March 12, 2019


Anti-Semitism and Orthodoxy in the Age of Trump: How religious Judaism helps shield the American president's disparagement of globalism, cosmopolitanism, and other features of progressive secular Jewry from claims of anti-Semitism (Eliyahu Stern, March 12, 2019 , The Tablet)

In response to the Pittsburgh massacre, in which Robert Gregory Bowers gunned down 11 Jews praying in the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, all major Orthodox organizations condemned the attack in the clearest possible terms, but none was prepared to denounce the stated cause for the violence: white nationalism and the demonization of Jews as avatars for progressive and left-wing politics.

Why would the very group that was most noticeably targeted by white nationalism in the 20th century be the most reluctant to condemn it today? Some point to President Donald Trump and his allies' support for Israel's right-wing government, which itself has made common cause with some European anti-Semitic nationalist movements. Others such as the historian David Henkin claim that many of Trump's Orthodox supporters "are the descendants (literally, in many cases) of Jews to whom the white nationalism of the post-1965 Republican Party was already resonating 30 or 40 years ago in debates about affirmative action, segregation, colonialism, and law enforcement." Both theories, however, overlook Orthodoxy's own position on anti-Semitism and the crucible in which it was formed.

Orthodoxy's position on anti-Semitism was first theorized in the interwar period when Central and Eastern European rabbis and laypeople founded the first Orthodox political party, Agudath Israel. Like all political parties operating on the continent at the time, the Orthodox quickly found themselves choosing between the rock of Stalin on the left, and the hard place of Hitler on the right. Whereas Stalin posed a threat to Jews' religious institutions and observances, Hitler's target was Jews themselves and their involvement in German political and economic life.

The Orthodox, however, operated under the illusion that Hitler's wrath was directed only at certain kinds of Jews and that their own prohibitions against intermarriage and commitments to cultural difference could persuade the German chancellor that they were to be trusted allies. Stalin would destroy Orthodoxy, but Hitler, they figured, would only be bothered by those Jews who were Communists or Marxists. Many in the Orthodox community surmised that Jews who held fast to their spiritual heritage would pose no threat to Nazi Germany and it was therefore Stalin who was to be feared.

German Orthodox leaders directly appealed to the German chancellor (Hitler), arguing in 1933 that "Marxist materialism and Communist atheism share not the least in common with the spirit of the positive Jewish religious tradition, as handed down through Orthodox teachings obligatory on the Jewish People. ... We have," they recalled, "been at war against this religious attitude." Orthodox leaders sought to find common ground with Hitler by demonstrating their own virulent hatred for left-wing and progressive Jews. They proclaimed: "We have always combated the corrosive spirit of materialism with religious idealism."

In their attempt to curry favor with Hitler, Orthodox leaders not only stressed their own loyalty to the German people, but went out of their way to stress the structural similarities between Hitler's position. "We seek a Lebensraum within the Lebensraum of the German people," they maintained. [...]

Where Orthodoxy's position was unique, however, is the way in which it identified left-wing politics as a cancer from within the Jewish collective, something internal to Judaism itself. The fight against Marxism and a materialist theory of the world was not only to be waged against gentiles, but first and foremost against other Jews who played integral roles in founding these new movements.

Wasserman identified Judaism's primary present-day enemies as Jews who held leadership positions in the left; those he considered to be descendants of both the biblical "mixed multitude" as well as the tribe of Amalek. The "mixed multitude" referred to those Egyptians that followed Israelites when they left Egypt only to cajole them into worshiping the Golden Calf in the desert. Amalek was the first group to attack the Israelites in the desert; its descendants were deserving of death by biblical mandate. Wasserman employed the category of Amalek to describe leaders of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, as well as Zionists residing in Palestine (most of whom were then aligned with the left) and around the world. He advised his flock "to physically fight against them with arms. To prepare oneself to kill." [...]

Whereas the anti-Semite described the Jew as an egoist who hoarded goods and resources, the Jewish materialist claimed that Judaism promoted the fair and equal distribution of resources in society. Whereas the anti-Semite claimed that the Jew was a lesser race, the Jewish materialists argued that Jews were a distinct ethnic group. [...]

Orthodoxy's vigilance in combating anti-Judaism mirrors the Janus-faced relationship of the American Christian right's stance toward Jews. It is precisely their staunch support for certain kinds of Jews and certain forms of Judaism that makes possible their attacks against, or at the very least disregard for, defending the rights of other types of Jews. Their assaults against globalists, progressives, and boundary-crossers are not, they claim, directed at Jews, because real Jews also oppose globalists, progressives, and subversives. If progressive Jews are not really Jews and if left-wing Jewish values are not really authentically Jewish, then it follows that opposing these types and values does not indicate any particular anti-Jewish animus.

Posted by at March 12, 2019 8:24 AM