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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick


While preparing for my weekly course about the history of antisemitism this week, I ran across some notes from a similar course that I took in rabbinical school way back when. They summarized a classroom conversation about whether early Christian disdain for Jews or Judaism could best be described as antisemitism or as anti-Judaism. To put it another way, were early Christians antisemitic or "merely" anti-Jewish, in the sense of opposing the beliefs of most Jews? And to what extent was there any real difference?

In early Christianity, Jews who converted were generally accepted into Christian society suggesting that the issue back then had more to do with religious beliefs (anti-Judaism) than what we might today call ethnicity or race. However, over time this distinction increasingly blurred. By the Middle Ages, antisemitism became more racialized. A poignant example is fifteenth-century Spain's policies toward converted Jews. Even the most genuine conversos — and there were many — discovered that they were under constant suspicion. This was the result of a notion called limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, attaching biological inferiority to Jews without regard for their new beliefs.

This concept grew to monstrous proportions in late 19th-century Europe when German journalist Wilhelm Marr fully racialized Judenhass (Jew-hatred) by coining the pseudo-scientific term Antisemitismus. The new word marked Jews as inferior "Semites," a "race" which he created for them alone. The evil and inferior nature of the Jews, he insisted, was inseparable from their biology. Even professing Christianity could not change that. This attitude grew, becoming the guiding principle of the Holocaust.

In America hard-core antisemites continue to feel the same way. But America did not become a hard-core antisemitic nation. Here Jews were slowly accepted as white people, Judaism their religion. This was part of a Jewish strategy for acceptance, one that was best articulated in conservative sociologist Will Herberg's 1955 book, "Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology."

In reality, of course, Jews have never been either a race or simply followers of the Jewish religion, whatever that is. Humanistic Jews should have no trouble understanding that we Jews and our Judaisms (ranging from Humanistic to ultra-Orthodox) comprise something very different, something very old. Our connections and our culture pre-date modern notions of ethnicity or race or religion. What connects us we call peoplehood. Rabbi Wine wrote about it frequently:

A people is a dispersed nation. A nation is a community of individuals, families, clans and tribes who share a sense of common ancestry and who feel unique because of their unique language or culture. 

This sense of nationhood has always been expressed alongside an ongoing attachment to our ancient homeland. It is an attachment that in the 19th century manifested politically, taking the modern name Zionism.

Rabbi Wine wrote that "Zionism is the most effective expression, in modern times, that we Jews are more than a religion. We are a people and an ethnic culture." His investment in Jewish peoplehood is the reason why he identified as a Zionist.

This is not to say that he was uncritical of many expressions of Zionism. For him being critical of anti-humanistic approaches to anything was part of being a Humanistic Jew. His vision of Zionism — like his vision for his preferred Judaism — was distinctly humanist, an expression of "the refusal of Jews to be the passive victims of fate — and the determination of Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands and to shape it to their needs." It was also distinctly secular, and he urged us to ensure that its secular component remained strong.

Much of what I've shared here is from a 1982 essay he wrote for our movement's journal. There he concluded with these words:

Zionism is the most creative force in Jewish life today for the development of a secular Jewish culture. The revival of a secular Hebrew and the ceremonial life of the secular kibbutz are important alternatives to the religious ritual of establishment tradition.

Zionism is the most powerful present commitment for mobilizing the world Jewish community. Israel has become the cultural center of an international people....

With this and other analyses of Zionism, Rabbi Wine made it clear that it held an important place among the beliefs of Humanistic Judaism no less central than for the vast majority of world Jewry.

I'm not here to say that anti-Zionism is automatically antisemitic. Critical thinking is another important belief for Humanistic Jews and every one of us has the right to accept or reject Rabbi Wine's embrace of Zionism.

What I am here to say is that anti-Zionism can be understood as a rejection of profoundly and deeply-held Jewish beliefs — beliefs so deeply embedded as the glue of Jewish peoplehood that it is a perfectly normal thing to ask whether demanding the dissolution of the Jewish state is not — like the anti-Judaism of old — just another form of emerging Jew-hatred. It took very little for those hostile to Jewish beliefs to become hostile to Jews.

Israel and many varieties of Zionism are not and should not be immune to criticism. Beliefs and behaviors demand evaluation.

However, the fact that there are so many timeless antisemitic themes being called upon to critique Israel and Zionism today — arguments and imagery that we rarely see used to address the many conflicts between beliefs and nations elsewhere — is sufficient for some of us to detect the stench of a creeping and growing antisemitism.

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