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Like many Jews of my generation (I was born in 1961), I was completely unprepared, psychologically, emotionally and in any other way, for the wave of anti-Semitism which has been sweeping the world these last three and a half years. I grew up in the United States and moved to Israel after completing high school, and I never had any first-hand experience with anti-Semitism (except for being cursed at once by a bunch of drunk rednecks riding in the back of a pickup truck in Maryland). So, unlike my parents’ generation, who grew up having to cope with serious anti-Semitism (my father was in Dachau; my mother’s family fled Berlin after Hitler came to power), I never had to, and the same is true of nearly all my contemporaries except those who grew up in the Soviet Union.
Yet these days, I can’t open a newspaper or log on to the Internet without encountering numerous reports of either outright, often violent, anti-Semitism or of vicious anti-Semitism thinly veiled as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism. It’s very demoralizing. I take some comfort from your articles, which give me hope that we’ll still be reading the Bible in Hebrew long after there’s anyone left who can read Proust or Kant or Dante in the untranslated original. But I take no comfort at all from the realization that if those writers are read at all it will be in Arabic translation.
Do you have any advice on how to develop the emotional and psychological tools for coping with anti-Semitism?
Not every day does a columnist at an Asian publication get a query from Jerusalem about anti-Semitism. Careful what you ask for.
My advice is: If you want everyone to feel sorry for you, move to sub-Saharan Africa and lose weight. If you want to stay Jewish, toughen up.
On occasion I eavesdrop on the Jewish debate on the subject, e.g. the February issue of Commentary, where several authorities contend that anti-Semitism stems from envy of Jewish success. There surely is some truth to this. In 1965, the same sort of envy murdered a million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. No one, though, imagines that there is a world Chinese conspiracy. Something else must be at work. More than Jewish success, I surmise, other peoples envy Jewish immortality (What the Jews won’t tell you, November 4, 2003). In the midst of a Great Extinction of peoples, you should expect this to get worse, not better.
Your best-known theologian of the past century was Franz Rosenzweig, who wrote:
“[The Jewish] people, because it trusts in its self-created eternity and in nothing else in the world, truly believes in its own eternity. The peoples of the world, however, must reckon with their own death, be it at a point in time ever so distant, just as every individual must reckon with his own death. The love of the peoples for their own ethnicity is sweet and pregnant with this presentiment of death. Love is only so sweet when its object is mortal; only the bitterness of death can evoke this ultimate sweetness. Thus the peoples of the world can foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains will lie under the heavens as it does today, but other people will live there; when their language will be entombed in the libraries and their laws and customs will have lost their living power.” (Der Stern der Erloesung, Suhrkamp, p 338, my translation)
Hebrew is the only language spoken continuously for the past 3,000 years (and perhaps longer, but let us leave that to the philologists), and the Jews are the only people who have come down intact through history. Of the countless tribes and tongues extinguished by rapine and conquest, we know the names of only a small fraction. Only a fraction of that fraction has left behind a trace of their now-extinct language. An unfathomable amount of human striving has vanished into the mist – the fury of warriors, the devotion of priests, the passion of lovers, the anxiety of parents. Their unremembered lives have lost their significance. In vain we listen for echoes of this perished mass of humanity, for an Assyrian mother’s lament over a dead child, for the clang of bronze at a Scythian battle, for the intonation of prayers to a Toltec idol now lodged in a museum. But the extinct peoples will not speak to us; their muteness horrifies us, warning that one day no one will remember us either. For the preponderance of humanity, Mephisto’s gloat over the body of Faust applies with a vengeance:
Vorbei! ein dummes Wort. Warum vorbei? Vorbei und reines Nicht, vollkommnes Einerlei!
(“It’s over” – a stupid notion. Why “over”? “Over” and pure nothing, one and the same thing!)
As the German language fades, no one will remember Goethe’s Mephisto, either.
The Jews, on the other hand, recall indignantly every injury over three and a half millennia. That is a luxury no other nation possesses. Everyone else forgot about all the past injuries after the men were killed, the women raped, and the children carried off as slaves. For most of humanity, things are getting more dangerous, not less. I replied as follows on July 8, 2003, to Eric Garrett of the World Conservation Union:
“Does Spengler know, for instance, that in the last century 2,000 distinct ethnic groups have gone extinct?” Eric Garrett asks in his June 12 riposte,
A question of identity, to an earlier article of mine,
Garrett’s organization, the World Conservation Union, is devoted to preserving fragile cultures. As a matter of fact, I reported in this space that in the next decade, yet another 2,000 distinct ethnic groups would go extinct (
Live and let die, April 13, 2002). Ignore the endangered Ewoks for a moment, Mr Garrett, and explain why the imperial peoples of the past two centuries – Germans, Japanese, French, Italians, Russians, and so forth – have elected to disappear, through failure to reproduce (
Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003).
If (as Emerson said) “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” what sort of desperation overpowers whole peoples who fear with good reason for their continuity on Earth? While you worry that the world some day will read Dante in Arabic translation (as once it read Aristotle), the Islamic world labors under an dreadful sense of its own fragility. Consider the case of Nigeria’s polio epidemic:
ABUJA, Jan 28 (Reuters) – Nigeria is to test samples of the polio vaccine next month in the hope of resolving a dispute with Muslim authorities which has helped spread the crippling disease to children across Africa. Three predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria stopped immunizations in November because Islamic authorities suspect the vaccines of spreading infertility – which they believe is part of an American conspiracy to depopulate Africa’s most populous nation. “A meeting has been scheduled in two weeks’ time with all the states that are opposed to the immunization program,” Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo told Reuters. “There are serious suspicions of a conspiracy by the US government to depopulate Nigeria, among other developing countries,” he told Reuters. “Unless a joint examination is undertaken, suspicions will linger and people will not be forthcoming.”
As of February 26, the boycott continued in some Nigerian states, at the behest of the state governors. Nigerian Muslims see their existence at risk, but project this risk onto an hallucinated American plan to eradicate them. In consequence of this paranoid delusion they take steps that in fact endanger their physical existence.
There are many reasons for Arabs to hate Jews: the unwanted Jewish presence in the Dar al Islam, Jewish success, Jewish precedence (the Koran claims to supersede the Jewish scriptures). There is yet another reason to hate the Jews, namely their apparent immortality. How can the Arabs (or the Germans, or whoever) fancy themselves the eternal people so long as the Jews hold prior claim to this status?
Paranoia infuses much of what anti-Semites say about the Jews, for reasons I addressed elsewhere (It’s not the end of the world – it’s the end of you , February 3). More than anything else human beings want their lives to be significant. The unbearable truth is that the lives of most people who ever lived are insignificant; those of many people who live today threaten to become so. (“I feel so insignificant,” said the ant with Woody Allen’s voice in Antz. “That’s a breakthrough,” said the ant psychiatrist. “You are insignificant.”) Paranoia inverts this horrifying sense of insignificance. To the paranoid, everything is significant. Powerful forces conspire against him. He imagines himself to be a figure of great importance. Threaten his protective illusion and he may try to kill you. What he cannot bear is the notion that he truly is insignificant.
To cope with anti-Semitism, try putting yourself in the place of someone who has to cope with cultural extinction. Your problem, Uzi, is that you wish to live in an orderly and stable world. The actual world is disorderly and unstable. For most of the world’s people modernity is a mortal challenge; for some of them it is a death knell. Where old cultures happily meld with the new, the Chinese for example, anti-Semitism is unknown. Translations of anti-Semitic tracts still circulate in Japan, however, where an old culture still regards the outside world with foreboding.
Understandably, today’s Jews for the most part have no desire to be a Chosen People, a Light unto the Nations, the bearer of revelation until that Day when all peoples shall recognize one God with one Name, as observant Jews intone in their thrice-daily ablutions. They want normality, that is, to get on with their lives and savor the success they have achieved in every field of endeavor. Mortality weighs lightly upon peoples who adapt easily to changing circumstances, but it haunts the waking nightmares of those peoples who cannot.
Normality is overrated. The normal condition of the nations of the world is to vanish beyond memory. If you want to remain an exception, you have to be a hero.