freud argued that, subconsciously, people prefer to live like cave dwellers--without any strictly defined moral code--and thus people do not want to hear about a God who admonishes that you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet. Freud believed that Jews are hated for being the messengers of God's moral code.

Adolf Hitler's private conversations with associates, as reported in Hermann Rauschning's book The Voice of Destruction and quoted in Adam A. Winston's article "Criteria for the Distribution of Unclaimed Assets" (published in the September/October 1999 issue of Midstream), support and amplify the viewpoint of antisemitism functioning as a rejection of Jewish values. Hitler is quoted is saying the following:

"Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, like circumcision."

"Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I am freeing men from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge: from the dirty and degraded self-mortifications called conscience and morality, and from the demands of a freedom and personal independence, which only a few can bear."

"Thou shalt not steal? Wrong! All life is theft."

"Against the so-called Ten Commandments, against them we are fighting."

It is worth noting in this context that even when Nazi Germany was losing on the battlefield to the Allies, Hitler refused to divert the resources being used to exterminate the Jews to bolster the war effort; for Hitler, killing as many Jews as possible was more important than winning the war on the battlefield. 

This is an example of why the scapegoat theory does not adequately explain the persistence and virulence of antisemitism. Yes, the Jewish people are often used as scapegoats for a host of ills, but that is a result of antisemitism and not the root cause of antisemitism. As Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin put it in their book Why the Jews?, "Antisemitism was not a vehicle for the Nazis; Nazism was a vehicle for antisemitism" (p. 74).

In "Thank God for the Chosen People" (April 2006 Moment), Prager called the Jewish people "evil's lightning rod." Prager asks, "How else would one explain the central role this tiny people plays in the world?" He notes that even though Israel is smaller than Belize the United Nations has focused more time and attention on Israel than on any other nation or issue since Israel's modern rebirth in 1948. Prager adds, "the Muslim world revolves around destroying Israel and is heir to Nazism in the ferocity of its Jew-hatred." Prager concludes, "The preoccupation of the world with Jews is not a function of anything rational. There are 15 million Jews in the world, two-tenths of one percent of humanity." 

What does Prager mean by the phrase "evil's lightning rod"? He explains:

The Jews are the reminder to humanity that good and evil matter more than anything else. The human species wishes to ignore that fact. Evil is largely ignored; goodness is rarely a society's primary value.

Even many Jews do not recognize this. Most Jews' values are those of the left, which hates other things--inequality, for example--far more than it hates evil. Thus the left's mockery of President Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as an evil empire; the mockery of President George W. Bush's description of North Korea, Iran, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an axis of evil; the respect given to tyrants like Fidel Castro who espouse socioeconomic equality; the inability to see the unique role for good that America plays in the world; and much more.

Jewish Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism

A subset of antisemitism and anti-Zionism emanating from the Left is Jewish antisemitism/anti-Zionism. While some people may deny that Jewish antisemitism and/or Jewish anti-Zionism exist, the reality is that a Jewish person may be antisemitic and/or anti-Zionist; membership in a community does not preclude a person from articulating viewpoints that are hateful about that community. 

In the February 1988 issue of Commentary, Irving Kristol described how a member of a community can become hateful toward that community:

The most viciously anti-Israel Jews I know are all Israelis (just as the most bitterly anti-Americans I know are Americans). They are, as it happens, left-wing Israelis and this is no accident. Political utopianism used to be as characteristic of the Right as of the Left, but ever since World War II it is overwhelmingly a left-wing phenomenon. To be left-wing these days means to be contemptuous of Western societies, with their emphasis on individual liberty and material prosperity--"consumerism," as it is called--and of Western civilization itself. Left-wing "idealism" is, as it always has been, collectivist and egalitarian. It is therefore sympathetic to, or at the very least indulgent of, collectivist regimes that are ideologically hostile to free-market economics and are also ideologically egalitarian (though in actuality nothing of the sort). True, the type of left-wing regime epitomized by the Soviet Union is by now so discredited that many on the Left feel free to call themselves "anti-Communist." But they keep hoping against hope that newer, "socialist" models of their ideal will be more acceptable. At the very least, they insist on being anti-capitalist, and are therefore hostile to the liberal societies which always are, to a substantial degree, based on a market economy.

In the February 1988 issue of Commentary, Eric M. Breindel described both Israel's remarkable success and the hatred directed toward Israel by some Jews:

That there needs to be one place on earth where Jews from every corner of the world can--if need be--take refuge is a proposition whose truth has been amply demonstrated by history, both pre-and post-1948...

Jews in Arab lands could well have suffered untold persecution had there been no Jewish state to which they could flee. And anyone who thinks that anti-Jewish sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world is solely a response to Zionism ought to consider not just the pre-Balfour Declaration history of the Jews in the Maghreb and the Levant, but also the fate of non-Muslim minorities under Khomeini and his brethren...

...Israel is a more pleasant place to live than most countries in the world; a freer society than most; and, for that matter, a a more secure and stable enterprise than, say, most of the U.N. member-states--despite the fact that Israel is surrounded by nations pledged to destroy it...

...the Jewish voices raised in criticism of Israel that are audible to the American public at large belong to individuals and groups which identify themselves as sympathetic to Israel.

Many of these critics had no encounter of any kind with Israel before they began attacking it. Protesting Israeli policies...was an inaugural experience in "Zionism" for a fair number of the writers, artists, and professors who signed the manifestos critical of Israel that proliferated a few years ago.

Almost always, these documents--and statements issued by groups like Breira--began by expressing disappointment in Israel's failure to measure up to the Zionist ideal, thus implying past enthusiasm for that ideal. But some of the key players in these endeavors have been altogether disingenuous. They come from a staunchly anti-Zionist left-wing tradition--socialist, Trotskyist, whatever. Others in this class of critics have their roots in the contemporary liberal-Left political culture and never gave Israel a moment's thought, one way or the other, until attacking it became fashionable within that culture.

In that same issue of Commentary, Joel Carmichael differentiated legitimate criticism of a country's policies from deep-seated hostility toward a country's existence:

We must, however, distinguish between honest criticism and the willful nagging generated by the countless enemies of Israel whose true agenda is hidden. It is obvious that those Jews who have become hostile to Israel because it is not perfect project their moral disappointment, genuine or feigned, as a camouflage for active hostility from a wide variety of angles (generally some form of universalism, most often Marxism).

In his December 8, 2020 article Why are Jews Trying to Undermine the Fight Against Jew-Hatred?, Jonathan Tobin answers the title question by describing a sobering reality: 

Those who identify with the far-left of the Israeli political spectrum--and therefore hold views now outside the mainstream in the Jewish state--have become so alienated from normative pro-Israeli advocacy that they are uncomfortable speaking up on its behalf.

All too many of them have already accepted the false premises of the anti-Zionists and regard those who rightly brand anti-Zionists as anti-Semites as political foes. Groups like Peace Now and the New Israel Fund seem more interested in delegitimizing their Zionist critics with attempts to throw them out of groups like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations or local Jewish Community Relations Councils than they are in calling out Jew-haters who want to destroy Israel.

Though some members of these left-wing groups may claim that they are still Zionist and opposed to anti-Semitism, their increasingly ambivalent attitude towards Israel, coupled with hostility to those who have called out Palestinians and other anti-Zionists for their anti-Semitism, seem far more important to them.

Unfortunately, they have crossed the line that ought to separate them from those who hate the Jews and have become their "useful idiots," even open allies. That--and not another Palestinian attempt to deflect accurate charges of Jew-hatred--is not merely a problem but a Jewish tragedy.


Antisemitism and anti-Zionism share the same potent attractions for their adherents: the Jewish people and the State of Israel are highly visible due to their successes, yet both lack the power (or, at times, the inclination) to fight back aggressively against their tormentors; during nearly two millennia in exile, the Jewish people learned to survive by accommodation as opposed to confrontation, and that mindset persists among individual Jews, Jewish community leadership, and Israel. For example, Israel has made and remains willing to make unprecedented territorial concessions to sworn enemies who continue to deny Israel's right to exist. Any "normal" country in Israel's situation--Israel not only has a strong historical claim to Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, but also strong claims under various provisions of international law, including the capture of land used by another country to launch an attack against her--would act from a position of strength and demand concessions from enemies who have repeatedly been defeated after attacking her; instead of asserting her full historical and legal rights, Israel meekly seeks approval from her enemies and the world in general. Such policies are doomed to fail because they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of history and of human nature.

Hilton Kramer, in his February 1988 Commentary article referenced above, is puzzled by Jews who take public stances that are against their individual and collective long term interests: "Difficult and painful as it is for a Jew to have to raise such a question, the question must nonetheless be asked: why is it that so many American Jews in the media, in the academy, in the social agencies, and in the literary and cultural world have committed themselves to supporting an ideological objective that, if it were ever to be realized on their own home ground, would almost certainly bring about their destruction? If we were in possession of an answer to that question, we would be a lot closer to explaining why so many Jews have joined in the criticism of Israel with so much enthusiasm." 

More than 30 years after Kramer wrote those words, we are no closer to answering the important question he asked; the fear and shame at the heart of antisemitism and anti-Zionism are evident, but it is difficult to understand or explain the enthusiasm that many Jews express for antisemitic and/or anti-Zionist causes.


Suggested Reading

Survival for What? by Zvi Kolitz (Philosophical Library, 1969)

Anti-Semitism in the 1980s by Yehuda Bauer (Louis A. Pincus Memorial Lecture, May 21, 1983)

Why the Jews? by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin (Simon & Schuster, 1985)

The Satanizing of the Jews by Joel Carmichael (Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1993)

A Scapegoat in the Wilderness by Frederic Cople Jaher (Harvard University Press, 1994)


  1. While it is not the purpose of your writing, it would be fair to mention the use of accusation of antisemitism as a weapon to silence people who disagree with certain Jews or Jewish organizations.

  2. Beep: No, I don't think that would be "fair"--or relevant to this essay. It would not be "fair" because--although I am sure that David Duke and Louis Farrakhan would agree with your assertion--it is not true that the "accusation of antisemitism" is used "as a weapon to silence people who disagree with certain Jews or Jewish organizations." It would be fair to say that there are antisemites who deny their antisemitism and who falsely assert that they are being silenced merely for disagreeing with certain Jews or Jewish organizations. It is not difficult for an objective person to tell the difference. For example, if a person says "I support Candidate A" or "I support Policy B" then that person may be disagreeing with certain people or organizations, but the opinions themselves are not offensive. However, if a person says "Prime Minister C is a typical totalitarian Israeli who is committing genocide" (when that statement is demonstrably false) or "Policy D is a genocidal policy" (when that statement is demonstrably false) then that person is expressing antisemitic statements.

    Your statement is not relevant because this essay is about the origins and underpinnings of antisemitism, and not about how antisemites falsely claim that they are being persecuted. That would be an interesting essay subject, though. Louis Farrakhan regularly expresses the most vile antisemitic thoughts while also asserting that he is not antisemitic and that he in fact is a victim of Jewish persecution. Adolf Hitler made similar assertions about the Jews being Germany's misfortune, and he also said (prior to him starting World War II) that if the Jews start the next war in an attempt to destroy Germany they will actually be responsible for their own destruction.


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