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Toward a Judaism of Resistance

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

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A pro-Israel rally counters the 2017 “Al Quds Day” march in London. Photo: Screenshot

Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.
— Joel 4:10

My first encounter with antisemitism came quite late, as I was lucky enough to be born into one of the diseases’ rare incubation periods, and it came at the hands of a progressive.

He was a gangly, bearded, slightly effeminate scion of the professoriate, possessing a Ph.D. but lacking the intellect to ever be more than an adjunct teaching night school to underachievers like my then-self. In keeping with his occupation and no doubt disappointing station in life, he was obsessed with race, Noam Chomsky, and the depredations of the American Empire. His self-regard was epic in scope, fed by a kind of allophilic Manicheanism in which he was, naturally, one of the Children of Light. As such, he was typical.

The day after 9/11, I discovered he was also typical in a way I had not anticipated. During a long discourse on why America thoroughly deserved what it got, he wrote out “Israel” in enormous leaders on the chalkboard — we still used chalkboards back then — and like a pronouncement from on high, flush with triumph, declaimed “The Cause!”

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To my credit, I think, my first instinct was to put his nose through the back of his head. The second was to attempt to argue with him. This proved a depressing experience, as he unceremoniously told me in a voice of depthless unctuousness that in blaming Jews for the murder of 3,000 Americans — an atrocity committed, ironically, by a gang of Jew- and Israel-hating Arabs — he was merely “criticizing Israeli policies.” This was the sum total of what he told me, with copious repetition, over the course of a three-day correspondence. By the end of it, I realized, as I imagine Jews over centuries have realized, one by one, in terrible solitude each time, that nothing, absolutely nothing I could say would ever change his mind.

And like many Jews before me, this encounter became something like an instrument of my destiny. In that moment, I knew this man was evil, that he was immovable, and that he was also typical. He was one of a great many, and his statements echoed similar missives I was already hearing from what are now derogatorily called Social Justice Warriors and might more accurately be described as Left Antisemites.

Nonetheless, I owe that man a dark debt of gratitude, for I also knew then that I would have to move to Israel. If this evil was typical, I knew, I would spend the next four years wanting to punch my professors and, in all likelihood, most of my fellow students. I also knew that I simply did not have it in me to spend four years wanting to hit people and the time had come to decamp. So it was, as is an old story, that a reedy-voiced, petulant, impeccably self-righteous antisemite — with everything he represented — made me a Zionist and, for the last 16 years, a citizen of the Jewish state he despised.

Looking back now, however, I feel a certain ominous overtone to my experience. Because whatever I may have individually done, that professor certainly went on spewing his poison, and he and innumerable other Left Antisemites, at his university and a thousand others, undoubtedly did the same. How far had their cancer spread? How many young people had they convinced or at least bullied into silence? How many young Jews had they degraded and insulted without the slightest compunction, convinced of their indissoluble rectitude? How many of those Jews had accepted it, lived with it, believed it? Judging by subsequent developments, I fear the answer is not edifying.

But this brief and bitter exchange also taught me two important lessons. First, that antisemitism is, utterly and forever, immune to rational argument. And second, as a result of the first, that antisemitism cannot be reasoned with. It can only be resisted.

***

That antisemitism is immune to rational argument seems, paradoxically, both breathtakingly obvious and nearly impossible for most Jews to grasp. The overwhelming majority of us appear to believe, despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, that by marshaling the facts, and deploying incisive arguments and convincing rhetoric, antisemitism can be effectively countered, the neutral convinced to come over to the side of right, and even the antisemites themselves converted.

This is both a testament to the seemingly indomitable optimism of the Jewish people — for which we ought to give ourselves credit — and a touching faith in the great enlightenment belief in the inevitable victory of reason. It is, however, quite false.

The proof of this is antisemitism itself. This is an ideology that has managed to birth both a Right Antisemitism and a Left Antisemitism, Christian Antisemitism and Muslim Antisemitism, becoming the one issue uniting otherwise implacably opposed camps. It has managed, by that famous definition of insanity, to hold a multitude of contradictory propositions simultaneously: We dominate the world and are a wretched gang of grasping paupers. We are the agents of rapacious capitalism and the architects of a communist conspiracy. We are weak and cowardly and a brutal, dominating imperialist military power. We are Nazism’s most hated enemy and the Nazis reborn. We both killed God and helped impose degraded Christian values on the Ubermenschen. We seek to undermine and destroy American society and are the arch-enablers of American imperialism. We are the enemy and harbinger of modernity. We are born revolutionaries and avatars of the forces of reaction. We are the cosmopolitan enemies of race pride and the world’s quintessential racists. We are sexually repulsive and experts at the seduction of gentile women. We are contemptuously effeminate and despicably macho. And so on and so forth, one imagines, into infinity.

If the fact that all of this has been held simultaneously in the minds of yesterday and today’s antisemites is not sufficient to convince the skeptical that antisemitism is completely insane, a form of mass psychosis of extraordinary motive power, then it is worth considering that it also has included the ideas that Jewish men menstruate, that we possess horns and tails, and, of course, that we murder gentile children and consume their bodies in hideous demonic rites.

The objection could be raised that, in our age of ubiquitous psychotherapy, even the insane can be cured by appropriate application of reason and radical empathy. One must reluctantly counter with a depressing but nonetheless accurate point: Most antisemites are not in fact clinically mentally ill. What they have subscribed to is not an individual psychosis but a collective one, and collective psychosis is, to one degree or another, a willful phenomenon. That is, antisemites choose to subscribe to a mad ideology. And they do so because, on some level, they both want and need it. It serves some desire, something lacking within them. In short, it makes them happy. It gives them pleasure, energy, purpose, faith, and even hope. If only the Jews could be brought low or destroyed outright, they believe, all would be well, both with the world and, especially, with themselves.

Against such a thing, absolutely nothing, no appeal to reason or compassion, no incisive argument or trenchant analysis, no finely worded essay or novel, no contribution to the betterment of nation or mankind, no craven begging or noble grace of bearing, will ever be enough. To demand that the antisemite stop being antisemitic is to demand that he give up the very thing — and usually the only thing — that gives his life meaning.

The reason for this is no mystery. It is, unfortunately, quite normal for people to hate each other, and especially to hate others who are noticeably different from themselves. It is also entirely normal to seek ways to fill the emptiness one naturally feels as part of ever more atomized and competitive societies. Some means of doing so are creative and fertilizing, others are simply destructive, and in many ways the latter are more immediately satisfying. To be mad is, on some level, to be free. And there is little one can offer to counter such a vertiginous and liberating experience.

This, of course, raises the question of why the Jews in particular ought to be the object of such fervid obsession. Being a tiny minority, Jews are, of course, an easy target. On some level, to be small is to be weak, and it is a natural impulse among many to bully the weak. Antisemitism, moreover, puts one in solidarity with an ancient legacy. Hatred of the Jews stretches backward to Haman and forward to the mullahs of Iran. This is an awesome inheritance with a voluminous literature and vocabulary, one that can be called on to serve almost any purpose — Left or Right, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, East or West, and so on ad infinitum. The Right Antisemites will always have their Bolshevik conspiracy. The Left Antisemites will always have their rapacious bankers and warmongers. The Muslim Antisemites will always have their demonic Zionists. All of them will always and forever have the Jews.

And there is, in all likelihood, a very dark and perhaps ineffable root to all of this: For better or worse, the Jews are one of the founders of Western and Muslim civilization. If these civilizations are essentially a synthesis, and endless contention, of Athens and Jerusalem, and we are Jerusalem, then we are, in a sense, the fathers of these civilizations. And as a Viennese Jew once pointed out, sons very often hate their fathers.

Given all of this, the question arises of why we should be shocked and surprised when the Sages are once again proved correct that “in every generation they rise up to destroy us.” And if they prove invulnerable to our appeals, protestations, and professions of innocence, we should not be astounded. There are forces far larger than us at work, and we ought to steel ourselves to face them.

***

We must do so for a simple reason: The situation is dire. It is worst in Western Europe. In France, a young Jew named Ilan Halimi was tortured and murdered by an antisemitic gang in 2006. In 2012, a Jewish school in Toulouse was attacked by a racist gunman, killing three children and a rabbi. In 2014, a Paris synagogue was attacked by a Muslim mob, apparently in hopes of slaughtering the congregation assembled inside. This was swiftly followed by a barbaric rampage of vandalism through a Jewish neighborhood. In 2015, the kosher grocery store Hyper Casher was commandeered by a terrorist who killed several in the name of Allah. Other antisemitic attacks have occurred in Copenhagen and Brussels. Recently, an elderly Jewish woman and a Holocaust survivor were respectively and brutally murdered by Muslim antisemites. These are only the most prominent items on a very long butcher’s bill. In the Muslim community, the situation has become so bad that Jewish intellectuals have begun to speak of a phenomenon that is nothing less than an “Islamo-Nazism.”

Jewish life in Western Europe now continues under a state of siege, with kippas and tzitzit left at home for fear of violence and the regular army guarding Jewish schools and institutions armed with automatic weapons. And this, one regrets to say, is regarded by the authorities as, if not entirely normal, at the very least tolerable. The cost of doing business. This is not even to speak of the government and media sources who either deny that the problem exists or believe that the Jews deserve what they get. We must conclude that, if the authorities haven’t stopped the horrors by now, it is clear they cannot or do not want to, or both.

And they watch as, slowly but surely, the Jews vote with their feet. As Israel absorbs the remains of Jewish Europe. This is for the good of Zionism, ironically. But it is not good for Europe, or the Jews of Europe who are being, we can say without exaggeration, ethnically cleansed by degrees. After the 2015 terrorist attacks in France, Benjamin Netanyahu visited a Paris synagogue where the congregation cried, “Bibi, save us!” “Bibi save us!” in the 21st century. In the capital of enlightened and united Europe. The same place where Herzl saw the anti-Dreyfuss mob shout “death to the Jews” and became a Zionist in that instant. That the thing is occurring again would likely not surprise him. But it should horrify us nonetheless.

The political atmosphere is no better. In Britain, we have seen nothing less than the rise of the first openly antisemitic party since the darkest days of European Jewry. With the takeover by a far-left movement appropriately called Momentum, the venerable Labour party now has a leader who associates amicably with antisemitic terrorists. He has been and perhaps remains a member of astoundingly racist Facebook groups. Numerous underlings who regard him with utmost affection have been publicly exposed, often by themselves, as subscribers to the most vulgar forms of Left Antisemitism. A well-publicized investigation of the issue resulted in a complete whitewash, with its orchestrator promptly rewarded with a peerage. Those few, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have spoken out against the gathering storm have been ostracized, slandered, and threatened with hideous violence. Recent polls have shown that not only is Momentum undaunted by these accusations, but considers the entire issue a conspiracy — by who, one must wonder — to topple their fearless leader.

As a result, the Jewish community has been driven to break with its traditional discretion and hold public demonstrations against Labour and its leader, declaring the dayyenu “enough is enough.” There is the hope, perhaps dwindling, that such a campaign might have an effect. But we must be sobered by the stark and terrifying reality that only one election stands between Jeremy Corbyn and 10 Downing Street.

Things are better in the United States, but there are ominous signs that the situation is worsening. On college campuses, free speech is being egregiously violated. Pro-Israel speakers are shouted down. Events are disrupted. Anti-Israel protests are deliberately held on Jewish holy days, including Holocaust Memorial Day. Academics demonize, slander, and negate the Jewish state while asserting their uncompromising anti-racism even as they engage in the most egregious racism, such as renewing the blood libel with the claim that Israel kills Palestinians to traffic in their organs. Members of Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups, often partially funded by their Jewish peers’ own tuition payments, spew venom and physically attack their opponents, hoping to intimidate them into silence. Jewish students are, in effect, being forced to pay for their own oppression and persecution.

Among the academics themselves, innumerable oracles proclaim the equality of all narratives except the Jewish one. All beliefs, practices, and worldviews are declared sacred but ours. This while the Arab narrative is privileged into something akin to a divine dispensation. We are accused of all those libels which are but words for ultimate evil: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing. Zionism, the only indigenous political movement of the Jewish people, is demonized to the point of the most hurtful, vicious, and unfeeling of libels: That the Jews have become the Nazis. Overseen by those like my old professor and their youthful minions, a pervasive atmosphere of rhetorical and sometimes physical violence pervades. And when challenged, they resort to the palsied, goysplaining rhetoric that they are merely applying critical thinking to Israeli policies.

We find, moreover, the beginnings of the Corbynization of the American left. The first or perhaps second stirrings of a Left Antisemitism are in evidence. In the last election, a pro-Israel plank barely survived the debate over the Democratic party platform. Revered academic Cornel West, who participated in the debate, declared anti-Israelism akin to the legendary struggle against the Vietnam War. The left’s court Jew Bernie Sanders accused Israel of slaughtering 10,000 Palestinians, expressed warmth toward several Israel-hating advisers, and denounced the rather commonsense notion that Israel ought to protect its own borders. Prominent members of the party have been found to have trafficked openly with antisemites, most notably the unreconstructed Louis Farrakhan. Photographic evidence revealed that even Barack Obama, so adored by American Jews, had once embraced the perennial racist. Following an antisemitic rant shocking even by his standards, Farrakhan was valiantly defended by a leader of the Women’s March, one of the vanguards of today’s activist left. Several other leaders were exposed as having praised or attended events featuring Farrakhan. The Red-Green alliance between leftists and radical Muslims, for which antisemitism is a foundation of its entire ideology, is rising quickly and stands prepared to attain, if not power, at least considerable influence.

These trends are all the more worrisome because these forces enjoy something their right-wing counterparts do not: cultural immunity. While the rise of the alt-right is worrisome, with its torch-lit processions, ironic hipster racism, and unabashed adherence to the tenets of Nazism with a post-modernist veneer, it does not enjoy the cache of legitimacy. We all know what it looks like. We all know how to fight it. Left Antisemites, Muslim antisemites, and antisemites of color, on the other hand, enjoy a halo of sainthood that few are brave enough to gainsay. This cultural immunity continues even when the antisemitism is of the most blatant and vulgar kind. When the alt-right marches, thousands turn out to protest. When an activist derides the Holocaust as a “white on white crime,” there is only that total, ominous silence of fearful complicity. It is precisely this cultural immunity that makes Left-Muslim antisemitism so virulent and insidious. It spreads and is spreading because few are willing, thus far, to admit to the infection.

The question at hand then, is this: If reason and debate are indeed useless, if we are doomed by history to face our ancient enemy again, if we have no recourse to the “proper” authorities, who prefer to pretend the thing is not happening at all or, if it may be possibly happening, to blame us for it, then what is there to do?

To this, there can only be one answer: Resistance.

***

The most effective form of resistance in a democratic society is “direct action.” Direct action is an amorphous concept, and to a certain extent it can mean anything at all. But it could be described as physical as opposed to intellectual activism. It is defined by deeds rather than words. In historical terms, it has encompassed almost any physical manifestation, usually of a mass variety, that consciously seeks to disrupt the routine of normal life — personal, governmental, academic, or commercial — in order to achieve a political or social end: The march. The sit-in. The calculated disruption of traffic or commerce. The deliberate violation of laws considered unjust.

Perhaps the most articulate definition of this method is that of Martin Luthor King, Jr. in Letter From the Birmingham Jail. King said of direct action, “It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” That is, by means of disruption and, usually, the resulting retaliation of the forces of order, it throws a perceived injustice into sharp relief and empowers those who had been previously dismissed from the political arena.

In this, direct action is not only a political protest. It is also an act of self-respect. It gives the actor a sense of authenticity and solidarity with his fellow actors. It asserts his identity. It reminds him that he really exists as he is, not as others would like him to be. To storm the barricades, in other words, makes us human. I resist, therefore I am.

In addition, direct action is often — though not always — the voice of the “street” or the harnessing of the power of the street. That is, it is a mass phenomenon to one degree or another. It is not solitary or isolated. It is undertaken together and in solidarity with others. In democratic societies, this is in many ways the decisive factor, as it gives such actions the imprimatur of “the people,” and thus, a form of inherent legitimacy.

It is this factor, more than any other, that the Jews have ignored at their peril. Perhaps out of fear of retaliation, perhaps because of their diminutive numbers, Jews have usually sought to protect themselves by “playing the game” and “following the rules.” We seek redress, forthcoming or not, from the proper authorities. This is not necessarily a wholly ineffective plan. Activists have been successful, for example, in persuading US states to pass laws against boycotts of Israel. But it is, in many ways, a rearguard action. An attempt at a Pyrrhic victory. The result is both inevitable and depressing: We have built a new ghetto for ourselves, in which incremental progress is hailed while the forces of antisemitism, unafraid of direct action themselves, gather just beyond the wall, waiting…

For the truth is that, whether we like it or not, our enemies rule the street. In doing so, they are not protesting, they are leveraging power. The power to suppress our rights. The power to crush our bodies. The power to destroy our self-respect. The power to silence our voices. They mean to construct a paper apartheid in which the Jews are read out of history, segregated from the rest of the world. The world whose rights are considered absolute, while those of the Jews are non-existent if not monstrous. Their campaign is not a political debate, it is an act of violence. They themselves understand this quite well. We do not. This is not politics, this is war, and we are not fighting it.

And the proof of this is the astoundingly one-sided results of this battle. One can say without the slightest exaggeration: It is our houses of worship, not theirs, that are being attacked. Our children, not theirs, who are being assaulted and intimidated. Our students who are being bullied and slandered into rejecting their own people. Our brothers and sisters who are being forced to leave their countries to escape violence and hate. Our speakers who are being disrupted and shouted down. Our state that has been demonized in the eyes of the world, to the point that even acts of mass murder and terrorism against us are considered just and legitimate. Our lives that are now considered so worthless that they can be taken with impunity. And it is we who are, most horribly, being forced to keep our heads down and give tacit if unwilling consent to it all.

The response can only be direct action. This action must be based on the most fundamental moral principle: reciprocity. That which you do to me, I will do to you. We will not attack you, but we will resist you. If our speakers are shouted down, yours will be shouted down as well. If you hold a protest on Holocaust Memorial Day, we will hold one on your sacred occasions. If you host antisemitic speakers, we will block the doors with our own bodies. If tuition fees pay for antisemitic groups, Jewish students will refuse to pay them. If you disrupt our events we will eject you, by force if necessary. If you boycott us, we will see to it that you are boycotted. If you hold an Israeli Apartheid Week, we will hold a Palestinian Terrorism Week. If your mob attempts to vandalize our institutions and neighborhoods, we will raise our own mob to stop you. We will hit back if we are hit. Reciprocity, after all, is accepted as a legitimate principle for all other peoples. It only becomes worrisome, problematic, unprincipled when the Jews are involved.

***

Above all, the guiding principle must be disruption. Normal life must not be permitted to continue if it includes the normalization of antisemitism. Antisemitism must come at a price for those who insist on it. This is the only way that effective deterrence can be created and maintained. There must be an equal and opposite reaction. The immovable object must be met by the unstoppable force.

Direct action is also essential not only for its effectiveness but, as noted above, because of what it does to the person who takes the action. The worst aspect of antisemitism is too often forgotten: The terrible psychological toll it takes. To be assaulted without resistance demolishes pride, debases the soul, and inflicts a terrible price on one’s sense of self. As a result, it should not surprise us that so many young Jews today are running from their identity and themselves. Why should they hold to a legacy that brings them nothing but helplessness in the face of injury and opprobrium? Why should they not believe those who attack them when inaction appears to concede the justice of the attack? When faced with universal rejection, and no answer from us, why shouldn’t they join the rejection? What is left to them of Judaism if it takes from them everything and grants them nothing?

To close this account, all Jews must remind themselves again of a simple truth: Antisemitism cannot be argued with, it can only be resisted. And we must resist. Not only because no one will do it for us, but because it will heal those wounds we have already suffered and give us the spiritual fortitude to ensure that there will be no further injuries. This far, we must say, it ends here.

It is true, of course, that action is difficult, but we are a talented people, and capable of an intensity that is one of our most distinctive cultural traits. When we do something, we do it all the way, without equivocation. But time is pressing. As the sage put it, “The day is short, the work multiplies, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the master of the house is impatient.”

What we so desperately require is a new militancy. A muscular Judaism. A Judaism of resistance. By any means necessary.

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