Pittsburgh and the Uniqueness of Antisemitism
Antisemitism is frequently viewed as “the canary in the coal mine.” It signals a more general climate of prejudice that manifests itself in an increasing hatred of Jews. In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, many articles have made this point. They focused on the extent of antisemitism in the US and its relationship to other forms of ethnic, religious, and even gender-based prejudice.
While the “canary in the coal mine” viewpoint is important, the questions about antisemitism are far broader. To address them, we need a clear understanding of antisemitism itself. I stand with those who think antisemitism is a distinct form of prejudice — not because the degree of its cruelty (for the damage done by other prejudices has been no less deadly), but because of its nature. By understanding antisemitism, we can defeat much more than hatred of Jews and other peoples.
Antisemitism is about power. It is distinct from other prejudices by its obsession with perceived malevolent Jewish power and by its pervasiveness among disparate societies, political and ideological groups, and eras. From Nazism and Communism, from most streams of Christianity until the last century, to present day Islamism; from the hallowed halls of Harvard University to backwater towns, from an ancient Pharaoh to a current Malaysian prime minister, antisemites have accused the Jews of all manner of conspiracies to rule the world and destroy other peoples. This is not the case with racism against African peoples or Native Americans, for example, who are accused by racists of many heinous things, but not of world domination.
To understand antisemitism, we need to understand malevolent power more generally. The Bible continues to offer the most sophisticated intellectual and moral contribution on the nature of malevolent power we have through its discussion of idolatry. Unfortunately, most modern folk view idolatry as irrelevant. They think idolatry is about worshiping stones or spirits. This is a grave misunderstanding. While power is a natural phenomenon involving many facets, such as resources, strength, strategy, or information, the Bible defines idolatry as a set of lies about power and authority.
Idolatry is the process of attributing superior and inexplicable power and authority to finite people, animals, and natural processes. Since finite beings are limited by nature, which also limits all forms of power, idolatry is by definition a lie. Yet this lie is the basis for much human injustice, just as the Bible explains. From Pharaoh in Egypt to Sennacherib in Assyria, idolaters built temples, ran pageants, and wrote poems and epics to exult their “supernatural” power and authority. These lies justified their selfish oppression of the masses and their greedy conquests of other peoples. Idolatry underpins all genuinely malevolent power.
The Bible also describes how idolatry is always vulnerable to the truth. Neither Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, or Sennacherib were the gods or demi-gods they pretended to be. They could all be, and were all, toppled. Not that this is easy, nor without many casualties, for they had natural powers — military might and resources. But their supposed supernatural power and authority was exposed as a lie.
As the Biblical texts describe, the only God worth worshiping is above nature and incorruptible. No person is or can ever be divine; no person can ever have power or authority beyond nature, even though, as the Bible explains, we all carry a spark of divinity in ourselves — a soul. Based on this fundamental axiom, the Bible mandates us to treat each other equally, for example, by loving our brothers and sisters in humanity as ourselves (Leviticus 19:17-18) or by not doing unto others what we don’t wish done to ourselves (Talmud Shabbat 31a). These axioms are the root of justice and have come to be known as the Golden Rule. Justice is the opposite of malevolent power. Idolatry destroys the conceptual foundations of justice. You don’t need to believe in God or in the soul to reject idolatry.
Sadly, the 20th century provided a catalog of idolaters who not only promoted their power, but tried to avoid being exposed. Dictators like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jung-il on the left; and Hitler and Saddam Hussein on the right; relied on idolatry. Whether they claimed to be atheistic or religious, they turned to Pharaoh’s playbook of building statutes of themselves; they promoted songs, stories, and pageants about their greatness; and they demanded complete obedience to their worldview. Stalin famously ordered the Soviet space agency to project his face into the sky.
Yet fearing they would be exposed, 20th century idolatrous leaders turned lies into the truth and evil into good. Idolaters called themselves the victims and their victims the perpetrators. While the Nazis rounded up and murdered the Jews and conquered most of Europe, Hitler claimed that he was defending the world from “Jewish evil and world domination.” In the name of “progress,” Pol Pot murdered Cambodian citizens with eyeglasses because they might “mislead” others. This subversive dynamic of idolatry underpins all antisemitism.
Antisemitism is the projection of idolatry onto Jews. Antisemites are not people who criticize or debate specific Jewish viewpoints or communal decisions in a spirit of mutual respect. They are people who themselves harbor projects of domination and exploitation, but fearing exposure, project their own malevolent intentions onto Jews.
In Charlottesville, antisemitic marchers who genuinely seek white supremacy shouted, “Jews won’t replace us.” Ayatollah Khomeini, who wished to bring the entire world under Islamist control, regularly accused the Jews of seeking world domination. Hitler railed against a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany, when he wanted to destroy the Jews. Antisemites say that the Jews control the media, the Jews control the banks, the Jews control Congress, and so on, all for their own benefit — yet this is actually what they themselves wish to do. Still you might ask, why single out the Jews?
It is not the Jews’ success, nor their actual power that is the source of antisemitism. Antisemitism has often proliferated at times when the Jews were poor and powerless. Jews who tried returning to their home towns in Europe after surviving the concentration camps certainly could have attested to that. Rather, it is the Jews’ historic connection with monotheism that has made them the central target of this projected idolatry. This has been true even when many Jews are neither religious nor conversant in the texts. By accusing Jews of malevolent and demonic control over organs of power (media, Congress, banks, etc.), true idolaters (whatever their specific ideology) project their own idolatry onto the Jews and thereby maintain their own delusions.
Every idolater fears that their lies about power could be exposed. Yet since they refuse to reject their own injustice and lies, idolaters must eliminate the Jews, who are connected to a God that upholds universal justice. The fact that so many antisemitic attacks occur at synagogues or in Jewish community centers and cemeteries, rather than the other places Jews supposedly control, speaks to this connection.
This dynamic is also apparent in the antisemitic rants of a small minority of Christians or Muslims who supposedly worship the same omniscient and benevolent God. The Bible anticipates this problem. While the first two of the Ten Commandments prohibit idolatry, the third commandment (according to the Christian count, the second commandment), prohibits oppression under the false guise of acting as God’s sole spokesperson or attributing to God ideas that are not in the Scriptures. This third commandment is too often trivialized as merely prohibiting pronouncing God’s name in vain.
However, if that is all there is to this commandment, it would not have been in the top ten. It is, further, the only commandment for which there is no atonement. That tells the reader to take close notice. This commandment follows the first two on idolatry because it is simply another form of idolatry under the hijacked guise of monotheism. The Bible warns against this phenomenon of idolaters in monotheistic garb on multiple occasions. And for this reason, the Bible is accessible to everyone. Moreover, it was ordained to be read by everyone, as we are each responsible for understanding the dangers of idolatry.
Antisemitism is “the canary in the coal mine,” but not just for the rise of prejudice. Antisemitism is the sign of widespread idolatry, and when idolatry takes hold in a society, the real horrors begin. The greatest antisemites not only victimized other groups, but destroyed the moral fabric of their own societies. Nazis not only hated and murdered the Gypsies and Slavs, but they turned many ordinary Germans into liars, snitches, thieves, and murderers. By uniting to combat antisemitism, people of all stripes can join together in combating idolatry, which is the fundamental corrupting influence on society.
Scott A. Shay is the author of In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism (Post Hill Press, September 2018), and chairman and co-founder of Signature Bank of New York. A version of this article was originally published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.